Saturday, November 11, 2017

David Williams' "When the English Fall": Book Review

When the English Fall by David Williams · OverDrive (Rakuten OverDrive): eBooks, audiobooks and ...
More than one friend lately has warned me to be prepared for challenges ahead--the kind which happen when our world, that of the "English," falls apart after a solar storm fries all systems and wires, machines and networks. Harrowing, but a scenario, scientists warn, that may bring down civilization, at least as we know it. In its wake, or out of its immediate impact to some extent, the Amish in this novel prepare for themselves, and against the gunshots, looters, and refugees to come.

This does not give away the plot. The blurbs and dust jacket copy say as much. What's left for the reader is David Williams' sparely told account in the voice of a family man. We see the before as well as the during of the catastrophe, and his journal records the events in simple prose, devoid of any effect fancier than some Scriptural allusions. The one striking me most: vultures around a corpse.

The narrative device of one character who predicts the end times ahead felt too literary, and the plot did not need this, but I suppose the author by this conceit wants to show the dependence on the wider world that even the Amish need, when it comes to medicine for their illnesses, and sales for their labor. It also connects the narrator's family to one on the outside, and widens the circle of concern.

I read this over a longer than expected (five-plus hours) wait at a car dealer for repairs, so I took my time with this brief book. I also paid attention around me to what the narrator recalls from his visits to the world of the "English." "I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down in their rectangles of light. No one was where they were." (27) A fresh take on a familiar subject. This novel does place you in the Pennsylvania district, neither romanticized or sensationalized. Again, it's honest report of a twist on the apocalyptic trope of speculative fiction.

For one representative person outside the farmlands and old ways, the narrator reckons the biblical analogy holds true. "The sorrows are planted, and they grow strong in the earth of his life, they rise up, and there is harvest." A Presbyterian elder, the author seems to be able to think in the style of a believer, and to channel his tamped down, unassuming chronicle in the mindset of one "non-modern."

For modernity, as it collapses, reveals unsurprisingly that we city folks cannot survive this meltdown. Guns prove a regression to another sort of tradition, as militias brandish them to make the narrator wonder the worth of a life like his protected by such. The lesson does not need hyperbole. Dimly remembering the unnamed cartoon "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the teller tells us: "you never knew when the magic you rely on will overtake and drown you." The magical realm we all live in enables these words in print, and my review beamed by its medium. So we reflect. (Amazon US 11/11/17)

Friday, November 3, 2017

Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics": Book Review

Bad Religion Audiobook | Ross Douthat | Audible.com
No, the venerable (and atheist) L.A. punk band does not figure in this learned recounting of how accommodationalists of both major Christian versions, evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mainline Protestants have multiplied and dwindled over the past few decades in America. But Ross Douthat strives for a punchy presentation of data which threaten to weigh down his pages. As the token Catholic/ conservative New York Times pundit, his columns benefit from his pithy remarks.

How does Douthat manage the shift to a long-form format? I felt very early on that this unfolded as if a dutiful, well-researched, but rather by-the-numbers tallying of the bull and bear markets as applied to Christian America's gains and losses, among the varying denominations and recent "para-church" endeavors. While I admit I was being educated, as a reader, I wondered if the pace would pick up.

Bad Religion begins with Douthat's refinement of his subtitle. He's not celebrating the demise of faith. His title refers to "the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." (3) The past fifty years finds the orthodox Catholic and Protestant bulwarks eroding, having "entered a state of near-terminal decline." The churches connected most to the past fade; the elite abandons its at least measured sympathy for Christian ideas. Hostility or indifference, as surely this former editor of The Atlantic knows, characterizes this culture.

While the U.S. remains an outlier in its high rates of reported belief among the "advanced" nations, a growing segment of its Christian majority, as it weakens overall in numbers, waters down traditional theology. Conservative or liberal, these factions appeal to the political and pop-cultural marketers. Often "spiritual" without being "religious," some seek a wider set of options for faith. Others distort, in Douthat's estimation, what has been the accepted dogmas and doctrines of conventional churches.

Neither conservatives nor "their secular antagonists" (4) recognize this drift. The religious right blames all flaws on explicitly anti-Christian elements. Secular stalwarts denigrate every form of belief as equally foolish or fanatical. Douthat explores those enclaves of our nation where teachings of Christ "have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed." (4) Here, neither papal encyclicals nor New Atheists are perused.

For a hundred pages, Douthat takes us through a vanished world of post-war confidence in religion, which fifty-or-so years ago began to implode as accommodationists hastened reforms which wound up, for many believers, leaving them to wonder "why show up on Sunday after all" if the ecumenical denominations earnestly insisted that deep down they were all the same, and that divisive details overcome were all that was needed to satisfy and stimulate the faithful. Yet the accommodationists in Mainline Protestant and Vatican II Catholicism almost immediately found their pews emptying, as the disaffected rejected religion, preferred spirituality, or most tellingly, defected to the evangelicals.

Douthat, writing in 2012, reminds those keen to denigrate evangelical and Catholic voters that now there is no "Catholic bloc." That broke up under Bill Clinton. Both Catholics and evangelicals span the range of income and professions as Americans on average. They both edged ahead, by the 1990s, when it comes to income and education. Long derided as the backward bullies of the rural heartland in the Midwest and South, evangelicals now are likely to fill the megachurches of Sun Belt and Mountain West suburbs and exurbs. While Catholics have only Latino immigration to thank that their totals have not dipped more, a tenth of all Americans have left that Church; these departed would be the country's second-largest faith cohort, if definitions were tinkered with. Evangelicals hold at about 20%. Douthat does not harp on his fact: evangelicals accept "limited inerrancy" rather than slavishly literal readings of the bible which fundamentalists cling to. This means that while science in scripture may be accepted as outdated, that the transcendent truth of God's will remains forever without fault.

"He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower." Douthat quotes Anglican Ralph Inge (106) aptly. As one who grew up in the very first batch of post-Vatican II Catholic children indoctrinated in the "Kumbayah" mindset, I can attest even among kids raised on The Monkees as we watched hippies delay adulthood, that the novelty of guitar mass for hand-holding congregants wore off fast for many with whom I was raised; few of them sustained this fervor well into their maturity.

Given his talent for cultural critique, Douthat documents well this transitional period when the counterculture strove to become the ecclesiastical norm. When he turns to the deconstruction of the Gospels by scholars who prefer the rabbi rebel Jesus to the Pauline redeemer Christ, I feared that Douthat would fumble. This tricky terrain challenges any to keep up. But he remains steady. I liked his comparison of the Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels and Jesus Seminar crowd's "historical Jesus" shorn of his halo to those dogged claimants who assert they've found the "real" Shakespeare. Both "turn out to be masters of detection and geniuses at code breaking, capable of seeing through every cover-up and unpacking every con." (171) No wonder we wind up with conspiratorial Dan Brown. The power of magical thinking and the relativism of po-mo profs blur.

Resisters dig in and strike back against the humanists and their Christian fifth column. Whereas mainstream seminaries diminish, a parallel evangelical and conservative Catholic set of colleges, institutions, and scholars emerge. The alliance between those once damned as papists and their former "holy rollers" foes looms larger, as the fight against abortion and for 'values' rallies both.

As the chronology catches up with recent events, the analysis sharpens. In the wake of the bursting of the 2007 housing bubble, Douthat notes in passing a telling truth. Hispanic, black, and white working class adherents of a prosperity gospel were most likely to have been swept up and over by the burst.

His chapter on this "name it to claim it" proposition, as filtered through Joel Osteen's lucrative ministry, makes God "seem less like a savior and more like a college buddy with really good stock tips." (189) Yet, the author cautions, the "crudeness" of the wealth-theology rhetoric "can obscure the subtlety of its appeal,"for it reassures followers that the sin of avarice can be assuaged by overcoming with stock phrases of credulous tit-for-tat "a simple failure of piety." (191) Rather than send down angels to prove His love for you, Douthat paraphrases, "He can just send you a raise." Similarly, Douthat delves into "financial ministries" and remains nuanced on the suitability of capitalism and its good works undertaken with the donations funding charitable endeavors. I wanted to read more on the megachurch entrepreneurial "outreach" and franchising, but this gets passed over perfunctorily.

Still, he's clever on seguing into the related New Thought-derived business empire. For it shares with the prosperity preachers an emphasis on "the social utility" of belief, an eagerness to define spiritual success in worldly terms, a hint of utopianism, and an abiding naïveté about human nature." (205)

Theodicy nestles not only within the wealth-faith, but in "the God within" predilection inherited from similar concepts of exchange with the powers above. Deepak, Oprah, Sam Harris, Eat Pray Love, Avatar, and even earnest apologist Karen Armstrong demonstrate the profitability of such pitches. Both affirm that humans figured out how the universe works, and how the spiritual forces respond. The "quest for God as the ultimate therapy" dominates. Not "I believe" but "one feels," to paraphrase prescient 1966 psychologist Philip Reiff, cited by Douthat. (230) This generates narcissism, infidelity, and a lack of empathy. The results can be tracked over the permissive period evolving in this purview. We wind up with a "spirituality of niceness" (234) Charting this among youth, as he does, is sobering.

Another congenial solution arrives with a universal God which outlasts petty local deities and clans. Drawing on Franz Rosenzweig and George Steiner, employing promised lands to polarized if both favored tribes, shows Douthat's erudition applied intelligently. Lacking the European penchant for blood-and-soil ties, Americans worship the exceptionalist, "city on a hill" civic religion of patriotism. Messianic, apocalyptic, reactionary crusades such as Glenn Beck's conflate populists with patricians. Paranoia, conspiracy theories, jeremiads of doom invigorate both extremes on the political spectrum. Angst, backlash, hubris, and adulation for whomever occupies the Oval Office produce craven American kitsch peddled for both parties and their anointed leaders ready to rescue despairing flocks.

That penultimate section of the book I found agreeable if not surprising, having lived under Reagan-through-Obama regimes. It's what you'd expect Douthat to expand upon from his columns. I do applaud his "heresy of nationalism" and his distrust of "religious faith" married to "political action."

He concludes with four "potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." Global, rootless life may seek an antidote to power plays and exhausted ideologies. Douthat suggests separatists offer a second route, withdrawing from the arena so as to regroup and reflect. Or, the massive movements bringing immigrant churches and missionary zeal back to America from the Third World might energize more at home. Diminished expectations, finally, might restore humility along with rigor.

Being political but non-partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and last of all, oriented toward sanctity and beauty. I aver this final aspect may inspire a "saving remnant," regardless of creed, to appreciate the "great wellspring of aesthetic achievement" that unfortunately persists more as relics and canons rejected by most in schools and nearly all in culture.

Literature, architecture, film and television certainly display a dearth of Christian creative achievement. Douthat chides, correctly, that "many Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate." (291) This muffles the impact of a legacy.

While naysayers will dismiss Bad Religion as stale superstition or sinister priestcraft, open-minded audiences concerned with the stability of a post-Christian polity will benefit from this balanced judgement from within the Christian intelligentsia, and they may concur that those two terms are not oxymorons. Douthat backs his side, but he's poised, professional and alert to all in the faith game.

P.S. Pp. 152-3 collect a deft summation of the paradoxical models of Jesus that believers affirm and scholars may debate. This exemplifies journalist Douthat's knack for mediating scholarship for a wider readership. I admit that many who'd benefit from his book will never hear its timely message.

Sure, there are places I'd have preferred more elaboration. For instance, the tacit influence of Teilhard de Chardin on Vatican II, to me at least, is a fascinating aside begging for more. But on key topics as how evangelicals adopted the pro-life campaigns of Catholicism even as its own members dissented, or how the excesses of flower-power liturgy hold up, if in retrospect to those of us who as youngsters barely recall them (like me) or weren't around yet (like the author), are worthwhile. Certainly his judgment that those who chased reform wound up a half century on looking as if graying curators of  dated curios, overseeing a little attended museum (I extend his metaphor) rings true, when one does the math on the evaporation of vocations to those very orders that figured the only thing holding them back from really appealing to more young men and women was more Bob Dylan, far fewer hymns. (Amazon US 11/3/17 a bit altered)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Phil Harrison "The First Day": Book Review


Samuel Orr preaches on East Belfast's streets. There "he spoke only the scripture, no commentary, no opinion, no interpretation. No pleading." On the south side of the city, another resident elaborates on her chosen texts. She pursues another Samuel, surnamed Beckett. Anna Stuart "lectured her groups of avid nihilists while looking" from her classroom high up among the red-brick facades of Queens University, "at people scurrying far below, like insects." Phil Harrison sets up his protagonists as he begins The Third Day. His examination of faith and the tensions it creates and confronts engage the reader who enters into this novel. An award-winning filmmaker, he turns to fiction for his print debut.

As a Belfast native, Harrison scrutinizes "a city without roots." Rather than drawing sustenance from the earth, this place rejects security. "Flags, history, tradition, they all take light from the world and bury it." Where this perspective emanates from is not clear. Beginning in 2012, the setting for this story sours its residents. Those raised by the "1986 generation of nay-sayers" of "No Surrender" grow up "just as militant, though with less to lose. A decade of unimaginative leadership, of reconciliation attempts built around 'telling your story', served for the most part merely to trap people in the failed myths they'd grown up with rather than encouraging them to abandon them for bigger, messier ones."

This judgment resonates. Its speaker will be revealed as another victim of this entrapment as it passes down from the sins of the fathers. The stories told by this voice fill in much, but not all. Limits to complete understanding persist, in the city and in Orr's family. For quite a while, readers may remain unaware of who narrates, nearly omniscient, during much of the first half. Harrison slows this pace.

An authorial decision which may startle some embeds itself in the early prose. For the King James Version in all its poetry and power flows through Samuel Orr by habit and by vocation. His stream of consciousness fills with biblical cadences, verbatim from the Good Book. Orr, as a congregant regards him, "seemed to have an ability to make it all about him, to turn the scriptures into biography." Furthermore, the listener to Orr's sermon observes, that obdurate lay minister "yet did not actually do anything; he merely refused to change, to be anything other than his flawed, blunt self."

Like many an Ulsterman, Orr resists sentiment. Harrison keeps him at a distance. Orr's his most potent presence, and when he recedes, his creator plays it safer. Anna's predicament moves Orr, first to passion but soon to estrangement. Their son, also christened Sam (the triple nod to this prophetical nomenclature makes one wonder how necessary is this choice by the writer), must deal with his brother by Orr's wife, twelve-year-old Philip. (The author gives this foil his own first name.) That older boy is saddled with a burden. His father's actions in engendering a sibling only half a brother rankle Philip. He, the narrator defines, "became continuation, the past blurred into the present." Here, the predicament of many in the Irish North hardens the young as it has the old for centuries. "It was like the story they told children: if you pull a face and the wind changes direction it stays that way forever." Philip's determination to thwart both his father and the lad he has produced creates the story line which takes three-quarters of these pages to work itself out. This presumes a reader's patience.

For Harrison resolves to move Philip into a key scene which will effect the narrator and this account.
As with the naming Harrison chooses to grant central characters in The First Day, so with this pivot. It smacks of too-neat a scheme. Perhaps in film this could be carried off adroitly. In fiction, it calls attention more to the author than his antagonist. However, the narrator does reveal necessary sentences (in more ways than one) necessary for the scheme to be at all credible. "Philip had an extraordinary skill of carefully unpicking a person's weakness, of paying attention as much to what they didn't say as to what they did." He teases out the repressed and unravels what others labor to hide. "And he had that rare absence of compassion, a preparedness to use whatever he could get his hands on for his own ends." Certainly this foreshadowing follows through on that narrator's portent.

The crux lies in the ability of Philip to convincingly carry off what Harrison wants him to see through. Orr opines that his older son's "genius" evinces itself by Philip never stepping out of his role. He's "like a method actor who finishes work on a film and forgets to return to his normal life."

The novel's later half shifts the chronology thirty-five years later. Surprisingly, The First Day does not attempt to create a future New York City much altered from today. Gentrification turns into its own parody; artisans consume themselves. This may have already happened, one may aver, by 2012.

As a museum guard, the narrator inhabits a potentially rich setting for an inventive storyteller. Phil Harrison, once more, does not attempt to expand this as much as readers might expect. Instead, the narrator has to "find my own corners, my periphery." He rationalizes this as a better option to the dour conditions which have dampened his upbringing. "Darkness as character--the unknown not as absence but as a space to grow into." These marginal haunts, inevitably, echo those of Sam Beckett.

The First Day succeeds when it plunges Orr and Anna into their own Irish-based predicaments. When the narrative resumes across the ocean, it diffuses. Family secrets, betrayals, punishment and redemption add up to familiar tropes. The promise of the opening chapters, full of the addled and stubborn Orr's KJV compulsions to channel the prophets, and Anna's desperate confusion as she faces the joys and sorrows of motherhood, fades. The narrator trots adroitly at its start. When the story turns to New York, too much has been left unsaid and hidden for its revelations to excite its readers. What could have accelerated into a dynamic climax idles and glides into too rapid a resolution.
(NYJB 10/24/17)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Ursula Le Guin's "The Telling": Book Review

The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin — Reviews, Discussion ...
This was inspired by the suppression by the communists of the Taoists in China. Le Guin in her introduction to the 2017 Library of America edition of her collected Hainish works admits that her knowledge of this cultural obliteration came relatively recently. She fits this into her system, with an emissary from Terra, of Asian Indian origins, living in Vancouver. Terra is in tumult too; fanatics try to impose a one-god regime upon the disparate peoples in the tellingly named Sutty's multicultural land. She is sent as an anthropologist to Akan to investigate that world's parallel descent into control.

The control is exerted by a relentless hatred of the old. The peons are remade into "producer-consumers," and the state itself, influenced by the same fanatics earlier, seems to have learned their dark lessons well. Le Guin sharply depicts the soulless situation of the inhabitants who toil mirthlessly. Redolent of not only China under Mao or North Korea under its dictators, Akan is bleak. 

Sutty finds her mission to observe on behalf of the Ekumen, and to report back, compromised by a minder called by her The Monitor. Their fates will intersect as Sutty travels north from the megapolis into rural areas where she learns that not all of the old learning and forbidden ways have vanished. 

At this stage in her long career, Ursula Le Guin incorporated feminist themes and fluid sexuality into her characters. Sutty's lesbianism puts her further apart from those seeking complete domination over the private as well as public life. Technology has advanced, too, and the parallels to our age are there.

This story moves slowly. Especially at first, Le Guin channeled through her protagonist parcels out facts we need to know sparingly. But there is a fascination with the way that Akan plays off our Earth. Totalitarian dystopia in the name of progress, unity and conformity isn't only "science fiction." 

It also wraps up very suddenly. Sutty's summoning is brought about in a paragraph halfway, with seemingly no foreshadowing. This may reflect life's surprises, but it threw me off. The conclusion follows rapidly after some earnest negotiation. It's not a tidy ending, either. But it may be more real. (Amazon US 9/24/17) 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Edward Gibbon's "The Decline + Fall of the Roman Empire": Kindle Book Review

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire : Abridged ...
As editions jumble and formats collide on Amazon for such classics, I'll explain Kindle versions. The public-domain ones for free or a buck or two are the Anglican reverend H.H. Milman's 1838/45 version, interspersing his commentary--which about Gibbon's anti-religious musings, was defensive. J.B. Bury's 1897 ed. can be downloaded elsewhere than Amazon. Bury kept his comments appended after Gibbon's famous footnotes. These older eds. online differ somewhat in presentation; some relegate footnotes and some place them within the main text after every relevant page.

David Womersly's abridgment of his 3 vol. 1990s ed. in Penguin provides eleven complete chapters and footnotes. Hans-Friedrich Mueller's 2003 abridges the Modern Library 1987 ed. Mueller assures us in his preface that the whole work still should be read and consulted. He admits in his task a different emphasis than, say, Milman. Keeping in the religious, political and institutional concentrations, he excises 2/3: battle details, genealogies, ethnologies, and footnotes. Mueller avers this fits contemporary concerns and aligns with relevant issues. On the Kindle, it's elegantly legible.

Daniel Boorstin's original introduction remains, preceding a critical essay by Mueller and Gibbon's preface. The maps are small, as they were copied from the paperback ed. What remains are parts of every chapter. Mueller indicates where cuts or excisions occur so one may consult the full text. He does provide parts of all 72 chapters for a "continuous narrative." The complete Womersly set sits on my shelf. But I chose this condensed ed. for the ability to take notes and highlight passages, which I wouldn't do in my tomes. And for road trips. ( Amazon US 9/10/17)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ursula Le Guin "Hainish Novels + Stories": Book Review

These Hainish fictions aren't a cycle. Rather "a convenience" than "a conception." So Ursula Le Guin introduces this deluxe edition from Library of America in typically forthright, pithy, and sly terms.

Daughter of a groundbreaking anthropologist who taught at Berkeley and Columbia, Ursula Le Guin pioneered the meticulous investigation of her imagined societies within the popular genre of speculative storytelling. She began writing as a child during the Depression. Beginning in 1966, her contributions began in the Ace Doubles, SF pulp. Editors and fans recognized her skill. Although her sophisticated interplanetary system took a while to form, and even if its inconsistencies bother nitpicking critics, Le Guin avers this genesis gave her freedom to shift between stories and novels. She learned the difference between "willful suspension of disbelief" and merely "faking" it when invention stirred. (Her Hainish books need not be read in order, she has assured readers before.)

Part of Le Guin's innovation came through the "ansible," a device enabling instant communication across the universe. This became a standard tool throughout the science fiction cosmos. Her other innovation in the 1960s, she notes, has received less attention from a wider audience. The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes, but it faced backlash, from pedants and from feminists. Le Guin's decision to use a fixed "he" for her people lacking a fixed gender--it alternates in the month--leads to her reiteration fifty years on. Despite many recent changes in social perception of gender differences, "we still have no accepted ungendered pronoun in narrative." Demurring from the term "prequel" for her story "The Day Before the Revolution" preceding her anarchist utopia novel The Dispossessed, "word-hound" Le Guin returns to her central verbal concern. "What matters most about a word is that it says what we need a word for. (That's why it matters that we lack a singular pronoun signifying non-male/female, inclusive, or undetermined gender. We need that pronoun."

This anthology's first volume gathers the first five Hainish novels. In a brief review, only a glimpse at the many realms Le Guin presents can suffice. Roncannon's World turns out for the Hainish ethnographer Roncannon an orb which will bear his name. (Hain's a planet resembling our own as the original homeland of humanity; the handsome endpapers in volume two make its earth-tones of continents heighten this suggestion, but it is not equivalent to Le Guin's Terra: an example of Le Guin's off-kilter approach to world-building.) Some telepathy occurs, but this wound up so overwhelming a condition for her menagerie of bio-forms that their creator edged away from it as a must as she expanded her fictional forays. Roncannon blends SF with fantasy. Its episodes entertain.

But eagle-eyed readers of venerable tropes may not be entirely convinced. There's a lot of humanoids evolving here on a smallish globe, so how they remain dispersed and sustaining may stem from Le Guin's anthropological curiosity more than a command of her developing talent in constructing plot.

Two more shortish novels follow. Planet of Exile as the title tells finds human colonists stranded on a hostile Werel. The arrival of attenuated seasons will become a factor in her present and future Hainish terrains: when winter comes, it stays for 15 years, and the "hilfs" arrive during this cold snap. These nomads call the humans "farborns." They both face savage hordes and snow-ghouls. One wonders if George R.R. Martin's vast audience knows of this 1966 predecessor, pitched again at the Ace crowd.

The following year, City of Illusions presents one raised by forest dwellers, but not born one of them. His quest across a ravaged earthscape and a dystopia full of occluded psychics also includes talking animals. Who can and cannot take life provides the complex theme, further taking on brainwashing.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) attain canonical status. Many will be most familiar with these dense novels. They deepen the SF genre. They will demand attention; they will reward reflection. This volume adds an "original" version of the experimental core of what became Left's alternating genders on Gethen. "Winter's King" sparked Le Guin's curiosity. What if "the king was pregnant" popped up in a tale? Both tales investigate how warfare equates with "predominantly a male behavior," If some people reverted to being female with an overwhelming sex drive for a few days a month, while others were male, how might this play out for an Ice Age planet a.k.a. Winter? Furthermore, Le Guin addresses how language, power plays, and relationships evolve.

The last work in the first volume, The Dispossessed may not have lasted as long in curricula and on reading lists as its gender-driven counterpart. It emerges from Le Guin's weariness with the Vietnam War, and her Cold War affinity for Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman's non-violence. Pairing this via her youthful exposure to Lao Tzu, Le Guin incorporates the Tao into a study of no-coerced-order.

For it has to recognize anarchy's discontents. Determined to leave his anarcho-syndicalist home on Anarres, physicist Shevek travels to a patriarchal society on Urras. Class war, religious dissension, and the grip of the in-group naturally mesh with Le Guin's intellectual interests. While less read now than Left, this novel of ideas also remains less popular than certain pulps penned by Ayn Rand. But Rand cannot match Le Guin's U.S.-of-A.-like A-Io for its ambiguous appeal as the Yang to the Yin of Urras. Capitalism gets its comeuppance, but so does socialism. Despite dense discussion, it's far more vivid than any Rand. For one "cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution." How one's possessive power gets mired in habit dramatizes--admittedly too tediously for readers craving more drama--its theories and its morality, as a thought-experiment.

As her fiction sweeps up allegory, her story arcs sometimes twine; but not neatly or necessarily. Her motivations push reflection arguably more than action. She leaves one pondering, despite what can be ponderous to those weary of nuance. Her erudite character studies and linguistic riffs predominate.

Le Guin's Hainish elaborations continue into the mostly shorter pieces of the second volume. The novella The Word for World Is Forest has always struck me as a protest against the defoliation of Vietnam. It may align more with the Earth Day sentiments of the early Seventies, but either way, the revolt of those on Athshe against the invading Terrans bent on taking its resources to sustain their own depleted earth has remained topical. Le Guin acknowledges this sad truth in her appended 1976 introduction for Word. She relates how her own "fantasy" at that time that a Philippine tribe called the Senoi stood for a "dream culture" akin to her imagined one for her indigenous resisters. While these claims were largely debunked among anthropologists, Le Guin reasons that for her threatened world, the use of its scientific data may diminish accordingly as its "speculative element" compensates.

Hainish stories overlap in characters and ideas now and then among the seven compiled here. Her faster-than-light communication device the ansible excited her fellow scribes. By 1990, Le Guin took up a possibility akin to Madeleine L'Engle's "wrinkle in time." Le Guin was "allured by the notion of transilience, the transfer of a physical body from one point in space-time to another without interval."

Christening it "churtening," she allows that those who pull it off in her fiction are never sure how they did it, or if they can do it again. "In this it much resembles life." Her 1994 collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea weaves influences from a Japanese folktale with Hain-adjacent love stories. She attempted in this decade "to learn how to write as a woman." Her latest brainstorm, the "sedorutu," sets on the world named O an institutionalization of hetero- and homosexual relationships "in an intricate four-part arrangement laden with infinite emotional possibilities--a seductive prospect to a storyteller." Her "gender-bending" produces stories enriched by her own decision to speak out not only on behalf of women, but all who are loners and introverts. In an era bent on overpopulation, "unlimited growth," and "mindless exploitation," Ursula Le Guin retreats. She considers the misfit.

Her final entries twist more categories. Dark-skinned people enslave light-skinned ones. The emerging "story suite" becomes Four Ways to Forgiveness. Meanwhile, Le Guin learns of the destruction of "religious Taoism" during the regime of "aggressive secular fundamentalism" in China.

The Telling (2000) closes this volume. Le Guin sees around her in her own homeland the rise of similar "divisive, exclusive," and dogmatic instigators of hatred perverting "the energy of every major creed." This concluding novel depicts "the secular persecution of an ancient, pacific, non-theistic religion on another world." Those responsible, tellingly, originate among "a violent monotheistic sect on Earth." No matter what ignites the dynamic fusion of thought and action in her Hainish fictions, Ursula Le Guin generates provocative and intelligent considerations of complex forces. A tribute to her craft, these elegant volumes combine into a welcome set for loners, introverts, and the rest of us.
(Combined volumes: Amazon US 9/5/17. Vol. 1  and  Vol. 2 ) PopMatters as Ursula Le Guin's Science Fiction Stories about Class, War, Religious Dissension and More  9/14/17)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism Is True": Book Review

For those skeptical of supernatural claims and theistic versions of Buddhism, Robert Wright continues the quest that his earlier books such as The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God began. These titles hint at Wright's terrain, where fact and speculation, the tangible and the experiential, blur. He explores in Why Buddhism Is True the worldview that in the time of the historical Buddha could not have been clearly expressed in pre-scientific, and very pre-Darwinian terms to human mindsets.

Fresh from teaching courses on Buddhism and science at Princeton and similar courses at the Union Theological Seminary, Wright blends a wide-ranging series of investigations summed up from neural and biological research. His thesis proposes that the truth-claims of the dharma were a first, and correctly directed, step towards our own understanding of natural selection and the drives it creates. Born with them, we can free ourselves from them. Buddhism predicted the remedy for our human condition.

For instance, what on the savannah might have kept us reproducing, in thrall to our communal band, and with sufficient resources to guard against hunger or competition now linger in us. They may be go under the names of lust, social fear of being shamed, avarice, gluttony and greed, but they convey the same "fetters" which Buddhist teaching encourages, and demands, we must overcome if we want to reach a more balanced and controlled mental and physical state, freed of the illusions of the senses.

Around this central argument, Wright spins a lot of tales. A Foreigner song stuck in his mind, an annoying sitter near him on a meditation retreat, an urge to become easily irritated. He's been on the Buddhist path a while, but he rejects the trappings which have grown up around the teaching. He opts for a secular version, acknowledging that it may well be diluted (as is mindfulness or yoga) as it turns to the West, but he analyzes, in a final addendum. the core concepts that his book's laid out about establishing the veracity of what the Buddha and adepts since have incorporated into the dharma.

The tone is casual despite the heaps of learning stirred in. Wright writes again for a popular audience. Such interpretations possess value, for those of us less able or less leisured to delve into what the labs or monasteries for that matter might be generating as scholarship. However, the weight of so much data, dispersed over many chapters, sometimes slows the pace. Despite his genial tone, parts of this felt repetitious, belaboring the obvious once stated. Yet I find this same reaction to some treatments of Buddhism. A core teaching, a set of instructions  can be summed up pithily, but like chess, for each pursuit the application approaches the infinite. This might convince, therefore, those already initiating some dharma practice for a while, While Wright introduces teaching, it's more its implementation.

That leads him near the conclusion to some elevated claims. He endorses Daniel Ingram's promise that meditation results can be attained with diligence rapidly, and not just by those with decades of training. Wright like many admits that his transports have not occurred often, and when one did, he shows how ephemeral it was. He counsels daily discipline, more to calm and to establish more within one's reactive mechanism (not a term he uses) a longer-range, considered, and composed response to the triggers which, as with road rage, we inherit from billions of years of evolution, becoming an organism determined to gain ground, acquire loot, store up calories, and dominate by trophy wives.

I expected the author to turn to a philosopher who also predicted ways in which we can comprehend our predicament, and who is seen in retrospect as sympathetic to Buddhism, Schopenhauer. In my e-galley, I did not find any mention of the World as Will and Representation that he conceived. It seems prescient here. There's discussion of contemporary thinkers, more from psychology than philosophy..

This book will create some debate, I predict, among the more traditional Buddhist practitioner; those open to his analytical, even detached attitude at times, and his production of a practical set of guidelines, may benefit from a presentation of the dharma seeking liberation not into a higher realm, but from the natural selection which tethers us to demands which prevent us from fully entering the state the Buddha modeled. Sure, as Wright concurs, sentience and cognition and evolution into our present status all have definite advantages. But as to drawbacks, he advises the dharma. Even if the science we now promote might in the future shift, the bedrock of the dharma, Wright avers, remains solid. Beholden as we'll be to our genetic inheritance, we can nurture by Buddhism our true nature.

 (Amazon US 8-8-17 + Edelweiss+; this review by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker appeared after I wrote mine. It's titled in the print copy "American Nirvana" and at the website as "What Meditation Can Do for Us and What it Can't")

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pat Walsh's "A Rebel Act": Book Review

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett's Farewell to English
This biography covers all of this Irish poet's life and career. The subtitle may lead one to believe it's only about the period roughly from 1975-84 when Michael Hartnett's decision to no longer publish his poetry in English gained attention among Ireland's poetry, literary, and critical circles. But the tenth of the book devoted to this phase shows its importance and duration within the poet's 58 years.

Pat Walsh must have read everything ever mentioning Hartnett. His documentation records his consultation of the poet's manuscripts and notebooks, interviews, and press coverage down to quite rare small press publications or ephemeral journalism. He lets the poetry, the poet, and his contemporaries tell as much of the story as possible. Generous excerpts from Hartnett's verses, his own writings beyond poems, and his radio broadcasts also deepen any reader's appreciation of his work. Furthermore, while Walsh tends to stay in the background more as diligent compiler than as a critic with his own take on this difficult-to-categorize man, he judiciously includes criticism which calls Hartnett to task when warranted. For not all of his verses are up to the high standards of his best.

Complementing literary criticism produced on Hartnett, this fuller depiction of a dapper, erudite, coruscating, and forthright poet and presence during the 60s through some of the 80s reveals a deep care for the state of Ireland, regarding its heritage, its commitment or lack of to its long-denigrated "first official language," and Hartnett's determination to demonstrate by his own action his nuanced understanding of not only a language but a way of life and a manner of living and thinking which, for many in his Dublin audiences hearing him declaim his poems, must have been received with a mixture of reactions. Today when national identity, ethnic roots, international treaties, and corporate domination have markedly increased since Hartnett's era, this 2012 study is timely and trenchant. (Amazon Britain + US 7/30/17)


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Michael McCaughan's "Coming Home": Book Review



Facing his mid-life crisis, Michael McCaughan explores his reunion with the Irish language he'd abandoned, along with most students in the 26 Counties during nearly the past hundred years. He begins his memoir as resigned as Ireland's majority: 'We have acquired a prayer, permission to go to the bathroom and an empty slogan.' (13) Sé do bheatha a Mhuire, an bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas and tiochfaidh ár lá. Throughout his career as a Spanish translator abroad, he'd regale Latin Americans who'd begged him to "say something in Irish" with a hodgepodge recited from rote.

Coming Home is a generic phrase itself. The book's subtitle: 'one man's return to the Irish language', situates him within a small shelf of similar stories, some cited, others not. Lonely Planet co-founder Brian Fallon left Boston on the same quest, a bit fictionalised as Home With Alice (2002). The fact this was published only in Australia may reflect the presumed limited appeal of this trope. That same year, Darerca Ní Chartúir in her overview-guide to the language appended testimonies from four Americans attending summer schools in Gaeltachtaí. Two years on, Ciarán MacMurchaidh edited 'Who Needs Irish?' A few learners answered why in the affirmative alongside acclaim by natives. and from a schooled minority who embraced the speech that McCaughan and many of his peers spurned.

I contributed to the 2007 issue of Estudios Irlandeses an examination of 'Making the Case for Irish Through English: Eco-critical Politics of Language by Learners' emphasising the perceived benefit of learning Irish in its natural setting. Brian Ó Conchubhair summed up in A New View of the Irish Language his 2008 chapter on 'The Global Diaspora and the "New" Irish (Language)'. He charted a 'hyper-Gaeltacht' (238) as Gaeilge entered its 'transnational' phase, sustained rather than attenuated by a combination of recent emigrants and the descendants of such, joined by other ethnicities connecting via Irish. Added to this in the decade since would be social media, video chat, and instant messaging.

Ó Conchubhair considers 'Hanson's law of third-generation return' first propounded in 1938: 'what the immigrant's son wishes to forget, the immigrant's grandson wishes to remember'. (New View 245) McCaughan, as one who has lived far from Ireland for much of his five decades, wonders why he took his Spanish from basics to fluency, while Irish languished. He puzzles over his surname and the silence from his Co Antrim-born father, who never revealed his side regarding sectarian origins, and the tug that pulls this son back. Dwelling in the Burren circa 2014, he takes advantage of Raidió na Gaeltachta online in caring for the 'fever' which inexplicably had consumed him to tackle, this time almost from scratch, another tongue. Union with this common resource unlocking centuries of lore past and present motivates his quest, rather than nationalism, Leaving Cert scores, or atavistic pride.

One wonders: within a multilingual Irish society, why Gaeilge shares craic in many a high street less often than, say, Polish? True, the exceptions of the immigrant, young or mature, who masters Irish gain publicity. But as one Irish wag mused, few of America's new arrivals hastened to study Cherokee or Seminole. If casual Irish does enter conversations, it's more likely within a congenial pub rather than a stern shop, (This is the reviewer's query; a minor flaw of this book is its too passing a coverage of this persistent social shame. Next to a continent where many citizens may communicate between four languages easily, the default refusal of most Irish to choose their native option continues to vex not only McCaughan and those he interviews and quotes. Compulsory lessons can't bear all the customary blame. And while a short glossary of Gaeilge terms and a brief list of sources consulted appear, the lack of an index thwarts recall of names, places and materials within this data-rich text.)

McCaughan wants to link in. Like learners can on the Net in the 'hyper-Gaeltacht', he keeps the radio on, plunging into 'the deep end' rather than rely on the English subtitles for TG4. Not far from the remnants of coastal districts where everyday Irish has been spoken, he considers the trauma of An Gorta Mór and the trace elements of guilt which weakened survivors. Remorse generated either a 'fierce, aggressive' attachment or rejection of the language, (22) He alludes to Animal Farm for the post-1922 'language bosses' who held on to their version of the tally stick, an bata scóir, emulating their hated English masters in beating on miscreants who lapsed into a forbidden but habitual tongue.

Either language was replaced with deliberate effort. McCaughan reasons that if Irish 'disappeared out of our families one word at a time', its erosion may be reversed by phrases enriching conversation. This as with much of the content assumes an Irish audience. Gill Books markets this to them, from the author's own birthplace of south Dublin. McCaughan therefore shares hints, resources, and strategies for those with the benefits of an Ireland residence to 'put on a second coat we've grown used to' (adapting composer Peadar Ó Riada's metaphor). McCaughan regards Irish as a 'second skin,' or even as what lingers in the 'marrow'. (64; readers may want to look up Peadar's father Seán's story.)

Exemplars such as Peadar, travel writer Manchán Magan, comedian Des Bishop, poets Paul Durcan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Michael Hartnett encourage him to distinguish his mother tongue, an Béarla, from his native one, an Ghaeilge. The fate of Hartnett, who tried to revert to Irish-only for his work, sobers him. McCaughan realises that the call to the mystic within will fall on many deaf ears around him, but he dismisses any practicality. As Spanish enraptured him as a teen, so now does Irish, at last. As well as tips for learners, this book's added value shows in the language policies from the Americas McCaughan uses to integrate his critique of the Dublin governments' hapless schemes.

Echoing Magan's Hartnett-like 'No Béarla' TG4 attempts in 2007 to conduct affairs in Ireland's 'first official language', the author tries to buy via Irish a ticket from Doolin to Inis Mór. He's told; 'you know, your Irish is very hard to understand.' Galwegians scold that he has 'no dialect'. Within the heartland, he considers a Buddhist analogue. Right Speech renders as 'what you say and how you say it is a reflection of a deeper truth'. (136) This illuminates his path. He ignores idealism; like many sojourners to these redoubts, he confronts a common impasse. Weary locals rebuff learners' attempts.

As this demonstrates, in the Gaeltacht, its public language becomes English; parents revert to Irish as a private medium; meanwhile children brought up as native speakers find themselves weakened by the influx of those relocating there with little or no Irish. At school, the classes may stay in public Irish, but McCaughan suspects children revert to English on their own watch, This imbalance presents a conundrum. To assist with their ancestral language the Irish people, who needs it most? Should entities support native communities or learners in urban centres, queuing at Gaelscoileannaí?

Contrasting the decision of most Irish to pay no more than lip service to Gaeilge, McCaughan credits the Zapatista movement, celebrating its indigenous and 'unbroken link to their ancestors' who use Tzeltal. The U'wa of Colombia choose their own too, rather than capitulate to the colonial imposition of Spanish. Proximity need not result in subservience or expediency; Central Europe and Scandinavia revived their local languages in the same period that millions of the Irish lost their own. McCaughan admits key revival differences historically and economically. Yet he seeks out a lively inspiration,

He strengthens his familial tie to the North of Ireland. The selfless attitude and volunteer spirit in Bóthar Seoighe infuses revival. State-designated enclaves mean simply places where Irish is spoken, But "the growth of Gaeilge in Belfast carries the mystique of a forbidden language spoken against the odds, and with a hint of subversive mischief'. (160) On the Falls Road, he sees more evidence of living Irish than in all of Dublin, Cork and Galway cities. Republican activists Michaél Mac Giolla Gunna, Féilim Ó hAdhmaill and Anthony McIntyre agree that their acquired Irish as crafted and transmitted in lessons 'behind the wire' conveyed a generosity imbued with true freedom. Their children, whether in class or at home, are growing up with both languages, with spontaneous poise.

This open-hearted reaction to Irish among those dubbed Nordies cheers this Ulsterman-once-removed.. Adults seek out Irish too, within not only West Belfast communities which welcome what was long persecuted. Ulster-Scots advocate Linda Ervine at the East Belfast mission started from far less than scratch. She conceives of her Irish-language endeavour as a 'vocation, an activity that needs to happen regardless of money'. (177) Their provincial roots tangle in garbled, anglicised place names and natural landmarks. West of Maghera, in south Derry, Gaeilge resurrects from this fresh soil, 'present yet invisible.' (198) At Carn Tóchair, this 'post-colonial option' cultivates a 'critical mass' of learners-to-speakers; what began with half a dozen in 1992 has grown to 180, young and old, fluent.

Niall Ó Catháin champions this líofacht enclave of those reuniting with this subterranean presence. For the Irish language 'was taken from us, and if we want it back we have to use it'. This bold grip reminds the writer of other surprising connections. Peadar Ó Riada tells McCaughan that in the tuneful townland of Cúil Aodha near Cork, a local, Lizzie O'Brien, was godmother to Sid Vicious.

McCaughan misses his chance here to nod to John Lydon's childhood visits to his own maternal domain in that very county. Derided then for his north London accent, he may today travel under an Irish passport, but he still bristles at being mocked for his tone. Lydon became infamous for rejecting many English symbols, as well as Catholic pieties. Ó Riada swirls Irish lyrics into world sounds. In their own ways, both play off a rebellious streak against clerics, some long supposed a Gaelic ally.

He seeks a decentralised Celtic Christian tradition, and as Lydon might accept, 'an atheist god if you like'. (209) If the North reveals the refusal at last to treat the accents in Irish as sectarian shibboleths, so Cúil Aodha suggests the native speaker's home advantage. Lydon and Ó Riada might concur that one born to the language applies his tongue unconsciously, as natural. This ease can never be totally gained by tutelage. It may single one out, depending on the setting, but it also anchors born speakers.

Concluding this journey around Ireland, McCaughan repeats the experience of others who have sought to find themselves through Irish. Native or learner, both find 'this is no country for Irish speakers'. (251) Relegated to the formulaic cúpla focal from a politician, a Republican and/or an Aer Lingus flight attendant, Gaeilge reveals its second-place status. The battle over Irish-only signage for An Daighean/ Dingle and the resentment from the tourist industry, second-home dwellers and visitors to Gaeilge amháin sa Ghaeltacht confirms the truth of McCaughan's charge. Yet he brandishes one cheery sign himself. The 'can-do philosophy' in the Six Counties epitomizes its 'brass nerve'. South of the border, this courage dwindles. Enlivened, McCaughan ends with a hope that one focal at a time, an Irish polity committed to diversity will sustain and nourish its native language, as its daily reality. (In shorter form to Amazon US 11/13/17)

Dublin: Gill Books. 6 June 2017. ₤7.99/ € 14.99. 256 pp.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

China Miéville's "October": Book Review

book cover of 

October
Known for his post-modern fantasy and science-fiction, China Miéville enriches these genres with his expertise in international relations and critical legal studies. Educated at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he argues in the 2005 adaptation of his doctoral thesis: "The attempt to replace war and inequality with law is not merely utopian but is precisely self-defeating. A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law." Recently a very unsuccessful Socialist Workers Party candidate for the House of Commons, he has since helped to found the anti-capitalist "red-green" Left Unity party.

His biographical data assist the reader of this version of the Russian Revolution. Although a fellow-traveler alongside many of those whose tales he retells, Miéville sustains a detached stance, if an implicitly radical affinity, for the rebels and malcontents within the nine months of 1917 he explores.

He offers the pre-history of that year, especially the anti-tsarist tumult in 1905. That earlier October, Moscow's print-workers started a strike. The reason? Having been paid by the letter, the typesetters demanded added remuneration for punctuation. Massive unrest spread. Debating such resistance, Bolsheviks agreed that the time for a socialist uprising led by proletariat and peasantry remained premature. Their semi-rivals the Mensheviks counter that a democratic and capitalist insurgency is acceptable, given the need of the bourgeoisie to guide under-prepared factions in a backward land.

Miéville commences his chronology of the pivotal year in February of a century ago, in the former St. Petersburg. The imperial capital witnesses its mill-workers rallying. They turn to meet Cossack cavalry facing off against. then letting through, thousands of marchers again on strike. The horsemen stay still as protesters duck under their mounts. "Rarely have skills imparted by reaction been so exquisitely deployed against it." With so many of the military turned against their royal commander, by March the Mensheviks are in charge. Under Alexander Kerensky, the moderate leftists struggle to keep order. Vladimir Lenin returns from exile to incite a new "second stage" revision of his earlier opinion that the revolution could wait. He regards Russia as ripe for leadership by the workers allied with the poorest peasants. Rejecting collaboration with the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks edge towards the seizure of the councils, the soviets, established by the proles and farmers. They want power now.

However, triumph will not hurry itself. The First All-Russian Congress of Peasants' Soviets convenes during May in Petrograd. Out of 1200 delegates, nine are Bolshevik and 14 affiliated. Urged on by Lenin and his comrades, their numbers will soon balloon. But others contend against them for a share of the action. Anarchists attempt to occupy a right-wing press. Not amused, the authorities push them aside. "Up with these anarchists, they decided, they would not put." A rare glimmer of levity lightens the recital of figures and the recording of events that may sink heavily, for this is quite a dense story.

While Miéville provides a glossary of key characters and an annotated reading guide, keeping the zemstov straight from the Trudovski remains a challenge for any novice inquirer unfamiliar with this milieu. To his credit, Miéville patiently lists the constantly warping factions and their fleeting moments of notoriety. Still, the pace of change occurs so rapidly that it requires very steady attention.

By July, the Kerensky government weakens. Bolsheviks bicker. Hearing armed masses approaching, someone "in the room gasped: 'Without the sanction of the Central Committee?'" Miéville remarks on the gap between party and populace: "How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move." This showdown nudged the Bolsheviks against the soviets, now dismissed as counter-revolutionary. Although they numbered 8000, a tenth of the Menshevik ranks, momentum was theirs. Under Lenin and Leon Trotsky, they sought "direct seizure of power by workers and the party."

August witnesses Kerensky despairing. "I want to take the middle road, but no one will help me." A right-wing military coup fizzled. September opens as the Petrograd Soviet finally adopts the Bolshevik militancy as a socialist wedge against the Provisional Government of the Mensheviks and their wavering allies. But this policy is rejected by a pro-Kerensky committee. Worsened by insistent opposition to Russia's entanglement in the Great War, troops desert and mutiny, filling the cadres of radicalized Bolsheviks back in Petrograd. Europe itself appears to tip towards the long-anticipated socialist revolution. German's kaiser totters towards chaos. Lenin reckons the time to act has arrived.

The titular month starts with Lenin returned from his flight to Finland. Disguised in a grey wig, he enters crime-riddled Petrograd. The last bastion between the Eastern front and it having been abandoned, those within the tense capital prepare for second overthrow of a Russian regime that year. "Upheaval was traced over a regular city dusk." Strollers continue; gunfire peppers cold air nearby.

Over an attenuated 26th of the Julian calendar (November 5th by the Gregorian reckoning superseding it the following year), Miéville depicts not a dramatic raid by eager recruits on the Winter Palace, but a stultifying endgame. Shots from a naval vessel meet with little response from cadres on the ground. Inside the grandiose redoubt: "Men skirmished in stairwells. Any creak on the floorboards might be the revolution." The victors find a dim dawn, with a hint of lightening above.

In a necessary epilogue, China Miéville charts the trajectory of the Bolshevik overthrow. While never diminishing the human costs of the Soviet triumph, he insists upon a balanced tally of the progress achieved for millions, in a dim but persistent era of advancement away from serfdom and bigotry, oppression and submission. "Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not be always followed by night." At the close of Miéville's narrative quest, he considers the metaphor and fact of 1917 as a "revolution of trains." He aptly concludes: "The question for history is not only who should be driving the train, but where." (Spectrum Culture 6/8/17; in slightly different form to Amazon US 6-1-17)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ian McEwan's "Nutshell": Book Review


Compulsively Readable Novels

I've only read two of this prolific talent's novels, the lesser-known Solar and The Cement Garden. McEwan tells stories in a dour but somehow spirited fashion, garnering a wide readership while appealing to the critics and academics, over many decades. Indeed, I found Cement remaindered when I was still in high school, shortly after its publication. I never forgot its chilly air, but it may have steered me away from following the disparate paths taken by him in other foreboding tales.

With a keen interest in Hamlet going back to high school too, I was eager to enjoy Nutshell. It flows well, and can be finished in a long sitting, as it's two-hundred pages that turn easily for the rapt reader. Suffice to say that as in the original source, you cheer on the revenge sought by the protagonist. But, attesting to the skill in creating Gertrude in 1603 or Trudy in 2016, I also wanted her flawed, brittle character to succeed. Her machinations with boorish Claude against his brother John Cairncross (not Hamish so-and-so, I suppose!) unfold with the same suspense Shakespeare sparked.

"The rustling sound is a plastic bag containing groceries or tools of death or both." So reports the fetus narrating the plots of his mother against his father and with his uncle's collusion. He gets a buzz of Trudy's wining and suffers the slings and arrows of her unsteady gait up and down the stairs, too.

McEwan's ingenuity in giving the first-person voice to one inside the womb limits its reports to what his senses pick up, enhancing the eerie nature of this account from the not-yet-born. "Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome. Where's boredom or bliss in that?" The teller misses Dad.

His replacement fails to satisfy. As Claude accepts some chore Trudy metes out, we are told: "The man who obliterates my mother between the sheets obeys like a dog. Sex, I begin to understand, it its own mountain kingdom, secret and intact. In the valley below we know only rumours." These analogies are spare, but they speckle the story with McEwan's delicate prose, sharpening the plot, too.

Asides are bearable. Digressions, after all, enliven Shakespeare, McEwan discredits religion for the past millennium of "groundless certainty" and threatening under fanaticism today to sweep Europe. The dubious primacy afforded one's fluid feelings as the ultimate determiner of identity and selfhood looms in Trudy as indicative of the failure of the Enlightenment, as reason diminishes in us moderns.

And, climate change and global warming threaten our very existence. McEwan hovers via his hidden narrator here between hope and fear, like many of us who read this. In the end of this thoughtful thriller, as it turns out to be in its final section, we are left with a sudden burst into this chaos of life. (Amazon US 11/19/16)

Monday, June 12, 2017

John Boyne's "The Heart's Invisible Furies": Book Review



Hearts Invisible Furies von John Boyne. Bücher | Orell Füssli


I liked John Boyne's depiction of two priests in the Ireland changing over the past fifty years, "The History of Loneliness." A few years later, Boyne returns to his native island, with a much longer and ambitious portrayal of another man who over the past seven decades has witnessed, and been a part of, the massive social changes there. The boy raised as Cyril Avery tells his coming-of-age saga from his mother's conception of him in 1945 up to 2015. The narrator's voice also tells part of his birth mother's predicament. The two lives intertwine and separate, in a vividly told tone.

"The Heart's Invisible Furies" in its blurbs sounds cliched: redemptive power of the human spirit, you laugh and cry, beloved author. However, I am pleased to report that beyond the boilerplate, the praise is merited. Boyne's an author aiming at the popular audience which was disdained by Cyril's "adoptive mother" (read yourself to find out why this phrase is so stressed) as a novelist herself. But he integrates period detail, character studies, and social commentary adroitly. It's clear that beneath the accessible story-line and snappy pace, that Boyne's ear and eye craft a careful fiction.

A fiction not too far from fact, certainly, in the clerically dominated Ireland that looms over this as his previous theme in his earlier novel. Boyne does not offer facile stereotypes, but he delights via some of his restive Irish men and women to challenge the dead grip over the generations. While the opening scene led me to wonder if he'd lay it on too thick, as the plot develops, and as it twists and turns, nuance enriches the telling.

Sexuality, and those seen as aberrant in this period, gains too Boyne's careful depiction in the protagonist. I will not divulge any developments. Suffice hear to say that Boyne presents a thoughtful, entertaining, and believable voice through which to tell the stories of son and mother.

And many more. One favorite scene a third of the way in features Brendan Behan in a great cameo. The conversation, or what the Irish call the "craic" snaps, crackles and pops in this as in many chapters. Boyne does indeed make one smile and wince, and with grand figures such as his "adoptive parents," the louche Charles and the aloof Maude to set off our picaresque hero into modern Ireland, you see how his formative years go.

Finally, the prose does not call much attention to itself, as the talent Boyne has is put into the narrative in modest but well-earned application. Yet a few phrases do linger. I could "devour a small Protestant" says one friend to another after a long journey by bus from the far-off hamlets of West Cork. In their destination of Dublin, the Liffey runs "determined" to slough off its brown waste as it hastens seaward. Praise is given as convincingly by one to another akin to a Parisian lauding a meal in "Central London." This is recommended, as both engaging and provocative.

While the contexts of "unwed mothers" and their offspring have, like the clerical abuse coverage, gained much by journalists and filmmakers of late, depictions in popular fiction not of the crime genre, aimed at a wider readership, but not sensationally, gain depth by Boyne's careful efforts. (ARC review; Amazon US 6-11-17)




Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revisiting Rollerskate Skinny

Rollerskate Skinny
When Paul McCartney's younger brother broke into show business later in the 60s, he did so as "Mike McGear." After Kevin Shields' band My Bloody Valentine broke into the British charts two decades on, little brother Jimi stuck with his surname. But in the intimate Dublin rock scene, the association with MBV dogged him and his mates, who in 1992 formed Rollerskate Skinny, They languished less lauded than Mike McGear's The Scaffold, who at least had their one-off novelty hit.

Named after Holden Caulfield's praise of a girl who was "rollerskate skinny" in The Catcher in the Rye, the quartet brought an ambition rivaling the Beatles to their two albums. All Music Guide's Tim DiGravina compared their pair of full-length albums to a combination of Beatles melodies, MBV feedback and experimental song structures akin to The La's, Killing Joke, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Echo and the Bunnymen, Rollerskate Skinny captured the neo-psychedelic, post-punk and indie guitar moods of their contemporaries. But the four men rejected easy choruses and catchy repetition.

Instead, Shoulder Voices, co-produced by Guy Fixsen (who engineered MBV on Loveless) featured odd pop filtered through chiming miasma and clattering dynamics. Alternating delicate tunes with aggressive roars, Rollerskate Skinny refused to play along with their peers, who often toned down their idiosyncrasy to get aired on stations beyond the college radio, critically admired, fringes of that era's alt-rock. While spot-the-influences tempts critics, this band sneaks around any fence-me-in.

A few albums rush out of the starting gate and then settle down halfway down the track, ambling into the finish line fifty-odd minutes later, hardly recognizable as whatever or whomever had started them off. This pattern distinguishes both recordings. Beggars Banquet distributed this band's 1993 debut. 

Its first five songs rattle along with threats and chants. Jimi Shields integrates the traditional Irish bodhrán drum into "Lúnasa," which mixes in the ominous percussive beat under a tribal melody. Recalling an earlier, inventive and overlooked Dublin ensemble, The Virgin Prunes (there the relation is to U2 rather than MBV in civic genealogy), that song conveys an intelligent nod to the island's folk roots, enriching the noise rather than smoothing it out. "Bring on Stigmata" finds Shields' vocals echoing and wailing as keyboards churn, credited to Shields and Ken Griffin. Meanwhile, Ger Griffin (no relation) supports with unpredictable guitar. Stevie Murray's bass thunders under "Bow Hitch-Hiker," the last combative contribution among the eleven songs. For, after the first side's sonic attack, the second side settles into pleasantry, akin more to later Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips. As with those bands, this music provides decent pop-rock, but it's no match for those outfits' once-amplified, addled first few albums. Luckily, Dave Fridmann, producer and tamer of both those American bands, was not on hand to dampen down whatever Rollerskate Skinny had turned up to 11, at least for a while.

Apparently, the constant references in coverage of the band to brother Kevin led Jimi to quit before 1996. That year's follow-up Horsedrawn Wishes found the band reduced by one, relying on session drummers. A leaner Rollerskate Skinny thickens the layers of instrumentation, creating even denser and more challenging harmonics. The band's confidence shows. With co-producer Aidan Foley, they reached a clever apex in exploiting well whatever Warner Brothers had shelled out for studio costs. 

Perversely or intentionally, the band also delivers album two on the same template as the first. Until the end of the seventh entry, the three musicians, now all playing what the liner notes reveal as the guitars and keyboards (which Jimi had mastered on Shoulder Voices), shine. "Speed to My Side" is the tune AMG reviewed as marrying Beatles shimmer to MBV shudder. It saunters like opera, rising and falling. These skewed songs float and dip, cresting and dipping over waves of volume as texture. Rollerskate Skinny stack up the voices and pile on the momentum, if for half the tracks each outing.

"Man Under Glass" has the members vowing their hate of the sun, or maybe the Son. This bobs over a mad flurry of mechanical tinkering, over rhythms capable of crushing the wary or inspiring the saintly. The music swerves and spins. The bands listed above may offer rough similarities, but the determination to resist the usual rock styles makes them again akin more to humbler if sassier misfits such as The Virgin Prunes. In a city where U2 reigned, it must have been a daunting challenge to go against the flow and to insist, as Rollerskate Skinny does twice for a stretch each album, on audacity.

Why each album glides after soaring may not need any answer more profound than rest after exertion. Their energy dissipates gradually, as sides two bring a listener back to firm ground. But the best moments remain in the unsettling, giddy, surprising and woozy rides that precede the landings. 

The members went on after the band's demise following their second album to the usual side projects. Dave Fridmann inevitably weighed in as co-producer of Jimi Shields' Lotus Crown. Their Chokin' on the Jokes (1997) resembles Fridmann's main bands, but it also tilts upon a shoegazing foundation on which Jimi builds up engaging and offbeat songs. It also suggests that Ken Griffin may have been Rollerskate Skinny's mastermind, rather than Shields. For Dead City Sunbeams, the project of Griffin's alter ego Kid Silver, managed on JetSet to rouse critical applause just before the millennium.

Ken then created a collaboration with Aspera, Philadelphia neo-psych veterans, as Favourite Sons. They released a few Iggy meets The Strokes or Echo-plus-The Church records, after all moving to Brooklyn. Finally, The Radio (2004) generated Ger Griffin's dream-pop back in Rollerskate Skinny's hometown. It's a shame that streaming services do not enable audiences over two decades later to enjoy all of Rollerskate Skinny. For now, Lotus Crown and Shoulder Voices survive as bits and bytes.
(Spectrum Culture in re-edited form as part of its Revisit/ Rediscover music feature series 6-6-17)

Robert Musil's "The Confusions of Young Torless": Book Review

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fd3by36x8sj6cra.cloudfront.net%2Fassets%2Fimages%2Fbook%2Flarge%2F9780%2F1421%2F9780142180006.jpg&f=1
A serious, saturnine investigation of the sordid goings-on at a provincial boarding school, this sounds like what you'd expect. Robert Musil's first novel resembles the hothouse atmosphere mingling asceticism, philosophy, sexuality, violence and ideas which characterize his Five Stories and of course his unfinished, massive The Man Without Qualities. Its pre-WWI, Austro-Hungarian setting gets evoked well in the bleak opening scene, and the novella reeks of miasma, murk, and mischief.

Reiting, Beineberg and Törless punish their classmate Basini as a scrounger and a thief. The blackmail deepens, and Basini proves himself willing to debase himself as you'd imagine. Meanwhile. Reiting uses this situation to study the application of cruelty, while Beineberg waxes in esoteric fashion about Eastern this and Indian that. Törless tries to distance himself from the conniving ringleaders, but he too is drawn in, his curiosity aroused by lust and the need to straighten out his mind. It's been disordered by the pursuit of imaginary numbers, and a mathematical sub-plot is capped by a dream the protagonist has complete with Kant donning a peruke. Based on whatever happened to Musil in his military academy, its prescience into the rise of fascism seems inevitable.

Coming out in 1906, its depiction of a naked Basini, with welts, cowering in the dank quarters where the ritual abuse occurs, must have been shocking for some readers. It holds up despite some languid or self-involved passages, but it's not entertaining. Rather, it's an examination into dismal events. That atmosphere, and the boys' preening posturing presumptions, emanate in discomfiting fashion.(I review the Ernst Kaiser/ Eithne Wilkins translation, but this Penguin has the better cover photo.)
Amazon US 5-30-17

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Phillip Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary": Book Review


book cover of 

The Gospel of Mary
Since I was a teen reading James Michener's "The Source," I've had a weakness for "So-and-so has discovered a missing Gospel" yarns. I liked the prolific Professor Freeman's recent Oxford UP retelling of Celtic mythology, so I gave this a try. Via an e-galley, I did not know until I finished that this is the third in his Sister Deirdre series. That explains some backstory I kept wondering why not more was divulged herein. I had no trouble following along, but it's better I assume to have caught up with the previous books, for the main character evidently has a complicated past and much to tell.

Not be confused with another, recent Irish-oriented story, Colm Tóibín's drama "The Testament of Mary," Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary" features the rapid pace, genial tone, and expository dialogue that fills us in on an Ireland when Christians still number few. Deirdre's grandmother was a druid and she claims the same identity, although when her mother died, her grandmother fulfilled her promise to raise Deirdre in the new faith. With allusions to a failed marriage, other past liaisons, and a child who died young hovering about, it's clear that Freeman's protagonist has had more adventures than most nuns might have, at least in later times. She lives with her friend and sidekick Dari in a monastery founded by Brigid, which to Rome's discomfort hosts celibate men and women together.

Rome's unease deepens as it sends a clever emissary to find out what the truth might be to a manuscript smuggled into the island with haste, secrecy, and danger. It is, naturally, the tale of Jesus told by his mother, and its passages intersperse, as they are translated by Dari from the Aramaic, with the fate of the two women as they get caught up in keeping their treasured text safe from the Church. The Church, after all, fears that its integrity will crumble if Mary's words are proven true, and even if they are not able to be verified, that the heresies and tumult generated by them will bring down Rome

It all moves satisfactorily. I read it in a sitting. Freeman has done his biblical homework, and he blends it with a quest that dashes about Ireland. There's plot complications, but the story line as a whole does not surprise. It's a pleasant narrative, and it likely will educate as well as entertain you.
(Amazon 9/5/17)