Saturday, November 1, 2014

The 13th Floor Elevators' "Live Evolution Lost": Music Review

Recorded when (most of the?) band's members endured the aftermath of acid stronger than they had anticipated, this live recording at Houston Music Theatre on February 18, 1967 features  this Austin. Texas, psychedelic quintet's earlier songs. Electric Jug playing Tommy Hall, guitarist & vocalist Roky Erickson, guitarist Stacy Sutherland (who confessed later to a bad trip) bass player Benny Thurman, and drummer John Ike Walton made it through a 90-minute set. This appears as a triple LP/double CD remastered by Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom (whose band has covered "Roller Coaster") and assembled by band expert Paul Drummond. The file provided for review, however, features only the first CD; the second disc presents a jam with opening act Conqueroon.

Starting off with "(I've Got) Levitation," Erickson's voice sounds thin (as does the whole production, probably given the limitations of the tape and conditions; the liner notes unseen by this reviewer may clarify the situation under which this concert was preserved for us). But Sutherland's chunky chords and Hall's electric jug, the signature addition which enriches this band's eerie sound, manage to leap the distance between stage and listener. The audience here feels far away, perhaps on their own trips.

"Roller Coaster" rides along on the strength of the band's best rhythms, and Thurman's bass can be better heard here, supporting Erickson's enunciated lyrics about sensory alteration over Walton's energetic drum fills and the shivers of that amplified jug. Five minutes allows the Elevators to stretch out more, digging deeper into the darker corners of this wobbly, disorienting celebration of release.

The chords that mimic the titular "Fire Engine" smartly keep the speed up. It races past. "Reverberation (Doubt)" as its parentheses hints burrows into the darker side of dislocation, beneath the skin, as Erickson preaches an invitation to breach hesitation, to push one through to the other side. Hall's jug skitters about and, again, Walton's drums clang and clash under Sutherland's searching riff.

Opening side two of the vinyl, "Don't Fall Down" drags, frankly. Whomever contributes backing vocals must have been experiencing the chemicals, and the rhythm section and guitars seem to stumble. Perhaps the title proved prophetic. Still, the jug soldiers on and the guitar ends this nicely.
For "Tried To Hide" the staggered approach works better.  The scattershot vocals suit the harmonica-driven mood better, and this could fit in well with the San Francisco counterparts to the Elevators. (Fans say that the Avalon Ballroom bootlegs are the best extant live impressions of this band; this Houston concert, however, was the one their label had wished to officially set down for release.) 

A watery delivery for "Splash 1" feels as if singer and band are submerged. They struggle to rise above with harmonies but the pacing shuffles about in a melancholic melody of loss and longing. After the frenetic tempo of many of their songs, this and the giddier but shaky "You're Gonna Miss Me" display the fragility of Erickson, over sometimes Byrdsian or Beatlesque progressions, well.

"Monkey Island" lives up to its title, years before The Rolling Stones sang of the same simian, or a bit before the Beatles, come to think of it. This captures the same bluesy jitters of the Stones, in a more boastful vocal by Erickson. The band by now seems from their side to be finding its feet again, even if the song halts rather suddenly, which a monkey might do, too.

On the vinyl, jams are preceded by two songs which conclude the first CD. "Kingdom Of Heaven" sustains the bluesier feel of the concert by now. A rattling "She Lives (In A Time Of Her Own)" scrambles and skids about over a looser groove. The tape may have some faults as the vocals skip and the fidelity on an admittedly dodgy source recording seems more strained, but it's a lively song. Its unsteady gait, whether from tape or band, nonetheless reveals the band's determination to bash on.

While these live versions may not equal their studio originals, nearly all from their self-titled 1966 debut LP, they will reward fans eager for more of this band, given their short career and few recordings. I imagine the physical product rather than the download I have heard, furthermore, will entertain listeners and readers with its archival photos and period art from what proved quite a year.
(Edited and in shorter form 8-3-14 to Spectrum Culture.)


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fómhar i nGhleanna Darach

Chuir muid cuirt go Ghleanna Darach le déanáí. Chuaigh Léna agus mise go Tailte na Dearg. Ar na gaobhair, tá áit níos airde, mile ard, i ndáiríre.

Bhí céad ceimeannaí ina Impireacht Intíre ann. Duirt Léna dom go beidh níos fuarú suas ann. Ach, measaim ní raibh sé i bhfad níos fuaire.

Áfach, is maith linn a fheiceáil na sliébhte chomh gar. Bhí cuimhne liom go an scribhneoir agus taiscéalaí mór John Muir nuair a shiúil sé ansin ina sliebhraon Naoimh Gabriel agus Bernardine breis agus céad bliain ó shin. Anois, ar dóigh, níl mórán sé páirceannaí nó úlloird ansuid.

Bhí tráchta is mó ar an bóthar ann. Ní fhaca mé an oiread sin suas ann. Tháinig daoine ag ceannaigh úlla.

Ní raibh muid a aimshú úlla go raibh blásta nó saor. Ach d'imigh Léna, Leon, agus mé ag suí taobh amuigh faoi arbhair; d'imirt teaghlaigh leis madraí. Phioc Léna sútha craobh bideach; d'ith muid blás beag a cheile.  

Harvest in Oak Glen

We made a visit to Oak Glen recently. Layne and I went to Redlands. Nearby, there's a higher place, a mile high, in fact.

It was a hundred degrees in the Inland Empire there. Layne told me it would be cooler up there.
But, I reckon it was not much colder.

However, it was nice for us to see the mountains so close. I was reminded of the great writer and explorer John Muir when he walked there in the San Gabriel and Bernardino ranges over a century ago. Now, of course, there are not many fields or orchards left up there.

There was so much traffic on the road. I never saw so much up there. People came to buy apples.

There were not apples there that were tasty or cheap. But Layne, Leo and me sat outside under an arbor; families and dogs played. Layne picked tiny sweet raspberries; we ate a tiny taste together.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Barlaam and Josaphat/ In Search of the Christian Buddha": Book Review

Canonized unwittingly as St. Josaphat, a corruption of "bodhisattva," the Buddha, condemned as an idol worshipped by his duped followers, had his story transmitted after long centuries within the hagiography translated to convert the Japanese in the 1600s. So runs one of many twists in Barlaam and Josaphat, translated by Peggy McCracken and introduced by Donald S. Lopez, as a Penguin Classic. 

Gui de Cambrai (around 1220-25) adapted the story into French verse; McCracken renders it efficiently into modern English. Gui takes the core elements of the Buddha legend. 1) The prediction that the prince will be a saint or a king. 2) The ensuing protection by his father the king to keep him from the sights of the world. This ruse fails, as a series of chariot rides reveal mortality, sickness, age, and death to the coddled lad. 3.) Then, seductive women seek to dissuade the prince from his destiny and enlightenment as he vows to depart the palace for a life of asceticism. But first, to fulfill his duty, he fathered an heir, as a prince who is expected to carry on the royal family line.

What the medieval teller adds, Lopez in his brief introduction and McCracken in her 2014 edition (if short on footnotes) show, is an elaborate disputation between Greeks (ahistorically if entertainingly including Plato's brother and a nephew of Aristotle for good measure), Chaldeans, and pagans. They integrate fine stories in succession cobbled from ancient lore, and this transmission as with the larger storyline contains inherent interest for how this comes down through to the early eleventh century in Old French. We get clever glimpses into the culture, as when perverse sex earns condemnation in a comparison to chess. Those engaging in "a shameful game" allow themselves "to be mated from the corner." The hectoring narrator goes on: "The clerics were first to adopt it, and they taught the game to knights. The deed is base--anyone who would leave the clearing for the woods is like a base peasant." (100-101) Finally, the teller shakes free of the vice he despises, and the story later elaborates into a set-piece about the Crusades, with the characters off to a holy war. Another addition is the use of the disputation between the body and the soul, a medieval trope, to fit neatly into the frame-tale's theme of renunciation for sacrifice, and the leaving of one's family to seek a higher path.

This tale was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. While a chronicler of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance, modern scholars in the 19th century, investigating the sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, or Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out the elaborate and entangled transmission gone haywire much later. Lopez, as a noted scholar of Buddhist reception in the West (see Prisoners of Shangri-La on Tibet and The Scientific Buddha for attempts to reconcile the historical Buddha with post-Darwinian science), is well-suited to convey these crossed messages. Joined by medievalist Peggy McCracken, the two seek to explain In Search of the Christian Buddha: How An Asian Sage Became a Christian Saint (also 2014) the origins of the tales told throughout the Middle Ages, as the Buddha's story was embedded into narratives and biographies which asserted often the superiority of non-Buddhist ideas.

The tale of Barlaam and Josaphat was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. A 1446 editor of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance. Then scholars in the 19th century, investigating sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out elaborate, entangled transmissions gone haywire.

Here's the basics. In Persia in the 8th c. a Muslim writer compiled Bilawhar and Budasaf.  Armies of Islam had begun entering northwestern India, the first home of Buddhism. They spread the stories westward. Arabic preserved some of the core tale's triple elements mentioned above. A century later, the Muslims conquered the Christian kingdom in what is today Georgia. Refugee monks fled to Jerusalem and turned the Muslim story into a Christian one, the Balavariani. A Jewish translator four centuries on took the story from Arabic and sent it west again, via Muslims, into Moorish Spain, where it would turn The Prince and the Hermit via Hebrew and much later, rendered into both German and Yiddish.

Greek and Latin stories, once attributed to John of Damascus in their beginnings, kept the idea that the prince learned about God from a hermit, Barlaam. This turned into stories as told in lives of saints, such as the very popular Latin Golden Legend or Legenda Aurea, by Jacobus de Voragine.

The authors err repeatedly on p. 139. While Franciscans are mendicants, they are not monks. Benedictines are not mendicants but they are monks. Additionally, the hagiographer of Ss. Barlaam and Josaphat and many others, Jacobus de Voragine (Jacobo de Varazze), was not a "monk belonging to the Benedictine preaching order" but a Dominican mendicant friar of the Order of Preachers.  Another aside: the book relies on paraphrases of the main texts and one loses some idea of their various styles, lengths, and flavor. Textual excerpts might have helped key in readers as to their strengths or weaknesses, cited more directly. Primarily summarized, the source texts discussed float past rather than sink in.

Back to the authors' main narrative, part of the spark of this tale comes when the stories of saints get sent to Japan by those seeking to win the natives away from Buddha to Christ. The irony is dealt with lightly by Lopez and McCracken, but it cannot be denied. Condemning idolators, the story of Josaphat is used against those supposedly worshiping false gods such as Xaca, the name garbled from Shakayamuni.

Subsequent thinkers, clued in bit by bit to such garblings, sought to deploy them differently. For some in the early 19th century, the discovery of the historical roots of Buddhism in India led them to propagate a bold claim. Buddhism and Christianity were purer as world religions open to all. Judaism and Hinduism were grounded in tribal identities, and not open to adoption by other peoples. Furthermore, the "Aryan" roots of Jesus who studied in the East were purported. Buddhism could be seen here as an attempt to detach Christian origins from Hebrew tribalism.

Others enticed by folklore found appeal in those three core stories repeated. They also liked the tale of three caskets in it, used by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Finally, another tale of women named as "geese" to a curious boy seeing women for the first time (cited in Boccaccio's Decameron) reveal intriguing tidbits, as elements of folk narrative dispersed across time and space into tales.

Still others saw in Buddhism a palliative to other faith. In it nestled human striving, and purer motives rather than superstitious, quasi-Catholic accretions. Some sympathetic to Protestant reform or humanist progress sympathized therefore with attenuated evidence of the antiquity and durability of the Buddha's presence over so many different times and places. On the other hand, those who liked to sneer at the Church found plenty of ammunition in the ironic canonization of St. Josaphat by Buddhist persecutors. Lopez and McCracken aver some of this guilt underlies the fascination recent scholars have had in the eager reception of this tale's provenance and message. Even if the trace elements of the Buddha's coming of age story are faint by the time they are detected by recent critics, the telling manner in which critical reception "seems to dissolve in the presence of the Buddha," a theme Lopez often analyzes, may account for--if not excuse--the appeal of a sage without priests, ritual, or dogma.

As Lopez repeats a phrase from his "scientific Buddha" book in 2013: "The goal of the Buddhist path is not creation but extinction." (37) The authors here conclude that the aim of Buddhism is not perpetuation of narrative or allurements of story, but a rejection of the pleasures of palace and princes. Separation from the enticements of this world is necessary. As the editors insist, for Buddhism, "The goal is to finally stop dying." (222) Flawed by change and doom, this world is not transcended as in Christian or Muslim terms for future reward but by renunciation of family, goods and attachment to all that would impede separation from its glittering delights. The Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat sought to lure listeners away from the secular to the spiritual realm of the Church, and to ensure princes listening took care of pious hermits. But as Lopez and McCracken hint, these durable tales also sought to keep alive the very system that Buddhism seeks to put to an end.
(Both reviews edited and revamped a bit to Amazon US 7-28-14: Barlaam and In Search.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Donald R. Howard's "Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World": Book Review

This provides one of the liveliest narratives on medieval times that I can recall; the added bonus that a leading Chaucerian wrote this just before his death in 1987 adds poignancy, given the final line of the text proper contemplates eternity. Donald R. Howard navigates the difficult path between speaking to his fellow scholars and welcoming a wider audience into the author's works, life, and times. He does this with verve; he shows what Chaucer would have seen and what he did read and where he did travel. He reminds us of how far Chaucer roamed, even if he was a bookworm who preferred staying in London.

The challenge, as Howard admits, is that facts for the Middle Ages are few, and liable to change. For much of this, Howard has to reason on probabilities. For instance, I consulted this wanting more on Dante and Boccaccio, given as a grad school prof (himself a medievalist) asserted Chaucer was likely the first person in England to read the Commedia, as he knew Italian so as to make his diplomatic visit there. Howard supplements this fact with supposition--Chaucer may have met Boccaccio, may have had a quarrel with him, may have therefore not cited him by name in his later literary works, may have rubbed a man twice his age the wrong way. This is all intriguing, but as Howard might have admitted, he has had to fill out much of the bare bones of Chaucer's record with such insights, and so the book turns more a depiction of Chaucer's world and works than his life, and this does fill the book. It is more readable, but it does have to make tangents.

It does, however, with insight. As Howard presented the pilgrim's perspective well in earlier studies, so here. He shows how the mental map of a traveler inverted, so a vague Earthly Paradise atop the half of the sphere named Asia beckoned, whereas Jerusalem was at the center, and bisecting the other half are Europe on the left, and then near the Devil's sinister hand, and Africa on the other quarter. He adds that the Southern Hemisphere was debated as possible back then, and that Columbus did not think any more than many then that the earth was flat. So, in a few pages, Howard corrects crucial ideas many have about medieval lore. He aligns his pitch at both scholars and everyday readers.

This tone sustains the interest that keeps the pace moving along. Howard has to compress a lot about the Canterbury Tales into the latter parts, the sections many may want expanded. Howard's previous The Idea of the Canterbury Tales book may be recommended as is his shorter one on pilgrimage as more in-depth on crucial topics. What provides this book's verve and infuses its pages is Howard's fascination with Chaucer and his time and influences, and now, as fewer turn to this author and his works for pleasure or even for coursework, this biography merits your time and your immersion.
(Amazon US 10-14-14)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Wayne Rebhorn (tr.) Boccaccio's "Decameron": Book Review

This handsome edition fulfills the need for a brisk American English version of these hundred tales. This interpreter of Dante a generation before, and friend (or rival?) of Petrarch occupies the third position in fame among the Italians who championed energetic tales and vivid verse. As this U. of Texas professor emphasizes in his helpful introduction, "being in the middle of things" not only sums up Dante as he started his epic, but Giovanni Boccaccio. Around 1348, nearly half a century after the Commedia took place and the Inferno began, this Florentine set his prose in the wake of the Black Death. Rebhorn reckons that Boccaccio followed the Renaissance-minded Petrarch in turning away from the medieval mindset, as well as the vernacular which Dante had championed, but luckily Boccaccio took time from his classic endeavors to copy his manuscript and to preserve it from a pious mood later in his life when he threatened to burn it and the other salacious or sly stories.

These, of course, kept his reputation, more than what Chaucer took from the classical tales and moralistic concerns before and after the hundred tales. It "takes a set of medieval genres and fills them with Renaissance themes and characters." (xxvi) More women, more merchants, more ribaldry and fewer nobles than before. Seven women and three men tell the tales, ten a day with breaks for all to pray and the women to bathe for the Sabbath, in retreats just outside plague-ravaged Florence. These follow in Rebhorn's interpretation a ritual community of ten tellers, considering as if case studies (for the book ends abruptly and the return to normal life is sudden) of four themes: the power and the temptations of intelligence, fortune, desire, magnanimity (a more sly virtue than it seems).

The stories have unsettled some; their sexual content is famous but the real tug against convention persists beneath the rather decorous tone Boccaccio sustains for his properly raised tellers. That is, the tales test our understanding of why they draw us so much into a morally ambiguous array of characters, and how they often carry out their subversion free of any comment from author and usually the teller. Sophisticated prose in longer fiction was, after all, starting to emerge back then. I will leave explication of the tales aside, for the bulk of this encourages slow reading, as too many rushed by make their themes blurred, and a sensation is dulled of contents. Like Chaucer or Dante, this collection of adventures merits a more thoughtful pace than we modern readers tend to cultivate.

Don't expect, therefore, a quick rush as you make your way through. These tales reflect an early stage in narrative, and they do not display the links between themes and characters or tellers as sharply as Chaucer's tales started to do, a few decades later. As an aside, it's noteworthy to consider how Chaucer seemed to side with Petrarch's advice to Boccaccio to move to the classics for inspiration, even as of course how Chaucer supported his own polished vernacular phrasing, and mixed wittier or earthier content with the very learned and dogmatic pronouncements akin to those three Italians. 

Rebhorn strives for the long, periodic and sinuous sentences of the original, but he admits he cuts some for clarity, as the tone of Boccaccio can elude the more direct phrasing our own time favors. He suits a modern ear, although he often avoids the more elegant diction of British predecessors.  He captures the register and the class or dialect range of the original, and the endnotes assist users, who need a sturdy large-format edition that can hold up under use, as opposed to smaller paperbacks from preceding translators and presses, which have small type and fewer notes, let alone a lovely typeface.
(Interview by Steve Donoghue with the translator; Quarterly Conversation 2013 review by Donoghue helpfully compares Rebhorn's phrasing to previous translations. My review to Amazon US 10-14-14.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boccaccio's "Decameron" (Norton Critical Edition): Book Review

The first baby steps in Italian prose, away from the mystical, the ascetic, the heavenly, the Papacy towards the sensuous, the sexual, the clever, and the bourgeoisie, were taken by Boccaccio in his hundred tales, Decameron. These lively (if sometimes awkward or hesitantly told) stories reveal everyday men--and many women, at last--keeping up appearances, fooling priests and potentates, and striving to express their fleshly, calculating, and grasping desires. Narrated by seven young ladies and three gentlemen fleeing Florence during the Black Plague of 1348, these clever schemers may succeed or fail, but their ambitions energize these tales. They promote the Renaissance humanist, eager to hear from his peers.

Twenty-one representative novelle were chosen for a 1977 Norton Critical Edition; the somewhat ironically surnamed Francisco De Sanctis sums up their appeal as human comedy: "The flesh entertains itself at the expense of the spirit." Considered in the triad if below Dante, we get the next two conversing, via the letters of Petrarch, who chides his old friend Boccaccio for recanting (I wonder if Chaucer knew this when he abandoned his frame-tale scheme for his Canterbury project?) and threatening in a state of guilt to burn his manuscripts. Colleagues tended in their biographical accounts to admire not these "new" tales so much as his more edifying ones, inspired by the classics.

Later, scholars weigh in. Seeing this was issued in 1977, I'd reckon as with other Norton Critical Editions (yes, this has a few footnotes if not many), that a revision with some newer scholarship might enhance its value. As to what's in this version, I sympathize intuitively with literary historian Ugo Foscolo, who advances the idea of Boccaccio separating his concerns from Church and urging the expression of the female, the mercantile, even the roguish voices, along with those of the elite and the clerics who had long dominated the conversation of who should act how, in fact as well as fable. Erich Auerbach follows with an excerpt from Mimesis analyzing stylistic variety, and Aldo Scaglione takes on nature and love as the concerns supplanting those of piety and renunciation. Wayne Booth explains how Boccaccio tries out both telling and showing as a narrator early in the evolution of a longer set of fictional tales. Even if he did not meet our expectations, yet he tried to show, not tell.

Similarly, Tzvetan Todorov as to structure and Robert Clements as to collections illustrate the sorting process within stories and among them. Marga Cottino-Jones argues how patient Griselda's account uses the Christian figurative mode to elevate her status, and how despite however moderns react, for the audience of Boccaccio, such a presence resonated with Christ-like ideals of endurance and sacrifice. Ben Lawton defends Pasolini's 1971 film as true to some of the spirit of the source, even as it skips from a medieval time and place to a jarringly modern one, if but two-thirds of a bold triptych.

Translators Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, who later published a Signet edition of all hundred stories, conclude by pointing to the meaning of them all. Beyond the purported audience of "idle ladies," the impact of the Decameron reverberates in themes of love, intelligence, and fortune. Instead of God's will governing this universe, men and women seek to procure not heavenly but earthly fame.
(Part of this is on a List Inconsequential: Late Summer Reading List, 7-31-14, Spectrum Culture.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Thomas G. Bergin's "Boccaccio": Book Review

Avuncular in tone, accessible yet scholarly, this survey from the late Yale professor and translator of Dante and Petrarch introduces the third great Italian humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio. Appearing in 1981, this provided readers with a general overview of the life (and in an dense but useful opening chapter, the times) of the writer known in the fourteenth century for his chivalric stories of love, lives of ancient heroes, and edifying if often tedious (to us) or didactic moral tales. Drawn often from ancient sources, mixed with stories closer to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance, the author, in Thomas G. Bergin's judicious, thorough yet graceful narrative, seems often at a loss for the brio and energy evident in the Decameron

He starts with an eloquent evocation of medieval mentality (26 ff.) which while brief, is insightful. Bergin reminds us how the medieval traveler resembled a reader, who wanted not to rush to a destination, but to enjoy the journey, as in the long tale of knightly romance, the Filostrato. (99) Lots of what Boccaccio wrote, for modern audiences, wears less well. However, typical of his eye for the telling or humorous detail, Bergin finds a bit of welcome wit buried in the largely anti-feminist sallies of the Corbaccio: "to one who kisses two mouths, one must stink." (201)

In the "pungent and sometimes spicy package" of the hundred famous tales which secured for Boccaccio his place in the triumvirate of his time, Bergin stresses their secular, anti-eternal quality. This distinguishes the Decameron from its predecessors, written by his peers or himself, and Boccaccio's own succeeding texts. (290) Like our era, here Boccaccio's very human, cunning, and resourceful characters sought to advance themselves. "It is a rational world, a commonsense world, compassionate at least if not altruistic." (336) This remains a fine resource for any Boccaccio reader.
(Amazon US 9-20-14)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Seanré Mhic Eoin 2014

Bhi Léna agus mise sa ghrianghraf ar feadh an deireadh na tseachtaine seo caite anseo. D'fhreastail muid dinnéar mhór ina Tailte na Dearg. Tá Leon ina mhac léinn ar an Ollscoil ann, ach ná bhfuil go léir.

Tá sé mhac léinn ina hIonad an Mac Eoin ann. Bhain Léna sí céim ann. Go gairid, beidh mar sin Leon, i mBealtaine seo chugainn.

Ardaíodh sin cistí ar an Ionad. Bhlais againn fíon fíneáil, gan amhras. Sampláladh muid champagne geal ón Nua-Shealainn. Bhí sé molta ar Wes Hagen ó fhíonghoirt Clos Pepe i Lompoc.

Duirt an tOllamh Bill McDonald go Leon chun iarracht a dhéanamh Cabernet Sauvignon ó Heitz Cellar ina Ghleann Napa. Spreagadh Leon seo dom. Is maith liom é; bhí sé láidir agus saibhir ann.

Roghnaigh mé le haghaidh ar mbord dinnéar, de sheans, seanré Cabernet rua eile, le "Dante". Iarr mé mar gheall ar an ainm, ach go fírinne, is maith liom é níos mó fós. Rinne é féin iosmairteach agus bríomhar, a shaibhriú óiche go iontach leis Léna, Leon, agus mhic léinn sean agus nua ó Mhic Eoin.

Vintage Johnston 2014.

Layne and I were in this photograph during the past weekend here. We attended a grand dinner in Redlands. Leo is a student at the University there, but that is not all.

He's a student at the Johnston Center there. Layne took her degree there. Soon, Leo will, next May.

It raised funds for the Center. We tasted fine wines, without doubt. We sampled bright champagne from New Zealand. It was recommended by Wes Hagan from Clos Pepe vineyard in Lompoc.

Professor Bill McDonald told Leo to try the Cabernet Sauvignon from Heitz Cellar in Napa Valley. Leo encouraged me. I like it; it was strong and rich.

I chose for our dinner table, by chance, another vintage Cabernet red, from "Dante". I wanted it because of its name, but truly, I liked it a lot also. It made itself effervescent and lively, to enrich a wonderful evening with Layne, Leo, and other students old and new from Johnston.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A.N. Wilson's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This English academic turned journalist-novelist combines an explication of Dante's political milieu with an overview of his life and times. While it ranges sometimes so deeply into the endless Guelf-Ghibelline contentions that non-historians may find their attention flagging, Wilson's "Dante in Love" fulfills Wilson's wish: a primer for those needing help before taking on Dante.

Wilson does take some liberty, given that much in Dante's crafting of his Commedia eludes precise documentation. For instance, on pg. 35 Wilson points to Pope Boniface's conniving to literally rake in cash at the altar of St. Peter's at the 1300 Jubilee as a way to profit from the newly formulated doctrine of Purgatory as a place as well as a state, where the souls of the dead might be assisted by donations as well as sacrifices by the living. Wilson then claims this set in Dante's "brain a sequence of inspirations which would create a literary masterpiece, the beginnings of modern literature with human singularity and self-consciousness at the center of it." But where is the proof?

His title repeats that of Harriet Rubin's 2004 attempt in similar fashion to provide an introduction full of guidance and ideas for the doughty reader of Dante, and Wilson wanders from the straight path similarly. It's difficult to follow a chronological presentation integrating Dante's formation as a Papal backer turned imperial supporter, and how this gets embedded into the poem and his earlier texts. So, Wilson in 2011 like Rubin goes on tangents and down byways, like Dante the pilgrim, to indulge his curiosity. Along with the political allegiances and the "allegorical autobiography" Wilson notes in the poem a third concentration, unlike that of Chaucer or Shakespeare: Dante's ambition to further his professional credentials as a poet, given the competition such as Guido Cavalcanti, around Florence.

While Wilson's title promises love, Dante also is "the poet of hate, the poet of vengeance, of implacable resentment and everlasting feuds." (40) Hell fills from "hard cases"; those who binge, addicts who choose desires or ambitions rather than God's plan. While the infernal realm itself gains less evocation in Wilson than one may expect (lots of politics, lots of papal intrigue dominate this narrative), he does show the careful reader how Dante used the text to integrate bits of his own life, a confession of sorts aimed at, as the epic unfolds, "universal application" rather than the Rousseau model of self-promotion. Even as Dante filled Hell with Italians and post-dated it to settle his scores.

Wilson finds Dante veering between tenderness and "Tourette's Syndrome" (280) on his quest, and suddenly lurching from one register to the other; at least it stays animated. As in Rubin, Wilson wisely varies the translations to show the variety of ways English voices try to echo the propulsive line of Dante. Certainly terza rima cannot be duplicated, meaning any word-for-word cadences of the language must give way to English sentence structure and can turn stilted or clunky. Wilson cites how the Commedia increased the stock of written Italian from 60% to 90% with its inventive vocabulary.

As one who had left Christianity as an adult and later returned to an Anglican observance, Wilson discerns hints of proto-Reformation unease in Dante's critiques of the Catholic Church, however hidden for understandable caution. Wilson finds a Catholic innovation of purgatory guided by the Aeneid's example in its sixth section of how souls were hung up on the winds or purged by fire, but he does not elaborate this intriguing claim. While endnotes often do point to sources, not all his readings or assertions are grounded, but the list of works consulted does attest as he says to a life spent studying Dante since his teens and a visit to Florence, as well as learning Italian early on there.

One advantage of this study is while Wilson eschews the step-by-step commentary through the poem, he does spend more time in Paradise than, say, Rubin or many readers. They tend to lose steam after the Inferno, bogging down as they hike up Mount Purgatory. The lack of a single translation of the last cantica by a poet to set along Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, or many other versifiers of Inferno, or the elegant W.S. Merwin rendering of Purgatorio, speaks perhaps to this lack of interest for us. Wilson does not say this straight out. But he recommends that "months" spent in the last section may reward, as the verses can be pondered a very few at a time per day, slowing the pace to allow insight.

"Heaven is crowded, but it draws its citizens one by one." (303) Wilson finds beauty in Dante's difficulty, as he moves from observer in Hell to participant in Purgatory to guest in Heaven. By then, we readers find we have entered the allegory, to join Dante "to be unclothed before the searchlight of heaven." In his chapter on Paradise, Wilson reaches his own heights, and this portion merits acclaim.

He follows with "Dante's Afterlife," a fine tour through the ways mainly how Europeans since have kept Dante's memory buried or alive. We glimpse how Henry Francis Cary's 1814 version excited the Romantics; Gladstone himself immersed himself in Dante, as did many Victorians and Edwardians, later in a Temple Classics bilingual edition. From the troubadours to Ezra Pound, Wilson avers the "great European mainstream" endured in its canon, but that this died with T.S. Eliot and Pound's generation. We are walled off from Pound's "common Kulchur" and in that poet's fumbled attempts, Wilson finds "danger" in how moderns might interpret Dante's obsessions. Wilson rightly regards the attempts of today's readers to tackle the Comedy as a classic akin to starting the Bhagavad-Gita. A classic, but a remote one from Western secular mentality, and full of references we lack nowadays.

Still, Wilson leaves us with two suggestions as to its appeal for our century. Outrage at corrupt institutions, and a quest for a "Good Place" animate the poem. Dante continues to anticipate and to articulate our own unease at the past and the present, and tells us our dreams for a better future. This narrative straddles the Christian tradition and the post-Christian attitude many of us inherit whatever our allegiance, and Wilson fairly strives to show Dante's relevance as each century reinterprets this. (Amazon US 10-12-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harriet Rubin's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This popular take on the appeal of the Divine Comedy has been criticized for errors, but it also conveys what Harriet Rubin calls herself in the afterward: an "impressionable reader" ready to learn. Yes, she fumbles on pp. 8-9 the Guelf-Ghibelline definition (although the endnote tries to explain), and she gets wrong T.S. Eliot's tutelage at Harvard, long before he could ever have been taught by the Dantista Charles Singleton. Lord Peter "Whimsey" by translator Dorothy Sayers is another unfortunate blunder. She elsewhere claims--contrary to the norm that suggests 1269-1289, usually 1284/5 by Salvino D'Armate in Italy-that corrective lenses were invented around 1300 but not put into frames until much later for fear of altering nature; this is left as so many of her references dangling or vague, but it does show her diligent passion in recording every fact or literary snippet she comes across that may enliven what after all remains a spirited presentation of the High Middle Ages.

Rubin appears to be as interested in this period, 1290-1322 or so, as Dante. Like Henry Adams, whom she channels in a detailed evocation of Abbot Suger in Paris squaring off against St. Bernard, much of the contents here demonstrate a keen desire to organize a lot of impressions around an aesthetic theme. But like Adams (for all his splendid prose), Rubin can rely on dated sources (Will Durant is cited often) and she seems like Dante the pilgrim himself (whom she elides with the author, against critical common sense) to wander from a direct way. But as with the digressions put into the mouths of many in the afterlife, so in Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History (2004, not to be confused with A.N. Wilson's own popular account, from 2013, titled Dante in Love with no grand subtitle): much of the adventure comes off on the byways from the high way.

From early on, Rubin makes claims that don't always get backed up. "There is nothing else like it in literature: a work of genius that explains how it was created." (25) She asserts that troubadours invented the language of love between two people, and that the Romans named Paris as Lutetia which she translates from "lux/light" rather than the usual hunches which find a Celtic root from mice or one from Latin as to a swamp or a marsh. The Romans themselves may have garbled the etymology, confusing it with "lux," but the reality appears to favor, given Paris's location, a far muddier origin.

Back to the main theme, "Dante shows how to turn loss into salvation" (29), but Rubin does not to her credit wander off into making this a self-help book for today as some do. But neither does she ground Dante's poem in its time enough, despite this historical emphasis. She reckons that we enter the realm as does an ant on a Moebius strip, and we see Dante use his medieval memory palace conception to conjure up an interior space turned textual place, through his consciousness. This eludes facile explanation, but "we are in Dante's world as thoroughly as he is in God's." (94)  Rubin strives to get at this core achievement, but at least in summing up Purgatorio, she reminds us of a key factor in its shift away from the Inferno and Paradiso. Dante is no longer an observer but in stage two of his quest, he participates in the process. For, between the eternal states, "time, change, and hope" transform souls undergoing cleansing, and day and night alternate, as in our own earthly world. (187)

She tries to cram in a lot about purgatory's evolution, as she cites Jacques Le Goff, who argued for its "intermediacy" as mathematically consistent, economically sensible (as mercantile interests and a middle class expanded clerical-lay dichotomies) and logically as a second chance by 1300. But this had arguably, as Georges Duby in his own tripartite scheme had suggested, been emerging already. She does, as many commentators do, rush past much of the second and third segments of the Comedy. Like many readers, she finds the first part the most engaging, although her close reading of it is scattered and diffused, for she makes so many detours. And she fumbles how, for instance, the Zohar and the feminine presence of the Shekinah have direct bearing on Beatrice, much as Rubin may wish to connect such suggestive influences. She keeps raising provocative or curious points, but then she drifts away from them. The book needed a stronger editor and another round of revision.

On a brighter note, Rubin varies verse translations, and these, often paired with the Italian text, allow readers to glimpse Dante's craft. I liked Philip Wicksteed's slightly more old-fashioned versions, and W.S. Merwin's from Purgatorio show as do John Ciardi's and Allen Mandelbaum's overall the translator's inability to stick to a word-for-word echo, given compression Dante exerts on his lines. 

By Paradise, which Rubin claims as not the Persian word for "garden", but "par-dheigh" for dough--this again shows her wandering, for in her wish to tie this to manna and famine, she omits the PIE etymology for the latter choice (233). This derivation is much more distant and possibly in medieval times unknown, compared to the Edenic concept which appears more relevant to Dante's conception. But at least Rubin stays on task in medieval terms, to compare Dante as a palimpsest to God as text (226) by the end of the vision, and as in her earlier excitement over Bologna's grey streets and lively university in this period, Pope Boniface's humiliation, Guido Cavalcanti's boasts, and Primo Levi's powerful attempt to recall--so as to teach a French guard some Italian at Auschwitz-- the cantos when Ulysses met Dante, Rubin shares ideas and their origins with energy and enthusiasm.

She even tells how ascetic diverged from athlete by medieval times, and how infant expresses a lack of speech in its meaning, and how company emerged from the corporate entities who boasted bread. In such asides, this book educates. Critics of it may be slightly chastened by the circumstances in which it was completed, for in the acknowledgements, Rubin dedicates it to her late partner, who the year before died of a brain tumor, revealing to them both the infernal, purgatorial, and heavenly nature of the same sort of suffering undergone by mortals whom Dante characterizes so vividly (Amazon US 10-11-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

George Holmes' "Dante": Book Review

Although only a hundred pages, like its counterparts in the Past Masters series from Oxford UP, this contribution by a professor at Oxford is pitched at an elevated level. It introduces Dante Alighieri and covers his life, but it emphasizes his works. Not only his most famous, but the predecessors, the Vita Nuova, the unfinished Convivio, and the crucial Monarchy prepare the reader for La Commedia.

For, Holmes stresses the tension between the younger Dante, pre-exile, debating the issues of his time, and the man who after the pivotal year of 1300 soon found himself cast out from Florence and in danger. From Ravenna, he wrote his supreme work, one which Holmes ties to earlier texts by the author's increasing immersion into a novel combination of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic lore. Out of this ethical and cosmological concoction, Dante went from score-settling and digressive debates that enlivened Inferno to a more extended depiction of otherworldly concerns beyond the circles of hell, ones that invited Dante as pilgrim to participate.

As Holmes sums it up: "Hell is a tour conducted by Virgil; Purgatory is a purification from which Dante emerges changed and able to understand what he had not understood before." (74) That is, how the secular and the spiritual occupy their own principalities, how Dante's backing of both a divine plan and a Roman Empire open to non-Christian influences might endure in an era where the popes battled princes and the Italians had to choose allegiances, and how Thomistic theology and Franciscan controversies over poverty and millennial messages infused Dante's own mindset as well as his work.

By the end, with Paradiso, Holmes notes how the quest compelled Dante in its lines to carry back the reminder to his fellow humans about not only here "what he wished to say, but what he had 'seen.'" (92) Emboldened by divine authority, Holmes reads Dante as commissioning himself to condemn corruption and promise "imperial salvation." Despite the poem's poetic power, which can be glimpsed best in the Italian verse sometimes placed before the English snippets throughout, this book works best in conveying the way Dante took pieces of learning from classical commentaries and combined them into his idiosyncratic epic, as it evolved over decades. You don't find in such a brief study much depth about much of the vision or the verse, but you will learn how the epic unfolded and altered as it served to record and to respond to Dante's fate, his faith, and his particularly personal concerns.

Many facile readers forget how long the 100 cantos took to emerge, and Holmes places their evolution within the longer cycle of Dante's obsessions and preoccupations which flavored his sprawling work so markedly, so it lacked imitators. What it did best was merge, Holmes concludes, the emerging vision of a European mind akin to Michelangelo or Shakespeare, with a fusion of the Northern scholastic thinking and the Italian city-state mentality, for a new way of perception. The 1980 book ends with some reading recommendations, which may be updated by consulting recent translations, but the overview remains helpful, if rather austere--perhaps like its subject himself. (10-10-14 to Amazon US)

Friday, October 10, 2014

John Hooper's "The Italians": Book Review

Hooper, a correspondent for both the Guardian and The Economist, reports as other English journalists have from Italy, guiding us into its fabled history, abundant culture, and its current predicament. As he cites Luigi Barzini's book of the same simple title, written a half-century ago about a far poorer and more rural country, John Hooper repeats Barzini's gambit. Both wrote to inquire why a territory so rich in art, design, literature, ideas, and innovations for so long remained divided into regional factions, bitter rivalries, and left itself open to coups, slavery, and invasion.

This heritage casts a long shadow; "sudden breaks with the past have rarely been for the better," he concludes, after introducing us to the geographical diversity and historical legacy which attract so many to visit Italy's dramatic setting and splendid landmarks. Underneath this charm, as with other British male observers, as Beppe Severgnini's "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind" has noted (2005), Hooper tends to promote wise skepticism about the ability of Italians to cope, given their slippery nature to evade the truth or to multiply its meanings as deemed fit.

"The real truth will remain unresolved, and may well even be different"; this observation by the presiding judge at the Amanda Knox murder trial could be inscribed in marble, Hooper avers, memorialized in the center of Rome. Truth is relative, and all the players in the Italian game have their own version to peddle. Politics, a system of nepotism, a preference to hire one's own, a delay in leaving home by children in their late twenties, and a reliance on cheap immigrant labor to do tasks the natives do not wish to carry out all weaken, Hooper reveals with care and statistics and anecdotes, the Italian power nowadays to cope and to carry on in staying ahead in a difficult European economy.

He finds meaning in the small quirks of its culture. A SIM card that allows two phone numbers both to be used reveals Vodafone's app Alter Ego as an Italian "local market initiative." One can switch numbers, or identities, to ease cheating. Masks appear as models of how people portray themselves.

Mixing "menefreghismo" with "furbizia," a "toxic blend" of mistrust brews. People deliberately try to run you down, look through you, and don't give a damn. When children are called "ragazzi" (kids) and addressed in the familiar "tu" form continues to about the age of 27 in his estimate, we can see how the close-knit family comes first, while the rest of us may be treated disdainfully and amorally.

Chapters roam around sport (the odd influence of the English endures as soccer coaches are called "Mister"; we learn why the Azzurri wear blue), language, customs, food, and the crucial "furbi" (the pushy, ballsy schlemiel who is despised but also grudgingly admired) and the "fessi," (the put-upon schlimazel maybe, the one who never gets any respect, the one plagued by bad luck and line-jumpers). This dichotomy of characters, for Hooper, forms a "vincolo esterno" or "external constraint" needed if Italy can rule itself effectively, given the tension of those who turn too cleverly to force their own way forward at whatever cost. Bureaucracies and evasions, meanwhile proliferate.

All wish to defend their own turf, and get under the counter what they hide from the authorities. While the "bella figura" endures as the epitome of how one should act no matter what, the "brutta" figura reminds Italians of their complicated past, when dictators and despots deluded many of them.

Hooper demonstrates how "il tavolo" stands for the table, but "la tavola" for all the abundant food heaped upon it, and the Mediterranean contexts old and new contributing to its cuisine and kitchens. "Gnocchi on Thursday" as stubborn habit reminds Italians of a tendency to find comfort in such food.

Other traditions, as with religion, may be fading as secular and consumer identities crowd out piety. But as with the tricky impact of feminism and sexual liberation, Hooper finds Italians still juggling habits as well as novelties in an attempt to integrate them. Meanwhile, as he shows poignantly, the suburbs encroach and the classic landscapes recede as retail stores overshadow steeples and towers.

Less romantic traditions also persist. Corruption, patronage, graft permeate society. Everyone can be bought. Justice is open to suasion. National identity itself breaks into a north-south division as dialects fade, but as other tendencies harden, while unhappiness seems to spread around the nation.

"Pinocchio is not just a moral tale about the perils of lying. It is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of innocence." Hooper shows how foreigners are often misled, by the seemingly casual nature of exchanges outwardly, to use "Ciao" without understanding the informality of this and the intimacy meant, as opposed to more respectful and formal terms of address, and for the time of day. And that in turn shifts, as outsiders give away their lack of knowledge, for regional differences endure here as in many aspects of life. Social boundaries remain in place, to keep titles firmly established, and to perpetuate class distinctions and honorific forms of address by status or degree.

This book conveys a lot of information and supports Hooper's reflections with many current sources. It reads often as if extended features from the press for which he writes, and it may have had some of its origins, I suspect, in his day job in journalism. But it updates Barzini's attempt to explain his people to the rest of us; it fills the need for a book of general interest which can serve as a reference, about a richer nation joined to Europe and to Africa more tightly than it had been fifty years ago.

He ends with an explication of the 2014 Oscar-winning film "La grande bellezza," which may be about Rome's decline as well as life's lack of purpose. While it speaks to today's subdued mood there, Hooper suggests a sly moral in its last scene, where the monologue admits: "Beyond, there is what lies beyond. I don't deal with what lies beyond." Life promotes itself, even if it all ends in death. This is a lesson applicable to a global audience, certainly, far beyond its setting on a rocky Italian shore. (Published 1-29-15; reviewed by e-galley).

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Italian All-for-One for Dummies: Book Review

While the name of this series still embarrasses me when I consult one of its titles, I admit they are useful and easy to follow. This as the title promises combines content from six Wiley Italian books: Italian For Dummies, Intermediate Italian For Dummies, Italian Verbs For Dummies, Italian Phrases For Dummies, Italian Grammar For Dummies, and Italian For Dummies Audio Set. It progresses with some overlap, therefore, and is often cross-referenced, unsurprisingly, in a rather compact work. Despite its bulk, the price is affordable and the contents are arranged in straightforward fashion.

It starts smartly. The chapter beginning on asking directions not only shows how this is done, but it introduces one to a few landmarks in the big cities, and tells you about architectural terms too. Throughout, the tone is encouraging and the explanations are clear. There is a lot of space in the text to make marginal notes, and part of the heft comes from a clean layout with, as in the verb charts, lots of white area that makes looking at the print page less onerous. There's even some exercises appended with an answer key, to stimulate a more active knowledge of the contents. Still, this will probably supplement tapes and other formats for a serious learner, as most language texts expect.

The markers to stress crucial points, the warnings of tricky instances, and the suggestions for more learning all remind the self-taught learner. These as in the Dummies series carry consistency, so a reader of one of the volumes can turn to another and find the same framework, for a new subject.

Don't expect immersion. This is more of a book to look up explanations and puzzle out problems. There's a considerable stress on English to convey explanations, and the first pages give phonetic transcriptions, although later chapters sensibly cut these. An audio set of tracks can be accessed via the Wiley site although the URL does not match the one included in the text; some reviewers have complained that the book lacks the correct hyperlink. Also, they have noted that the e-book on a Kindle cannot be opened sufficiently to reveal the text and sidebars for clarity. At nearly 700 pages, this is a thick book, and is best referred to as a reference for at-home use rather than on the go.
(Amazon US 10-9-14)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Dianne Hales' "La Bella Figura": Book Review

Dianne Hales blends her personal story of her love affair with Italian into an engaging, informative presentation. A quarter-century of studying it and traveling to its homeland combines with her efforts in Marin County and San Francisco to learn more, and to practice, and to finally start to think and act her way into a language that ranks fourth worldwide in foreign study. Not for its numbers, for it is only spoken by 65 million natives, but for its impact upon so much that makes life worth living, it has value.

She makes her point early on. "English, like a big black Magic Marker, declares itself in bold statements and blunt talk. Italian's sleek, fine-pointed quill twirls into delicate curlicues and dramatic flourishes." She advances her claims for its impressive impact. "While other tongues do little more than speak, this lyrical language thrills the ear, beguiles the mind, captivates the heart, enraptures the soul, and comes closer than any other idiom to expressing the essence of what it means to be human." (15-16)

Her chapters range widely, yet share a common theme. While Dante's elevation of his Tuscan dialect to national fame ensured its prominence as the literary criterion, Hales reminds us that other factors also helped promote a shared Italian lingo in a nation unable, for centuries, to unite politically. The academy of La Crusca, the "three crowns" of not only Dante but his comrades Boccaccio and Petrarch, the civilizing mission of Italian itself all gain credit in engaging discussions. Hales tells a clever anecdote about George Eliot on her honeymoon, to show Dante's power, and she has an eye for the telling vignette throughout her book, as she integrates scholarship into a popularized presentation.

Renaissance art gains a cogent look, and Hales sums up a lot of names and productions without falling into lecture mode. Similarly, as someone with near total ignorance of opera, I learned about its ability (as with Dante's verse) to enter into the popular register so intimately, within daily conversation. Cuisine also helps bring Italians closer, and the many linguistic decorations from food and its varieties enter into small talk intricately. Film also brought together the postwar nation as New Wave; Hales celebrates the legacy of Marcello Mastrioanni. So does love, and sex, and the chapter on "la parolacce" delves into the more vulgar, subtle versions of conversation as insult, boasts, or both.

Near the end of this lively 2009 narrative, Hales cites Ernst Pulgram, who in "The Tongues of Italy" argued that the Romans and their descendents ruled the Western world three times: in law and government, in religion, and in art. The fourth, Pulgram and Hales agree, remains a triumph today: the language. This book satisfies, although if Hales had provided an index and suggestions for beginners, these might have enhanced its utility. I wanted a book complementing my studies in French and how one man struggled with it, William Alexander's "Flirting With French" (2014). This introduction to the contexts in which Italian began and thrives was exactly the one I needed, to nudge me towards Italian's charm. While the hard work of learning it awaits, and this is a guide to its social aspects and cultural formation rather than a how-to reference, you will glean what a textbook omits. (Author's website. 10-2-14: my review #2000 at Amazon US)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Beppe Severgnini's "La Bella Figura": Book Review

This Italian columnist examines the "sophisticated exhibitionism" endemic to his nation's attitudes. In short chapters, organized on the clever conceit of a ten-day sightseeing excursion, each day with three stops, he takes the reader around the Italian mind, and a bit of its landscape and sights. We learn about the past and present, sure. But Severgnini's humorous but heartfelt attention remains focused on the crucial, subtle differences between what we visitors interpret and what natives such as himself discern as harsh truths underlying the stereotypes, the quick impressions, the calculated charms. 

The format of his brief entries recalls earlier journalists who used the newspaper column as a feuilleton to entertain the reader, while providing a gentle dose of wisdom or insight along with wit. The brevity of this style, on the other hand, can reveal its shortcomings. He wants to provoke laughs and knowing nods, but it needs more profundity. As "a field guide to the Italian mind," while this lacks the depth of more serious reports such as Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy" (2003) or "The Italians" by John Hooper (2015), it does have the advantage, as Severgnini strives to attain, of balancing "love with interest"; in his first chapter, the author distinguishes modern accounts as either "chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of disappointment." The love affairs tend to be American women "who display love without interest" as they gush over a "seasonal Eden." British men "show interest without love" as they castigate the feckless populace "governed by a public administration from hell." Instead, Severgnini presents "an offbeat purgatory" able to churn out "both Botticellis and Berlusconis." (3) His 2005 book, translated smoothly by Giles Watson, as these phrases show, sparkles with journalistic flair and style, but it skirts superficiality.

When explaining the power of the family to slow maturity among its coddled children, enable nepotism to clog their hiring and delay any firing, this book works well. Similarly, it documents how the national mood endures to cut "la bella figura" in public so confidently, despite increasing traffic, economic stagnation, unresolved immigration, and economic malaise. This spirit inspires Severgnini to take comfort in this anarchic civility, with annoying but endearing pride. But this book falls short when it tries to examine Botticelli's power on display, or the reason Berlusconi's takeover of the media and then his nation succeeded. Severgnini sidles into discussions of sexuality, feminism, Catholicism (I like how this book cites not only Updike, Orson Welles, and Thomas Aquinas, but also Yogi Bear), and suburban sprawl, but whenever he begins to open up promising directions demanding investigation, he steps aside and rushes on, as if his word count reached, whirling to another topic. 

So, while I did enjoy this casual but heartfelt series of reflections, I closed this with the sense one might have after conversing with an intelligent local, perfectly bilingual (thanks to translation here), who had much to hold forth on, but who, the morning after, left not as much to ponder as the previous night's discussions might have led one to expect. Yet, I did turn the pages with pleasure, and the flow of information proves easygoing. I recommend this book with some reservation. I'd supplement it with fellow journalist Hooper's post-Berlusconi report, even if he's one of those proper "British men.
(Amazon US 9-28-14)