Sunday, November 30, 2008


Gerard Donovan's "Young Irelanders": Book Review.

I've reviewed (here and at Amazon US, where this review appeared yesterday) this Galway-born, New York-based novelist's previous work: "Schopenhauer's Telescope," about a Balkan-ish standoff, in educated exchanges, between a captive and his captor; "Sunless," (aka "Doctor Salt" abroad) a dystopian take on the pharmaceutical industry set near the Great Salt Lake; and "Julius Winsome," a feral blend of Shakesperean invective and wilderness revenge. All three should be made into films. [I think of the first (which he told us in 2006 was just optioned) directed by Srdjan Dragojevic as a less scabrous "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame"; the second by Todd Haynes in "Safe" fashion; the third by Sam Raimi as with "A Simple Plan."] You can see from these three novels how broad Donovan's range can be, and in this first collection of his short fiction, thirteen Irish settings intensify rather than narrow his artistic scope. (In Britain, its title is "Country of the Grand.")

At a reading of "Julius" in Oregon about two years ago, I heard the author explain why he didn't write Irish-themed fiction; it simply did not demand his attention the way his other plots had. Still, he's been building up a solid stack of it over fifteen years. This anthology reveals Donovan's ability to hone in with his clear gaze, poetic glimpses, and delineated scrutiny upon the difficulty of relationships. Set in Salthill, Galway city, Ennis, Moycullen, and such often overlooked (save in the Jack Taylor noir series by Galwegian Ken Bruen, also all reviewed by me) hubs on or near the suburbanizing Irish western coast, these depictions concentrate less on the scenery, little on the blarney, more on the b.s., and lots on the contemporary despair.

They're linked, loosely, by themes. In "Morning Swimmers," a cuckold overhears his friends talk of his wife's affair. He spies on those he had trusted, as they "tip over like milk into tea. They swim once around the tower, bodies static but busy, insects in a toilet bowl." (20) "How Long Until" follows a man who suspects his wife; "he wondered what kept any couple together, what preserved a marriage from the people in it." (30) The writing's efficient, moving the pace along firmly yet modestly, befitting its conflicted characters. Donovan favors the guise of transparency. His characters tend to drift along, yet beneath their predicaments, time pulls them out of their shallow introversions. In "Shoplifting in the USA," the protagonist "wanted it to be true that people like me can survive, but hope can break you if you keep insisting on telling yourself the truth." (53)

This underlies the storylines. "Country of the Grand" follows a man's mid-life crisis compressed into an early evening. Married nineteen years, his wife calls him at the office: "He put the phone in his pocket without going to voicemail." (57) "By Irish Nights" reminds us of Donovan's start as a poet; this brief narrative itself unfolds as nearly a prose-poem, harnessed to the natural power beneath the man-made dominance of the island. This tug sustains itself over the much longer account of "Archeologists." At first, the struggle of the paired Neolithic excavators racing ahead of the relentless construction that bulldozes bogs appears pat, but with one's patience in the uncovering of the literary layers, deeper meaning sifts in.

"The little flakes of stone and soil could have been planets at the end of her brush, so far away they seemed," and the female archeologist cannot "bridge the gap somehow," for "those people from the past did not speak loudly enough about themselves." (100) But, she perseveres, although what she unearths unsettles. The last sentence: "They stared under the creaking wire as the brown and mute bones of the Young Irelander moved in and out of the dark." (108)

"Glass" regresses to 1974, before the boom, and reminds us of less distant-- if nearly as remote given current Irish consumerism-- struggles for survival. Fewer options then. A teenager recalls his mother's admonition. "But a lot of men would like to meet a widow who lives in a clean house. I'm going back to that pub. I'm going to meet a nice man on his holidays." (123)

The later stories explore dislocation. These drew me in less readily, but this may reflect only my own identification with the characters rather than any inherent lack of quality. A new widow finds out about her husband's secret past in "Another Life;" this story reminded me of Frank O'Connor or Seán O'Faolain in its reminders of a more domesticated, middle-class, scenario of an aging woman's loneliness. "A photograph is dated instantly by color, she once heard Paul say. But black and white is timeless." (134) For "The Summer of Birds," a shadowy presence of new immigrants parallels the creatures fed by a young girl in her mother's mysterious absence from their estate. "We lived in a suburb east of the city, another development of many that spread white houses over the green hills like spilled milk," she reflects. (148)

"The Receptionist" moves into stranger studies, of a cuckolded voyeur's unsettled presence at a Galway city hotel. His upheaval's expanded into "Harry Dietz," the longest entry here, and one that in the protagonist's mental confusion recalls the main figure trapped in "Sunless." Donovan's on to a clever idea with his transposition of Cold War-era bomb shelters with terrorist threats today, combining into Harry's flight into a Chicago subway station. Still, parts of this lengthy story drift about in verisimilitude that may not keep every reader's attention span sharp!

"New Deal" precedes this with its own violence, physical rather than mental. It's the only story with any action. The reliance on psychic rather than visceral struggle may make, after one reads story after story, less of an impact. I think, as with "Julius" and "Schopenhauer," that when Donovan enters the world of payback, his fiction does take a leap into a more immediate grasp of tension if not resolution. After the cease-fires, those crossing and recrossing the Irish border abandon slogans for robberies. "We used to kill for country, now we had something we could count." (175)

The volume concludes with "Visit." Old age comes to the narrator's parent, at a home in Mullingar, exiled in the midlands away from her home: "My mother faced west where the sky breached the uneven rooftops and the early evening light pressed the orange doors of the houses. She was smiling. Her eyes were closed and her face was calm, turned to the sun." (222)

The sun may be setting, but the peace of this last story pervades with welcome closure after the many wanderings of its earlier characters, lost and desparate, as on the outskirts of the author's transformed hometown: "Galway had spread in the last decade, gushing for miles along the roads that led to it, pink and blue neon signs, huge hotels standing alone till more business built up around them, and then the rabbit-cage houses." (32) Out of this new terrain, Donovan digs his own path.

P.S. Short Interview with Donovan at "The Short Review".

A.N. Wilson's "My Name Is Legion": Book Review.

Wilson, a biographer of Jesus and Paul, an historian of the Victorians and the loss of faith in God, and a veteran novelist, is also a journalist. His authorial breadth serves him and the reader well in this sprawling blend of social commentary, Fleet Street satire, and theologically tinged thriller set in today's London. Imagine Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" updated to a stand-in for Robert Mugabe, insert Lugardia for Rhodesia and Zinariya for Zimbabwe, and place as the protagonist a British colonial, first a soldier there, then a celebrity monk preaching liberation theology against General Bendiga's corrupt regime. The regime, supported by and supporting Lennox Marx's "red-top" tabloid "The Daily Legion," finds itself clashing by a psychomachia within a teenager who carries many secrets and scandals inside his fevered consciousness. We hear the multiple personas of a teenaged boy, Peter, who takes on the fearsome voices of one possessed, perhaps by demons as much as by schizophrenia. He's a modern version of the man who lived among the tombs that was cured by Jesus, who drove out the devils into the Gadarene swine in that eerie Gospel episode.

It's an ambitious novel. The fates of a few characters, such as blackmailed Ed Hartley, the conceptual artist Hans Busch, or counselor Kevin Currey, appear too muddled. This may be intentional, to show the cruelty of their predicaments, but I wondered what roles they served; the Happy Band's ultimate goals also remained shadowed. Still, these are minor shortcomings that do not detract much from the cumulative interest that accrues as, once you're in a couple of hundred of its five-hundred pages, the novel begins linking its many subplots.

Wilson, better than Nicola Barker's experimental novel "Darklands" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US recently), evokes how many characters inhabit a young man's mind. In demon-haunted Peter, we hear an array of stock figures from stereotypical England, stolid then and multicultural now. Wilson wittily, but with compassion and justice, enters Peter and many other figures with intelligence, energy, and tact. This novel, although about sensationalism, by its balance of tell-all gossip and elegant restraint, manages to convince you of the reality of even the exaggerated figures he-- especially at the "Legion"-- delights in parading.

The novel captures a grimy, rainy, weary capital, especially its southern bank and inner suburban districts, those less chronicled. The chav, the Coldstream Guard, the campaigning padre, the frightened child, the Bahamian immigrant, the social climbing Eurotrash, the careful spy, the frustrated mistress, the overeducated scribbler, the sashaying hack: all sound as they should.

The city, too, enters, seen from a decaying urban park: "From afar, beyond the neglected graves of ten thousand south Londoners," Catford's "high-rise blocks" and Bromley's "endless streets" sulk.
"Today they suggested a limitless waste of life, a humanity which stretched sadly as far as the eye could see, indulging in its youth in the activities which so obsessed the graffiti-artists in the bandstand; scurrying, in middle age, to the bus stops and railway stations which, even in the heavy rain, the eye could discern, to go to work in London, to pay for the mean residences which stretched in endless terraces; lying, eventually, in the cemetery whose identical headstones made their cruel commentary on the rows of houses of those who were buried there." (360)


God seems absent from here, often if not always. Wilson gives Father Chell two magnificent sermons, one a rant on liberation theology, one a eulogy about the death of the "God of the Philosophers" on Calvary replaced by a post-resurrection deity who "had looked very much like the gardener sweeping the path" in the Garden. (300) Father Chell speculates later about the departure of God from humanity as symbolized by the Ascension-- the human construct rises into the sky that we populate with gods. Meanwhile, in the city where some still pray, the voles and dogs and cats "breathed and moved and fed without the need to project their mentalities into the indifferent surroundings, or to look for personality in the vast impersonal processes of the natural world." (426)

Wilson's omniscient narrator holds back, rarely directly editorializing, but when the craft justifies such an entrance, the effect's moving. While not a showy writer, Wilson takes care on every page. In the indirect first-person voice that eases in and out of his main characters, he makes comparisons to Bonhoeffer, Homer, Marx, Dostoevsky, Christ, or Shakespeare that reflect the level of a character's own knowledge. One journalist, having compromised on early promise for a steady income: "Now he sounded like a man who was so used to mixing with, and writing for, people stupider than himself that he was in a world where just to know the names of great writers was something for which you expected applause." (214)

Such allusions, occasionally deployed, work well.
"On the TV news, when the idiocy or wickedness of politicians had forced another great section of humanity into a position where home was a place of dread, one saw them queuing at borders, streaming down dusty roads or railway tracks, many an Aeneas with old Anchises on his shoulders, refugees, old women bundled in prams, fly-blown babies. And always such bedraggled figures in flight had grabbed, quite arbitrarily perhaps, their 'things'. But why in such circumstances of despair had they bothered to take anything at all, unless that was merely clutching at an object, as a child clutched a comfort-blanket, offered in inconsolable circumstances a faint alternative to consolation?" (295)

England here has little pride left. The parks once meant for adults now find their cafeterias, playgrounds, and benches coated with trash and scrawls. "The Queen, no longer a radiant young woman, now looked like an old frump made out of pastry, grumpy and about to crack into floury powder." (476) The ceremony of welcoming Lennox Marks as a Lord shows to such as Chell how primitive, beneath the Americanized fast-food, muggings, petty crime, and fumes and endless swearing of a dumbed-down populace, ritual endures in "the tribal hierarchy which still persisted here. This man, for all his dependence on modern techniques of communications to make his millions, on plate-glass towers and computerized newspaper production, wanted nothing more than to drape himself with dead animal skins and, mumbling imprecations to the spirits, make obesiance to his tribal chieftains." (490)

The loss of national will-- as a Brigadier explains with the IRA battling for a compromise so as to make the Ulster statelet "seem implausible," and so come to power-- dominates a cowed yet cock-headed Britain. Wilson may find hope in a few individuals that as always refuse to serve their prostituted masters. But, these by the end of this story seem few. The position of the kingdom, dependent on oppression to keep its post-colonial power, manacled to capitalism that presents both the only workable situation at present and the method by which billions suffer to serve a billion, deepens the ideas that the characters fumble with, as journalists, readers, and perpetrators in a society with little belief and lots of junk. Wilson reports in an often much funnier (if rather scattershot in its many easy if deserving targets!) prose than my serious excerpts may have indicated, but his moral analysis can be scathing.

(Review posted to Amazon US today- the first one. Please rate my efforts there. Link at the right sidebar's Blog Links under "My Amazon Profile & Reviews.")

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Do You Have Gaps in Your Knowledge?

Despite neither Harvard doctorate nor Cambridge Tripos-- and blowing an oral intelligence test when I was five for insisting that, yes, you could put your pants on over your head-- I managed to evade the machinations of this remote viva voce. Better than my dissertation defense transpired! I paused over how many legs an insect sports. But I aced it. Only due to the lack of math problems, luckily.

I knew at five the capital of Greece-- the only other question I can recall from that pre-computerized scrutiny. And, my stubbornness about the wrong-way trousers stemmed from my confidence that if you tugged hard enough, one pant leg would rip and the slacks would slip down my skinny body somehow, albeit in shreds. I insist that I deserved extra credit for my sartorial ingenuity.

Later in school, I faced more I.Q. tests. My score fluctuated, to my chagrin, over a seventeen-point range depending on when. My official record for my transcripts, of course, proved the lowest. My highest placed me in the precise cohort alongside Gary Gilmore and Charlie Manson.

I failed another match of wits the other day. My début at "Play Chess Against the Computer" at Chess.com found me pitted haplessly in front of its baby computer engine. Repeatedly, I reeled punchdrunk pummelled by the infant incarnation (inlapidation?) of Deep Blue's doppelgänger on its "easy" setting. I desperately needed an ego boost. If chess bested me, I bettered another calculator.

If you want to test your wits, here's that quiz at Blogthings. 21 questions today, compared to only four for yesterday's blogged here about musical psychology. I guess next, illogically, will be the one featured on their sidebar seeking my "leprechaun name."

Update: I already tried it. Don't bother. I repeated the prompt via various names of mine, eliciting aleatory but anodyne Darby O'Gill-ish monikers. The banner ad caught me off guard, a wimpled lass shilling for the "world's largest Muslim matrimonial site."

Where you have gaps in your knowledge:
No Gaps!

Where you don't have gaps in your knowledge:
Philosophy
Religion
Economics
Literature
History
Science
Art


Chart: I.Q. Bell Curve

Friday, November 28, 2008


Deerhunter's "Microcastles": Music Review.

I liked "Cryptograms" PIL-type assaults better than its bliss-out comedown tracks. This new CD may, therefore, please listeners who favor the softer side, akin more to Bradford Cox's solo project Atlas Sound. Since I love shoegazing, "Microcastles" satisfied me especially in its later tracks on disc one. These built up to thunderous feedback, and like tracks 3 and 5 on the first disc, showed a fuller band sound that appealed more to me than the many songs that, stripped-down and simpler, seemed more like home demos recorded by Cox himself.

The strongest tunes, as on the previous CD, remain those with a full-on wave of mutilation. They can begin softly, tentatively, before cresting, nearly without you realizing it, into giant splashes of sonic boom. This characteristic of Deerhunter's delivery, to me, shows the talent that they're capable of as a forceful unit, instead of anyone expecting only a Cox-led group of back-up players using the older band's name.

My son heard Jesus & Mary Chain here and there; I heard Grandaddy! The range of influences distorted and sensitive, beyond a less overdriven My Bloody Valentine, does account for the intelligence of the songwriter and his bandmates. The experimental confidence on "Cryptograms" isn't as extended as I'd expected on "Microcastle." It's there, but it ebbs and flows. The record's tracking may account for lulls, especially midway, but these must be intentional to offset the amplified tracks; this same distribution of tone and pace for structure can be heard on "Cryptograms."

There's not many bands an older fan (me) and a younger (my son) can share, and this breadth of vision that Deerhunter's been entering holds promise for their career as a band, rather than a more famous musician and his crew. This cohesiveness, heard best in the elaborate, fully instrumental songs, indicates their potential at its best. I look forward to more songs with this louder, faster, thicker attitude. If Atlas Sound can provide Cox an outlet for his delicacy, Deerhunter to me should provoke him towards more aggressive, denser, and more paranoid (but in a good way!) layers of drone and doom.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

What Does Your Taste in Music Say About You?

Not sure about my purported athleticism, but the first question asked me what I'd rather hear in a bar; I chose rock. The second, a concert: folk. The third, a long drive with classical. The fourth, the genre preferred was punk. Granted the lack of alternatives or nuance of multiple choices, I guess I dumbfounded the therapy-bot.

We had three couples last night for Thanksgiving. One couple: both pro musicians. The next, one pro. The third, both amateurs. My sons: by one guest one learned flute and one the clarinet, now by another guest one's mastering the guitar. For me, although I learned the rudiments of the tin whistle a while back when my boys began tootling, I'm really a listener. But, as that's how I met my dear wife, a perk!

Thanks to Stephen R. McEvoy's "Book Reviews & More" blog for this link to a 4-question quiz at "Blogthings".

Your musical tastes are intense and rebellious.
You are intelligent... but in a very unconventional way.

You are curious about the world. You love doing something new.
In fact, you enjoy taking risks and doing things most people would shy away from.

You are very physical. It's likely that you're athletic, but not into team sports.
You have the soul of an artist. Beauty and harmony are important to you.


Graphic by Ciaran Hughes: It's pretty dull searching for "iPod listening," but better than "music listening" imagery. This came up around pg. 18! Richard Gray, 10 Apr. 2008, [London] Telegraph. "Apple to turn down volume on iPod."

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Alexander Cockburn's "Idle Passion": Book Review.

These chapters, more like related essays, explore "chess and the dance of death." Cockburn asserts a Freudian interpretation; "in the world of games lie areas of darkness, of taboos, of cruel instincts and vile desires. For the time being, let us narrow our focus to the chess player face to face, as in so many medieval woodcuts, with Death." (13) Chess excludes chance and emphasizes skill; this relegates chance and accident to the margins-- away from where they fill history, science, and progress, and for Cockburn this ludic superficiality proves the game's idealist unproductivity.

Sections delve into Paul Morphy's fate; Nabokov's "The Defense," (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US); Stefan Zweig's novella "The Royal Game;" the social history of the game; miseries of its modern champions; its Soviet promotion and its Cold War symbolism (in the US: "we play poker, they play chess"); Bobby Fischer and Marcel Duchamp; and game theory. "Games become a strange parody of our existence, an ironic emblem of neurotic vanity." (95) Artists can sell their works; they produce tangible objects. Chess players do not, and even fewer masters than artists can make a living at their driven avocation. Why they devote their lives to a restless compulsion may not be answered in these pages, but they do spur Cockburn into his own treatment.

He relies upon Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death," Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens," and especially Ernest Jones' "The Problem of Paul Morphy" to present cautionary case studies. He accepts that Freud can give rise to vapid speculation, but he relentlessly counters "the hostility of many chess players to psychoanalytical comment on the game," as "patients often fear that analysis will take their sublimations away by revealing their defensive function." (26)

Although unconvinced by Oedipal reductions of King-maters and Queen-pursuers, I followed patiently Cockburn's earnest efforts. He finds a lot of repetition, compulsion, repressed homosexuality, masturbatory fantasies, and morbid anxieties in the lives of a few grandmasters. Still, I am uncertain if this proves his point that chess if pursued at its highest levels can be equated with pathology.

However, his aside that this particular obsession rarely manifests itself in women "because they are happily without the psychological formations or drives that promote an expertise in the game in the first place" remains provocative. As J. C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist" and Paul Hoffman's "The King's Gambit" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) more recently explore, the male-dominated world of chess professionals does invite psychological explanations. Cockburn contrasts this patriarchical realm with the reality that (until so recently that as of 1974 when this book first appeared the freedom may not yet have truly happened) "women have never been allowed the cultural space to foster that lethargic, yet zealous commitment to a useless pursuit that has fostered the bizarre careers of the great champions." (47)

Relating this insight to a lively summary of medieval chess, he shares Kenneth Colby's idea that the Queen's suddenly expanded force heightened aggression. "The innovator, argues Colby, was probably a weakling who identified with the weak King and desired to create a strong woman who would contend against the world for him." (121-22) (That the Bishop also found his reach extended always merits less attention!) Colby and Cockburn anticipate Marilyn Yalom's popularized, romanticized, if simplified argument a few decades later about the parallels between stronger female monarchs and-- around 1480-- the apparently much-delayed "birth of the chess queen." Yet, Cockburn counters with his own idea.

He reminds us that after the Middle Ages, women apparently played less often. He wonders if the Queen signifies "the degeneration of the feudal system" as "advanced technology" gives the advantage to attack rather than defense. He earlier investigates how two dozen legends exist as to why chess began; eight themes can be classified. Father murder-- chess exists as the "therapeutic agent"; war preparation; war substitute; diversion; intellectual contest; moral education; "the mater dolorosa" theme. (100) He seems on solid ground as he suggests that the medieval passion for chess may serve "as a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by his player over his pieces is consolation for lost power." (111) But, it will not help him regain land or command.

This supports his later studies of how chess became-- in early modern Europe-- the mark of a dispossessed gentleman of suspect and devouring leisure, as well as the trade of a con man. Or a villain (in perhaps its earlier meaning as well as its current one!): in films such sadists "often play chess. Heroes rarely do." (n. 6, 230) Cockburn's clever at distinguishing the rise of gambling and card sharps at this historical stage, as they displace the nobles who are caught between the bourgeoisie and the centralization of monarchical control.

In turn, this segues well into the Soviet exertions of what, in one of the best stretches, can be shown as a contradictory ambition of the USSR. Written at the peak of the Cold War, just after Fischer had beat Spassky, this perspective may be dated, but it's valuable for the tensions he dissects. This sentence from Pravda in 1936 typifies the Communist ethos: "Recently an All-Union Chess and draughts Congress of pig-breeders, dairymen and zoo-technicians met in the Stalin state farm, situated in the Moscow region twelve miles from the nearest railway station." (144) The problem, as Cockburn shows: chess could not be but "a perfect leisure activity: politically safe, sedate, and noncollective." (150)

He's a bit muddled on differentiating individual commitment to chess from its collective uses, and how his earlier thesis of its employment as a means to channel the frustrations of a group shut out from power aligns with the USSR's sponsorship, but he may after all mirror the inherent dialectic within the game! The Soviets tried to install chess as the ideal expression of dialectical materialism, but when it came to practically harnessing the efforts of so many pig-breeders-- or state-sinecured intellectuals-- away from their checkerboarded leisure back into the grueling construction of the "Worker's Monarchy," the synthesis eluded the commissars. "But what an irony for a socialist society to have achieved its greatest cultural triumphs in the arena of chess-- a parody of what the emancipation of the human personality can involve." (154)

That failure sums up Cockburn's reactions. The game imitated the orders of society in its ancient battle array and medieval ranked orders. But, with professionalization, the pursuit turned into work. Chess beckons with the promise of perfection, but humans cannot attain it given its receding horizon of a nearly infinite number of moves. The players "'know more rejection that any artist ever has.'" (Frank Brady on Fischer, qtd. 181, 195 & 216).

Thus, at the levels such writers as Hallman, Hoffman, and David Shenk (in another book reviewed by me here and on Amazon US, "The Immortal Game," which delves into the perfect example of Duchamp) later plumb, Cockburn trails after those who attain this rarified existence, playing a game that no longer's leisure. "The world of the expert player becomes an increasingly hermetic one, in which the repressed matter sublimated by the game may return with increasing vigor and malignancy." (215) As Zweig lamented: this pastime lures the unwary into "thought that leads to nothing," by "the ludicrous effort to corner a wooden king on a wooden board!" (qtd. 76 & 87).

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Ag blogadh níos lag?

Léigh mé ar an Amanna Nhua-Eabhrac Dé Domhnaigh seo caite mar gheall ar "ag blogadh go lag." Tá sé anseo: 'Deifir, ag caite drochmheas air: ar blogadh chomh malltriallach le seilide'. Scríobh Sharon Otterman ar an 23ú de Shamhain 2008 faoi maidir ag titim ar an bpoist bhlogannaí i mbliana ar an idirlion.

D'imigh scríobhneoiraí teagmhasachaí ar "Giolcaire" nó "Leabhar ar Ghnúis" a insint mionscéalta pearsanta agus ur-lascannaí ar dhuine eile faoi seo. D'fhág diliteant ansuid. Fanann dícheallach ann.

Aontaím leis Otterman agus duine eile futhú. Go cinnte, tógaim mo h-altannaí as Gaeilge leis ag teacht an tseilide agamsa féin. Scríobhaim as Béarla, mar sin féin, go haireach go hionduil.

Go minic, athcheartaím. Fhill mé ar ais ar piosa seo aríst! Is iontach liom má go ndeántar ag blogadh leis aire do mhionphointí céann de gnáth.

Tuigim go bhfuil mo chairde ar an ghreasan ag déanamh seo, mar shampla 'AM', 'Bo', 'Tí Uí Mhurchú', 'Crios', 'Cadhóit', 'Inion ua T', or "Ecopunk"-- i measc eile. Is maith linn ar ndóigh a scríobh go tapaidh ina gnáthshaol agam. Ach, tá fiúntas ann "a déanamh deifir go lag', chomh leis an seanfhochal Láidin: 'festina lente'.

Slower Blogging?

I read in the New York Times last Sunday concerning "slow blogging." Here it is: "Haste, Scorned: Blogging at a Snail's Pace." Sharon Otterman wrote on November 23, 2008, about the issue of a falling off in blog posts this year on the Internet.

Casual posters [=scribblers] went away to tell other people about social gossip and fresh links via "Twitter" or "Facebook" by now. The dilletante left. The diligent stay.

I agree with Otterman and other people about these (matters). Indeed, I construct my blogs in Irish at the march of the snail myself. I write in English, all the same, carefully and customarily.

Often, I revise. I returned back to this piece again! I wonder if someone blogging habitually does so with the same attention to details.

I understand that my friends on the web, for example "AM," "Bo," "Casa Murphy," "Chris," "Coyote," "Miss T" nó "Ecopunk"-- among others-- do this. I like to write quickly in everyday life, of course. But, it's of value to "make haste slowly," as with the Latin proverb: "festina lente."

Iómhá/Image: Tá alt faoi naircisíocht ar an blogannaí. Tá ábhar ábhal go deimhin. Bheimis an choir a admháil is huile. Here's an article about narcissism on the blogs. It is certainly a vast topic. We all should plead most guilty! 'Tá sé ag breathnaigh orm, a lheanbh!'/"Here's Looking at Me, Kid!" le/by Jan Hoffman. Ealaíontóir/Artist: Raghnall Bairéid/Ron Barrett. NYT: 20 Iúil/July 2008.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace": Book Review

Lecturing in Cape Town university downsized to a technical college, once a professor of literature, now an adjunct in communications, one of the "clerks in a post-religious age," David Lurie seems older than 52. He begins to decline, long divorced, longing for solace and seeking it unwisely. "Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students." (4) "The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those that come to learn learn nothing." (5)

Out of a job after he refuses to go along with the abjection that he believes, stubbornly and quixotically, is demanded by the administration after he is charged with sexual harassment, he retreats to the Eastern Cape, to join his daughter, Lucy, who runs a small kennel and grows flowers on a remote farm. The drift away from city habits to country attitudes adds poignancy to Lurie's slide into despair. You both cringe at his refusal to confess his wrongdoing, and sympathize with his pride.

The book, pivoting around the rape, off-scene, of Lucy, the assault on Lurie, and their gradual displacement by the neighbor who craves her land and knows more about the rapists than he lets on, Petrus, may be rather schematic in parts, but as with a drama, each character's defined according to his or her type. Coetzee's attention to details shows his commitment to each character in this serious, downbeat, and grim novel.

For instance, we view his accuser Melanie's signature on the document of her accusation, to Lurie through the limited omniscient gaze of the novel: "the arabesque of the M, the l with its bold upper loop, the downward gash of the I, the flourish of the final s." (40) In such mundane details, her attraction, and her vindication, swirl together to drag him down.

His rural retreat hastens his regression. "His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go." (72) He volunteers at an animal shelter. He tries to gain empathy, but he keeps his perspective: "So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution." (76) The novel's most telling moments, for me, came as Lurie begins to feel a connection-- but only to a point, eschewing sentimentality-- with the dogs he cares for, far from his former urban comforts.

As for his daughter, on her own, she faces the aftermath of the crime. The narrator muses how it's "a risk to own anything" in South Africa today. "Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day." (98) So the theory goes if not the brutal practice, the repayment of debts taken from the descendants of the settlers by those they subjugated.

Lucy's refusal to admit her rape galls him. She languishes, while he wants her to seek safety and earn justice. Lucy senses this is the cruel exchange, the test she must undergo to survive in the countryside of her transformed and restive nation. Lurie, meanwhile, finds the recuperation he came there for evades him. "Here he is losing himself day by day" as he cares for his daughter and does menial chores for covetous Petrus and at the animal shelter.

There, he has an uneasy, basic, affair with the shelter's supervisor, Bev. She's ungainly, with features like a troll, but Lurie rationalizes that now, this is the only kind of woman he will find for his shamed desires. "Half of literature is about it; young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men, for the sake of the species." (190)

He explains to Bev how he's fallen. "Teaching was never a vocation for me. Certainly I never aspired to teach people how to live. I was what used to be called a scholar. I wrote books about dead people. That was where my heart was. I taught only to make a living." (162) He slowly regains his interest in a dramatic-operatic piece on Byron's abandoned mistress Teresa, and the conjunction of this failed romance with his own tangled lovelessness moves the final section of this story into a fitting meditation.

While Lucy, Petrus, and the hinterland's raw terrain prove ultimately uninviting, neither does the Cape, when Lurie returns from his extended stay, prove any more hospitable. The last sections show Lurie suspended between his urbanity and his pared-down life now, and show how his journey into the African interior has taken him into his own dark heart. As the title warns, this Booker Prize winner for 1999 unsparingly tears off the masks Lurie dons, until he and we must face his uncomfortable self.

(Posted to Amazon US today. Typically, the blank American edition's cover's again bettered by the British Penguin.)

Mo fhoireann fichille nua.

Cheannaigh mé foireann fichille iniompartha nua deág laethanta ó shín. Chuaigh mé go hAlhambra in aice leis mo bhaile. Is ciall é "an Caislean Rua" as Araibis. Is brí é feiliúnach!

Mar sin féin, ní raibh fir fichille leis dath sin ansuid. Iarraidh mé seo mar go raibh dith agamsa a baint amach clár fichille maighnéadach. Chuardaigh mé ar an idirlion nó ina siopaí bréagán air. Ní bhfuair mé leis luachanna measartha ar chor ar bith.

Bhuel, chonaic mé amháin faoi dheireadh. Níor cheannaigh mé sin go cruinn. Bhí sé ro-dhear orm. Ach, bhí maith liom samhlachaí eagsulaí acu.

Mheas mé go raibh siad níos dathúil go cinnte. Scríobh mé mar gheall acu anseo go luath. Rinne siad i bPholainn. Tá dathannaí gorm agus corcra, dearg agus uaine fós acusan féin. Feicfidh tú siadsan ar an ghreasan.

Thiomaint mé go hAlhambra, áfach. Díoladh sé bealach E-Bay agam. Bhí clár fichille ar an stórálaim na hallmhairiú go tSín. Cruinníonn sé rudaí leis cluichí clisteachtaí, mar sin "Go," ficheall Síneach nó Eorpanach, agus mah-jong. Ní bhfaighidh mé foireann fichille níos saor i mball eile céad.

Ámh, bhí fadbh agam. Ní raibh de rogha air ach dath amháin. D'imigh mé leis donn. Níl granna é ann. Is cosuil le maide dubh. Shábháil mé níos mo fiche dollair; íoc fiche dollair air.

Ní iarraidh mé táirgí Síneach. Léigh mé ar an bosca fhioreann ní dhearna sé "leis oibre na paistí"! Duirt lipéad greamaitheach go "deanta i bPholainn." D'inis sé orm leis sé teangacha go tógtha ar crannaí ag fástha adhmad i bplandálachaí.

Nuair d'oscail mé an bosca, thit ceithearnach síos. Fhéach mé ag timpeall mo charr. Bhí fear bídeach ann. Ní fhaca mé ceithearnach is lu. Bhí mé ar mo glúine. Ní raibh ábalta feiceáil sé.

Bhí fearg ormsa go measurtha. Fhill mé ar mo bhaile. Rug mé laomlampa beag. Chaith mé ar feadh uair. Bhí trathnóna go tapaidh ansin. Bhí dall agamsa. Fuair mé sé amach leis mo mhéar amháin go críochnúil. Anois, imreoidh Niall agus mé cluiche ar aghaidh gach eile-- agus ar chéile.

My new chess set.

I bought a new portable chess set ten days ago. I went to Alhambra near my home. Its derivation's "the red castle" from Arabic. It's an appropriate meaning!

Nevertheless, there weren't chess-men with that color over there. I wanted this because there was a need for me to obtain a magnetic chess-board. I searched on the internet or in toy shops for it. I did not find any at reasonable prices at all.

Well, I saw only one finally. I did not buy that (one) eventually. It was too dear for me. But, I liked the various models of them.

I thought that they were more colorful, certainly. I wrote concerning these here earlier. They were made in Poland. They themselves have colors of blue and purple, red and green also. You can see them on the web.

I drove to Alhambra, however. It was sold to me by way of E-Bay. The chess-board was at a Chinese importer's warehouse. They gather items of games of skill, such as "Go," Chinese and European chess, and mah-jong. I did not find a chess-set any cheaper anywhere else.

Yet, I had one problem. There was no choice for me but one color. I went off with brown. It's not ugly. It resembles a dark woodiness. I saved more than twenty dollars; I paid for it twenty dollars.

I didn't want Chinese products. I read on the set's box that it wasn't made "with child labor!" The sticker told me that it was "made in Poland." It told me in six languages that it was constructed with trees grown from wood on plantations.

When I opened the box, a pawn fell out. I looked around my car. The piece was tiny. I did not see the pawn so small. I was on my knees. I wasn't able to see it.

I grew rather angry. I returned to my house. I got out a little flashlight. I spent an hour. It was twilight rapidly. I myself was blind. I got it out with only my fingers at last. Now, Niall and I will play the game against each other-- and together.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Don DeLillo's "Falling Man": Book Review.

This post-9/11 novel features DeLillo's detached, reflective perspective. The prose, while at times moving and well-crafted, retains its distance from trauma. This may mirror the shock of Keith, an executive in the Twin Towers who escapes, and his estranged wife Lianne's own complicated emotions when she finds him, a victim of "organic shrapnel," at her doorstep where he's staggered post-blast. Yet, I rarely felt drawn in to the pain of their revived relationship, nor did their son Justin's own reaction, or that of Lianne's mother or her lover keep me immersed in their responses to that memorable day and its aftermath.

However, Lianne's mother, Nina, and her enigmatic German paramour Martin do engage in spirited debate about the role that God played on 9/11. Both the perpetrators and their victims called out His name in their last moments. DeLillo's at his strongest when he considers the role that faith plays in Lianne and Nina's lives, or its lack. Nina rails: "God used to be an urban Jew. He's back in the desert now." (46) Martin ripostes: "One side has the capital, the labor, the technology, the armies, the agencies, the cities, the laws, the police and the prisons. The other side has a few men willing to die." (46-47) Whether its a social revolt or a fundamentalist surge charges Martin and Nina's conversations with an energy often lacking otherwise in these pages.

Hammid, a German-educated hijacker, one of the nineteen, earns his own small role, yet these chapters do not flesh out his character much. I compare this with the attempt of a similar work (also reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog), John Updike's "Terrorist," to delve into the mind of a Western-schooled Islamic jihadist. DeLillo and Updike plant their young fanatic into the suburban malaise of our nation, yet DeLillo holds back his descriptions, favoring restraint. This stance permeates the whole novel.

Therefore, some may welcome this tamped-down delivery. I found it, on the other hand, too far away from what I wanted to find out about Keith and Lianne. Keith gets into gambling, and while this realm's detailed extensively, it failed to engross me; similarly, a subplot with Florence, a fellow survivor of Keith's tails off abruptly. DeLillo does this as before, as in "Underworld," and while this adds verisimilitude, it doesn't satisfy the reader wanting more fictional standards of closure.

Lots of this story drifts along as if hermetically sealed off. I understand this intent, but it fails to move me. The couple's son, Justin, speaks for a portion of the plot in monosyllables as an experiment, and I felt like DeLillo almost was parodying his own minimalism. Echoes of a less-foul mouthed Mamet echo in many sentences here, so pared down are they.

So, while this novel leaves me with enough to think about, there are far fewer particular sentences that stand out. The passages on belief stick longest. Lianne near the end of the story goes to Mass and wonders:

"She thought that the hovering possible presence of God was the thing that created loneliness and doubt in the soul and she also thought that God was the thing, the entity existing outside space and time that resolved this doubt in the tonal power of a word, a voice.

God is the voice that says, 'I am not here.'

She was arguing with herself but it wasn't argument, just the noise the brain makes." (236)


Such moments make the novel worthwhile, but it's an uneven (as in the anti-war march attended by Lianne and Justin, or the Falling Man performance artist's appearances) rendition of the aftermath of the attacks on NYC. Martin sees a painting reminding him of the attacks, with "the two dark objects, too obscure to name," (49) and in such instances, the dread reverberates well before it fades into the airlessness of most of this text. Again, while this may capture the dislocation of contemporary New Yorkers in the early decade, it may not satisfy those expecting a more in-depth, less pared-down depiction of these domestic upheavals.

(Review posted to Amazon US today. I show the British edition's cover, as it has the names more prominently shown.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Henry Rollins in Northern Ireland: Media Review.

"Uncut" on IFC débuted last night, November 21, 2008, so I watched it. Alerted by a clip featuring Anthony McIntyre-- whose "Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism" I reviewed a week ago here-- I found the show fair and intelligent. A bit compressed, inevitably into an hour, and perhaps more difficult to follow for those less informed about the North. Still, Rollins comes across as typically confident, probing, and humbled by the replacement of his well-honed cynicism with a more tolerant, humane understanding of the need for all of us to listen more than we talk. He does both, balancing his own "stand-up" social commentary (I wouldn't call it comedy) at the Empire Music Hall in Belfast with interviews from politicians, activists, and veterans of the struggle.

It's heartening to see that veteran of my city's punk scene, from Black Flag-- a band that played my college dorm's rec room (he and I were born thirteen days apart) after they were banned circa '79-80 from many of the local clubs-- bring his own activist stance to the masses. Rollins has also visited Israel, New Orleans, and South Africa for similar investigations of the intersection of radical ideas, government oppression, economic inequality, and cultural ferment. As punks grow up, few of them continue their intervention in ways that go beyond the usual reunion tour for "filthy lucre" or re-recording their songs for "Guitar Hero"! (Yes, I know that the Pistols were screwed over by Malcolm, etc.)

The IFC site lacks detailed coverage of the episode. So, in the interests of anyone curious, here's my scorecard. I took notes as it ran, and I could not record it, so I did not catch all the data I would have wished; times are approximate. A few clips can be seen at the IFC site, but not the entire episode. (It may be up on YouTube, however, in time.)

00:00-05:00: Overview of the background to the Troubles. It's intriguing that Rollins refers to the tension beginning circa 1969 over the "Nationalists or Republicans" to wish to "remain" independent rather than submit to continued British rule in cooperation with the "Unionists or Loyalists."

05:00-10:00: Stand-up about shopping in Tescos with brusque and invasive locals.

10:00-15:00: Eamonn McCann in Derry shows HR the Bogside site of Bloody Sunday.

15:00-20:00: Anthony McIntyre as a former IRA member and prisoner at Long Kesh tells HR about the parallels between the NI and Iraqi occupations. This comparison weaves in and out of this entire episode. He alone in the episode is subtitled, although my wife, with her film industry experience, tells me it may be as much due to the outside shots of them walking around the shoreline with poor miking-- presumably HR only was wired up well-- as AM's Norn Iron articulation!

20:00-25:00: Kevin Ned Murphy, "Republican farmer, South Armagh," gives an rundown on British army surveillance. He contrasts the "nonsense" of U.S. claims that the Iraqi surge has been succeeding with his insistence that any occupied people will naturally resist.

25:00-28:00: Frankie Brennan and another man (I didn't catch his name; he rarely speaks) from Belfast's beleaguered Short Strand Republican enclave describe their situation under harassment and assaults by the surrounding Loyalists.

28:00-36:00: Stand-up about HR's easy cynicism vs. his mature realization of adult responsibility. He tells a moving anecdote about a worker at Subway's own family crises while the man makes HR's sandwich and deals with minimum-wage circumstances.

36:00-41:00: McCann returns to take HR around Derry's "insipid" Peace Murals. "SF/RUC scum" & "Kill all SF/RUC members" graffiti juxtapose with stylized hands releasing doves. McCann vigorously argues how the peace process fails to bring people together post-GFA. Rather than a "recipe for long-term peace," it's a "cosmetic" bridge. There's a hunger to get over sectarian divisions, while poverty remains. Radicalism's muted as if a threat to the officially sanctioned peace process.

41:00-45:00: Willie Frazier, "Protestant activist," shares his perspective. "The past is not past for us," and his people cannot forget so easily. Four Land Rovers pass in the background as he's interviewed; this attests to the continuing British military presence even as he talks of the "peace." (I am not sure where this was filmed.)

45:00-47:00: More evidence of a lingering military is shown. Security cameras monitor, and the lack of sectarianism in the Republican campaign is asserted.

47:00-49:00: Dawn Purvis, head of the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) tells HR how in NI you're "born with a mental map in your head" of where it's safe to go. She suggests the goal should be instead a striving for common human connections.

49:00-50:00: Peter Robinson relates the importance of conflict resolution by dialogue.

50:00-52:00: Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Féin explores the possibility for Iraqi self-determination and NI parallels with the U.S. playing an "honest broker" role.

52:00-53:00: Purvis on negotiation with all willing protagonists as essential.

53:00-58:00: Stand-up on freedom. American-bred selfishness rooted in jingoism vs. the natural impulse to defend one's nation against invasion: contradictions of U.S. stance by its interventionists vs. the American pride in standing up to the British! Importance of giving dignity and respect to others.

HR's humbled at the lessons of freedom he's witnessed in NI as in South Africa, and thanks his audience. He tells them now he learns why poets write their poems about Ireland. He also appreciates why they fight over their women, and why even in NI, blues records are made.

Photo: from IFC "Uncut" site; Eamonn McCann wears the red, of course, skullcap.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Evelyn Waugh's "Decline & Fall": Book Review.

On p. 163, the 25-year-old Waugh intrudes in the voice of his omniscient narrator, revealing his protagonist Paul Pennyfeather as a hollow man of the Jazz Age: "readers must not complain if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero for which he was originally cast." By whom? The class system? Fate? His deceased parents or uncaring guardian? Oxford's "Scone" college's bullies who frame him and the masters who expel him for "indecent behavior"? The distanced stance taken by the author towards his creation in his début novel already reveals a more complicated tale than the side-splitter full of deadpan one-liners that casual readers of this novel may have assumed.

The satire begins lightly, but as Paul's unfair expulsion shows, there's a serrated edge to this fictional undercutting of post-WWI English society. Having to fend for himself, as did Waugh, teaching in a Welsh college of less than distinguished lineage, Paul's told by the headmaster: "I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal." (15) At a dinner party for his future fianceé and nemesis, Lady Beste-Chetwynde, the Vicar notes how "lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity." (91)

Neither Church nor the gentry can provide direction, let alone education or the prisons, war profiteers or white slavers, as Paul becomes enmeshed in plans he, as the opening passage I cited demonstrates, can never outwit. The central sections of the narration may, however, be the weakest. While amusing, their pace slackens and incidents follow one another without apparent reason here and there. This may well be intended to show Paul's lack of willpower in a frenzied decade, but the novel takes on, from our distance of eight decades, too remote a tone.

It's hard to care much for any satire when the figures are all figureheads. Waugh's aware, young as he was when publishing this. The novel gains gravitas as it follows Paul's further decline and fall. A tremendous passage halfway through articulates the traditional fear behind the modern era's mask of confidence.

Grimes laments:
"Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There's a home and a family waiting for every one of us. We can't escape, try how we may." (133) "As individuals we simply do not exist," he continues. We seem like "potential home builders, beavers and ants. How do we come into being? What is birth?" (134)
This reveals far more "The Waste Land"'s despair than a lighthearted send-up of Oxford, boarding school, snobs, or the smart set. Themes that "A Handful of Dust" would deepen in later years, as Alexander Waugh notes in his chronicle of his clan, "Fathers and Sons" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US), make Waugh deserving of our respect for the care with which even the less-weighty works of his early years are assembled, and how they tackle, glancingly yet bruisingly, the terrors underneath the romps. His Majesty's Prison no worse than a British public school, war mongerers awaiting their investments to be paid off in the next global scrap, the uselessness of journalistic churning of the "news" to the jaded, the haplessness of religious institutions or conventional schooling: these all appear here, as Paul's long shadows.

As the prison warden Sir Wilfrid Lucas-Dockery opines about Paul: "You could see with that unfortunate man what a difference it made to him to think that, far from being a mere nameless slave, he has now become part of a great revolution in statistics." (227) The vocal register here's exact. So is that which to us turns more disturbing, with the Lady's black lover "Chokey." Waugh does play this character close to the vest, but he does show that condescension gives as well as takes-- see the "rood screen" exchange-- in a manner that may prove more subtle and durable despite Waugh also displaying his own racial prejudices. It's a complicated scene, to say the least, with more than may meet the reader too quick to cast calumny then or now. "Chokey" stays elusive to survive.

Authors from around 1930 with more solemn approaches may lodge on college reading lists, but Waugh, in his blend of effortlessly recorded dialogue and accurately rendered blather of all classes, may have brought this combination off with humane compassion, outrage, wickedness, and insight-- better than some of his more ambitious peers. As Alexander Waugh reminds us, Evelyn labored to capture how people talked as well as how they acted, and sentences here beg to be recited as testament to his skill at reminding us that we still wallow in patronizing attitudes, class stereotypes, and cruel behavior. Calling attention to this as Waugh does, he knows he is no less to blame, but at least he has the upper hand, for he expects us to recognize the foibles here and to behave better than those at whose follies we cringe as often as we chortle. That's the mark of satire that has no expiration date.

(Posted to Amazon US today.) P.S. Re: Image: Why are British (Commonwealth here) Penguins always so much better designed as to their well-chosen cover art? Sexier invariably, yet classier. Clever marketing, as who reads a 1930 Waugh novel for the erotic frisson, come to think of it? Australian Penguin paperback cover

Sambo's, Sex, and Me?

My dear wife noted on her blog entry "Doddering Daughter-y"-- which nearly sounds like a Finley Peter Dunne moniker for a Chicago Irish pol in the Gay '90s-- my association of the chain restaurant of the 60s and 70s "Sambo's" with my first awareness of sex. She encouraged me to elaborate, given this prompt. So, here goes.

When I was ten, I got to go around California on a family road trip, my first. Before that, I'd never gotten further than a dimly recalled Indio and an even earlier night in a hotel room in El Cajon, near San Diego, both venues having to do with my parents' attendance at dog shows. And being too cheap for a babysitter?

Loving maps--both the ones I made up and the ones I pored over, I longed to see my native state. I spent many days wondering with my National Geographics and gazeteers (love that word too) piled up around me when I'd ever go farther than a twenty-mile trip to Fedco in either Pasadena or San Bernardino. I jumped up and down when my parents told me the news.

Off we went, the four of us in what could have been the Buick Riviera or the old fake-wooden panelled Ford Country Squire station wagon. North via the Grapevine towards Highway 99 to Visalia to stop, over into Mono County before hooking into Yosemite, along Highway 49 from Mariposa into the Gold Rush Country of the lower Sierras to Placerville. Three Dog Night played incessantly on the top-40 stations my sister and I cajoled our parents into tuning on their AM-only radio.

Back towards 99 into Sacramento and up across the Oregon border into Grants Pass and Rogue River vistas before back into the inspiring redwoods. My chart from Pacific Lumber Co, reviled by Humboldt State U's hippies, showed the comparison of a redwood's life to a timeline back into history-- Columbus, Crusades, Christ. Overnight in Ukiah, then down to my initial glimpse of the Golden Gate bridging the city I never have forgotten, San Francisco.

We stayed at TravelLodges; this cheap motel chain featured the logo of Sleepy Bear, paper covered drinking cups, and a lack of frills each time we spent the night. Yet, with air conditioning, for me it was a treat. I assume we zoomed down the coast, before Silicon Valley erased entirely the fertile Valley of Heart's Delight, into Carmel and Monterey. The latter remains one of my next favorite cities, along with nearby Santa Cruz.

I always thought that this was where the Sambo's I remembered was, and where I figured a Brazilian place on the north side of Ocean St. sits today. But, a check of the list (see note below) of former Sambo's shows none for Santa Cruz. My wife, when I checked now, confirms what I'd evidently forgotten; she recalls Santa Barbara as the sexy franchise. I guess my breakfast there was pretty traumatic.

Well, reconstructing this summer of '71 vacation, I gather we made our way down the coast of Highway 1 to Big Sur, Hearst Castle, and wearily we must have stopped at a Sambo's eventually. Probably the flagship one (details below).

All I can remember, just having turned ten, was going into the bathroom stall and seeing my first drawing of a naked woman. Voluptuous breasts and curves. The caption read "Watermelons."

Tim Putz' Sambo's Vintage Photos documents many of the former locations. Up over 1100 once, now down to the original coffeeshop along the splendid shoreline of Cabrillo Blvd. in Santa Barbara.

The name garnered the chain an unfortunate association by those ignorant of children's stories. In all innocence, so I surmised, this orange-bedecked, neon plastic flourescent vinyl temple to pancake-stacked sticky cuisine was christened and ubiquitously decorated in honor of the Indian tiger who spun his tail into a pool of butter. The rise of Afro-Americanism and nascent PC-cultural awareness fueled a backlash against the place, and this hastened, at least as I always assumed, their precipitous decline in a less innocent 70s. I also remind myself of another lost childhood icon, Bob's Big Boy's mascot, cheerfully chubbily checkered.

But note the corrective explanation from the surviving restaurant's homepage:
"Sam is Sam Battistone and Bo is Newell Bohnett, known affectionately to his friends, family and associates as "Bo". Despite all the other stories - this is really how SAMBO'S got its name. 'The Story of Little Black Sambo' by Helen Bannerman was an afterthought. The SAMBO'S RESTAURANT already was established before the children's story was discovered and used as part of a marketing promotion."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Ag súil i ngarran.

Tá mé ag súil beagán nuair téann mé ag baint mo mhac Leon de scoil. Tá sean-garran eoclaip bídeach ag trasna na lána. D'éirigh mé de mo ghluaistéan. Thosaigh mé ag dul amach ag spaisteoireacht ansin.

Títeann na duilleoga a chaitheamh go leor inniu. Seasamh mé coirt crainne ag déanamh cnagarnach os ard. Tá fothram glórach ó rúsc go leor ann.

Ach, níl mothar ann. Ní bheadh tú ag dul isteach fáschoill ar chor ar bith fós. Is maith gleo mór go bhfuil ag déanamh mé ann.

Feicim radharc a fháil ar Glen Naomh Gabriel. Níl mé ábalta fáil ar fad, mar sin féin. Bíonn amharc doiléir go hionduil ann. Tá aimsir smúitiúil le deanaí freisin.

Is cuimhne liom mo coláiste. Bhí tríoch mblian go ham seo ar an laghad anois. D'imir mé cluiche peile agus cluiche corr in aice leis ar an líne eoclaipe eile ansiud.

Ceapaim go raibh na ranga sean-crainn ann. Is docha go raibh siad ag timpeall dhá scoil ag chéile ag fáschta ar feadh laethannaí rhainseoireachtaí. Measaim go raibh céad os a chionn i bhfad ó shín.

Bhí grá mór leis Séan Ó Mordha nuair ag déanta a thuras de shiúl cos thar sliabh agus gleann ag imeall bealach cnocha go direach taobh thuas Pasadena agus Altadena de scoil Lheon ca mbeidh mé ag súil aríst. Is iontach liom. B'fhéidir, tá mé ag lorg Ui Mordha a leanúint gach uair.

Walking in a grove.

I am walking a bit when I go to get my son Leo from school. There's a tiny old eucalyptus grove across the lane. I get out of my car. I start going for a stroll over there.

The leaves fall down a lot today. I tread on the bark "making crunchy" loudly. There's a tumultuous din from so much bark there.

But, it's not a thicket there. You won't find going in any underbrush at all there either. I like the great noise that I make there.

I see to get a look at San Gabriel Valley. I'm unable to view for far, however. There's usually a hazy vista there. The weather's smudgy lately too.

I remember my high-school. This was thirty years ago at least now. I played soccer and baseball near the line of other eucalyptus over there.

I think that the row of trees was old there. It's likely that they were planted around the two schools both during the days of the ranchers. I reckon that was over a hundred years way back.

John Muir had a great love when he made his trek by footpath over mountain and glen around the Pasadena and Altadena hillside way straight on the slope over Leo's school where I will be walking again. I wonder. Perhaps, I am following Muir's steps every time.

W.C. Fitler, "Eucalyptus Avenue." (Photogravure). 1888. Captaen/Caption: "As the title page promises, John Muir's Picturesque California is a vast medley of different mediums of illustration, depicting the scenery and daily life of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific West. The boulevards of a new middle class mecca like the town of Inglewood, 'wisely chosen where grand avenues of eucalyptus and pepper trees are already grown' are accorded the same artistic treatment as the glories of the high Sierra. All sorts of illustrative media rub shoulders in Muir's volumes, as jumbled as the scenery."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Alexander Theroux's "The Secondary Colors": Book Review.

"Color is fictive space," Theroux reflects in this companion book of essays to his on blue, yellow, and red as "The Primary Colors" (also reviewed by me on this blog in the immediately preceding entry, as well as on Amazon US.) The sections on orange, purple, and green, somewhat surprisingly, seem even more detailed than those on the previous hues. They're also even more free-associative in their range.

The book therefore reads more smoothly than "Primary." I'm surprised that there's even more pages in this volume, given that you'd expect red, yellow, and blue to weigh in with greater literary, religious, artistic, erotic, psychological, and musical references. Somehow, once again, I have no idea how, Theroux amasses a prose-poem's three hundred pages of reflections on eager to please, oafish, optimistic, if garish orange, regal and sensuous purple's pomp and resonance, and green's natural hues, that open us vividly to our surroundings.

Typically for readers (like myself, who recently reviewed "Primary," and his fiction "Three Wogs" and "Laura Warholic" here and on Amazon) of his stories, this author engages in a formidable presentation of his wit. He's a skilled translator of Latin and Spanish poetry, even if he leaves a lot of the French in the original! His vocabulary's rather tamped down by his erudite standards, but this helps us along. He's less intrusive as he guides us along his mental trains of thought.

Hearteningly, Theroux keeps his eye out for cant. It's intriguing to find that all three colors feature prominently not only in the fine arts but the invective of "race music," gay subculture, and Catholic iconography-- three of the author's many interests. The book's generally well-paced, although there's a rough edit from the time he takes to correct an unnamed novelist's (I wish I knew who) critique of Theroux's own supposed misogyny, followed by a jump back to blue and yellow's combination. Anyone would be challenged, nonetheless, to arrange the mass of information with any less care than he has.

He cuts down the puerile "poetaster Jenny Joseph" with her insipid "When I am an old woman/ I shall wear purple," nods to thousands of mentions of orange across the edible and visible spectrums, and glides through tangents devoted elegantly to green in all its guises.

Minor slips emerge; his vast erudition prevents me from finding out many, but he misspells Cyndi Lauper's first name twice, and claims Rusty Staub played for the Montreal Expos back in 1964 (rather than 1969-71 and '79). The World's Fair there had not even happened 'til '67; the team started in '69. He also, puzzingly, in one sentence, errs at least twice. He places Jim Jones in "Ghana;" he asserts that Jones shot himself. (He possibly miscounts the total casualties, although I'll grant him leeway as this number has been disputed.)

Such human slips may be inevitable in a book so crammed with data, musings, memories, and critiques. They may make the book a bit more accessible; even Theroux nods! And, as he notes with these three colors near his end, they, in their secondary status, manage to become all the more inviting next to their predecessors and progenitors! Read these evocative essays and find out why.


Alexander Theroux's "The Primary Colors": Book Review

He's one of my favorite writers (recently I reviewed on Amazon US and my blog here "Laura Warholic," his latest novel and "Three Wogs," his earliest fiction) but he's certainly sui generis. I have no idea how, especially pre-Internet 1996 and pre-search engines, he compiled the thousands of allusions, citations, song lyrics, art works, and trivia that accumulate here to explore blue, yellow, and red. His prose style here, unlike his fiction, may be either more accessible or less cohesive for his readers, but if they've enjoyed his novels, they'll welcome these brief, but densely packed, essays.

He raises, of course, many more questions than even he answers. And he knows a lot, such that you'll feel inept by comparison; a common reaction perhaps to encountering his formidably erudite prose. Still, if you want a counterblast to the usual piddle that passes for thought, he'll prove rewarding. As with all his books, it's not to be dashed through, but better savored for its style and contemplated for its observations.

Here's a few that struck me. Blue and green often mix in most languages; Theroux wonders if this may be due to a very recent development of our retinal cones that perceive blue. I'm curious if recent genetics can solve this crux. Also, colors enter most languages in the same order: first black and white, then red, and then either green or yellow followed by the other. The fifth color separates the third and fourth, resulting in blue. There's no footnotes or sources given, for if there were it'd be equal to the text itself easily. But, I wish I could find out from where Theroux piled up such arcana.

On pp. 102-03, for example, he goes in one paragraph from yellow eyes in Frankenstein to a Dickens character, Leon Trotsky about Stalin, Arab boys, a film based on Balzac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, a woman in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," another in a García Márquez tale, Sam Spade, and ends with "the Alaskan Gray Wolf, staring directly at you."

The yellow chapter, compared to the red and blue, appears more bilious and more disturbing, and Theroux seems to share in that color's enigma. (One minor correction on pg. 120: Christo's artistic display of yellow umbrellas "on a landscape in California" appeared not in 1984 but in October, 1991. Blue ones in Japan were unveiled concurrently.) Still, my favorite sentence is here: "And is there not a flow in the streaming tresses of willow trees, in the sweep of their thin xiphoidal leaves blowing in the wind, as delicate as Veronica Lake's aureoline hair?" (138-39)

Although the blue section appears to solve any question and hundreds more I may have had about that color, I still did not find a direct reference to why the music's so called, except for an implication that depression matches this shade. I had thought there was a connection between the indigo-picking slaves and their hands, stained with the plant, as they played and sang sad music.

But, that's not found, and neither is, except again indirectly through Eva Péron, any explanation of the association of lipstick with a particular amorous act in ancient Egypt by women who painted their mouths so! I guess we all end this book with our own further suppositions, half-recalled references, and ideas sparked by such a rich abundance of speculation, memory, and information about what we see all around us but rarely, I reckon, record with Theroux's diligence.

John Hatcher's "The Black Death": Book Review

"A Personal History": the subtitle's crucial to this fact-based "docudrama" narrative of Walsham in Suffolk during the five years spanning 1345-1350. The plague hit in the late spring of 1349. It wiped out about half the population in around two months, before receding as gradually as it had entered this English village. The landholding records kept-- combined with the medical, religious, and social contexts historian Hatcher integrates from other sources-- blend for this re-creation of mid-14c rural life.

As Hatcher reminds readers early on: "The language spoken by the characters, though modernized, has as far as possible been adapted from that contained in contemporary sources, and the voice of the narrator, who from time to time links the action and offers introductions, summaries, amplifications, and judgments, is that of a male contemporary writing after Master John's successors as parish priest. The intention throughout has been to banish the hindsight, overviews, judgments, and perspectives of the twenty-first-century historian from the text." (xvi) The result? Lots of data.

This amount may dissuade those not expecting detailed recitals of heriot (death-tax) livestock exacted from a local tenant, or statistics on how many monks in nearby Bury St Edmunds abbey died, or how a pilgrimage to the nearby shrine at Walsingham was conducted. There's two quite moving scenes: one when a wife over four days watches her husband succumb in the plague's early stages; the other, preceding this pandemic, when the local lord William Wodebite contends on his deathbed against Master John's insistence that he make full amends-- materially assisted-- before he receives the last rites. The tension between the secular and religious realms, as well as their shared interest in tangible gains, earns insightful treatment here.

The chronicler's tone, adapted by Hatcher's narrator, does keep today's reader at somewhat of a distance from the kinds of scrutiny that present-day academics-- for better or worse-- may heap upon the evidence from court cases, royal correspondence, or baptismal records of the time and place. This does free the raw material, on the other hand, from the dead weight of theory rather than an encounter with the primary sources, filtered by the imagination of its compiler, Hatcher, into a facsimile of what a Walsham scribe might have been able to reconstruct if he had given his life, back then, over to the recounting the fate of his neighbors, living and dead.

Much of the text takes place before and after the actual plague. You get rumors, far off, begin to become hearsay and second-hand around p. 50; a hundred pages later, the epidemic reaches Walsham; by about forty pages on, the plague starts to recede. The remaining hundred pages or so detail what's less remembered today: the disruption to the order that consolidated clerical and feudal power, and which enforced regal rule according to occupation and class. Thomas Wimbledon's 1388 sermon's cited (although not, curiously, from its standard 1967 edition by Ione Kemp Knight): "If laborers work not, priests and knights must become cultivators and herdsmen, or else die for want of bodily sustenance." (218)

The threat of turmoil continuing after the ebb of the plague; the profits that clever survivors begin to accumulate as they calculate the demand for work by their "betters" against the rise in pay that followed the labor shortages; the strain placed on devout priests as their own confreres died and were replaced by raw youths or conniving charlatans; the impossibility to match one's own repentence or lack of guilt with who lived and who died according to what was interpreted as God's vengeance after the disruption as the news of the plague from Asia and then Europe became less legend and more fact, slowly filtered in to a remote village-- these topics make Hatcher's ambitious approach a rewarding one. You begin to appreciate how tenuous was the hold of the desparate gentry upon the restive peasantry, and how the Church struggled against glimmers of individual sensibility where privilege counted less than merit, and principle began to challenge custom.

It's not a particularly quick read in parts. Debates over land division and legal inheritance may test most people's attention span. This is, after all, the gist of much of the records that survive, and what for us may be the more scandalous or exciting bits are few and far between, as we have to depend on those in power and those few clerics and clerks possessing literacy-- nearly always, they sided with the system rather than with its malcontents.

Sermons, songs, poems, trials, banter, and proceedings from extant literature as mixed in by Hatcher's "speaker," however, sprinkle verve and even wit into what could be rather sober recitals. The pace of a rather sober teller forces we moderns to slow down and take in lots of information for which we lack quick comparisons. Some may balk at this register, but for those patient-- a quality that the medievals probably cultivated far more often-- the clever use of Walsham's rich local lore as a representative case for how an English village might have coped with the onslaught of sudden destruction proves a valuable compendium.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Fuair Séamas Ó Broine bás.

Bhí fidléir iomrá idirnáisúinta ar Séamas Ó Broine ann. Fuair sé bás go deireanach. Chuir mo chara Dónal orm a ghriangraf dó ina tigh tabhairne Mhag Robartaigh. Sheinm Ó Brioine fidléir go dona. Tá clann Brionneach ina chónai faoin tuath i gceantar Mhín na Crois in aice leis Gleann Cholm Cille i gContae Dún na Gall ann.

Bhí Seán an athair Shéamais go raibh fidléir freisin. Bhí cáil mhór air fós. Léanim mo threoirleabhar Ghleann go bhfuil "traidisíun fada fidléireachta in iardheisceart Thír Chonaill, go háirithe i nGleann Cholm Cille. Deirtear go raibh fidíl in ngach teach i Mín na Croise ag tús na 1900í! Stíl ghasta, ionsaitheach, gan órnádiocht a chleachtann fidléirí na Ghleanna agus bíonn siad le cloisteáil i rith na bliana ag seisiúin sna tithe leanna"-- go raibh go hiondúil Mhag Robartaigh.

"Tá ceirnín aonair eisithe aige, mar tá" "An Bóthar ar Glenn Locha." Cheannaigh mé seo agus an dara céann ag an síopa leabhair na hOideas Gael. "Cloistear fosta é i gcuideachta" Uinseann Mac Cathmhaoil, Con Ó Cathasaigh, agus Pronsiagh Ó Broine ar "An Fidíl Práis."

D'fhoglaim mé go raibh sna 1800í lucht siúil tarraingt ar Ghleann. Dhíol siad "soithí stáin sa lá agus ag ceartú ceoil san oíche. Bhí an oiread sin airde ar an cheol acu go mba ghnách leo fidleacha stáin a dhéanamh chun cuidiú leis an mhuintir óg an fhidléireacht a fhoglaim go furasta. Bhí na huirlisí miotail sin ní ba shaoire ná na gnáthuirlisí adhmaid agus b'fhusa i bhfad bail a chur orthu dá mbrisfí iad!"

Chuala mé an duine uasal Ó Broine, leis Dónal agus mac leinn eile de Oideas Gael, nuair chuir mé cuairt ag Mhag Robartaigh faoi Lúnasa ar feadh an samraidh arú anuraidh. Níl fhíos agam má sheinm Ó Broine féin leis na fidléireachtaí cáiliúilaí sa chontae nuair ag tagtha siad an ócáid a cheiliúradh ag Oideas Gael. Bhí me ansin. Shúimím(?) ar an chéad rang ann!

Rinne siad céilí ómós a thabhairt Chon Ó Cathasaigh Theillean. Chuaigh Con ar ais Séamus féin i mbás. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas dá anam.

James Byrne died.

James Byrne was considered an internationally renowned fiddle player. Death took him recently. My friend Dan sent to me his photograph of him at Roarty's public house. Byrne played (music) on the fiddle boldly. The Byrnes lived in the countryside district of Meenacross near Glencolmcille in County Donegal.

James' father John was a fiddler too. He was renowned also. I am reading in my guidebook of the Glen that there's "a long fiddle tradition in southwest Tirconnell (=the Land of the O'Connells), especially around Glencolmcille. It's said that there was no house without a fiddle in Meenacross at the start of the 1900s!" It's a sudden style, attacking, without ornamentation that's practiced by the fiddlers of the Glen and they (customarily) can be heard throughout the year at sessions in ale houses-- usually Roarty's.

"There is a solo record with his fellow musicians, that is" "The Road to Glenlough." I bought this and the second one from the Oideas Gael bookshop. "He can also be heard with" (=accompanied by?) Vincent Campbell, Con Cassidy, and Francie Ó Byrne on "The Brass Fiddle."

I learned that in the 1800s travellers were drawn to the Glen. They sold tin goods by day and composed music by night. They loved music so much that they made tin fiddles so that these could help with the young schoolchildren learning fiddling more easily. Those metal instruments were not as dear as metal-made instruments and they were far easier to fix if they were broken!

I heard Mr Byrne, with Dan and the other students from Oideas Gael, when I paid a visit to Roarty's in August during the summer before last. I don't know if Byrne himself played with the famed fiddlers of the county when they came to celebrate the occasion at Oideas Gael. I was there. I sat in the front row!

They made a musical gathering to give honor to Con Cassidy of Teilinn. Con preceded James into death. May God rest their souls.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Alexander Theroux on Burton Raffel's Chaucer

One of my favorite contemporary writers (currently I'm reading his essays on "The Primary Colors") reviews one of anybody's favorite medieval authors, as modernized by the skilled translator Burton Raffel. I happen to favor Raffel's over Edith Grossman's version of "Don Quixote," and sympathize with those who find daunting the shapes and sounds of Middle English. Along with Theroux, I sense less need for a translation of Chaucer, even though I do understand the difficulties presented by "The Canterbury Tales." Even if, as so many asked me when they found out I was studying Old English way back, it's not the same as Chaucer!

Theroux diminishes, as a man of vast learning and wit, the reasons why translations of the comparatively easier dialect of Chaucer need to be rendered into our English. I'm in the middle. Certainly I'd encourage anyone to take the trouble to look up the terms and figure out the original. Small effort for great gain. After all, I might add, it's not "Sir Gawain" or the Wakefield mystery plays. Still, he may underestimate the lack of preparation even English majors (if in America at least) will likely have when facing CT. Still, it's hard to recommend a totally modern version rather than an interlinear or dual-text edition. (Even when ordering a copy the other day of Dafydd ap Gwilym's poems, often argued by at least a few Welsh lovers as surpassing even Geoffrey's verse in their medieval poetic dexterity, I sought out Rachel Bromwich's bilingual presentation, to strain for an echo in Cymraeg of their packed power and intricate daring.) Therefore, I support Theroux's argument for rigor and the pleasures of navigating the original. He advises judicious attention to footnotes or glosses rather than a complete reworking-- given syntactical changes that twist awkwardly-- of the English of six hundred years ago into our vernacular.

Here's the conclusion to Theroux on Raffel about Chaucer. I recommend
the entire review in its expanded online form (the newsprint-- speaking of dumbing down-- tellingly cuts chunks from Theroux's review to make room for a supersized stylized drawing of our chubby customs man on his groaning horse):
"Preference matters, of course. I myself have a hard time imagining any reader who is interested in Chaucer in the first place having trouble reading the original lines. It is personal taste to gauge whether flavor is lost.

Flavor is everything in Chaucer. Words, images, passages. Beyond all else, his flavor must be kept in any translation. The poem, which is found prevailingly in pentameter couplets, needs that continuing bounce or beat for its rude, narrative value. As a college student, but even in high school, I read "The Canterbury Tales" in the original Middle English in Robinson's edition. All sorts of editions (abridged and unabridged) are available. There are prose format translations for easy readings. There are interlinear versions. There are duncical translations that turn the poem into a different entity altogether.

Surely no one can doubt that this splendid work should ideally be read in Chaucer's own words, even if it means occasionally glancing at a marginal gloss or a footnote. "Glosynge is a glorious thing," the Friar tells in "The Summoner's Tale." It is undeniable that such odd Middle English words like "hende" and "joly" refuse translation. Strange words proliferate: gypon, lixt, cloutes, lymytour, artow, mooder, kiken. (I say: look them up!) Chaucerian variants can also confuse. As A.C. Cawley points out in his well-annotated Everyman edition of the tales, one can dredge up something like 10 variants in the work for the word "horse" alone: ambler, hackney, caple, dexter, palfry, rouncy, stot and more. Theological terms can be arcane, as well. There is no end of feudal terms and topical allusions. It is Cawley who also sagaciously observes in turn that "glosses and paraphrases can be just as harmful as a modernized version of the whole, if they are allowed to take precedence over the original." He advises that where footnotes or marginal notes are not needed, they should be ignored. I personally love footnotes simply because I yearn to know. When I was teaching, I tried to assure my students that the day they started reading rather ignoring scholarly paraphernalia was the day they were becoming what a good student should be.

I commend Raffel for his ambition to get folks to read and understand this complex poem. But the problem is that, in so doing, while giving readers access to the mysteries, he ironically robs those mysteries of their beauty. The genius of this magnificent poem is precisely in its original words. The fault is not in the concept of the undertaking but rather in the nature of it. Translating Chaucer is hazardously compromising at best. Technical words become ordinary. Puns can lose their significance. Rhymes are lost. Colors fade. Substitution can seem like a violation. There is a rough equity to a degree, but it is what critic George Steiner refers to as "radical equity."

Chaucer is the crown, the full flower, of English medieval verse. As Ezra Pound declared in "ABC of Reading," "Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever."


(Photo: A better illustration than that in today's LA Times book review pages. Its inspiration, too, as a detail from the "Ellesmere Chaucer" MS, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Anthony McIntyre's "Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism": Book Review.


As an ex-IRA "blanketman," already imprisoned in his teens, interned for 17 years at Long Kesh, Anthony McIntyre knows his subject by having lived most of his life as a volunteer. After prison, he earned a Ph.D. in political science at Queen's. This Belfast native collects various articles and interviews from the past decade or so that list the deathbed rattles and defiant ralliery of Sinn Féin, the IRA, and the stalemated peace process after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The chicanery with which this deal was finagled to a rank-and-file previously misled about the continuation of their armed struggle led to McIntyre's break with the "Republican Movement" at least as constituted under the control of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and their devoted cadre.

Becoming a leading voice for those who disagreed, not for a return to the "physical-force tradition" but a renewal of the ideals which the IRA he and others joined had abandoned, Dr McIntyre combines two rarely encountered areas of expertise. As an insider, he betters the academics and reporters in relating the perspective of an Irish republican who's proven his credibility on the blanket. As a commentator, he's able to silence the "militant Republicans of the verbal type" eager to perch on barstools or boast to the naive their exploits, fueled with Dutch courage.

Admirably given his doctoral competence, McIntyre never lapses into jargon (although "etiology" escaped onto his keyboard once). He avoids sounding sanctimonious or overbearing. He, as with his model Orwell, manages to keep the human dimension within his sustained criticism of the IRA leadership that, for 320 pages, motivates his setting down-- with as much proof as can be summoned against an organization committed to double speak and clandestine councils-- the reasons why one can be principled, yet oppose the GFA packaged as "the peace process." Furthermore, he relates details to us in a calm, wry manner so that any newcomer can clearly understand the participants who support or oppose this intricate strategy.

It's a testament to his evenhandedness that one of the best moments comes when he's interviewing the chief of the reorganized Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly the RUC), Hugh Orde. "It was the most I had ever talked in a police station," he admits. (282) While his sympathies remain throughout with the peaceful dissidents, he includes fair treatment of those later incarcerated from the splinter groups determined to fight for the cause abandoned-- with considerable cynicism, spin, and rhetorical acrobatics-- by the IRA leadership and Sinn Féin negotiators. Attention to the Loyalist perspective might have been welcome, but this anthology's already large enough. Counterparts to McIntyre or Ed Moloney's "A Secret History of the IRA" exist from the Unionist viewpoint. As the subtitle indicates, McIntyre's not providing a history of the past forty or hundred years in the North. He's analyzing the RM endgame itself, as a former player privy to many of the moves.

The book's organized into thirteen chapters. Each offers a few articles around a theme. I found the organization sensible, and there's an internal coherence that carries you from one topic to the next gradually, if subtly. An introduction by Moloney, whose own views have been met with the same outrage accorded McIntyre's among the party faithful, but with equal recognition of insight by those less aligned, provides background on the policy shifts. A glossary clues you in to who's Ronnie Flanagan or what's the IMC.

This will be a long review, as the ones so far I've seen have not dealt with the contents in depth. They've focused more on the controversy of the author and his thesis. What's missing from such terse attention? The flair with which McIntyre conveys his passion-- and his sobriety. There's little autobiography, but he's dealing with a shadowy, fatal, yet publicized and romanticized cause to which he gave his youth, and much of his adulthood. Half of his life's in the H-Blocks. He leaves to find himself facing a different IRA on the outside than the one he'd sworn to defend decades before. From the mid-1990s on-- along with like-minded volunteers, their families, friends, and comrades-- he's left to flounder while the party leaders posed for the cameras, accepted the acclaim, and betrayed the footsoldiers, those living and dead, those who had starved themselves rather than accept branding as common criminals.

One does not have to accept their methods of the proxy bomb, the guerrilla attack, or the torture of innocents to accept what McIntyre and those whose stories he tells believed in: a united Ireland that through their guns would be gained. They gave up their lives in total or a portion for such an ideal. This vision dimmed under the glare of their commanders who proclaimed a treaty that echoed that compromise which they had rejected in 1975. That was thousands of killings earlier. The confusion and outrage of those left fooled again becomes a human call for justice and truth.

Chapter 1 laments the GFA. McIntyre in 1999 conjures up the tale of the pickpocket who robs his prey while unctously soothing his victim: "your personal security is brilliant." SF strips their communal base of its pride while telling its gulled voters how they were "the most politicised people in Europe." (10) In Chapter 2, the ghosts of the Republican Dead return to haunt those investigating in 2004 the 1987 pre-emptive attack by the British upon an IRA mission at Loughall. This is one episode that may elude those less knowledgeable about such incidents. I'd have liked more attention to the moral conundrum underlying the Loughall inquiry. The larger question of how ethical should the state be in eliminating or sparing those who seek its overthrow, however, remains sadly all too contemporary.

Poignantly, McIntyre confronts this problem personally. With his toddler daughter, he visits Bobby Sands' grave, only to hear the girl chortle; thus in a small way's fulfilled Sands' prediction that the revenge of the Irish would be the laughter of their children. In this 2004 entry, "Padraig Paisley," this sometimes reticent reporter offers one of his most powerful admissions of the cost of the long war upon those who had invested their lives towards a different ending than the one now on offer from their former commanders. In Long Kesh, they followed a leader who turned on them once they were freed. "Were I to have suggested a course of action during my H-Block days that would lead republicanism to where it is today I would have found myself residing in a loyalist wing." (40)

The space given as Chapter 3 to the hazily explained 2002 mishap of the Colombia Three surprised me, but this episode foreshadows later IRA-SF debacles in the Northern Bank Robbery and the fatal stabbing of Robert McCartney. It remains a muddled area; the murky accounts at the time show the difficulty in separating dirty deeds by the IRA's left hand from SF's right hand. When Adams is charged by Congressman Henry Hyde to "'appear and help us determine what the Sinn Fein leadership knew about the IRA activities with the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia and when did Sinn Fein learn of them', it was clear that the knotted tie of the IRA was being moved uncomfortably close to the party windpipe." (50) The ten years of witnessing the RM's downhill slide proves grimly amusing, tracked from higher up this slippery slope.

Decommissioning magnifies the microcosm of the Colombian misadventure for global inspection. Not as a symbol, but as fact: giving up IRA arms dumps means the conflict's truly ended. 2001: As the leaders, pushed back from their goal of a unified Ireland into capitulation keep retreating and calling it progress, "they are moved muttering from one slain sacred cow to defend another before it too is slaughtered." (64) 2002: Those like him who complain will incur blame for raising their heads out of the trenches, where "they would immediately draw the attention and surveillance of thought traffic control and the fire of the verbal snipers, their weapons loaded with vitriol, eager to impose silence and prevent republicanism from becoming more democratic." (71)

Long before 2003, McIntyre's disgusted at "organised lying by organised liars. Half a century from now pilgrims, patriots, and prevaricators will flock to the graves of the Provisional Republican leadership to be greeted by an inscription meticulously inscribed into a headstone: 'Here they are-- lying still'." (78)

Cemeteries in West Belfast already fill with those who went to their graves believing in a patriotism that their leaders had, in secret, already abandoned. McIntyre has both outgrown his youthful enthusiasm and managed to nourish his righteous ideals. These matured, I would suggest, from the Fenian slogans of his teenaged years into a humanist skepticism towards totalitarianism in any form, however benignly promoted or however applauded by the chattering classes. He resists the cult of personality that has eclipsed the democratic socialist Republic of 1916.

Chapter 5, most notably with a twenty-page 2006 interview with fellow ex-blanketman Richard O'Rawe, delves into the difficult matter of how much Adams knew when in charge of part of the IRA contingent in the H-Blocks during the second hunger strike that left ten men dead in 1981. O'Rawe's "Blanketmen" book's claims are balanced by outside sources which both men carefully cite in their cautious yet charged dialogue. They explore O'Rawe's argument that Adams deliberately withheld information to advance SF electoral fortunes, rather than intervene with proposals relayed from British negotiators that could have ended the strike, thereby saving the last six men from self-starvation.

A quarter-century later, McInytre speaks at Bundoran to those who shared the years on the dirty protest. Addressing those who now oppose his own dissidence, he manages to affirm his own position while remaining respectful to his detractors. He defends O'Rawe, and reminds his comrades that the rumor-mongering against O'Rawe (and himself by extension) does the 1981 commemoration no credit. He paraphrases the press who lambasted the SF rally (with blankets sold to marchers) to commemorate the ten men dead "as resembling a Friar Tuck convention more than the austere era of the Blanket protest and hunger strikes. The contrast between the easy corpulence of today and the hard emaciation of twenty-five years ago was no more stark than it was on the Falls Road at that political rally. In a sense the imagery mirrored perfectly the ethical decay that has come to beset republicanism. The screws at least gave out the blankets for free." (115)

Suppressing Dissent, as Chapter 6, continues in similar tone. McIntyre allows us to hear more stories from those who speak out against party lines, and in West Belfast, who suffer for their rebellion. Brendan Shannon, "Shando," sticks to his guns as a proponent of the armed struggle. While McIntyre regards him as a cautionary tale of the true believer left stranded, he treats him with dignity and in 2003 tells his story honestly. In 1995, Shando explains to McIntyre: "I did not leave the Provos because they gave up the war. I left because they gave up republicanism." (139)

One who did not survive in early 2005 after standing up against the system, Robert McCartney, merits Chapter 7. His murder, along with the Northern Bank and Colombia 3 incidents, further tarnished an already dulled Sinn Féin. McIntyre and his wife ran the e-zine "The Blanket" 2001-08. They refused to back down to SF militia. They were harassed, raided, and intimidated. Most of the entries in this book originated with their grassroots Net campaigns on behalf of their cowed neighbors and harangued colleagues. They display to future historians and activists the birth of Web networks married to practical solutions. This harnessed solidarity for concrete gains rather than arcane monographs on republican community organizing.

These chapters also reveal McIntyre's growth as a more generous participant in his changing Irish reality. He almost encourages a PSNI officer with "good luck" as the police try to find Bert's killers. As one with his ear to the ground, McIntyre knows at least one culprit even if he's not charged directly. "IRA culture was drawn on heavily both to inflict the crime and to cover it up," (173) even if hard proof dissolves into soft supposition and perhaps a bit of brass knuckles on any witnesses out of the dozens of people who saw the fatal assault-- unless they were all as they claimed in the pub's jakes. The party interferes, so no allegations of collusion between the supposedly rogue IRA operators and SF can be sustained in court.

This leads to frustration. How can you fight such an implacable PR machine? Others join in the protest, but against those who complain. They defend Adams and McGuinness. Why do McIntyre and his colleagues oppose what so many voted for, North and South? The Loyalist veto's consented to by SF. The IRA surrendered. The Crown rules as long as most Northerners agree to a British ruler. McIntyre counters that "the process subverts the peace." (168) Many who favor cessation of violence do not assent to the process, he argues. Their disagreement with the GFA, moreover, remains non-violent. Meanwhile, the IRA and SF subvert the community they claim to advance-- with thugs, censorship, and discrimination.

Informers, long the republican's bane, now turn into its own agents of destruction. Freddie Scappaticci, "Stakeknife," and Denis Donaldson gain infamy. McIntyre's clever. He asks nimbly what Donaldson as a British agent did that Martin McGuinness as a British minister at Stormont did not. Both "shaft Republicanism." Rumors persist, and seem to be hushed, about IRA spies even higher up than Donaldson. The author knows the pressures that burden those volunteers fresh out of prison, unable to cope. "The choice was simple: Grow old and grey with imprisoned comrades and wake up alone each morning to the sound of clanging grills or come to beside a partner and to the laughter of children." (191) While never excusing what Stakeknife or others did by betraying their cause, McIntyre as an ex-prisoner and as one who has worked with many others like himself captures what few other writers could have expressed about the personal torment that a few of his weaker colleagues endured for decades as they fought, plotted, and confided in comrades whom they would expose to their own compromise, or often worse, at the hands of death squads within the IRA as well as among the Loyalists and British forces-- whether vetted or below the radar.

McIntyre's also compassionate towards the reputation that shrouds their children and grandchildren; he implies how this character assassination may be the worst crime yet hatched by such informers. "Provisionalism is being haunted by a spooky spectre," he confides in 2005. "What blossomed in spring has now become autumn fruit, as poisonous as it is bountiful." (193)

With Chapter 9, Comrades appear. These too have been weighed down by compromises when they emerged from prison. The late Brendan Hughes in 2000 tells McIntyre: "We fought on and for what? What we rejected in 1975." (198) A leader of the H-Blocks during the strike, on release he found himself cheated by building crews in West Belfast where he worked; those who were his bosses justified their hypocrisy by their ties to the cosy SF leadership. Exposing this immorality, he found himself expelled by those whom he once had commanded and respected. He concludes how the "Republican leadership has always exploited our loyalty." (200)

In 2006, "Granny Josie" Gallagher remembers when she visited her three sons, all jailed at Long Kesh, over twenty-two years. Two were in the Marxist INLA. Thumbing a ride in the snow on the way back from her prison visit, the Sinn Féin transport van refused her a ride. If she was at the H-Blocks to see her third son, in the IRA, than she might have earned a ride. Such was the discrimination and pettiness even within the RM, as McIntyre rues now.

For Dissembling, Chapter 10, McIntyre introduces other critics of SF-IRA groupthink. In 1994, when the cease-fire was declared, McIntyre was with his comrade Tommy Gorman when Gorman called to agree with Bernadette McAliskey on BBC's "Talkback" with her comment that "the war is over and the good guys lost." (226) From that point on, they and others discussed in this chapter found themselves the targets of the SF-IRA disinformation operatives. Their names were discredited, their supposed links to the militants were publicized, and their credibility was attacked. What differs between the tactics of any faction who has gained power in a putsch? Perhaps the fact that the leaders had led on the followers for so long, so fatally, while dissembling.

With the 2004 Northern Bank robbery in Chapter 11, there's not much point even pretending. "If, as has been widely alleged, the robbery is the work of the Provisional IRA's Army Council, then it is a matter of the rich robbing the rich." (254) Policing, in Chapter 12, finds SF in a quandary. Having lost the hearts and minds of those in projects such as Ballymurphy (where McIntyre had lived when writing these articles), the RM could not provide the protection the residents needed. Over nine months in 2006, 700 acts of violence or intimidation had occurred in his neighborhood. The collapse of the community, as former republican ideals to rally solidarity eroded under drugs, teen pregnancy, vandalism, and theft, showed another collapse of Irish idealism under British administration. The PSNI had first been castigated by republicans, and then clumsily courted, but this left the locals in an awkward situation of who to call on for help. The PSNI wearied, the IRA devolved into a gang, and with few arrests amidst the grim scenario, the costs of the long war's slide into a restless temper tantrum of dealing and dissing showed how hollow had been the claims of a peaceful Northern Irish settlement for so many in what had been Gerry Adams' heartland, his base for IRA action and a unified front pledging SF allegiance.

Strategic Failure, fittingly, concludes this book as Chapter 13. It includes the visit to Orde. What do republicans and dissidents do when the system's in place and the Loyalists remain in control with the consent of the nationalists, post-GFA? Learning to get along, in power or driven away from the dream of centuries of Irish men and women who fought and died for unification, republicans today may be the last of their line so bred to never give up the battle in every generation. Post 9/11, the lust for the brawl's faded. McIntyre's post-mortem for Moloney's 2003 castigation of the hypocrisy of the Adams-McGuinness leadership finds its eulogy repeated in his own compiled arguments here. "For those of us who sought a different and a better outcome-- more just, more egalitarian, more democratic, more honest-- read it and weep." (308)

One does wonder-- admittedly lacking the personal experience that informed the rationale of McIntyre after so much of his life fighting the British state-- if the author should finally blurt out what he locks inside. Why not, imprisoned for so long, as an ex-prisoner demonstrate your inner liberation? Why not embrace your local peeler?

Frequent criticism levelled at dissenters has been that in their refusal to change, they etch deeper the corrosive qualities of a toxic republicanism that will not glow much longer into our own century. McIntyre and his comrades debated against those who drowned them out in the mainstream media on TV most nights. They persisted despite direct and disguised attempts to shut them up. They refused to submit to those who had betrayed them; they turned away from those who beckoned them back to a useless fight. This collection offers carefully reasoned articles insisting that another form of purer republicanism still lingers that deserves resurrection. "The Blanket," as an aside, often featured spirited debate about this very issue, although the selection of more topical pieces by McIntyre may tilt his own anthology towards a clearer chronological, thematically cohesive presentation.

Perhaps, given the futility of the hardline remnant of compromised and infiltrated militants and the corruption of co-opted SF, any "third way" here appears a glimpse up a foggy cul-de-sac. McIntyre and Moloney convince you that the ground troops in the Fenian campaign have been betrayed, but like the Wild Geese, one now wonders what cause will answer their ambitions. Will those who visit the graves in fifty years look back on today's dissidents as students may skim the manifestoes from the ralliers for the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Bourbon dynasty?

The failure of an alternative movement to counter the party machine resulted, eventually as this anthology tacitly documents, the folding up of "The Blanket" earlier this year. Its purpose appeared to have been finished; other community activists had taken up the watch, the governments had agencies in place, and the criminal activities that had replaced the RM with petty theft, drug running, and slum squalor appeared less the blame of the Brits and more the lassitude of post-GFA residents. The tricolor flutters and the strikers commemorated on murals still grace the closely packed streets, but one wonders if these depictions will in time fade into "tradition" as walls in other redoubts, those post-GFA Unionist enclaves. The whitewashing waits. McIntyre's anthology warns us of the impermanence of what once stood as an unshakeable foundation under any republican, dawn over a unified island.

(A shorter version will appear on Amazon US and Britain. U.S. Cross-posted as a long piece to "Not the L.A. Times Book Review." Disclosure: I contributed to "The Blanket" throughout its run, 2001-08, and know Anthony, not as well as I wish, but blame a continent plus an ocean's distance for that! You can read him at the archived 2001-08 "Blanket" and current "The Pensive Quill" or via the bloglinks at the right of this frame.)