Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ag síul na fearann dílis

Cleachtaim, ag síul a dhéanamh go rialta. Bím ag dul leis an muileann coise. Mar sin féin, bhí mé dúil an lá eile ag imeacht faoin tuatha ann.

Ar ndóigh, níl críos glas ag imeall anseo. Mar sin, d'éirigh mé amuigh faoin spéir. D'fhág mé an baile go an Leabharlann agus Dánlann Huntington.

Tá sí ina bruachbhaile cuanna na Naomh Máirtín ann. Níl pairc níos i gcéin ann. Ach, gheobhaidh tú áit síorghlas agus lámh-mhaisiúthe ansin.

Is maith liom ag cur cuairt na fearann seo. Nuair bhí mé óg, chuaigh mé go ceapachaí, machaire, agus gairdíní bláthannaí ann. Go minic, shiúlainn ar gach taobh an gairdín i poiblí.

Feicfidh tú gairdíní eagsulaí ansiúd. Mar shampla, rachfá go gairdín Seapanach nó Sineach. B'fhéidir, tiocfaidh tú go gairdín fásúil; tá sé is tirim.

Ná baineadh dearmad ar bith díot faoi Leabharlann. Foghlaimeoidh tú faoi an stáir litearta go h-iomhlán as Béarla. Críoch tú leis a radharc ina gaileraí ealáine. Líonann í leis saothair ealáine ar fud an domhan mhóir. Ólfaidh tae Sineach nó Sasanach a dúnadh an lá bréa.

Walking on a landed estate.

I practice, doing walking regularly. I (habitually) go on the treadmill. All the same, I had a desire the other day to go out into the countryside.

Of course, there's no greenbelt to take off to here. Therefore, I got up under the sky. I left home to the Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

It's in the elegant suburb of San Marino. There's no park very far away there. But, you'll find a place evergreen and manicured there.

It's pleasing to me to pay a visit to this landed estate. When I was young, I went to the flowerbeds, wide-open field, and flower gardens there. Often, I used to walk all around the public garden.

You will find various gardens beyond there. For instance, you should go to the Japanese or Chinese garden. Perhaps, you will come to the desert garden; it is very dry.

Don't you forget about the library. You will learn about the literary history of the whole in English. You must finish by viewing the art gallery. It is filled with works of art from all over the great world. You should drink Chinese or Japanese tea to close your lovely day. (Grianghraf/Photo: The Huntington)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Joshua Cohen's "Witz": Book Review

This reminded me of a post-Holocaust Kafka, combined with Joycean wordplay, Pynchonesque ideas, and Beckettian melancholy. The words derived from "Jew" never appear except in the subtitle, "The Story of the Last Jew on Earth." Their absence haunts this ambitious novel.

For Joshua Cohen's own version of a "lipogram," a work with a missing symbol, Benjamin Israelien's void after another, now total, global decimation of the Chosen People erodes him from the inside out. His inauthenticity as a Jewish survivor provokes the animosity of the rest of the world. Ben alone remains to become what turns out more the scapegoat than the Messianic harbinger with tidings of comfort and joy. Cohen stretches his somber saga over eight hundred pages.

The novel's span challenges neat summation. Briefly, his family and his birth-- full grown, bearded, hirsute--takes up the first couple of hundred pages with fine print and extended riffs. Cohen relishes food, babble, trivia. The demise of the Jews quickly gives way to their kitsch revival, "in a language nobody speaks but everybody's studying."

Cohen hurries over whatever sense would be in this catastrophe, oddly. He grants us a few powerful scenes of media coverage of this sudden death. Logic diminishes; a reader must put up with whatever Cohen dishes out to a put-upon Ben and the sketchily drawn cabal that unsuccessfully manages his marketing.

He makes us pay attention to the page. It takes patience to stay afloat amid so many verbal depth charges. Submerged into this book, you gasp for air. The force of Cohen's atmosphere presses down on you.

Ben stops at where he would have gone to school, "yet another inheritance deferred." There, "chalk remains from the happy clap of appreciative erasers smeared into the spirals of shoes out on permanent recess." Cohen can write, certainly. But does he write.

It's no wonder Kafka and his Castle edge into the setting at his re-created Whateverwitz, in an inverted "Messianic victory of the bornagain." Why the rest of humanity would wish to convert never gets answered. (Who supervised their conversions after the demise of the firstborn, with all those but Ben born-Jewish dead, I wondered?) People simply change, in a dream logic that pulls along enigmatic, infantile, behemoth Ben against this current of subversion.

I felt that Cohen insisted on a chiasmus -- an inversion of Jew and non-Jew, persecution and acceptance -- that left him no other choice than this for his story. This pace barely bothers with plot. Cohen's concern's not with character. Instead, Cohen determines to force us to accept his world based on ideas, language, and monologues more than dialogues. Perhaps as with Torah or Talmud, this text documents an anthology of human foibles and restrictions and pleas rather than a seamless literary narrative, despite (or in spite of) its very craft.

The firstborn before they will succumb to another plague wonder: "what is a question? How to answer. Will you be at all. Or will you opt out. Don't you want to be. When you're all grown up to dead. Their seder to be interrupted -- libelous, the matzah weeps blood. The seat at the head of the table is empty and will be forever. You'll get used to it." Passages like this may elicit emotion, but they nestle within adamantine blocks of prose. Chunked chapters may crush the patience of all but the few readers nimble enough to catch the Yiddish, the Hebrew, the Judaica tossed here into a tall, deep scrap pile.

In its messianic themes, breadth of Jewish references, and dense erudition, Witz recalls Arthur A. Cohen's In the Days of Simon Stern (1972). In its headlong final rush into the evocation of the Holocaust by its last survivor, Joseph Cohen, it echoes passages from George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.(1980). This stand-alone coda of thirty pages as one death sentence after a life lived in pain and struggle is titled "Punchlines." Breathed into one long recital -- after eight hundred pages of Ben's tale, which lurched about as its protagonist did in an unstable, wobbly gait -- the novel's last gasp finds its stand-up routine that knocks them dead, a negative correlation, its center of gravity.

In its demands, Witz nears Tolstoy's epics in length and Kafka's fables in tone. Combine these with Ben's character of gargantuan appetites, albeit one who eludes the sympathy of the patient, if baffled, reader. The result may be less successful than some of Cohen's storied predecessors, yet it may surprise you. A few readers may undertake Cohen's rigorous wake. It resurrects linguistic excavations and intellectual fixations as a narrative "Exodust" that burrows into a tome nine years in the making.

(This version to Amazon US 6-21-10. Longer version to my other blog, "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" 6-21-10 and PopMatters.com 6-25-10.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies & New Media": Book Review

If you wondered where the sniggers in Chaucer lurk, read on. It started on Friendster as a fakester, a grad student's "pop culture parody written in cod-Middle English by a Chaucerian persona." It morphed into a blog followed by thousands of medievalists, "nice smart people," witty pranksters, and professorial jesters. Brantley L. Bryant unmasks himself as "LeVostreGC," or "your GC", and my having to explain that reference exemplifies the fun, and the erudition, of his creation.

The blog and book's title itself combines "hath" in the archaic usage with "blog" as our current use. This chronologically unbound "central conceit" revives Chaucer as participant in this variation on "fan fiction." This project draws in villainous rival poet John Gower, whiningly pious Margery Kempe, and proto-stoner Thomas Usk. Political intrigues from the late thirteenth century begin to parallel, in this distorted universe, real 1386 with what Bryant conjured up online in 2006. He started this GC character as a diversion from his dissertation. Certainly the mash-up results-- clever, learned, and engagingly arcane-- merit their own surprising study in this installment of The New Middle Ages series from a scholarly press. This anthology recounts the impact of this and related websites by medievalists over the past fifteen years in popular culture, academic circles, and via social networking.

Senior scholars Bonnie Wheeler and Jeffery Jerome Cohen add their own chapters on such educated, insipid, and inspired entertainment. Cohen, however, adds a cautionary note. Given that most of us click on Friendster as often as we consult microfiche, the expectation that such archived resources will always be ready and waiting for us may be foolish. The "inherently gregarious" blog community, where comments can be appended and threads taken up years after they first extend, may be as short lived as Friendster's fame.

Moving more materials onto the Web where you and I read this review could justify more reductions in a faculty often-, unlike Bryant who landed a tenure-track job after finishing his dissertation-- relegated to the wandering scholar status of their medieval predecessors. Online shifts, Cohen suggests, might hasten humanities downsizing at corporatizing universities. Limited access by databased research only a large university can afford to subscribe shuts off less-privileged inquirers in ways library books do not. Transferring to a friends-only, short-lived access Facebook or Twitter the conversations once preserved on blogs may mean that even a blog may find a short shelf life. Ironically, this book allows us all affordable and permanent consultation of this Chaucer blog, even if Bryant (or Google's Blogger) shuts it down.

The contrasts between Wheeler's cheer, Bryant's enthusiasm, and Cohen's caution typify reactions to the cultural contexts for this technology. The other eighty percent of these pages share actual contents. Robert W. Hanning (Bryant's professor) teases and torments us with fifteen pages crammed with outrageously recondite puns, limericks, parodies, songs, smut, and bumper sticker slogans. This "comic diary," he tells us, is fifty years in the making. Hanning's section's titled "Chaucerians Do It with Pronounced E's." If that sparks a smile, read on. It's that kind of book. If you lack intimacy with Middle English, Chaucer, and medieval Europe, perhaps these delights may seduce you into fluency.

This humor, overly clever if often challenging (I confess a Ph.D. in the period, yet there's one allusion that baffles me), immortalizes what Chaucer had in common with his followers today. A bawdy, intellectual, humbling, holy, and clerically-tinged relish for the absurd, the lofty, and the ensuing, frequent collisions between our aspirations and our asses. Bryant and his conspirators remind us of the joy of scholarship, too often crushed by publish-or-perish pressures. The success of this blog beyond ivory towers, or flourescent-lit classrooms and dim cubicles, conveys the passion devoted by fans to a time they love.

Examples from the blog may confound those accustomed only to Modern English. So, I will nudge you towards a couple of passages that you may chuckle at readily. One of the early successes for Bryant's blog came when GC marveled at the spam he received, "wondrous messages from the Internet." "Heere are a fewe ensaumples," drawn from their subject lines. The texts themselves reward your own discovery.

"A fayre ladye of a far londe offreth me hir loue!" (Sexy female from an exotic realm seeks release.) "An churlish proposicioun of anatomical alchemie," for whatever aphrodisiac augmentation a canon might concoct. "A mightie prince of power asketh myn succour yn matirs financiale!" (Armenia fills in via "hottemail.com" for Nigeria.) "An appeale to the lustes of the bodi!" (Via "Brokers of Onlyne Erotica.") "And last but nat least, fortune doth smile vpon me!" (A chain letter.) Satire proves how our foibles endure.

More episodes ensue. I am taking one nearly at random to illustrate how far this conceit carried Bryant. A Paris Hilton ancestress, Reims Launcechrona, sashays in for an interview. Playing word-association with our abashed interlocutor, to "Confessioun," she replies: "Hotness. My friare-confessour is sooo hotte. Lyk, he beth so hotte that thou nedest to put fowere of the letter t in 'hotttte.' Thank God spellinge is nat standardised yet, for we may neede moore than four of the letter t."

That sort of sly charm permeates this tribute to Chaucer's appeal and the spell his century casts on those who pursue it today, amidst the same distractions and discussions you and I engage in at our keyboards. It, as with many inspired colloquies in this medium, does cut off suddenly. Perhaps due to the need to rush this into print, or the weariness of the author, or the inherent nature of a blog that whirls as rapidly as its URL taking its title from Chaucer's own dream vision, The House of Fame, its entries halt, as GC muses over the werewolf craze: Thys is a bandwagon upon which Ich wolde lyke to leap.

The most ambitious entry in an already advanced anthology of allusion? For me, it's King Richard and GC escaping the Appellants to Las Vegas. They meet figures incorporated from literary and historical late medieval Europe. For example, the pair are beset by Bertilak Marx, the wily host of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who assumes an Allen Ginsberg guise. Bertilak insists they listen to his poem "Vowel," on the Great Vowel Shift-- which in turn relies on your comprehension of the Professor Hanning's "Pronounced E's" slogan. Margery Kempe intervenes-- now a cardiganed professor at an American university after a harrowing interview at the MLA where her own autobiography puts words in her decidedly pre-postmodern mouth-- to save the king from his burning at the stake for minutiae including a deadpan inquistorial recital of the four evils of airplane peanuts and their packaging.

Well, if this all raises a grin, or cocks an eyebrow, check out this one volume from a scholarly press on Chaucer and his era which will spark more risibility than the usual monograph. Combining the commentary on this electronic medium for medievalists to spread both learning and wit with generous excerpts (updated and revised by Bryant for print) from the blog, this volume reminded me how much I enjoyed reading about these lost centuries. This study, in its learned laughter, should be snapped up by anybody who wondered, back in class, where all the devout or dirty jokes in Chaucer were buried. After this excavation, you'll wind up not only reviving them, but inventing your own, perhaps in orthographically-challenged cod-Myddle Englyshe, parchaunce. (Shorter and revised version of this on Amazon US 6-16-10; submitted to PopMatters.)

Visit: Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Julian Baggini's "Atheism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Calmly, non-dogmatically, this explains how not anti-religious so much as pro-naturalist stances can define a more positive version of atheism that accentuates reason to counter belief, myth, and superstition. As a philosopher, Baggini in a hundred pages manages to survey the moral foundations for rational assertions, the weakness of unverifiable claims of faith, and the hopes that this orientation will help men and women to grow up, if painfully, while leaving behind childish illusions.

He starts by countering assumptions that "atheism can only exist as a parasitic rival to theism," or that atheism needs to be nihilistic. If God could be proven to have never existed, he points out, we'd still have had atheists, if not by that name! It encompasses positive views of human potential and commonsensical self-actualization, not merely the naysaying sneers of caricatured malcontents.

He then makes the case for atheism based on experience, observation, and truth claims. Faith by its very definition relies on that not seen. Atheism cannot accept this as evidence of a divine presence. It does not ask us to go against our own reason or what can be measured or grasped. He demolishes Pascal's wager, ontological and cosmological proofs for God, and the appeal to one religion among so many choices as the only true one. If atheists cannot be a 100% sure, this only shows them the necessity to avoid militancy, oppression, or intolerance as they convince by nonjudgmental, non-dogmatic methods.

These tie into ethics, and Baggini steps into Aristotleian, Kantian, existentialist, and utilitarian concepts for much of the middle of his text. This seems perhaps a detour, but Baggini as a philosopher seeks to establish a foundation for morality that does not need a scripture, revelation, or belief as its construction. He then takes up the position that atheism can offer us meaning and purpose. "If we pretend or imagine that life's purpose lies outside living itself, we will be searching the stars for what is underneath our feet all the time." (67)

He looks at the history of atheism. He reminds us that moral people need not believe in the supernatural. Terry Pratchett is cited well: "I think I'm probably an atheist, but rather angry with God for not existing." (70)

Then, he defends a committed, caring atheism against charges that the Communists were such. This does not disprove atheism's truth anymore, he avers, than Hitler disproves the value of vegetarianism. Too severe a distorted application of ideology in whatever cause, Baggini warns, will lead to inhumanity pursued for principles that forget tradition, advance zealotry, and deny human nature's need for liberty and respect.

Finally, he links atheism to the progression of human culture away from innocence as well as ignorance. He examines how evil persists and how theodicy fails to account for this problem. Superstitions are replaced by rational explanations for the forces around us and within us. We learn to live as mature beings within finitude.

I found a few concepts, perhaps due to such compression for this fine Oxford series, that I would have liked to hear more about. Agnosticism's "suspension of belief" Baggini rejects as not accepting the "strong claims" that God does not exist as opposed to the "weak claims" that He may, but this needed more elaboration. He skims over how a bliss-filled afterlife in a non-human-like state might not represent fulfillment, and considering Stephen Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (see my reviews), I'd be curious about non-theistic approaches that might jibe better than Baggini might think with his own rationalism.

He precedes the bestsellers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens (see my reviews) by a few years. He takes up Dawkins's evolutionary studies briefly, however. He appeals to a less confrontational stance on non-fundamentalist religion and acknowledges the good that religions do can be separated from their harm, contrary to the more combative approaches taken by many subsequent contenders in the past decade's neo-atheist resurgence.

This is an optimistic, thoughtful work I enjoyed. Baggini succeeds in writing a book that atheists can share with those who wonder about this often misunderstood and feared system of thought. Not belief, but a philosophical, positive humanism that puts people ahead of spirits, and our capacity for living up to our best selves as our goal, freed from fear of torment or punishment from unseen forces. Whatever your own position, this primer challenges you to examine your own suppositions carefully. (Posted to Amazon US 6-24-10)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jennifer Steil's "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky": Book Review

Lively, crafted with care, engagingly detailed, paced smoothly, this reads as if invented rather than fact. In 2006, Steil enters Sana'a, dons the veil, and mutes (slightly) her New York sass.

This is not Sex in the City 2-- no shopping mall sprees in Abu Dhabi. On the other side of Arabia's peninsula, women vanish into black ghosts, rarely seen in the light. Steil dons this garb, and begins her transformation. Her pale blue eyes mark her to all-- men in public, women in private-- as a newcomer. Initially, she comes to advise for three weeks the hapless staff of the Yemen Observer daily paper.

How this seasoned journalist adjusts to life in Yemen and how its men and women adjust to her turns into a frenetic adventure. This feels more like a novel than an autobiography. Steil's knack for recounting dialogue that characterizes cultural clashes and common bonds energizes this episodic account of the year she decides to devote to running the paper.

Arriving in the capital, Steil sees its women draped entirely in black, its men in white. "This was a world before color, before fashion, before the rise of the individual," she reflects. (21) Tribe, class, piety, status, income: these emerge in the telling subtleties of an embroidered border of an abaya or the engraving on a jambiya's handle.

She adjusts "to become someone else," not meeting a male's gaze, lowering her eyes. She wonders if she will ever cease being their curiosity, their "object of study." Yet, she will become a mentor for Yemeni journalists, especially her female staff.

I learned a lot about the country, and if not as much about the countryside, it's due to Steil's own reliance on guides and mediators within a nation that can be daunting for a Westerner and moreover a woman with little Arabic to navigate. For she explains, she was a "third sex" there, as if a "giraffe." That is, she enjoyed the freedom a Western man could not to move between male and female realms!

A purple vibrator, peanut butter cups, and green pills all make cameo appearances. These unexpected perspectives, as she works with women who have had to struggle much for their status alongside her, and the men who have often had to do little for their status, compelled me to follow her story as a mentor and a resident of this unfamiliar society.

Coming to the English-language, grammatically-challenged paper, she fantasizes: "I imagined writing pieces that would trigger policy changes, reduce terrorism, and alter the role of women in society." (70) Laughing later at her naivete, she shows how hard the few women who work publicly must fight to fit in alongside men who get their jobs by nepotism. The males "will always find work in Yemen; they will always have society's approval. My women I worry about. What will become of them after I am gone?" (186)

Given her "third sex" status, she moves into the women's private life. At a wedding, she notes how mottled the women's skins are due to lack of sunlight, how pale they are uncovered from their confinement. "The dresses resemble the most shameless of prom gowns or things a stripper might wear for the first thirty seconds of her act." (193) When the cameras flash for the bride, "a black rayon wave ripples across the room as the women cover themselves with scarves to keep from getting caught on film." (195)

At another wedding, she gets a henna decoration up her arms as "the tattoos tighten around my wrist like ethereal handcuffs." (293). Then, the filigreed women must "be basted with Vaseline and patted with flour before getting wrapped in plastic, to preserve the design." At such privileged moments, Steil's directs us into scenes we would likely never otherwise witness.

She does seem hemmed in by watchful Sana'a, despite her love of its bustle. Her visit to the island of Soqotra matches in its feel for a very isolated existence that told by Tim Mackintosh-Smith in Yemen. A trip to Kamaran Island also allows her a glimpse of another Yemen, apart from her bustling city. Chaws of narcotizing qat while away up to six hours a day for most Yemeni men and many women. This alters, considerably, her New York expectations for a productive staff. Dissension and civil unrest ferment among Yemenis who fight far removed from her city routine. While more of these exotic perspectives might have enriched this book, Steil's focus on her stint in Sana'a appears to account accurately for most of her Yemen year.

Her personal life emerges gradually. She first has a fling with a much-younger German student; Yemen's Westerners tend to socialize more with each other. Native women have curfews. Native men tend not to meet up with Western women, at least openly. Steil, thirty-eight, seeks romance. The man she then meets is married. Although the mutual tension which arises appears in her recital to be rapidly smoothed over off-stage, this may attest to her discretion. The author's credentials on the back do give away the identity of the man she finds as her soul mate, but this does not ruin the plot.

However, Steil glosses over another situation that presents wider peril. She's embroiled in the controversy over the "Danish cartoons." The paper's Yemeni editor-in-chief-- while condemning the caricatures of Muhammed-- nonetheless publishes three of them (all crossed out) on the op-ed page. He winds up in court charged with "insulting Islam," while peers call for his execution. Given Steil's role, as an editor in all but title (the paper must be run by a Yemeni to fit legal restrictions), she keeps a low profile. This is understandable, but she appears to downplay whatever decisions she did or did not make in her chapter on this incident. The reader may be left wanting more explanation.

Yet, she encourages her reporters to challenge bias against homosexuals. Steil calls for honest coverage of sexuality. She confronts plagiarism and sycophants. She maneuvers between a very narrow press freedom and her own secular values. She stirs up currents that invited more depth.

At times, beneath her identity as a single and sexy New Yorker, Steil appears to have adapted the cautionary camouflage needed to survive in Yemen almost too well. In a regime run by one powerful man and riven by tribal conflict and endemic censorship, she must balance what is boasted to her in public against what goes on in private. Her femininity keeps her off balance in this realm. In this complex hierarchy, some stories will remain as closed off to her as the quarters of one half of the population are to nearly all of the other half.

I found this memoir illuminating if uneven, granted such reporting challenges. Along with Tim Mackintosh-Smith's erudite travel narrative by a long-time ex-pat, Steil's account offers another Westerner's view-- a feisty transplanted New Englander's-- of this misunderstood ancient country. (Her audience might check out the British novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday-- reviewed by me recently on this blog and Amazon US.) In a time when this nation's again in the news, feared for its ideological extremists and shunned by many tourists, it's refreshing to find this contribution to a short shelf of portrayals of Yemen as a more inviting, less barbaric, and long civilized place.

(Posted in shorter, unrevised form to Amazon 6-5-10; and as above 6-21-10 to PopMatters.com.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

William Boyd's "Armadillo": Book Review

Never thought I'd be interested in insurance, but my wife likes Boyd and urged this on me. He has a knack for getting you intrigued by what intrigues him-- such as the obsession for armor here-- and as with "The Blue Afternoon" about Hollywood, or "Brazzaville Beach" about Africa, I found this novel another reliable entertainment from Boyd.

It reminded me of Martin Amis' take on his city; see my review of "London Fields." Streets are named carefully by Lorimer, fashions noted meticulously, tics revealing one's status in a very class-conscious and place-obsessed megapolis. What stayed surprisingly subtle were the Transnistrian Gypsy backgrounds of Lorimer's family; another author might well have drawn upon this far more, but as with the obsessions of Lorimer himself, many of them appear oddly less amplified than I'd expected.

This tone, then, makes for an off-kilter story. It's from Lorimer's p-o-v, so that enhances his deadpan recital of such awful satirical types as Torquil, one of the most splendid louche layabouts I've ever met-- luckily not in reality. Yet, so much of the backstory of Lorimer-- as with the Scottish scenes that gradually are amplified to a climactic explanation of L's earlier re-invention of himself-- don't gain on the page the same weight that Boyd intends for them. I liked the novel, but a lot of the action and characterization stayed shadowy, all the way to the end.

As with the whole "lucid dreams" sub-plot, there's less payoff than I'd have liked. Flavia's an intriguing character, but too much of her mystery remains. Boyd is realistic in introducing types we know less about than we'd like at first, but then he withholds information later on that keeps us at a distance. He seems not to want to reveal all the mysteries, and while some may like this teasing, oblique approach, I found it perplexing by the story's conclusion. (Posted to Amazon US 6-12-10. I liked this European cover better.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

David Pierce's "Reading Joyce": Book Review

Another book on James Joyce, but a necessary one. For David Pierce combines thirty years of teaching Joyce with forty years of reading him. He integrates essay passages from his students at the University of York, his experiences teaching adults in Spain, and reflections from his junior seminary stint in the pre-Vatican II Church. He shares what he has learned from his own mixed Irish Catholic and English Jewish heritage. He enriches his lessons with contextual visits to his relatives near the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare during the 1950s. And, as with his Irish literary history, Light, Freedom and Song: A Cultural History of Modern Irish Writing, and his magisterial anthology Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century, he encourages beginners (not only students themselves) who wonder what to read next, and how.

One situates Joyce in the city, in the photographs, in the maps, in the questions raised by Pierce and his students and fellow scholars. The patient elucidation of so many inquiries asked over and over the years, one senses, illuminates many cruxes in Joyce. Pierce accompanies the reader in guiding him or her into the metropolitan labyrinth.

Pierce’s personal encounters model those of any reader coming to Joyce. “We might legitimately feel that whatever insights we possess deserve to be more than merely those that supplement or confirm the author’s original intention or achievement.” (8) While none can match Joyce’s obsessive comprehensiveness, we can, Pierce offers, follow Joyce’s intricate difficulties, not to find completion, but at least to rouse contention within texts that reward our patient inquiry.

The study begins with Pierce’s introduction to how Joyce intersects with his own varied experiences. After situating 1904 as the pivotal point for the Joycean universe, he begins to explore how difficulty and delay work to deepen our responses to the four major works. Rather than providing a potted summary of each text, the professor shows how his varied and idiosyncratic responses pattern those raised by anybody reacting to Joyce’s fiction, whose intent he locates within a prose calculated to trigger delay as often as recognition. This structure shows how Joyce’s mind tends to be elsewhere: “unfinished sentences” of “The Sisters” comprises his first case study of how we may enter into ambiguous and elusive stories. The “ventriloquial effect” of the spare dialogue in “Eveline” reveals the gaps that Joyce left for us to fill.

Building upon scholarship, blending his academic expertise with his individual struggles to make sense of Joyce’s major works, Pierce extends “criticism into areas that might prove more attractive for today’s reader.” (5) Prominently featured, as expected from an author whose 1992 James Joyce’s Ireland documented a visual counterpart to a critical survey, his own photographs alongside period illustrations parallel his chapters. Some appeared in the earlier book; many photos were taken since then by Pierce. Similar to filmmaker-archivist George Morrison’s method, Pierce prefers sharp-eyed captions. For example, he snaps North Richmond Street in 2006, near a 1954 photo and a 1900 city map. Each alerts us to Joyce’s scrupulous application of his city’s reality to Dubliners; municipal fact is never far, but far enough, away, every time.

As a cultural tourist, Pierce follows his fellow Joyceans. Yet, as in asides to “railings” in “Two Gallants” and blinds in “Araby,” his close reading of words –- rather than summation of their stories, which he expects his reader will have already studied –- gives new glimpses into the class barriers and geographical reifications within the familiar (after a century of exegesis) movements of characters throughout Dublin. He marvels: “A writer with poor eyesight sees the whole world in colour, and Joyce was no different. The photographs we have from the period are all black and white, but imagine a world with colour and everything comes to life. That is what reading Dubliners can be like– the awakening to colour.” (115)

Pierce’s own time spent teaching English in Madrid shapes his perspective for how the Continent deepened Joyce’s recollections. A postcard reproduced of via Donota in Trieste, from 1910, depicts a nearly Oriental street scene, yet it mirrors “A Painful Case” in those details an exile evoked, “a thousand miles away from the scenes of his youth.” (136) Discussing Portrait, Pierce remembers his students as they tried to get the title right in their essays. In that novel, Joyce’s “perversely kinetic” portrait elides and sidles, “so that we never have the luxury of asserting that this moment above all others captures the subject.” (164) In this “provisional quality that inheres in the indefinite article,” whether the title for a student trying to capture it is rendered “The or A Portrait,” “The or An Artist”, “The or A Young Man,” an elusively Cubist impact may linger.

Within such delay, tension and difference, difficulty and resolution exchange. Ulysses deepens the immersion necessary to enjoy and persevere within a novel that for Pierce, demands attention but lavishes pleasure upon those bold enough to venture into its depths. Joyce satisfies by “a process of entanglement and disentanglement.” (221) Fiction and reality contend; Stephen’s Protean surfaces and Homeric patterns open a narrative with an “x” of a razor’s cross that closes with Molly’s “y” of a last “Yes.” Both Dedalus and Molly wander within Leopold Bloom’s home and work environment, which Pierce reconstructs in a few of its many scenes that June fifteenth.

Student essays on Molly spark Pierce’s ingenuity. Pondering “Penelope” with its unpunctuated, eight sentence, 19,000 word monologue, he unpacks the “German Emperor” reference with deft re-punctuation and character attribution as a short dialogue to show the density of Joyce’s entry. Reminding us that we eschew complete sentences in most of our own mental articulation, Pierce transfers this observation to his own Co. Clare recollections. “Interestingly, as I would assume for Joyce’s Galway partner Nora, the intake of breath on a word or phrase among my relatives from the West of Ireland is a constant accompaniment to their speech and utterly beguiling in its randomness.” (291) He aligns Nora’s counterpart Molly’s “words and breathlessness” as halting, flowing interior monologue, only with its final orgasmic affirmation-- perhaps-- uttered aloud.

Her flow of consciousness elicits academic treatises galore, yet Pierce manages, aided by his students’ essays, to revive fresh reactions to topics that through theorists tangle skilled scholars.

“Penelope” presents the unstoppable, unsinkable Molly Bloom. Only Joyce’s demand that his fortieth birthday coincide with the printing of Ulysses, Pierce avers, ensured an end to Molly’s reverie. We listen to it, Pierce perceives, with mingled voyeurism and distance from her intimacy. Discomforted by our closeness to the female voice usually hidden from public scrutiny, in her unvoiced soliloquy we encounter our own mysterious consciousness. “Isn’t this one of the nicest ironies about ‘Penelope’, that it represents what happens to us all, and all the time, but it’s written in a way that seems unique and never encountered before?” (295) This passage typifies Pierce at his most alert: honed by the classroom, sharpened by his scholarship, tempered by his awareness of a reader who may struggle to keep up with his energetic pace, he strives for clarity, coaching, and commiseration. He never patronizes or obfuscates. He remains aware of those beginning their enviable study of works he knows so well after a career of their contemplation.

By focusing on amateur readers as often as professionals, Pierce reverts to what a century ago may have been a rawer, less accomplished, but more vibrant and unpredictable reception to Joyce. Before the academic industry churned, Joyce confronted readers then as now in their own mind-set, perhaps with few or no guides. Pierce provides a select bibliography; being limited to works mentioned in his text lacking many of the primers perhaps better suited for absolute beginners, but this gap can be filled by any diligent novice with a few moments at a keyboard or library shelf.

Pierce dispenses praise and correction fairly. His study roams more than aims, as he shares Joyce’s “indeterminacy” when grappling with the master’s formidable texts. Rather than fall short of explicating them, Pierce shows us how he confronts them; from these disparate encounters he learns wisdom, humor, emotion, and humility. The strength of this innovative, if more individualized, presentation: he advances his reactions yet leans back to entertain alternatives. After all, as far as scholars have progressed in solving Joycean cruxes, many remain, as Pierce’s Finnegans Wake chapter reproduces with jotted notes after readings and re-readings.

His afterward recovers Joyce’s covenant, “a devotion to an ideal community of readers and a refusal to endorse the easy option.” (338) Pierce joins Joyce in expecting no less from us. While the exile from Dublin “remains an enigma to the end,” his four main books remind us that we can take up the challenge and continue the game that his text set up, with rules or without marks. “In the closing moments of his final almost impenetrable work, Joyce asks a question that many of his readers over the years must have thought about him, ‘Is there one who understands me?’ (FW 627:15)” (339) As a scholar with ten books to his name, most in part at least on Joyce (ironically the Cork UP anthology has a blank page, due to copyright bickering among Joyce’s heirs, where his excerpts were to be inserted), Pierce could have produced one more assemblage of his thoughts and passed it off as an introduction. Instead, he leaves the preliminaries to his able predecessors. More than reading Joyce, we must hear his chamber music rise from the page. (A portion of this appeared on Amazon US 6-18-10; this combined with Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us will be reviewed in Epona.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Declan Kiberd's "Ulysses & Us": Book Review


A critic strives to reconnnect ordinary readers with a book meant for, and about, the rest of us. His colleagues strangle Ulysses in theoretical nets; average folks often fear, mock or abandon it. Unfairly, Kiberd insists; Joyce teaches us how to understand his narrative.

Kiberd rues: "A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them. Was this a case of bad faith or bohemian hypocrisy in a work which idealised just the sort of simple souls who could never hope to read it?" (7) This guide and commentary-- unlike his own handy Penguin 1992 Annotated Student's Edition (never available in the US and enmeshed in the copyright battles over the Joyce estate abroad; based on the Bodley Head 1960 printing)-- does not seek a line-by-line commentary. However, it'd be a welcome primer. As with David Pierce's similarly themed, recent Reading Joyce (my Epona joint review of Pierce & Kiberd's in press), Kiberd blows away dust. Neither book might be the very first to consult when taking up this novel, but they'd come early on in one's supplemental instruction. Both scholars show us how a century ago readers came to face this work, and how, after nearly another century, aided by scholarship, we can restore the wonder of this dazzling narrative.

Bohemia may have inspired early Joyce, but Ulysses determines to be less Stephen Dedalus and more Leopold & Molly Bloom: it's a bourgeois setting. It celebrates the mundane and tells how to recapture the awe in the everyday moment "In that context, Ulysses exists like a blasted road sign in a war zone, pointing at a future that is exhilarating to precisely the extent that it is uncertain and open." (21)

This work promotes an engaged Everyman, but the failure of the 20th century it heralded shows that its "world so lost turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it." We lack middle-class culture that modernism, social democracy, and the text sought to place within our grasp. Instead, "mass entertainment" reduces "all the oppositional forces of modernism" to supplant them with "only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography." Our train conductor will not regale us with a quote from Shakespeare as we alight in Limerick; "overpaid experts and underpaid service providers" replaced the sidewalk flaneur and public character on the street with us, scurrying towards our locked cars "from one private moment to another." (24)

The next chapter on the novel's ties back to the Irish past and its revival promises an emphasis, for once, on Irish-language predecessors. This subject could display Kiberd's bilingual expertise. Yet, beyond typically provocative asides such as how the novel might be reconfigured as "a central text of the Gaelic revival," this theme languishes in far too brief a section. (36)

Eighteen chapters follow. It would have helped to have a preface to this book explaining Kiberd's overall aims. Kiberd gives over the bulk of his necessarily brisk explication; by titling each of his chapter commentaries on "Ulysses" with a verb he neatly remind us of its predominant action: "Waking; Learning; Thinking; Walking; Praying; Dying; Reporting; Eating; Reading; Wandering; Singing; Drinking; Ogling; Birthing; Dreaming; Parenting; Teaching; Loving."

Stephen keeps the British confused; his rebellion's neither as lackey nor terrorist. "He refuses to be easily decoded. So in truth does Joyce's book." (49) The novel rescues one day from dullness. On 16 July 1904 when not much happened historically, a lot gets recorded imaginatively. This frees its Irish characters.

Shifting from Stephen with Deasy's conversation, via Sandymount strand, then to Bloom's monologue, Kiberd links them with an easily overlooked motif. His observant eye assists experienced readers to recall images and associations rewarding repeated visits to the text. While "Deasy valued shells" for what they were as objects, "and not for the life which they contained," young Dedalus "seeks their inner meaning, the soul which animates their exterior form." (64) Bloom will soon praise the first man bold enough to eat an oyster; later Kiberd muses about Bloom's attraction for Molly as "Sirens" ends: "The rhythm of sex, like the rise and fall of the sea-tides, produces desire and then forgiveness, a sound to be heard in the seashell thrown up on the beach (though what is heard is really the pulsing of the listener's own blood)." (177-78)

Like Ulysses, Kiberd's focus rapidly may alter. The chapters move quickly as their source-text does. The pace of both author and critic demands attention to details. A Latin Quarter hat, Plumtree's Potted Meat, the "U.P." postcard message, Bloom's defecation all earn scrutiny. The first three episodes present "a version of the problem to which Bloom might be the answer." (80-81) Styles alter every chapter, Kiberd suggests, to further the reader's education as much as Stephen's, as the bohemian pose of the student with the hat weakens under the force of the bourgeois life examined scrupulously-- by a newspaper ad, a rumor, the body's demands-- so as to release wonder from daily routine.

A critic may, after immersion, adapt the text so long cited into his or her own prose. Kiberd begins "Dying": "At funerals people formally mourn the dead person, while privately experiencing an even deeper sadness for those who remain in the world." (100) The chapter on another theme starts: "Reading was often the last thing on Joyce's mind when he visited the National Library. Like many Dublin libraries, it was used more for talk than study." (157) Kiberd remarks about the city he shares with Joyce: "In Dublin there are only two kinds of joke-- those that were once funny, and those that were never funny." (104) The avuncularity of these comments shadows their sharpness, in true civic register.

The difficulty of keeping a tone, for author, emerges for this critic early on in the interior monologues. Even by the newspaper visit, the insertion of headlines shows the dangers of misleading a reader, as a sub-editor often has not studied the articles themselves under pressure of deadlines. Kiberd uses this example to illustrate Joyce's risk-taking. Unsure of his own tonal perfection, Joyce warns of language churned out mechanically, formulaically "Joycean." So, the author as a clever modernist keeps updating his art, with no version staying "final" or "official." Similarly, as this editor knows, he and his colleagues add to the textual indeterminacy of never one "authorized" text of "Ulysses."

Instability in "Cyclops" widens the gaps as the narrative continues. Bloom's monologue goes missing. Interior richness fades at Barney Kiernan's. The Gaelic literary tradition's oral culture's "shreds and radiant fragments" break the chapter's juxtapositions into banal barstool dialogue. Not even Joyce, Kiberd holds, could sustain the "density" of earlier chapters, and gaps open up to allow other voices to enter the novel.

Similarly, as Bloom's watch stops at the time of the assignation of Blazes Boylan with Molly at 4 p.m., so the narrative skips and hastens. What in "Nausikaa" alternated between Bloom and Gerty and then merged briefly increases in "Oxen of the Sun" as Joyce takes on all of English literature (with as Kiberd notes the exceptions of Chaucer and Shakespeare) as the author determines to escape any system able to hold him down. Kiberd emphasizes the novelty of Ulysses: "its strategies changed as it was written, by way of the writer's reaction to the reception of earlier episodes, and with no clear sense of the total conception until the final phase was written." (225) The pace quickens and the prose often thickens, until, in Nighttown, it leaves chronology behind for "the timeless zones of the unconscious."

We learn in "Ithaca" much about Stephen and Bloom that monologues could not tell us. Their conversations in "Eumaeus" remained wayward, warm if tentative. These sections, often discouraging readers, regain their worth in Kiberd's interpretation. A combination of the parental role of Bloom in the former and the catechetical mode of the latter chapter shows how the intellectual may reclaim the ordinary. After Stephen leaves, thoughts of a psalm of liberation accompany him. Left behind, Bloom goes to bed. There the novel was supposed to have ended.

Yet, "as Molly counter-signed her husband's passport to eternity," surprises await. (259) Masturbation, uniting solitary spouses that day, found both Blooms soon thinking of each other. This subversive action, Kiberd holds, represents a satisfaction that neither the glimpse of Gerty or the embrace of Blazes could. As for the often contradictory sections of Molly's revelations, Kiberd proposes that she be treated not "as a definite person," but "'the voice of the book,' a voice that breaks out of gender confines and individual identity." (272) As for her husband, so for Molly; they can be seen "moving out of time and into the infinite."

Five chapters of this study close with literary antecedents. The influence of the "Odyssey" moves Kiberd to regard Homer's epic as anticipating "many features of the lives of the civic bourgeoisie," while Joyce's response laments "bourgeois virtues that were fast disappearing." (282) Prophetic modes in the Old Testament fulfilled in the New play off of latent powers unleashed in Ulysses. Lacking any quotation marks within, this novel encompasses all voices that predicted it.

Dante and Hamlet offer two examples of how masters may guide followers through danger, on pilgrimage and in coming-of-age. These essays recall Erich Auerbach's comparative perspectives, and roam as widely. Throughout, Kiberd grounds most of Ulysses in its quotidian, even modest, assertions of the mundane as magical. The interpreter of the past strives to recover a fidelity that the present can never match. Yet, in this dismantling of the original, a new text responds and renews it.

Response and renewal, by ingesting earlier texts and cannibalizing his own, characterize Joyce's process to resist incorporation and parody by his literary heirs. Kiberd reiterates the contents of Ulysses that emerge once its scaffolding falls away, its veils drop. As wisdom literature no less than the Torah: "Everything was in the holy book, including all that had been known to predecessors." (301) The Irish epic binds the sacred to the mundane. Bloom's humility corrects Stephen's aestheticism. The body, as both Blooms show, can soothe the overexcited mind. Intellect need not be divorced from experience, as the sacramental transformation in Ulysses emerges by "an almost tantric sense of delayed gratification." (353) In a world far busier than Joyce's, Kiberd urges readers-- in this helpful guide by another textual master-- to reclaim the magic within not only this great story's telling, but in our own relationships, objects, thoughts, and words.

P.S. I caught three minor slips in this work that relies on a wealth of knowledge as vast as its inspiration. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha" Kiberd attributes on pg. 191 to the Buddha, but this koan conventionally has been credited to the founder of the Zen Rinzai sect, Linji. "St. Theresa" should be Teresa, as "of Avila"-- not Therese of Lisieux-- part of one of "saintly couples" on pg. 275, here aligned with St. John of the Cross. The "famous NASA photograph of the earth" was not "taken from the moon in 1969." (327) It was sent as "Earthrise" from the lunar orbiter Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968.

(P.P.S. Again in the transatlantic publishing battle, those Brits beat us Yanks. So, is copyright [as with so much in the Joyce industry] to blame? Why Eve Arnold's ca. 1952 snap of Marilyn Monroe graces the Faber cover while we're peddled Norton's duller shot of the early edition of this big fat tome by duller comparison beats me.) (A somewhat briefer review appeared on Amazon US 12-15-09, cross-posted to my blog for longer reviews "Not the L.A. Times Book Review.")

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts

June Gloom in L.A. lured me to the Huntington, one of my favorite places. Unlike many here, I prefer gray skies. In a few days the weather will warm and the sun will sear. So, I went off for a noontime walk.

I've been there -- every few years at least -- since I was a boy. The contrast between elegant San Marino with its high-fenced estates, luxuriant lawns, and wide streets and whatever humbler neighborhood I've lived calms me. Despite the baking blare that tends in memory and fact to permeate my visits, it's an oasis for the mind and body.

My mind allows me to enter as a library reader. When I was a kid, I glimpsed the Ellesmere Chaucer and Blake's illustrated "Songs of Innocence & Experience," Thoreau's "Walden," and perhaps Joyce's "Ulysses." I suppose it was the one elegant expanse I saw as a child, and I thank now my parents for taking me there. Today's my mom's birthday and I reflect on her death thirteen years ago and my dad's a year ago last spring. They did not like walking that much due to their health, but they took the trouble -- probably on some broiling valley day that seemed so typical of my random moments recalled there whenever I conjure up the San Gabriel Valley -- to show me its marvels, so removed from our daily routine of blaring tv and barking dogs.

There's coolness in the guarded interiors, a hushed atmosphere in the calm galleries. Constable & Turner, Van Dyke & Morris, porcelain & chinoserie filled its dimmed corridors. Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Lawrence's "Pinkie" flirt across the gallery. Reynolds' "Lady Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" writhes nearby.

One of the arguable benefits left by Henry Huntington's rapacity as one of the robber barons who made SoCal what it is -- a farflung web of tangled rail and transport routes clogged with dreamers and dunces -- comes from his wealth amassed from Southern Pacific, water, power, and land holdings. He invested in the cultural patrimony bought from Asia and Europe. His displays attest to the massive accrual of literature, art, and flora that his power carried his way. To his credit, he left his splendid collections intact and arrayed for us to appreciate a century later.

There's a temporary exhibit of a few California landscapes from the early 20c that reminded me of my own upbringing in what were "semi-rural" locales not far away. I found on a caption of a small engraving one street near where I live with that same descriptor, circa 1930. A freeway now hustles me by a few hundred feet away from that slope. The occupant of what's now 2006 El Moran Street, the caption informed me, tried to blow himself up in a gas ignition but wound up only with that house on fire. The artwork stylizes the steps leading up to his dream bungalow in Echo Park.

As a young boy, I longed to study at the Huntington one day. Californians lack much tangible evidence from distant British Isles or the Continent for us to learn from. The Huntington's where I first peered back into the Middle Ages, met the legacy of British authors, and entertained the possibility of a life -- however under-endowed!-- spent pursuing culture.

My doctorate decades later and my academic research enables me to consult the holdings, even the manuscripts. I did some fact-checking that day, as I regularly if sporadically do. I recall one field trip early in grad school for a medieval lit seminar; we peered at the "Piers Plowman" ms. firsthand, if not quite touching it, understandably. For me, it was a thrill akin to my peers, back then, meeting Springsteen, Bono, or Michael Jackson. I prefer my celebrities draped in vellum.

My body allows me to enter the estate as a stroller, if more ambulatory than the fit and groomed chattering and cell-phoned mothers navigating designer perambulators. These filled the entrance and the walkways. Alongside clumps of dogged Asian tourists, their women with those all-enveloping visors you never see on anybody else. Even under overcast sky the females draped themselves against glare. As did I, sun hat on in case, it being around noon, if the light broke through, as it tends to by then.

But, it didn't. Unlike my quick constitutional after driving back from work four months earlier to the day -- when what began when I drove up as but the hint of a slight drizzle but wound up with me drenched in a thunderstorm far from shelter under the bamboo and over the muddy tracks of the hundred-acre garden -- I had no need of protection. I wound up in February soaked through even with an umbrella in my dress-up clothes, my shoes wet for days. Now, mid-June, I enjoyed the relative coolness, the lack of humidity considering the haziness, and the quiet of a few minutes spent away from the flocks of babies, crowds, and talkers.

Such moments are rare, I reflected, even in such retreats. The sirens out in San Marino -- an enclave where one must drive cautiously as I always see patrol cars on its winding, broad, nearly empty streets -- kept blaring over the foliage that half-distanced us from that wealthy suburb. Twice I was asked by families to direct them. I could not help the grandmotherly type with her tyke who wanted to find again his favorite Lion's Chair, as my guesses as to its provenance in the Chinese or Japanese gardens were rebuked by his head-shaking. I tried to help a couple with baby in stroller as they sought a ramp up to the Zen House on the way to the Rose Tea House. It seemed a circuitous route to a libation, as the Chinese version was much closer, but they insisted and I scouted the way up the hill for them to follow.

That Chinese "Garden of Flowing Fragrance" was new to me. Familiar with the comparative humility of the Japanese model house, bonsai displays, and raked Zen realms with red bridge, I found the Chinese counterpart as brash and confident as the chattering clamor that filled its teahouse "Terrace that Invites the Mountains." I'd never entered this setting before; the Huntington had a massive expansion that my past visits, often confined to the library for my research stops, had not shown me. So, today I figured I'd look about more.

"Liu Fang Yuan," its Chinese name, surrounds a man-made lake on the site of a natural pool for water on the grounds. I had no idea what had been here before. The typical Los Angeles amnesia; we pass a place a year later and can't remember what preceded whatever concrete structure rises fresh and raw. The walls were white, as if miniature fortresses, and the solidity of the edifice (financed by East-West Bank as plaques noted) spoke to the San Gabriel Valley where I was raised, itself transformed by Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants the past generation into a realm utterly changed from the dull, blue-collar smoggy sprawl of my childhood and teenaged years, when I could hardly wait to get out of its featureless dusty shimmer.

On my rainy day visit, I'd paused at its farthest vantage point, away from the walled lake and teahouse and walkways. "The Pavilion of Washing Away Thoughts" stood by a small statue of the Buddha, but it had no benches inside its tiny shelter. A bench was nearby, but in the downpour, it presented little incentive to wait out the thunder and lightning that had surrounded me suddenly.

Today, however, I stopped there to read at "Di Lu Ting" this couplet again: "Flowing water can purify the mind. Fragrant mountains are good for quiet contemplation." I fantasized an unhurried stay there, but even at the Huntington, a hundred acres appear too few for solitude. Those roads and rails laid down by Huntington worked too well. They raised the cash he used to build his museum and gallery and gardens, and they lured millions here where a century ago thousands lived. And we all want in.

There's really nowhere for the public to sit apart from where everyone else passes. For safety I am sure, but this does diminish the message of calm. The pavilion facing the hazy mountains we could not see crammed with Chinese taking pictures of each other in a facsimile of a setting I imagined (at least before the Cultural Revolution) commonly found back home. Their voices rang off the stucco and wood. I walked past the throngs and found myself in mud along a trail not yet funded for completion in what will be an ampitheater, as construction continues to make this site an arena for festivity rather than a cove for meditation. So, whatever benefits may be afforded those who stop at Liu Fang Yuan, they may remain more for memory, a contemplation plucked later if amidst the city to which I had to return.

I drove up Allen Ave. through Pasadena, on a straight route that neatly terminated where I picked up my boys from school. They sought their own cultural tastes, so we stopped at the local library for them to check out graphic novels for vacation. On that shelf, my eldest showed me Harvey Pekar's on the Beats and R. Crumb's on Kafka. So, another Californian, a near neighbor to a robber baron, can drive down Huntington Drive (or pass Huntington Park on the way to Huntington Beach), to pass on another patrimony. My sons admire media that may one day join Blake's Tyger and the Cook's Tale illuminated that day on display from the Ellesmere Chaucer. Even if they don't follow their father into a Middle English text or a Zen garden's raking.

Photo: The Huntington.org

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tobsha Learner's "The Witch of Cologne": Book Review

A mass-market epic romance combines philosophical radicalism (Spinoza's secularism), political upheaval (Dutch rebellion against the monarchy), and Catholic suppression (the Inquisition extends its long bony hands towards the German frontier). The later 17th century's full of power, lust, and greed, and Learner intersperses erotic scenes that make her characters seem much more like contemporaries than our ancestors, if their uninhibited tastes were indulged.

Reviewers appeared shocked or unsettled by Learner's ambitious tale. However, as the author of Quiver: a book of erotic tales, one might expect her application of steamier interludes into an often sobering dramatization of how liberal ideals were hunted down by enforcers of Church and State. I sought this out curious about the portrayal of Sephardic Judaism in a modernizing Europe, and this element, especially in the earlier sections, enriches this story. The question of whether she's a witch, interestingly or annoyingly, appears understated: we see evidence of such, but details soon get skimmed over and obscured, perhaps reflecting the way Ruth would wish to distract others from her acquaintance with amulets and spells.

The novel's chapters are named for kabbalistic levels, but as the story goes on, the actual connections between the Zohar and the plot seem to recede and vanish. Later chapters find Ruth, once with her lover, a Catholic canon who turns Protestant preacher, seemingly abandoning her Jewish heritage, if understandably due to clerical and judicial persecutions which never seem to end. This grim tone of oppression permeates the whole novel. Judaism and skepticism both seem thought crimes. I felt the pressure upon freethinkers that must have terrorized so many who dared to consider revolutionary conceptions in such an oppressive climate.

For me, that struggle to articulate humanist ideals proved the most memorable aspect of this narrative. Learner also writes for the stage and screen, and the cinematic perspective of many scenes enlivens her novel. Here is a plague hospital:
"Oblivious to the human agony below, a swallow tends to the mud nest she has wedged precariously between two wooden rafters. Beneath the industrious bird lie row after row of the infirm. Thrown on the dirty straw, the sick are contorted and delirious, like the victims of some massive shipwreck, their eyes already flooding with the resignation of the drowning. Nuns in the brown habit of their order scurry between their patients, removing pails of diseased slops, many wearing cotton masks packed with herbs in a desperate attempt to ward off the extraordinary stench of disease." (284)


She takes time to characterize even walk-on figures, and you glimpse their complexity. Her skill at rendering scenes (as what I've quoted) enlivens her novel. Her research generally works smoothly. Perhaps inevitably some dialogue lags didactically given what we must comprehend about the machinations of Austria, Holland, and the German entities. Towards the end, the narrative energy flags as some main characters weary; passages tell us rather than show us the progress of the pursued, hunted characters. (One aside: I don't think Kaddish for the dead would have been recited in "perfect Hebrew"; it's traditionally in a literary Aramaic.) Given our unfamiliarity with 17th-century history, there's a few notes appended, a list of characters (many taken from real life) with annotations, and a helpful glossary.

Learner's learning's generally blended well, but this may be a daunting read for the squeamish, the prim, or the easily distracted reader. It takes about a third of the way into the plot for the key players to square off, but after that, the pace steadies. The conclusion did not wrap up the way I thought, while the fate of one foe and the general denouement seemed too hasty after so long a story. I suspected a sequel either was altered and edited into this novel, or that the character triumphant at the conclusion may earn another tale to come.

So, it's recommended for an adventurous reader. The lively couplings and gruesome tortures jibe with Learner's wish to make us feel the fleshly fates of her characters, as moments of grace and depth enter nearly every figure she introduces. She's nimble at telegraphing traits to help us identify with these distant people and their thoughts and fears. Our protagonist seems by the end overwhelmed by it all, and we may be too, but that's the force of the encounter between frail humans and ideological forces that try to crush, rather than liberate, everyday folks who dare question what seems to have always been true. (Posted to Amazon US 6-13-10)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ceithre tuartha ceathannaí

Labhrófaí focail eagsulaí mar amharc os cionn ag teacht ina dhiadh sin fearthainn. As Gaeilge, d'inseofaí faoi radharc leis ceithre roghannaí difríulaí. B'fhéidir, bheifí ábalta rá focail seo níos minic in Éirinn, ar ndóigh.

Mar sin féin, deirtear 'tuar ceatha.' Mar sin, tá ciall go ndeirtear, 'tuar ceatha' ann. Tá ciall eile go mbeadh 'bogha báisti,' mar sin 'bogha báistí' ann, chomh as Béarla.

Chuir mé dhá leagan eile. Tá sé 'bogha leatha,' mar sin 'bogha leatha.' ann. Agus, tá sé 'bogha síne,' mar sin 'bogha síne' ann.

D'fheicfí go mbeadh go flúirseach. Breacaíonn sé taisc as Gaeilge. Foghlaimíonn muid gach uile shórt a chur san áireamh scéal a chuirfeadh iontas ar dhuine-- de nádúr.

Chonaic mé ceithre boghannaí ceathannaí le déanaí. Thiomaint muid go dtí Tehachapi. Bhreatnaigh muid ceithre tuartha ceathannaí suas spéir an lá báisti sin.

"A Quartet of Rainbows"

One would say various words after a sight above coming after rain. In Irish, one might tell about a view with four different choices. Perhaps, one might be able to say these words more often in Ireland, naturally.

Nevertheless, somebody says "tuar ceatha." That is, there's the sense that somebody may say "prediction of a shower." There's another meaning that'd be "bogha báistí," that is, "a bow of rain," same as in English.

I found two other versions. There's "bogha leatha," that is, "half a bow." And, there's "bogha síne," that is, "stretched bow."

Some should look at this abundance. Writing's a treasure in Irish. We learn other sorts of ways to account for what's put this way variously by people- naturally.

We saw a quartet of rainbows recently. We drove up to Tehachapi. We glimpsed four rainbows up in the sky that rainy day.

Grianghraf/Photo

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stephen Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist": Book Review

At eighteen, this drop-out joined the Dalai Lama. In Dharamsala in the early 1970s, he entered "an intact pocket of modern Tibet," where it "was as though a group of Italian hippies had wandered off into the Apennines and discovered in a remote valley a fully functioning papal court of the fourteenth century." (27) But, this Shangri-La failed to enchant this British-raised skeptic.

Despite a decade in the monastery, Stephen Batchelor declared himself a deep agnostic and a literal atheist. "No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of giving more importance to a hypothetical, post-mortem existence than to this very life here and now." (40) He left the Zen retreat. He married a nun with whom he had fallen in love, after they "disrobed" to promote what emerged into a secular, non-theistic Dharma. He claims the same "grounded" attitude animated the historical Buddha. A dozen years after his admission of doubt as Dharma, Batchelor expands his Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997) into a "collage" that combines spiritual autobiography, travel to the Indian heartlands where the Buddha taught, and an examination of early Pali texts.

Batchelor -- recalling Rudolf Bultmann's textual reclamation of the "historical Jesus" in the later 19th century -- seeks to strip the Indian-born preacher of those who in his name have elevated a simple exponent of human self-realization into the massive, gilded image of a deity. Batchelor rejects the Buddha as a guide towards liberation by karma and rebirth. His enlightenment, Batchelor explains, "did not encourage withdrawal to a timeless, mystical now, but an unflinching encounter with the contingent world as it unravels moment to moment." (129)

By scraping off the accretions of Brahmin thought, Batchelor shakes the Buddha free of glitter and incense. This scholar substitutes a radical humanist. He presents an existentialist founder of a civilization. The Buddha did not invent a religion. He did not direct us towards an afterlife. He did not further the Indian quest for an Oversoul. "Not-God" more accurately, Batchelor implies after a close study of the ancient Pali scriptures, comes closest to the original contexts that we can find. Siddhartha Gotama "was not a theist but nor was he an anti-theist. 'God' is simply not part of his vocabulary." (179)

While Gotama accepted the Brahmin outlook of gods and deities as marginal figures, he did not place them at the center of his cosmology. Instead, Batchelor argues, the Buddha's "original approach was therapeutic and pragmatic rather than speculative and metaphysical." (100) Batchelor defends himself against "cherry-picking" texts, for he counters "it has ever been thus." (181) If Buddhism remains a living tradition, it must retain this flexibility.

This narrative displays similar fluidity. Batchelor tells of his inability to accept karma and rebirth, as opposed to scientific explanations for our mental constructs. He "never had the God habit," so he entered the Indian monastery easily, adapting quickly to his surroundings. Ordained at twenty-one, he seemed to float into another realm, spiritually and culturally. Yet he soon migrated from India to a Tibetan foundation in Switzerland, and then left for Korea. Tibetan Buddhism, suffocated him by its certainties; "while the uncertainty celebrated in Korean Zen brought me vividly, if anxiously, to life." (65)

His innate agnosticism forced him to confront how to live as a Buddhist without confidence of salvation in this or another life. "It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty." (66) He rejects any liberation based on delayed entry of his mind into an immaterial entity. He interprets the Buddha's Four Noble Truths as 1) the embrace of suffering as fully known, 2) of letting go of craving for substantial truth or material support, 3) of experiencing the cessation of longing, and 4) appropriately acting to cultivate transformation by the Buddha's Eightfold Path. These terms remain a bit wordy, but they convey by Batchelor's translations the essential first sermon of the Buddha. Batchelor discards "all passages that assume the multi-life worldview of ancient India." This root text supplements the author's eloquent, sparely told chapter "Embrace Suffering."

Batchelor stresses the difficulty of honest inquiry. "Rather than seek God -- the goal of the brahmins -- Gotama suggested that you turn your attention to what is most far from God: the anguish and pain of life." (156) He reduces in pithy fashion the Four Noble Truths first expounded by the Buddha into: "Embrace, Let go, Stop:, Act!" (161) "This template," he notes, "can be applied to every situation in life." It nourishes empathy and feeds imagination. Mindfulness, he accepts, makes one respond to daily specifics, rather than divine transcendence. "It serves as an antidote to theism, a cure for sentimental piety, a scalpel for excising the tumor of metaphysical belief." (130)

As this citation demonstrates, Batchelor sets out his theology without "theos." Fresh perspectives emerge. Celibacy may have preserved a professional cadre handing down Dharma, but monastic institutions -- as shown by the collapse of Buddhism before Muslims in India or Communists in Tibet -- cannot rally troops against armies. "A reflective and educated laity" separate from "devout but often illiterate" laypeople or a theological community of contemplatives appears, as he and his wife have pioneered, a relevant model for seekers. (92)

Speaking of models, Copernican revolutions resemble the Buddha's reorientation of the self. Batchelor retrieves the Buddha from a life-negating, karmically deferred, repetitively reborn immaterial interpretation. "Gotama no more rejected the existence of the self than Copernicus rejected the existence of the earth. Instead, rather than regarding it as a fixed, non-contingent point around which everything else turned, he recognized that each self was a fluid, contingent process just like everything else." (133) Batchelor insists upon "relinquishing beliefs in an essential self." (135) He regards the Buddha as a "dissenter, a radical, an iconoclast."

He separates the Buddha's discourses from "the dead matter inherited from the Indian ascetic tradition." Batchelor "rejects world-renouncing norms." (147) He faces hard truths. "To steady one's gaze on the finitude, contingency, and anguish of one's existence is not easy. It requires mindfulness and concentration." (156) In this fortitude, one gains the knowledge that suffering permeates existence, and that we lack control over most of what will befall us. Instead of fatalism, Batchelor aims to fully engage the mind with this human predicament, "be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea of a twinge in the lower back." (157) He offers no platitudes. "You notice things come, you notice things go." This sensibility begins, with meditation, to widen to permeate one's whole outlook, to sober and direct one's self.

He rouses his rationalist readers. "The strongest argument against gods, spirits, and tantric divination is found in the existence of the electricity grid, brain surgery, and the Declaration of Human Rights." (200) Batchelor finds the appeal of Buddhism not within its explanations of reality, but in its methodology, its practical confrontation with the nature of suffering. This study's level may be too slightly too advanced for beginners. First, Michael Carrithers' "The Buddha" and Damian Keown's "Buddhism" entries in the Oxford University Press' "Very Short Introduction" series, and then Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs," will serve as compatible prerequisites for secular seekers.

Within familiar tales, Batchelor bolsters his skepticism. Near the Buddha's death, he told his disciple Ananda: "you should live as islands to yourselves, being your own refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge." (219) Not even the Buddha or the Sangha (the community) can help; ultimately, free of God or gods, salvation or rebirth, liberation or an afterlife, Batchelor asserts that an honest Buddhist must realize: "You are on your own."

With such an exclusion of the supernatural, can wonder survive? Compassion, Batchelor avers, comes out of a suffering faced and embraced. Neither morbid nor despairing, it calms one's depths. Certitudes recede, and confidence emerges. "I will never see what Gotama saw," he tells us from his pilgrimage to the Buddha's homeland, "but I can listen to the descendents of the same cicadas he would have heard when night fell in Kusinara all those years ago." (223)

This study displays Batchelor's manner of writing: a "jackdaw" assemblage of "ideas, phrases, images, and vignettes." (227) He compares this construction to the Buddha's parable of a raft one makes to get across a river, only then to leave it behind for another crosser as one goes on one's way. The raft does not stay on the walker's back, nor is it enshrined as a relic. The Buddha's method of Dharma practice, Batchelor reasons, resembles making a collage. Meditational styles, philosophical nuggets, ethical values, insights all get bound together as a function, a tool, a vehicle. The raft helps us navigate life's river. "That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else's idea of what 'Buddhism' is or should be." (229)

"If 'secular religion' were not considered a contradiction in terms, I would happily endorse such a concept." He concludes: "And if in the end there does turn out to be a heaven or nirvana somewhere else, I can see no better way to prepare for it." (240) In this slightly playful, gently ironic manner, Batchelor closes a rewarding, challenging journey down his life's path. (Without hyperlinks, posted to Amazon US 5-27-10; featured 6-10-10 at PopMatters.com)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Wilbert Rideau's "In the Place of Justice": Book Review

This memoir attests to the possibilities of reform. It's aptly titled in its double meaning and the ambiguity his incarceration has been based upon. 115 lbs., five-foot-seven, scared and with a new knife and pistol after being beaten up and vowing to get revenge and then to get out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Rideau at nineteen impulsively robs his local bank. The adverb is crucial.

Acting out of "panic and impulse" meets the state definition of manslaughter, not murder. Rideau kidnaps three white employees and takes them to a rural highway. One woman bolts out of the car and runs. Without thinking, Rideau fires and shoots into the darkness. He then stabs one woman in the throat in the chaos.

Narrowly avoiding a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South of 1961, his arrest triggers what one Supreme Court Justice will call a "kangaroo trial." Evidence is planted or tainted, witnesses lie, and an autopsy is bungled. Racial animosity played up by his prosecutors leads an all-white, all-male jury to find him guilty of murder in fifteen minutes.

Sentenced to death at Angola, one of the nation's most violent prisons, he tells of life on the inside. He served most of his term of forty-four years there. Others convicted of the same crime were eligible for parole after ten years, six months. Basing his demands for redress as opposed to the unconstitutional proceedings under which he was sentenced, Rideau twice was retried, and twice was denied freedom.

He gained fame by his editorship of the prison newspaper, "The Angolite." Under a sympathetic head of corrections, C. Paul Phelps, Rideau and his staff gained the relative freedom to investigate injustices in the system. He earned national awards and media attention for his journalism, and even traveled to speak about his situation throughout the state.

Still, with the 1990s crackdown on rehabilitation as opposed to warehousing, his criticisms were censored. He tells of the profiteering by the prison industry so dependent upon government contracts, unions, and business interests. This aspect, in fact, merited wider attention than this narrative provides. Rideau understandably concentrates upon his own redemption, his own awareness of the crime he committed and the remorse he learns, and of his own legal struggles over decades to earn a fair trial and his release.

While minutiae about his difficulties in reporting from inside prison, and the retrials and reconsiderations of his case may slow readers down in the latter portions of this hefty book, it is only fair that Rideau uses this forum to express his own side of a still controversial story. Four-and-a-half decades later, his fourth trial led to considerable outrage, and many in Louisiana still opposed his release. But the charge of manslaughter was upheld, and in 2005 he left prison.

He tells of his surprise at re-entering society in a desegregated South, and of his struggles to find his footing. Opponents may not be pleased that he declared bankruptcy to avoid $117,000 in court fees charged to him, but Rideau insists that based on his unconstitutional sentencing, he deserves a fresh start free of debt. He argues that he has paid his debts and more.

Struggling from his eighth-grade education and impoverished, fearful, abusive upbringing into his role as a spokesman for prisoners and an advocate for reform, Rideau tells his "story of punishment and deliverance" with an eye for detail and a determined levelheadedness. His self-control has been hard won.

He credits those, nearly all from the white community rather than his own, who advocated for his release and supported his pleas. He learns remorse, educates himself, and admits his actions and their mortal consequences. This intelligent, straightforward version of his side of events-- from inside a predicament few readers will otherwise experience-- expresses his message of redemption and renewal well.

This review was featured in slightly edited form on 6-7-10 at Pop Matters. A response to detractors of the book (who appeared not to have read it) had been posted to Amazon US before I wrote this review, 5-11-10.

On reflection, I append my response below, as its tonal differences from a more detached review merit their own forum.

I came to this book hesitant, too. Previous reviews are split, but I sense its detractors so far haven't read it.

In the start, I thought that Rideau lacked compassion, but he sets up his narrative so you follow his own gradual understanding of the terrible tragedy as he does, bit by bit while in prison. Rideau admits remorse and expresses only that he committed the crime under "panic and impulse" and that legally this qualified him, as his fourth trial's jury agreed, to manslaughter and not murder for no premeditation was meant. This does not ease the loss of Julia Ferguson, but be fair to the book under review, for if you read it all the way through, you get a fuller depiction of the crime, the trials, and the man who took her life.

While I would have liked more insight into the prison industry that Angola profits from, and while the minutiae about the trial does weigh the book down for those less versed in legal or police procedure-- it's of course understandable that the author wants to set his story straight against over four decades of vehement opponents to his release-- the book does serve not to entertain but to educate. You will not find wry stories of characters or the typical anecdotes of ingenuity or shock that many prison memoirs tend towards. The tone is sober, the pace steady, and the scope wide.

Readers may come away, if they truly study this narrative and not post reviews based on preconceptions, with a better comprehension of how our system's determined on keeping prisoners ignorant, illiterate, and violent. This, to me, is the topic as much as Rideau's own struggle. He learns to "man up" for his crimes-- as a careful reading of the book shows--- his beef is with the unjust sentence he earned when those serving for similar crimes got off with a quarter of the time. The warehousing and profiteering off of a million and a half men and women detained in our nation is the scandal that few care about. What politician wins on this issue? Even the death penalty opponents as he notes tend towards this point only, while the conditions of locking often stupid people up and letting them grow only more stupid rather than rehabilitating them becomes the greater scandal.

Yes, he learned in prison how to reflect, to read, to think. He credits his white jailers in the Jim Crow South for giving him books. He notes how few supporters came from his own community. And, coming out of 1961 segregated Louisiana, he does not play the race card. But he sets his "kangaroo trial" in context.

He served 44 years when others did 10 years, six months before parole for the same crime. He notes the unconstitutional sentence and tainted evidence and perjured testimony and racial hatred that added up to unfair sentencing. He narrowly avoided a lynch mob after his arrest. He does not make excuses for his crime, but he shows how he did not get a fair trial, let alone two more, for what he did and the damage and death he caused. This is difficult I know for those favoring a get-tough approach to cheer for, but Rideau does show a case study in reforming himself that for a fair-minded reader it seems churlish to condemn.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

James Hynes' "Next": Book Review


Kevin Quinn will experience, three times the day this novel takes place, the sensation "as the ground rushes up to meet him." How he responds depends on where in Austin, Texas, circumstances place him. Some he's planned for, most he hasn't. For, he wanders, similar to another part-Irish fictional walker in another city a century before on another day the middle of June, lured by the wonder and hubbub of what he sees.

Michigan-born James Hynes, now living in Austin, conveys-- through this fifty-year-old editor working on campus at Ann Arbor-- a placid, romantic, intellectual time-server who's confronted by this glaring, bustling, hot, strange boomtown. Quinn hops a plane for a job interview, in and out the same day, desperate to leave Michigan and his girlfriend. Or, so he thinks. He finds himself drawn to pursue the young Asian American woman next to him on the flight as she threads her way through the streets. In his liberated trek, if only for a few hours before his interview, he leaps by memory back into his past.

Hynes peppers references to Shakespeare, Kafka, and Greek myth, but these add up to few compared to Tolkien, Battlestar Galactica, and South Park. Like many readers of Hynes, I suspect, Quinn's at home with high and low culture both. And low, or middlebrow, seems to be winning. Pringles in a Pringles can, Quinn feels as the plane touches down. He feels hemmed in by the barrage of commodification. Following his muse of the morning into Gaia Market (= Whole Foods), he grouses to himself-- his modus operandi--about "this national, centralized, corporate simalacrum of everything co-opers held dear." Their owners, "the brainy Chomsky readers," knew what was coming. They had no chance as "gentle vegans and pacifists who thought they could wear down corporate hegemony like water on a rock find instead that corporate hegemony has opened wide and is eating them alive, and they get to watch their own death, kicking and screaming like Robert Shaw in Jaws." (101)

This rant, which I enjoyed (I confess being one year younger than the protagonist and of similar temperament), nonetheless gets repeated over hundreds of pages, if against other deserving targets. Hynes, as in his previous novellas collected as Publish and Perish, his campus over-the-top satire The Lecturer's Tale, loves to deflate academic pretensions. He also blends office politics as an ingredient for simmering revenge, as Kings of Infinite Space records in its down-and-out former professor turned Texas cubicle tenant. So, readers who applauded, as I did, his fictional barbs will find many familiar riffs here. Hynes writes for those of us on the fringes of academia, well-educated but feeling underemployed, unappreciated, uneasy, at the up-and-coming Type A's chattering into cellphones as they stroll solo, as well as the sneering, tenured fat-cats. Reduced to marginality as the publishing world withers, he wears himself out. "The only line left to cut in his budget is himself." (44)

Hynes in Next heightens what these earlier works prepared us for: a wish to break out of collegial conformity. He stretches further into what may be a semi-autobiographical account of his Michigan boyhood. Quinn reflects, at great length, upon his own upbringing in Royal Oak. For me, these sections of an "Ice Storm boyhood" slowed the pace. Intentionally, for we understand Quinn's character and how his earlier relationships made him who he is, or whom he resents, this June day. They sustain his modestly displayed but diligently crafted prose, yet they sometimes lacked the energy of the Ann Arbor university interludes and the Austin pursuit of what he will come to recall painfully as his stifled need for "tenderness and passion."

This is where the sun vs. snow, the bleached vs. blanched texture of life as Quinn drops into, brightens the tone. He can't take his eyes off the Latinas who strut about Austin. One boasts "a bust like a figurehead and an ass like two dogs fighting in a sack." (45) Another will prove a Good if ambiguous Samaritan. A third will accompany him into the climactic scene.

Speaking of climaxes, the bawdy, sensual tone of other passages enlivens the moodier, brooding irritation Quinn habitually fights. Hynes opens the novel with a pair of quotes from Virginia Woolf, but stream-of-consciousness via Bloomsday or Bloomsbury has progressed since December 1910. About his current girlfriend, Stella, Quinn muses: "Whatever warnings the Jiminy Cricket in his forebrain might have had about a young woman who was willing to blow her potential landlord on the first date were sluiced away in the patella-rattling rush of pleasure, and by his relief, considering where she was putting her mouth, that she hadn't ordered the bird peppers with her stir-fry." (71)

Such enthusiasm for prose, I always thought, marks Hynes. His Irish "Troubles thriller" début The Wild Colonial Boy would have made a great film adaptation; Next shares its vivid eye. Hynes even succeeds at sex scenes, a notoriously elusive feat. He sums up the feel of an aging body and a restless mind. Quinn blunders and bulls his way after the object of his desire, through chain-store, barrio, or yuppified Austin with a desperation and determination for "his last chance, his escape route from Stella, the last younger woman he'll ever need!" (118) The novel keeps swaying in Joycean fashion from present to past, and this as in Ulysses (oddly absent in the narrator's recollections), does provide languid along with poignant passages. These may distract readers wishing more intensity.

The novel entertains but demands concentration. As a cabbie warns our Everyman, "You need to pay attention, man." (243) Quinn gradually gets sucked into Austin's commotion, "where he has been lured by nostalgia and middle-aged lust into the labyrinth of a strange city, accosted by homeless men, tripped by a dog, condescended to by a surgeon." (157) He wants to rest. However, the energy will build, if again in the concluding section dispersed by reverie. While this for a pay-off needed to be accumulated, the decision by Hynes to disperse much of Quinn's emotion into Proustian excursion may not please all.

This happens in the last section; after snappy send-ups of our sorry state of culture, our lemming-like urges for consumerism, our flailing flops to better ourselves, we come alongside Quinn to his interview. The last fifty pages pulse with adrenaline. It's not only pent-up nervousness about the job Quinn seeks.

Here, Hynes shifts into high gear. I wondered if he could keep up the intensity. I hazard this might have worked as a novella, but the accretions of the previous recollections over two hundred pages here finally add up. Over the course of this memorable day, Quinn will face the truth about what comes next. The book ends with one of the most moving last sentences I've had the pleasure to find.
“And as the ground rushes up to meet him, Kevin Quinn, for the first time in a long time, for the first time in years, and maybe even for the first time in his life, is looking forward to what comes next.”
For tenderness and passion invested in the long if wavering build-up to this payoff, Next finally satisfies the patient reader. (Posted to Amazon US 5-26-10 and featured 6-4-10 at PopMatters)