Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tradish's "Beyond the Borders": Music Review.

This modest record by a trio sounds best when adapting traditional Irish and Scottish tunes. It covers selections from across the diaspora: Solas, Flook, the Child ballads, fiddlers John Canty, Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran, flutist Michael McGoldrick, pipers Leo Rowsome and Willie Clancy, sean-nós singer Paddy Tunney. It also mixes Austrian waltzes, Bulgarian gypsy wedding tunes, and Danish adaptations of Irish music.

This array conveys the band’s mission to expand the “living tradition” beyond the Celtic fringe; its members played with Moving Cloud as well as the Danish folk scene. The inclusion of “The Blacksmith” evokes a soft rendition of this medieval English standard, with Louise Ring Vangsgaard’s vocals and fiddle blending smoothly. John Pilkington’s more mid-Atlantic accented voice does not dominate his guitar and bouzoki. This conveys the ambiance of an intimate session, but on record more projection in the production would have accented his presence better; his vocals on his self-penned, more mainstream folk songs underwhelm by comparison to the traditional selections which assert themselves more by merging his vocals into a more intriguing musical accompaniment beyond the singer-songwriter mode.

Percussionist Brian Woetmann’s song “Gypsy” serves as a lighthearted, if lightweight, pub tune. Overall, the promise of this recording lies in its instrumentation and concentration on the Celtic and European repertoire more than the original tunes, which fade by comparison. If Tradish directs its energies to more energetic selections that draw from their well-chosen predecessors and peers, their next recording may better play to the promise shown in the Irish-centered songs that work better here.

(I wrote this review for "CDRoots.com" and their "RootsWorld Bulletin" site, the great online magazine and store for world music.)

Sunday, August 29, 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)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Martin Amis' "The Information": Book Review

Literary envy runs rampant, but then out of steam. Richard Tull ekes out a living (no idea how!) as a book reviewer of stultifying biographies of third-rate long-buried English poets. He undermines the reputation of Gwyn Barry, his best friend. Untalented, but his smarmy utopian claptrap's shot him onto the bestseller list, while Tull seethes as a forgotten novelist editing for a vanity press. How Tull hires thugs to start to take down Barry's the plot.

It starts off astonishingly well in its telling. Insightful astronomical analogies, well-crafted metaphors, a promising satire of the publishing industry, and the inevitable trip to America that British intellectuals love to include in their comedic romps all feature. But, the novel settles into a morass of underdeveloped supporting characters, a lazy approach of Amis towards the tension that should be building as he takes you on for hundreds of pages, and a weariness by the end at the machinations Tull sets up within which to destroy Barry and his vapid wife. You wind up not caring about any characters.

For a novel so immersed in London, as with his ambitious "London Fields" (flawed as it was, I enjoyed that one more), you get a strong sense of its urban feel. Yet, domestically, many as Tull's woes may be, you barely get any sense of his wife and children as living beings. And, oddly, for all the send-ups of Barry's lamentable bestseller's rank, Amis can't be bothered to concoct actual references to the novel's own prose that's so often argued to be so awful.

Finally, Tull's not got that bad a life compared to most of his London neighbors. He might not be famous, but given he at least has a job in the publishing industry seems decent enough despite his lowly rank, given his wife's basically supporting him. Again, I have no idea how Tull gets enough income to live as he does in one of the world's most expensive cities doing as comparatively little work as he does! This may reflect the insularity of Amis, for all his knowledge of how everyday people live, as he's so entangled in what was apparently a roman-a-clef made into a thinly disguised work of fiction when this appeared. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-4-10. I have also reviewed "London Fields" and his Russian novel, "House of Games"--I recommend his non-fictional account of Stalinism under "Koba the Dread.")

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jack Kerouac's "On the Road (The Original Scroll)": Book Review

Not three weeks on a roll of teletype paper but nearly a decade in the making, this "prose narrative" celebrates the myth that would become the Beats. What may be overlooked is the time this novel takes place: 1947-49. It's a pivot between the wartime duty & conformist necessity and the individualist, rebellious reaction that would turn into the culture of teenagers, rock, be-bop, and fads.

This book's celebration of "con-man angel" Neal Cassady's familiar to most readers even before they begin. I found his character tiresome as the journeys wore on until he turned thrice-married, thrice-divorced, living with his second wife, and with four children scattered. Yet, as the figure of Jack notes, Neal inspires the rest of his followers to imagine, and try if for a bit, the wayward life. You must accept this to appreciate the novel, even if you sympathize with the women yelling "cad."

Editor Howard Cunnell explains how "Kerouac writes to be understood; the road is the path of life and life is a journey." (25) One of the oldest tales, but the "heart-felt speech" (in Allen Ginsberg's phrase) rings true as his attempt to capture a more demotic, and also demonic, marriage of the rushed prose transports of Joyce, Celine, Melville and Dostoevsky with a raw, American vernacular. Penny Vlagopoulos studies how: "Reading it is almost embarassing, like walking in on someone's private repertoire of weaknesses," in this earlier scroll version, never before published. (64) George Mouratidis shows how much Kerouac had to edit this version to avoid libel, and how his explicitness aroused fear at his publisher. Joshua Kupetz positions Kerouac between the earlier century's modernism and the later decades' deconstructive delay of meaning and the fulfillment of novelistic conventions.

The text itself's constructed in five "books" although the ending as Book Five is incomplete and a suggested reconstructed conclusion's appended. Taking it on in one whole chunk without paragraphs increases the speed of it all. It's both linear and non-linear.

Back and forth across the continent, Jack and Neal and pals and hitchikers and foes and lovers fade in and out of the quick story. Lots of it concerns the longings of the flesh and spirit. Attempting to seduce "Ruth Gullion," Jack reflects: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk--real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious." (159)

When it comes to California, it's full of Kerouac's sights such as "the brown halo of the huge desert encampment L.A. really is." (187) San Francisco, the Central Valley, Tehachapi Pass, the Sierras and the Mojave all gain rapturous attention. But, as with his poignant romance with Bea, a Mexican grapepicker near Fresno, he finds pain. Cotton bleeds in his hands, and the sun beats down. "I looked at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved." (197)

Book Two takes Jack back East and around again. Neal tells him: "'I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it's the same in every corner, I know the people, I know what they do. We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness zig-zagging every side.'" (222) The stint in New Orleans with William "Bill" Burroughs (names in the scroll are "original" but in the 1957 version they're changed) comes alive with his "study of things themselves in the streets of life and the night." Burroughs appears more appealing here than his reputation may account for. Yet, the strangeness and exhaustion of life on the fringe wears him down.

"I wanted to sit on the muddy bank and dig the Mississippi River; instead of that I had to look at it with my nose against a wire fence. When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got?" (249)

Jack longs to reach Detroit. "All I wanted was to drown my soul in my wife's soul and reach her through the tangle of shrouds which is flesh in bed. At the end of the American road, is a man and a woman making love in a hotel room. That's all I wanted." (278)

But, he finds rejection by her and he must wander more. Meanwhile, in Book Three, "once again I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for?" (281)

Neal's treatment of his women gets to Jack. One of his wives tells Jack: "Neal will leave you out in the cold any time it's in his interest." (271) Jack finds himself with Neal, pursuing Neal, and then having Neal pursue him-- none of his women, and certainly his children appear to settle him down. "Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness, it was all behind him and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being." (294) That's as they take off on another trip from San Francisco back east.

Jack longs to settle down with a woman, but he too's enraptured by the road. On a Michigan bus, on his way to see his "wild former wife," he meets a "pretty country girl wearing a lowcut cotton blouse"; "I tried to bring up boyfriends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done..whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was." (340-41)

This frustration, the torn loyalties between domestication and adventure, digs into the prose and the psyche. We feel as does Jack after a couple years of this life: "I realized I was beginning to cross and re-cross towns in America as though I was a traveling salesman--ragged travellings, bad stock, rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying." (349)

So, it's off in Book Four to Mexico, as its natives watch their car roar past: "ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land, they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. The self-mythologizing and the romanticization of this south of the border jaunt does seem too self-conscious, but Jack's careful to implicate his comrades.

A memorable scene in a whorehouse near Victoria and the swampy jungles ends as "somewhere I heard a baby wail in a sudden lull, remembering I was in Mexico after all and not in a sweet and orgiastic final dream." (390) Near the end, shepherds "watching us pass with noble and chieflike miens, as though they they had been interrupted in their communal meditations in the living sun by the sudden clanking folly from America with its three drunken bozos inside." (399) Such welcome self-deprecation balances the noble savage purple prose and shows Kerouac's acknowledgment of his own place under the stars he watches so often.

This can be an annoying tale, full of Neal's infidelities, Jack's petty thefts, cons and scams and ruses. But this ambiance also enriches the picaresque tale in its traditional setting, where the anti-heroes stay ahead of the law, the norms, and the rules. Kerouac invigorates this storied genre with his own verve, and while not three weeks as supposed so much as nearly a decade saw this novel emerge from the scroll's rush of prose into a more chastened and more censored version in 1957, reading it in a massive block of headlong type has its own rewards, for here you feel as if pulled along Neal and Jack on their wild rides across an America vanished today, if it ever existed to begin with. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-24-10; I also reviewed "The Dharma Bums" and the previously unpublished "Wake Up! The Life of the Buddha" and the notebooks "Some of the Dharma" on both venues and this blog.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

J.C. Hallman's "In Utopia": Book Review

Whatever he publishes, I'll read. J.C. Hallman's followed chess masters to Kalmykia and new religious movements across America. These erudite travelogues, The Chess Artist and The Devil Is a Gentleman, foreshadowed this new collection of explorations in their quest for transcendence. Recently, his short stories in The Hospital for Bad Poets and his edition of non-fiction essays by writers about writing The Story Behind the Story (all reviewed by me on this blog and at Amazon US) assert intellect integrated with emotion, detachment tempered by empathy. He's a formidably equipped writer, comfortable with allusions to Lucian and Gilgamesh, Aristophanes and Erasmus. He integrates classical and humanist influences with an alert mind and an eye for attentive detail from his excursions to "six kinds of Eden and the search for a better paradise."

In Utopia lingers from Hallman's childhood inspiration. He grew up in a San Diego "suburban necropolis" on "Utopia Road"; his project "emulates Utopia's toggle between analysis and what scholars call 'speaking pictures.'" That is, Hallman adapts the "episodic strategy of the genre" coined by Thomas More to "get the joke" of the meaning of a place that means "no-place" rather than "eutopia"'s "good place." Five hundred years later, Hallman rescues the ideal from the Greek-inspired pun. The impossible dream of perfection on earth, Hallman explores, "critiques crisis."

He starts in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, where Pleistocene Rewilding attempts an ecological restoration of conservation biology. He interviews Dave Foreman formerly of Earth First! about his Wetlands Project to bring back "megalinkages" across the land as corridors to heal the continent's environmental damage. Hallman visits Przewalski's horse, an equid reintroduced to the terrain where native horses, thousands of years ago, had become extinct. "They were a James Dean of a horse--cropped hair, vaguely cool, accidentally beautiful, and entirely untamable."

This phrasing demonstrates Hallman's style. Parts of his book, crammed with facts and dates, reminded me of John McPhee's fact-packed trudges across geological plates and botanical niches. Hallman mixes personal encounters with accumulated information. The balance, enriched by small monochrome illustrations, for all its popular culture contexts feels as if antiquated, as historical as it is current.

He enters on a trial basis Twin Oaks, a Virginia commune selling sixteen hundred pounds of tofu daily for its upkeep. There he meets Pax, the Ivy League-educated brother of one of the members of They Might Be Giants, and (at least) one of his wives. Hawina's a "feral elf" of a woman "somewhere between fifteen and fifty years of age--you couldn't be more specific than that. She had the heady, fecund air of a bog. She finished all her meals by licking her plate and using the ends of her hair as dental floss." This section, with such character sketches, reveals Hallman's storytelling skills mixed with his savvy in sharing his cultural critiques.

He peers into glimpses of a better world assembled by those who separate themselves from the rest of us. He relates the effect of estrangement as he wanders among cranks and idealists. On a cruise ship purchased by millionaires who live in its apartments as The World circumnavigates the world, Hallman strolls through its floating Village. All the millionaires seem to be on shore that day. It's a deserted public area on board. "The cigar lounge was empty, the chess tables in the game room had no pieces. The World was less like a ghost ship, I thought, than an amusement park you'd leased. Or bought. At an empty bar on deck 11, I chatted with a Filipino barman. He knew my name somehow." Still, I wish he'd met more people or at least had come up with more tales from what appeared a strangely underpopulated embarkation on this enigmatic ship.

In Italy, he finds the most articulate of his informants, a Communist politician turned Slow Food leader. Carlo Petrini tells Hallman their slogan: "A gastronome who isn't an environmentalist is an idiot. And an environmentalist who isn't a gastronome is a very sad man." Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1567 painted The Land of Cockaigne, where food, drink, and satiation of sprawled peasants symbolized the earthy appeal of an idealized, if intoxicated, never-never land. For a few of today's farmers and cooks in Europe disgusted with processed slop, the relationship of food and humanity offers a localized cuisine, a leisurely lifestyle, and diverse sustenance for those who care about our communal productions and intimate bonds upon an increasingly suffering Earth.

But such ideals can challenge those used to a fast-food pace. Hallman and his companion in a "charming town" in Chianti sit down as the only customers in a restaurant. A young woman "left us alone with the menus and stayed away long enough that it was natural to wonder whether the service was slow or non-existent." Yet, this meal with Valentina and her husband, the cook Diego, turns out one of the most memorable moments of the narrative. "Dinner lasted four hours."

New Songdo earns his next visit. This master-planned high-rise Korean city for 30,000 built on an artificial island will be run by "ubiquitous computing." It resembles that of the cruise ship in its populated, yet detached, desolation. This section's compilation of the investments and inspirations for such a dream city, however, proves less scintillating. This may be the moral of The World and the Korean enterprise, for both chapters produce a dispirited ambiance. Hallman visits the Korean construction before it's completed, so much of this section's spent relating such incidents as King Gillette's utopian ideas before his vision of what became the safety razor enlightened him, albeit eight years before any investors for Gillette's invention could be found. Gillette designed a model city as well, and like Hallman as a boy in his Southern California subdivision, the possibility of a transformed community never fully faded from his mature reveries.

When the book navigates the mundane, as in the worlds of the wealthy who try to socially engineer their urban or maritime surroundings, the story accumulates encyclopedic snippets. The Korean setting, like that on the cruise ship, does not catch the imagination as much as the earnest and fumbling attempts of the Twin Oaks "primitive communists," or The Futurist Cookbook's Cockaigne revival of edible landscapes and gustatory skyscrapers, if not big rock candy mountains. Hallman's narrative sharpens when he shows us everyday folks rather than compiling data from magnates and architects who concoct these grandiose projects.

For instance, Seoul's sprawling capitalism dawns on a jet-lagged Hallman. "Young men all awkwardly in suits, clothes worn with no sense of history, chain-smoking in groups with nubs held close to their lips like children blowing soap bubbles, and young women all in tight skirts, either bare-legged or fishnetted, sashaying along in heels that proved you could exchange one kind of foot binding for another and mistake it for emancipation." Some don surgical masks against the "shit smell and desert dust," while "others wore surgical masks loose around their ears as a fashion statement." Any utopian impulse in such a Ubiquitous Dream Hall (a museum he passes) appears dim.

The penultimate chapter brings Hallman to a real desert, a Nevada gun training camp near Death Valley. Front Sight, soon to be a planned but not gated community, testifies to the Second as the most important of all amendments. Hallman reminds us that, as with food, the inclusion of militancy to enforce a utopian commonwealth comprises an overlooked feature of many ideal communities. Ancient Sparta managed, until it taught its enemies by so much warfare to become better than themselves in the martial arts, to be one monarchy where the ruler changed the whole populace to bring about his land reforms, his artistic reduction, his power-sharing senate, "collective child rearing," and worst of all, "compulsory communal evening meals."

At Front Sight, Hallman bristles at the modern paramilitary regimen. He was accepted into the "intentional community" at Twin Oaks (where he kept his writer's cover three weeks as a trial member) and succeeds in mastering firearms, but he resents his atavistic victory. His dystopian instincts jostled his gentler philosophies. He notes wryly how the Wild West did not result in a "marked decrease in bank robberies." He wonders how settling in a frontier tract where all exercise the right to bear arms can result in a happier experience for the paranoid, the jittery, and the combative among us.

However well-trained, those in Front Sight eager to set down stakes betray their supposedly utopian intentions to improve one's status over their complacent neighbors, who are likely ourselves. Such "sham propositions that promise magical stability" rouse Hallman to reject fear-mongering as a rationale for solidarity, a shootout of us vs. them. Free markets or mutually assured destruction prefigure this "self-congratulatory" pseudo-utopian fighting stance on this harsh Western frontier. Hallman concludes his stay by rejecting the exclusionary prejudice that pushes aside the weak to justify a good guys-bad guys, white-hat vs. black-hat showdown. "You cannot dress the whore of greed in the pinafore of competition and call her virtuous."

His final chapter's the briefest. He visits Utopia Road. Weeds sprout in the landscaping; from the battered, faded "Criminals Beware" placard under the street sign he photographs, it looks as if the neighborhood's better days receded towards the same place where his childhood memories reside.

He wraps up his quest. "Not even Utopia was a utopia. Indeed, it was the first dystopian novel." Yet, the humanism at the heart of Thomas More's rhetoric, along with its cruelty, endures. "The joke of Utopia, it turns out, is not that it is folly to try and make a better world. More's blueprint encourages not derision or abandonment, but "better intentions" than, for example, the ones at Front Sight. The impossible dream goads us on, Hallman shares, to make the imperfect a bit more perfect. (Posted in slightly edited form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-17-10. Published 8-23-10 at Pop Matters.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lama Surya Das' "The Big Questions": Book Review

He sets out conversationally and casually a Buddhism-lite approach that anybody can agree with. That is, he argues from a genially non-theistic, contemplative but engaged direction the need to look within ourselves before we rush out to wear ourselves out trying to heal every affliction in the world. He advises taking time first to focus on key issues that we can practically change within our own outlook, and these chapters show how this reorientation can bring a calmer, more balanced perspective into our own attitude that then will radiate by our actions to others.

The discussions become more involving as the book progresses, with the later ones being the liveliest. His chapters that place gay rights and same-sex relationships within the continuum of civil rights make his arguments cogently and sensibly. Likewise, he touches upon how sexual love can serve as a spark for a "jet fuel" of a higher octane, more diffused or rarified compassion. This topic gets rushed over in a chapter about the viability of one's passions, but it's a subject that could have merited more attention. He ends with a fine discussion of how we need to ask ourselves the one Big Question, the one that matters most to us, and that the answer, given time and reflection, will come.

The editing needed revision. It flows pretty smoothly, but feels as often with authors who write a lot of similar books on their specialty as if typed out more from a rapid burst of productivity than a careful composition. For example, he misspells "Eli Weisel" and maddeningly his colleague "Thich Nhat Han" the whole way through; he also forgets that Hollywood and not Sunset's the boulevard where one walks over the stars in the sidewalks.

Not my usual reading, but I liked his essays in "Buddhism in America" (see my review). I figured a Jewish-born, Long Island sports-crazy teen turned Tibetan Dzogchen guru might be worth hearing out. This book was checked out from my library, after I'd noticed it on the new shelf, for years, so some of my neighbors must have been listening to the former Jeffrey Miller. This is one of many titles that he's written, and he writes in a manner where you can "hear" his voice on the page easily.

Therefore, for readers who might be put off by more "Buddhist" books, this serves as a stimulus to get one pondering. He avoids jargon and prefers a manner akin to a counselor rather than a lama. You get enough Buddhism to understand where he's come from and where he's going, but the application of his advice can fit any seeker's path. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-4-10)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ó taobh istigh

Leigh mé an aiste súimiúl an lá eile. Meas mé cuntas a thabhairt ar "meabhrú ag scaradh le cleachtadh" le Jason Siff. Scríobh mé léirmheas ar leabhar air faoi láthair.

Tarraingíonn Siff mise chuig scéal anuas ag baint le hábhar. Bhain mé tairbhemhór as an leabhar seo. Míníonn sé meon nuair luighear isteach le meanna an intinne na hipneogogrech.

Mar sin, tosaithar ag sleamhnú isteach síocháin. Tá daoine ag ligean a mhaidhí le sruth. Imíonn sé go socair ó taobh istigh.

Mar sin féin, níl sé ag dul a chodladh. Is cosúil le codhladh, go cinnte. Ach is beag buí óna cheile iad.

Tá ábalta foghlaim an difríocht seo bheith ann go an meon ag éirí go mothú meabhair ann. B'fhéidir, gheobhaidh tú léargas a fháil ar ciúnas istigh tusa féin. Titfear i néal smaoineamh, ach nár thithe ag dul i dtámh nó támhnéal hipneoiseach. Cuireann san cruth eile ar fad ar an scéal inmhéanach.

From inside.

I read an interesting article the other day. I thought about an account concerning "unlearning meditation" by Jason Siff. I wrote a review of his book recently.

Siff takes on a story relevant to myself about delving into this material. I took a lot of usefulness out of this book. He explains the state of mind when one enters into the mental state of hypnogogics.

That is, one begins slipping into peace. A person's letting himself drift downstream. He goes away contently from within.

All the same, he doesn't go to sleep. It resembles sleep, sure. But there's a small difference between them.

You're able to learn with this difference that it's the state rising to being conscious by recollecting. Perhaps, you may find insight to get by tranquility within yourself. Somebody will fall into a contemplative trance, but he may not go into a hypnotic slumber. That makes all the difference as far as this interior tale.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Touch & Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Fanzine '79-'83: Book Review

Tesco Vee of the Meatmen teamed up with Dave Stimson in Ann Arbor to produce this slapdash, ornery, and entertaining fanzine. Cutting and pasting their typed reviews, concert flyers, salacious photos, found art, and random scrawls, they photocopied twenty-two issues. Touch & Go surveyed the gloom of post-punk, they ridiculed the neon of the new wave. They insulted (TSOL, GG Allin, sometimes Fear) or celebrated (local groups The Fix, Necros, and, surprise, The Meatmen) those claiming to be hardcore.

Nearly six hundred pages, this volume displays the devotion that an indie rock scene once commanded. It’s hefty, with a format as large per page as the original paper version. But, it’s more durable.

Its balance of Michigan bands with British and Los Angeles punk and post-punk music argues for a broader inclusion of what restless listeners sought out in a scattered community, linked less by radio (local d.j. Brad Curtis meets contempt) than what the independent record store or mail order label stocked. Fanzines such as Slash, Search and Destroy, and Forced Exposure spread the word about the newest sounds. The writers, inspired by fanzines, started their own in DIY punk fashion. Two or three hundred copies found their way monthly to stores and subscribers.

Passionate or dissolute tones of T&G letter writers convey the affectionate and combative spirit of determined fans, when such underground music relied for its promotion on fanzine. One correspondent recommends Bernard-Henry Lévy’s book Barbarism with a Human Face as a corrective to socialist punk rhetoric. Concerts get lauded more than critiqued. Vendors earn ads as clumsily arranged as the rest of the collage content. Still, one ad from local Schoolkids Records cleverly channels Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses to entice readers past its doors. Well, Ann Arbor is a quintessential college town.

Wit wriggles into many reviews. Two entries cited in their entirety show a pithy style perfected. Stimson sums up “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats. “The little California miss could’ve done us all a favor had she taken her shooting spree to the Ensign studio when this grandiose piece of schmaltz was recorded.” His soundbite on the LP Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls: “(forgot the label) I bought it. I sold it. What more do you need to know?”

Scatology scatters over nearly every page. A frustrated, lonely, adolescent mentality lingers. Its slogan: “Where hardcore doesn’t mean pornography.” Fecal fixation, erectile fascination, naughty peeps, and homophobic taunts fills margins. Two cartoon balloons appear over a tiny photo of two conversing celebrities. John Lennon is made to ask: “So, what’s it like being black?” Muhammed Ali finds himself responding: “Better than being dead.”

This sophomoric reaction to convention conveys T&G’s reaction to the usual media coverage of the angry, lonely fans of musicians hyped, caricatured, or dismissed. The fanzine champions albums such as Gypsy Blood from Doll by Doll, 154 by Wire, Seventeen Seconds by The Cure, and Hypnotised by The Undertones. It documents how the nascent alternative category widened. Later issues discuss Big Country, Cocteau Twins, Motorhead, and a metal band, Venom.

Presciently, the critics pan such leaden tunes as “Punk’s Not Dead” by The Exploited. Tesco praises 999. They despise a Midwestern mentality whose biggest contribution to the new music is “What I Like About You” by The Romantics. Oddly, Cleveland and Minneapolis bands seem overlooked; perhaps the decline of the Ohio scene and the delay in the rise of the Twin Cities one may account for this omission. Or it may be plucky rivalry between Ann Arbor and the rest of the country.

They analyze the promise and the flaws within October by U2: “Soothing harmonies. I’m sure they feel as noble as they look on the cover…but there is something about their clinical and smug approach that really bothers.” They warn against the otherwise forgotten group Chronic Generation. “Crutches couldn’t help this band, their shit’s that lame.”

The edition opens with testimonials by scenesters, writers such as Byron Coley, and punks themselves. Keith Morris of Circle Jerks, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, and Henry Rollins of Black Flag praise the fanaticism that fills these pages, edited by Steve Miller, whom I presume is not the Gangster of Love. Let the final word be a stray phrase from here, as hardcore in the early 1980s became as conformist and commodified as previous cultural and musical rebellions. “We are the hippies of tomorrow.”
(Posted to Amazon US 8-7-10 and published 8-16-10 at Pop Matters.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Joy Division: 4 paragraphs

I was staying near Manchester the summer of '79; I opened a music paper to find Jon Savage's stunning review of "Unknown Pleasures," the debut by what was then still a local band. I'd just turned 18, perfect for the punk era already fading into darker soundscapes that Joy Division created. From the cover into the songs, this first LP summed up the aesthetic that in turn would warp progressive and glam and metal traces into goth and industrial and, well, more post-punk that endures thirty years on.

Not an album for the fainthearted; Martin Hannett's inverted production (see the essay by Michael Bibby in the anthology edited by him and Lauren Goodlad as "Goth: Undead Subculture" or Simon Reynolds' "Rip it Up" history of post-punk for the recording techniques; I've reviewed "Goth") pushed the thuds of Peter Hook, who played bass like a lead instrument, and the steady beat of Stephen Morris, thundering over the diminished voice of Ian Curtis and the guitar fills of Bernard Sumner. This dislocated echo dramatized the effect of an alienated, despairing environment. As Factory Records' mastermind (see "24 Hour Party People" with Steve Coogan in the role) Tony Wilson notes in the liner notes to a so-so tribute album, "Means to an End" 15 years ago: punk lasted a couple of years with "F[---] you" as its message. Then, it ran out of energy. It led to Joy Division's "We're F---ed" as the only possible, and more sustainable, response. For me, this music at its best dates far less than much of punk that spawned it.

"Closer" followed the media hype and personal struggles (see the fine biopic "Control" by noted photographer of this milieu, Anton Corbijn) of Curtis and bandmates. For me it suffers by a lusher, keyboard reliance and weaker, less serrated arrangements, but it and the single hit that followed "Love Will Tear Us Apart" seemed to bring success for the group just before a Spring 80 tour (for which I was waiting back home) of America was cancelled after Curtis hung himself. The trio regrouped as New Order.

I recommend the 4-disc warts and all "Heart & Soul" package for those ready to take on the band. Live tracks, radio sessions and demos for me often work better than the studio tracks, much as I admire Hannett's mixing and miking skills. I prefer as with contemporaries The Cure, PiL, and Siouxsie and the Banshees their earlier, rawer tunes to the more assured, streamlined ones that followed as post-punk turned less aggressive and more danceable, but that may reflect my own state of mind. For, I came of age with these bands in the late 70s, members playing who were barely four or five years older than me. That made all the difference-- they seemed more than cartoonish punks so soon stereotyped to express the pain of growing up in a post-hippie, dispirited, constrained society after so much hype failed again.

(Posted to Lunch.com 8-4-10.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice": Book Review

Fast-paced, readable, entertaining, even poignant: this satisfies even if by Pynchon's past work it's almost pulp fiction. On the cusp of the '70s, the hangover from the Manson murders throbs over L.A. It's like a yard at San Quentin, full of cons on the make, and the newcomer or innocent treads, or drives, cautiously.

There's a sadness beneath the satire of a detective novel. The mystery, typically for this author, deepens. Late on, a real estate developer boasts that there's an "inexhaustible supply" of suckers, those who will sign on to be on the take in a desolate, bleached Southern California sprawl where every raw arrival or cynical native wants in on the scam. There's an arrested development culturally: surf tunes pepper the prose. And intellectually, few in these pages appear to have read anything. Unlike other Pynchon plots, this moves nearly free of literary allusion or historical complexity, as if L.A. lives up to its stereotype arrogantly.

I liked this. The Lemurian tangents seemed off-base even for Pynchon, and I thought the ramblings could have been tightened. However, the story moves efficiently and far more rapidly than most Pynchon predecessors-- which I also admire (see my reviews recently of "Against the Day" and "V."), but for first-time readers, perhaps this novel might be recommended for its accessibility. It's far easier. Tonally, it's casual and easygoing, and seems a homage more than a parody of the gumshoe genre.

The title comes from an insurance phrase, a deep weakness that cannot be extricated from the larger chaos. Foreboding shrouds this setting like the fog along Gordita Beach in the South Bay, where Doc lives when not pursuing the mysteries all the way to Ojai and over to Las Vegas. He struggles to remain in the place, the moment, even as the era rapidly diminishes into nostalgia, barely a blink after the Summers of Love. Within the countercultural dawning of the Age of Aquarius, perhaps a bit of idealism remains, "this little parenthesis of light" left by the hippie dream before Manson. Many tried to escape the "great collective trap" of U.S. conformity, but the Feds and cops and developers and cults and criminals, it seems, have called in whatever they're owed by those who tried to change the world. The revolution seemed "pre-doomed."

The novel ends with a marvelous scene. Amidst the fog on the freeway, Doc drives off into the mystery that surrounds him. The cars trail each other at a safe distance, shepherding the driver before and after, and all, for at least one saving moment, look out for the other guy, all reduced to the same lights shadowed by the all-encompassing gloom. (Posted to Amazon US 6-11-10; See my review on "V." posted on the blog and Amazon US 8-11-10.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "V.": Book Review

This debut's strong if not a knockout. I liked its ambition, but compared to "Against the Day" nearly 45 years later, for instance, or even the recent "Inherent Vice" (see my reviews), this satisfies as a shaggy-dog tale but does not overwhelm me with its power. But, he wasn't even 25 when this bold book was published in 1961. Pynchon improved in crafting intellectual thrillers full of global conspiracies, cartoonish characters, flashes of inspired prose, and dense allusions you have to look up. These elements all exist in "V.", so it's valuable to watch them bloom. But, they often dazzle for briefer periods, before the plot veers away and its caricatured figures (few of whom manage to stick with you) recede into the distance.

Distancing does diffuse Pynchon's power. For all of their detail, the Whole Sick Crew whir past as if stick drawings in an animated film. There's an accelerated pace to this narrative crammed full of digressions and shenanigans. Granted, some chapters amass enough obsessively compiled data (how Esther gets her nose job's described in clinical, precise language), weird scenes (Father Fairing's mission to the rats) or horrific settings (South-West Africa after WWI); other events such as the siege of Malta in WWII or the attempted theft of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" for all their bulk don't leave as much of an impression. Still, as in the passages I cite, the writing suddenly rises to its potential.

The book spins two gradually intertwined storylines. Benny Profane and the Sick Crew disembark from the Navy in dock and pal around the East Coast in Beat style, circa 1956. Here he thinks of his sometime lover, Rachel Owlglass, my favorite character, sketchy as she stays. "She visited him occasionally, as now, by night, like a succubus, coming in with the snow. There was no way he knew to keep her out." (30; Modern Library 1966 ed.) Profane eventually makes his way to Malta.

To there, Herbert Stencil early in the last century pursues the enigmatic title character "V." He tells one of her guises about the strange Arctic realm of Vheiss (similar to the pursuit of Shambhala in "Against the Day"): "As if you lived inside a madman's kaleidoscope. Even your dreams become flooded with colors, with shapes no Occidental ever saw. Not real shapes, not meaningful ones. Simply random, the way clouds change over a Yorkshire landscape." (170)

For "V." in Florence, Victoria Wren, at that moment of diversion as the theft's attempted, it was "as if she saw herself embodying a feminine principle, acting as complement to all this bursting, explosive male energy. Inviolate and calm, she watched the spasms of wounded bodies, the fair of violent death, framed and staged, it seemed, for her alone in that tiny square. From her hair the heads of five crucified also looked on, no more expressive than she." (209)

Later, regarding her latest incarnation as Victoria: "If she was an historical fact then she continued active today and at the moment, because the ultimate Plot Which Has No Name was as yet unrealized, although V. might be no more a she than a sailing vessel or a nation." (226)

The embedded tales of African terror, Maltese assault, and New York subway oddness with albino alligator hunts do serve to break up the crazy zig-zag of the plot as it is. They show Pynchon's love of invention, one of his most endearing qualities. Sections approach poetic profundity.
"Why use the room as an introduction to an apologia? Why? Why use the room as introduction to an apologia? Because the room, though windowless and cold at night, is a hothouse. Because the room is the past, though it has no history of its own. Because, as the physical being-there of a bed or horizontal plane determines what we call love; as a high place must exist before God's word can come to a flock and any sort of religion begin; so must there be a room, sealed against the present, before we can make any attempt to deal with the past." (305)

Rachel tells Benny after they make love and he's complained about his shortcomings:
"You have to grow up," she finally said. "That's all: my own unlucky boy, didn't you ever think maybe ours is an act too? We're older than you, we lived inside you once: the fifth rib, closest to the heart. We learned all about it then. After that it had to become our game to nourish a heart you all believe is hollow though we know different. Now you all live inside us, for nine months, and when ever you decide to come back after that." (370)

The Epilogue in 1919 follows the connection between the 1956 and the earlier stories of the pursuit of "V." I felt the last third of the book lagged as the Crew's exploits rushed by in more dull than lively fashion, but as of 1961 their carrying on might have felt fresher than it does a half-century later. The Maltese setting's innovative, even if the characters and their plotting don't add up to as much as one hopes (a common result for Pynchon's schemers). Still, near the end, it winds up in relevant fashion, as do many of his subsequent novels, no matter how wildly told.

"If there is any political moral to be found in this world," Stencil once wrote in his journal, "it is that we carry on the business of this century with an intolerable double vision. Right and Left; the hothouse and the street. The Right can only live and work hermetically, in the hothouse of the past, while outside the Left prosecute their affairs in the streets by manipulated mob violence. And cannot live but in the dreamscape of the future." (468)

I found this readable, not nearly as hard to comprehend as I'd been warned. As I turned the pages I kept wondering what would happen next. There's a lot of valleys compared to peaks, but any imaginative reader may find this entertaining and sometimes philosophical. Like "Inherent Vice," there's a detective plot overlaying deeper reflections. As with "The Crying of Lot 49" which came next, this sketches out a sketchy conspiracy that remains such. Compared to "AtD," this feels more accessible and makes a good preparation. I'm off to "Gravity's Rainbow" next, feeling finally ready for its ascent. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-11-10)

Monday, August 9, 2010

"The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles": Review

Not long after the City of the Queen of the Angels was founded, its many newcomers and its few natives lamented its decline. “The Anglo ‘invention’ of Los Angeles required a narrative of paradise lost as well as found.” William Alexander McClung’s summation echoes over the fifteen essays compiled here. Various critics agree. The myth of L.A. as a palm-shaded resort dissolves into a mirage of resigned disappointment more often than a desert-adjacent oasis where dreams come true.

Kevin R. McNamara [editor] introduces the common themes of desire and delusion that comprise the literary reactions to this coastal megalopolis, this arid sprawl, and this cosmopolitan confusion where no driver agrees upon how far Los Angeles spreads into the interior from its Pacific proximity. The difficulty with defining the Southland or the L.A. Basin permeates the imaginary as well as real responses to its disturbingly potent allure.

Such a star-studded stage set was manufactured early on. Its fabled Mexican heritage with Ramona became a nineteenth-century commodity for gullible tourists and conniving boosters. Such utopian features of a citrus-blossomed, Spanish-style hacienda overshadowed those who spoke its fantasy script and kept its props stable. L.A.’s unreal estates as recorded by those visiting clashes with those living here who fail to recognize the stereotypes. Often it takes an insider to note this dissonance. David Wyatt on mid-century fiction and Patrick O’Donnell on postwar L.A. enliven their essays with personal accounts of growing up in this changing city, most of whose sections rarely gain attention.

As David Wyatt asks: “Yet, who works”? Outside of Mildred Pierce, it appears that not many Angelenos do. Fiction trumped reality. Wyatt shows how Tinseltown versions of L.A. dominated the imagination as its writers—often turned screenwriters--churned out their own exposés. These, for over a century, have competed in the ways we view this city. Many novelists taking on L.A. today follow suit. They expect to sell their stories (often about movies) for the movies.

Chip Rhodes examines Hollywood fictions concerning this intertextuality; Mark Shiel surveys the Southland on screen. They explore the relationship between the older and the newer media. In a collection on literature of L.A., the lure of the story being distorted into a larger-than-life spectacle tugs against the fiction writer’s modest ambitions to get a tale simply published and read.

As writers competed for attention, their ranks grew. Charles Scruggs studies the African-American contribution. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress presents a familiar archetype. “The poorest man has a car in Los Angeles; he might not have a roof over his head but he has a car. And he knows where he’s going too.” But as Wanda Coleman shows in her story “Hamburgers,” a character who lives on fast food so he can keep up payments on an unaffordable set of wheels may not survive this pressure to hang on to his car--even if it must become his home. Kicked out after falling behind on his rent, he learns a hidden truth. “Los Angeles may promise the world, but the last thing it provides is spiritual nourishment.”

Postwar L.A., Mark Shiel explains, promoted films that confront the loss of open space and the squalor of stucco. Too many veterans and their families arrived to sniff the orange blossoms; these were chopped down for tract homes. Across a hundred miles of housing, “automobile use became unnervingly routine or compensatory for some sort of psychological lack.” Film noir churned out angst; countercultural entertainment pumped up sex, drugs, and sun as hedonistic remedies for such anxiety.

Science fiction countered this attitude as postwar writers and filmmakers reveled in catastrophes that leveled pleasure palaces. “The literature of urban rebellion” full of strikebreakers and then looters darkened distant hot-tub or surf-splashed vistas. Meanwhile, inner city or modest suburbs languished as rarely explored--at least rarely in the poems, novels, or films garnering a wider audience. James Kyung-Jin Lee alerts readers to a city many outside of L.A. may not recognize, where a Redondo Beach fish market’s Latino workers speak in Korean to tourists from Seoul--arriving at the pier not far from LAX airport.

This multicultural city earns coverage in most essays, most likely by virtue of its scarcity from earlier texts as well as its later presence. Yet, this reviewer noted a slight dissonance here. Essayists covering this event all use “Justice Riots” for the 1992 “uprising” following the Rodney King verdict. As a native of Los Angeles, who the night this “civil unrest” exploded had to evacuate my adult-school students from the South-Central campus where I taught, I never have heard “Justice Riots” used by my colleagues, my students, or anybody within earshot. This term may be favored by those in elite or progressive settings. However, “Justice” rather than “Rodney King” or “1992 riots” has never entered the vocabulary of the diverse Angelenos with whom I live, work, and socialize.

That being said, most contributors in spite of their professorial status manage to write efficient, readable prose that conveys a command of the essential books and films that cover their specialty. The Californios, British expatriates and German exiles, Asian and Latino interactions, sleuths, and nature all earn their own chapters. Sections often suffer from a compression that leans more towards plot summary rather than explications of key passages. (Charles Scruggs by examining Walter Mosley’s excerpts handles this coverage well). Some entries nod too much towards the three surveyors whom anyone familiar with L.A. on the page already knows: Carey McWilliams, Joan Didion, and Mike Davis.

Therefore, Eric Avila’s cautionary note about Davis’ influential (at least in elite or progressive settings) but binary, either/or emphasis was welcome. Davis views class war as the fundamental perspective. “For all of its insight or depth, City of Quartz proffers an analysis that remains bounded by the subjective limitations of a white-male Marxism that slights the salience of race in a deeply racialized metropolis.”

Avila’s own chapter on essayists ends by glancing at complexity and nuance as necessary factors in judging this region. Urbanists and critics, alongside novelists and screenwriters, tend to sell us what we expect from a too-familiar L.A. As exemplified by James Kyung-Jin Lee’s nimble juxtaposition of Asian-American and Latino encounters, may this volume encourage a more diverse, and more honest, reaction to the real Los Angeles that defies as often as it does define fictional responses on page and on screen.

Featured on New York Journal of Books 7-26-10. A short summary not incorporating the above material verbatim posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 7-28.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

iPod marbh; fón úr

Beidh guthán nua uaim den chéad uair. Cheannaigh mo bhean ceann acu sisean féin ar tseachtaine seo caite. Ar dtús, cheap mé go raibh ag fáil a teileafón siúil athdhiolta uirthi. Tá Sméar Dhubh rua aici ó arú anuraidh ar a laghad ann. Mar sin, tá dhá bliain ar a bheag aige.

Go tobann, fuair mo h-iPod bás le hadhairt. Nílim ábalta deisiú an innealín dílis. Mar sin féin, bhí cúig bliana d'aois.

Chríochnaigh sé leis dealbh ar aghaidh brónach. Tá deireadh lena bhuaireamh ar fad anois. Shíolthlaigh sé go suaimhneach san oíche.

De thoradh ábhar sin, tá mé ag feabhsú ó chomlacht teileafóin. Ar ndóigh, ba mhaith liom ceoltoireachteoir leis mo fhón poca. Agus cheana, caithim nasc leis mo h-obair ar an ghréasán go rialta nuair go mbeadh mé ag dul ar an bóthar. Beidh muid fadhb a fhuascailt teineiúil seo go luath.

Tá cruacheist agam: níl Sméar Dhubh a seinm ann. Dá bhrí sin, d'inis mo bhean orm go raibh ag fáil fón nua agamsa ar dí chuma féin. Ach, an mbeidh dath difriul air? Is docha, beidh sé dubh fós ann!

Dead iPod; Fresh Phone.

I will need a new phone for the first time. My wife bought one of them herself last week. At first, I thought I'd get a mobile telephone secondhand from her. There's her red BlackBerry from the year before last at least. Therefore, it's two years old at least.

Suddenly, my iPod found a natural death. I'm not able to repair the little loyal machine. All the same, it was five years old.

It ended with a sad icon on its face. All its troubles are over now. It passed away quietly in the night.

As a result of this matter, I am upgrading from the phone company. Of course, I'd like a music-player with my pocket phone. Furthermore, I must have a link with my work to the web regularly when I might be on the road. We will resolve this technical difficulty soon.

There's a tough question for me: BlackBerry's not playing music. Therefore, my wife told me to get a new phone for myself the same as hers. But, will it be a different color? Most likely, it'll be black too!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How California's propositions work and don't work

Does yesterday's decision to block Prop 8 overturn a majority of voters? Yes, 52.3%. Some protest this as overruling the will of the people.

But, whatever one's leanings from ballot to ballot, one must remember: we Californian voters are unpredictable: 187 (stopping illegal immigrants from government services) and 227 (overturning supposedly bilingual education) also were fought by liberal courts, if predictably, along with a later voter-backed ban on race-biased state hiring and college admissions. 187 was blocked by progressive courts, the other two contentious ones weren't. Another proposition backed by Gov. Schwarzenegger to fund stem-cell research even when it was prohibited by the Federal government also passed, showing this individual streak in state voters.

Compare the current impasse over state medical marijuana legalization vs. the Feds that Prop 19 legalizing all marijuana this fall may (or may not, eventually and legally) supersede. The majority passed legalizing medical marijuana years ago but this was blocked in Federal court and continues to be blocked. I expect if 19 passes that conservatives will block it in turn. Liberal as California veers, there's a strong independent streak that enables GOP-backed, self-funded tycoons from corporate life (and actors!) to run for governor and US Senate, even if Reagan and Arnold aside they aren't able to win. We'll see this November given the anti-incumbent mood allegedly in the air if that changes.

It does frustrate me how propositional voting, instituted in the Golden State reformer Hiram Johnson's populist anti-trust fight against robber barons during the Progressive Era of 100 years ago, is thwarted and funded by special interests from churches to corporations for hidden agendas. The propositions were meant idealistically to express the will of the common people who lacked legislative support for more humane laws to pass. The propositions gave voters a chance to get heard, even if Big Business and Big Government fought to suppress their protests. So, even if as with Prop 8 I favor its rejection, I understand when my vote's been on the winning side that gets halted after the game's over how annoying this might be-- to seem to win the game and yet lose it after the final score.

Still, our democracy's not a sports contest, and the refs from the bench wear robes and bang gavels. They make the rules, despite what the constituency cheers for, if the voters clash with the Constitution as ultimate play book to settle any disputes. That's the rules of the judicial game. We the players may lose. We may argue with the refs and appeal, but instant replays don't always happen and judgments tend to rest in those with the official uniforms, not those on the field or even sometimes in the ballot box.

However, I would not predict the progressive agenda always gets its way. Many Californians aren't in lockstep with NPR or Fox although you'd forget this if following the MSM. "Decline to State" voters are the emerging bloc of moderates and skeptics, even in a (where I live) Democratic gerrymandered city in a state that's tilting inevitably, given demographics I reckon, into the blue.

(Posted to Lunch.com to respond to "this is a progressive court ignoring the people's voice" in the wake of the decision overturning Prop 8 against gay marriage, 8-4-10) Photo c/o: Prop 8.

(8-9-10 P.S. Read this on how a 1943 precedent influenced Judge Walker's overturning in favor of minority representation against a majority's discrimination: "How Jehovah's Witnesses helped kill Prop. 8".)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tana French's "Faithful Place": Book Review

More a "fated" place, this Dublin street's where Frank Mackey investigates his girlfriend's fate after she vanished the night they were to elope twenty-two years ago. He works undercover, but this case, taken on also clandestinely, challenges him even more, for his identity's known to all.

This follows In the Woods and The Likeness in following members of the "Dublin Murder Squad". While Tana French's award-winning debut also explored the intersection of past and present in another policeman's life during an investigation, I found it, solid as it was, less involving ultimately than her daring follow-up. That took on a rather outlandish plot that by its sheer audacity compelled you to see if French could convince you of its verisimilitude. Both books, faintly overlapping, showed her to be a wonderful chronicler of changing, gentrifying Dublin and its environs. Her ear for dialogue's sharp, her characterization draws you in to what feel old-fashioned almost Victorian studies of people under pressure, and her wit entertained.

Frank appeared in the earlier books but oddly, no mention of the protagonists or plots of the previous two installments enters this one. While the ending may not be much of a surprise, French appears more confident in delineating the power of loss within outwardly predictable, inwardly constricted settings.

The pain of domesticity and the romance of flight energize the storytelling even if the plot may not be as unpredictable as the genre may achieve. French may be better at describing middle-class rather than working-class Dubliners. The setting for all its specificity does not come alive as vividly as in her two previous novels set in tonier sections further away from the city center where this plot unfolds. The dialogue's not as sassy, and the characters not as eccentric.

However, from the start of this novel, French finds her narrative voice. She channels it with poise and conviction. While I'd have wished for more of Dublin beyond this street, her wish to force the reader to stay where she tells you deepens her control over the setting of its title.

Characters in detail here remain few. Frank's family and a few neighbors comprise most of those he takes on in the hectic week or so of the events that force him back to his family's home in the Liberties, south of the River Liffey. French gives less local color and fewer predictable figures than you might expect for a Dublin chronicler. She prefers to emphasize the pull back to the familiar, and the desperate compulsion to break away from such bonds. This novel hones in on one family, one street, and one corpse. Its scope narrows and intensifies as the chronology's compressed.

I was surprised at how over four hundred pages she could sustain the action. Chapter seven's a superbly paced, dramatically arranged conversation between Frank and his siblings at the local pub. It reads as if a gripping one-act drama. Faithful Place succeeds as a modestly told novel that avoids cliche, stylized dialogue, or easy sentiment. While I missed some of the wry Irish humor than enlivened The Likeness, French does sneak in an unprintable joke using ZZ Top as metaphor.

What seems a story with few possible variations naturally unfolds into many. Without feeling padded, French's tale works on its merits of listening to how people talk and watching, as would a detective, how they act.

Frank looks at how his family looks after over two decades away, musing how the fading light lessens his siblings' wrinkles as they sit again on their front steps as when children, each on their usual perch. He recollects how we tend to see those we knew whom we met when young as if always such. And, Frank laments at the passing of those who never had a chance to grow grey.

Out of such moments, French creates a steady, thoughtful study of how family ties together those desperate to keep its parents and children intact against whatever the world, the neighbors, or the suitors of its offspring conspire to set against the comforts, and terrors, of life at home. (Posted in shorter form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-2-10; submitted as slightly altered here to PopMatters June 21, 2011)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Paddy Figgis' "On the Bright Road": Book Review

Certainly a challenging, difficult, and ambiguous novel. As the blurb for the book [on Amazon or the Wiki for Lunch.com] summarizes, this combines two stories, one from the Arthurian, post-Roman era and one from today, set in 1993. Figgis reminds me of Charles Williams' own difficult fiction (she cites him in a quote), which likewise sought to merge the supernatural plane with our own mundane. Her knowledge of archeology and the "dark ages" of Britain makes for the most involving aspect of this tangled tale. She delays, like a crafty storyteller, clarifying details of the story until much later than a reader might expect, and even at its close, this novel leaves spaces still unfilled.

Its unforgiving erudition makes this at all times a daunting rather than diverting read, and it's a very serious story, with not much humor or wit to lighten its considerably relentless gloom. It deserves a more educated reader than I am to excavate and label all of its layered artifacts. Figgis labors to re-create not only the decay of post-Roman Wales but the decline of one modern man's life, and the parallels, although never obviously juxtaposed, make for instructive insights, which she does not--to her credit but relying upon the reader's consistent and not entirely rewarded effort--simplify or reduce to truisms.

While I expected an easier novel, this does show that Figgis takes her audience as seriously as she does her fiction, and this is probably a step above the usual Arthurian fantasy. My one criticism is that I sensed that secondary characters remained too willfully mysterious throughout, and the lack of explanation for many of the more mundane events--as well as those more symbolic--irritated me. Figgis does not provide enough clues to unlock all of the puzzles she places within the way of Kerr's quest, for him or for us. More disturbing, unsettled in its characterization, and opaque in what would have been in other novels clues that would have been eventually made transparent, her novel may frustrate more likely than entertain. She knows a great deal about the time she restores here, Arthur is by the way off-stage rather than the protagonist, and both The Tracker and Cathal Kerr remain enigmatic central characters beyond the last pages of what does not reach simple closure as a conventional "time-travel" tale.

(Generally I don't post older reviews pre-blog from Amazon, but this title was bugging me and I couldn't recall the details. So, thanks to Lunch.com I now have my reviews transferred and more easily retrievable at the latter site. Not easy, but still easier than sifting through over eleven hundred reviews the past dozen-odd years at Amazon US, where this appeared 9-15-05.)