Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Katherine Russell Rich's "Dreaming in Hindi": Book Review

Four days before 9/11, Rich arrives in Northwest India. She knows a little Hindi, and she figures she needs a break after eight successive jobs as a magazine editor have ended in her being laid off or the publication going under. Neither her Main Line suburban Philadelphia upbringing nor her years in Manhattan prepare her for immersion into the culture of Rajasthan.

Rich’s account follows a narrative pattern that may be familiar to those who have studied and lived abroad. Her romantic expectations fade, her terror at learning the language turns to resentment, resignation, and acceptance. After five months, her fluency grows despite her weariness at the overwhelming assaults of color, emotion, noise, and attitudes that distinguish Udaipur, the city where her school is, from her familiar American mindset.

This book succeeds when Rich describes what she sees.  Before leaving New York, she studies the orthography of Hindi. “The beautiful letters, like stick trees that had bumped into a ceiling or a revue of performing snakes, came out shaped like cows’ heads in my hands.” She tells of Second Language Acquisition with interspersed summations and interview snippets from scholars and linguists. These may interfere with the Indian portions, but they attempt to align her own struggles with those that academics analyze as common situations for any adult learner. She feels speechless, yet the exhilaration of her Indian residence forces her to get beyond the persistent predicament that makes her a child in the eyes and ears of her interlocutors. Many Indians want to practice their equally awkward English phrases with her; meanwhile those Indians adept in her mother tongue shift into English with her often. She compares her condition to “the daily schism to contend with, of having the mind of a woman who’s worked to have one and a voice that’s the Indian equivalent of a U.S. sitcom character named Babu.”

After five months, however, right on schedule according to professors, Rich leaves behind “receptive infancy” for a “naming explosion.”  Her English can roam, especially in earlier chapters, wildly, into oddly cadenced constructions, strangely placed punctuation, and unidiomatic rhythms. This may leave a native English reader wondering if his or her own articulation also weakens under the pressure of another language, but this prose equivalence may have been subconscious on Rich’s part. Her frequent digressions into scholarship alongside often humdrum interludes from her travels lengthen into an off-kilter, idiosyncratically accented work. Her classmates and friends earn attention, but many fail to stick to the page as memorable characters with worthwhile conversations. This may leave a reader both wanting more detail and wishing less of it; it veers between depth and superficiality for long stretches.

Hindi, in reflection, spreads into her mind long after her return to America as a “stain on my thoughts,” and this permeable nature of reminding her of places and people from nearly a decade before this book does testify to her powers of recall. Her senses seem doubled. “The lights slanting down soft yellow makes the lanes look like misty stage sets.” Speech, in Sanskrit convention, becomes one of ten senses.

She tries to get to know her country’s hosts better. She assists at a deaf school and notes how some of the children draw self-portraits without a mouth. Her sign language nickname there is “Plane Crashing into Tower.” As she lives in India longer, she feels more at home and less at ease. She is assaulted three times as tensions increase and foreigners meet insults. “When I looked up, two couples were hurrying past, the men’s heads pulled down by taut strings, the women’s faces turned back to examine mine—laughing, though it looked like they were grimacing.” America, to India’s increasingly nationalistic Hindus, appears self-absorbed by 9/11; soon after, two thousand deaths (mostly Muslim) nearer to Udaipur, during sectarian riots in neighboring Gujurat, result in no response from the U.S. president.

She visits the rich and, perhaps less successfully given her outsider status and those of her caste-conscious hosts, she tries to talk to the poor. A haughty wealthy man tells her that by taking tea with him, she shows she is still foreign; a fellow Indian would not be offered tea. They contend to manipulate and dominate each other in a Third World economy that allows little space for mutual admiration.

Rich realizes the gap between her and these natives. Her linguistic progress signals her willingness to reinvent herself, but her appearance and her age defy her wishes. At 45, her Indian counterparts may look like paper-skinned grandmothers. She hides her divorced status but this makes her single status all the more dumbfounding to her Indian inquirers. Staying at a former women’s quarters of an old house where the current women of the family challenge her can be both amusing and wearying. She must defend her reputation. As she filters it through what would have been her acquired Hindi: “I have not been bringing men up to my room. I have not been throwing condoms onto people’s roofs.”

Trying out for a “videshi” or “foreigner” singing competition so her sponsors can benefit from the prize she is promised at a resort, she reflects how in a sari, often like a bunched diaper at best on her figure, she looks like “a large, motorized confectioner’s cake gliding pinkly down the street.”  Still, her inner immersion via Hindi has made her strut more confidently, and capably. She leaves after most of a year spent in India beginning to dream in both languages, and she keeps doing so today, she concludes. (Posted to & Amazon US 9-8-10; Pop Matters 9-21-10.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrzej Stasiuk's "On the Road to Babadag": Book Review

Roaming the rarely touristed backroads of Central and Eastern Europe over perhaps seven years and accumulating 167 stamps in his Polish passport, this chronicler begins by noting how the third day of Orthodox Easter marks the "pleasant inertia of matter".  Such combined precision and vagueness, of detail and poetry, characterizes this brief, but densely compacted, narrative. Stasiuk disdains the obvious, and he does not bother with a recital of facts and figures about most of where he visits; instead, he opts for impressions, often of weariness, dissipation, and stasis. "We are all orphaned children of some emperor or despot," he observes after talking with a Romanian elder who misses the regime of Ceausescu.

Stasiuk resigns himself to invention, if he is to entertain himself. Reality tires in these flattening territories which tip eastwards  into entropy and threaten to dissolve into a haze of mist and a cloud of (cigarette more likely now than factory) smoke. "I have to invent, because days cannot sink into a past filled only with landscape, with inert, unchanging matter that finally shakes us from our corporeality, brushes off and away all these little incidents, faces, existences that last no longer than a glimpse." This typifies his approach. "Perhaps one travels for the purpose of preserving facts, keeping alive their brief, flickering light."

He rejects as "pathetic and pretentious" any easy cause and effect as an organizing principle. "Paroxysm and tedium rule her in turn, and that is why this region is so human," he reasons after a village stop where Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Romanian all seem to depend on the provenance of not their speaker but upon his chance encounters. This fatalistic air may dampen anybody wishing a brisk tale full of witty characters and funny incidents, but this is a very existential report from the fading frontiers of the continent, as they return to a post-Cold War situation of uneasy allegiances, local rivalries, and timeless waiting.

As he watches a Slovak car pull up and its family look suspiciously about at their Hungarian street, Stasiuk muses how life builds up from such moments, "bits of the present that stay in the mind," to construct the world as we know it. Mired in Albania, he endures a crazy ride in a delivery van downhill, coasting to save gas, and both the driver and his companion in the front seat turn about and writhe to Turkish techno music, while "they turned to make sure we were having fun too." Such droll reportage for its rarity stands out here.

Leaving Moldova, his driver four times endures the same roadside ritual. A policeman stops the minibus. "The cops' faces stony and dull, the driver's face resigned and resentful." Asking if it was always like this, Stasiuk gets the reply that it's the same as it ever was: "Ever since the end of the Soviet Union".

This sense of going somewhere ill-defined, and ending up not quite nowhere, permeates this account. He ends up at Babadag in Romania only because not far from there, he can go no further east. Danger lurks beyond such an horizon. Neither armies nor ideas can be escaped. Nowhere can be found to start over, at the end of such a long history. We live, he admits, in a "past that permeates our territories, just as an animal's den is filled with its smell."

The final section from which this book takes its name, about ninety pages, cannot find a place to settle itself. He starts by riffing through his passport with its 167 stamps, his shoebox full of snapshots, his bottle full of coins. Travel, he asserts, can be summed up as an attempt to penetrate the secret passage into the interior. An old photograph, a banknote, a reminiscence set him off on a recollected story, but the map at the front of this book, for all its strange placenames, leaves many more out, and the reports from these fluid borders tend to accentuate their mysterious intersections as often as they delineate their jealous guards and linguistic niceties.

I found this last chapter somewhat tedious, as the relentless mood of detached observation and philosophical prose over 250 pages sunk in. One error despite Michael Kandel's sustained translation (from the 2004 original) into confident, oracular English slipped past; Enver Hoxha's daughter Pranvera could not have reconstructed a fortress in 1882. Otherwise, enriched by a few endnotes about references obscure to non-Polish readers, this reads admirably well, and for the more intellectual of armchair travelers, it is recommended as a slow if short read.

Having seen the plains of Eastern Hungary and a bit of the Slovakian mountains and the Danube's bend myself, I can, however, attest to the effect on the disoriented traveler of the languages, the torpor, and the barriers erected not so much politically but culturally that dissuade a visitor. Unlike me, with his native Polish and his pan-Slavic knack of picking up similarities in cognate languages, Stasiuk sets out with more aplomb, if no less attitude. That is, he projects as any visitor his own isolation within such vast settings that humble the outsider used to cities, compact streets, and accessible conversations with the locals.

Rather than such familiarities, Stasiuk conjures up the haunted qualities of this realm. "Death should bear some resemblance to life. It should be like a dream or a movie. Reality in this part of the continent has assumed the aspect of the afterlife--no doubt so that people will fear death less and die with less regret." This ultimately oblique, slippery visit to the countries beyond the author's native Poland carries an erudite, seasoned, yet very melancholy atmosphere common to much of the cultural and literary productions of this region. It captures the sense of the humble but it also strains for the heights, not the depths, of sadness. (Amazon US & 6-11-11; as slightly altered here, featured 6-22-11 on PopMatters)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mo Iubhaile órga

Nuair a bheidh sé inniu, beidh tú in ann seo a léamh ar mo bhreithlá caoga bliain. Níor chreid mé sin. Scriobhim i mo bhlag de reir an lá go díreach sin, mar sin féin, arú amárach. 

Cén fáth mar sin? Bheul, tá biseach muidsa níos mo ar feadh an tseachtaine seo. Bainfidh Leon amach céime scoil ard amárach. Beidh ár chothrom fiche bliain Lhéna agus mise freisin sin.  

Chuir mé an grianghraf seo níos luath inniu. Bhí ionadh liom a fheiceáil an seamróg bheag i mo croca bláthanna thuas an staighre ar an deic in aice leis ár h-urlár uachtair i mo teach. Mheas mé an planda go faighte bás go hóg ina dhiadh Lá Phádraig go tapaidh. 

Go minic, ar ndóigh, smaoinim machnamh fúmsa faoi amarách (inniu?) anois. Is comhartha ar mo saolré gearr an iubhaile órga. Is é mo ghruaig liath go tobann; bhí é mo ghruaig ruadh i meisce donn ni fada ó shin. 

Tá gas amháin ag fás ar gcéad lá den samhradh; chuir mé bolg tae Éireannach a lheas ar thalamh méith. Tá ceist orm faoi más seamróg go mbeidh sé slán an séasúr. B'fhéidir, tuigim é mar chomhartha ar athnuaim phearsanta. 

My Golden Jubilee

When it will be today, you'll be able to read this on my fiftieth birthday. I cannot believe that. I write on my blog, all the same, for that actual day after tomorrow. 

Why so? Well, it's very busy with ourselves during this week. Leo will be graduating from high school tomorrow. That will be our twentieth  anniversary for Layne and myself too. 

Often, of course, I meditate myself about tomorrow (today?) now. A golden jubilee's a sign of my short life  My hair's grey suddenly; I had red hair mixed with brown not long ago.     

I took this photo earlier today. I was surprised to see a little shamrock in my flower pot upstairs on the deck near our upper room of my house. I thought the plant took its death before its time rapidly after St.  Patrick's Day.

Only a stalk's growing the first day of summer; I added a bag of Irish tea to enrich the soil. I have a question whether a shamrock will stay healthy the season. Perhaps, I understand it as a sign of personal renewal.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"How to be a Proverbs 31 Woman"

Bibliomancy, if only for those able to read once upon a time, let alone parse the text, was used often to suss out the present and tease divinity into spilling the textual cue cards for the future. My employer is downsizing its library, getting rid of hundreds of books. The purge last year despite my own recession cuts and small space garnered me a few boxes of Library of America reissues of Twain, Thoreau, and Nabokov whom I felt sorry for, in their relegated expulsion, and some learned holdings that I myself had ordered in boom years a decade ago when we were told to pile high our shelves for accreditation. Now that accreditators are convinced by my "employer of choice" that any investigation can be done "continually" by online auditing 24/7, the books tend to go. We will follow as we will be herded into cubicles into the first floor of a place we will have moved out from and leased off half of soon enough.

[The day after I wrote this entry, I was told to haul off all but the fewer books required each term to teach. I've archived back-up course materials since '95 as hard copies, over the years from Microsoft 3.1 to now, as I've lost data (IT upgrades) and a 17,000 word chunk of my research when my work-issued laptop failed (that a month after it was issued). My colleagues felt demeaned that as "professors" we're treated like office temps, assigned to a desk, its overhead space, and a file cabinet. We will occupy a divided--"it's not a cubicle, more like a pod"--enormous open space as with any firm's rank and file. Dozens of faculty in a room with windows facing a parking lot next to an airport runway. I plan to invest in headphones even though my five-year-old laptop's jack's broken; my phone plays music. I can't concentrate in such a setting. I tend to be a hermit crab already, to scurry to whatever shell I can claw up.]

(My workplace justifies "rightsizing" to "better respond to student needs" and "maximize our real estate investments to serve our customers." Perhaps you call them students. Yet, we're incorporated as an institute of higher learning. So we're told we still merit an onsite library, even if relocated to a tiny room with six computer carrels, two offices, and fewer than three thousand from what exceeded ten thousand volumes once.)

Well, the reference section met its fate. Odds and ends. I saved an Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality by the prolific Burroughs couple whose scholarship signifies excellence in that welcome if indefinable, illimitable field; my boys inherited two film coffee-table tomes. A two-volume Encyclopedia of Ethics (weird as each of them looks exactly the same, and no A-M and N-Z distinguishes them even by call number let alone appearance); a single source on Social Movements (Soviet entries predominate, such as Alcoholism in the USSR, oddly); a Shakespeare A-Z compendium of little entries; a Macmillan Bible Atlas; a bilingual Qur'an Penguin translation (stingy on the notes, as if fearing to tread on any sensibilities, it seems).

Finally, the Oxford RSV Annotated Study Bible, with Apocrypha. I sat there and paged it for inspiration, triply, at my desk as I waited for final exams and e-mails importuning me and research papers to upload.

First off: "Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward." Job 5:7. Not very comforting, however true. I closed my eyes and stuck my fingers in the biblical pie again to pull out a gospel plum.

That is: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" Matthew 23's full of such vituperation. Verse 33's one of many castigating, if decidedly back-dating, Christ's contempt for His people, chosen it seems for damnation after their Temple's conveniently predicted to fall.

Third, I got lucky, as far as my dear wife of twenty years ago today is concerned, for I was able to incorporate some of this "Acrostic Poem in Praise of a Wife of Noble Character" into my message for her. You who know her well may be able to guess or parse which of the verses are most applicable. Or less so!

Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character
 10b A wife of noble character who can find?
   She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
   and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
   all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
   and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
   bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
   she provides food for her family
   and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
   out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
   her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
   and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
   and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
   and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
   for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
   she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
   where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
   and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
   she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
   and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
   and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
   her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
   but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
   but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
   and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Well, I must say most of these attributes apply, at least from my domestic, paternal, and marital perspectives. Even if she can't make us "scarlet" garments and "quilts" (Oxford version) against the wintry snow. I thank her for her patience with me, her affection and love, and I hope I return it, albeit crankily, in turn if not ever able to reciprocate in portion. Even if she wears neither rubies nor pearls.

Figures I cannot write a personal entry here without footnotes, and one about love and marriage without citations!

It seems the more eclectic and agnostic my own soul turns, the more fascinated I am by how we seek, invent, and perpetuate our longing (at least in many of us) for meaning as ascertained and codified through our dreams, rituals, games and strategies that become reified and dogmatized into religion. Indefatigable cultural scholar and reader reception theorist I pretend to be, I also liked "ads by Google" appended to this site.

Here they are, without hyperlinks, however; I already fear the cookies embedded in this site. It's below.

1) Busy to be Beautiful-dot-com: Discover how to become the Proverbs 31 woman God created you to be.
2) What Really Attracts Men via Catch Him and Keep Him-dot-com:  9 Dangerous Mistakes Women Make That Men Find Totally Unattractive.
3)  How to Rebuild Trust via MarriageMax-dot-com: 7 Secrets to Rebuilding Trust. New Alternative to Counseling.
4) Make Him Addicted to You via Have the Relationship You Want-dot-com: Say These “Secret” Words To Make Him Fall Madly In Love With You

Under the entry's "Tips and Warnings," Ehow-dot-com notes: "Meditate on Scripture," while under "Tools," it tells you that you will need a Bible. This was the first one that came up when I searched "Proverbs 31." All citations via NIV rendering; I prefer Jerusalem Bible but neither that nor Oxford's shows up in aggregators of various passages with alternate translations online.

How to be a Proverbs 31 Woman

(Photo: I cannot find the source, but I found it among other sites here)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

John Joseph Adams' "Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Fiction": Review

Two-thirds of these cautionary tales have been published the past decade; I opened this having read only six, all of them regarded as classic stories by leading writers. Perhaps the impact of 9/11, the Internet and smartphones, and especially the Patriot Act have seared into recent contributors’ imaginations dangers that creep up on these inhabitants of worlds gone wrong. Many stories extrapolate from where we are now. They hint rather than highlight coming danger.

John Joseph Adams, a prolific anthologist of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, introduces his thirty-three entries from thirty-two visionaries. He defines dystopia from the Greek for "bad + place." He reminds us that, unlike post-apocalyptic stories (another anthology of his), society plays the antagonist, not the protagonist. Future systems may be totalitarian or authoritarian, but in many newer contributions, surveillance creeps via the personal device that may be our iPad or BlackBerry or laptop, a few generations later but with far more efficient apps. Those controlling networks in many stories gradually elaborate upon what we already encounter under the increasing overlap of state with corporation, boss with politician, judge with supervisor.

Most societies do not start out, Adams notes, intending to rule as dystopias. Well-meaning bureaucrats or enforcers may want to control breeding, enhance productivity, boost happiness, sustain moral allegiance or social order, combat crime, or save the planet. Liberties erode softly, as laws sharpen and penalties increase. This evolution, as many stories sketch, occurs subtly, not suddenly. Adams considers how dystopians agree to "give up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of it"– fewer babies, religious conformity, sexual liberation, Second Amendment rights, job security, guaranteed food or housing, say– "blinds the society to the loss of A." This loss often does not register with citizens until it is too late. Not all of the protagonists, without spoiling any endings, find cheerful conclusions to their struggles against watchful systems so embedded within daily life.

The arrangement arcs well. The stories begin centered on families and parents and children. After Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," S.B. Gilbow’s "Red Card" and Joseph Paul Haines’ "Ten With a Flag" raise similar scenarios based on sudden death or an advanced gamble on social security as a citizen’s right. Ursula Le Guin’s acclaimed parable "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" shows one child’s plight as the bargain made for a society’s hedonism and happiness. M. Rickert’s "Love in the Case of Abandonment" conflates an anti-abortion regime with public spectacle that updates a version of Jackson’s lottery. Kate Wilhelm’s gothic matriarchy in "The Funeral" conjures up a sinister manse more Hawthorne than Edward Gorey, one full of shadows and suggestions of social regression, common to those dystopias here that revived the Religious Right, after a massive disaster, as a triumphant force in America.

Certainly "O Happy Day!" by Geoff Ryman upends this: what if gays and women won? Testosterone levels alter the violent and aggressive males in society; heterosexual males turn scapegoats. "Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finley envisions where "homosexual and hydrosexual" prove the only acceptable options for a humanity again segregated by sex outside of their mandated opportunity to procreate, if not in the traditional manner. Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot give a brief graphic-art version of our if culture erased of any contributions of gays: "From Homogenous to Honey."

The next section shifts into the world of heterosexual reproduction, stymied, controlled, or demanded. J. G. Ballard’s "Billennium" crams all of humanity into high rises with diminishing personal space, as all the world outside the cities is given over to feeding a voracious populace. Carrie Vaughn’s "Amaryllis" responds with an ecologically responsible method: people are rewarded in a world decimated by environmental damage with the chance to bear a child only after proving their communal worth.

Paolo Bacigalupi, in a standout story, "Pop Squad," incorporates the tone of a cop-thriller into his situation where bearing babies is a capital crime: for the infants. James Morrow’s "Auspicious Eggs" may take too broad a tragicomic approach with a non-credible Catholic Church in post-global warming Boston, but he’s a gifted satirist. "The Church of the Immediate Conception" (obsessed with the "Doctrine of Affirmative Fertility," the "Sacrament of Extramarital Intercourse," and the fearsome if logical "Sacrament of Terminal Baptism") applies a reductio ad absurdum Catholic moral theology to the most audacious tale included here.

Next, life not terminated but extended makes Alex Irvine’s "Peter Skilling" a compact reminder of how the current "war on terror" could rationally expand into an American nation scientifically advanced while, a century from now, even more manically determined to control individual actions and crush civil liberties. Robots and cameras ensure law and order: all is recorded.

Vigilant machines patrol some of the strongest stories in this collection. I found Ray Bradbury’s "The Pedestrian" too pedestrian compared to Cory Doctorow’s impressively structured "The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away" and the suggestive, but enigmatic "The Pearl Diver" by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Both end with haunting moments experienced by protagonists trying to make a living in offices that appear familiar, those you and I may sit in, in front of keyboards and screens, but a few decades hence, environments not easily escaped even when one goes home. Portable and ubiquitous, networks never get turned off.

Ryman returns with "Dead Space for the Unexpected," which embeds a computer planning tool that doubles as an instant performance job review monitor to devastating impact. This story, more than any other, fits what systems now do, ramped up marginally, to edge from corporate efficiency into soulless brutality. The progression appears utterly convincing, and perhaps as inevitable as the newest version of Microsoft Office or an iPhone app, a few years from now.

Why read such stories rather than more escapist, more ameliorative fare? You may be living in a dystopia and not know it; many stories feature a worker’s gradual realization of his or her unhappiness within what always seemed the natural way of making a living, of getting by. This accounts for their allure: we may be, with our own devices, already entering these futures. The morning that I began reading this big book, my city’s internet-cable provider went down on New Year’s Day, so nobody could watch the Rose Parade or the football bowls. I wonder how many Angelenos figured a personal dystopia signaled by no media signal had been beamed into their living rooms, right on time with our new decade?

Direct transmissions to monitor output, behavior, and dreams come next. Harlan Ellison’s "‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman" despite its time-efficiency emphasis, in its Kurt Vonnegut Sixties tone feels dated (Vonnegut’s "Harrison Bergeron" is included), but Ellison’s prediction of how a gadget-laden vocabulary evolves energizes his idea. Genevieve Valentine’s "Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?" and Sarah Langan’s "Independence Day" feature propaganda fed into citizens. Valentine’s dystopia manufactures pathogens and their antidotes, perhaps, to keep the alert nation in perpetual uncertainty. Pranksters complicate this scenario: are they planted by the Department of Information, or genuine dissidents trying to expose the cover-up? Meanwhile, the Department’s videos assure that "It’s easy to be a good citizen! We need what you know!" For Langan’s characters, the feed is direct: via a port installed in the back of every American’s neck that wires unsettled patients to a confessional robot doctor. More than one story anticipates a combination of data, drugs, and entertainment which will be hooked up to the body and mind by a central network, corporate and political, media and medical.

"Sacrament" combines enormous corporate-logo art forms injected into the atmosphere with torture of those interrogated for terrorism caused by the same material that enabled these installments. Matt Williamson’s originality and intensity remain noteworthy, and a novel expanded from these vibrant elements may allow him the space to stir his paired scenarios into a vibrant depiction. The story for all its range needed a broader canvas for its vision to enlarge.

Philip K. Dick’s "The Minority Report" gained fame from its film adaptation; his story blends pulp fiction within a Cold War ambiance; this paranoia dominates for contemporary authors. "Just Do It" from Heather Lindsley emphasizes a favorite theme of Dick, the consumer state’s inescapable branding and relentless advertising. She applies behavior modification towards a very direct approach of targeting a customer.

Robert Silverberg’s "Caught in the Organ Draft" as with other countercultural-era stories deserves recognition, even if its Vietnam War allusions prove a drag compared to the energy of newer contenders. Orson Scott Card’s "Geriatric Ward" follows neatly, if poignantly, in a future where Premature Aging Phenomenon brings on senility to even the still-youthful. This ends powerfully, a moving example of the humanist message within many of these stories.

"Arties Aren’t Stupid" by Jeremiah Tolbert returns to a stratified world of humans relegated to special tasks, an update on Aldous Huxley’s own "Brave New World." Tolbert, as with Huxley, deftly deploys such slang as a near-future society will develop out of our vernacular. Adam-Troy Castro’s ambitious "Of A Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" makes sense out of this title as he conjures up a city-state that recalls Le Guin’s Omelas, where nine days of wonder alternate with one day of a living hell, the price paid for admission to earthly paradise.

Two stories take place beneath the surface of societies, within their own dark hells. With "The Lunatics," Kim Stanley Robinson provides an underground lunar work team sentenced to extract the mineral core of a sentient moon; Joe Mastroianni’s "Jordan’s Waterhammer" (separated by a few stories later) examines how a race of quasi-Morlocks might evolve their own secret scripture as a means towards their own salvation and liberation as they struggle towards a dignity from which they have been nearly severed.

"Resistance" from Tobias S. Buckell soars into space, or at least a space station where a community has gradually given up their decision-making powers to Pan, a benevolent dictator who combines the wishes of his constituents to produce a model society. Buckell integrates the social message into an intelligent parable about the costs and benefits of the types of computer-assisted pattern recognition programs designed by futurists today.

"Civilization" by Vylar Kaftan reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s story "Happy Endings." It shares the mix-and-match elements of what can happen as societies evolve towards war or peace, stagnation or innovation, force or consensus. And, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale appears among recommended reading of dystopian (and a few utopian) fictional works, compiled as an appendix by Ross E. Lockhart.

When some of the weakest stories (if only by comparison) that I found were by masters of science fiction Bradbury, Silverberg, and Ellison, this attests to the strength of the entire anthology. No story fails. Adams’ tight arrangement works. When I first scanned its table of contents, I wondered why so few classic stories had been chosen. But, this balance (as I have shown here by mentioning every inclusion) succeeds. Its tilt towards recent works--that move forward from the smartphones, hookups, medications, and media feeds which enslave and seduce us--serves as an entertaining but chilling warning of where our world appears to be headed. (Featured at PopMatters; first three paragraphs and the last with a bit more at Amazon US 1-24-11 & 2-20-11; Featured at PopMatters 2-7-11. )

Sunday, June 19, 2011

D.D. Johnston's "Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs": Book Review

A humorous and poignant novel about anarchism: possibly a first? This young Scots burger-flipper turned street protester tells what happened a decade ago in a fast-food kitchen, a small town, and at the barricades of anti-capitalist demonstrations in Prague, London, and Thessaloniki. Johnston enlivens this short, accomplished coming-of-age story with what appears a character based on himself, given Wayne Foster's age and tenure at Benny's Burgers. He travels throughout Europe as he rallies against "profit before people".

The novel opens in 2000, in Prague during an anti-World Bank Summit march. Wayne's saved from arrest on a rail track by Manette, a French anarchist with a dirty mouth and broken English who will become one of his lovers. Many chapters follow the pattern of the first: they drift back in chronology and shuffle events, testing the narrator's powers of recollection, the structure of memory. As a comment on history and how it's created, this fictional device allows D.D. Johnston to undermine his authorial control. He imbues his novel with an uncertainty which reifies its content: how long can one refuse to submit to structure?

Amidst "the applause of shattering glass", many scenes evoke the feel of mass marches and sudden panic. As anarchists and socialists, Trotskyists and vegans, provocateurs and hippies, punks and perhaps a few workers drawing wages and not welfare convene, the sensation of change beckons them. But the apparently global triumph of capital represents an enemy before whom many capitulate. Benny's Burgers, the franchise where Wayne enters the ranks of labor and where he learns from his louche co-worker nicknamed Spocky about progressive alternatives, stands for how the means of production stamps out--and on-- today's proletariat.

Johnston illustrates deftly the predicament of how we consume, how few many workers leave as their options for meals and for shopping, how we work for the chain store and how we eat at the logo-laden franchise. He vividly dramatizes the automated regimen behind the grill, as relentless as any endured in Dickensian times. He shows the reality familiar to anyone, like myself, who worked in fast-food, or works in a setting dominated by managers with manuals, whether our labor is classified as manual or not. From the endless demand for more food, faster food, the kitchen's overwhelmed. "So much lettuce had been strewn on the floor that it looked like a lawn was forcing its way through the tiles". Escaping these pressures, Spocky, Wayne and co-workers online form "Benny's Resistance Army" to agitate, educate, and organize workers of this international chain.

This subversion draws him into anarchist circles. But, unlike many coming-of-age novels, Love, Peace & Petrol Bombs skims over Wayne's upbringing or family. He must find his own restive, rebellious comrades. These must be gleaned from the slim pickings of Dundule, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. "When you live in a small town, everyone is the friend of someone you know; the local papers are full of tales of serendipity, of long lost brothers who lived next door to each other and men who found their mother in law's wallet on the High Street; we all live like celebrities, worrying who will recognise us if we go to the shops in old clothes".

The novel favors a halting advance, similar to that of burgers assembled against the press of customers, workers against managers, or leftists against police. "Lives are shaped like asterisks. At any point, lines intersect in a multitude of directions. You can be diverted, driven, driven down tangents, and then made to reverse. It's the same when telling a story".

Later, Wayne will ride the trains around London, out to their terminus, back again, one line after another, in this ambling, impulsive search for meaning. One problem about this book was that at times, after Wayne leaves Benny's, I was uncertain how he managed to roam the island and then the Continent for so long; there are a couple of heists that play a role in the plotting to keep Wayne in pounds and pence, and he does understandably if non-ironically max out his credit card. Opposed to the system of exploitation and regimentation, his progress among the down and out--albeit an educated lot, aided by the dole, squatting, and the kindness of polyglot friends and lovers--turns into the tale of Wayne's way through this disaffected world.

The author articulates fewer political disquisitions than I expected. When his idealists express their ideologies, they do so haltingly, not as propagandists. One scene sends up the dreary college classroom lecture on Marxism, as most students resist the slightest indication that this theory may still be relevant in practice; another episode visits a Socialist Workers' Party campus meeting where the panelists outnumber the three bewildered attendees. Johnston's experience with these misfits allows for Wayne to retell such encounters with wit and energy. While the target audience for this novel, the second in a fiction series from venerable anarchist publisher AK Press, comprises those already converted to opposition, the appeal of this genial, engaging, yet serious search for meaning in a commodified global culture deserves wide acclaim.

For instance, while politics steps back, the tension of relationships edges forward. Wayne laments his lack of romance. He grabs at a one-night stand or a brief encounter in a toilet stall. After one slightly more stable amour, he recalls how he and his girlfriend "didn't break up like a vase or a mirror or a china cup; we split like a piece of wood. We cracked at first. We fractured until you could bend us and make us creak; then we snapped and splintered, until there were only fibres between us, and you could twist us around and pull us apart. When we finally broke, we broke jagged, shaped by our other half".

This passage reveals Johnston's skillful use of metaphor. Now a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire, he crafts an appealing, casual first-person voice. While I read this novel in a day, eager to find out about Wayne's fate, the care with which the prose has been created shows. I found the plot, in its asterisk-patterned chapters that spring out and then double back to the center core, sometimes skimming over the details of the daily grind that I figured would appear to show us how Wayne got by once he was on his own, but access to surreptitious gain apparently, twice over, helps him get by with a little help from his friends. This appeared a slight cop-out, so to speak, but given the milieu in which Wayne survives, it makes sense in context despite my suspension of total belief. At least he and his grousingly genial or annoyingly smug mates enjoy the benefits of wine, weed, or a bequest once-removed from some thriftier elder or greedier investor.

The liberation of such capital from its accumulators means Wayne and Manette and their friends can storm the barricades all over the Continent. In Thessaloniki, at Aristotle University, a leftist takeover of the campus shows what happens after the authorities are cowed to retreat. It's not exactly the reopened gates of Eden.

The Philosophy Building was guarded by a man in an unbuttoned sleeveless shirt, who sat on a broken wooden chair, chewing gum and tapping his palm with a short club. Inside, our feet crunched on broken glass. The paint fumes made you feel drunk, and the slogans were hard to read because so many lights were broken. 'By any means necessary.' 'The Future is Unwritten.' 'Ultras AEK.' 'No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes." The shadows, and the people in the shadows, and the closed doors, carried the suggestion of an ambush, so I found myself looking left and right, as if crossing a road.

Wayne and his comrades fight the good fight but the odds, as ever, overwhelm them. His pals and mates scatter; jobs, marriages, degrees, and careers beckon. He tries as in so many capers to revive the old gang for one last heist. He speculates how, at twenty-three, six or seven years on, the struggle had waned. "It was like closing a door to which you have no key: you want to hold it ajar while you check you have everything, and when you finally let go, you feel a fluttery panic, a sense of having left something valuable behind".

This thoughtful, modest, and winning narrative concludes with not a bang but a similarly muted closing of a door--to a millennial sense of possibility, of "no logo" and "rage against the machine" that energized a resurgent Left against Capital. Wayne and Johnston appear to merge their forces as the last sentences emerge. The narrator imagines the ultimate fate of his friends and lovers. Now, he includes us. "I'd like to imagine that you and I will meet during some as yet unimagined social struggle. We'll stand guard on a picket line or share the weight of a banner. When your hands are up and your head is bleeding and the police are preparing to charge, we will link our arms."

The traditional language of solidarity, of intimacy, and of meaning flows smoothly. Yet the last paragraph shakes us out of class-based, if romantic, reverie. His reader may recline in the bath, on the sofa, ready for washing hair or going to bed before another work day. Still, the chance for change remains: "I'd like to think you're on a train. You'll watch the fields pass until the sun sets, until you start to see only a reflection of yourself." These final sentences suggest the poetic touch under the raised banner, the rose held in the fist of socialist iconography, the thorn that pricks amid the beauty of a world that embraces us and alienates us. (PopMatters featured  6-1-11; book's publication 7-1-11)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gabriel Kuhn's "Sober Living for the Revolution": Book Review

Ian MacKaye of Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat sang in 1981’s “Straight Edge”: “Never want to use a crutch/ I’ve got the straight edge.” This assertion turned an admonition: abstaining from not only intoxicants but from harmful sex and a non-vegan diet that fuelled a capitalist dependence upon a destructive system.

Anarchist-activist Gabriel Kuhn’s anthology gathers sXe (I will employ this shorthand for “straight edge”) international contributors from bands, scenes, and labels. He interviews participants, includes manifestoes, and compiles an introduction situating this movement emerging from 1980s hardcore punk. 

Five sections comprise this collection. This review will follow Kuhn’s presentation of these chapters. 


Kuhn notes his decision to expand sXe coverage beyond white, male, American contexts which dominate conventional media. Radicals tend to dismiss the movement as dogmatic, exclusive, and privileged. Kuhn emphasizes the “politically conscious” challenges within sXe, defining radical as those who actively pursue social change for free and egalitarian communities, and who “maintain a clear distance to politically ambiguous ideologies” (p.14). These include “religious groups or belief systems.” He omits sXe members from Christian, Hare Krishna, or Islamic communities, although a few contributors allude to these outside Kuhn’s self-imposed frame. The total absence of Buddhist contexts disappoints, given American advocates and authors “hardcore Zen” Brad Warner and “dharma punx” Noah Levine have earned prominence among dharma-practitioners who grew up alongside sXe. However, Kuhn acknowledges his focus aims at politics, not sobriety or culture.


Ian MacKaye logically begins the interviews. He tells how his lyrics to “Out of Step” set the scene: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t fuck, at least I can fucking think,” were not directives,  but “anti-obsession,” while they were followed by “But at least I can fucking think” (pp.34-35). That is, the choice remains for the punk to think through the ramifications of this pledge. The second line’s subtlety may have been lost on many, yet MacKaye’s example remains a guiding force through his inspired, “all access” approach to overcome barriers of age, income, and expenses for concerts with his band Fugazi and through Dischord Records. He defends a “free space” for unconventional ideas as a “constant, ever-flowing river” that persists as a river channels its energy endlessly (p.24). 

MacKaye’s distrust of dangerous sex matches his disdain for alcohol and drug abuse. These encourage selfishness, blurring awareness of the present moment.

They also diminish willpower, break down defences, and weaken potential for positive change. But, as a movement, sXe contained its own dogmatic danger.

MacKaye analyzes how movements falter by creating a “higher calling” which mimics the pursuit of power and the imposition of violence upon dissenters.

These “triggers” ignite nationalism and persecution; as more of a “Minor Threat” they foment prejudice between punks. This intolerance within sXe sparked a backlash from the hardcore scene, as violence among supporters and deniers led to sensationalist treatment from political activists and the mainstream media.  Articulating sXe as “straight” for MacKaye builds a basis for a life, not a lifestyle.

The straight line equals common equality. Food, water, air remain, with sex as the imperative for survival. Converting these needs with wants, advertising sells out the communal, organic solidarity formed by sXe, with its slogan “Live as you desire the world to be!” (p.43) Such idealism compels others to follow MacKaye.

Liner notes to the Swedish band Refused’s 1998 album The Shape of Punk to Come remind the listener: “It’s never been safe to live in a world that teaches us to respect property and disregard human life” (p.66). ManLiftingBanner, a Dutch communist band, presents here the clearest allegiance to a standard political philosophy. Many contributors cite them as a major influence. Frederico Freitas of Brazil’s Point of No Return agrees with Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén: the European and Third World traditions of resistance impel many sXe supporters outside America to connect with established progressive forces. While the U.S. by WWII lost its radical mass, Freitas and Lyxzén by their thoughtful if idealized manifestoes hearken back to a proletariat integrating contemporary working-class and communally organized opposition struggles. 


This evolution offers a counter-reaction to three earlier sXe stages. The 1980s individually-centered reaction which Minor Threat jumpstarted, the “wolfpack” street crews of Boston and New York City, and the VeganStraightEdge 1990s trend all, for Freitas, lack militancy. Bruno “Break” Teixiera from Portugal’s New Winds seeks a similarly leftist link to class-based politics now, while Robert Matusiak from Poland’s Refused Records contrasts the Russian and German tendencies among a sXe minority reverting to race-based extremism with a community situated in co-operative enterprises and non-profit employment. This internal shift for the committed activist has led to charges by radicals and punks of sXe elitism. Jonathan Pollack’s pro-Palestinian direct action involvement in Against the wall ensures him, as an Israeli, a prominent position of opposition. 

As a political idea, the Straight Edge of ebullient refusal to the decadence of our times is not that of an ascetic anchorite in the badlands of western civilization or of religious purity. The need to extract oneself from society, so prevalent in Straight Edge, is fuelled by the desire to see and live in a different reality; a desire that can’t subsist in the clubs, cafés and drug culture of mainstream society. Both my Straight Edge and my activism are strongly rooted in this passion, and neither is dependent on whether we will reach this different reality or not (p.112). 

As this anthology progresses, interviewees and contributors seek to stand apart from the commodification which, as punk became marketed as fashion, weakened its oppositional stance. Pollock muses how “the farther you get from cleancut looks and fancy clothes,” the more interesting the movement becomes. That is, sXe itself may represent conformity amidst punk’s supposedly purer (non-)conformists, so the move away from puritanical commitment may signal the imminent realization of values which transcend music or style: to transform. 

Catalyst Records’ Kurt Schroeder speaks from another confrontational stance, the vegan aspiration. He admits many adherents come from America’s middle class.

This context may weaken vegan sXe acceptance by European or Latin American radical fellow-travellers drawn to socialist or leftist aspects. Yet, all two dozen contributors appear to thrive on vegan diets and radical ideologies. This skews the political message in Kuhn’s edition to the already converted. However, this affirmation of connections between sXe and radicalism provides an encouraging collection for those seeking exactly this compendium. 


While Refused and Point of No Return in their extensive liner notes produced manifestoes in all but name reprinted earlier in this anthology, a separate section matches three lengthy pamphlets with their authors, who reflect years later upon the impact of their messages. Under the aegis of Alpine Anarchist Productions, XsraquelX repels conservative punk reactions to veganism with DIY ethics grounded in personal choice rather than ideological duty. By its exclusivity, xSe risked reduction into a “fascist mentality” constrained by moral codes which refused any deviation. She argues for an “antifa[scist]” decision of absention as “an actual and symbolic mode of promoting a life of responsibility and shunning dependency” on capitalism (p.158). Feminism, minority and animal rights, and environmentalism accompany “like-minded social action” for Antifa sXe communities. 

For the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective, an “intoxication culture” looms as the class enemy. Yet, Kuhn wisely prefaces this entry with the collective’s explanation that it originally had added a “hypertrophied appendix,” which was “a sort of sendup of primitivist historical revisionism, though based on kernels of truth.”

They left it out of this reprinting “for fear it could be taken too seriously outside its original context”(p.164). A sense of humor too often lurks far outside this edition.

While many entries remain worthy for their unstintingly committed determination, the moral tone at such an elevated register, over hundreds of pages of similar-sounding justifications, may weary the less ardent.

Therefore, “Wasted Indeed: Anarchy and Alcohol” manages to convince more than its stolid comrades by its lightly self-deprecating narrative. “Like the tourism of the worker, drink is a pressure valve that releases tension while maintaining the system that creates it” (p.166). Pithier and wittier than previous entries, this statement argues for abstinence as a fulfilling, truly engaged response to life’s possibilities. “No war but the class war—no cocktail but the molotov cocktail! Let us brew nothing but trouble!” It does so as a slight caricature of leftist sobriety, to highlight its self-righteous dangers of insecurity (“they cannot rest until everyone in the world sees that world exactly as they do”). It concludes amidst gentle satire with sincere encouragement, “as a reminder for all who choose to concern themselves that another world is possible” (pp.170-71).


Nick Riotfag’s queer advocacy gains in-depth coverage; he narrates the difficulty of creating safe spaces for non-drinkers within environmental gatherings, co-op meetings, and anarchist settings. He supports “Take the straight out of straight edge” campaigns, as gays confront homophobes and reactionary punk enclaves.

Similarly, Jenni Ramme from Poland’s Emancypunx sets herself apart from mainstream feminists who work within capitalist and corporate settings. She rejects integration. She seeks utopian space beyond the state or the conventional network of the firm, the market, the press, or the broadcast.  

Mainstream media will never see underground culture as anything but new, fresh meat to make profits. They are part of a capitalist and consumerist culture of blood-sucking zombies. They take without giving anything back. This is not a base to build radical movements on (p.226). 

While Andy Hurley now drums for Fall Out Boy, a successful American “emo” band adopted by the mainstream, he retains his credibility with anarcho-primitivist advocacy influenced by Kevin Tucker’s “feral edge” post-civilized and John Zerzan’s anti-leftist, pro-wilderness perspectives (Marshall 2010). Hurley rejects leftist participation in politics and power. Kuhn gently prods Hurley, the most mainstream of those included by his current band’s allegiance, but the most radical by his drift away from communal solidarity in the pursuit of self-reliance.

This interview sidles towards thoughtful, if admittedly incomplete, explanations of Hurley’s responses to a set of complicated compromises. For all its open-endedness, this concludes this section with a relevant portrayal of how an activist works towards his own truth.


Global networking within the social margins, prominent in this cross-cultural sub-cultural anthology, flows through Argentinian-Israeli Swedish resident Santiago Gomez’ punk and anarchist-vegan efforts. His footnoted, lively essay interprets sXe as “intuitive resistance.” He moves from Melville and Turgenev to Tolstoy and Lenin within the context of hardcore; he cites Zapatista liberated zones which have banished alcohol—without appearing pedantic. His ironic sense shows as he quotes Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (the scene when followers pick up and immediately imitate, and then debate, the accidental discarding of Brian’s single shoe, or is it a sandal?) to illustrate how Minor Threat’s two lines from their lyric for “Out of Step” became adopted as a creed. 

Tellingly, Gomez segues into a reminder of how the “X” on the back of the hand used as a signifier of sXe started not out of a devotion to sobriety, but a nightclub’s stamp that the patron was simply too young to legally drink. He sketches out a nuanced position, that sXe has faltered by its anti-intoxicant and animal rights definition while neglecting the larger struggle against all capitalist exploitation.  Gomez does not retreat from his own ideological agreement with abstinence, but he reminds his audience that the imperative fight against oppression endures.

Three veteran activists end this collection with their own rallying cries. Mark Andersen brings the entries back to their Washington D.C. origins with his own account of inner-city community organizing at Positive Force House. He champions collectives as a logical foundation for incremental change. He rejects superior attitudes formed by snobbish sXe members, and sets out revolutionary progress as coming from not only the process—“profoundly aided by the clarity and health that drug-free, meat-free lifestyles can bring,” but the victory. This triumph waits, Andersen wraps up this volume, by reaching out beyond sXe. 

This anthology does preach to the choir. Those outside the sXe community will find no explanation of how the music sounds compared to hardcore (a “crust” punk’s recollections comprise a bit of variety, albeit marginal), even if sXe lyrics urge a nobler practice. Kuhn gathers those with whom he agrees; the book’s main intention is to reinforce leftist and radical ties to sXe. Within these parameters, the collection succeeds, for what will likely remain a small, but committed audience seeking social and political change by principled transformation of their own appetites and desires and by communal solidarity.


Levine, Noah. Dharma Punx: A Memoir. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004).
Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).
Murphy, John L. “’Sex, sin, and Zen’: 25 years hardcore as punk bassist, sexual seeker, and Zen student.”  PopMatters. warner/ (accessed 2.5.2011) 
Murphy, John L.  “Noah Levine’s ‘The heart of the revolution.’” New York Journal of Books. revolution (accessed 2.5.2011)
Warner, Brad. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth about Reality. (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003).

Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements
Volume 3(1): 283-288 (May 2011). [Review at pdf print version, within pp. 266-291. In Interface Book Reviews pdf online. Footnotes were removed, but originally I linked the Marshall book to John Zerzan and the two Buddhist sXe-related memoirs by Levine and Warner to the two book reviews above. Revised & condensed version on Amazon US & 6-23-11]
PM Press link to my review and info about the book

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Leanne McCormick's "Regulating Sexuality": Book Review

As with many academic studies, the contents are narrower than the title and subtitle suggest. Leanne McCormick adapts her doctoral thesis which delved into archives to explore how women’s sexuality was regulated by the authorities between the 1900s and the 1960s. Much of her research focuses upon the two great wars and the interwar period, when the Northern Irish province was exposed to British and then American influences—and troops. 

Despite difficulties that persist in accessing such sensitive material, McCormick shows how “notions of female purity” matched common expectations, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, “of a Christian Ireland with higher moral standards of behaviour than its more secular English neighbour.” This theme persists throughout the twentieth century.

Chapter One commences with a look at Belfast workhouse records. Even if these documents are slanted toward women who could not evade “persecution or public labelling,” these records explain how women were regarded as prostitutes by themselves or by others. Their perception as criminal and as sinful crosses denominational lines. Catholics are overrepresented as in many low-wage, less-skilled occupations in Belfast; often women were transient, with illegitimate children, alcohol, lack of work adding to their social ostracism. 

Those who sought to rescue “fallen women,” as in the refuges and reformatories staffed by The Salvation Army, the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, and Catholic sisterhoods—along with the Church’s Magdalen asylums, tended to promote their charges as “seduced and abandoned” rather than as prostitutes. Few, in fact, were guilty of “solicitation.” This appeal enhanced the homes’ fundraising, as if they were shown to be victims of male predators, their plight could be portrayed as salvation from their predicament. These inmates, contrary to some misperceptions that persist today, were not, McCormick finds in Chapter Two, usually interned for life. The women tended to leave, or to come and go, of their own accord after a period of residence. Many went in and out of various homes over the years. 

World War One accelerated the need for care, as more women were left “pregnant and alone” as their impregnators headed off for enlistment, while many mothers-to-be endured what was classified as “seduction under the promise of marriage.” Other women in homes were “feebleminded,” or prone to drink, with a similar lack of support as with prostitutes, and as dependent upon rehabilitation and succor. 

“Moral prevention work with girls,” the title of Chapter Three, continues the search to find how Northern Irish society tried to stop seduction and impregnation outside of married bounds. Girl Guides and other predominantly Protestant groups attempted to protect and promote purity by leisure-time diversions. This section looks also at the “White Slave Trade,” sex education, and the social disruption caused by the Great War as women formed a professional police patrol while men were mobilized. Ice-cream parlors, “khaki fever,” and “disedifying fashions” all represented for some watchdogs moral dangers as women entered the workforce, mingled more with men, and entered temptation. 

Both the First and Second World Wars brought the danger, via troops sent to Northern Ireland in preparation for European dispatch, of VD. Chapter Four treats its outbreaks and cures. Its prevention aroused opposition early on; posting directions for treatment clinics in public urinals was long banned. However, by 1934, a film dramatizing the effects on a married man of a “one-night stand” was seen by 24,000 in Belfast. It was reviewed in three of the city’s papers—catering to the Protestant readers, at least. Catholic campaigns for “moral purity” demanded no such coverage. But, with World War Two, the influx of troops into the province forced London’s government to publicize awareness of VD to safeguard military readiness for deployment. During the previous war, women who outside of marriage engaged in intercourse were castigated as “amateur” prostitutes. The interwar years reinforced the notion that wayward women, not wanton men, must be controlled, regulated, and reformed. 

This attitude led, as Chapter Five reveals in a sprightlier manner, to the punch line that gives this section its title. A local joke (also recorded in a related book reviewed {NYJB}here last year by me, Diarmaid Ferriter’s Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland) asked if one had heard of “the new utility knickers.” “One Yank and they’re off!” 

As many as 120,000 American soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. This exceeded a tenth of what was then the local population. Hollywood’s cinematic allure had preceded the Yank G.I., and his goods for a rationed, deprived economy led along with the swaggering strut of many soldiers an appeal that lured the local girls. The first marriage occurred two months after the first troops arrived. The local lads could not compete; many married, while other women traded their favors for chocolates, chat, and companionship often at the local pub. This led to conflicts with the residents, the local men, and with the clerics and authorities trying to police such “off-licensed” situations. 

The final chapter returns to a sobering subject still controversial today. In both jurisdictions of Ireland, abortion remains illegal. McCormick holds that “strenuous cross-community opposition” accounts for this status quo. But, clinics for birth control have struggled early on, since 1936 in Belfast (if only for a few years staying open), to offer alternatives. McCormick concludes that a strong “pro-life” tradition in the North has been asserted and sustained by both Catholic and Protestant communities, for once united. This agreement persists, against what its proponents regard as a secular mentality by feminists and radicals, to import from England a non-Irish way of thinking and acting into the island. While this subject itself has received more attention than can be given in this brief book, it reminds readers of this study of the continuing relevance of such issues as McCormack examines in this accessible, straightforward summation. 

The book provides an academically oriented but clearly conveyed analysis of what earlier decades in the past century have judged right and wrong about Northern Irish women and their sexual behavior. As Professor Ferriter in his own massive, and valuable, account referenced above in passing tended to pass over what made the Northern experiences of sexuality within a sectarian society similar or different from that in the Catholic-dominated Free State and Irish Republic, Dr. McCormick’s publication may offer future students of sexuality in its Irish expressions needed guidance in comparing and contrasting Northern attitudes. As she does not cite Ferriter’s more lively social history (it appeared the same year as hers in Britain, 2009), placing the two narratives side-by-side opens up valuable contexts for subsequent research and reflection on this unfailingly fascinating topic. (Featured at New York Journal of Books; title published April 2011 in the US.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Plandaí inithe anseo anois!

Cheannaigh mé glasraí eagsula inné. Thóg mé mo bhean a tí cúpón a úsaid ina plandlann áitiúil. Mar sin, chuaigh Niall agus mé ansin a cruinniú siad.

Tú ábalta feiceáil an garraí glasraí ar an bhlag suas. Mar sin féin, is docha go ní fhaca tú na glasraí siadsa féin. Inseoidh mé agat faoi na plandaí go raibh tógtha Niall agus mé. 

Chuir Niall siadsa féin a leanas. Chuidigh mé mír, ar ndóigh. Fhás plandaí difriúil a aghaidh ar ár bhaile. 

Bhuel, fásann mo mac dara in aice leis an tor mharóis tráta go gloaite "Buachaill Righin;" sáiste corcra; beirt lusa na rí; lus na bó an Áirméin; agus ceithre na piobar. Tá luibheannaí eile go iarraidh a ith muidsa go leor. Mar shampla, beidh ag fás Niall miontas mór ina mean ann. 

Ina dhiadh, rinne Niall áit leis spíosraí. Beidh siobhas agus "oregano" ann. Ní bhfuair mé an focal as Gaeilge de reir sin. B'fhéidir, níl ciall go direach in Eirinn dó ann. 

Edible plants now here!

I bought various vegetables yesterday. I took a coupon from my wife to use to a local nursery. Therefore, Niall and me went there to purchase them.
You're able to view the vegetable garden on the blog above. All the same, it's probable that you are not able to see the vegetables themselves. I will tell you about the plants chosen by Niall and me.

Niall picked out the following. I helped a bit, of course. Different plants were planted in front of our house. 

Well, my second son plants next to the rosemary bush a tomato called "Tough Boy;" purple sage; a pair of basil; Armenian cucumber; and a quartet of peppers. There's other herbs we wanted to eat besides. For instance, Niall will be growing a large mint in the middle there.

Afterwards, Niall made a place for spices. There will be chives and oregano. I couldn't find the word in Irish for that meaning. Perhaps, there's not a straightforward meaning in Ireland for it there.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Daniel Hudon's "The Bluffer's Guide to the Universe": Book Review

If you found the Smartest Guy in the Pub and he turned out not to be Stephen Hawking, he might sound like the author of this spirited 85-page whirlwind tour of where--and within which--we live.  In a couple of hours, with or without drinks, perhaps the Guy's ramblings would sound like these here: witty, fact-laden, trivia studded, and full of pretty good jokes, given what appears a Bluffer's Guide style sheet that insists on about as many attempts at snark and humor per paragraph as The Onion or a sit-com script.

Daniel Hudon, a Canadian science writer, even gets a couple of World Cup remarks in, and his love of both astronomy and knowledge on a less elevated plane makes these pages fly by, full of interest. Even the little glossary manages to pack a pun or chortle into each definition, no small feat. I now know why Sirius is called the Dog Star, how Polaris looks as if the skies revolve around it, and that blue stars are hotter than red or white. I must take Dr. Hudon's word for it that there's a galaxy named "You Should See the Other Guy" (M65).

While I did not find always the '"why" answered (as in if what it means if we live in a beige-hued universe, or if our Sun is a star and stars suns, what then?), the spark here helped sum up a few concepts that my long-ago classes failed to make stick. For example, how single-celled organisms produced oxygen to jumpstart life on earth, how the Moon stabilized Earth's orbit and helped it nurture life, and how life may have come via space junk falling from above billions of years ago all fit, even if spread across the pages, to bring the cosmos down to earth, so to speak.

There's far more on the solar system than I'd expected, and much less on the Big Bang, Big Crunch, or Big Bounce (my favorite of the three) but in a tiny book able to fit into your pocket for quick consultation to win a pub quiz or campfire bet, this compression's understandable. What I liked was its lack of mathematics. I wanted to study the stars as a child but my arithmetical limitations convinced me I could not; so, any reminder that I can, despite my cognitive dissonance, is welcome. Great for kids or for grown-ups needing a refresher course on the universe! I liked this quick tour, and commend its concision, for as any good read, it inspires you (even if no titles are suggested) to follow-up the subject with a stack of longer and alas less chatty looks at what surrounds us all. (Posted to Amazon US & 6-10-11)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Damon & Naomi's "False Beats & True Hearts": Music Review

After Galaxie 500, guitarist Dean Wareham led Luna towards increasingly lower volume, channeling the Velvet Underground’s tension into lounge-tinged and club-inflected indie-rock. Similarly, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang have taken, the past 20 years, a direction into pastoral, nostalgic, literate tunes. On this, their seventh record together, they carry the softer sound of Galaxie 500’s heirs that has dominated their interpretations.

Joined as on their recordings the past decade by Ghost’s guitarist Michio Kurihara, the trio construct a mature, dignified set of songs. Yang’s composed vocals always prove welcome, and she conveys yearning by her delicacy. Her husband Krukowski is more straightforward than was his bandmate Wareham in preferring a less quirky vocal style, but his delivery calmly supports these songs confidently, if often unassumingly. The duo has opted over their career to seek a proper, upright stance that expresses their work ethic, intelligence, and commitment.

The new album False Beats and True Hearts, on their own 20/20/20 label, follows their re-releases of Galaxie 500’s three studio albums (with concert tracks, sessions and rarities generously added), their own retrospective of their earlier Sub Pop solo efforts on CD, and live DVDs from both their bands. “Walking Backwards” may reflect this archival endeavor. As the liveliest song, with its aggressive guitar, it leads the listener to expect a more upbeat set than the previous CD, Within These Walls, which neared most of all towards urban chamber music, a jazz-tinged influence. I found that a pleasant but less engaging record; it tended towards inner moods rather than extroverted tunes.

Yet this music’s meant for composure. A slight shift back to mid-period Damon and Naomi marks this year’s album. No false beats, however. Yang’s piano complements these songs, arranged as if on waves that ebb and flow. Krukowski’s drumming was often overshadowed by Wareham’s guitar in Galaxie 500, but his masterful, understated backing provides a solid foundation for “How Do I Say Goodbye”, “Shadow Boxing”, and the appropriately titled “Ophelia”, mirroring a floating world.

“Nettles and Ivy” brings a pricklier sensation, if brief, as it resists its movement slightly, reminiscent of jazz not in its instrumentation so much as its suspension of progress for a beat or two. Kurihara’s guitar sets itself in fluid strums and expressive passages over swaying melodies, punctuated by Yang’s use of silence to emphasize her spare bass playing in “What She Brings”. “Embers” expresses the band’s contemplative preferences, but it benefits from the shreds of guitar crackling under the glow of piano and drums.

“And You Are There” allows Yang’s bass to move about as she sings with assurance. The guitar and drums construct a deceptively spare track that represents the ambiance of these musicians, reminding one of poetry, shorelines and memory. “Helsinki” closes this short selection of songs with a touch of the psychedelic folk which deepened their initial solo work, and the guitar’s regressive patterns underlie a handsome conclusion to a solid album. While I prefer their earlier songs which followed this pattern, nothing on this latest album can be faulted.

As with Wareham now with his own duo Dean and Britta, or with Luna’s later period, his former rhythm section will not shake the walls as did Galaxie 500, at least in concert despite their softcore reputation. Damon and Naomi, true hearts by their devotion to their craft, appear, long after their former partner Wareham suddenly left their first band, to have chosen a wise route. (The liner notes left by the duo in the Rykodisc four-disk box set of their former band remain the saddest I have ever read.)

Songcraft nourishes their efforts, which sink in, compacted as earthier, evocative tunes. These are wind-attenuated tendrils to their more barbed roots. For college rock of the ‘80s, bands and fans reach the half-century mark. Audiences inherit a thoughtful, introspective set of sounds and lyrics. Damon and Naomi, assisted by Michio Kurihara (with three supporting musicians), have elegantly elaborated the possibilities afforded them after they were forced to survive as suddenly solo artists.

Yesterday, I heard Here Before, the Feelies’ newest album (see my Amazon US review), appearing after 20 years of a parallel exit (right around the same time) from the acclaim of American indie rock. Those raised on tenser, edgier sonics gravitate as they ease into a steadier, balanced, stance. Middle age rewards both bands. (Tellingly, drummer Stan Demeski played for Luna on its earlier, peppier records.) As with their fellow admirers of layered guitar rock on complex, if self-effacing, patterns, Damon and Naomi represent the evolution of those who grew up with punk and came of age with post-punk, while listening to the eclectic sounds of the late ‘60s. All of this, fermenting and distilled, rewards us on records such as these two this new spring.

(Featured at PopMatters 5-20-11; also at Amazon US &

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Michael Downing's "Shoes Outside the Door": Book Review

What happens when idealism builds bureaucracy, asceticism invites affluence, and practice of Buddhism evolves into the palaces of real estate, prime Bay Area holdings backed by some of America's wealthiest scions? Richard Baker, abbot of the first monastery in history to be founded by Buddhists outside Asia, took over San Francisco's Zen Center at the height of the Aquarian dawn. I came to this with only a casual curiosity about how Green Gulch farm worked and a vague idea of misdeeds long ago. I found out more.

Those who followed Baker and ran the Zen Center's empire were a ragtag band of seekers; a few of whom grew more ambitious or grasping along with Baker. But many did not. Greens restaurant, Green Gulch farm across the Golden Gate in Marin, and Tassajara as a remote retreat center all meant that the 350-400 members of the S.F. Zen community had to support themselves. They staffed these places, but they often also lived there or nearby. They earned small stipends, averaging in 1982 $2.89/hour. They also mingled, mated, and made families. This wasn't traditional.

These challenges, unlike any Buddhist institution to date, meant Baker and his Board had to court the rich and the powerful for patronage. Those who chose to join the Center often labored in "work-practice" 12-14 hour days that left them little time at the businesses founded to sustain their devotion by sitting; the demands of keeping the places going and rewarding those who earned the chance to live there or retreat to Tassajara clashed with the original intentions to let men and women join together and make a communal effort at seeking wisdom.

Downing explores, in a roundabout, searching fashion, the story that ensued. (I wish an index and a reading list were provided; illustrations or photos would also have helped us see Zen Center's places so often mentioned for ourselves.) He makes a few great analogies. My favorite furthers Baker's own interest in science, and compares radar to "Transmission" (a key term in this book): for Baker, the force that his teacher Shunryu Suzuki recognized in him that relays the dharma down to a chosen follower. The dharma's pulses of electromagnetic waves, the antenna's the teacher with the radar unit, the student's the distant object in the path who reflects the pulses back to the antenna. The teacher absorbs and interprets the reflected signals from the student, and verifies the student as an object of attention. This looms for Baker's claim: he was the one in the Suzuki-roshi's path.

Many reviewers know this story of how Baker handled and then mishandled his role as Abbot from the inside, or near enough to it; its details have been debated and rehashed. In a restless narrative-- a bit snarky at times, which cuts down posturing and posing by some of the key players interviewed or discussed-- the author labors to align the appeal of Baker and the Americanizing Zen with its industrious ambitions, its financial deals, and the fascinating logistics of how to convert a dream into real estate, and utopian visions into tax shelters.

What kept me reading? How intelligent people gave up their own prime of life to work so hard for so little material gain. How they often, despite decades even of Zen practice, did not oppose whatever Baker demanded in the name not of Buddhism but his own goals-- and how these mixed within his own enigmatic, but for some charismatic, aura.

One former student wonders if zazen worsens the "dissociative process-- as if in some way it cauterizes the personality and seals it off, encapsulates it, widens the breach between heart and mind." (qtd. 26) The narrative circles about before it gets to the 1983 scandal that led to Baker's exile. It then drops off after the showdown into legal and financial wrangles that fill out the story but make it, after the "Apocalypse," feel wrung out and anticlimactic, perhaps inevitably. The heart of the tale, which roams around his followers and contenders, works best.

Downing takes apart Baker's statement of wrongdoing and compares it line by line with testimony or reports from his participants or victims. Downing strives for fairness to all involved. Yet, he knows that the fundamental precept of "Do not harm" has been violated. "If you believed the Abbot was crazy, you would have had to leave Zen Center." (233)

Contrasting, the strange encounters with Baker's hand-picked students sent off to care for and work for wealthy patron Nancy Wilson Ross prove illuminating. It may be harder for a Zen student to display compassion for a socialite than a prostitute, as one Harvard dropout (lots of Ivy Leaguers pepper these pages) finds. John Bailes learns from her the true meaning of the teachings: "not some ancient story, but the facts. "Here we are. We are going to die. I am going to give you what I've got." (qtd. 264)

Deborah Madison, who learned her vegetarian cooking skills as one of those "work-practice" stipended students as well as with Nancy, exemplifies the personal story of one who found her own initial urge to sit and practice Zen as eroded by the demands of working for her room and board and her small wages. Those customers who flocked to Greens or Green Gulch seemed less aware of the truth behind the drudgery of so many who made those businesses work, or who did not if they were supported by those who did work away. This weakened the stability of the businesses, and soon the Zen Center, under Baker's obsessive plans for expansion and his own acquisitive tastes for the aesthetic and the expensive, could not reconcile its hippie roots with its hierarchical structures and imbalanced budgets.

For some, "this was a system that was about staying asleep because it was too risky to wake up," one student remembers. (qtd. 305) But, the wake-up call comes, the disjunct between the Abbot as role model, as CEO, and as miscreant grows. Baker does not go down without a fight, and the impact, it seems from this 2001 account, still reverberates throughout the "palaces" that the Zen Center built. The Buddha left behind his palace, as Downing reminds us. But he too courted patrons, and his heretofore wandering monks stayed in the forest monastery in the rainy season. So, the tension between begging and staying put, seeking alms then and investing in mutual funds today, as Baker learned, shows how Zen met the Fortune 500, and how its practitioners came of age in an era less aquarian, and less utopian.

P.S. This compliments David Chadwick's excellent "Crooked Cucumber," (also on Amazon) about the founder of the S.F. Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki, who chose Baker as his successor. See my review of Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (also on Amazon).

P.P.S. Francesca Woodman's cover photo's strikingly framed, if suitably hard to discern in this, the best image I could find of it. (I hate this dustjacket's font, albeit appropriate for a tale set in the 1970s) This evocative, enigmatic mood's well matched to this elusive tale of "desire, devotion, and excess." (Posted to Amazon US without these postscripts, 7-20-10)