Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rockwell Kent & "Annie McGinley"

Níor chuaigh mé ar fad go An Starraill nuair ag curtha cuairt ar chóis ar an cnoic go ciuin ar thuas go Gleann Cholm Cille. Bhí séag dorchú ann ar feadh oíche go fuar agus ceo. Ach bhí an ealaíontóir Meiriceánach Rockwell Kent déanta é ansin. Phéint sé radhairc eile ag ceantar sin i Ghleann Locha go ciúin go haoibhinn ansiud ag timpeall 1950.

Is maith liom iomha suas. Chuir mé ar mo blag, is amhlaigh. Tá ábalta feicéail é imbealach síos ag imeall.

D'iarr mé ag dul níos fad an trathnóna sin. Ach, níor iarraigh mé ag siúl ansiud. D'fhoglaim mé go mbeadh go contúirteach.

Ní fhaca mé go dtí sé suas an chósta, gan amhras. Bhí mé ag imeacht go leor an deireadh láe ann, go cinnte. Mar sin féin, bhí brea liom an radharc go halainn ansin.

Sular d'fhág mé do Dhún na nGall a foghlaim Gaeilge ar feadh an coicis an deireadh Mheitheamh agus ar dtús an Iuil 2007 sin, chur mé léiríu beag bídeach ó "Aine nig Fhionnaile" in aice leis mo deisce ag an áit na hobair. Spreag sé mé ag chur cuairt ag thabhairt agus an fod go Oideas Gael. Measaim faoi An Sturrall thar mo radharc ina h-oíche--agus go raibh mé a fheiceáil gach ceann na Ghleann Cholm Chille --go minic.

Is féidir é a leámh eolas eile anseo:

"An Créatúir den ár Imshaol" le Dairin Ó Fáinín, Midland Tribune & Tullamore Tribune, Bealtaine 2008.

"An Slí Ealaíontóra" le Andrea Gibson, Ollscoil na h-Ohio University "Perspectives" 8:2 (Deireadh-Geimreadh 2004): 14-19.

Rockwell Kent & Annie McGinley

I didn't go as far as The Sturrall when I paid a visit on foot to the silent hills north of Glencolmcille. It was getting dark there that cold foggy night. But the American artist Rockwell Kent made it there. He painted other views of that enchanting district over there in quiet Gleann Locha around 1950.

I liked the image above. I put it on my blog, in fact. It can be seen way down along the edge. 

I'd wanted to go farther that evening. But, I didn't wish to walk beyond. I knew that it might be dangerous.

I could not see up the coast further, without a doubt. I went along a lot the end of that day there, certainly. All the same, I did cherish the lovely view there.

Before I left for Donegal to study Irish during a fortnight the end of June and the start of July that 2007, I put a tiny illustration of "Annie McGinley" near my desk at my place of work. It inspired me to visit and to persevere at Oideas Gael. I think about The Sturrall beyond my night sight--and all of Glencolmcille that I did see--often.

More information can be read here:

"The Figure in the Environment" by Darren Fanning, Midland Tribune & Tullamore Tribune, Winter 2008.

"The Painter's Way" by Andrea Gibson, Ohio University Perspectives 8:2 (Fall-Winter 2004): 14-19.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Booktryst & Pickwick's: for book lovers

A break from my usual onslaught of reviews to promote a site full of an onslaught of welcome bibliomania. Stephen J. Gertz five times a week publishes a thoughtful and often witty article on his blog Booktryst. Yesterday, I saw the original dust jackets for "Ulysses," "Portrait," and "Dubliners", for example, at Superstar 1st edition of Ulysses to be auctioned by Sotheby's. A few days ago, a Rockwell Kent presentation package of "Moby Dick" appeared, and the various covers of the earliest versions of "The Great Gatsby."

He also keeps up a shaggy-dog tale about schnorrers, nebbishes, and gonifs in the old Tinseltown secondhand trade as if from an old pulp novel, which captures a raffish mood now vanished. I am surprised (but it may be since he's the inevitable bookish New Yorker transplanted to this sun-kissed, smog-shrouded outpost of vapidity) that he has not mentioned to date the Pickwick's on Hollywood Boulevard of my childhood, the first bookstore I remember and the one even my philistine parents regarded as the infallible purveyor of any volume out. Which it once seemed. 

(Postcard via GS Jansen, a bit before my time, Christmas 1946, but you can see Pickwick in green on the right. Reminiscence by a clerk who worked there in 1969, with a b/w photo of the store's vast interior.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Alan Glynn's "Winterland": Book Review

The title has nothing to do with an old rock venue; this mystery reveals the secrets about a skyscraper built in Dublin. Winterland Properties, under Paddy Norton, inveigles American venture capital and Irish politicians. Noonan's forty-eight story high-rise will tower over not only the city, but the future. Alan Glynn, a native of the capital, writes this nearly five-hundred page novel with a style that rarely draws attention to itself; instead, he takes us through a half-dozen or so characters who get caught up in the mystery surrounding a report about Richmond Plaza.

Glynn offers no avuncular wits in pubs, no misty reveries, no turns of Irish phrase. His post-Catholic society is obsessed with wealth, status, and greed. Its urban and suburban settings could almost always be anywhere else, and the anonymity of much of redeveloped Dublin shrouds this story. Richmond Plaza stands for an Anglo-American, or European, sense of belonging, not to the docklands locale beneath the tower, but to a globalized network that might make Dublin the next Dubai, if still a mistier place.

The Plaza dominates the city's horizon, seen for miles as its new landmark. "Next to it are two enormous cranes, which look like mechanical high priests, supplicants kneeling before some holy monolith." Gina Rafferty will learn its layout, for her brother and nephew, bearing the same names, are both killed within days of each other by forces, she learns, tied into the Plaza's construction. Her mission, driving this tale, is to uncover the truth. As a computer data retrieval specialist, her expertise will serve her well, but her lack of experience with knowing who's who and what's what in the network of business, politics, and post-"peace process" security providers will complicate her endeavor to attain her own particular justice.

Other entangled in this web also earn their voice; Glynn shifts between indirectly telling Gina's perspective and those of Noonan, his associates, a rising politician, and a younger man whose connections to the origins of Noonan's wealth and the politician's rise will emerge gradually. These other voices, notably, often lacked the verve of Gina's impassioned, and then skewed and frenzied, inner dialogue which propels this lengthy narrative forward. This does make for a shifting story: Gina's vigilante spirit has little to balance it for long stretches of the novel, as other characters seeking to shut her up or do her in appear by contrast ragged, lethargic, and trapped. Glynn plays this off deftly, balancing between set-ups and pay-offs, but for readers, it may make for an oddly-paced momentum as the chapters continue.

A well-placed karate kick, a ceramic mug, a seemingly impact-proof cellphone, a clever use of another cellphone in one hand while its wielder holds a pistol in the other, and a strangely listed phone number serve at key plot points to kick the story along, if with a bit of suspended disbelief. Mysteries and thrillers, as with action films (Glynn's first novel was made recently into a film, Limitless) thrive on such snappy scenes, and Glynn handles them with aplomb. He mercifully excises the hard-boiled dialogue; his characters talk almost as if Americans, more often than not, with nearly no Hibernian traces if from Dublin: another register of change.

What lingers longest is Gina's frenzy to avenge her brother's death. It's as if her life is blacked out except for her condition of high alert. She has no boyfriend, no spouse, no real confidant, and her isolation, Glynn shows, allows her to enter into an imbroglio where the police or a private investigator might not dare. With so few degrees of separation in a small nation even in a large city, a curious Irish woman decides to use her post-traumatic stress to force open many closed doors. "She has deferred the grieving process--parked it, but left the motor running." This well-constructed novel about a construction project reveals how long Gina will be able to dash off on her own, before the process returns to claim her.
(Featured 9-1-11 PopMatters; Amazon US 8-27-11)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Andrew Earles' "Hüsker Dü": Book Review

Earles faced a tough challenge when he wrote this enthusiastic account of these "noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock," as Bob Mould, guitarist and singer-songwriter, declined to participate in interviews. His own memoir, "See a Little Light" (see my review) appeared a year after Earles' study, but he integrates as many secondary sources as he can to supplement what he finds from Greg Norton, bassist, and Grant Hart, drummer and singer-songwriter. The tensions between Hart and Mould, often mythologized, remain here as understated as they are explicated (if in part) in Mould's own story; reading the two books together makes for instructive comparisons. Earles' chapter on Mould's post-band career plays nicely off Mould's own uneven but engaging memoir. Earles shows respect and class in how he handles the situation with Hart and Norton post-band as well.

To his credit, Earles prefers to concentrate on the standard, if less confrontational, direction of a rock-band biography. He may bury himself in details such as every record the band's small label, Reflex, released, but he takes the time to do this to show the underground of the early 80s that spawned not only the best proponents of hardcore punk, Hüsker Dü, but lots of other bands, many now forgotten if for (as we see later with a similar look at SST Records  ("open-minded, elitist outsiders" is a great phrase Earles concocts) after the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü enriched them in the mid-80s to sign whomever Greg Ginn liked) good reasons or not. The exploration of hardcore punk here, therefore, expands the contexts necessary too to understand why Hüsker Dü signing to Warner Brothers mattered more, at least to fans, than the Replacements a bit earlier--even if Earles downplays the significance too much, in my opinion.

As a fan who saw Hüsker Dü in 1984-5, I can attest that the impact of a major-label signing a band at the peak of its punk-pop powers meant that music that mattered caused ripples across what had before been a cult following, the few "intelligent losers" (as Earles praises we who were there). For, before the Net, in the post-punk, hardcore or pre-college rock era, it was not easy to seek out new sounds; those in bands and we who listened to them appeared to rely on word-of-mouth or fanzines to find what was worth hearing. And, as Earles quotes Hart, the band had early on distanced themselves from hardcore's corrosion of conformity by their own "shroud of invisibility." They preferred "massive volume, massive hooks."

These insights for me mattered most in this book. Despite the glaring mistake on page one of Mould's birth year being a year later than Mould gives it near the start of his memoir, and the garbling of two similarly titled tracks on "Zen Arcade" in his off-kilter (if accurate otherwise as a more hit-and-miss LP than the fanatics make it out to be after the fact) run-through, Earles has his heart in the right place. He's on target as considering "Warehouse" as half of each singer's solo album, but he skims past what for me is a much better double-LP than many fans or critics judge it in the light of their classic earlier work. He skimps on coverage, in fact, of many of the better moments from later albums; he does not cover their posthumous live album in any detail. He also leaves a reader clueless unless a Beatles fan also what the "Makes No Sense At All" single cover alluded to, for while he adds a photo of the cover he leaves out in the text what withdrawn Beatles cover this parodied.

All the same, this volume contains much of value. It's certainly for fans, and as you can see, we may have our gripes. But, there's a welcome wry wit that Earles sneaks in. He appends a fine set of playlists, he investigates briefly the wide range of bands influenced by Hüsker Dü, and even if they themselves appear to be often twenty-odd years before in influence, the legacy of this St. Paul punk-pop trio seems to be assured.
(Amazon US 8-31-11)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bob Mould's "See a Little Light": Book Review

I saw Hüsker Dü at UCLA’s Ackerman Ballroom in 1984 and 1985: Mould notes how this was where the A & R big shots showed up. I remember one set suddenly stopping after beer bottles were thrown on stage and Mould angrily halted the band’s performance, a detail not included here in an account that shifts between exhaustive detail and discreet distance. As Mould admits in his preface, many of his memories have faded, due to the blur of chemicals and the passage of time. Given the depth of many of his recollections, if he wasn’t in an altered state during his band’s heyday, this book might have reached epic proportions.

He crafts a reflective retrospective about his half-century of growing up, not in public—with concerts that began in the hardcore era with twenty songs in forty minutes at overwhelming intensity—so much as off-stage. As he matures, his insights deepen and he reveals his inner self gradually.

Given his perhaps then-typical behavior when I saw him play at UCLA, Mould demonstrates his determination as major labels courted and wooed him and the band to call the shots, to start and stop when he demanded. His work ethic and attention to minutiae characterize his music and his control of the band or, solo, his musicians and crew. He named his first solo record Workbook, after all. The subtitle of this thoughtful autobiography, co-written with Michael Azerrad, reveals how “the trail of rage” that marked his first twenty-odd years has intersected, more and more in Mould’s life and times, with “melody”. He opens his story by musing how musically he possesses perfect pitch; he wonders why he can be so out of tune personally with those around him.

He grew up in far-upstate New York in a farm town. At nine, he was creating songs. He left for the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College, inspired to move there by a local band he admired, The Suicide Commandos. He bonded with long-haired barefoot hippie drummer Grant Hart (who was gay) and “the bass player who looked like he might be gay,” handlebar-mustached Greg Norton (who was not). In 1979, they formed an intense trio.

Mould believed in them, and his passion shows. “We created this blistering wall of sound—bright white radio static with occasional melody, with words buried deep in the storm, as if encrypted for shortwave transmission. The overall effect was blinding, bringing uncertainty and sometimes fear, not unlike emotions I had sometimes felt as a child.” He admits how his determination to succeed weighed upon Hart, who competed with Mould for songwriting and vocal balance, and Norton, who was pushed aside as the two singers contended for control of the increasingly loud and dedicated trio.

Full of testosterone, on speed, drinking daily since he was twelve, awkward, looking like “a gas station attendant”, Mould did not fit the image of a punk rocker or a young gay man. His discomfort did not lie in his shame about his sexuality, but in his inability to find relief outside of destruction. He obsessed over being faster than the Ramones, than the Dickies, than the Buzzcocks. His nihilism haunts him, and his relationships must contend with his ego, his talent, and his self-lacerating drive to overcome his own misgivings and doubts.

Much of this discomfort was rooted in his family dynamic. His father treated his family poorly, while his mother tended to withdraw. Mould compassionately shows his father’s difficulties. He notes how when he lashed out on side two of their breakthrough 1984 double-album Zen Arcade, “it sounded like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass”. Yet, he adds how as he channeled his frustrations at his relationships, his upbringing, and his anger on that and other Hüsker Dü LPs, the same father who sparked his torment had driven twelve-hundred miles from Malone, N.Y. to St. Paul. His father had delivered his second of the two vans he bought for the band, so they could tour and travel in comparative safety and comfort as they scrimped and saved while recording for the small SST punk label.

Hüsker Dü was one of the first indie bands to jump from an underground to a major label. Mould astutely recalls the feel of the tiny college rock-alternative scene, when word-of-mouth and informal networks existed to show who in a small city where a concert was booked was likely to buy records such as Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats rather than Boston II, and who might put a band up on their couch or help pass out flyers. The dissatisfied few who supported the early band represented the high-school poetry readers, the freaks, the sensitive loners, and not only the mohawked identikit leather jacketed crowd. Mould and his bandmates began to incorporate their admiration of late-1960s music into their sound, as much Monkees as Beatles, and their albums started to expand into a more sophisticated pop-punk blend of tones. 

Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig for me still hold up today as some of the best music from the mid-1980s. While Mould does not delve as deeply as I wanted into sharing his perspective on why these albums endure, he does offer a necessary balance to Andrew Earles' 2010 “story about the noise-pop pioneers who launched modern rock” [see my review]. Earles chronicles the band’s evolution, but he lacked access to Mould’s testimony, which he apparently saved for his own account; Mould’s astute choice of Azerrad (whose chapter on Hüsker Dü in his Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Underground 1981-1991 [reviewed by me on Amazon a few years back] remains essential reading) helps Mould elucidate what made his best songs, and those of Hart, work so well.

I agree with Mould that Candy Apple Grey drops off in quality rapidly, but I found their studio effort, a double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, a swan song that captured Hüsker Dü at its peak. Mould dismisses it, for me, too offhandedly. (He has never bothered to listen to their posthumous live record, The Living End, issued to pay off Norton in a tussle that continues to simmer between Mould against Hart and Norton, but I recommend it.) However, Mould stays very fair to his bandmates when they merit his praise; he credits many friends and colleagues. He also criticizes those who stood in his formidable way, whether bandmates, rivals, industry representatives, or accountants.

Furthermore, he evenly explains his rocky relationships with his first two longtime partners, and he accepts his share of the blame for what went wrong. Yet, he also incorporates occasions when others took advantage of his trust, financially or intimately. This deepens the texture of his engagingly told story. He finds it difficult to say goodbye, and he tends for much of his fifty years to walk away from conflict even if he has helped escalate it.

He appears as outwardly confident, yet he harbors doubt. This may stem from his start. “As a gay kid, the dialogue of courtship was tightly yet invisibly twined around the sexual camaraderie that young boys need.” He feared intimacy. He shunned tenderness. New Day Rising by its title and lighter atmosphere may signal his recognition that “bookish musical aficionados” like myself listened to his music as much as the hardcore crowd dominating the mosh pits nearest the stage.

New Days Rising

He stopped drinking at twenty-five, fearing he would follow his father’s fate. He does not preach about sobriety or sexuality, but he steadily shows how his solo work, after eight relentless years with his increasingly weary band, shifted as his moods did. He quit. He moved to a farm outside St. Paul.

Workbook featured delicacy as well as energy, and his stellar supporting musicians enriched its presentation. His then-partner designed the cover. He included a figure of Jesus, taken off the cross. Black Sheets of Rain, as the title shows, came with Mould’s breakup with that same lover. Mould left for Hoboken and then Brooklyn. Recorded at Manhattan’s Power Station studio, its angry, overpowering production, with a lavish budget, plunged these songs in pain as if, Mould says, one drowned in a factory, submerged in motor oil.

So, the step back to lead his power-trio Sugar to a more tuneful, punchy style proved a wise move. Copper Blue still sounds fantastic, and his longtime co-producer Lou Giordano gains credit for its impact. With a new partner, Mould restored his sanity. He moved to Austin, then back to Manhattan before 9/11. Typically, he devotes as much space to the life and death of his beloved dog, Domino, as to the tragedy that enveloped his adopted city. He balances the personal and the promotional nimbly, but for stretches over four-hundred dutifully told pages, this account feels as if expanded from decades of Day Runner notes. He appears to list everyone he met and every place he flew to and stayed, and while those included here may cringe or grin at their shout-outs, fans may wonder as I did why this near-total recall remains so necessary.

Nonetheless, this offers a more in-depth look at Mould than a music-based survey such as Earles was limited in providing. Mould’s enthusiasm for his debut solo LP and Sugar’s best work (even if the spectacular song “Gee Angel” escapes mention) captures his romance with playing and producing catchy, punchy songs. He addresses relationships in often a non-gendered form of address, so everyone feels included in his audience.

Still, his demons haunted him, for his new lover proved as straying as his first. His second Sugar record failed to live up to his first, just as his second solo LP had. “Maybe someone can adopt this book for Broadway: CATHARSIS! starring Bob Mould. The hit play with no ending.”

He evades responsibility for leading his second power trio; he had walked away from his first. Lessons do not stick with him without repetition and a slow awareness of his shortcomings. He learns to seek happiness.

It takes him until his late-thirties to come to terms with his sexuality in public. I remained somewhat unclear about his claim that Dennis Cooper in a way outed him in his Spin magazine 1994 “Bob is gay” feature; when Hüsker Dü was interviewed a dozen-odd years earlier, Mould’s preferences to a reader such as myself in the alternative press appeared the “open secret” he writes they were in his memoir. But, Mould gets over what proves a muted reaction to his admission as he does the demise of Sugar. After the revealingly titled The Last Dog and Pony Show, 1998’s temporary farewell to what had once been “college rock”, he makes a surprising career move.

Seven months of exhausting work as a “creative consultant” inventing story lines, timing routines to be filmed, and ensuring quality control for World Championship Wrestling gain a fascinating and grueling chapter. Mould’s lifelong love of wrestling led him to this job, and he did it with the same intensity, and command of numbers and minutes, that he brought to his exactingly created music. Luckily for him in the long run, he was let go after a series of tragedies at WCW. Storylines became too real, and the physical and emotional damages to his colleagues piled up during his manic stint. As he says of his lyrics, used to work his way through tension and torment, so with these doomed wrestling narratives: “Write it and it shall be so.”

The millennium finds him in Manhattan embracing his gay identity. He evokes (a few) secrets of club life and mating behavior on Christopher Street and Fire Island as deftly as he does the action behind the scenes at WCW. He learns to accept his parents with all their flaws, and he understands how the rituals of the Catholic Mass he long abandoned from his childhood remain a necessary anchor for community and belonging for some seekers now and then, same as the dance floor and the concert may for others. And, sometimes, those punks grow into the gay “bears and cubs” he embraces. He wryly tells of his forty-fifth birthday celebrated with a call-in masseuse at the Ramada Inn on Santa Monica Boulevard, and his well-timed fifty-two minute session.

First in Washington D.C., and now in San Francisco with a third steady partner, Mould makes records mixing the pop-punk of the past with massed electronics, his interest for more than dozen years. He stays as much of a fan, whether of Pete Townshend or No Age, as a performer. If he wants to play an old song, he will, but often, one senses, he does not. He continues his stubborn direction ahead, no matter what crowds expect.

This expansive story ends as a gentle but firm lesson in starting over, even if it takes a half a century. Finally, Mould can enjoy life. Thirty years making music, he pays as much attention now to his health as his career. He works out, produces, d.j.‘s, performs. He lives a happy life. So, don’t expect a Hüsker Dü reunion. (Review in shorter form: Amazon US)
(Featured as above at PopMatters 8-19-11)

Monday, September 19, 2011

John Allen Paulos' "Irreligion": Book Review

This mathematician takes on "why the arguments for God just don't add up." As the subtitle shows, Paulos aims to deflate theological affirmation with scientific calculation. The results, in this brief book, are decidedly mixed; the parts prove more valuable than their sum. 

"Disdaining Occam's Razor, they like their arguments hirsute" (75) is a great one-liner, the best in this sometimes entertaining book. It's used to attack the argument from subjectivity: that because a believer fervently asserts a gut feeling or tender emotion of a divine presence, that "leap of faith" will verify that God exists. A few pages on, after citing Mencken well, Paulos notes that contrary to stereotypes, atheists are not as arrogant as many overbearing religious folks. He tends here to dig into reasoning to counter unprovable claims, and while some sections are strong (as in "miraculous interventions," "prophecy" and supposed "Bible Codes," and his "dreamy instant message exchange with God") many of the more mathematically grounded chapters take on the classic arguments and some newer ones with uneven skill.

They often end suddenly; they roam despite being a few pages each into what feels as if more a record of Paulos's inner thoughts on paper or a casual blog entry or notes rather than a solid, full-fledged argument. The demolition of Anselm's ontological argument, the problems with the anthropic principle, or the argument from cognitive tendency exemplify chapters that fell short for me of the perfection you'd expect this professor, whose career rests upon logic applied to popular culture and common beliefs, would display. 

The casual, off-hand nature of his musings does work well when rationalizing what many tend to surrender to faith instead, but the book appears put together too casually at times to be wholly satisfying. Still, as a decidedly math-challenged reader, I appreciated the fact that while no "formula" technically appears, the references to mathematical theories and famous mathematicians and scientists did not overwhelm the tone of this book. I agree with his conclusion, too, that we might be better off if more of us could find the courage to admit our being "irreligious"-- at least some of the time until we play the next lottery! (Amazon US 8-31-11)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Stephen Prothero's "Religious Literacy": Book Review

This combines three sections. First, our present-day American illiteracy about religion, in the most "religious" nation on earth, receives Professor Prothero's survey. Next, he looks at how much the Puritans knew and taught and reinforced, and then how colonial and evangelical and non-denominational movements contended in bringing content into schools, public life, and instructional books for young and old. Finally, he proposes bringing back religious instruction into secondary schools (and on a wider basis in colleges) not on a normative basis or a reductive "all religions are the same" approach, but one that respects objective analysis.

As he teaches at Boston University, a prestigious institution, I was intrigued to learn how little his students knew, and why the standards for religious knowledge among a population that often claims fervently to read the Bible regularly and to attend services, have fallen the past century. He distinguishes well fundamentalism (the word of God is literal and unalterable) from evangelicalism (the word is inspired but modernity is not a bad term); he reminds us of how the 19th century debates over how Christianity had to be taught in public schools as Protestants reasoned a more inclusive approach tangled with Catholic immigrants, who eventually wound up creating parochial schools and separating themselves from the mainstream for basically a century, until Vatican II eroded what made Catholic culture so distinctive. 

However, much of his book does not take on literacy now so much as back then, and it reads like a textbook for long stretches; his research into how Jesus became "Americanized" appears to be repeated in this newer volume. Also, for an historian of American religious culture, he appears to not have understood the claims of Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without Beliefs" which he castigates for abandoning tradition to pursue happiness. I've reviewed this book, and it presents a sober, existentialist, "agnostic" approach to Buddhism for a practitioner who cannot believe, which is not a touchy-feely take on dharma at all. Prothero cites his "Boomer Buddhism" critique from "Salon" in early 2001; this article shows a similar disdain for James William Coleman's "The New Buddhism" (also reviewed by me), which examines from a sociological perspective the "convert" reaction to Buddhism; this rankles Prothero, who appears to expect that if a religious (and moreover monastically dominated) import to America does not remain pure, as it were, that's it's tainted, tawdry, and terrible. 

That apparent display of too-hasty a scholarly claim aside, the strengths of this book are in showing how the affective response to Christianity that permeates so many Americans weakens our political and practical competency to understand the diverse cultures around us, as well as the international tensions resulting from misinformation or ignorance about other faiths, let alone the most common one in America. He does cover Hinduism and Islam and Judaism in American life, too, if much more in passing, as Protestantism overwhelmingly remains the key subject of discussion. 

His suggested reading list is very short, and oddly chosen, to find out about some of these other faiths, however; you may learn enough, if a newcomer, from the key information that he compiles into an eighty-page glossary in the spirit of E.D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" if not its scope. Finally, take the Religious Literacy Quiz and see how you do; it's fun to see how Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant tallies of even the Ten Commandments don't break them down the same way--a testament to diversity! (Amazon US 8-31-11)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ag éisteacht go leabhair an tsamraidh seo

Tá mé ag éisteacht le téipeannaí faoi deireanach go h-obair agus ar ais ann. Bím ag fáil éisteo-leabhair an tsamraidh seo. Thosaigh mé nuair ag tiomáint ar thuas ar feadh mhí Mheitheamh deireadh. 
Chuala muid "Lolita" ag léamh os ard le Jeremy Irons ansin. Ar ndoigh, is maith linn go leor. Mar sin, chríochnaigh mo bhean a tí é ar dtus in a gluastain; leanaigh mé leis an téip ina dhiadh i mo gluastain. 

Chuaigh mé ar an leabharlann ag fáil trí éisteo-leabhair eile. Chruinnigh mé "Teacht chun beith dea-eolach" le an Dalai Lama (ag ráite le Seofraigh Hopkins) i dtosach. Rug mé ar "Intinn na tSen, Intinn na h-Údar" le Shunyru Suzuki (ag ráite le Peadar Coyote) ar leanas. Fuair mé  "An Sliabh Seacht Ilúlar" le Tomas Merton (ag ráite le Sidney Lanier) ansin. Rinne siad trían ag cur le cheile. 

Tá mé ag tosaithe "Cinmhíol an Chuilb Mar Óganach" a chum Seosamh Seoighe ag léithe le Jim Norton. Ach, níl ábalta mé dúnadh é fós. D'fhoghlaim mé faoi "An Foirgneamh na Cosmas" le Brian Greene: fuair mé seo a iosacht ó leabharlann an mhi seo caite.

Mar sin, bím ag cloisteáil seo anois, chomh inste de ghuth ard le Michéal Pritchard. Tá sé an-fhada ann, go cinnte. Measaim go mbeadh chomh fada le "Ulysses" nach beag. Gan amhras, fágfaidh mé é is mo faoi dlí an nádúir agus an iontais na cruinne go luath. 

Listening to books this summer

I'm listening to tapes lately to and from work. I'm getting audio-books this summer. I started when driving up north during the end of last June.

We heard "Lolita" read aloud by Jeremy Irons then. Of course, we liked it a lot. Therefore, my wife finished it first in her car; I followed with the tape afterwards in my car.

I went to the library to get three other audio-books. I gathered "Becoming Enlightened" by the Dalai Lama (spoken by Jeffrey Hopkins) to start. I grabbed "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (spoken by Peter Coyote) by Shunryu Suzuki next. I got "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton (spoken by Sidney Lanier) then. They made a good trio together.

I am starting "A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man" by James Joyce read by Jim Norton. But, I'm not able to finish it yet. I learned about "The Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene; I checked this out from the library last month. 

Therefore, I'm hearing this now, as told aloud by Michael Pritchard. It's very long, certainly. I reckon it may be as long as "Ulysses," nearly. Without a doubt, I'll be leaving it with more about the laws of nature and the wonders of the universe soon. 

(Grianghraf/"Stock Photo: Concept image of a young girl listening to an audiobook isolated against a white background.")

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sebastian Barry's "On Canaan's Side": Book Review

Lilly Bere flees the Irish war for independence with her hunted beau; they hurry in disguise to Chicago. From there, his fate and hers propels this compact but leisurely told narrative rich in mood and depth. Sebastian Barry, as with his plays and earlier novels, draws loosely on his own family's stories to thread into his plots. In "A Long, Long Way", Lilly's brother Willie fights the Great War in Picardy as well as witnesses the Easter Rising back in Dublin; "Annie Dunne" follows into mid-century the situation of her sister, "a hunched unmarriageable girl" according to Lilly. 

Between his countrymen John Banville and Joseph O'Connor in age, Mr. Barry shares the elegant fictional craft of the former and the immersion in Irish American overlaps of the latter storyteller. In this account of one of the Dunnes, less attention to America itself is given than may be supposed from the summary. While the novel takes place largely in American cities, the memories evoked by Lilly over seventeen daily entries at the age of eighty-nine delve more into her own reactions to the action around her than they do her own depictions of the twentieth-century trends and changes another novelist might have highlighted. This inner direction takes Mr. Barry's characters into their own psychological torment and the failure of their hopes rather than an easy grasp of the dreams promised so many whether in Ireland seeking freedom or America promoting liberty. 

As Lilly admits early on in her recollections: "I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough." Certainly the fatalism woven into this novel may weigh it down for those expecting a lighthearted romanticized celebration of a pair of newlywed immigrants who triumph over adversity. Soon, Tadg Bere will be gone, and his wife will flee again to Cleveland. There, she meets her second husband, Joe Kinderman, from the city's police force. His own ambiguities will shadow their relationship, while her son Ed and his son Billy will also confront the complications caused by wars, which in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East keep pulling away those whom she loves and befriends. 

Most of the narrative, told in journal form, depends upon capturing interior states, so when Lilly looks out, the scenes sharpen. Spring in Ohio comes as "the poor huddled trees suddenly like a thousand girls, all gold hair and ribbons, and the rows upon rows of blossom-trees in the streets shook out their colours on the air." 

As for Ireland, unlike her American friends and employers of Hibernian descent, Lilly holds no sentiment: "People love Ireland because they can never know it, like a partner in a successful marriage." This oblique comment shows Mr. Barry's own angular presence, for his novel refuses a straightforward approach to Lilly's perceptions. Instead, "On Canaan's Side" shows what happens after a fugitive crosses over the Jordan, not to find deliverance, but more pursuit from those she thought her trans-Atlantic flight had outrun. 

Therefore, the novel darkens as violence from war, past and recent, reverberates into the lives of those around her. Not everyone she befriends can be trusted. This unease turns her legacy as an arrival in America. 

She moves first to Washington D.C. (with a curious cameo appearance by Martin Luther King), and then to the Hamptons in domestic service to earn her keep. Mr. Barry does not let the Furies off their own race to catch up with Lilly. "The Celestial Handyman tends to let the house fall." Her marriages derail, and as she tries to make ends meet, she cannot help but lapse into gloom. "We ride to our doom, like the cowboys, we surely do." A few pages later, we hear, "as they used to say in Ireland, the devil only comes into good things." 

While this reviewer, as a first-generation Irish American, is not immune to fatalism, Mr. Barry's placement of its constant weight upon Lilly may weary readers wishing for levity within this well-told but stoically endured account of the past near-century. Her surname may be symbolic of the Easter lily, the signifier of hope for the new Irish republic amidst the war that drove her away from it, and of "The Old Woman of Beare", a medieval Irish lament told by one once a lovely lady, now an abandoned crone. Certainly this recent American era has not lacked for woe, but Lilly's eloquent reveries do not inspire much relief from the darker shades that hover over nearly every page of the long life she summons up on paper one last time. 

That being said, as with John Banville, a daunting fictional representation of a tormented, lonely struggle by one in recollection struggling to make sense out of chaos and to impose order upon chance does make for a rewarding if sobering experience. As with Joseph O'Connor, the inherent interest in an immigrant's encounter with America also enriches this narrative, even if unlike Mr. O'Connor, the energy of the Irish entry into a new continent is muffled by domestic settings and introspective concentration. Mr. Banville often rescues wandering plots in the final sections of his novels; similarly, Mr. Barry revives Lilly's reflections for one final burst of wonder. 

Its climactic pages glow with wonder and terror. They reach a catharsis of prose poetry as they mingle dramatically, as "the sun was falling away under the table of the world, like a drinking man." This last scene turns a bravura performance reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's torrents of frank existential dazzle. Here, Mr. Barry bestows as a merciful creator his long-suffering heroine with her final reward.

(Featured 9-8-11 at New York Journal of Books.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Penn Jillette's "God, No!": Book Review

Inspired or goaded by Glenn Beck’s request that Jillette (the garrulous, skeptical, subversive half of magic duo Penn and Teller) “entertain the idea of an atheist Ten Commandments,” he does simply that. Of course, being the talkative partner, as anyone familiar with his shows on stage or television knows, Penn provides lots of anecdotes, barbs, and trash-talk. As a family man and committed defender of commonsense over belief, he adds a thoughtful, and even touching, admission of how perhaps “The Penn Suggestions” might translate into a secular version of life, albeit one penned by a ranting, roaring “libertarian atheist”.

He insists—even when refusing to affirm the existence of man-made global warming—that the declaration “I don’t know”, remains a more honest response than turning to an answer drawn from a faith. However, science remains his foundation for what he confirms as true; if religion vanished tomorrow, it would be replaced, but not by the same belief system. Science, by contrast, would be eventually created all over again, Penn reasons, more or less as we know it.  His chapters, logically ten, enumerate through loosely (if often so loose as to evade immediate recognition) linked episodes from Penn’s encounters and experiences, illustrating how each of the Ten Commandments can be replaced by a secular suggestion.

First, respect for “human intelligence, creativity, and love” emerge as ideals to counter “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. The generosity of Siegfried and Roy, despite Penn’s jibes, and the evasions of David Blaine, represent magician peers who stand or fall on stage by their performances and their conviction.

“King of the Ex-Jews” takes a long detour that brings a Hasidic man via Penn’s chat after a show into an admission of atheism, and then an invitation by Penn and his crew for “Moishe” to dine on traif non-kosher fare, at the Rio in Vegas (which gets a lot of plugs in this narrative). Penn tells “Moishe”‘s secular journey with insight as well as raunchiness.  He acknowledges the existential distance this ex-Hasid must travel from his family and friends, who stayed “behind with his imaginary friend” in Brooklyn while he braved the loss of his god, and of his community, to stand up for not his own happiness, but for the pursuit of his inner truth.

The second chapter swerves into a celebration of humanity, and how it delights in companionship above things or ideas. Idols are taken down, and by the examples of his unbelieving mother and his sister’s lesbian Pastor Shirley (a long story), and of “Auto-Tune, tattoos, and big fake tits”, the joy of camaraderie and the exultation of the body’s alterations over the limits of nature illustrate Penn’s interpretation of human goodness.

Instead of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, oaths give way to self-accountability. Penn wryly tells how evangelical Christians took his video blog encouragement of proselytizing for rationalism in the “marketplace of ideas”, as if he were condoning preaching the Word. He’s as generous in his credit to those who took his message in its context, as he’s belittling of those who distorted it. Still, he recognizes that he cares for those “bugnutty freaky whack jobs” who come up after shows to tell him they are praying for him. All the same, Penn insists that faith wastes time, holds up the potential progress of science and love, and gives aid to “dangerous extremism”.

He launches into a long tale about being the model with Teller for gray suits in a GQ shoot, an example of his skill at self-deprecation, given his heft and girth, even if the link to non-idolatry appears less obvious, unless it’s about not making yourself into an idol.

This segues into his disdain for the wishy-washy agnostic, even if Penn agrees that admitting one’s uncertainty remains the best one can do in a wonderfully vast universe. He denies that atheists are arrogant, and he counters: “It’s not arrogant to say that you can’t figure out the answers to the universe with your internal faith.” He affirms the love of friends and family as enough for a human being, not the desperation of those who invent invisible figures to call to—who after all make our favorite football team lose.

However, the Sabbath rest, as it is such defined, remains a sensible option, as time to reflect and relax. Penn’s idea of such may be not yours, as he launched into “learning to fly, strip, and vomit on a 727” that induces both crushing gravity and weightless moments for him and, of all people, guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. A visit along with another straight man to a gay bathhouse in 1981 San Francisco is told with wit and verve, and his attempts to have sex while scuba diving follow in unpredictable spirit. He appends the Penthouse Forum letter he wrote about the rendezvous, which I suppose proves not all such letters are invented.

At the halfway point, honoring one’s parents earns powerful elucidation. He tells with compassion and hard-earned maturity, for once, of the life and deaths of his older sister, his father, and his mother. He revamps a chapter about atheist parenting that veers predictably into his trademark snarkiness. Yet, he makes cogent points: “Reality exists outside of humans. Religion does not.” He warns how “the bad guys” need to cheat. “Government force, propaganda, and hype are the tools you desperately need when you’re wrong. Truth abides.” He concludes: “Truth doesn’t live in the closet.” He figures, besides, that atheist families have more time on Sundays to laugh and dance together.

This merges into a section denouncing Santa Claus, with practical advice on how to lie to children without hiding them from the truth, and that our time as a family together is cruelly limited. Atheism, he tells, comforted him when his parents and sister died, for he knew that their pain had ended, and that their ends were not part of a cruel god’s “plan”. He integrates the story of his parents’ respective slowdowns and deaths carefully, and this wide-ranging, well-told chapter shows Penn’s reflective side alongside his usual bluffing and boasting.

The sixth chapter, about protecting and respecting human life, wobbles. His defense of libertarianism demands its own book, frankly. Penn needed more space to explore his notions from Max Weber “that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” Penn resists the power wielded by the majority over the minority, even in the pursuit of good, but this complicated idea merits more than a few paragraphs. The chapter skips across some other non-conformist thinkers and doers, and veers into an anti-TSA (Transport Security Administration) rant.

On the matter of theft, Penn returns to his fellow magicians, this time his aging nemesis The Amazing Kreskin, and then a surprising defense of Nixon who, despite being the ideological opposite of Penn, reveals Nixon’s knack even as he prepared to resign in telling jokes, in revealing the basic class underneath his personal tragedy. As with Penn’s family, here he shows his ability to let down his carny patter and reveals in his admiration for what some folks can come up with while under pressure.

Lying, discussed in the ninth chapter, also earns a mixed array of examples. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy earns a section, but it left me baffled about its placement here; “Would This Seem Crazy if You Read It in a Book” sounds in fact, crazy; a shaggy-dog tale about an encounter with a sexy “whack-job” that turns in on itself. Penn’s refusal to agree that global warming exists without proof (or what he deems as lack of proof) may appear odd, given his sustained defense of science, but his ingrained skepticism accounts for his inconsistent consistency. He sums up that he is no expert, and he should not be held accountable for his honest admission that he cannot be totally correct.

Finally, coveting the neighbor’s such-and-such and so-and-so finds a clever translation: “Don’t waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it’ll make you bugnutty. (Man oh man, that MILF at my child’s school sure looks hot, but I have work to do.)” This prepares us for his admiration of Bruce Springsteen and the far-from-titillating saga of his ex-girlfriend Heather, her lesbian roommate, their bathroom in “the college-student-like full of hate apartment,” his naked body, and a hair-dryer. He tells this with aplomb.

The book concludes with two short vignettes, perhaps to help ease our mental images after that previous anecdote. Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, once stars, are seen by Penn and Teller. By now, the former duo are long-faded, while the magicians headline in the same Atlantic City. Penn relates his partner’s acceptance of what will happen to them, as they follow the show business arc someday, back to the humbler settings they left behind.

Penn’s afterword asserts atheism against religious terror. I write this review as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 nears; Penn revises some conventional Western wisdom to remind readers how faith itself is the common enemy, not Islam or god or any people. He reaffirms love and respect of every person, but he calls on us to “hate and destroy all faith”. As with the critiques of authors he mentions, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, the tack Penn takes spreads to condemn all faiths rather than just one.

He figures that only atheists can speak out against religious terrorism, for they stand apart from belief in what cannot be proven. I suppose, in Penn’s reasoning, climate change will be or will not be proven as due to the direct causes set in motion and accelerated by humans. Faith, by contrast, can never be proven. Therefore, “safety in doubt” counters the dangers perpetrated by those celebrating beliefs as foundations for morality, and as justifications for policy.

Penn dashes about and harangues plenty in this brisk book, and it is likely few readers will come to this impassioned, ornery, profane screed without knowing its larger-than-life author’s persona. It may frustrate those looking for the calmer rebuttals of Harris, Dawkins, or Hitchens, Yet, for a presumably less patient if equally skeptical audience, God, No!: Signs You May Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales entertains and educates, in a brash, nagging, braying tone that remains Penn’s irascible shtick.

But at its contemplative moments, this narrative incorporates Penn’s humanist pride in one’s own accomplishments, free of divine intervention or religious subservience. Penn reminds the reader of love, family, art, time, and “an impossible universe full of awe and wonder. We have an infinite number of questions we can work on. We have all the glory that is real and is us. We must stop glorifying faith.” Of course, after this he uses a common vulgarism as an imperative, followed one final time by the word “faith”. It’s that kind of rational argument, after all.

(8-30-11 to Amazon US in slightly altered form, already preceded by twenty-seven reviews, but mine's more in-depth. Published on 8-29-11 at PopMatters as above.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Joumana Haddad's "I Killed Scheherazade": Book Review

This spirited polemic combines "confessions of an angry Arab woman" with her reflections on the plight of men as well as women trapped in a schizophrenic realm. Founder of Jasad ("body"), an erotic magazine written in Arabic, Joumana Haddad seeks to correct the distortions that warp both Muslim and Western views of her sisters. She aspires toward "both a testimony and a meditation" on what Arab womanhood means and could mean.

She tries to achieve this by shifting away from a rant, an autobiography, or "the escapist allegories of a novel". Keen to pay attention to the blossoming forest of possibility for women rather than the superficial, sensational sound of a tree falling (or a media-hyped factoid from the Muslim world), she urges us, citing this proverb, to listen "to the whispering of a growing tree".

Forty years old, Ms.Haddad grew up during the Lebanese war that destroyed her hometown. She begins this brief account by recounting her childhood, when at twelve she opened Justine by the Marquis de Sade. This and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita inspired her to take up taboos and to break convention. Her skepticism as she came of age amid chaos soured her on the surety of any absolutes.

Instead, she created erotic poetry. She wryly notes how the average Arab reads a quarter of a page a year, and how one-half of one percent of the Arab audience turns to verse for pleasurable fare. She quotes (the book is full of wonderful borrowings) George Bataille: "There is only one of two possible options: either the Word drains Eroticism, or Eroticism drains the Word." Ms. Haddad's bilingual upbringing through French allows her to navigate wider literary waters than her Beirut existence afforded her; her own Christian background (she does not dwell on this much, however) also places her in a complicated position regarding her homeland. She appears to live in its capital city without loving it.

Therefore, she nods to Zaha Hadid's "No matter how much progress has been made, there is still a world that for women is taboo. And in that world lies her freedom." Ms. Haddad seeks liberation through her magazine and in her poetry, but also in her desire to overcome prejudice while rejoicing in a liberation that allows her to be as feminine as she feels. She attacks the sexist system, quoting Elfriede Jelinek, but not men themselves.

Ms. Haddad affirms that egalitarianism is not a demand, but an assertion that every woman must feel free to make. For her scheme of transformation, a woman needs to relegate sexual activity to the same niche where religious expression should be enacted. That is, in private.

As she elaborates: "In order to have, we need to give: so enough of religious exhibitionism/voyeurism, in all its forms. Praying should be like making love: a private matter. Everybody speaks of sexual obscenity, but almost nobody speaks of religious obscenity. Those who make love in public are sent to prison: it is maintained that it constitutes an offence against public decency. I dream of a secular, uncontaminated world, where the same treatment is reserved to those who transform their religious convictions into a carnival." (120)

Ultimately, she fulminates against those who try to keep her and her sisters tethered. She calls Arab women "funambulists," that is, "hanging in the air, between the sky and the earth, on a cord stretched between misery and deliverance. Moreover, there's no safety net under us." (136)

Ms. Haddad does not comment much on her life as a mother, in terms of her two sons; we learn nothing about her relationships or her own erotic or sexual predilections. This lack of detail, extended to what we do not learn about her past or present partners, surprises. Her allusions, which dart away from candor, remain her right, but they lead the reader to wonder if some of this escape "from the narrow egocentrism of a systematic autobiography" is a bait and switch, given her prominent proclamations of sexual revolution and erotic rebellion.

Moreover, she tends to preen or pout about the reception of her magazine. This undermines her bold message. More emphasis upon her magazine's content would have proven more convincing. How and why does Jasad matter? Her pride in its launch is understandable, but for foreign audiences unable to read its contents, how its provocations have accelerated her campaign to achieve liberation deserves coverage very much lacking here.

She aims to get this set of reflections and resolutions out quickly, it appears. She writes as if under pressure to meet a deadline, although I am left wondering why her hurry. This thin book does not deliver an in-depth exploration of sexuality, motherhood, the clash of Christian and Muslim beliefs about how women are to be controlled in the Middle East, or her efforts at bridging the gaps between cultures by her fluency in French as well as Arabic. (This version has no translator credited in the galley proof, so I am assuming she writes also in pithy, punchy English.)

Expansion of these essential topics certainly would have added value to this small work, if making it a larger one. She remarks late on in this brief manifesto that "I'm not ready for these topics yet." This is her prerogative, of course, but the spicy if scanty results serve more to stimulate the reader's appetite for a main course served by her from such intriguing ingredients. She sprinkles after her chapters one poem as a sample of her style: tellingly, an "attempt at an autobiography". Perhaps soon she will deliver such a work in prose.

However, this is more a manifesto and series of short reflections than it is, as she warned, a straightforward chronicle of her entry into maturity and confidence. The promotional material for this English-language rendition boasts that Ms. Haddad is dubbed "the Oprah of Lebanon" and (according to the Sunday Telegraph) "the Carrie Bradshaw of Beirut", but especially after the Orientalist and consumerist second installment of Sex in the City, at least the latter role model appears unwisely chosen. This facile comparison slights the talents of an astute, vigorous, and candid participant-observer who seeks to radicalize the conditions by which Arab men and women can find satisfying, secular, and sensible lives together.

Eschewing sensationalism or prurience, she tries instead to speak--if hurriedly and with great animation--to an audience accustomed to see Arab women as veiled and prominent or as unveiled and invisible to Western eyes. She dashes away before she can be categorized, catalogued, or cornered. Ms. Haddad confounds our cultural reactions. She foils, too, one's expectations. This stance results in a subtler exposé than the marketing of this testimony may let on but perhaps its shape-shifting nature leads into her own labyrinth, representing the complexity of Arab femininity.

She concludes her tale with a litany of how she killed Scheherazade of the thousand and one tales. Her character proved dangerous, "a sweet gal with a huge imagination and good negotiation skills". So, Ms. Haddad strangles her, even as the fictional femme pleads for one last story. Ms. Haddad favors resistance and rebellion, for submission and compromise, she reasons, render neither women nor men any lasting favors. (Featured 9-1-11 at New York Journal of Books)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Vladimir Nabokov: Novels 1955-62": Review

Listening to Jeremy Irons' perfect audiobook rendering of the perfect novel "Lolita" recently reminded me of the original work, so I went back to it and I welcomed the screenplay paired here for pleasure; I also re-read "Pnin" and "Pale Fire," which overlap obliquely. It'd been thirty years since I enjoyed those three novels, and like Humbert Humbert, Charles Kinbote, and Pnin himself, I'm about the same age-bracket as their creator was when he conjured up these erudite, erratic, and eccentric characters who in turn, of course, play off of himself, however much he may have denied it from his own niche in East Coast academia in postwar America.

"Lolita" as a novel I found rare: it needed not a word replaced; every adjective was necessary, each verb crafted, every sentence chiseled. My comments would be superfluous, but in the Library of America edition, Brian Boyd's notes pale before those in the annotated edition by Alfred Appel, whose version I recommend. If you lack not only fluent French but Russian, not to mention reams of insight into the worlds of art, butterflies, popular culture of the time, and wordplay that anyone less brilliant than Nabokov would not catch, Appel's edition supplants Boyd. Boyd drew upon Appel's notes and as his biographer, Boyd adds a few tidbits among those Appel did not in his reticence to expose certain facts gleaned from interviews with Nabokov a few decades ago. However, as with the rest of this handsome to hold LofA edition, Boyd's notes tend, as in many LofA commentaries, to skimp, perhaps due to pressure to keep the books easy to hold.

The sadness of "Lolita" lingers, with its beauty. The screenplay Nabokov first wrote for Stanley Kubrick was seven hours long, but from the shorter, if never produced conflation of two versions here, I would have liked to read whatever Nabokov created as he sought to transfer the gist of the novel into an entertaining, deft story for the screen. It's a great counterpart to the novel, best read after the printed text, naturally.

Pnin, who finds himself trying to get by at a college after the war, joins other Russian expatriates at a summer gathering. He laments a "'typical American college student' who does not know geography, is immune to noise, and thinks education is but a means to get a remunerative job." (387) Some things never change. 

Later at that gathering, Pnin learns of the death in the Nazi camps of a woman he had loved, and he goes out to walk "under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in quick succession, attended to the destinies of the quick." (395) But this reverie's snapped by the mosquitoes. Nabokov in these tales does not allow his haunted, thoughtful fellows to wander in the ether long.

A professor chats with another; they look up at the stars. "I suspect it is really a fluorescent corpse, and we are inside it." (417) Metaphorical images arrest one's attention in these often everyday tales, as characters jolt themselves out of themselves to look at a world that does not synchronize with their internal (dis)orientation. 

Two academics dominate "Pale Fire"; Pnin gets a mention from one professor who mistakes Kinbote for him. Kinbote's commentary satirizes scholarly obsession, as this titular poem by John Shade gets wrenched by Kinbote, an emigre from Zembla with a complicated past, into Kinbote's own tale, even as he notes that he has "no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel." (495) 

The odd delight of this challenging story lies in watching Kinbote's obsession take over his task. He does not appear to realize how far Shade's content lies from Kinbote's imagined reality, so details pile up. "But a commentator's obligations cannot be shirked, however dull the information he must collect and convey." (556) He loses his grip on what he set out to do: "Anybody having access to a good library could, no doubt, easily trace that story to its source and find the name of the lady; but such humdrum potterings are beneath true scholarship." (624)

Kinbote leaps into raptures, deriding Shade's seemingly secularized temperament. Nature herself is rightfully chided as "the grand cheat," who "puts into us" lust "to inveigle us into propagation." (621) Kinbote praises the "Divine Embrace," and "the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown that had been the only real part of one's temporary personality." (599) Even if Nabokov satirizes such faith, this is a marvelously written passage. Man's life, as Kinbote sensibly for once notes, may be that "human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece." (636)

These works show Nabokov at his best. I cited a few more off-beat sections to show the sometimes overlooked two works that nestle next to "Lolita." These four inclusions are highly recommended, and one only wonders, as Nabokov disingenuously confesses, how his English-language efforts compare to his native Russian ones, for he learned English as a baby, and he appears far more fluent than Pnin! As often in these works, the teller of a tale cannot always be trusted, or does not share omniscience.
(Amazon US 8-27-11; see here 185 "Lolita"-related covers)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones": Book Review

This thousand-page novel documents the increasingly unhinged perspective of sound and fury as told by a gay SS officer blackmailed into serving the Reich. This he does with admirable if oddly fervent loyalty.  Zelig- or Candide-like, he's propelled from France to Ukraine to Stalingrad to Berlin to Hungary to the Baltic and back to Berlin as the war implodes.

Translated from French smoothly by Charlotte Mandell, this award-winning novel baffled many reviewers for its moral ambiguity and Nazi minutiae, but for me, it proved a rewarding and insightful read. I liked the Caucasus exegesis of languages and how the Nazis tried to figure out who was Jewish "by race" and who by "culture" adopted in ways that linguistic analysis supposedly would betray. However, the scholarship invested overall in this very hefty novel may weary many long before its inevitable, fatalistic, collapse in Berlin 1945. It  lapses into dream states that I found less engrossing and sometimes tedious, and it does seem a book stuffed with three times the detail needed to show the author's familiarity with every grade of German military rank and endless discussions between the brass and the officers about strategy and tactics and who's titled what.

Unfortunately, this results in my ranking of three stars, as parts reach the heights ("Air"), while unrelenting military minutiae drags this down, It's difficult to expect even a ranking official would clutter his memoirs with such conversations and asides, unless this shows his altered state, but this does not compel you to turn pages, in a book nearly a thousand pages. The final, clunky even if logical by Aue's distorted perspective, scenes at the Berlin Zoo invite disbelief, after a novel that requires lots of suspension of belief.

However, there's redeeming value. A lot of critics denounced its ethical shortcomings, but Max Aue (a name redolent of some symbol) succeeded in stating very early on his rationale. If the State one must serve is made up of ordinary folks, some will find themselves on the wrong side of history, then as now, not by a chosen career path or personal preference, but by the pressures of bureaucracy and the exigencies of the moment that pressure people into acting. Not all victims are good and not all executioners are evil, Aue reasons.

The State, both sides agree as do we, must exist, must call its male citizens to take lives in its name and its female ones to serve its demands. Free will vanishes if a soldier is assigned to a concentration camp or mobile killing battalion: "chance alone makes him a killer rather than a hero, or a dead man." (592) We give up the right not to kill and our own right to life, if male, he warns, to do our wartime duty to our masters.

"The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you're not convinced of this, don't bother to read any further. You'll understand nothing and you'll get angry, with little profit for you or for me." (21) This passage needs to be remembered by anyone trying to make some sense out of what can be, in Aue's warped sense, a testimony sometimes drifting into narrated nonsense after he's wounded in the brain at Stalingrad's siege. "I was sinking into the mud while searching for light."

Earlier in the Soviet invasion, Aue realizes that a commitment to total war means to "resist the temptation to be human." National Socialism is explained as trying to glean the will of the "volk," by placing informants and spies among the people, as if to guide the Fuehrer towards fulfilling the German destiny. Aue despite his attempts to humanize the treatment of slave laborers and make the Jewish captives' situation slightly more endurable if before their doom nonetheless understands that his survival depends on obedience, "on a one-way path of no return, which everyone had to follow until the end." (141)

The grind of war does reveal itself and over hundreds of pages, the accumulation will either drive you away or suck you in, as is Littell's intent. Stalingrad's collapse gains vivid rendition. A Russian soldier is shot by a sniper: "The kid's shouts were boring into my brain, a trowel burrowing in thick, sticky mud, full of worms and messy life. I wondered would I too beg for my mother, when the time came?" (368-9)

Aue's complicated relationship with his sister, and the mother who abandoned them, makes for awkward scenes. Littell piles on a lot of heated material that may put off sensitive readers, and while for me this worked impressively in the "Air" section as the depiction of unsatisfied male desire, some readers appeared upset by Littell's inclusion of the seamier sides of sex, although to me this appeared precisely what Aue would seek out.

Metaphorically, among the heaps of research shoveled into this narrative, Littell shows his literary side. Dr. Aue tries at Stalingrad to read a dead soldier's entrails "to find traces of my past or signs of my future in them," as it all appears to become "an agonizing farce." (379) Recuperating from his injury, "Reason raised its skirt for me, revealing that there was nothing underneath." (436) "I was scraping my skin on the world as on broken glass; I kept deliberately swallowing fishhooks, then being surprised when I tore the guts out of my mouth." (511-2)

In the Invalides esplanade in occupied Paris, Aue sees workers plowing up its lawns to plant vegetables; he passes there a Czech-made tank with a swastika, near where "indifferent children were playing with a ball." (500) In a concentration camp, he finds the organization a "reductio ad absurdum" for everyday life, infected with "its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy," its rigidity and orders and submission. (622)

The weight of this book pushes the momentum downhill as the war constricts the freedom-as-slavery which Aue fought for to expand on behalf of the Reich. Mines worked by slaves, the death camps, the retreat as the Soviets pursue, the Baltic remnant of the Nazis and German civilians, and the fall of Berlin all gain intensity. The best scene is when a surreal children's army of German fanatics that surrounds Aue and his comrades as they hide from the surrounding Russians.

Before this, Aue flees to his old retreat, alone, to find his sister. He reflects amidst a frenzied, fevered chapter full of despair, lust, and anguish: "I hadn't yet understood the specific weight of bodies, and what the commerce of love involves, destines and condemns us to." (903) This allows the reader to see deeper into Aue's soul, such as it is, and works well. He wants to "blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody." (908)

What succeeds less is the Keystone Kops-meet-Inspector Javert pursuit which descends into unbelievable devotion by a duo who hunt Aue down as Berlin crumbles. Littell appears to want us to ironically juxtapose the upholding of one law by the Reich's representatives while millions of others are broken, but this caricatured conceit never convinced me of its necessity, and this whole subplot remained tiresome. Even in a novel where the everyday duty of destruction takes over, the fictional duty of controlling a plot and streamlining its telling to keep to believable events in a necessary assertion of authorial command appeared to desert its post. (Posted 8-23-11 to Amazon US after eighty-five reviewers preceded me.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Miller's "The Passion of Michel Foucault": Book Review

When this critique appeared in 1993, it aroused controversy for its exploration of the S/M subculture that tangled itself with this French philosopher's entry into the hidden intersections of power with knowledge, the forced opening of what politics and the State occluded. I found it illuminating. I admired Miller's ambitions to combine an explanation of Foucault's formidably challenging thought with his personal quest to break free of convention by Nietzchean "limit-experiences." 

Miller's at his best when elucidating breakthrough studies such as "Discipline and Punish," and to show its shortcomings as well as successes: "a characteristic blend of nuanced analyses, authoritative references, and abundant documentation-- combined with fabulous images, bald assertions, and wild generalizations." (210) As for this work's reception by enraptured intellectuals in the 1970s, his audience sought "a critique of modern culture and society that avoided both the cruel materialism of orthodox Marxism and the conservative empiricism of most mainstream social science." (234) Yet, the book remained slippery, its archival sources limited, its claims bold. For Miller, he relates "the disturbing character of Foucault's critical perspective--hard to pin down, easy to feel." (235)
Miller shows the dangers of Foucault's approach as well as its successes, as with his acclaim initially for Khomeini's Iranian revolution. As with its secular French predecessor and then Mao's own campaigns, the tragedies caused sobered later observers, once the fervor subsided and the rhetoric dimmed. While Miller movingly recounts Foucault's LSD-inspired ecstasy in Death Valley and his approval of such means to an end, he also shows the predicament of one who entered the leather S/M culture of the City to his own peril.

Beyond "the fascism in us all," the forces that pinned down our own human potential for liberation from systems that crush our ideals and thwart our actions, those that celebrate power that suppresses hopes, Miller paraphrases the final mission of a post-Marxist Foucault: "the objective remained to rout the hostile powers pinning down the powers of the individual, somehow redeploying these powers without surrendering to the archaic phantasms that had infiltrated our speech and our acts, our hearts and our deepest, most unconscious desires, functioning as the most sinister type of fifth column." (244) 

In his sexual quest, Foucault sought in San Francisco's bathhouse scene a simalacrum of this wider pursuit. As Miller phrases it, to "perhaps even 'scratch' deeply enough to obliterate, however temporarily, 'the imprinted script of many millennia.'" (284) In summary, Foucault as he noted in 1982, shortly before his death, sums up a journey all of his readers might take: "The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning." (328)

While the narrative does wander about, and stretches of Foucault's personal life appear to be obscured under the research he conducted, you do get a survey of about every French (and often German) intellectual who mattered, for the past century, as many leading thinkers, directly or indirectly, intersected with and influenced Foucault. Miller explains well what Foucault took from his predecessors and contemporaries, even if Foucault's story gets alternately highlighted and diminished, at least in Miller's take on him: this is far more a critical study than a straightforward biography. 

Miller's postscript notes how his own endeavor, among many on the "progressive" left, was met with skepticism, as many supposedly tolerant types canonized Foucault as if a gay martyr, a patron saint. Miller refreshingly counters how, true to his subject, this study of Foucault prefers truth over assumption. He challenged "nearly everything that passes for 'right' in Western culture, including that upheld by so many of his disciples among the academic American left." This sort of slant, for me, enlivened and energizes this study.
(Posted to Amazon US 9-3-11)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Julian Guthrie's "The Grace of Everyday Saints": Book Review

The closing of St. Brigid Catholic Church, after 130 years, in 1994 sparked a dozen years of protests by its parishioners. How they banded together to save their community after their elegant edifice had been slated for demolition to make room for condominiums (one of many rationales the protesters would uncover when investigating the byzantine machinations of the Archdiocese of San Francisco) becomes the story that local reporter Julian Guthrie dramatizes.

While the results may play out less for the requisite happy ending than a fictional adaptation might concoct, the truth of this situation so cloaked in deceit it teaches a sobering lesson about the moral and financial corruption endemic in many corridors of today’s Catholic establishment.

Julian Guthrie crafts her narrative as if it were a novel. She follows three main protagonists, among a cast of dogged parishioners who combined to challenge the Archdiocese, the Vatican, and state and city boards when bureaucratic as well as hierarchical opposition to this grassroots movement to “Save St. Brigid’s” stiffened.

The author opens the book as the bad news comes to an Irish priest who chooses loyalty to his parishioners rather than the orders given by his archbishop. “Father O,” Cyril O’Sullivan, leads the parish resistance, but he is soon shunted aside by his superiors to cheerlead the campaign from exile—first across the City and then from across the Bay.

Robert Bryan, a seasoned trial lawyer from Birmingham, Alabama, converting to Catholicism despite his differences with its dogma, represents Mumia Abu-Jamal and other controversial figures on Death Row, so he is no stranger to difficult causes to defend in the courtroom. He begins to uncover early rumors locally of what breaks open as the massive cover-up of clergy abuses, sexually and financially, that will bankrupt many dioceses over the next decade.
Finally, Joe Dignan, whose marriage breaks up, faces battling over care of his young daughter as well as coming out of the closet. Dignan chooses to support the promotion of both gay rights and parish representation as he matures, however late in his early middle age.

With a wide variety of parishioners from Burma, China, the Philippines, and Latin America added to the Irish and Italian families historically resident in the parish, the cosmopolitan makeup of San Francisco itself serves as a microcosm for the challenges facing the Church in the City. Historic St. Brigid’s—with its stained glass by famed Irish artist Harry Clarke and its sculptures by renowned craftsman Seamus Murphy—stands as a long-lived, elegant sanctuary. But the Archdiocese tells the parishioners that it costs too much to seismically retrofit. When the parish rallies to provide funding themselves at far less than the official estimate given for repairs, they find their alternative neglected.

Later, Bryan finds out that the need to pay out clerical abuse settlements provides a more likely rationale for the sudden shutdown of the sanctuary; the profit from this site on Van Ness and Broadway in the City affords its Archdiocese a windfall.

Therefore, the struggle deepens as the looming moral and financial scandals of the Church begin to drive the Archdiocese to make cutbacks. The City has the same number of parishes as in 1962 but half the parishioners, as the city’s “changing demographics” mean fewer families and more residents opposed to the Church’s presence. Far fewer priests staff so many parishes.

Ms. Guthrie includes the other side of this situation, for George Wesolek, himself a former priest, and now head of special projects for the Archdiocese, must spearhead the move to close parishes throughout San Francisco. Poorer parishes, after all, need the funds, and with fewer donations coming in and growing opposition to a Catholic presence in San Francisco, the burden may have to fall on wealthier parishes to merge so less affluent ones can survive.
The pressures endured by all involved, from the archbishops down to the accountants, add up. Ms. Guthrie clearly sides with the underdog, but she does explain the reasons from the higher-ups why they act as they do. For instance, we learn how immediately prior to the closings of parishes, the Archdiocese lobbied successfully for removal of religious properties from historical landmark and preservation protection, the better to sell them off or demolish them for a profit. While this from a parishioner’s perspective remains heartbreaking, it also makes good business sense. Certainly in this parable, the Church as a business and not a curator dominates. Budgets must balance. The poor seek aid. Payouts for abuses will have to be made.

Ultimately, the parish meets its fate. Ms. Guthrie charts the reactions of those who fought for its survival as a place of worship. She takes on the inner thoughts of a Chinese convert who works on the committee to save the parish who surveys her colleagues: “Some expected God to intervene. Others believed the closure was due to human weakness. Some had their faith crushed by the failings of the global Church. Others were finding their faith awakened.”

This stands for a sample of her prose. The book grew out of a three-part series in the newspaper. She conveys the story as a feature reporter would; her reliance upon an indirect voice filtering the reactions of those involved may appeal to some readers but tire others. Details may suffer. Two assertions jumble chronology; one of these also reveals early on her basic error in Irish history. She strains now and then as a non-Catholic to convey material about the Church to her audience. Her story elaborates by short chapters, with the feel of columns accrued in the local paper cast towards the human interest angle of this dramatic campaign.

Many details in this account expand these backstories for her characters. (Both archbishops who presided over the parish closings refused to be interviewed. One is now the right-hand man of his old friend, the current pope.) Understandably, Ms. Guthrie relates primarily the story from the point of view of those she came to know on the parish committee. Their tales do not always advance the story so much as appeal to a reader’s identification with their formative experiences that shaped them into cradle or convert Catholics struggling against inertia, cynicism, and stonewalling by their clerical supervisors and bureaucratic regulators.
While St. Brigid’s parishioners still convene today in the basement of a nearby Russian Orthodox church, its communal and hallowed memories, it seems, must fade as the parish sanctuary’s new incarnation replaces that known to so many families since soon after the Gold Rush.

However, the moral Ms. Guthrie provides can be summed up in her subtitle: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith. It appears that those who choose to remain or become Catholic will encounter, whether or not they face the closing of their own parish, a similar tension between basic human values of decency and fidelity and those values proclaimed by concentration of clerical wealth, dogmatic certainty, and institutional privilege.

(Featured 8-18-11 at New York Journal of Books.)