Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gaeilge: ag spreagadh nó ag fáil bháis?

Chonaic mé seo nuair ag lorg ar an líne. Ní mheas mé go raibh ró-dhrúisiúil. Ach, b'fhéidir duine eile go mbeadh n-aontaíonn.

Sílim go feadfaidh is cuma é. Ar ndóigh, níl moran cainteoirí dúchais anois. Tá beagnach gach duine againn foghlaimeoirí.

Mar sin, ní mór duinn a spreagadh a úsáid "ár theanga féin"! Níl easca a labhair as Gaeilge amháin in Éirinn féin. Iarr Manchán Magan a dhéanamh seo go cruinn go díreach dhá uair sa 2007 agus 2008 ansin.

Léigh agallamh leis Antoine Ó Flatharta tamall ó shin. Rúgadh agus tógadh i gConamara Thuas, pléadh an drámadóir faoi "an cheist teanga." Dúirt sé a lig "ag fáil bháis leis dínit" a dteanga féin.

Ar an taobh eile, bíonn duine eigin ag dul Gaeilge ina scoileannaí agus na cathrachaí i bhfeabhas ag timpeall muid ar fud a domhain agus in an tir ducháis. Ma fheiceann daoine ógra an 'póstaer inchonspóide', fiafaidh siadsan faoi é. Gan amhras, baois na hóige go treoraigh go gaois don aois!

Irish: delighting or dying?

I saw this when searching online. I don't reckon it was too lusty. But, perhaps other people might not agree.               

I think that it doesn't matter. Of course, there's not many native speakers now. There's few but learners among every one of us.      

Therefore, there's a need for us to enjoy 'our own tongue'! It's not easy to converse in only Irish in Ireland itself. Manchán Magan tried this precisely so twice in 2007 and 2008 there.

I read an interview with Antoine Ó Flatharta a while ago. Born and raised in South Conamara, the playwright discussed "the language question."  He said to let his own language "die with dignity."

On the other hand, some people are changing Irish in schools and in cities for the better all around us across the globe and in the native land. If young folks see the 'controversial poster', they may themselves ask about it. Without a doubt, the folly of youth may lead to the wisdom of elders!

Póstaer Inchonspóide/ Questionable Poster
Very loose translation: "It's possible to use your own tongue. Can you do it? Start using your own tongue! Speak Irish."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mary Lou & Robert J. Heiss' "The Story of Tea": Book Review

Like the tango and ta-chi, tea brewing is practiced but never perfected. So the authors opine. They combine a "cultural history" with "drinking guide," though much more of the former than the latter in regards to particular varietals. The Heisses have sold tea since 1974, and this narrative shines with their travel accounts to Asia on the tea trail. Not only China and India, but descriptions of Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal gain color and verve when these regions enter their survey. Types are told of, and the many varietals of yellow, pu-erh, and white teas add comprehensive coverage along with the venerable black, green, and oolong categories.

This six-tea strategy affords the Heiss's book more expansion, and part of the inherent interest in reading this handsomely designed, large-format volume is its attention to sidebars with highlights from their visits, and notes on tea culture and particular sights or events associated with tea's globalized impacts. This is a fit companion for those who liked Beatrice Hohenegger's historical account (see my review) of Eastern heritage, Western trends, and ethical and ecological concerns, "Liquid Jade," as the Heisses explore similar terrain, if much more the Asian cultural legacy than the European continuity and transformation of tea. Still, both books research the fair trade, organic, and moral considerations well, and compliment each other.

Similarly, John Blofeld's assured if more reflective "The Chinese Art of Tea" (see my review) makes a suitable match, although writing two decades later, the Heisses possess the advantage of up-to-date chapters on places such as Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, and African nations where the manufacture of tea has boomed recently, or is trying to make a comeback after political unrest or war has interfered with progress. As skilled observers and merchants, they pay attention to the ups and downs of tea quality in various lands, and remind us of tea's variability as in wine, depending on "terroir" and year and climate and happenstance.

The health benefits of tea are less trumpeted due to recent and conflicting reports about antioxidents and catechins and often inflated, apparently, claims made. The authors reason it's better for now to take tea as a "tonic" and not regard it as a "curative." If any side effects boost health, all the better.

Naturally, CTC is downgraded and orthodox methods boosted, as this book means to inform you about the quality an affordable--if not dirt-cheap in nearly the literal sense of the term for "dust" and many teabags--loose-leaf tea offers. Tea-balls, we find, are discouraged, and a list of providers in cities and online steers consumers to better outlets for wiser purchases. The authors make a convincing case for buying better tea that promotes worker and ecological sustainability, and which ensures the hard work of its humble producers finds moral and financial recompense in a market that keeps pushing down prices even as consumers in the West begin to demand, here and there, more attention to how tea is made morally and not only as a bargain.

It's readable, leisurely in parts if somewhat uneven. Overall, an efficiently presented overview and in-depth guide, depending on the topic. One chapter's too-brief an encyclopedia with photos of cups filled with thirty-two or so brews and a list of their qualities. One problem is that the ratings used for Ceylon and India teas, with their strings of letters appended, get a chart, but not real elaboration. They are included in the sampler chapter under black teas, but this is not enough to show how they differ, and how they taste different.

While I wanted much more of the encyclopedia's sampler of a few types, I understand a subsequent book "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook") by the couple has appeared, so this may answer my expectation for more choices. (However, I am unsure if this newer handbook boils down what's elaborated here, or refines or builds on it; at two-hundred pages it's half the length, much smaller than this elegant, cookbook-sized reference work.) [Posted at Amazon US 2-10-12]

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade": Book Review

This historian meant to write about opium, but tea as a less narcotic but even more popular drug is certainly more affordable and more ubiquitous over much of the globe. Its impacts on the East, rooted in prehistoric China and then Taoism and Buddhism, led to ceremonial and medicinal uses for this cheap stimulant, calming yet revivifying. Beatrice Hohenegger begins with the spread of the drink called "cha" in Mandarin or Cantonese or "" in the Amoy dialect across Asia and then into the West. Part two offers many intriguing episodes, such as a war of the sexes in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s after its popularity led to female pamphleteering charging males with lessened desire and men countering how their affections were lessened not by the newly imported beverage so much as constant nagging.

Porcelain, opium, adulterated teas (this led to the decline overseas in green and the rise of black), gossip, subversion, smuggling, taxes, and slavery (the need for sugar to replace the dissolved monasteries' honey supply enticed first Queen Elizabeth with her rotting teeth and then the British middle and lower classes as China trade was "pried open" for Victorians) all play prominent roles. Here, Hohenegger engagingly tells the story of why tea was exported and its effects on the world vividly. Appointing a principled, incorruptible commissioner to stop the British invasion on behalf of its drug imports "was like setting up a matchstick barrier against a tsunami."

Her chapters favor small episodes or anecdotes, and rather than a conventional narrative, she covers the centuries more topically and esoterically. Themes such as tea as bricked currency, Robert Fortune's spying to steal Chinese tea seeds to send to India, professional tea tasters, 19c clippers, the competition between gin and teetotalers, "milk in first," and willow patterns on chinaware represent the range of this accessible book.

She appends a wide-ranging bibliography, and endnotes. Her tone can be wry and pungent, suiting its theme. While a more scholarly reader may prefer a tome such as Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss' "The Story of Tea" for a cultural history-meets-culinary presentation (lacking here--its one drawback) mingled with an historical one, or her source, John Blofeld's burnished and reflective old-style "The Chinese Art of Tea" (see my reviews) for much more on its spiritual and practical affinities within Asian culture, Hohenegger provides a strong emphasis, as the book concludes in part 3, on current ethical and environmental impacts.

She looks at how "green" tea of any color truly can be, organically, scientifically, and morally. It's hard to gainsay her reminder that for a fraction of a cent per cup (a third for orthodox, a fifth for CTC), fair trade may assist those in places such as among the Singpho people in Assam-- long devastated by colonial depredations in the name of cheap tea as an imperial alternative to proud China, opium, and the wars fought as the British sought to import one stronger drug in order to supply their empire's subjects over the world with millions of pounds of tea. Despite picturesque visions of rows of Sri Lanka's terraced bushes and colorfully clad female pickers, tea becomes "the unwitting vector of boundless human misery on an intercontinental scale." She does not diminish the joy in a "cuppa," but she balances this with the price paid.

Hohenegger reminds us how sixty thousand "two leaves and a bud" must be plucked for a tea worker to fulfill her average take in a shift. 4 kg. of green leaf produce 1 kg. of dry leaf tea from two thousand young shoots. A day's quota may total as much as 30 kg.; this earns her 60 cents-$1.50.

I quote the author's penultimate paragraph, as it sums up well the scope and style of this study. "Just as the practice of Zen is deceivingly simple, a single sweeping act the expression of centuries of wisdom and infinite depth, so tea. In its many permutations from medicinal remedy to social beverage to fashion statement to object of religious ritual and then on to strategic tool, global commodity, and cause for labor strife, spanning five thousand years of myth, legend, history, and politics, tea, the heavenly brew, embodies the quintessential contradictions of human nature, profound spirituality and limitless greed, supreme artistic beauty and treacherous abuse and violence, exquisite kindness and hospitality, and ruthless dealings in the name of material profit." (274) Amazon US 2-10-12.

Author's website

Thursday, February 23, 2012

John Blofeld's "The Chinese Art of Tea": Book Review


Although appearing in 1985, this feels old-fashioned. Its tone is reflective and its pace suitably unhurried for its topic and theme. A skilled interpreter of Asian culture, John Blofeld provides a mixture of lore, poems, legends, travel narratives (often during WWII in the "Bohea" or Wu-I mountains of Fukien), ceremonial suggestions, and practical advice. Tea, in the Chinese version, emphasizes conversation, contemplation and conviviality, if  far less formality compared to the ritual Japanese applications of its infusion and consumption.

Blofeld, a longtime "China hand" and friend of Ian Fleming (note the surname!), writes suggestively about the connections of tea to spirituality. However, he minimizes direct exploration of this aspect, in comparison to his earlier, learned studies in Tibetan mysticism. It's a bit odd to note his reticence about spiritual connections here, given his life's work elucidating Taoism, shamanism, and Buddhism for Western readers.

Yet, as he notes: "Spirituality is by no means diminished by being given a different label." He nods to it, but he doesn't reveal his own involvement with a long spiritual path around Asia. Therefore, building on Stephen Batchelor's Korean interviews, Blofeld incorporates testimony from Zen practitioners, if less than I expected. This reticence surprised me, for Blofeld's expertise leads one to expect more connections with the spiritual.

Instead, this volume surveys the often fantasized and fabled history which leads in fiction and fact to many types of Chinese tea. While he claims erroneously that tea contains tannic acid, it's a minor flaw. He delves into not only what types to find but how to serve it; the aesthetics enrich the beverage, as form follows content. This book provides a great feel for what it's like to drink tea in its original and natural setting, as far as can be reconstructed and refreshed as each taster adjusts the venerable method to one's preferences.

Blofeld tells his findings movingly, as with his pilgrimage to Fukien province before the Communists obliterated nearly all the teahouses and the practices long indulged in a more leisurely time. This proved the most memorable section of his account, even if he blurs in recollection some of its beauty. As a man of seventy, he credits modestly lots of green or oolong (not much room for "red" black varieties in this study) tea for the past half-century for his vigor and outlook.

For a similarly eclectic volume on Eastern background (and also Western impacts), see Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade"--it draws on many of the same sources, including Blofeld; I reviewed this and a "cultural history and drinking guide" by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, "The Story of Tea." Blofeld's strength is his easy familiarity with Chinese language and customs; he stresses more the ambiance than the technicalities, but such deeo immersion in Asian ways allows him to share his perspectives on an invigorating and calming cup. (Amazon US 2-10-12)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ron Rubin & Stuart Avery Gold's "Tea-Chings": Book Review

These two entrepreneurs from the Republic of Tea brand offer a brief overview of teas and herbs used to drink, revive, and heal. In short chapters, they sum up in a few sentences or paragraphs the essential information about the history, uses, varieties, and tastes available. For those wishing a quick definition or a basic sampler of what's out there to infuse, brew, and sip, this is helpful if very generalized in scope.

It's far from thorough, as it's a rapid read. Not everyone wants to know as much as a heftier study provides, but I started here before going on to "The Chinese Art of Tea," "Liquid Jade" and "The Story of Tea" (see below) as more comprehensive accounts of tea culture, varieties, and uses. The best feature in this overview remains its pithy descriptions and attention given in the latter half to herbs.

I found an error. Chartreuse as a liqueur is not derived from the name of Chartres Cathedral, but from its makers at the Grande Chartreuse, the Grand Charterhouse of the Carthusian order of monks. The authors cite studies that the antioxidents in black tea are but a fraction of those in green tea, but I have read counter-arguments which indicate the catechins are nearly the same for black tea as for green. The titular pun on the Tao-Te-Ching is weakened, as Taoism is not mentioned, nor is Lu Yu's "Book of Tea" by its original name, "Ch'a Ching." Religious connections with tea are minimized, with the legend of Bodhidharma's eyelids earning a few sentences.

Instead, Tea Lore interspersed as if ancient wisdom from the Minister of Leaves and his or her ilk detracts from the tone. These sounded like "wisdom" from the master to Grasshopper in "Kung Fu." The authors try to play off the Republic of Tea's diplomatic credentials here and there, but as with the attempts at profundity in the green type interspersed, they convey the aura of a New Age-meets-countercultural enterprise turned corporate success rather than genuine insights into the ancient "art of tea" pioneered in China.

Therefore, this is a helpful rapid reference or a sampler of lore and data which may assist the newcomer or remind the adept of a particular herb or fine tea varietal. For its limited purposes, it may better please a casual customer wishing to leave tea bags behind for loose-leaf, and who may wish to prepare fresh herbal distillations at home from one's garden. It's a handy reference combining basic herb with tea information, but its brevity may be its selling point or a nudge towards more.

(P.S. John Blofeld's "The Chinese Art of Tea" explores its origins and spiritual ties; Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade" conveys East-to-West impacts; Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss' "The Story of Tea" combines a history with a culinary guide--all three reviewed by me.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Martin McDonagh: "Ualach an Uaignis": léirmheas gearr

Bhreathnaigh muid dráma eile Éireannach aríst faoi deanamh. Mar sin féin, nach raibh againn é a fheicéail ar an Amharclann Bhean Sí i mBurbank an uair seo mar is gnách. D'imigh muid go Naomh Monica a ith dinear is blásta ar dtús an oíche sin.

Tá sé seo ar a dtugfar ainm na bialann ann: 'Tarra agus Rósannaí." Beag bheann ann, bhí bialann an-mhaith, leis beoir uaisle agus béili bréa. Tá dream ann, ach go raibh an seirbhis éifeachtúil agus árachaí.

Thiomaint muid go an amharclann ansin. Ní raibh é easca a fháil. Bhí sé ag an aerphor; nach raibh againn teacht a pháirceáil.

Tháinig muid díreach in am. Léigh mé an dráma cúpla bliain ó shin. Shíl mé go raibh an caidreamh cumhachtacht idir An-Athair Breathnach agus 'Girlín' nuair ag caint ar chéile ar an chladach na locha.

Ar an taobh eile, cheap mé a scríobh McDonagh an dráma níos moile ná mar a "Banríon Álainn an Líonáin." Ní raibh mé in ann a creidiúint, go dráma a bhí ag a imirt ina áitiúil an mhí seo caite anseo ina gCathair na hÁingeal.  Ach, ní raibh muid ábalta a ceannaigh ticéid air.

Tá tuarim agam go mbíonn an agallamh Bhreatanach agus 'Girlín' is fearr, fós. Tuigim an uaigneas istigh an sagart--agus an grá istigh Girlín-- níos mó go duine eile ina drámaí eile le McDonagh. Thaitin an spás pearsanta de na dearthóirí seite agus léirithe briomhar de na haisteoirí agus criú ina Amharclann Ruskin.

Martin McDonagh's "The Lonesome West": Brief Review

We watched another Irish drama again recently. All the same, we did not see it at the Banshee Theater in Burbank as usual this time. We went off to Santa Monica to eat a tasty dinner first that night. 

There’s a strange name for that restaurant: “Tar and Roses.” Regardless, it was a very good meal, with elegant beer and fine meals. There was a crowd there, but service was efficient and assured.

We drove to the theater then. It was not easy to find. It was at the airport; there was no place for us to park.
We entered just in time. I had read the play a few years ago. I thought the conversation was powerful between Fr. Welsh-Walsh and Girleen when speaking together on the shore of the lake.

On the other side, I thought McDonagh wrote a play weaker than “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” I did not believe it, that this very show was playing locally this past month here in Los Angeles. But, we were not able to buy tickets for it. 

I have the opinion that the dialogue between Walsh-Welsh and Girleen is better.  I understand the loneliness within the priest—and the love inside Girleen—better than the other people in other plays by McDonagh. I enjoyed the intimate space of the set designers and the lively performances of the actors and crew at Ruskin Theater.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "The Dead Republic": Book Review

This continues where "Oh, Play That Thing" left off, with Henry Smart rescued by John Ford in the desert. Henry turns adviser for Ford, as he's determined to make an Irish film celebrating the technicolor version of the brawling and romancing old country. Henry, despite his reservations, spends the period around the late Forties, paralleling his own lifespan, fighting against and giving in to Ford. Despite contrived and melodramatic touches--common here as with previous volumes in "The Last Roundup" trilogy--Doyle offers deft insights, via Ford's direction, into how reality transforms into two hours of efficient storytelling on screen.

As with "Oh, Play" with the "timeless" quality of Louis Armstrong's musical choices, Doyle uses his insights into how entertainment shifts audiences into an altered reaction to emotion, and here, to Irish stereotypes.

John Ford's vision for "The Quiet Man" becomes another of his stories, when "America was right," and Ford keeps his secret for Henry: America's "full of folks who'll never be American," who will look at such depictions of America, and one day Ireland, as mythic victories against Apaches, Commies, or "bad palefaces." Henry eventually drifts off, discontented, and "stepping out of time" he expresses himself in confused time segments, as Doyle shuffles chronology around a few years here and there.

This slows the action, as in "Oh, Play"'s final sections, and as with that novel (see my review), the pace congeals and the tone darkens. As with the first volume, "A Star Called Henry"(also reviewed by me), it's a saga with very few moments of levity, if the same black humor, tart dialogue, and bitter observations of Henry Smart, our sour, aging, rambling narrator. I confess again that a dramatic "fluke"--following two or three in "Oh, Play,"--defies belief, but such is fiction, as Henry in vast America as in smaller Ireland manages to find who he searches for.

Henry realizes his complicity in this manufacturing of an Ireland different than that he'd imagined in peacetime, and this segues in part two into another sort of consulting for a reborn IRA. They use him as a way to invent their own version of a Gaelic, socialist, and 32-County nation whose rhetoric convinces few, but whose manipulation of violence and the response to violence brings him in the 1970s and 1980s into compromise, as his life and those of his loved ones are threatened by blackmail. The IRA advocates as in Henry's early career with its first incarnation the imposition of force--this time to bomb Northern Ireland into republican definitions of freedom.

Defeat as victory, hatred as the only way to a united Ireland, a lure for another generation's young men: "The victim's wheezy triumph." The 1981 hunger strikes eerily recall the desperation of 1920 for his generation fighting the British, and each other. Henry is pressured to inform by both sides, now the Irish police against Irish republicans. "I changed the tense from past to present and informed on people long dead."

He is paraded about by the IRA as their link to a legitimate early republic, that he fought for in 1916-22. He's a "holy relic," an "ancient activist," a "talisman," and a "living saint." Those few familiar with not only Gerry Adams but also Tom Maguire will recognize characters "inspired" by diehard republicans. Their bearded leader tells Henry, as the end seems near for the 1990s IRA: "We've battered all other definitions" of Irishness "into submission."

The highlights of this grim story remained Doyle's insights via Henry into the redirection of Irish possibilities as the postwar progress bloomed before stalling into junkies and violence with the Troubles, and then the "peace process" which had taken so much conniving and hatred to install.

It ends, weak and staggering with Henry at 108, as the sly, devious republicans continue to press their exclusive rendering of who's Irish as the only acceptable answer, nearly a century after Henry's rebels fought in 1916 for a somewhat more inspired vision of equality. For Henry and Doyle's other characters, it's a sobering scenario, and the trilogy continues its descent down to where it started, full of misunderstanding, fear, and betrayal. It's clever often in Doyle's sober take on mythic ways Ireland is made, but it moves at a measured pace and with few moments of peace to relieve the relentless darkness that surrounds most of Henry's days. It rewards those who know this period in Irish history and who have read volumes one and two, but it is not cheerful reading, and it is intricate, at times halting action, as devious republicans never stop outguessing our Henry. This wears out the novel's energy.

Perhaps fittingly, not for the propulsion of popular fiction but the more mordant eye cast on Doyle's recent Ireland,; it's not the song-filled, epic film, revolutionary posing that many view as his homeland, any more than Ford's "Quiet Man." This harsh lesson deepens the novel's impact, but it also weighs its heavy message down. (Amazon US 12-31-11)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "Oh, Play That Thing": Book Review

Years ago, I liked "A Star Called Henry" (Amazon review), but I did not love it. The revisionist take on the Irish war for independence soured the plot, and contended against Henry Smart's smart-aleck narrative voice, which propelled the action even as Doyle's cynicism stalled its momentum. So, a draw? The vivacity of the concept clashed with the grating attitude.

I understood this project, but the dour memory of "Star" kept me from grabbing this sequel for a few years. I confess no interest in jazz; as Louis Armstrong is the supporting role here, I figured I'd have little enthusiasm for Henry as he enters The Jazz Age after he flees Dublin as a wanted man.

Luckily, the research (as with "Star") credited at the close of this novel enriches its contents. Doyle hammers down a staccato, tough-guy command of dialogue that's almost parodic of the hardbitten genre, but it fits Henry and his molls and mobsters and hobos and hucksters. It's very literary, even as it tries to convince you it's vernacular, full of "yare" and not so much slang as gnawed and clamped speech.

The picaresque adventures of Henry Smart comprise four parts. Without spoiling much, as we know Smart will survive to tell more tales in "The Dead Republic," it begins in Manhattan. "They were families, three and four generations of them; the Irish traveled alone." This in the second paragraph of a dramatic arrival at Ellis Island shows immediately Henry's exile and his defiant, but lonely among crowds, character.

His escapades as a sandwich-board toting, hooch-smuggling New Yorker take up the first section, which although wonderfully described and full of immigrant vivacity ends a bit confusingly, if intentionally so. He flees to upstate, where he for a while succeeds with his partner in crime, as a dentist-diviner of water, an odd combination surely, and this flim-flam exposure will serve him in good stead later on. For a while, they make a fine team. "We pawed and ate each other till the walls sweated and we lay back under the blankets and coat and listened to our moisture on the wall turn to ice and slowly rip up the wallpaper." What an image. The lively action in such New York scenes, the strongest in the novel, as we watch Henry drum up customers while staying ahead of his pursuers, energizes this section. Again, he has to skedaddle out of town suddenly.

In Chicago, where "Black and Tan" takes on a whole new meaning, Henry's brief period at the stockyards is followed by his friendship with a rising talent, Louis Armstrong. "The trombone now rode every woman in the house and stepped back for a rest and a wash." The sex appeal of jazz and the star attraction of Armstrong congeal and thicken, as Henry is drawn in but kept at a distance in his companionship of "Pops," a young Louis the same age as Henry.

This relationship is explained as Armstrong needing a white man to keep him protected from the other white men who want to claim him; Louis' fierce independence contending against his need for backup, a way into the larger society which adores him yet shuts him out is well-handled by Doyle. "His horn was the song of freedom but his life was a crazy jail. He needed control, but he hadn't worked it out. I was the start but he wasn't sure how."

Yet, a crucial character returns in a chance meeting that defies probability. This happens when Henry and Louis are burglarizing mansions in Chicago to get by, and their frequent escapes from the Mob and their ilk make this rather cartoonish. Later, Henry will be saved at the last moment in another scene that feels as if stolen from a melodrama, and even if we know neither he nor Louis will suffer mortal danger, Doyle's storytelling stretches the limits of how much plot contrivance, among a nation as wide as America, one can believe, compared to Ireland, where Henry had similar rescues, if on a far smaller stage for such derring-do.

The third section takes Henry back to Manhattan, where a past lover turns up in a Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (by another name) role, which overlaps with Louis' acclaim in Harlem and beyond as the Depression begins. "They've no memory here. It gets in the way of progress." Still, he's hunted, despite such assurances that he can blend into Harlem and elude those who shadow him. So, it's off to the Midwest.

The Dust Bowl's ravages loom, and the desolation of the West consumes Henry and his compatriots.  At a hobo "jungle," he reflects. "The future and the past were one--grits, bacon, biscuits, gravy. Only the present got in the way, as we waited for the bits and miserable pieces in the pot to become a stew."

The wait here in this novel resembles its narrator's predicament. It's not that long a book, but this final section felt too compressed and perfunctory, as if Doyle along with Henry and his desperate, destitute companions melt into a summation of how legends are made, and the years begin to blur. Finally, none other than "print the legend" John Ford, no stranger to myth-making (he spouts one of his own from his life) provides a suitably climactic rescue one more time, but by then, the bravado and imagination for Henry's decades in the American heartland appear withered and washed up, despite his survival for the closing volume in this trilogy. (Amazon US 12-30-11)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Roddy Doyle's "A Star Called Henry": Book Review

If you read this, you should then compare it to Ernie O'Malley's memoir of fighting in the Irish independence struggle, "On Another Man's Wound." It's one of Doyle's credited sources, and Henry Smart acts out some of that memoir's best moments. The urge to demystify the icons of 1916 has been a strong tendency in recent historical studies of this period, and one that many intellectuals and writers in Ireland have espoused--at least in part.

Not that such a suspicious attitude towards hero-worship is not wise. It's just that, taken as an underlying motif in Henry Smart's growing-up, it weakens the novel's energy, and saps its cumulative narrative drive. Doyle describes many incidents vividly (as in "Paddy Clarke") in specific scenes. He gets down the inner voice of Henry and renders it at times grippingly.

Yet, as another reviewer here has noted, you wonder why, if he's so "smart," why he does not jump ship for America even before the British make him a wanted man. He spends the second half of the novel on the run, believing not in the cause but only in his cunning, yet he stays and endures not only the Rising, but the Tan War (and even the Civil War--disappointingly glossed over rapidly in the melodramatic final pages), when I could not understand why he remains so long in Ireland, since he has no loyalty to the ideals or the rhetoric or the future of the Irish nation anyway.

I know in my mind why Doyle sets up a revisionist narrator, but as a reader seeking a compelling story, his Henry fails to prove to me his smarts. Maybe we are meant to regard Henry as an unreliable narrator, but we are not given any other p-o-v to adequately balance against Henry's worldly-wise slum-kid skepticism. The tale--like its hero--runs out of steam long before it's over. Doyle gives us a young man who can figure out all of his opponent's gambits, but who does not believe enough in himself to win.

While attention to this engrossing period is to be commended, and Doyle has read widely while researching the details of early 20c Ireland, his urge to cut down the big figures leaves us with too little to care about. We become as fed up as Henry, and I wonder how the next two volumes will sustain him as he wanders through America. (Although I know I'll read vols. 2 & 3 anyway!) [[P.S. --and I did: see my Amazon US Dec. 2011 reviews of "Oh, Play That Thing" and "The Dead Republic."; this one above appeared way back Nov. 16, 1999 there.]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Frank Delaney's "The Last Storyteller": Book Review

This historical and romantic trilogy concludes when Ben McCarthy returns to Ireland. In 1956, his homeland still's mired in its "adolescence," mostly independent but unable to free itself as easily from a powerful Church and corrupt political dynasty as it hoped for. Meanwhile, the remnants of the I.R.A. prepare to resume another futile campaign to free the North, as Ben becomes entangled with a dashing gunrunner, and then finds himself the unwanted recipient of close attention by the Irish police.

After the derring-do in WWII Belgium and the picaresque American stint that comprised "The Matchmaker of Kenmare," Frank Delaney shifts back to somewhat more assured ground where "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show" began Ben's adventures and love with that title character. His search for her continues as it has the first two installments, and Delaney crafts this again as a narrative aimed at explaining Ben's life's quest to his children. This connects with the theme of storytelling which accounts for the title.

Ben learns how his employment gathering folktales for the Irish state's archives prepares him for his calling. Late in this saga, he hears from his mentor: "Mythology is the emotional history of a society, the historical record." Delaney, a skilled teller of tales ("Legends of the Celts" is a fine collection), brings a few ancient ones into this novel's pages. Ben finds how the stories of Malachy McCool and Emer the blacksmith's daughter and then Finn, Diarmuid, and Grainne foreshadow his own encounters and predicaments. Delaney as well as Ben knows not to weigh this motif too heavily, but it makes for a fine thread within a similarly meandering plot.

As with his previous two novels, this one will wander about. It's natural for Ben to do this, but at times the drive slackens before surprises and plot turns resume. Delaney channels his story with assurance, but this does not need to be, I reckon, as extended as it is. All the same, Delaney settles into his own often spirited recital. The tone can be old-fashioned (as are the book jackets, determined to blur the harsher realities within the pages that clash with idealized Ireland) but I liked the scenes of a mentor's passing away and a sudden flood's arrival. Ben possesses insights that any reader can relate to, and he's a flawed, but idealistic character to root for. Telling stories to heal, as Ben will find when he re-creates his own quest into a myth he can tell as a storyteller himself, enables him to become an "archetype" and "a vital cog in Man's spiritual machinery." His mentor serves in a long line of Irish forebears who explain who we are, "and who have done so since God was an infant."

Delaney provides his protagonist with a convincing presence. Older, so more low-key. This shift from the earlier volumes' pace is necessary, even if languors result that slow the book. As Ben sums up Chaucer, he can be "rambunctious" and "boring," as with any of us tale-tellers. I read Roddy Doyle's "The Last Roundup" trilogy before this volume, and Henry Smart's saga (see my reviews of "A Star Called Henry," "Oh, Play That Thing!" and "The Dead Republic") overlaps: I.R.A. skulduggery, American entertainment, re-entering postwar, dreary Ireland. However, Henry's less likable a teller than Ben; the noir style of Doyle's acidic view on Ireland is softened, if not blunted, by Delaney's more humanistic nature towards their homeland's flaws.

While this has its predictable ups and downs and coincidences (same as Doyle: even if Ireland's smaller than America, it's amazing how some people find each other!), it serves as a thoughtful end to a half-century or so of pursuing a lost love and a mysterious presence. Delaney nods more than Doyle to mainstream appeal, but the struggle of Ben and his family to find out the truth about Venetia (the first volume must be read before this; the second--as with Doyle's three novels--need not) should win followers eager to follow Ben's long itinerary. (Amazon US 2-7-12)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Deborah Fallows' "Dreaming in Chinese": Book Review

This language-learning memoir follows a familiar pattern. Chapters arranged around a linguistic expression are used to take the reader into the mentality of the native attitudes towards expression and mores, while the diligent foreigner slowly figures out meaning from babble and begins to be able to communicate with real people as classroom lessons and tapes give way to actual encounters on the street and in the market.

I have read Katharine Russell Rich's similarly titled "Dreaming in Hindi" (see my review--this book appeared around the same time) and two accounts by Welsh-language learners built on the same motif. It's a sensible one, if not exactly novel. What Fallows provides is less personal and slightly more distant, as she plays up her own language learning with less drama or introspection, focusing more as a reporter from China back to us, learning to speak and read Mandarin. 

Fallows writes simply, in efficient prose recalling more a business executive than a florid essayist. She accompanies her husband, journalist James Fallows, and her reports from China echo those he might have written for "The Atlantic" magazine. However, with a doctorate in linguistics, one might assume Ms. Fallows brings to this small work a greater familiarity with language structures and comparative analogies.

Therefore, I was somewhat surprised that she did not do this much. Her accounts focus more on people and how their expressions reveal cultural distinctions. The doubling of a word common in Asian languages, the blunt manner of address, and the imperative tones, she reasons, work better to convey immediacy as intimacy and the lack of a formal distance between speakers than they do rudeness, as a Westerner might assume.

A chapter on how Chinese employs compound structures to combine a root with a nuance begins unexpectedly, with "danger" all around her in Shanghai leading to a consideration of how its derivation from "small heart" convinces Fallows of its relevance. Another chapter begins with "message" and unfolds into an exploration of the writing of characters, given that Chinese has 400 syllables vs. ten times that in English. A final chapter, the most poignant, shares her viewing of small and great acts of kindness after the great quake in 2008.

While I never learned how many characters (as opposed to syllables) exactly are in Chinese, I did come away from this little volume with a greater appreciation of how the language and the culture work together, and why (perhaps) the people resist a further simplification of their ideograms after Mao's imposition. Tonal nuance and subtlety of communication as people write in the air or their palms the characters necessary to clarify meaning in conversation provides a telling example of how the written and the spoken combine as if half-invisibly in ways foreign to those of us growing up with English as the "other" dominant language. (Amazon 1-28-12).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Edna O'Brien's "James Joyce: A Life": Book Review

“Scalding” represents the most frequent adjective assigned one Irish writer by another in this lively, deftly rendered short biography. Edna O’Brien, as one of many heirs to perhaps the past century’s greatest influence upon writers in and beyond Ireland, recognizes James Joyce’s power and his passion. She renders the terrifying clashes of ego with talent, jealousy with commitment, which characterized his life. Feckless, vengeful, and petty, Joyce remained convinced of his genius, and tried as nearly every writer does to convince others of his gift.

Unlike nearly every other writer, Joyce merited acclaim. For all his difficulties, he remains the epitome of experimentation allied with sympathy, dissection matched to compassion, wit coupled with enigmas. Ms. O’Brien begins her account with a quick imitation of the start of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and while skillful, I feared that this biography would include many attempts to mimic or parody the master craftsman.

However, she soon matures, and immediately evokes the imprint of his parents on the very young man. “His mother and father had walked where he would walk as a young man, drifter and dreamer, who would in his fiction delineate each footstep, each bird call, each oval of sand wet or dry, the seaweed wet and olive, set them down in a mirage of language that was at once real and transubstantiating and would ever be known as Joyce’s Dublin.” He boasted that if his native city were destroyed, from his books it could be rebuilt.

Certainly he wished to destroy much in Dublin, not its birds or seaweed, but the reign of a corrupt system of Church and State that paralyzed its citizens. Ms. O’Brien briskly takes us through the familiar upbringing dramatized in Portrait, and soon we find ourselves next to an impecunious Joyce and his new love, Nora Barnacle, teaching English to Berlitz students in pre-war Trieste. Out of their contentious, erotic, hateful confrontations, their relationship, in the eyes of his biographer, appears ultimately as true as it is mysterious, as with any tangled couple.

Meanwhile, he gathered material in exile for his commemorations and excoriations of Ireland. Smarting from the criticisms of his former colleagues, he began to plot his retaliation. However, his fiction would surpass mere score-setting. “Were his works to be only that, they would be temporal; his scroll is far deeper—he compassed body and soul, high and low, seemingly faithful to his secret conviction that literature is, in its essence, violence and desire.” Ms. O’Brien astutely compares him to Jacobean dramatist John Webster, adept at vengeance and triumph.

Joyce’s unsparing stories to be collected as Dubliners brought him much anguish in the scuffle over their impropriety. As a sympathetic writer, Ms. O’Brien explains this collection’s pre-publication fracas well. Out of the 379 copies sold as of a year after its appearance, 120 were purchased by their impoverished author.

While she skims over their contents—as with all of his intricate works-- this book remains valuable more for its ability to comment in accessible, energetic prose on Joyce’s mindset and his machinations. She admits: “Anyone who touched Joyce seemed to get a bit carried away and makes us cry out as Molly did: ‘O rocks! Tell us in plain words.’”

This short life’s suited for audiences already familiar with his long books, so those who may wish a quicker summary of their creator than Richard Ellmann’s magisterial standard biography affords will find this a wise choice. One mark of Joyce’s pull on his reader is the urge, or necessity, that his works spark: one cannot read them for long free of commentary or guidance.

Ms. O’Brien retells the core plot of Ulysses wonderfully in a few pages, all the same. While she seems to stumble slightly in the next section, which conflates awkwardly the “Sirens” and “Nausicaa” chapters with the American obscenity trial of the book, most of these pages pack observations with summations neatly. She avoids in-depth criticism, regarding it as futile.

We see instead the author, nearing fame or infamy in Paris after his blue-and-white volume finds patrons, press, and buyers, still in a flat with a daughter growing mad, a son doomed to do his father’s whim to promote his talent, and a wife grown harried and weary of her imperious husband, who never stopped lording himself over his family, his friends, and the world. Within such internal occlusion, as he fought blindness, he began his phantasmagorical trip into the nighttime psyche, the linguistic wordplay of Finnegans Wake. “His exile was so complete within himself that interruption could not endanger it, only time could do that,” she opines.

Must writers be monsters to create? Ms. O’Brien thinks so, at least if they are of Joyce’s stature. “It is a paradox that wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict.”

As people receded into remoteness around his dimming vision, he retreated into the Wake’s words. His Parisian seclusion at least was secured by Nora’s ministrations. Unlike many writers, Joyce suffered his physical and mental pain with friends and family, who while they may have resented the burden he caused them, nonetheless felt compelled or resigned to support him.

He staked all on his texts, and he won at the cost of his health, his sight, and his life. The mad labor of five proof texts of his unwieldy, but greatest, novel, the endless revisions over which he bent with bleary eyes left him with a tenth of his vision. Twenty thousand hours of preparing Ulysses over seven years in poverty led to his worldwide renown, as well as his tragic cruelty towards his reckless father, his long-manipulated brother Stanislaus, and the neglect of his mother. His daughter failed to respond to even the treatments of Carl Jung, while his son faced the legacy of a father he himself could never live up to. His wife could not understand his books, and he wore himself out in disputes with enemies real but often imagined that he needed to rail against as part of his complicated inner reality that even a wise biographer cannot fully enter.

Still, for a glimpse into his shadowed soul and his demanding mind as well as his labyrinthine texts, Ms. O’Brien gives us a welcome portal into how the books emerged from such a man. (Featured at 11-29-11 at New York Journal of Books. P.S. J.J. was born 130 years ago today.)