Monday, April 30, 2012

Dúnmharú de bean rialta i Tibéid

Thosaigh mé an leabhar fuaime ag scríofa le Jonathan Green ar feadh an mhí seo caite. Tá sé ag scrúdaíonn dúnmharú i Tibéid i 2006. D'inis mé daoibh an tús an leabhar ar an bhlag seo an uair dheireadh.

Bím ag insint faoi an chuid eile den scéal inniu. Is Luis Benitez sléibhteoir an-cháilúil é. Chuaigh sé go an Himiléach mar threoir.

Chonaic é leis na dreapadóirí sléibhte go leor leis sé féin an dúnmharú na Kelsang Laptso, bean rialta, ar fad. Ní raibh siad ábalta chun stop a chur leis an urchair ó na póilíní na Síneach. Mar sin féin, rinne na dreapadóirí rogha a cabhair--ó ní chun cabhrú--lé Tibéidis eile ansin in aice leis an Neipeal agus siochain.

Chaith na dídeanaithe ag dul ag trasna an teorann. Ní raibh go leor dreapadóirí mhaith ag iarraidh a fearg na Síne. Áfach, cúpla chinn an fhírinne a insint nuair tháinig siad a Kathmandu.

Mar shampla, bhuail Benitez leis an compánach na Kelsang, Dolma, ansiud. Chuala gníomhaithe na dúnmharú; siadsan ghriangraif físeán le Sergiu Matei agus roinnte leis an meáin. Inseoidh siad faoi an tragóid ar chéile-- agus tá an leabhar an-mhaith le Green go rinne mé léirmheas, anois.

A nun's murder in Tibet.

I started an audiobook written by Jonathan Green during the past month. It's exploring a murder in Tibet in 2006. I told you all about the start of the book on this blog the last time.

I'm telling the rest of the story today. Luis Benitez is a very famous climber. He went to the Himalayas as a guide. 

He saw with many other climbers with himself the murder of Kelsang Laptso, a nun, at a distance. They were not able to stop the bullets from the Chinese border police. Nevertheless, the climbers made a choice to help--or not to help--with the other Tibetans there near Nepal and freedom.

The refugees had to go across the border. Many of the climbers did not want to anger {"seek out to redden"} the Chinese. However, a few decided to tell the truth when they arrived in Kathmandu, over there.

For instance, Benitez met with the companion of Kelsang, Dolma, over there.  Activists heard of the murder; they shared photos and a video by Sergiu Matei with the media. They tell about the tragedy together--and through this very good book by Green that I reviewed, now.

(Photo of the body of/Griangraf le gcorp na Kelsang Laptso le Sergiu Matei: aiste/article)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word": Book Review

If John McWhorter's "Power of Babel" looks under the hood at how language's "engine" is assembled and how it energizes the word, Nicholas Ostler ranks the top models sold for their performance and handling. Ostler examines how the most successful languages throughout history succeeded or failed in perpetuating themselves as regional or, as with English, global means of communication. As a non-linguist but with training in English, Spanish, medieval and Celtic literatures and languages, I found particularly intriguing his chapters on these topics. Far slower for me were the densely detailed opening sections on Near Eastern, Chinese, Sanskrit, and related tongues. Here, too often, my eyes glazed over at the sheer amount of historical minutiae and tangential illustrations. This is the problem with much of this weighty tome: having to re-tell the rise and fall of language powers via their historical dynamics, history has to be recapitulated as well as the linguistic and, to a lesser extent, literary highlights. Jargon is less present than in many linguistic studies geared at a wider audience, but nothing's dumbed down. This book rewards concentration more than the quick dip by the browser, as much of Ostler's argument accumulates as the book continues towards the current rise of global English. Despite a rather uneven pace, due to the sheer difficulty in integrating so much history into so many languages, having a single volume devoted to what Ostler calls "diachronic sociolinguistics" or "language dynamics" (and he names this only on pg. 556, in the penultimate paragraph of the text proper!) is enormously useful for those of us non-specialists who need a compendium.

The encyclopedic and the narrative methods do jostle each other. Once in a while, as in his marvelous analogy of "two sisters," Judith (Hebrew) and Phoenicia (also going by Canaanite, he points out, in other words, the Palestinian predecessor), he finds the clever example to clarify his point. But such moments of inspiration are surprisingly few, and often as not nestled in the footnotes as emphasized in the text. This does make for a tough slog; despite many pages detailing why Aramaic overtook Akkadian, I was never confident that I understood precisely why. And the chapter organization means that some repetition keeps occuring; while cross-referencing helps retention, it does make for some awkward gaps. In the chapter on Greek, little mention of its Renaissance revival and less of its Arab hiatus is made--you have to wait for many pages for another examination of these factors, and it's disappointingly brief.

Yet, as the early modern eras loom, the pace quickens. In the fluid coverage of Spanish, the reasons for its missionary instruction and the need to teach it to adult learners (Merger & Acquisition) rather than the organic way of letting it grow through the native mother's child raising (as many languages do, for often the conqueror's language can lose out in the long run to the native, for the woman and the child tend to transmit the native and not the "foreign occupier's" language on to the next generations in the absence of females from the same first-language background to mate with the men when settling abroad) makes for provocative insights. Even here, however, the book jacket tells us that Ostler's an "expert on the Chibcha language" that yielded in South America to 18c Spanish; we get remarkably little of this story told--one paragraph!

Still, his coverage of English, too complicated to summarize here, shows why a reader needs to slog through so much material; his analysis and prognosis depends upon all of his previous chapters and dozens of earlier linguistic examples. It's instructive, to name only one point, how Germanic English bested British Celtic and Norman French not only due to military power but plague devastation. These observant chapters comprise the most lively part of the book, at least for a native English speaker I suppose. But he does seem rather too blasé, for one who chairs a charity, Ogmios, to assist small-language sustainment, about the fate of threatened language communities; he shrugs that there's nevertheless 6,000 of them remaining. Yes, but he also predicts that half of these have their last speakers alive today. A tie between ecological and linguistic preservation might have illuminated his reflections better, without romanticizing the converse to the cruel calculus that has relentlessly led to language extinction as well as creation throughout the millennia he chronicles so dutifully. His scholarly mien expects dispassion, however.

Ostler's reflections on how native vs. second-language or foreign-language speakers of English will fare as it becomes global and more used as a "lingua franca" [sic] than as a first-language raise many wonderful speculations that I found engrossing and fresh. He opened my eyes to how difficult English orthography is, and how adaptable it still is despite its daunting and growing disjunction between print and speech. The end of this long volume makes the effort in reading it and learning so much--trivia and substance both--worthwhile. (Amazon US 1-16-06 reprise)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Maite Zubiaurre's "Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939": Book Review

Half a century before Pedro Almodóvar was born, Spain enjoyed as much excess and explicit sexuality as his daring films, for a post-Franco generation, celebrated. Contrary to the usual division of Spanish culture into conservative and liberal factions, portending the tensions which would erupt into civil war in 1936, Maite Zubiaurre charts a third path. She conveys the erotic productions, whether clandestine or popular, of sicalipsis, a peculiarly Iberian coinage of candid creation and cocky consumption. High and low culture, left- or right-wing: Spain early last century revealed herself to be more adventurous and sophisticated than scholars have dared to acknowledge.

Nationalistic, Catholic, and uneasy Spain tended, however, to fear the rest of Europe. Its women seemed--in official versions-- less charged and more circumspect, compared to say, well, France. Hypersexual and alluring females, males (and those in-between) presented opportunities for Spanish adventurers to embark on foreign affairs--even if conducted vicariously by gawking at typists, cyclists, nudists, risque postcards, or medical manuals.

UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre sums up the distinctive appeal of this giddy period, as it "engages modernity and its commodities in an intense and often ambivalent dialogue with traditions and with the production of stereotypically Spanish cultural objects: Spanish majas wearing traditional peinetas made-in-Spain enhance their legs with imported French stockings; dark Spanish beauties leave Andalusia to sit in front of American typewriters in an office in Barcelona or Madrid; sexy middle-class señoritas speed away on German bicycles."

Dr. Zubiaurre uncovers a treasure trove of tucked-away items, cataloguing the varieties of sexual experience, imagined and real, depicted and documented, of a counter-current to orthodoxy. For instance, Hildegart Rodríguez, a socialist prodigy--before she met an early end at the hands of a jealous mother envious that her daughter had fallen in love--corresponded with Havelock Ellis. This pioneering sexologist had his work banned in his native Britain, yet it found a ready audience in Spanish translation. Ellis welcomed the response, and wrote a bestselling account of Spain.

Meanwhile, as Rodríguez and her parents preached eugenics to progressives in their homeland, Freud's psychoanalysis exited as soon as it arrived. Suspected not only by Ellis but by his Spanish hosts for its Protestant, Jewish, and capitalist associations, the imported theory withered while other sexologists met with a warmer reception in the early twentieth century. Spain tended, left or right, to look after its own interests before embracing trends from the Continent. Anarchists, freethinkers, and intellectuals advanced what they perceived as scientific progress, while sustaining antisemitic and xenophobic reactions to another form of imperialism, in the judgment of many smart Spaniards.   

Even intellectuals such as philosopher José Ortega y Gasset succumbed. Progressives preached to women as often as did clerics and doctors. A section on "amatory elitisms" documents how assiduously Ortega and other leading writers feared sex and women, despite their strenuous attempts and literary flourishes to overcome the barrier between those who tried to forge a "black Spain" out of proto-fascist tendencies and those who hammered out a "green Spain" closer to the Red ideal.

Both reds and anarchists, clerics and parishioners may have demanded a pocket-sized diversion, however under the counter or outside the confessional. Affordable and portable, postcards satisfied this demand. "Desire spoke an erotic lingua franca that ignored national borders, social differences, and levels of education." Zubiaurre contends cheap and discreet "cartomania" entered houses all over the Western world, and taught people a more open-minded way to learn love, the other-side-of-the-Pyrenees-style. She finds postcards cannot hide their saucy scenes from the gaze. They eschew the subterfuge of "artistic portfolios" of photographs or engravings for a more genteel connoisseur. They force viewers "to relinquish puerile hypocrisy and maturely confront their own multifaceted sexuality." Lesbians, dogs, dancers, dreamers, and fleas all feature in some of the examples archived by Zubiaurre in this hefty, densely printed and well-illustrated book--and at its companion website.

This literary historian alternates in both media between academic jargon and accessible prose. The promotional material and dust jacket copy frames the contents as if practically spilling out of a forgotten photo album in a Madrid antiquarian's shop. The reality attests to the more exacting analysis worthy of scholarship. So, parts of this treatise will not titillate the casual reader or peeper. It's aimed at an academic audience, and its price will likely keep it off the shelves of the idly curious.

The scholar favors close readings of her source material, drawn from attentive research. For instance, she notes, when scrutinizing a series of heterosexual vs. lesbian sequences, how the former follows an expected pattern of foreplay, while the latter appears chaotic. Postcards could, after all, be shuffled, unlike photos in books. Postcards' organic possibilities beckon viewers into a performative power of the spectator turned participant in his or her own diversion. Nudists and bathers parallel this popular appeal, but unlike on many Spanish postcards, men disrobed along with the women. Homosexual and hypermasculine poses appeared, and in a sunny, coastal nation, this lifestyle enticed those drawn to vegetarianism, holistic medicine, and perhaps anarchism or fascism. The caricature of this earnest movement exaggerated its libertine appeal. The reality tended towards austerity, sobriety, and hygiene in the pursuit of a spiritual and social control of one's urges, not their satiation.

Zubiaurre interrupts this idyll. "Nudism advertises nature but depicts civilization. It worships sunlight but cannot do without the bright artificial lights of the studio." As with all the commodified products of erotic mass consumption, it needs technology to saturate its eager market. Darker skin carries, for a country near Africa, its own connotations, and even if Spain has lost most of its empire in the year this book begins, it has not abandoned its nostalgia for its long imperial reach and reign. Anthropological and ideological complications arise, as the scholar sternly investigates the myths emerging in the archived version of ideal bodies, perfect families, and natural icons of beauty and power. Their German and Aryan models loom over the Catalan coastal resorts for Spanish bourgeoisie. Bathers, invariably females, perch before turbulent waves, striking awkward poses.

Similarly, women and girls carry their books back from the seaside to their boudoirs. The moment of sexual revelation, frozen before a mirror as the reader looks up at her own reflection, invites that of the viewer. Zubiaurre proposes that such a moment of immobility tries to capture eros outside of its inevitable chronology, in the act or the fantasy. Mirrors reflect, of course, and they repeat the admired image. (Jorge Luis Borges' line from a story springs to my mind: "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.") The books girls and women run their fingers through are meant to instruct and discipline; they also are meant to seduce and enchant them. This double nature of solitary reading, as feminist responses to these displays indicate, duplicate this idea and throw it back upon itself--is gazing at a postcard or a mirror's coquette real, or imaginary?

Playing off Borges' phrase, how does the image in the age of reproduction serve as playmate or coupled mate?  Lascivious bookplates only complicate this pairing. Small wonder Zubiaurre locates in voluminous retrievals from her discoveries dozens of examples of lesbian temptation and masturbatory submission. Within the nation's Catholic culture, such sensitive confessions tease the conventional wisdom, warning of a dangerous absorption in reading in a room of one's own, a diversion leading innocents into the adjacent zone of self-pleasure, as the "solitary vice." If women learn about their embodied energy from books, they also put their lessons of empowerment to work.

Mechanical methods of artistic reproduction depended on typewriters, and many women chose this occupation. Secretaries, if we can judge from Spanish advertising, posed near their desk in short skirts and sheer or black stockings, imported from France. Perhaps they arrived on German-made bicycles. Susan B. Anthony boasted that the bike emancipated women more than any other cause.

During the apex of these decades of suffragettes rushing into offices, enflamed by "techno-eros," Zubiaurre wryly notes both riders and typists "invariably fall" off their seats. Often, leggy and sportive women appear to be considerably disarranged in their clothing. So the pictorial evidence would lead Spanish readers to believe. Sicalipsis, she estimates, loves female immobility, but it must tantalize with the illusion of movement, however vainly caught on camera or in print. "In both cases, anxious men afraid of liberated women use the sicaliptic blender to mix warm flesh with cold iron--a simple recipe that never fails to eroticize and thus immobilize the female body and spirit."

The necessary and ensuing stupor might have been blamed on "patriotic sex: mantillas, cigarettes,and transvestites." The professor titles a chapter expounding how Spain tried to resist "foreign, modern sex."  Not all flint-eyed, dusky or fair Spanish maidens typed or rode. They might remain veiled in traditional mantles, adorning their scanty or lacy bodies with red carnations and pitch-black coiffures. Feminism, contraception, and foreign influences threatened Spanish purity, even if anticlerical and anti-royalist cartoons featured insatiable women of the realm engaged in sordid practices within the safety of church and state-sanctioned quarters.

This complicated reaction to the erotic power within the Spanish kingdom demonstrated how women channeled their own natural force, without borders to blame for their loyal forms of submission, as it were, to nationalist icons of priest, monarch, or purportedly donkey. Clad in national garb or foreign fashion, flappers, nymphets, and gypsies puff away, on the other hand, devoted to another solitary vice. Cross-dressers, then, sidle in, as cigarettes connote post-coital languor, exotic Moorish Andalusia, and what Havelock Ellis popularized by the term "inversion".

Fiction diligently promoted all these stereotypes. "Industrial pornography" sounds like what Orwell's Ministry of Truth pumped out for the proles in 1984, yet this genre found a wide audience in the Spanish 1920s. Along with the success of rising literacy and demands for high-culture short novels, appeals to the rawer sensibilities of readers found a ready market paralleling that of nudist and sex-advice literature, not to mention visual erotica. Hysteria, post-Freudian distortions, homosexuality, and vampires predictably come to light in Zubiaurre's investigation of "non-normative" sexuality and abundant ambiguity.

The transfer of such narratives to the new technology of "filmic eros" suffered comparatively harsher restrictions--outside royal or intellectual circles. The last chapter shuts the storyline down with few hints of the outbreak of civil war that pitted anarchist against monarchist, nationalist against fascist. This conclusion would have benefited from an explanation of the transformation of the erotic under the stress of war, but the book rapidly ends--even before the war seems to start, despite the titular span of dates. One does not gain a strong sense of how the civil war itself took any impetus from suppressing or exulting in the erotic culture, let alone how it would have been destroyed so quickly--if it was entrenched so deeply if surreptitiously across ideological cohorts. However, one aside, a few decades on, merits mention for audiences in other nations who may relate. In the waning years under the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, busloads of his citizens crossed the French border to view Emmanuelle or Last Tango in Paris. Did they recall their stashes of spicy postcards?

Demarcations which outside Spain may fall on right-left lines, in Spain find more divergent paths. Liberal thinkers may often have been sexual conservatives, according to this professor. Luis Buñuel was well-known in his exile from Spain's repressive regime, but in his youth, he beat up pederasts, notes Zubiaurre, and helped "repress the Orientalist ethos" deplored by some of his intellectual compatriots. She notes how "tolerant" writers and artists who shared conservative views on sex tended to be remembered even by the Francoist keepers of the Spanish legacy, while liberals in terms of sexuality were (unsurprisingly) written out of the "official" history. 

The silence, long imposed after the war that followed the closing date of this study, has echoed within the "classic divide between liberal and conservative Spain" that this very work seeks to upend. Zubiaurre concludes with only a terse comment that this erotic culture "disappeared overnight." One wonders how these documents were preserved for decades under clerico-fascism. One muses who savored them once, and who then saved them. The youths who consumed the books and pored over the photos are likely near death. One closes this impressively detailed volume wondering what stories they might have told about body and spirit, liberated before communists, anarchists, socialists and fascists battled to call the Spanish back from naughty postcards and nudist camps to bloody duty. (Featured at PopMatters 4-11-12; shorter version of this to Amazon US 4-11-12)

Sicalipsis UCLA website archive

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gregory Boyle's "Tattoos on the Heart": Book Review

Listening to Fr. G's audiobook, as he recovers from leukemia treatments, I hear his affable but no-nonsense voice with a touch of strained effort, a human frailty. This enhances, movingly, his dry wit and carefully modulated rendering of such sentences as "Carmen was a dusty blonde, surely not the color God had given her," to introduce one of dozens of characters drawn from those men and women among whom he ministers. I've known about his work at Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries, which is less than five miles from my home. But, even as I watched from the light rail line Homegirl Cafe being built near Chinatown and downtown L.A, a few years ago, I did not know the deeper tales.

A family friend of ours got her gang tattoos removed by the outreach efforts helmed by this author; while his apostolate to the "homies" remains controversial from some, his advocacy of compassion making us see the world from another perspective is challenging and convincing. I came from hearing the audiobook today on my commute (past the Mission, at least on the freeway closest by) to hear that a former colleague had her 17-year-old daughter shot by a 16-year-old gang member. Fr. Boyle might ask me, as my friend who's a grieving mother trying to find strength in her own faith, to consider the tragedy all around--not only the blinded girl who had straight-A's now with a bullet in her brain, but the boy who shot her as she sat in a car at night, wrong place, wrong time. Fr. G. notes being glib can be a danger. Yet, he patiently hears out those who suffer, no matter their culpability.

I find myself learning lessons from this book. I teach many students who grew up in similar neighborhoods and who have tried to leave the streets behind. Sharing the gist of some of the stories of redemption here, and endurance within adversity, enriches the power of simple parables. Whatever one's own belief, this is one inspirational book that avoids platitudes. Hafiz or Rumi is cited along with Dorothy Day or Al Sharpton; Fr. Boyle keeps alert to influences. Although I disagreed with a particular advocacy breaking one law which he asserted, he elicits respect, and he returns it richly. He holds, after all, the message of a higher power as paramount, and he fights injustice in his own diligent, understated way.
One quote sums up this Jesuit priest’s mission. “Jesus stood with the outcasts, until they were welcomed, or until he was crucified, whichever came first.”

Full of barrio lingo thrown in, this may not be the usual devotional reading for many, but be patient, and even if not every Spanish slang is translated, you get the flavor of East L.A. life as its diction is rendered--even more when read aloud. Fr. Boyle can capture the drawn-out cadences of those he "conversates" with, and hearing this can be funny and sad.

He asks us to see the narrow gate through which we are called to pass by Jesus as leading to salvation. It's not one that would shut even a sniper out, but which would open up to mercy, while (I trust) not surrendering justice. The gate, he says, is one that makes us focus, not which excludes us.

He does not romanticize the "crazy life," and he makes his Homeboy-employed charges work with their enemies as they learn to handle responsibility, accept orders, and learn to stop making excuses. Despite the broken hopes of many he ministers to and listens to, Fr. Boyle urges us to see how as in the Gospel the church needs to have its roof ripped open, so all can enter, and all can find restoring peace and abundant mercy from a "God greater than God," in the narrow sense too many have of the divine when they have been shut out from its love for so long. (Amazon US 3-8-12)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sergio Luzzatto's "Padre Pio": Book Review

This unsophisticated, testy friar bore the signs of Jesus' own wounds. Padre Pio's fame spread rapidly from Italy worldwide; his claims as a miracle worker and "living saint" aroused both support and suspicion in the Vatican. Whether or not his "literal stigmata" and his powers to not only heal but to bilocate were genuine or not remain, in this scholarly account, unresolved. Instead, this Turin historian places Padre Pio's career within his nation facing the Great War, fascism, communism, anarchism, WWII, postwar reconstruction, and modernization. Sergio Luzzatto writes with verve, insight, and diligence. Not a hagiography, this lively and thorough study surveys and scrutinizes this Franciscan priest's cultural and political impact during the publicly proclaimed duration of his stigmata, from September 1918 until just before his death in the fall of 1968.

The subtitle, "Miracle and Politics in a Secular Age," may seem at first glance at odds with the intensely Catholic folk traditions and mindsets of this friar's native and rural Italy. Born as Francesco Forgione to a poor family in the south in 1887, this Capuchin seminarian was often ill, and his theological preparation for the priesthood was left scanty. He was assigned to the remote monastery of this branch of the Franciscans on the bleak Gargano peninsula, at San Giovanni Rotondo. There, at thirty-one, as the Great War neared its end, the young priest announced he bled from the hands, feet, and side, after a "mysterious personage" bearing the five wounds of the Crucified Christ had appeared to him during prayer.

Within a society where "metaphorical" stigmata, the disfigurements endured by countless veterans imprinted themselves upon Italy, this appearance of a "literal" stigmata aroused passionate devotion. Luzzatto opens his book by placing this controversial and rare manifestation of Christ's sacrifice within a context that points back to St. Francis of Assisi, who bore for the first time in history these marks. What sparked curiosity, and spurred symbolic identification by many seeking a sign of Jesus amidst such woe, was that this everyday friar was a Padre. That is, he as a priest was the first man who bore the same signs on his hands--and hands for a priest represented the focus of holiness, in elevating the Host, in blessing, and bearing and bestowing the benefits of blessings brought by sanctified oil in the anointing of the sick and dying.

This is where "secular" enters Luzzatto's analysis. For Francis of Assisi, and others since who have claimed stigmata, the question posed by Rome was whether such signs were real. That they were from God, if true, was not the question. Still, in medieval as in subsequent centuries, the Church acted cautiously at a higher level when it came to approving such folk-based movements emanating from an often credulous populace.

The Vatican and many clerics resented competition by fakers and the deluded. Modernizing tendencies shifted Catholicism towards accommodations with science. Even before Vatican II, leaders sought to replace distracting customs and claimants with a more sensible, rational approach to faith. During Padre Pio's long career, the question was not only whether his stigmata were real, but also whether such signs proved God's existence to a desperate nation and a war-torn century increasingly doubtful of the presence of the divine.

Many Italian intellectuals challenged the clerics; then came the nascent Fascists. Italy had won independence by defeating the Papal States, and Padre Pio's grassroots appeal chafed at anarchists, Reds, and socialists. The friar's claims then became blended, by the foes of the left, into a clerico-fascist alliance which promoted the stigmata early in the fractious 1920s. The Vatican cracked down and for awhile, the friar was kept within an "iron circle" designed to ingeniously test the "living saint" for true sanctity. As Luzzatto phrases it, this ingeniously "repressive logic" ensured that if the claimant was genuine, his piety would enable him to endure whatever suppression the Church could demand. If false, his devout stance would falter under such burdens.

Here, the professor's "intellectual history" shifts away from the friar into extended discussions of this clerico-fascist climate, key players in power politics, and how this situation strengthened or weakened the tolerance by which Padre Pio's fame was sustained. Given Padre Pio was a "relic incarnate," I wanted to know how this peasant friar endured the duties of twelve-hour bouts of hearing confessions, saying Mass to throngs of pilgrims, and walking about as an object of perpetual adoration. Luzzatto's work for all its archival exactitude never lets us have more than a glimpse of a wounded self-proclaimed stigmatist beneath the brown habit. This may attest to the constant pressures the friar endured, as his devoted followers never stopped following him.

It may also attest to how much examination of what skeptics suspected as a forty-year career attracting donations thanks to a "stink of sulfur". Carbolic acid had been ordered by the friar, and investigations into this and his suspicious accompaniment by certain "lay sisters" who commandeered how he spent his time and who merited his attention among the waiting hordes remain open-ended. Luzzatto reports many interviews and reports sent by observers to the Capuchin Order and to the hierarchy and papacy. Some never got beyond their suspicions, some confirmed, others recanted, some converted. Padre Pio does not come across as particularly likable, understandably given his medical condition and the psychological complexity of his temperament, itself endlessly analyzed. For many of his devotees, this may increase the likelihood of divine intervention to choose such an unpromising figure as an "alter Christus," a second Christ. For others, it hardens their disbelief of his manipulations, as egregious as those conducted by any medieval charlatan.

One con man, Emanuele Brunatto, emerges midway as a character worthy of his own biography. This petty criminal has a checkered career even by mid-century European standards of dubious veracity. A forger, an employee of a clerico-fascist publisher, a bogus trader in locomotives, Mussolini's diplomat, and a Nazi collaborationist in occupied Paris, he became Padre Pio's "most gifted and implacable evangelist".

The elegantly dressed, patrician figure survived regime changes, and managed to elude the eye of the future Pope John XXIII who served in post-WWII France as apostolic nuncio. During his reign, this pope would refer in his diary to Padre Pio, after another round of careful Vatican watchfulness to test  the patience of a proverbial saint, as nothing but a "straw idol". Meanwhile, back in 1946 Paris, the then-Msgr. Roncalli recorded having hosted one "Emanuele De Pio" often--while denazification campaigns hunted out such malefactors and betrayers of the French nation as Brunatto. You can see where he borrowed his disguise.

Brunatto for all his ill-gotten gains managed to support at a significant cost of at least 1.3 million francs free meals given out for charity in two train stations in Paris for three years of the Occupation. He traded in jam and chocolate; his black market profits in great part funded Padre Pio's project, a large hospital next to San Giovanni Rotondo's monastery. A secondary source of income came from funds diverted by the Vatican and the Christian Democrat party from UN relief aid after WWII.

The later decades of Padre Pio's story, as often with such figures, look less colorful. With success came the freedom afforded him by his Order--who professed to emulate their humble and truly poor St. Francis--to control disbursement of hospital funds sent in by admirers worldwide. Despite its faraway location, this accelerated prosperity for the isolated and impoverished region, in need of such investment after the war.

The friary church was twice rebuilt; its dilapidated condition (where, one wonders and not only in the Vatican, did all those donations go earlier in the century?) and limewashed austerity were replaced by a massive concrete church holding eight thousand pilgrims, designed by a world-famous architect. Padre Pio's friary had remained four-and-a-half centuries in a tiny village. San Giovanni Rotondo is now a tourist-dependent city of thirty thousand. It rivals Lourdes as a place for wonders worked; RAF bombardiers attested that he appeared to them to spare the friary from death from above during WWII; Silvio Berlusconi inserted Padre Pio's picture into election propaganda. The friar's Italian-turned-international cult after his 2002 canonization by the late John Paul II has been memorialized-- the undeniable fact that near his death, his stigmata vanished after half a century attests to its own symbolism.

Padre Pio's relics are venerated, his petitioners vetted, and his tomb is visible on an eternal web-cam hookup. Yet, one closes this book more chastened than inspired. For all the labor of Luzzatto (ably translated by Frederika Randall), the mystery of how this bearded, frank friar achieved a status as the most famous figure of devotion in Italy (beating out not only St. Francis of Assisi but the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth) endures as a vexing moral in an complex exploration of a lowly man invoked as official saint.

(Shorter and simpler form to Amazon 12-22-11; featured as above at Pop Matters 1-13-12.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve": Book Review

 Matching the approach in Greenblatt's first work addressed beyond the seminar table, Will in the World (2004), The Swerve elaborates this professor's New Historicist direction. This literary theory favors context over text; it explores the historical backgrounds and "cultural poetics" infusing a literary work.

Greenblatt, a leading New Historicist and Renaissance expert now teaching at Harvard, roams over the centuries that comprise a back story and a sequel for one Roman writer's surviving philosophy in 7,400 verses. With Lucretius, we have much less to go on than even the famously debated documentary evidence (or its lack) for the life and career of this professor's usual center of attention, Shakespeare.

We know almost nothing about Lucretius, but we can know his era.

Greenblatt's lively study takes the reader into pagan philosophical and literary culture in the centuries before Christ. This was a time, as Flaubert noted, when human speculation rested between the gods and God, between the expectation that Jove explained everything and that Jesus controlled everyone. While often distorted by its Christian critics as a stunned satiation of the senses, Epicureanism elevated instead the happiness found by retreat from worldly distraction. By reasoned detachment, a wise man or woman could better appreciate life's brevity, and the need to embrace the pleasure afforded those who avoided pain. These ancient adepts sought by contemplation the attainment of joy through the conquest of delusion.

Two-and-a-half centuries after Epicurus, around 50 BCE, Lucretius wrote De rerum natura, "On the Nature of Things". This elegant Latin poem promoted the concept of "atoms and void and nothing else". It replaced religion and superstition with the one proven way to overcome the fear of death: to accept life as transitory and to see the universe as governed by unalterable laws. These laws formulated that all matter is composed of atoms, and that a clinamen, a "swerve" in the course of these endlessly colliding, eternally moving "seeds" accounts for what we translate as choice, as free will. The gods retreated as figureheads; nothing endured except matter, within an infinite void, invisible particles never created and never annihilated.

Pagans suspected this as upsetting the state religions, but fewer Romans by the rise of Lucretius believed in their gods as able to work wonders in the terrestrial realm. For subsequent Christians, Lucretius' manuscript represented danger. It undermined the model of eternal reward and damnation, and its insistence upon the soul's mortality along with that of the body countered the elaborate system of reward and punishment that began to control the thoughts and deeds of the empowered Catholic successors to the pagan philosophers.

Greenblatt imaginatively revives the situation where devout, if grumbling, generations of monks were charged with copying pagan manuscripts; nobody else was left literate enough to do so after the Roman empire disintegrated. Most ancient archives were destroyed; the fraction of the libraries left met their fate from weather, fanatics, worms, and recycling; Christian texts were written over pagan ones on valuable parchment. As a result, the survival of a radical text by Lucretius comes down to luck against such overwhelming odds.

Poggio Bracciolini was an amateur book collector, as well as a professional secretary for the original Pope John XXIII. The reason that this pope's name repeated, and many safe centuries later, was that the first John to take this title was removed, in a power struggle: three claimants argued over who was the legitimate heir to the throne of St. Peter. Poggio worked his way up the papal bureaucracy. By in his thirties he had secured a very powerful position, working at the right hand of the most powerful man in the Western world.

He went on duty with his Roman master in 1415 to the Council of Constance, convened to settle who would be pope. Poggio saw John deposed. He also, as Greenblatt shows, may have witnessed the brave Jerome of Prague burned alive after an eloquent Latin defense of his support of the similarly doomed heretic Jan Hus. In New Historicist fashion, Greenblatt figures these series of confrontations might have spurred the temporarily unemployed Poggio to make a side trip, most likely to the monastic library at the nearby German town of Fulda. He discovered in 1417 the Lucretian manuscript as solace--and to fuel his book mania. I find Greenblatt's conjecture convincing, even if as elsewhere in this work such a scenario must remain speculative.

The book tends to roam about, with necessarily "might have" and "could" similar to scenes in Will in the World. Greenblatt skillfully makes his case, even if this rambles at times too far afield, but it unfolds gracefully and at times movingly. Greenblatt favors rebels over authority, and dissenters against dogma, but he makes a convincing, if open-ended at times, case for why Poggio's retrieval of possibly the only surviving copy of Lucretius mattered in its eloquent explication of matter. Any exposure of this Renaissance milieu and its classical foundation surely is welcome when few books aimed at a wider audience by professors address serious issues from the history of ideas with verve and insight.

Poggio returned to Rome with his prized manuscript. He served eight popes as "apostolic secretary." This job required him to keep secrets. Such opportunities afforded a tempting post for his peers who wished by bribes to augment their salary. While combative and bitter, Poggio appears to have kept on a straighter course than many others who served the Papacy. Still, he had fourteen children by his mistress before he married at fifty-six to a girl of eighteen, with whom he had five more children. After more than a half-century of labor, mostly in Rome, he died as chancellor in Florence at the age of seventy-eight.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, as such confident subtitles do for many books seeking a wider audience, places too much weight on its claim. Yet, the rescue of a copy of this one ancient manuscript assisted, in Greenblatt's argument, in freeing modern thought from a fear of the gods and of death itself. The narrative follows the career of Poggio into the Renaissance recovery of De rerum natura through its subversive influences on leading thinkers of the early modern era.

Thomas More's utopia, Giordano Bruno's heresy, Machiavelli's diplomacy, Galileo's cosmology, Montaigne's essays, Newton's physics, and Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" all bear the imprint, in Greenblatt's analysis, of the bold challenges of Lucretius. His book earned the condemnation of the Church; Protestants reacted to it variously, while scientists encouraged its rational affirmations. Lucretius' ideas were transmitted often underground and kept as safely marginal for fear of Christian persecution. However, the printing press ensured they could not be silenced. "The universe as a constant, intensely erotic hymn to Venus" endures in the joy and wonder of the vast perspective celebrated by the classical atomists.

Naturally, Greenblatt interprets, if in passing, how Shakespeare, who loved Montaigne, would have alluded to the atomists in Romeo and Juliet. The professor with Poggio's quest (as in Shakespeare's career) connects what we do know (amidst asides about flagellating monks, volcanically charred papyri, and bookworms) with what we cannot prove but can reasonably suppose. So, adjusting its diverging angles to account for Greenblatt's New Historicist perspective may help those readers who wonder why this professor constructs his tale as he does. May it also spark a renewed appreciation for Lucretius himself. (In short and very altered form to Amazon US 11-24-11; as above, to PopMatters 12-5-11.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Upton tea notes: round 1

Here's my report, all twenty patiently sampled from Upton Tea Imports, starting mid-January. Listed in order of tasting, with my preliminary sorting arranged from presumably cheaper or simpler to costlier and complex varieties, best as I could guess without tasting them! Now I know which to buy more of, or at least which other samples I will order that compliment those already enjoyed. 

Fruit Teas & Tisanes:  
Turkish Apple: Disappointingly weak. I bought the last of a shipment in the catalog, so it may have worn out its shelf life. Far too watery to convey any lasting flavor. Barely colors the cup and despite experimenting with times, cups, infusions and sweeteners, never captured my attention.

Strawberry Cream: Surprisingly minty, not very berry except in hue. Flavorful, if not what I expected.

Cranberry Fruit: Similar in the minty taste and hefty blend of loose ingredients to Strawberry Cream in flavor and hue, but more medicinal in aroma, as if cherry cough syrup.

Vanilla Roobois: Granular, spicy appearance and hint of aroma. Similar to Vanilla EA but earthier. Changes from golden to amber as it steeps. Doubling my normal sweetener, honeyed flavors release.

Vanilla Honeybush: Headier aroma compared to Roobois. Sweeter, befitting its titular origin. With sweetener, takes honeyed flavor. Without, pleasantly earthy, a hint of delicate earthiness combines.

Vanilla Cream: More rosy than fair. Looks like Strawberry Cream; smells appealing, full of vanilla but the taste of it when brewed hides this. Doubled sweetener to encourage any vanilla to emerge.

Rote Grutze: Heavy on "grapes" as labeled, "raisins" to me. Deep color, free of the minty taste of the Strawberry Cream or the medicinal aroma of Cranberry Fruit, but a smooth digestive blend. Not sweet, but pleasant aroma and appearance make it a satisfying after-dinner drink.

Decaffeinated Black:
Ceylon Fannings Organic:  Compares favorably to teabags, while improving slightly on flavor. As clean tasting as caffeinated Ceylon versions, yet without the "fishy" smell of some decafs. Not much difference from equivalent Fresh + Easy teabags, but it colors quickly and infuses rapidly. Good with or without milk; I used sweetener either way.

Vanilla EA: Wonderfully scented with Bourbon, very appealing aroma. Beautiful large leaves add to visual appeal. Starts out looking Chinese, turns golden Ceylon in color. More mild than expected. Better without milk, but with sweetener, to bring out flavor, which remains modest and refined.

Assam CO2: Not dissimilar to the decaf Ceylon Fannings Organic. Solid, hefty liquor, but not a lot of nuance. No real maltiness, more like a strong Ceylon or English Breakfast blend, approaching a less refined Irish one. Hints of a "fishy" smell. With milk, very filling. Resembles a slightly higher quality version of the cheaper decaf English Breakfast teabags I've tried.

Blackcurrant CO2: Packs a strong punch, similar to Rote Grutze, but as a decaf black, very hefty dry leaf rather than dried fruit. Benefits from sweetener to ease the mix. Pleasant taste and aroma.

Bulwa PF1 (Season's Pick): Bargain-priced and African fannings, but bold enough to replace teabag equivalents and a good deal for basic, familiar taste of a stronger blend to take with milk and sweetener. Infuses very rapidly and colors nearly instantly into a dark, deep hue. Fine value, but nothing outstanding. Works for a bulk purchase of a dependable product.

Bond Street English Breakfast Blend: Mixes Assam and Ceylon but leans towards the latter. Not very malty even with less milk than usual, and sweetener. Fine without milk, but feels lighter as if nearly a Ceylon brand. Not thin, but I wanted more of a kick.

Scottish Breakfast Blend: Mixes Assam, Ceylon, Keemun; a smoky hint arises with careful brewing. It needs a sweetener for my preferred taste, but after some experiment, a bit more leaf and a lot less milk delivered the peaty notes I desired. Hard to get a balance right, but rewarding when I succeeded.

CTC Irish Breakfast Blend: Not that different from the Scottish, but an Assam-Ceylon combination. Again, less milk brings out the slightly smoky hints, which remain subtle. Maltier in aroma than taste.

River Shannon Blend: Slightly subtler than the CTC Irish Assam-Ceylon breakfast blend. Aroma is less malty but leaf appeals to the eye. Needed double sweetener to bring out sufficient maltiness.

Assam Duflating Estate FBOP Cl: This has maltiness, but it needs double sweetener to emerge. Milder than anticipated, with a clean, smooth taste. Aroma and dry leaf both noteworthy.

Assam GFOP Premium Tippy Orthodox: Not as malty as Duflating Estate, but more nuanced. With doubled sweetener and milk, a delicate aftertaste of spice or hint of smoke. Without milk but with sweetener, a bolder taste. Let it stand to heighten flavor; it reminds me of a quality organic or better brand of Ceylon.

East Frisian Blend BOP:  Pleasant, full, malty flavor. Improves with milk, sweetener, and time to let stand. Slightly more rounded and complex than a straight Ceylon or English breakfast variety.

East Frisian Blend (Sunday Vanilla): Full-bodied. As complex as the Frisian BOP, and flavorful vanilla taste compliments the cup. Double sweetener and time lets a dessert unfold on the palate.

After this, three months later, I ordered another twenty samples of new brands and blends, and a bigger bag of an Assam on sale that looks like one I'd like, based on what I've sampled above. So, round #2 will commence shortly. After that, with forty finished off, I'll know what's ready for bulk.

Photo: Greg Elms: "Tea Tasting Infusion Cups at J. Thomas Tea Broker, Guwahati, Assam, India"

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rogha i Tibéid

Tá mé ag éisteacht go an leabhar fuaime faoi deireanach. Mar roimh, scríobhim seo aiste faoi an dúshlán i Tibéid. Bíonn sé ag fás níos measa ansiud anois.

Insíonn an leabhar (feic mo léirmheas) le Jonathan Green mar gheall ar an dúnmharú ina bean rialta, Kelsang, ag teitheadh Tibéid.  Chonaic dreapadóirí sléibhe é. Chaith siad rogha a dhéanamh.

Bhí raibh dreapadóirí ábalta in ann cabhrú. Áfach, ar mbeadh siad stop cúnamh a thabhairt do na marthanóirí? Mar is gnach, bíonn dith leis dreapadóirí a aontú leis an taobh na Síne.

Theastaigh siad chun bhfabhar chúirt amhlaidh d'fhéadfadh siad tog na Himiléach ar an taobh Tibéidis. Chaith siad féin le do thoil na Síne. Mar sin, rinne dreapadóirí cinneadh deacair.

Bím ag chuala leis an leabhar beag ag beag go hiondúil. Tá fhíos agam go mbeidh níos mó a fhoghlaim faoi an scéal seo i 2006. Inseoidh mé daoibh an chuid eile den scéal dea-inis go luath.

A choice in Tibet

I've been listening to an audiobook recently.  As before, I write this entry about the struggle in Tibet. It's growing worse over there now.

The book (see my review) by Jonathan Green tells about the murder of a nun, Kelsang, fleeing Tibet. Mountain climbers saw it. They had to make a choice.

The climbers were able to help.  However, would they stop to give aid to the survivors? Customarily, there was a need with climbers to take the side of the Chinese.

They wanted to court favor with them to keep climbing the Himalayas from the Tibetan side. They had to please the Chinese. Therefore, climbers made a difficult decision.

I'm hearing the book little by little, usually. I know that there will be more to learn about this 2006 story. I will tell you all the rest of this well-told tale soon.

Photo of/Grianghraf le Kelsang c/o The Daily Mail.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Erik Davis' "Visionary State": Book Review

I live a mile from a place mentioned here; California's filled with a "spiritual landscape" of cults, movements, religions, and eccentrics who continue to flock here as they have since mission days. The place near me was once a hilltop hunting lodge, a weekend getaway for those like Charlie Chaplin or Theda Bara who needed to have their flings and fun a dozen miles east of Hollywood. Since 1925, it's been a headquarters for the Self-Realization Fellowship, whose name indicates exactly the kind of new, eclectic appeal that many of the sites featured in this handsome coffee-table book glorify in.

Michael Rauner's photographs emphasize not the more humble facades (such as the SRF h.q.) as, say, that entity's Indian-inspired sister site in Pacific Palisades. Tellingly, this Lake Shrine began as a project by a set-designer at 20th Century Fox Studios. It's filled with statues and symbols of "universal religion," a fine example of California's "theme park of the gods" in Davis' phrase.

Naturally, Rauner and Davis--an experienced chronicler of esoterica and psychedelica-- gravitate towards the odd, the sensational, and the strange, as well as the duly historic monuments. All memorialize attempts by people to connect with a higher power. Davis offers a suitably open-minded, chronological, tour in careful prose and elegant design. He starts with the petroglyphs left by natives, and then surveys the mission period, the influx of Mormons, spiritualists, and drug fiends, who seem to delight in both seeking solitude and ruining it, so as to cash in, preach their own peculiar versions of truth, or invite multitudes to share in their grand designs.

For every John Muir or Robinson Jeffers or Gary Snyder, you get five pioneers taking a month to saw down a sequoia into a dance floor stump and a hollowed-out bowling alley. Still, as Davis notes, the love of nature endured even as the ravishing of California's landscape continued, and arrivals keep transforming the untouched with their own mystic, inspiring, or demented touch. Asian emigres and those following Eastern paths into California from the other direction appeared to handle integration of place and theme somewhat more sensitively--if often more colorfully and dramatically, in contradictory fashion. Whether East, West, or blended, there seems over and over the story of the friars repeated by Theosophists and gurus: a leader comes, a community forms, idealism fades, and the settlement or structure faces decay until, perhaps, a revival or restoration or at least a remodel.

An insane asylum turns into a City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance is not a Babylonian temple mock-up, but a Vons supermarket. A Costco-sized Sikh gurdwara replaces an apricot orchard in Silicon Valley. Pentecostal and Foursquare revivalists boomed out a century go, and still reverberate, if often in more modest temples than Sister Aimee's. Proto-hippies founded Christian megachurch franchises in the countercultural age, while charismatics remained conservative yet radical in their own marketing of an ancient message for denim-clad crowds.

Davis notes how at the end of an audiovisual presentation at a certain cemetery near me, Jesus looks up--"and the kingdom of heaven looks rather like Forest Lawn." Californians excel at casting Christ in their own image. A "power evangelist" founder of Vineyard Fellowship winds up dying of AIDS. Promotion of a reforming message entangles many visionaries in their own schemes and dreams.

A chapter on "California Consciousness" begins with Aldous Huxley's attempt to learn from a failed socialist utopia in the desert. While Davis does not mention Huxley's fevered novel Ape and Essence, this period showed how the Hollywood resident took his energy from the stars, via Edwin Hubble, as well as the studio stars. Famous or not, many sought a "shared core of religious experience," as Huston Smith would later frame the ideas of William James, whom Davis notes emphasized solitude as key to the quest. The city drew many back; Huxley left the desert due to allergies, but the appeal of the open spaces infuses many urban mystics.

Davis weaves the strands well of how countercultures connect. A lesbian poet comes West to the redwoods; beatniks, Alan Watts and the porn-industry's Mitchell Brothers join her, at least for a time; Druid Heights turns a commune; Watts popularizes the houseboats docked in upscale but somehow still as bohemian as ever Sausalito. A gay bathhouse at Big Sur transforms into hippie and New Age epicenter, until now Esalen is unaffordable for "a bath with Buddha" for all but the most monied "human potential" seekers. Such a interdependence on wealth and simplicity appears to me to characterize many of the shrines and retreats in these pages, but the alternative seems ruins, as failed manifestations of spiritual searches litter the landscape, graffiti-marred, burnt, abandoned, or razed. One omission, if a fitting epitaph to the long span of eccentricity, is Holy City in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Santa Cruz, an eerie example of hucksterism for white supremacy, now abandoned.

Not far away from this epicenter, Northern California keeps shaking itself up with new trends. Tassajara's Zen ranch meets Oracle's Larry Ellison with his $150-million Zen-inspired manse; a Nichiren Buddhist devotee's mescaline draws together Satanists with Manson's cult; Kenneth Anger wanders the Aquarian Age's haunts as witchcraft and darker forces are called upon by those less privileged who pass through Hollywood in the later '60s, some winding up near Death Valley. In the desert, others look heavenward. As Hani Kunzru's 2012 novel "Gods Without Men" dramatizes, the UFO and harmonic convergence fellowships have long attracted a few into the open spaces. Science fiction marries speculative tales and ethereal hallucinations into another Californian blend.

Defense industry engineers, CIA researchers into psychic technology, and astronomers play their parts. This, too, represents a dominant genre of such a landscape. The fantasies fueling Philip K. Dick's fiction and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters combine with spiritual liberation. They have left less obvious markers on the architectural record than their eclectic forebears, but this shift into parapsychology via psychedelics drew in those who sometimes were from more conservative ideological or political orientations than the hippies and freaks. It persists, if more underground, on the Net as its latest manifestation of the expansion of consciousness crossed science fiction and drugs. It may leave few inspiring edifices to drive past, but its "eternal" persistence appears assured.

Gays, pagans, and witches remain features of this landscape. Fantasy and science fiction enlighten many to act out their guises and to try on new ones. Catholicism and more traditional faiths continue to build cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland as bold as ones by countercultures, and usually far more monolithic, given the endowment. D-I-Y makers keep hammering out towers of discards or tree-trunks of curiosity in less expensive tracts, in forests or vacant lots. Jewish Renewal blurs at times and places with Kabbalah, while Latino and black Californians sustain folk shrines. Yoga, Burning Man over the Nevada border, and tree-huggers all need no introduction for today's readers.

In closing, Davis invites us to consider the Golden State as "tragicomedy." The determination to celebrate natural beauty while bending it and shaping it to our whims, in the service of claims of bettering humanity and nature, appears perplexing, and perhaps unresolvable. Arcadian and apocalyptic, those of us who call this place our home become familiar with both vivid dreams. (Amazon US 4-9-12)

Author's website

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hari Kunzru's "Gods Without Men": Book Review

Having grown up on the edge of L.A. where the last remaining lemon groves succumbed to still more red-tiled tracts and big-box sprawl, I commend Hari Kunzru for staring down the atmosphere of dessicated Southern California. "LA faded into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn't call it a desert, really. It was waste ground, the city's backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn't want to look at." (26) This perspective, as all of them filtered through a character from one decade, one irritation or fascination with the Pinnacles and what draws them or dumps them next to its triple formation, shows the contrast between what passes for civilization and what promises transformation.

I liked Kunzru's previous novel "My Revolutions" (see my review) and this one features an even more ambitious plot. Kunzru seeks to pin down not only the '60s/70s vs. now as an ideological and personal shift, but decades as diverse as 1776 with the friar Garces (the report by an hidalgo captures marvelously the tone of such bureaucratic formality mixed with sheer novelty), the frontier years with a Mormon alchemist and a WWI-vet turned BIA fieldworker, the Forties and the start of the Cold War, ten years after, and then a dozen later when the hippies arrive. These plots are scattered around the present one as of 2008's economic "correction" and they follow each other as if placed in a possibly random, possibly intentional pattern we must figure out.

Douglas Coupland in the New York Times acclaimed Kunzru for "Translit," as if from one period and stance surveying with the same steely eye all other times and places. As with many contemporary novelists tackling cultural themes, the intellectual level of the author elevates the distance between characters--who often stumble along with less education and more incomprehension--and the creator. This stance between Kunzru and his subjects, common though it may be to smart authors, may discourage more readers from entering into the spirit of what can be a detached, enigmatic voice that unites the chapters, stylistically disparate as they strive to be.

Similarly, I find this novel to be more akin to William Vollmann's epic investigations into American history, if a third of the length. The relative compression of this tale of "harmonic convergence," etheric communication, and "beings from the seventh density" (as spot-on conveyed in a a key postwar vignette in pitch-perfect proto-New Age-speak, I say this as a native Californian), however, works in its favor. Lesser talents might have bloated this storyline. I was not surprised by what transpired, and the Jaz-Cy conversations and stochastic alterations recall Darren Aronofsky's movie "Pi." I'd compare this to a postmodern if streamlined gloss on 20th-century counterculture and alternative attempts to suss out cosmic meaning as in Pynchon's "Against the Day" or "Inherent Vice" (both reviewed by me). Fewer laughs, if the same mystery.

I enjoyed most the desert town details. The Marine base-adjacent burgs feel like this, and the places look like that. The tonal shifts demanded as characters pop in and out require considerable ventriloquism, and scenes with culture clashes between Jaz's Sikh family and Lisa's assimilated Jewish one show promise, if more subtly transmitted than Joanie's fervor as the Guide prepares for mind-meld, 1958-style. The odd, anthropologically filtered register of the native American report from 1920 stands out for proving to me Kunzru's skill. I thought the Coyote portions (as in the Wily E.-type prologue!) would be the hokiest ones before reading this, but they managed to break through my expectations, suspicious as I am of "wisdom of the ages folderol." Lisa's realization that her family crisis will not be "renewed for a second season" sinks in. Yet, there remains a sustained decision by Kunzru to keep himself apart from what he surveys.

Although other reviewers may give away more about the plot (as Coupland did), suffice to say I will not. I found, as with many such journeys, the way to the destination more intriguing than the final arrival. Despite my own impatience with alien contact themes and distrust of those who come around my home turf to satirize us sun-damaged natives, I admit Kunzru captures glimpses-- in perhaps a necessarily if at times insistently enigmatic narrative-- of the excitement of the long journey towards the age-old search for meaning in the dark desert night. (Amazon US 3-2-12--see my complimentary review of Erik Davis & Michael Rauner's "Visionary State: California's Spiritual Landscapes here)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

David Fontana's "Learn to Meditate": Book Review

I admired this author's "Discover Zen" primer (see my review), so this meditation guide makes a suitable companion volume. It shares the uncluttered look of its illustrations and its twenty-three exercises interspersed with short, accessible chapters on basics fit the needs of an introduction. Dr. Fontana emphasizes the need to understand meditation not as escape, magic, or detachment from the world, but as a method to incorporate it within our consciousness so as to alter for the better our behavior and our actions.

It moves slowly from definitions to practice, and then adds some cultural and religious contexts. Being a New Age-oriented volume, it does not cover Christian traditions, however, although Kabbalah gets a couple of pages and Eastern approaches many. This does detract slightly from its ecumenical usefulness, but its emphasis on the East is unsurprising given the author's outlook. He focuses on overcoming stereotypes and misconceptions, and he is unfailingly encouraging. Don't expect a learned investigation, for as with other books in this series, the aim is to invite a beginner to try out basic concepts.

A previous reviewer lamented its lack of depth regarding breath-awareness, but this is covered on pp. 64-5 if in passing, following two pages on "Concentration and Breath" which briefly (all the subjects within gain short treatment) survey this. Fontana prefers to give a more suggestive rather than in-depth direction in all the contents. He keeps the tone of a gentle teacher rather than a fussy scholar, so this light touch does not dissuade the beginner likely coming here to find out more. (Amazon US 2-18-12)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Gerard Doyle's "Being You": Book Review

From Seneca to Sartre, Deepak Chopra to Oprah, this Irish-based consultant brings a career of management experience to this encouraging guide. Mixing inspiration with intellect, Doyle crafts his philosophy of "adaptive freedom." Drawing upon the self-actualization of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, Jung's individuation, and many other psychologists and thinkers, Doyle sets out a seven-pillared structure for a practitioner.

This comprises the "Freedom Code," a way to live authentically. Within the parameters of our attitudes, our responsibilities, our family, nature vs. nurture, and cultural outlook, Doyle seeks to show us how we may open up our defenses, the barriers which we often place via our non-conscious mental reactions, to letting our potential for natural expression and mental wholeness free themselves. He integrates scientific evidence attesting to the rapid processing by our minds of deeply placed defenses; the seven pillars of his framework set up ways to heighten awareness, to align with energy as it flows into useful information, and to pursue "purposeful action." Then, connections grow with family and the larger world; acceptance of our wavering but improving selves, adaptability to change, and animation to keep alert and alive propel this strategy into reality.

The transformational program has no selling point, no get-rich scheme, but Doyle instead presents an insistent, reasoned argument for self-improvement which may align with one's own spiritual or religious tradition, as well as suiting those apart from such orientations. Setting goals, making priorities, ending procrastination, and reframing memories establish steps along this journey of making a story that makes sense as we tell ourselves a narrative that will inspire change and renewal. It's flexible enough to fit the pressures of a demanding schedule, but as with meditation and commitment to betterment, it relies on one's steady focus on change, starting moment by moment.

It spans quite a vista. "Quintessence" reminds me of alchemy, but Doyle, gravitating towards information theory and quantum physics, applies this ancient term to an endless field, "an energy force for reality," a "superabundance" akin to Teilhard de Chardin's flow of essential, free power--and chaos theory. Such comparisons often go by swiftly, but they also leave room within one's self for contemplation.

This book of advice is best taken in slowly. Perhaps a chapter a day might be wise. For this review, I took more of it in more rapidly, and as every page features quotes from cognitive scientists, psychiatrists, religious and spiritual teachers, or analysts of financial or technological theory, it can pack a lot into a small portion. Some paragraphs are very short, some elaborate. Following along, I found it illustrative of one man's reasoned response to life's unpredictability, favoring reason and considered action rather than intuition and certainly (refreshingly for the genre) neither blind faith nor platitudes. It reminded me of the old practice of making a "commonplace book," where one stitches apt citations into one's personally patterned tapestry of words over one's lifetime.

Introducing each "expert" with a phrase, Doyle takes care not to talk over the heads of his disparate audience. I confess that this book emanates in part from a New Age perspective that is slightly apart from my own patterns, but as I followed Doyle's explanations, I found research infusing this content with depth. His style reveals that this text emerges from many years pondering this material. About masks and shadows as part of our personality: "When the activity ceases the role disappears. Masks on their own can slip just as easily since they are held on by the flimsiest elastic." (98)

I wished for more coverage of the workplace, and how one might learn better to adapt to a situation that in our straitened times and increased competition requires many of us to remain with ways of making a living which may discourage freedom. This may, however, reflect my own needs at this time. This is precisely the type of title that when one reads it a year later will mirror back one's ever-changing moods and needs. This constant updating of one's self and one's awareness proves the author's point, come to think of it. Doyle may advise such a work-pressured reader to enhance the inner response and to diminish the outer tension. Perhaps I'm learning from his process already: the brief sections on acceptance of life, death, fear, and suffering I found particularly insightful.

He motivates without pretense and his notes guide readers to the original sources. While my analysis found a few misspelled names and one erratic identifier in his works cited, these are small flaws. A spot-check revealed a typically apt remark from Ben Franklin without a reference, but these minor matters detracted little from the book's overall value. This will reward readers seeking a handbook on how one may deal with an increasingly hurried and networked world, by balance and equanimity. (My copy was provided by the author, whom I do not know, as he requested a fair review.) (Amazon US 4-6-12)

Author's website

Friday, April 6, 2012

"New American Haggadah": Book Review

"Our translation must know our idiom, our commentaries must wrestle with our conflicts, our design must respond to how our world looks and feels." So Jonathan Safran Foer as editor and Nathan Englander as translator preface their ambitious version of "the oldest continually practiced ritual in the Western world." Certainly their choices of phrasing will spark a lively discussion at this virtual seder table. Concentrating upon Englander's choice to follow male-gender "faithful" translations ("Lord God-of-Us, King of the Cosmos") forces readers and users of this handbook to rethink their relationship with thousands of years of this venerable account. Many readers will be surprised at this linguistic fidelity from a hipster-era tale teller who writes from the complicated position of a former Orthodox student turned critic of the culture he once participated in.

It starts off with verve. The opening call to all participants previews the seder table as it is made holy, Kadesh. This is rendered: "Sanctify/ And Wash/ Dip/ Split/ And Tell/ Be Washed/ And Bless/ The Poor Man's Bread/ Bitter/ Bundle/ And Set Down to Eat/ Hide It/ And Bless/ Praise It/ Be Pleased." One problem looms large for many who will follow along at a possibly more hipster seder: no transliteration. While juxtaposing Hebrew with English alone makes, as in the example quoted, a dramatic presentation enhanced by Oded Ezer's graphics (of only the letters, no images, as if faithful to traditional commands not to venerate images), the power of the page layout all the more prominent. This lack of phonetic equivalents, training wheels for the uneasy, does shut out many in the New America after which, as is customary, this handsome Haggadah or seder guide to the "order" of Passover that must be recited in each generation anew "as if it happened" is named for. Jews title an Haggadah from its community of origin, as "our book of living memory".

As compromise with the elimination of textual assistance for those not brought up as Englander and many Jews have been schooled, the commentary can prove intriguing. Here, those less familiar with Hebrew could enter and ask questions. The commentary allows room for all to hear from four Jews, four (at least) points of view. For, Foer as editor embeds nuggets of intrigue similar to the way his novels join typographical daring with narrative innovation. "Eating Animals" (see my shorter Amazon or longer PopMatters review) did this too, and the way that certain sections such as the Four Sons and Ten Plagues split into four areas of tilted type makes this a modern revision of a Talmud with commentary boxed in around a core text.

There, however, the core vanishes, at least to another two page spread. Key sections segue into passages labeled Nation, Library, House of Study, and Playground. These blocks of text have been included from contributors Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket [Daniel Handler] in turn. More Jews, more opinions. They prove welcome guests.

Innovative remarks meet your wandering eye. The Wicked Son turns into a meditation on the universal versus the particular, part of the Jewish predicament. "The tale of the Jews is not my concern" paraphrases the usual meaning, but Goldberg sets this into a fresh context. How would a Jewish college student in the 1980s pick which cause to support: ending South African apartheid as part of greater movement, or liberation of Soviet Jewry as part of a smaller campaign? Both rallied Jews, both were necessary, but one showed a connection with a continent's revulsion, the other with an insider's activism.

Similarly, the Ten Plagues again by Goldberg find memorable comparisons. The power of a God who hardened the heart of the evil Pharaoh grows mysterious. Lincoln, FDR, and Truman all are shown as presidents who took the lives of many innocents in their determination to bring about a greater good. If emancipation ends or fascism succumbs, do the ends justify the means?

Any Passover commemoration that raises questions adults can debate, and which families can discuss, invites a mature respect for this bold project. Debates will and should continue over the language, but Englander forces audiences to react to the Hebrew as it was written, not as it is interpreted by most liberal Jewish readers in other texts and rituals. I find this subversive, and this fits Englander's own approach as he sets before progressive audiences the difficulties of traditional Jewish life as supposedly perpetuated by his former Orthodox community today--much to the disdain of liberal Jews, and vice versa.

The design of the timeline by Mia Sara Bruch tilted down from atop some pages disorients us to "look" at a book which "feels" familiar if you've held other haggadot. The pages go right to left in numbering but a faint ghost of our language, our habit, seeps through as the enumeration peeps through of conventional page markers.

The English, the Western, the larger world, therefore, rubs up against the Hebrew, the Semitic, the narrower place, the Egypt from where the slaves dare to flee. The text presents the conflict. English wins with small print, but as untransliterated, the ancient Hebrew dominates. In Oded Ezer's design, the letters wander. This reminds me in its watercolored calligraphy of Leonard Baskin's work. It flows and halts, a tribute to a narrative about repression and escape, control and flight. This element of drift and stability adds impact to the uneasy reception this haggadah has received, as those who thought they would find its message most comforting wind up debating, as Jews, into the night.

The same questions repeat for a hundred generations. The answers continue to perplex, as they should. A people seeks to restore its own dignity, and faces its own difficulty as the table reminds Jews of suffering they inherit, even at a meal full of plenty. At a time of comfort, those at the seder are commanded to talk about hunger, anguish, despair, and the death by divine decree of the guilty and the guiltless. Participants must enact the plagues, the escape, and the break into an uneasy freedom. The team bringing us this Haggadah may have cleverly succeeded in perpetuating a very old conversation--at least until the next generation, probably not next year in Jerusalem and certainly not Gen X, Y, or Z-- but surely a hundred and one. (Amazon US 3-29-12 and with slight editing of my own, to PopMatters 4-9-12.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Kevin Barry's "There Are Little Kingdoms": Book Review

These thirteen short stories convey often the characterization and tone of a contemporary update of Joyce's Dubliners, however scattered across the midwestern and western cities and towns and villages of a jittery, weary, and off-kilter Irish present. Kevin Barry's debut collection shifts the tales across the landscape, from his homeland into first the North-west of England and then across a Greenland ice scape, where this brief volume ends. They stories begin in the coastal hamlets of Ireland facing west, and gradually move about the land before they start to get restless, as their characters, and they edge off the island.

"Atlantic City" tells of a young man's domination over a pool table in a makeshift video arcade and its teenaged, especially female, clientele. "To the Hills" maps a contest between two women for the favors of their fellow hillwalker during a weekend in the countryside. The strikingly odd, haunting dislocation of "See the Tree, How Big It's Grown" deserves mention; I've read this three times and I still marvel at its mysterious protagonist, who must in small town Clonmel start up, all over, running a chip shop after he arrives one day on a sort of a fixed mission he and we cannot fully comprehend.

"Animal Needs" finds another Irish man at wit's end, if due to his own womanizing while his purportedly organic farm awaits an inspector amidst domestic chaos. "Last Days of the Buffalo" as its title shows takes the mid/western elements of its own wandering hero as he walks down by the river around Limerick city, encountering his own showdown with confrontational nomads. "Ideal Homes" looks at the changes as the city lights come ever nearer a small town, and how its raw land opened for yet more tracts brings a couple of flirtatious girls nearer their hopes.

"The Wintersongs" then follows one girl leaving such a place behind for Dublin, and contrasts her decision with the garrulous old woman who talks away the bus ride. "Party at Helen's" looks at such people, up from Carlow or Roscommon, who find themselves drinking and mating and moaning in Galway city's flats, adrift:

"Around them, all was nervousness and elation. Lit up like stars, everybody loved everybody, and there was little shyness about saying so. Hugs and love and tearful embraces. It was all tremendously fluffy. These were children born to unions of a pragmatism so dry it chaffed, they came down from supper tables livid with silence, they came down from marriages where the L-word hadn't darkened the door in decades. There was the feeling of sweat from the nightclub cooling on the small of your back." (83)

"Breakfast Wine" examines a woman, maybe a generation older than these celebrants, who leaves a broken marriage behind for another small town, and another pub. The men who engage her in conversation over a long day of drinks represent the future she brings to their bachelor lives, middle-aged and boxed in. "Burn the Bad Lamp" takes a magical-realist tone, as a genie with a philosophical bent and a penchant for bemusement materializes before a down-and-out secondhand furniture shop. I found this and the next story, "There Are Little Kingdoms," slightly less involving for they moved Barry's strongest quality, his insight into rural and small-town characters in an overlooked part of Ireland, off the stage to make for more whimsical or less realistic situations.

However, the Cumbrian setting of the old rectory facing a reality-TV refurbishment in "Nights at the Gin Palace" has potential even if it like some stories works better for its buildup than its payoff. Barry works best when allowing us to enter his misfit and moping characters, for his plots may halt suddenly (if in rather Joycean style). All the same, seeing Barry outside of his Irish element makes for a useful and wisely chosen contrast with previous entries. Similarly, "The Penguins" about a plane full of characters over the polar regions leaves the reader curious--as one line overheard echoes that in the previous story!

He's a distinctive writer, not always easy to pinpoint in time. These stories take place now but feel sometimes older, without losing their modern or postmodern sensibilities. I look forward to his first novel, told in a more street-wise, polyglot, hardboiled argot forty years on in his imagined Cork-Limerick-Galway urban concoction, "City of Bohane." (I reviewed that on New York Journal of Books when "City" appeared March 6, 2012 in America-- the review above to Amazon US 9-7-11. See also his second collection, "Dark Lies the Island")