Sunday, March 31, 2013

Beirt Cháisc 2013/5773

Tá Cáisc inniu. Nach bhfuil muid a ceiliúradh a dhéanamh air anseo, go fírinne. Ar ndóigh, is maith linn chun feacháint ar scannáin faoi an séasúr seo.

Ní feidir liom a bhréatnaigh na tsraid ar an Chaineal Stair faoi An Bíobla.  Tá mé ag muintir cúrsa "Reiligiún Comparádeacha" anois. Mar sin, cheap mé gur chóir go mbeadh liom a fheicéail é.

Mar sin féin, d'fhoghlaim mé faoi Cháisc na nGiúdach. Rinne ár teaghlach "seder" ag ar an n-teach ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Thug muid a chuir ár chairde ar chéile.

Pléigh muid go léir an sceal anallach. Mhín mo mhac is oige Eaxodus. Ith mo mhac is sine matzah.

Gach mo shaol, tá suim agam leis an Bíobla. Mar sin, tá mé ag mealladh chuig an ábhar seo. Bain sult as agam díospóireachta é freisin.

A pair of Easters 2013/5773.

It's Easter today. We don't celebrate it here, truthfully. Of course, we like to watch films about this season.

I can't watch the series on the History Channel about the bible. I'm teaching a "Comparative Religions" course now. Therefore, I thought I might see it.

Nevertheless, I learned about "the Paschal feast of the Jews" (no word in Irish for Passover!). Our family made a seder at the house during the past week. We invited friends together.

We discussed the ancient story. My younger son explained Exodus. My older son ate matzah.

All my life, I've had an interest in the bible. Therefore, I'm attracted to this material. I enjoy debating it too.

Íomhá/Image: William de Brailes: The Crossing of the Red Sea

Friday, March 29, 2013

Malachi O'Doherty's "Iscariot": E-Book Review

This Belfast journalist's previous non-fiction combines memoir and cultural and political observation well. The Trouble With Guns astutely analyzed the Provisional IRA's machinations within the Northern power structures; The Telling Year: 1972 examined the tension as he reported for the press that dramatic year about his own neighborhood; I Was a Teenaged Catholic juxtaposed his Catholic upbringing with his stint under a Hindu guru in hippie-era India; Empty Pulpits treated the retreat from mainstream Catholic dominance over much of the island this past generation. I liked each one (see my 2009 reviews on this blog or Amazon British and/or US).

It's intriguing to trace similar tension within an earlier, far more mythologized time and place: Palestine under Roman occupation in the company of Yeshua. He's "almost your double," as the narrator, Judas, tells his twelve-year-old friend, "Ben Joe," son of Yusef and Mary. Judas' own father is suspected, in the taut opening scene, of collaboration with the empire. His son, humiliated at fourteen, vows "to kill a Roman soldier." Judas by small steps--a dove, a dog, and then by mock practice with his pal--learns to take life with a knife. Certainly the shift from Ben Joe's assistance with Judas in "operations" against troops and his next encounter, watching his "double" debating Temple elders about the Book of Jonah, demonstrates a bold take on Scriptural piety. We also see the insistent resonance that widens dissension between the two youths. The puzzler that Ben Joe articulates, as Judas filters it: do you do nothing for yourself, or do you resist authority?

The combination of today's colloquial and off-color dialogue with biblical scenes enlivens this tale. Ben Joe argues that it's no crime for guerrillas to murder in the name of an oppressed people, however futile the revenge. They panic and divide the outwitted Romans--"soldiers just flailed among themselves, like a woman who has startled bees"--and stab "at close quarters" as if it's bear-baiting.

Cana's wedding, the Magdalene, the parable of the steward, and the resemblance between a pretend and a genuine preacher in Galilee complicate matters in unexpected non-Scriptural fashion. At sixteen, Ben Joe joins the zealots. The next section puts the narrator under the headstrong, wasteful command of brutal Barabbas. Pacifism meets with annihilation; the Temple rabbis counsel cooperation with the occupation. Godless Barabbas presents a compulsive alternative: more revenge.

Before murdering a man, Judas reflects: "You must either try to ignore his character or look for something in it to hate, or you will not be able to kill him."  He tells of how people expect to see what they do, as sudden death follows predictable course to provoke reprisal and worsen oppression. The pointless slaughter drives him away from the zealots.

The narrative shoves us into the baptism of the Nazarene at the Jordan by John; but confusion persists who that new preacher might be, for Judas. Yeshua's Sermon on the Mount and the loaves and fishes, however, signal a transformation. Hope arrives for Judas. He learns to put down his decade of burden. The Nazarene's sensible message is as brief and straightforward as himself, and he soon leaves the crowds for the desert.

Ben Joe, now cynical and cruel, awaits in Capernaum, where he sends out followers to do miracles and shake up the establishment, so as to further his own "authenticity." He presumes to speak for the spirit, while Yeshua restored it and taught one to listen to it. You can see how this will unfold: the preacher advocating gentle, personal transformation vs. the one defiantly rallying communal fervor against injustice. Judas must decide which Galilean to go with, and this entangles his fate once more.

Martha and Mary assist him, and they all learn of a popular preacher's arrival. The story of the "woman caught in adultery" takes a deft twist, as does that of the Samaritan, Lazarus, the Prodigal Son, and rejections of the Pharisees under a clever imperium always looking after its own interests. Back in Judas' hometown of Nazareth, complications ensue as Yeshua visits the Rabbi's home, sees Mary the mother of James, and preaches at the synagogue. "Yeshua might be a prophet, perhaps the only one to our generation, and yet mimicry and gossip had made him ridiculous." The twinned relationship skews the biblical saga; its tilted representation keeps the reader as off guard as Judas.

The novel then deepens the mystery of appeals to a wavering one's "better nature." O'Doherty's Judas filters the author's unease at subservience to another, no matter how eloquent the message or assured the medium. Yeshua confronts Peter: "Who do you think I am?" Suffice to say that the later stages of the conventional Gospel tropes of an angry and a composed, wonder-working or contemplative Jesus, a thieving Barabbas, and the conflicted narrator gain integration enriched by imagination.

The final third takes place in Jerusalem, at the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur's autumnal timing doesn't align with the scriptural chronology naming Passover, but it allows O'Doherty to bring back the sisters and Lazarus at Bethany neatly, the cursing of the fig tree, and the entry by beast of burden into Jerusalem. It also helps him with the climactic rationale that Judas will confront. Driving out the traders from the holy precincts makes sense rearranged, as does the placement of the threat that a subversive preacher brings to the Roman citadel and Antipas and the power center of Jewish priests under Caiaphas. Parts in the home stretch, despite the natural excitement that accelerates as a fresh retelling keeps us wondering, did lag by comparison with O'Doherty's earlier revisions of the Gospel narratives. Lots of conversation slows this, as the author has to shuffle episodes around to move the logic along, and to connect characters who appeared earlier on with the action that adapts the Gospels. Admittedly, it's ambitious. Some characters felt too mustache-twiddling and backroom-conniving as villains, as the climax delays; energy lessens, explication grows. Still, you will read on, wondering how what we've long "known" of Judas' fate will square with this shape-shifting novel.

The kiss of Judas at Gethsemane earns pathos. The poignancy of the narrator's decision intersperses with the hardening of the heart. Contradictions within the Gospels, for O'Doherty's version, find commonsense solutions as he blends his fictional resolutions into those tales from the testaments--and those peddled by the apostles, Judas' "former friends." Wishing for an end, perhaps, may be salvation.

The matter-of-fact manner in which what's soon legendary starts as the mundane, mixed up by rumor by the credulous into the miraculous and manipulative, reminds me of the retellings of the Exodus and settlement of Canaan in Shulamith Hareven's trilogy Thirst (see my June 2012 review)."Iscariot" similarly reveals how it might have been, before sanctimony got the better of the secular struggles. (Kindle review to Amazon US 1-7-13)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom": Book Review

While the last published of this trilogy, Robinson tells us first off it's meant to be the second installment. It nestles into the southern Connemara coastline. Concluding this exhaustive investigation of this Irish-speaking (if increasingly threatened) enclave thirty-odd miles west of Galway city, this Cambridge-trained mathematician turned Connacht cartographer tracks down its traditional place names and wanders in the lore and the landscapes of these locales near his Roundstone residence the past thirty years. The Atlantic pounds these shores with only slightly less fury than on the Aran Islands, the chief of which marked his earlier map and two books in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, nearing eighty, Robinson circles the last lap of his adopted home turf. He begins at Ros Muc, the "little Gaelic kingdom" envisioned by Patrick Pearse a century before, and looks at other writers, natives influenced by uneasy terrain, such as Pádraig Ó Conaire and Cáitlín Maude. Robinson deftly shows the tension in the former author's novels and the latter poet's terse, "tired" verse.

In "An Piarsach"'s adopted realm, Robinson finds "a glint of comedy" during Pearse's arrival. It's "not the last of the mutual misunderstandings between ruler and subjects of the little Gaelic kingdom-to-be, for the former came with an ideal of the latter that no one east of Tír na nÓg could ever have lived up to." (30) Robinson circles from where Pearse yearned to revive both a language and a nation.

The Irish language, despite Pearse's rural and urban ambitions, recedes a century later. Efforts by "An Ghluaiseacht," the civil rights movement of its speakers, led to TnG broadcasts from the Connacht heartland, but a better economy, massive tourism, and holiday homes endanger its "health" among an anglicized, globalized younger generation. One notable advantage Robinson possesses is not only his intellect and network of contacts, but his own (however English-accented) command of the local variant of Gaeilge. He reveals its rich store of placename lore by his access to overhearing or engaging in the local craic which would elude many visitors to this region, where Irish holds much behind closed doors that outsiders cannot eavesdrop upon or tease out from a signpost.

The twilit, sunset-oriented tone of this final volume, elegiac, suits the now-venerable author himself. Previous books on Aran and Connemara tended to become weighed down by eccentric tales of a Big House owner, eccentric blow-ins and misfits, and the flora and fauna often rendered in arguably necessary but at times typically overwhelming detail, given Robinson's Cambridge training and his combination of art and science. Mandelbrot's fractals, tectonics, kelp, middens: these fit into marine expanses and geological inheritances neatly. Still, he confesses after on such effort to figure out a derivation: "I have spent too much time trying to make these fragments cohere into significance." (155) Instead, he revels if soberly by "my walking of the tide-line between place and story." (169)

He intersperses bilingual renderings of songs and stories throughout, enriching the experience of the mentality and attitude of those who've come of age and endured, or emigrated from, these rugged contours. While fewer Big House or blow-ins (including one with a tragic tie to the Titanic who merits your own discovery) managed to endure its wastes and winds among islands and peninsulas of the jagged and blustering south coast, this narrative flows smoother than the preceding two studies.

His deft portrayals of Pádraic Ó Máille and Colm Ó Gaora during the Black and Tan War, or the sean-nós singers Joe Heaney and Sorcha Ní Ghuairim, resonate. Robinson finds common cause for a preservation of freedom and heritage among these eloquent natives raised around Mám's streams or on Iorras Aintheach, who found in now treeless plains, peat-stripped slopes, or barren shores a heap of lore akin to the seaweed dragged up and left to enrich the stony soil.

Around An Cheathrú Rua, at the studio home of painter Charles Lamb, Robinson observes the disjunction between what Lamb's student Walter Verling selects to paint and what's now evident. Neither telephone wires nor bungalow blight appears. "West of Ireland naturalism is reaching the end of a narrowing outlook. It will be driven into ever-greater selectivity, and so fall into undertruth by omission, unless it takes on modernity in all its ungainly contradictions." (297) Yet, he qualifies this as an exaggeration immediately.

Robinson, not given to hyperbole or even belief in what cannot be charted, remains sensitive to the damage done by developers, as South Connemara divides between locals courting industry and visitors wishing naturalism--but who also demand accommodations, diversions, and excursions. Still, he inveighs against a Tír an Fhía "ranting demagogue" who portrayed Robinson as wanting "Connemara emptied of its human inhabitants in favour of the landscape." (335) His depictions of Carna's desolate industrial estates and defunct Sisters of Mercy school or the massive new harbor at Ros a' Mhíl which funnels 300,000 ferry passengers to Aran each year will comfort none eager to find in Robinson confirmation of an artist's careful avoidance of contemporary impacts. He ties a phrase from T.S. Eliot to a rape-murder of a girl on a waste shore; he learns where holy wells and famine graves endure next to concrete estates and gabled sprawl: he sums up much in little. (Shorter, by a couple hundred words 3-23-13 to Slugger O'Toole. As above to Amazon US 3-27-13)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness": Book Review


Taking its subtitle from Wittgenstein, who stayed here in 1948, this second installment of a trilogy surveys the tip of Western Ireland as elegantly as Robinson's previous explorations of Aran. While the little map cannot display his cartographic expertise (some places are not included and you'll have to consult his Folded Landscapes fold-out chart or an Irish road atlas), his nimble prose and learned eye combine for a rewarding companion along these byways.

I've driven many of them, but stopped on too few. So, a resident of Roundstone since 1984 such as Yorkshire-transplant Tim Robinson, with his Irish-language expertise and his mathematically trained gaze, is ideal as a guide. This time, he takes you from Killary Harbour near Leenane under the Mayo border with Co. Galway to Slyne Head in the south-west of the Connemara coast. He keeps mainly along the coast. Whereas the first book, "Connemara: Listening to the Wind," felt sometimes despairing in its evocation of ecological frailty, this one despite its subtitle feels lighter.

Even if Robinson by now is of "gammy leg and bleary eye," this volume testifies to his perspective and endurance on so many lonely lanes and along the empty shores. The concrete fills some of this, and it's sad to read of the tourist industry's scars on the landscape, too often spoiled by ugly construction. Noting the stopping of the Clifden airport on the Marconi radio station's ruins on the bog, but admitting it goes in somewhere else inevitably, he laments the "death by a thousand cuts of the natural world, and a thinning of the human spirit" that we suffer by letting one more plot of land give way to concrete and asphalt. (176)

He sees the same "mental command" in the dominating spirit to acquire and diminish even in the Neolithic sacred stones erected in 1200 BCE. This "will to power," to lock down the landscape with monumental sightlines, resembles the Ordnance Survey of the British in the imperialist age. The soil began to be depleted by these ancient Bronze Age arrivals, and it began the bog that then swallowed up the stones, "not to be revealed again until our own exploitative, turf-cutting times." (130)

He writes well of what still dominates most of the Irish west. Whether the Rev. Alexander Dallas and the Famine-era attempts to convert the Catholic peasants to Protestantism, the impact of Marconi's radio transmitter in the light of quantum physics, coral and saint's legends, or the end of Kylemore Abbey, he gets you interested. Combining scholarship with energy, he teaches you in an enjoyable and thoughtful manner at what he himself has learned and marveled.

Like his other writings on Ireland, Robinson immerses you. Sometimes in the Connemara books it feels as if the goings on of the gentry and those who have moved here take precedence over the nameless families who have endured, and perhaps then emigrated, without acclaim or notoriety. I found the sections most engaging that dealt with nature or the Irish language place names, rather than chronicles or Big Houses, but this reflects my own bias. Robinson, to his credit, tries to stay more even-handed, a mediator between those like him who have come to settle here, but who by his Irish-language acquisition understands the hidden layers. Parts may slacken only by my own comparative lack of equal engagement with a chapter's topic, but not for long--the sights keep changing as does the weather, and it's no sign of any loss of control over his considerable erudition.

He reflects on juxtapositions of ourselves with the past, hidden as the Irish language names hint at a shallow legacy under the English-language culture that has swept the old tongue nearly away and with it most of its hard-pressed natives. (I note how many living here now do not live off the land, and how many of them as himself come to this place to enjoy its views, newcomers from another land.) He ponders the lesson of the ancient markers of white quartz torn open by a bulldozer today. "Ghosts and fairies are moods of one's feeling for the Earth; they wax and wane with our desires and delusions. The glimmer of white quartz, dim afterlife of its daytime brilliance, may persist throughout a long summer evening, but will succumb to the black rainy nights after Hallowe'en." (135)

Such metaphors show Robinson's power on the page. He adds a naturalist's knowledge and a folklorist's ear to his travel account, and he mingles history, song, politics, religious rivalries, and a steady focus on the human and ecological balance in this niche off the Atlantic. Recommended and if you have not read his visits to Aran as well, add those to your list as well. (Amazon US 2-9-13)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: Listening to the Wind": Book Review

Reading this a few years after his pair of Aran books, the density of detail and erudition applied to what appears a far larger realm than an island is not diminished by the widened perspective. This Cambridge-trained mathematician, cartographer, and artist applies his Irish-language acquisition to his adapted terrain, where's he lived in Roundstone since 1984. Around his new home, he explores its shores, the Twelve Pins, and the Maamturk mountains inland in the western portion.

He walks without textbooks, so as not to get too bogged down in detail, but surely he consults them, as this learned first installment of his trilogy--well-indexed and over four-hundred pages-- documents. He tries to "see things as they are when he's not there," as a naturalist. (26) He visits a Dead Man's Grave and finds in its name a fitting reminder of our shared fate. He enters a bog to revel in its monoculture, where biodiversity may be lacking, but where it holds intact its own simple treasure.

As in all his writings and maps, the attention to the Irish enlivens this in terrain from which the spoken language has faded along this patch of its western enclave. "Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree." (81) In a "gargoyle-logic of creation," Robinson inserts our own small span, as we add years, distort, and then fall rigid ourselves in odd postures. Mortality infuses these eloquent pages, where Beckett's "skull in Connemara" (and I think since this of Martin McDonagh's plays) lingers in the fate of a Famine village of Rosroe. Graves speckle some boreens so much that in his map-making he gave up marking them. Such poetry and philosophy combined with archives and science deepens the fatal impacts of the abandoned.

This narrative is best read slowly and sparingly, for sometimes the amount of local history (he seems to enjoy telling the comings and goings of the titled and the eccentric, as often the incomers get the attention given their printed records of power or orally transmitted anecdotes of oddity that the anonymous dweller or nameless emigrant will never reclaim) or botanical precision can weary. I would have welcomed more follow-through on colonist Sir Richard Bingham's 1641 coverage of the land, the 1660s Survey & Distribution books, or Richard Martin's holdings, for instance; Robinson has published on the Martins separately, but sometimes he alludes in this volume too briefly to matters that only whet the curious appetite. And the map here, the same in the sequel (see my Feb. 2013 review of "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness") is far too small and sketchy. You will need Robinson's own maps of Connemara (and Aran) to fully enjoy his books.

Still, that gap shows a book that generates interest. Derryclare Wood's five thousand years in the making, the felled conifer plantation's disaster zone adjacent make for a telling symbol of Irish stewardship for a fragile ecosystem. But, a great joke about King Edward VII's visit to Recess in 1903, and a spirited encouragement on the Barony Bridge at Ballynahinch, restored after the War of Independence, sum up promise well. Young John Barlow hesitated to cross it; an army officer at the other end cheered him on. "Come on, little boy! This bridge was built for you!" (398) (Amazon US 2-14-13)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

John McNulty's "This Place on Third Avenue": Book Review

John McNulty is not as well known as his colleague at the 1940s' New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell. Both explored the seedy side of a now-vanished East Side, but McNulty, son of immigrants, got the mood down equally well: "He's Irish, so he broods," to paraphrase his summation of one bartender's quote at Costello's at Third Avenue around 42nd Street.

Both Mitchell and McNulty thrived on capturing the rhythms of the speaker on the streets, and for McNulty, especially at the bar. Mitchell chose McSorley's, Mitchell Costello's. They listened, one suspects, more than they themselves spoke, but their essays conveyed what they heard for us, decades on. As with an oral history, we read and the tales unfold.

The best are around WWII, as the stories arranged by his widow, Faith, demonstrate the entanglements of Grogan the Horseplayer, Clancy the gigolo, and various characters. One bartender, the night before he is called up to serve, lets out bitterly with well-aimed barbs after fifteen-odd years of silence at his feckless, boasting, sodden customers. One bickers in a great vignette with a barkeep over his attempt to hold back a barometer's little figure of a woman signalling calm and a little cardboard counterpart, a tiny man as a harbinger of storms: this approaches existentialism by what it says and what it suggests.

It's a small book, easily read in a night. It got off to a shaky start, as you can feel McNulty improving after he's hired by the magazine and begins to get down his own style, and his pacing--by the time the war comes, the pace arrives and McNulty finds his voice by channeling that of others--no easy feat. It must have been a challenge to do this, for him.

Faith's foreward places her husband in his own struggles with the bottle, his tenure at the magazine, and his haunting the place that made his reputation. The patter nears music in how accurately it sustains notes of the voices, when they leap out of the silence as each man contemplates "the mirror" of a face he may not recognize or want as his own.

Out of such encounters, McNulty skillfully, and subtly, limns the tension of life in mid-century Manhattan. The fashions, slang, and drinks may change--Costello's seems an early casualty of what later decades might call yuppification after it gained a reputation in McNulty's magazine, ironically--but the lessons remain. Decency, skulduggery, and a challenge to repeat truth rather than tall tales. One senses, after his wife's remarks, that McNulty himself gazed into the mirror many nights. (See also my Sept. 2012 review of Mitchell's anthology, Up in the Old Hotel . This McN to Amazon 10-23-12)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel": Book Review

Preparing for a stay near McSorley's Old Ale House, I read this over a weekend. It flows, as profiles and stories aimed at "The New Yorker" often do, very well. Joseph Mitchell combines his Piedmont North Carolina roots in the fiction included with his outsider-insider's knack at recording (perhaps with a bit of editing and improving, who knows it being the '40s) his fellow denizens of the Bowery, the fishing fleets, and the boardinghouses that once comprised so much of vanished Manhattan.

This nostalgic appeal feels even in the late '30s articles very strong. Mitchell records not only Joe Gould in two extended and slightly overlapping entries about this enigmatic fellow turned down-and-outer, but others as compelling if less annoying. The glimpses of McSorley's introduce the collection reprinted of that name, and among the twenty-odd selections, I liked the masterful manner in which the back-to-back social commentary of Mohawk high steel walkers and the tipsy beefsteak celebrants were introduced and sustained. There's much on gypsies, one of Mitchell's passions, as seen by the cops. Mazie of the theater district, Lady Olga of the beard, and the rather cruel trickster Santa Claus Smith all gain noteworthy starring roles. These earlier vignettes and profiles for me proved the most intriguing.

Stories follow, with an ear for the vernacular and a tone not dissimilar from his non-fiction observations. Some are set in the same environs as the essays, others in his native South. "Old Mr. Flood" offers three long looks at local fishing. I admit about zero interest in clams, but the skill of Mitchell's diligent attention makes you--as with John McPhee's geological studies in the magazine in later years--learn as you follow a chronicler of the hidden terrain underneath our eyes and noses. However, the increasing documentation with all things maritime once upon a time in New York City may not keep you reading every salty word as closely as the tales set on the sidewalk or the tenement do.

Finally, after much more of the same adding to the anthology titled "The Bottom of the Harbor," I confessed I was happy to find the title story "Up in the Old Hotel" with its peering into the dust of an abandoned ferry hotel above the Fulton Fish Market enticing, back to a landlubber's curious gaze upward. The article chasing down lore and legend about the giant rats on the waterfront may haunt you, to say the least.

Therefore, ending this with "Joe Gould's Secret" (given away in the paperback preface of this reprint edition by David Remnick) feels appropriate. The stages of interest, disgust, fascination and forgiveness play themselves out in Mitchell's hearing and telling deftly. And, the parallels to Mitchell's own career, in its second half, will also linger as a parable. (See also my review of his colleague at the magazine, John McNulty's The Place on Third Avenue, with similar tales from the same time at Costello's. This review of Mitchell 9/29/12 to Amazon US.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fáilte romhat a Phadráigín


Cheannaigh muid seo nuair ag thiomaint ar bóthar mór "na Cúig" triu Califoirnea Lárnach le déanaí.  Bhí Léna dith a dhúnadh na doirse ghluaisteáin. Ansin, a rith muid comharta leis B-O-N-S-A-I i litreachaí buí óllmhor.

D'iarr sí orm má raibh ag iarraidh "Brathair Aistil" cara. D'aontaigh lei. Mar sin, stop muid go díreach trasna on Féirm Harris: tá sé leathbhealach idir Naomh Proinsias agus an Cathair na hÁingeal.

Dhíol garraíadóir Seapanais aois leis feásóg bán agus hata tuí mór.  Stád sé ansin faoi gaoth agus grian. Shiúl fear ag imeall crannaí bídeach agus álainn.

Thúg mé sé liom go suas Naomh Crios nuair chuir cuirt ár chairde Crois agus Bob. Rinne mé grianghraf ar feadh trathnona ó ár la deireadh ina coillte. Tú ábalta feicéail crann beag anseo--agus na crannaí ruadh agus is aird.

Ainmnithe mé air "Padráigín" mar beidh 17ú Márta go luath. Ar ndóigh, tá glas é fós. Ach, sílím go raibh páganách é níos mó.

Welcome to Paddy. 

We bought this while driving on "the 5" highway through Central California recently. Layne needed to close the doors of the car. Then, we passed a giant sign with B-O-N-S-A-I in giant yellow letters.

She asked me if  "Brother Juniper" wanted a friend. I agreed with her. Therefore, we stopped straight across from Harris Ranch: it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

An old Japanese man in a great straw hat and white beard sold it. He stood there in wind and sun. He walked among tiny and lovely little trees.

I took it with me to above Santa Cruz while visiting our friends Bob and Chris. I made this snapshot during the twilight of our last day in the forest. You can see a little tree here--and big tall redwoods.

I named him "Paddy" since it will be March 17th soon. Of course, he's green too. But, I think he's more pagan.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jim Gavin's "Middle Men": Book Review

When I read Jim Gavin’s "Costello" in the New Yorker, I recognized my father, my city, and his stoicism. Gavin and I share the same ethnic, religious, and class background, as well as a native Southern Californian affiliation. Gavin and I attended the same Catholic college as English majors, if fifteen years apart. As I type this, I work within sight of the Holiday Inn near the Long Beach Airport, both a few minutes’ walk away. That annoyingly circular venue opens "The Luau," a companion piece to "Costello" that concludes as a diptych Middle Men, Gavin’s debut 2013 story collection portraying terrain and people he and I know well.

I preface my article with this to show how closely I find mirrored Gavin's sensibility in my own reactions. As greater L.A. is a locale often stereotyped (a stand-up comic two months in the city is cited; the gist of his routine reduces to: 1) a lot of phonies, 2) what about that traffic), it's instructive to see a local's take. What has not been discussed in the positive reviews and author profiles promoting Middle Man is the Irish Catholic sensibility of Gavin’s Californians, however diminished by assimilation and distance. 

Gavin's background (including a stint assisting Jeopardy as well as working for a plumbing firm and other odd sales jobs presumably not the usual background for a Stegner Fellow at Stanford) enables him to present "middle men" striving to get by or get ahead as equals, but never from a position of condescension, parody, or romanticism. Gavin provides an appropriate colophon from James Joyce's Ulysses: “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves." Gavin depicts ordinary folks, like Bloom or Stephen, Molly or citizens, some Irish once-removed at least, in another metropolis, pursuing their feckless dreams or tangled business. And as with Scylla and Charybdis, collisions and close calls with rivals frequently loom.

"Play the Man" opens with Catholic high school locales I could pinpoint (even if names are changed) to show a teenaged basketball player's struggle in South Orange County and then Long Beach (their regional and class difference is apparent if subtly marked). "The coaches described me as 'heady' and 'deceptively quick,' both of which meant I was 'white.'" Nearly all of his protagonists are Irish Catholic, although nearly all live in the Southern California; they appear deracinated and torn from any ancestral solidarity with their motherland. Parishes (names seem accurate here) endure as markers, but there's no diffident Jesuit or lesson-toting nun to comment on moral conundrums. No theological intrusions, no cassocked wise guys, no crones with novenas. It's as if the wry Catholic sensibility of a master storyteller such as J.F. Powers half a century and more ago has diminished. So, what ethnically or culturally or even spiritually distinguishes the pale, freckled Nora (the one character who connects with Ireland by her visits) from the Irish-emigrant barkeep--beyond accents--stands out very little in today's San Francisco.

For Brian, narrating "Bermuda," an "Araby"-type of longing endures in musician-boho Echo Park, along with familiar Los Feliz faux-Spanish gothic architecture surviving from the heyday of James M. Cain. A fellow bohemian is not a star, but "cosmic debris," as all angle on the make.  Karen takes the bus there to stay at the decrepit home of an aging Argentinian selling off her piano. But she is no Gloria Swanson on Sunset Boulevard. Neither is Karen Barbara Stanwyck enticing Fred MacMurray into any Double Indemnity.  Brian meets her at the house, ready to buy the old woman’s piano: “’Are you a nurse or something?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m nobody.’ ‘I didn’t know how to respond to this statement. She didn’t say it offhand; she seemed to mean it. In Los Angeles this was a rare thing to confess.’” Like many in this story collection, Karen lacks roots.

While in a landscape far from Dublin’s streets for Scylla and Charybdis, for Brian, an immersion into a similar confusion of intersection and misdirection ensues. He’s a lovelorn protagonist wandering across another ocean in search of his soon-distant lover Karen. But, on his limited budget, the "twin beasts of reality: logic and finance" intrude. Gavin out of this mismatched tale of romance creates a welcome detour, a labyrinth via a pursuit to balmy but pricy Hamilton, Bermuda. There Brian chases down Karen, the mismatched love interest (victim of a "platonic gangbang" as always the only female among a male crowd), who beckons from another lotus land, where her swain will pursue her to diminishing returns.

The "longest running quiz show in television history," with an antagonist obsessed with Walloon history (who is "not" Alex Trebek), enlivens the setting for a new production assistant: Adam Cullen, "Gaelic for 'drunk'"--as he tries to introduce himself on the studio set. His delivery fumbles, and his endeavor to succeed at an open-mike comedy club receives merciless and cruelly funny recital. Gavin's in his (former) element here in "Elephant Doors" to witty, satirical effect. A cow's udder is made pinker by a stagehand: "Like everyone else who had made it on to the lot, the cow seemed willing to put up with anything." As Max, the host, takes Adam down to the Valley's "stucco ranch homes," the star cringes; Adam bristles: he grew up in such a place.

The next story, "Illuminati," shows Sean, who's moved up from Adam's status in Hollywood, but whose screenplay sale failed to land him success. He endures his uncle's schtick. "Alcohol, for Ray, was a kind of a charm, allowing him to barge through doors and announce his place in the world." This story's more of a sketch, and shorter. Still, the range and control Gavin demonstrates attests to his ear, his patience, and his craft. His skill finds its surest expression in longer stories: these manage to suggest more than they describe.

Nora Sullivan has a screen saver with her photo taken at the Cliffs of Moher. Relocated to the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco, she despises its posing progressives (they don't donate to causes but they "identify" with them) among the "corduroy mafia." However, with a lucrative job selling software, she can visit Ireland, “paying top dollar to recapture the glory of her family’s destitution. It was her bizarro way of establishing legitimacy, like some derelict countess tracing her bloodline to an ancient king.” So reasons her mooching cousin from their native Huntington Beach in Orange County. Flunking out of Cal a decade earlier, he bums around Berkeley. “Bobby didn’t understand why someone born and raised in Southern California cares so much about a wet, miserable country she had no connection to, but she always came back from her trips seeming refreshed, like she had gone home,” he admits. 

Bobby chats with the Irish émigré who staffs the local pub. “Where in Ireland are you from?” He doesn’t get far. “A small place. You’ve never heard of it.’ But she knows Nora. She always plays “Fairytale of New York,” the Pogues song, on the jukebox. The bartender prefers hosting Beatles night for a covers band rather than U2, all the same. Nora flies down for a trade show in L.A. There, as she hates the tapas bar set-up, she flees for the street. "Part of her was hoping to get mugged--a major trauma would simplify everything." Her relationship, speaking of "platonic," with hapless Bobby comprises the bulk of the lengthy story alternating between the two cousins’ perspectives as "Bewildered Decisions in Mercantile Terror."

While this story (like its baggier title) lagged more than others in its sprawl and doubled point-of-view, it conveys the Silicon Valley-Bay Area start-up blather in managerial-speak relentlessly. Listen to Dave, her boss: “I know things are a little…right now. But still. We need confirmation on how our brand is being restructured. And if we’re serious about sustaining an effective solution environment, then we need to create a strategy for platform leveraging that prioritizes integration. That’s the reality. “ Meanwhile, she remains confused whether she is staying on or not. “I thought I was moving to a liaison role with sales.” 

Her efforts to assist feckless Bobby and her own frustration with the gap between her privileged position and her lack of fulfillment in its duties deepen her malaise. As a counter to the start-up setting, pumped up with casual but sneering pomp from managers from “third-tier MBA programs,” this story depicts Nora as an Irish American in California trying to grasp her cultural sustenance. A fragile success despite a history of mediocrity and a junior college degree, Nora with her six-figure salary fails to sustain her soul.  Brief Irish memories encourage her, if in typically self-deprecating fashion. Tasked by her manager with delivering meager sales prospects to Los Angeles, as the firm undergoes “restructuring,” she reflects on this “suicide mission.” “Nora, who had always taken great comfort in the endless sorrow of Irish history, thought of De Valera sending Michael Collins to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty.” She (as with many in these stories) scarfs down Del Taco. The cultural difference is that she puts down her BlackBerry to pick up Liam O'Flaherty's grim narrative of the Great Hunger, re-reading his harrowing novel Famine.

The paired stories of son Matt in "The Luau" and his father Marty for (what was justly accepted by the New Yorker [12-6-10] unsolicited) "Costello" conclude the collection. I drive the same "blind and savage freeway" daily between my home north of downtown L.A. and where I teach in Long Beach, so the very familiar sights and sounds resonate for me in paved or dusty "landscapes bright, hazy, and inscrutable" in industrial sprawl and the "quilted" patterns of settlement from body shops, futon stores, and strip malls. Matt and Marty will differ on how they rise to the challenge of getting suppliers to take orders, and pay for them, in the kind of blue-collar behavior and sales-grinding patter that wears men down. Of one plumbing fixture outlet at the end of a long drive in a grimy, industrial, East-of-L.A. suburb: "They've been going out of business for twenty-five years," Marty reflects.

That last story shows a jauntier, more allusive sensibility as a tribute to an Everyman. The tone shifts noticeably, and suggests hope for the elder Costello. Marty compares himself to a navigator; like Joyce’s figures where the Liffey meets the sea, Marty stays fascinated by the "watery places of the world." However, he's never been to Catalina Island, twenty-three miles off of Long Beach. Like many in this insular, congested, dirty, and sunny terrain, Marty wonders what keeps him here, and makes him face another day on the freeway. Gavin's driven the same roads and done the same tasks, and his debut dramatizes, in odd or mundane circumstances, the surprises that quiet epiphanies can present to the attentive wanderer. (Amazon US 1-15-13 in shorter and altered form; altered and condensed differently again 2-11-13 for PopMatters)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Joe Queenan's "One for the Books": Book Review

Following his acclaimed memoir about finding solace in reading while growing up in a 1960s Philadelphia housing project, Joe Queenan returns with a (very loosely) collected jumble of related recollections, paeans to an impressively eclectic array of authors, satires of book clubs and Amazon raters, and a recurring worry disguised as a vow that Middlemarch will prove to be the last book he ever finishes.

Mr. Queenan's records of obsessive reading confront us as Amalie Nathomb and Moacyr Scliar jostle Poe, O.J., and Stieg Larsson for name recognition. Devotees of Rimbaud, prepare for Tom Tryon. The range challenges any reader of equally catholic addiction. His humorous take on bibliomaniacs plays erudition off of enthusiasm appealingly, coming from a fellow who "looks like a cop" instead of the refined critic he proves, underneath his Irish Catholic, blue-collar--if now very suburban and silver-haired in Tarrytown on the Hudson--bluster.


Closing Time in its exploration of reading as youthful release serves as a prequel to One for the Books; both casually clichéd titles hint at deeper resignation and mortality. Both books relate familiar themes--abusive and alcoholic families there, escape through books here--but enliven them with wit, verve, and idiosyncratic prose. Still, this newer account swerves, cobbled from shorter scraps instead of structured from the ground up. As with many books he takes down a peg, his own results from his manic pursuit tend towards satisfying, rather than “astonishing”.  Narrating them, he plays with a garrulous but measured narration (mingled with poignancy) assumed by certain Irish or their American cousins, counting those not only published writers: raconteurs, autodidacts, fanatics, or otherwise employed. 

Engaging as the bemused Mr. Queenan certainly remains, he as with many such tellers features wry episodes that survive on the page better in aphoristic bursts or testy exchanges with half-wits. Mr. Queenan’s barbed, cynical style may prickle by its carefully snide or (self-)mocking tone; those outside his “clan” may shrink from what we raised inside it wink at or sneer towards as “malarkey”—depending on our relation to the self-aware, deceptively casual, tale-teller.

Mr. Queenan uses his passion for reading above all other pleasures (except perhaps his hometown Philly teams) to examine the power books deliver, not in e-book but printed form, with all their memories associated with spines, marginalia, covers, and fonts. "They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system."

The first chapter looks at amassing books, the next at libraries. There the likes of James Patterson have to share shelf space next to Proust; this confusion of proximity vs. merit also plagues misled buyers in bookstores and clueless denizens of book clubs. They cannot agree to choose but  potboilers, self-help twaddle, survivor narratives, earnest life lessons, or sagas with endlessly ethnic and/or annoyingly plucky protagonists. Habitues of such circles fail to savor the serendipity found sidling from one title to another in a space where books are handled, not downloaded in a click. 

Mr. Queenan dismisses the sub-literate abilities of the dilettante or those swayed into fulsome blather by covers, titles, trends, and marketing: "a book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win. This is especially true of James Joyce."  Mr. Queenan aspires for seriousness and silliness, and he shows from his thousands of purchases abundant examples of both natures happily fulfilled. This takes, naturally, a dogged devotion for him, and the third chapter invites us along to watch him reading more than one title at a time. A "Platonic book list" in endless revision occupies the mind of every true book lover calculating another thirty-five years at the task, but by his seventh decade, Joe Queenan must narrow down his stacks.

That action will close this volume, but its impact resonates back into previous sections. Bookstores in chapter four beckon, in Tarrytown, small-town Ontario, at the late Borders, and in Manhattan. He writes where he bought each title, and he cherishes the associations the artifact inscribed evokes. Out of years of accrued reminders of those among whom he enjoyed or endured his books, life deepens.

"Prepare to Be Astonished" promises excitement. Joe Queenan's quips on blurbs and their flaws and possibility--he delves deep into Latin American literature based solely on who praises what on one cover, so on and so on--wander wonderfully, if very erratically. "Life, which in my youth had been unstintingly entertaining, now felt more and more like a Smith & Wesson cocked to my head, so if I had plans to read The Decameron and Finnegans Wake before I checked out for good, I would have to start being a bit more choosy." Yet, his affection for "bad books" (many he admits foisted on him rather than chosen) reveals his less lofty ambitions, to find between the covers a lifelong affection. 

In another, even more rambling, if suitably so, section ostensibly on writers' homes, his French visits join with more mundane jaunts to Hartford and Scranton. He detours into how he stayed way ahead, initially with typically relentless concentration, to dive into Swedish crime mysteries far in advance of the current Scandinavian Whodunit Boom; he relegates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the pile of "voyeuristic porn". Somehow, this chapter winds up back in Paris, despite itself.

An acknowledgment nods to seven publications where parts of this collection first "appeared in different form": this book resembles a spirited cut-and-paste job. The energy of the assembler makes up in part for the rough edges of the collage. But the overall pattern, for all its varied, off-beat, and enticingly broad perspectives, does not always align as a book would if conceived as a single whole.

Yet the last two chapters combine the personal with the critical well. Mr. Queenan asks his family and friends for their reading habits and preferences, and from that questionnaire, he ponders how his own predilections do or do not reflect those with whom he lives. This topic feels much fresher--this reviewer has never found it in a similarly if never as impressively scattered life hunched over books. Joe Queenan, as a relevant aside (one of dozens, which rescue the ramshackle bits, and may repair them), recommends no more than two-hundred pages for any mystery, tops. Advice well-worth peddling. 

Preparing to move from his house when McMansions invade Tarrytown, he packs up his enormous accumulation of books. Finally, he has to figure out which to keep. Operation Winnow's intricate rationalizations for what one holds on to and what one lets go of will make sense only to those of us as meticulous as Mr. Queenan as to what books represent before, during, and after they are opened.

To nobody's surprise, the endeavor flounders. An impression of towers of books and boxes of more surrounding a beefy, feisty, but outnumbered author, who must drag himself away from reading to write to earn enough to spend on more to read (unless those volumes he gets, bad and good, for free as a reviewer, to be noted by this unremunerated reviewer with mingled envy and sympathy), lingers for the reader--and surely a fellow traveler along spine-filled canyons of high shelves--who closes these reflections.

"Reading is the way mankind delays the inevitable," he concludes. "Reading is the way we shake our fist at the sky." Closing time arrives again, with the author still at closure, sorting through his shelves. Joe Queenan meets his match, and in these pages, we glimpse the thousands of beloved or fondly despised books which, distilled into allusions, memories, and anecdotes, enrich his life and our own.
(New York Journal of Books 10-25-12)

Monday, March 11, 2013

John Banville's "Ancient Light": Book Review

This may be my favorite of the nine novels I've read of his, and the five as Benjamin Black. John Banville evokes sexual desire and adolescence with jittery energy, crossing the story of Alex Cleave (note the surname--even as with his wife Leah and their dead daughter Cass, resonances linger) as an actor in his sixties with himself as a fifteen-year-old who took on his best friend's mother as a lover. Alex recalls: "It was a confusion between the categories of the verb to know."

What results reminds me of Nabokov's "Lolita" from a tilted perspective. Both share a linguistic precision and an erotic charge, intensified by the passage of years and the narrator's inability to recover a doomed relationship. Every Banville novel provides passages that leap out, demanding to be taken in and lingered over. Here, many more pages contain them. More than any of his other works I've encountered, if still unevenly given Banville's preference for sly and determined confusion, "Ancient Light" succeeds. It combines the frisson of tension in a sexual attraction with the psychological complications and intellectual considerations that characterize Banville's erudite, oblique fiction.

For instance, to take only two examples early on, as Alex nervously wanders in Celia Gray's house, wondering what's next in an otherwise empty living room, he recalls from his later years how "quick with portent they always seem, the things in rooms that are not ours: that chintz-covered armchair braced somehow as if about to clamber angrily to its feet; that floor-lamp keeping so still and hiding its face under a coolie's hat; the upright piano, its lid greyed by an immaculate coating of dust, clenched against the wall with a neglected, rancorous mien, like a large ungainly pet the family had long ago ceased to love. Clearly from outside I could hear those lewd birds do their wolf-whistles." It's almost comic, a Disney cartoon animated in real life, but tinged with foreboding, and the hints of "grey" and lasciviousness, of pets and the end of affection, permeate this reverie.

Hints of Joyce--"tundish breasts" in a Old Masters painting being Alex's only previous glimpse of the female form--do not prepare for the sight of a middle-aged woman before a mirror, unclothed. "Instead of the shades of pink and peach that I would have expected--Rubens has a lot to answer for--her body displayed, disconcertingly, a range of muted tints from magnesium white to silver to tin, a scumbled sort of yellow, pale ochre, and even in places a faint greenishness and, in the hollows, a shadowing of mossy mauve." This appears appropriate for a time about fifty years ago, with Irish reticence ("scumbled"?) about flesh confronting its exposure, mirrored mirror that Alex passes, as he in amazement glances her way.

His emotions take over. The novel juxtaposes his near-retirement with his long ago complications with Mrs. Gray. After they first join, he cannot figure out why she puts herself in such a compromising and dangerous position. He is overwhelmed: "engrossed in what I felt for myself, I had no measure against which to match what she might feel for me. That was how it was at the start, and how it went on, to the end. That is how it is, when one discovers oneself through the other."

It's a rewarding if elevated novel which demonstrates the legacy that John Banville sustains from Irish and Continental writers working at a high level. Not that it's an easy read, but it satisfies for an aesthetic quality inherent in Banville's earlier writings, but the introspection typical to his anguished and longing protagonists here finds more of a physical release, if for a while. The momentum of Alex's adolescent adventure carries along the reader, through the more languid passages of his later life, which typify Banville's preference for a tamped-down, introspective yet restless tone. Against his hormonal outbursts, he stares down his fate in the mental prison where Banville likes to lock up his narrators.

They enter a place where the exploration of the psyche intersects with the erotic and artistic drives that pull Alex into maturity. Fittingly, these filter into Beckett after the "day of the incident," their initial coupling. "First love the cynic observes, and afterwards the reckoning."

This half-century of slow, but engagingly obsessive reckoning spans the intervening passage of time between the teenaged boy and the man in the twilight of his acting prime. This section, inspired likely by the recent filming of Banville's Booker Prize winning "The Sea," feels less controlled, more weightless. Banville shuffles satire in. It lessens the burdens of Alex's state, at least for a short while, among the power that the past, summoned up again, exacts. I've set up, to avoid spoilers, in detail only the first fifty pages.

Much later, Alex feels baffled. Ghostlier, gothic elements enter as he visits Italy, and the site (a bit too neatly) where Shelley drowned, and Cass died. This in turn flows into two novels of Banville published about a decade ago, corresponding to ten years earlier in Alex's experience. Yet, he tells us that the very man he played in the film to be, Axel, knew his daughter, Cass. Moreover, this admission comes as a casual aside long into the narration, after he finishes the role. Odd.

Banville triangulates this with "Shroud" (2003). This told of Axel Vander, the enigmatic fraud (inspired by lionized literary theorist and, much later unmasked as fascist collaborator, Paul de Man) who Cass pursues before her suicide. "Eclipse" (2001) dealt with Alex's anguished reminiscences of Cass, and his reaction to the news of her demise. Recollections in "Ancient Light" shift. Channeled through Alex, they turn less reliable as the plot unfolds, and this subtle challenge to the reliability of his tale as classical references and dream elements hover moves the second part into a milieu closer to past Banville explorations--in "The Book of Evidence," "Ghosts," and "Athena"-- into perils of trust.

This later journey into the echoes of Alex's youthful initiation into "this enigma of estrangement" as the intimacy of sex collides with the distance of autonomy continues into the present. Here, a lighter element, a send-up of the art house film scene, and Alex's opportunity to act on screen for the first time, blurs with a coming to terms with (or an avoidance of) why his daughter died. The elegant, if attenuated and uneasy, results will draw in any patient reader eager to meet Banville at his best. [As above with no hyperlinks, to PopMatters 9-28-12; on 8-21-12 slightly altered and a perfect example of why I hate ratings and stars to pin me down, to Amazon US]