Monday, September 25, 2017

Ursula Le Guin's "The Telling": Book Review

The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin — Reviews, Discussion ...
This was inspired by the suppression by the communists of the Taoists in China. Le Guin in her introduction to the 2017 Library of America edition of her collected Hainish works admits that her knowledge of this cultural obliteration came relatively recently. She fits this into her system, with an emissary from Terra, of Asian Indian origins, living in Vancouver. Terra is in tumult too; fanatics try to impose a one-god regime upon the disparate peoples in the tellingly named Sutty's multicultural land. She is sent as an anthropologist to Akan to investigate that world's parallel descent into control.

The control is exerted by a relentless hatred of the old. The peons are remade into "producer-consumers," and the state itself, influenced by the same fanatics earlier, seems to have learned their dark lessons well. Le Guin sharply depicts the soulless situation of the inhabitants who toil mirthlessly. Redolent of not only China under Mao or North Korea under its dictators, Akan is bleak. 

Sutty finds her mission to observe on behalf of the Ekumen, and to report back, compromised by a minder called by her The Monitor. Their fates will intersect as Sutty travels north from the megapolis into rural areas where she learns that not all of the old learning and forbidden ways have vanished. 

At this stage in her long career, Ursula Le Guin incorporated feminist themes and fluid sexuality into her characters. Sutty's lesbianism puts her further apart from those seeking complete domination over the private as well as public life. Technology has advanced, too, and the parallels to our age are there.

This story moves slowly. Especially at first, Le Guin channeled through her protagonist parcels out facts we need to know sparingly. But there is a fascination with the way that Akan plays off our Earth. Totalitarian dystopia in the name of progress, unity and conformity isn't only "science fiction." 

It also wraps up very suddenly. Sutty's summoning is brought about in a paragraph halfway, with seemingly no foreshadowing. This may reflect life's surprises, but it threw me off. The conclusion follows rapidly after some earnest negotiation. It's not a tidy ending, either. But it may be more real. (Amazon US 9/24/17) 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Edward Gibbon's "The Decline + Fall of the Roman Empire": Kindle Book Review

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire : Abridged ...
As editions jumble and formats collide on Amazon for such classics, I'll explain Kindle versions. The public-domain ones for free or a buck or two are the Anglican reverend H.H. Milman's 1838/45 version, interspersing his commentary--which about Gibbon's anti-religious musings, was defensive. J.B. Bury's 1897 ed. can be downloaded elsewhere than Amazon. Bury kept his comments appended after Gibbon's famous footnotes. These older eds. online differ somewhat in presentation; some relegate footnotes and some place them within the main text after every relevant page.

David Womersly's abridgment of his 3 vol. 1990s ed. in Penguin provides eleven complete chapters and footnotes. Hans-Friedrich Mueller's 2003 abridges the Modern Library 1987 ed. Mueller assures us in his preface that the whole work still should be read and consulted. He admits in his task a different emphasis than, say, Milman. Keeping in the religious, political and institutional concentrations, he excises 2/3: battle details, genealogies, ethnologies, and footnotes. Mueller avers this fits contemporary concerns and aligns with relevant issues. On the Kindle, it's elegantly legible.

Daniel Boorstin's original introduction remains, preceding a critical essay by Mueller and Gibbon's preface. The maps are small, as they were copied from the paperback ed. What remains are parts of every chapter. Mueller indicates where cuts or excisions occur so one may consult the full text. He does provide parts of all 72 chapters for a "continuous narrative." The complete Womersly set sits on my shelf. But I chose this condensed ed. for the ability to take notes and highlight passages, which I wouldn't do in my tomes. And for road trips. ( Amazon US 9/10/17)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ursula Le Guin "Hainish Novels + Stories": Book Review

These Hainish fictions aren't a cycle. Rather "a convenience" than "a conception." So Ursula Le Guin introduces this deluxe edition from Library of America in typically forthright, pithy, and sly terms.

Daughter of a groundbreaking anthropologist who taught at Berkeley and Columbia, Ursula Le Guin pioneered the meticulous investigation of her imagined societies within the popular genre of speculative storytelling. She began writing as a child during the Depression. Beginning in 1966, her contributions began in the Ace Doubles, SF pulp. Editors and fans recognized her skill. Although her sophisticated interplanetary system took a while to form, and even if its inconsistencies bother nitpicking critics, Le Guin avers this genesis gave her freedom to shift between stories and novels. She learned the difference between "willful suspension of disbelief" and merely "faking" it when invention stirred. (Her Hainish books need not be read in order, she has assured readers before.)

Part of Le Guin's innovation came through the "ansible," a device enabling instant communication across the universe. This became a standard tool throughout the science fiction cosmos. Her other innovation in the 1960s, she notes, has received less attention from a wider audience. The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes, but it faced backlash, from pedants and from feminists. Le Guin's decision to use a fixed "he" for her people lacking a fixed gender--it alternates in the month--leads to her reiteration fifty years on. Despite many recent changes in social perception of gender differences, "we still have no accepted ungendered pronoun in narrative." Demurring from the term "prequel" for her story "The Day Before the Revolution" preceding her anarchist utopia novel The Dispossessed, "word-hound" Le Guin returns to her central verbal concern. "What matters most about a word is that it says what we need a word for. (That's why it matters that we lack a singular pronoun signifying non-male/female, inclusive, or undetermined gender. We need that pronoun."

This anthology's first volume gathers the first five Hainish novels. In a brief review, only a glimpse at the many realms Le Guin presents can suffice. Roncannon's World turns out for the Hainish ethnographer Roncannon an orb which will bear his name. (Hain's a planet resembling our own as the original homeland of humanity; the handsome endpapers in volume two make its earth-tones of continents heighten this suggestion, but it is not equivalent to Le Guin's Terra: an example of Le Guin's off-kilter approach to world-building.) Some telepathy occurs, but this wound up so overwhelming a condition for her menagerie of bio-forms that their creator edged away from it as a must as she expanded her fictional forays. Roncannon blends SF with fantasy. Its episodes entertain.

But eagle-eyed readers of venerable tropes may not be entirely convinced. There's a lot of humanoids evolving here on a smallish globe, so how they remain dispersed and sustaining may stem from Le Guin's anthropological curiosity more than a command of her developing talent in constructing plot.

Two more shortish novels follow. Planet of Exile as the title tells finds human colonists stranded on a hostile Werel. The arrival of attenuated seasons will become a factor in her present and future Hainish terrains: when winter comes, it stays for 15 years, and the "hilfs" arrive during this cold snap. These nomads call the humans "farborns." They both face savage hordes and snow-ghouls. One wonders if George R.R. Martin's vast audience knows of this 1966 predecessor, pitched again at the Ace crowd.

The following year, City of Illusions presents one raised by forest dwellers, but not born one of them. His quest across a ravaged earthscape and a dystopia full of occluded psychics also includes talking animals. Who can and cannot take life provides the complex theme, further taking on brainwashing.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) attain canonical status. Many will be most familiar with these dense novels. They deepen the SF genre. They will demand attention; they will reward reflection. This volume adds an "original" version of the experimental core of what became Left's alternating genders on Gethen. "Winter's King" sparked Le Guin's curiosity. What if "the king was pregnant" popped up in a tale? Both tales investigate how warfare equates with "predominantly a male behavior," If some people reverted to being female with an overwhelming sex drive for a few days a month, while others were male, how might this play out for an Ice Age planet a.k.a. Winter? Furthermore, Le Guin addresses how language, power plays, and relationships evolve.

The last work in the first volume, The Dispossessed may not have lasted as long in curricula and on reading lists as its gender-driven counterpart. It emerges from Le Guin's weariness with the Vietnam War, and her Cold War affinity for Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman's non-violence. Pairing this via her youthful exposure to Lao Tzu, Le Guin incorporates the Tao into a study of no-coerced-order.

For it has to recognize anarchy's discontents. Determined to leave his anarcho-syndicalist home on Anarres, physicist Shevek travels to a patriarchal society on Urras. Class war, religious dissension, and the grip of the in-group naturally mesh with Le Guin's intellectual interests. While less read now than Left, this novel of ideas also remains less popular than certain pulps penned by Ayn Rand. But Rand cannot match Le Guin's U.S.-of-A.-like A-Io for its ambiguous appeal as the Yang to the Yin of Urras. Capitalism gets its comeuppance, but so does socialism. Despite dense discussion, it's far more vivid than any Rand. For one "cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution." How one's possessive power gets mired in habit dramatizes--admittedly too tediously for readers craving more drama--its theories and its morality, as a thought-experiment.

As her fiction sweeps up allegory, her story arcs sometimes twine; but not neatly or necessarily. Her motivations push reflection arguably more than action. She leaves one pondering, despite what can be ponderous to those weary of nuance. Her erudite character studies and linguistic riffs predominate.

Le Guin's Hainish elaborations continue into the mostly shorter pieces of the second volume. The novella The Word for World Is Forest has always struck me as a protest against the defoliation of Vietnam. It may align more with the Earth Day sentiments of the early Seventies, but either way, the revolt of those on Athshe against the invading Terrans bent on taking its resources to sustain their own depleted earth has remained topical. Le Guin acknowledges this sad truth in her appended 1976 introduction for Word. She relates how her own "fantasy" at that time that a Philippine tribe called the Senoi stood for a "dream culture" akin to her imagined one for her indigenous resisters. While these claims were largely debunked among anthropologists, Le Guin reasons that for her threatened world, the use of its scientific data may diminish accordingly as its "speculative element" compensates.

Hainish stories overlap in characters and ideas now and then among the seven compiled here. Her faster-than-light communication device the ansible excited her fellow scribes. By 1990, Le Guin took up a possibility akin to Madeleine L'Engle's "wrinkle in time." Le Guin was "allured by the notion of transilience, the transfer of a physical body from one point in space-time to another without interval."

Christening it "churtening," she allows that those who pull it off in her fiction are never sure how they did it, or if they can do it again. "In this it much resembles life." Her 1994 collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea weaves influences from a Japanese folktale with Hain-adjacent love stories. She attempted in this decade "to learn how to write as a woman." Her latest brainstorm, the "sedorutu," sets on the world named O an institutionalization of hetero- and homosexual relationships "in an intricate four-part arrangement laden with infinite emotional possibilities--a seductive prospect to a storyteller." Her "gender-bending" produces stories enriched by her own decision to speak out not only on behalf of women, but all who are loners and introverts. In an era bent on overpopulation, "unlimited growth," and "mindless exploitation," Ursula Le Guin retreats. She considers the misfit.

Her final entries twist more categories. Dark-skinned people enslave light-skinned ones. The emerging "story suite" becomes Four Ways to Forgiveness. Meanwhile, Le Guin learns of the destruction of "religious Taoism" during the regime of "aggressive secular fundamentalism" in China.

The Telling (2000) closes this volume. Le Guin sees around her in her own homeland the rise of similar "divisive, exclusive," and dogmatic instigators of hatred perverting "the energy of every major creed." This concluding novel depicts "the secular persecution of an ancient, pacific, non-theistic religion on another world." Those responsible, tellingly, originate among "a violent monotheistic sect on Earth." No matter what ignites the dynamic fusion of thought and action in her Hainish fictions, Ursula Le Guin generates provocative and intelligent considerations of complex forces. A tribute to her craft, these elegant volumes combine into a welcome set for loners, introverts, and the rest of us.
(Combined volumes: Amazon US 9/5/17. Vol. 1  and  Vol. 2 ) PopMatters as Ursula Le Guin's Science Fiction Stories about Class, War, Religious Dissension and More  9/14/17)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism Is True": Book Review

For those skeptical of supernatural claims and theistic versions of Buddhism, Robert Wright continues the quest that his earlier books such as The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God began. These titles hint at Wright's terrain, where fact and speculation, the tangible and the experiential, blur. He explores in Why Buddhism Is True the worldview that in the time of the historical Buddha could not have been clearly expressed in pre-scientific, and very pre-Darwinian terms to human mindsets.

Fresh from teaching courses on Buddhism and science at Princeton and similar courses at the Union Theological Seminary, Wright blends a wide-ranging series of investigations summed up from neural and biological research. His thesis proposes that the truth-claims of the dharma were a first, and correctly directed, step towards our own understanding of natural selection and the drives it creates. Born with them, we can free ourselves from them. Buddhism predicted the remedy for our human condition.

For instance, what on the savannah might have kept us reproducing, in thrall to our communal band, and with sufficient resources to guard against hunger or competition now linger in us. They may be go under the names of lust, social fear of being shamed, avarice, gluttony and greed, but they convey the same "fetters" which Buddhist teaching encourages, and demands, we must overcome if we want to reach a more balanced and controlled mental and physical state, freed of the illusions of the senses.

Around this central argument, Wright spins a lot of tales. A Foreigner song stuck in his mind, an annoying sitter near him on a meditation retreat, an urge to become easily irritated. He's been on the Buddhist path a while, but he rejects the trappings which have grown up around the teaching. He opts for a secular version, acknowledging that it may well be diluted (as is mindfulness or yoga) as it turns to the West, but he analyzes, in a final addendum. the core concepts that his book's laid out about establishing the veracity of what the Buddha and adepts since have incorporated into the dharma.

The tone is casual despite the heaps of learning stirred in. Wright writes again for a popular audience. Such interpretations possess value, for those of us less able or less leisured to delve into what the labs or monasteries for that matter might be generating as scholarship. However, the weight of so much data, dispersed over many chapters, sometimes slows the pace. Despite his genial tone, parts of this felt repetitious, belaboring the obvious once stated. Yet I find this same reaction to some treatments of Buddhism. A core teaching, a set of instructions  can be summed up pithily, but like chess, for each pursuit the application approaches the infinite. This might convince, therefore, those already initiating some dharma practice for a while, While Wright introduces teaching, it's more its implementation.

That leads him near the conclusion to some elevated claims. He endorses Daniel Ingram's promise that meditation results can be attained with diligence rapidly, and not just by those with decades of training. Wright like many admits that his transports have not occurred often, and when one did, he shows how ephemeral it was. He counsels daily discipline, more to calm and to establish more within one's reactive mechanism (not a term he uses) a longer-range, considered, and composed response to the triggers which, as with road rage, we inherit from billions of years of evolution, becoming an organism determined to gain ground, acquire loot, store up calories, and dominate by trophy wives.

I expected the author to turn to a philosopher who also predicted ways in which we can comprehend our predicament, and who is seen in retrospect as sympathetic to Buddhism, Schopenhauer. In my e-galley, I did not find any mention of the World as Will and Representation that he conceived. It seems prescient here. There's discussion of contemporary thinkers, more from psychology than philosophy..

This book will create some debate, I predict, among the more traditional Buddhist practitioner; those open to his analytical, even detached attitude at times, and his production of a practical set of guidelines, may benefit from a presentation of the dharma seeking liberation not into a higher realm, but from the natural selection which tethers us to demands which prevent us from fully entering the state the Buddha modeled. Sure, as Wright concurs, sentience and cognition and evolution into our present status all have definite advantages. But as to drawbacks, he advises the dharma. Even if the science we now promote might in the future shift, the bedrock of the dharma, Wright avers, remains solid. Beholden as we'll be to our genetic inheritance, we can nurture by Buddhism our true nature.

 (Amazon US 8-8-17 + Edelweiss+; this review by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker appeared after I wrote mine. It's titled in the print copy "American Nirvana" and at the website as "What Meditation Can Do for Us and What it Can't")

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pat Walsh's "A Rebel Act": Book Review

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett's Farewell to English
This biography covers all of this Irish poet's life and career. The subtitle may lead one to believe it's only about the period roughly from 1975-84 when Michael Hartnett's decision to no longer publish his poetry in English gained attention among Ireland's poetry, literary, and critical circles. But the tenth of the book devoted to this phase shows its importance and duration within the poet's 58 years.

Pat Walsh must have read everything ever mentioning Hartnett. His documentation records his consultation of the poet's manuscripts and notebooks, interviews, and press coverage down to quite rare small press publications or ephemeral journalism. He lets the poetry, the poet, and his contemporaries tell as much of the story as possible. Generous excerpts from Hartnett's verses, his own writings beyond poems, and his radio broadcasts also deepen any reader's appreciation of his work. Furthermore, while Walsh tends to stay in the background more as diligent compiler than as a critic with his own take on this difficult-to-categorize man, he judiciously includes criticism which calls Hartnett to task when warranted. For not all of his verses are up to the high standards of his best.

Complementing literary criticism produced on Hartnett, this fuller depiction of a dapper, erudite, coruscating, and forthright poet and presence during the 60s through some of the 80s reveals a deep care for the state of Ireland, regarding its heritage, its commitment or lack of to its long-denigrated "first official language," and Hartnett's determination to demonstrate by his own action his nuanced understanding of not only a language but a way of life and a manner of living and thinking which, for many in his Dublin audiences hearing him declaim his poems, must have been received with a mixture of reactions. Today when national identity, ethnic roots, international treaties, and corporate domination have markedly increased since Hartnett's era, this 2012 study is timely and trenchant. (Amazon Britain + US 7/30/17)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Michael McCaughan's "Coming Home": Book Review

Facing his mid-life crisis, Michael McCaughan explores his reunion with the Irish language he'd abandoned, along with most students in the 26 Counties during nearly the past hundred years. He begins his memoir as resigned as Ireland's majority: 'We have acquired a prayer, permission to go to the bathroom and an empty slogan.' (13) Sé do bheatha a Mhuire, an bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas and tiochfaidh ár lá. Throughout his career as a Spanish translator abroad, he'd regale Latin Americans who'd begged him to "say something in Irish" with a hodgepodge recited from rote.

Coming Home is a generic phrase itself. The book's subtitle: 'one man's return to the Irish language', situates him within a small shelf of similar stories, some cited, others not. Lonely Planet co-founder Brian Fallon left Boston on the same quest, a bit fictionalised as Home With Alice (2002). The fact this was published only in Australia may reflect the presumed limited appeal of this trope. That same year, Darerca Ní Chartúir in her overview-guide to the language appended testimonies from four Americans attending summer schools in Gaeltachtaí. Two years on, Ciarán MacMurchaidh edited 'Who Needs Irish?' A few learners answered why in the affirmative alongside acclaim by natives. and from a schooled minority who embraced the speech that McCaughan and many of his peers spurned.

I contributed to the 2007 issue of Estudios Irlandeses an examination of 'Making the Case for Irish Through English: Eco-critical Politics of Language by Learners' emphasising the perceived benefit of learning Irish in its natural setting. Brian Ó Conchubhair summed up in A New View of the Irish Language his 2008 chapter on 'The Global Diaspora and the "New" Irish (Language)'. He charted a 'hyper-Gaeltacht' (238) as Gaeilge entered its 'transnational' phase, sustained rather than attenuated by a combination of recent emigrants and the descendants of such, joined by other ethnicities connecting via Irish. Added to this in the decade since would be social media, video chat, and instant messaging.

Ó Conchubhair considers 'Hanson's law of third-generation return' first propounded in 1938: 'what the immigrant's son wishes to forget, the immigrant's grandson wishes to remember'. (New View 245) McCaughan, as one who has lived far from Ireland for much of his five decades, wonders why he took his Spanish from basics to fluency, while Irish languished. He puzzles over his surname and the silence from his Co Antrim-born father, who never revealed his side regarding sectarian origins, and the tug that pulls this son back. Dwelling in the Burren circa 2014, he takes advantage of Raidió na Gaeltachta online in caring for the 'fever' which inexplicably had consumed him to tackle, this time almost from scratch, another tongue. Union with this common resource unlocking centuries of lore past and present motivates his quest, rather than nationalism, Leaving Cert scores, or atavistic pride.

One wonders: within a multilingual Irish society, why Gaeilge shares craic in many a high street less often than, say, Polish? True, the exceptions of the immigrant, young or mature, who masters Irish gain publicity. But as one Irish wag mused, few of America's new arrivals hastened to study Cherokee or Seminole. If casual Irish does enter conversations, it's more likely within a congenial pub rather than a stern shop, (This is the reviewer's query; a minor flaw of this book is its too passing a coverage of this persistent social shame. Next to a continent where many citizens may communicate between four languages easily, the default refusal of most Irish to choose their native option continues to vex not only McCaughan and those he interviews and quotes. Compulsory lessons can't bear all the customary blame. And while a short glossary of Gaeilge terms and a brief list of sources consulted appear, the lack of an index thwarts recall of names, places and materials within this data-rich text.)

McCaughan wants to link in. Like learners can on the Net in the 'hyper-Gaeltacht', he keeps the radio on, plunging into 'the deep end' rather than rely on the English subtitles for TG4. Not far from the remnants of coastal districts where everyday Irish has been spoken, he considers the trauma of An Gorta Mór and the trace elements of guilt which weakened survivors. Remorse generated either a 'fierce, aggressive' attachment or rejection of the language, (22) He alludes to Animal Farm for the post-1922 'language bosses' who held on to their version of the tally stick, an bata scóir, emulating their hated English masters in beating on miscreants who lapsed into a forbidden but habitual tongue.

Either language was replaced with deliberate effort. McCaughan reasons that if Irish 'disappeared out of our families one word at a time', its erosion may be reversed by phrases enriching conversation. This as with much of the content assumes an Irish audience. Gill Books markets this to them, from the author's own birthplace of south Dublin. McCaughan therefore shares hints, resources, and strategies for those with the benefits of an Ireland residence to 'put on a second coat we've grown used to' (adapting composer Peadar Ó Riada's metaphor). McCaughan regards Irish as a 'second skin,' or even as what lingers in the 'marrow'. (64; readers may want to look up Peadar's father Seán's story.)

Exemplars such as Peadar, travel writer Manchán Magan, comedian Des Bishop, poets Paul Durcan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Michael Hartnett encourage him to distinguish his mother tongue, an Béarla, from his native one, an Ghaeilge. The fate of Hartnett, who tried to revert to Irish-only for his work, sobers him. McCaughan realises that the call to the mystic within will fall on many deaf ears around him, but he dismisses any practicality. As Spanish enraptured him as a teen, so now does Irish, at last. As well as tips for learners, this book's added value shows in the language policies from the Americas McCaughan uses to integrate his critique of the Dublin governments' hapless schemes.

Echoing Magan's Hartnett-like 'No Béarla' TG4 attempts in 2007 to conduct affairs in Ireland's 'first official language', the author tries to buy via Irish a ticket from Doolin to Inis Mór. He's told; 'you know, your Irish is very hard to understand.' Galwegians scold that he has 'no dialect'. Within the heartland, he considers a Buddhist analogue. Right Speech renders as 'what you say and how you say it is a reflection of a deeper truth'. (136) This illuminates his path. He ignores idealism; like many sojourners to these redoubts, he confronts a common impasse. Weary locals rebuff learners' attempts.

As this demonstrates, in the Gaeltacht, its public language becomes English; parents revert to Irish as a private medium; meanwhile children brought up as native speakers find themselves weakened by the influx of those relocating there with little or no Irish. At school, the classes may stay in public Irish, but McCaughan suspects children revert to English on their own watch, This imbalance presents a conundrum. To assist with their ancestral language the Irish people, who needs it most? Should entities support native communities or learners in urban centres, queuing at Gaelscoileannaí?

Contrasting the decision of most Irish to pay no more than lip service to Gaeilge, McCaughan credits the Zapatista movement, celebrating its indigenous and 'unbroken link to their ancestors' who use Tzeltal. The U'wa of Colombia choose their own too, rather than capitulate to the colonial imposition of Spanish. Proximity need not result in subservience or expediency; Central Europe and Scandinavia revived their local languages in the same period that millions of the Irish lost their own. McCaughan admits key revival differences historically and economically. Yet he seeks out a lively inspiration,

He strengthens his familial tie to the North of Ireland. The selfless attitude and volunteer spirit in Bóthar Seoighe infuses revival. State-designated enclaves mean simply places where Irish is spoken, But "the growth of Gaeilge in Belfast carries the mystique of a forbidden language spoken against the odds, and with a hint of subversive mischief'. (160) On the Falls Road, he sees more evidence of living Irish than in all of Dublin, Cork and Galway cities. Republican activists Michaél Mac Giolla Gunna, Féilim Ó hAdhmaill and Anthony McIntyre agree that their acquired Irish as crafted and transmitted in lessons 'behind the wire' conveyed a generosity imbued with true freedom. Their children, whether in class or at home, are growing up with both languages, with spontaneous poise.

This open-hearted reaction to Irish among those dubbed Nordies cheers this Ulsterman-once-removed.. Adults seek out Irish too, within not only West Belfast communities which welcome what was long persecuted. Ulster-Scots advocate Linda Ervine at the East Belfast mission started from far less than scratch. She conceives of her Irish-language endeavour as a 'vocation, an activity that needs to happen regardless of money'. (177) Their provincial roots tangle in garbled, anglicised place names and natural landmarks. West of Maghera, in south Derry, Gaeilge resurrects from this fresh soil, 'present yet invisible.' (198) At Carn Tóchair, this 'post-colonial option' cultivates a 'critical mass' of learners-to-speakers; what began with half a dozen in 1992 has grown to 180, young and old, fluent.

Niall Ó Catháin champions this líofacht enclave of those reuniting with this subterranean presence. For the Irish language 'was taken from us, and if we want it back we have to use it'. This bold grip reminds the writer of other surprising connections. Peadar Ó Riada tells McCaughan that in the tuneful townland of Cúil Aodha near Cork, a local, Lizzie O'Brien, was godmother to Sid Vicious.

McCaughan misses his chance here to nod to John Lydon's childhood visits to his own maternal domain in that very county. Derided then for his north London accent, he may today travel under an Irish passport, but he still bristles at being mocked for his tone. Lydon became infamous for rejecting many English symbols, as well as Catholic pieties. Ó Riada swirls Irish lyrics into world sounds. In their own ways, both play off a rebellious streak against clerics, some long supposed a Gaelic ally.

He seeks a decentralised Celtic Christian tradition, and as Lydon might accept, 'an atheist god if you like'. (209) If the North reveals the refusal at last to treat the accents in Irish as sectarian shibboleths, so Cúil Aodha suggests the native speaker's home advantage. Lydon and Ó Riada might concur that one born to the language applies his tongue unconsciously, as natural. This ease can never be totally gained by tutelage. It may single one out, depending on the setting, but it also anchors born speakers.

Concluding this journey around Ireland, McCaughan repeats the experience of others who have sought to find themselves through Irish. Native or learner, both find 'this is no country for Irish speakers'. (251) Relegated to the formulaic cúpla focal from a politician, a Republican and/or an Aer Lingus flight attendant, Gaeilge reveals its second-place status. The battle over Irish-only signage for An Daighean/ Dingle and the resentment from the tourist industry, second-home dwellers and visitors to Gaeilge amháin sa Ghaeltacht confirms the truth of McCaughan's charge. Yet he brandishes one cheery sign himself. The 'can-do philosophy' in the Six Counties epitomizes its 'brass nerve'. South of the border, this courage dwindles. Enlivened, McCaughan ends with a hope that one focal at a time, an Irish polity committed to diversity will sustain and nourish its native language, as its daily reality.

Dublin: Gill Books. 6 June 2017. ₤7.99/ € 14.99. 256 pp.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

China Miéville's "October": Book Review

book cover of 

Known for his post-modern fantasy and science-fiction, China Miéville enriches these genres with his expertise in international relations and critical legal studies. Educated at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he argues in the 2005 adaptation of his doctoral thesis: "The attempt to replace war and inequality with law is not merely utopian but is precisely self-defeating. A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law." Recently a very unsuccessful Socialist Workers Party candidate for the House of Commons, he has since helped to found the anti-capitalist "red-green" Left Unity party.

His biographical data assist the reader of this version of the Russian Revolution. Although a fellow-traveler alongside many of those whose tales he retells, Miéville sustains a detached stance, if an implicitly radical affinity, for the rebels and malcontents within the nine months of 1917 he explores.

He offers the pre-history of that year, especially the anti-tsarist tumult in 1905. That earlier October, Moscow's print-workers started a strike. The reason? Having been paid by the letter, the typesetters demanded added remuneration for punctuation. Massive unrest spread. Debating such resistance, Bolsheviks agreed that the time for a socialist uprising led by proletariat and peasantry remained premature. Their semi-rivals the Mensheviks counter that a democratic and capitalist insurgency is acceptable, given the need of the bourgeoisie to guide under-prepared factions in a backward land.

Miéville commences his chronology of the pivotal year in February of a century ago, in the former St. Petersburg. The imperial capital witnesses its mill-workers rallying. They turn to meet Cossack cavalry facing off against. then letting through, thousands of marchers again on strike. The horsemen stay still as protesters duck under their mounts. "Rarely have skills imparted by reaction been so exquisitely deployed against it." With so many of the military turned against their royal commander, by March the Mensheviks are in charge. Under Alexander Kerensky, the moderate leftists struggle to keep order. Vladimir Lenin returns from exile to incite a new "second stage" revision of his earlier opinion that the revolution could wait. He regards Russia as ripe for leadership by the workers allied with the poorest peasants. Rejecting collaboration with the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks edge towards the seizure of the councils, the soviets, established by the proles and farmers. They want power now.

However, triumph will not hurry itself. The First All-Russian Congress of Peasants' Soviets convenes during May in Petrograd. Out of 1200 delegates, nine are Bolshevik and 14 affiliated. Urged on by Lenin and his comrades, their numbers will soon balloon. But others contend against them for a share of the action. Anarchists attempt to occupy a right-wing press. Not amused, the authorities push them aside. "Up with these anarchists, they decided, they would not put." A rare glimmer of levity lightens the recital of figures and the recording of events that may sink heavily, for this is quite a dense story.

While Miéville provides a glossary of key characters and an annotated reading guide, keeping the zemstov straight from the Trudovski remains a challenge for any novice inquirer unfamiliar with this milieu. To his credit, Miéville patiently lists the constantly warping factions and their fleeting moments of notoriety. Still, the pace of change occurs so rapidly that it requires very steady attention.

By July, the Kerensky government weakens. Bolsheviks bicker. Hearing armed masses approaching, someone "in the room gasped: 'Without the sanction of the Central Committee?'" Miéville remarks on the gap between party and populace: "How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move." This showdown nudged the Bolsheviks against the soviets, now dismissed as counter-revolutionary. Although they numbered 8000, a tenth of the Menshevik ranks, momentum was theirs. Under Lenin and Leon Trotsky, they sought "direct seizure of power by workers and the party."

August witnesses Kerensky despairing. "I want to take the middle road, but no one will help me." A right-wing military coup fizzled. September opens as the Petrograd Soviet finally adopts the Bolshevik militancy as a socialist wedge against the Provisional Government of the Mensheviks and their wavering allies. But this policy is rejected by a pro-Kerensky committee. Worsened by insistent opposition to Russia's entanglement in the Great War, troops desert and mutiny, filling the cadres of radicalized Bolsheviks back in Petrograd. Europe itself appears to tip towards the long-anticipated socialist revolution. German's kaiser totters towards chaos. Lenin reckons the time to act has arrived.

The titular month starts with Lenin returned from his flight to Finland. Disguised in a grey wig, he enters crime-riddled Petrograd. The last bastion between the Eastern front and it having been abandoned, those within the tense capital prepare for second overthrow of a Russian regime that year. "Upheaval was traced over a regular city dusk." Strollers continue; gunfire peppers cold air nearby.

Over an attenuated 26th of the Julian calendar (November 5th by the Gregorian reckoning superseding it the following year), Miéville depicts not a dramatic raid by eager recruits on the Winter Palace, but a stultifying endgame. Shots from a naval vessel meet with little response from cadres on the ground. Inside the grandiose redoubt: "Men skirmished in stairwells. Any creak on the floorboards might be the revolution." The victors find a dim dawn, with a hint of lightening above.

In a necessary epilogue, China Miéville charts the trajectory of the Bolshevik overthrow. While never diminishing the human costs of the Soviet triumph, he insists upon a balanced tally of the progress achieved for millions, in a dim but persistent era of advancement away from serfdom and bigotry, oppression and submission. "Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not be always followed by night." At the close of Miéville's narrative quest, he considers the metaphor and fact of 1917 as a "revolution of trains." He aptly concludes: "The question for history is not only who should be driving the train, but where." (Spectrum Culture 6/8/17; in slightly different form to Amazon US 6-1-17)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ian McEwan's "Nutshell": Book Review

Compulsively Readable Novels

I've only read two of this prolific talent's novels, the lesser-known Solar and The Cement Garden. McEwan tells stories in a dour but somehow spirited fashion, garnering a wide readership while appealing to the critics and academics, over many decades. Indeed, I found Cement remaindered when I was still in high school, shortly after its publication. I never forgot its chilly air, but it may have steered me away from following the disparate paths taken by him in other foreboding tales.

With a keen interest in Hamlet going back to high school too, I was eager to enjoy Nutshell. It flows well, and can be finished in a long sitting, as it's two-hundred pages that turn easily for the rapt reader. Suffice to say that as in the original source, you cheer on the revenge sought by the protagonist. But, attesting to the skill in creating Gertrude in 1603 or Trudy in 2016, I also wanted her flawed, brittle character to succeed. Her machinations with boorish Claude against his brother John Cairncross (not Hamish so-and-so, I suppose!) unfold with the same suspense Shakespeare sparked.

"The rustling sound is a plastic bag containing groceries or tools of death or both." So reports the fetus narrating the plots of his mother against his father and with his uncle's collusion. He gets a buzz of Trudy's wining and suffers the slings and arrows of her unsteady gait up and down the stairs, too.

McEwan's ingenuity in giving the first-person voice to one inside the womb limits its reports to what his senses pick up, enhancing the eerie nature of this account from the not-yet-born. "Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome. Where's boredom or bliss in that?" The teller misses Dad.

His replacement fails to satisfy. As Claude accepts some chore Trudy metes out, we are told: "The man who obliterates my mother between the sheets obeys like a dog. Sex, I begin to understand, it its own mountain kingdom, secret and intact. In the valley below we know only rumours." These analogies are spare, but they speckle the story with McEwan's delicate prose, sharpening the plot, too.

Asides are bearable. Digressions, after all, enliven Shakespeare, McEwan discredits religion for the past millennium of "groundless certainty" and threatening under fanaticism today to sweep Europe. The dubious primacy afforded one's fluid feelings as the ultimate determiner of identity and selfhood looms in Trudy as indicative of the failure of the Enlightenment, as reason diminishes in us moderns.

And, climate change and global warming threaten our very existence. McEwan hovers via his hidden narrator here between hope and fear, like many of us who read this. In the end of this thoughtful thriller, as it turns out to be in its final section, we are left with a sudden burst into this chaos of life. (Amazon US 11/19/16)

Monday, June 12, 2017

John Boyne's "The Heart's Invisible Furies": Book Review

Hearts Invisible Furies von John Boyne. Bücher | Orell Füssli

I liked John Boyne's depiction of two priests in the Ireland changing over the past fifty years, "The History of Loneliness." A few years later, Boyne returns to his native island, with a much longer and ambitious portrayal of another man who over the past seven decades has witnessed, and been a part of, the massive social changes there. The boy raised as Cyril Avery tells his coming-of-age saga from his mother's conception of him in 1945 up to 2015. The narrator's voice also tells part of his birth mother's predicament. The two lives intertwine and separate, in a vividly told tone.

"The Heart's Invisible Furies" in its blurbs sounds cliched: redemptive power of the human spirit, you laugh and cry, beloved author. However, I am pleased to report that beyond the boilerplate, the praise is merited. Boyne's an author aiming at the popular audience which was disdained by Cyril's "adoptive mother" (read yourself to find out why this phrase is so stressed) as a novelist herself. But he integrates period detail, character studies, and social commentary adroitly. It's clear that beneath the accessible story-line and snappy pace, that Boyne's ear and eye craft a careful fiction.

A fiction not too far from fact, certainly, in the clerically dominated Ireland that looms over this as his previous theme in his earlier novel. Boyne does not offer facile stereotypes, but he delights via some of his restive Irish men and women to challenge the dead grip over the generations. While the opening scene led me to wonder if he'd lay it on too thick, as the plot develops, and as it twists and turns, nuance enriches the telling.

Sexuality, and those seen as aberrant in this period, gains too Boyne's careful depiction in the protagonist. I will not divulge any developments. Suffice hear to say that Boyne presents a thoughtful, entertaining, and believable voice through which to tell the stories of son and mother.

And many more. One favorite scene a third of the way in features Brendan Behan in a great cameo. The conversation, or what the Irish call the "craic" snaps, crackles and pops in this as in many chapters. Boyne does indeed make one smile and wince, and with grand figures such as his "adoptive parents," the louche Charles and the aloof Maude to set off our picaresque hero into modern Ireland, you see how his formative years go.

Finally, the prose does not call much attention to itself, as the talent Boyne has is put into the narrative in modest but well-earned application. Yet a few phrases do linger. I could "devour a small Protestant" says one friend to another after a long journey by bus from the far-off hamlets of West Cork. In their destination of Dublin, the Liffey runs "determined" to slough off its brown waste as it hastens seaward. Praise is given as convincingly by one to another akin to a Parisian lauding a meal in "Central London." This is recommended, as both engaging and provocative.

While the contexts of "unwed mothers" and their offspring have, like the clerical abuse coverage, gained much by journalists and filmmakers of late, depictions in popular fiction not of the crime genre, aimed at a wider readership, but not sensationally, gain depth by Boyne's careful efforts. (ARC review; Amazon US 6-11-17)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revisiting Rollerskate Skinny

Rollerskate Skinny
When Paul McCartney's younger brother broke into show business later in the 60s, he did so as "Mike McGear." After Kevin Shields' band My Bloody Valentine broke into the British charts two decades on, little brother Jimi stuck with his surname. But in the intimate Dublin rock scene, the association with MBV dogged him and his mates, who in 1992 formed Rollerskate Skinny, They languished less lauded than Mike McGear's The Scaffold, who at least had their one-off novelty hit.

Named after Holden Caulfield's praise of a girl who was "rollerskate skinny" in The Catcher in the Rye, the quartet brought an ambition rivaling the Beatles to their two albums. All Music Guide's Tim DiGravina compared their pair of full-length albums to a combination of Beatles melodies, MBV feedback and experimental song structures akin to The La's, Killing Joke, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Echo and the Bunnymen, Rollerskate Skinny captured the neo-psychedelic, post-punk and indie guitar moods of their contemporaries. But the four men rejected easy choruses and catchy repetition.

Instead, Shoulder Voices, co-produced by Guy Fixsen (who engineered MBV on Loveless) featured odd pop filtered through chiming miasma and clattering dynamics. Alternating delicate tunes with aggressive roars, Rollerskate Skinny refused to play along with their peers, who often toned down their idiosyncrasy to get aired on stations beyond the college radio, critically admired, fringes of that era's alt-rock. While spot-the-influences tempts critics, this band sneaks around any fence-me-in.

A few albums rush out of the starting gate and then settle down halfway down the track, ambling into the finish line fifty-odd minutes later, hardly recognizable as whatever or whomever had started them off. This pattern distinguishes both recordings. Beggars Banquet distributed this band's 1993 debut. 

Its first five songs rattle along with threats and chants. Jimi Shields integrates the traditional Irish bodhrán drum into "Lúnasa," which mixes in the ominous percussive beat under a tribal melody. Recalling an earlier, inventive and overlooked Dublin ensemble, The Virgin Prunes (there the relation is to U2 rather than MBV in civic genealogy), that song conveys an intelligent nod to the island's folk roots, enriching the noise rather than smoothing it out. "Bring on Stigmata" finds Shields' vocals echoing and wailing as keyboards churn, credited to Shields and Ken Griffin. Meanwhile, Ger Griffin (no relation) supports with unpredictable guitar. Stevie Murray's bass thunders under "Bow Hitch-Hiker," the last combative contribution among the eleven songs. For, after the first side's sonic attack, the second side settles into pleasantry, akin more to later Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips. As with those bands, this music provides decent pop-rock, but it's no match for those outfits' once-amplified, addled first few albums. Luckily, Dave Fridmann, producer and tamer of both those American bands, was not on hand to dampen down whatever Rollerskate Skinny had turned up to 11, at least for a while.

Apparently, the constant references in coverage of the band to brother Kevin led Jimi to quit before 1996. That year's follow-up Horsedrawn Wishes found the band reduced by one, relying on session drummers. A leaner Rollerskate Skinny thickens the layers of instrumentation, creating even denser and more challenging harmonics. The band's confidence shows. With co-producer Aidan Foley, they reached a clever apex in exploiting well whatever Warner Brothers had shelled out for studio costs. 

Perversely or intentionally, the band also delivers album two on the same template as the first. Until the end of the seventh entry, the three musicians, now all playing what the liner notes reveal as the guitars and keyboards (which Jimi had mastered on Shoulder Voices), shine. "Speed to My Side" is the tune AMG reviewed as marrying Beatles shimmer to MBV shudder. It saunters like opera, rising and falling. These skewed songs float and dip, cresting and dipping over waves of volume as texture. Rollerskate Skinny stack up the voices and pile on the momentum, if for half the tracks each outing.

"Man Under Glass" has the members vowing their hate of the sun, or maybe the Son. This bobs over a mad flurry of mechanical tinkering, over rhythms capable of crushing the wary or inspiring the saintly. The music swerves and spins. The bands listed above may offer rough similarities, but the determination to resist the usual rock styles makes them again akin more to humbler if sassier misfits such as The Virgin Prunes. In a city where U2 reigned, it must have been a daunting challenge to go against the flow and to insist, as Rollerskate Skinny does twice for a stretch each album, on audacity.

Why each album glides after soaring may not need any answer more profound than rest after exertion. Their energy dissipates gradually, as sides two bring a listener back to firm ground. But the best moments remain in the unsettling, giddy, surprising and woozy rides that precede the landings. 

The members went on after the band's demise following their second album to the usual side projects. Dave Fridmann inevitably weighed in as co-producer of Jimi Shields' Lotus Crown. Their Chokin' on the Jokes (1997) resembles Fridmann's main bands, but it also tilts upon a shoegazing foundation on which Jimi builds up engaging and offbeat songs. It also suggests that Ken Griffin may have been Rollerskate Skinny's mastermind, rather than Shields. For Dead City Sunbeams, the project of Griffin's alter ego Kid Silver, managed on JetSet to rouse critical applause just before the millennium.

Ken then created a collaboration with Aspera, Philadelphia neo-psych veterans, as Favourite Sons. They released a few Iggy meets The Strokes or Echo-plus-The Church records, after all moving to Brooklyn. Finally, The Radio (2004) generated Ger Griffin's dream-pop back in Rollerskate Skinny's hometown. It's a shame that streaming services do not enable audiences over two decades later to enjoy all of Rollerskate Skinny. For now, Lotus Crown and Shoulder Voices survive as bits and bytes.
(Spectrum Culture in re-edited form as part of its Revisit/ Rediscover music feature series 6-6-17)

Robert Musil's "The Confusions of Young Torless": Book Review
A serious, saturnine investigation of the sordid goings-on at a provincial boarding school, this sounds like what you'd expect. Robert Musil's first novel resembles the hothouse atmosphere mingling asceticism, philosophy, sexuality, violence and ideas which characterize his Five Stories and of course his unfinished, massive The Man Without Qualities. Its pre-WWI, Austro-Hungarian setting gets evoked well in the bleak opening scene, and the novella reeks of miasma, murk, and mischief.

Reiting, Beineberg and Törless punish their classmate Basini as a scrounger and a thief. The blackmail deepens, and Basini proves himself willing to debase himself as you'd imagine. Meanwhile. Reiting uses this situation to study the application of cruelty, while Beineberg waxes in esoteric fashion about Eastern this and Indian that. Törless tries to distance himself from the conniving ringleaders, but he too is drawn in, his curiosity aroused by lust and the need to straighten out his mind. It's been disordered by the pursuit of imaginary numbers, and a mathematical sub-plot is capped by a dream the protagonist has complete with Kant donning a peruke. Based on whatever happened to Musil in his military academy, its prescience into the rise of fascism seems inevitable.

Coming out in 1906, its depiction of a naked Basini, with welts, cowering in the dank quarters where the ritual abuse occurs, must have been shocking for some readers. It holds up despite some languid or self-involved passages, but it's not entertaining. Rather, it's an examination into dismal events. That atmosphere, and the boys' preening posturing presumptions, emanate in discomfiting fashion.(I review the Ernst Kaiser/ Eithne Wilkins translation, but this Penguin has the better cover photo.)
Amazon US 5-30-17

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Phillip Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary": Book Review

book cover of 

The Gospel of Mary
Since I was a teen reading James Michener's "The Source," I've had a weakness for "So-and-so has discovered a missing Gospel" yarns. I liked the prolific Professor Freeman's recent Oxford UP retelling of Celtic mythology, so I gave this a try. Via an e-galley, I did not know until I finished that this is the third in his Sister Deirdre series. That explains some backstory I kept wondering why not more was divulged herein. I had no trouble following along, but it's better I assume to have caught up with the previous books, for the main character evidently has a complicated past and much to tell.

Not be confused with another, recent Irish-oriented story, Colm Tóibín's drama "The Testament of Mary," Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary" features the rapid pace, genial tone, and expository dialogue that fills us in on an Ireland when Christians still number few. Deirdre's grandmother was a druid and she claims the same identity, although when her mother died, her grandmother fulfilled her promise to raise Deirdre in the new faith. With allusions to a failed marriage, other past liaisons, and a child who died young hovering about, it's clear that Freeman's protagonist has had more adventures than most nuns might have, at least in later times. She lives with her friend and sidekick Dari in a monastery founded by Brigid, which to Rome's discomfort hosts celibate men and women together.

Rome's unease deepens as it sends a clever emissary to find out what the truth might be to a manuscript smuggled into the island with haste, secrecy, and danger. It is, naturally, the tale of Jesus told by his mother, and its passages intersperse, as they are translated by Dari from the Aramaic, with the fate of the two women as they get caught up in keeping their treasured text safe from the Church. The Church, after all, fears that its integrity will crumble if Mary's words are proven true, and even if they are not able to be verified, that the heresies and tumult generated by them will bring down Rome

It all moves satisfactorily. I read it in a sitting. Freeman has done his biblical homework, and he blends it with a quest that dashes about Ireland. There's plot complications, but the story line as a whole does not surprise. It's a pleasant narrative, and it likely will educate as well as entertain you.
(Amazon 9/5/17)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Jean Raspail's "The Camp of the Saints": Book Review

The Camp of the Saints - Wikipedia
Recent flotillas of refugees from Africa and Syria caused a few bookworms and pundits to name-check this 1973 novel. Liberals practically put "scare quotes" around a mention of what they term a racist screed. Conservatives may praise it as a "classic." I knew of it way back via the maverick Garrett Hardin's perspective; he appealed if in different aspects to both ends of the political spectrum.

It popped into my mind the other day so I sat down and read it. It took two sittings. Raspail, as here translated by Norman Solomon, has a feverish, testy style that Michel Houellebecq, in his formative years in France, I suspect may well have come across. However, as Houellebecq's mordant fiction gains the same condemnations in bien-pensant right-thinking and left-leaning circles as Raspail's book, readers familiar with H. may find an encounter with R. bracing, infuriating, or baffling.

Raspail is credited on the blurb for The Camp of the Saints as a prize-winning author in his native land. Yet this novel flails from the get-go. The end of the story, or near it, jumbles up chronology. The sneering tone of the misanthropic narrator, the overabundant detail, the cardboard characters, the fact you don't care about anyone in the entire storyline: Raspail has scores to settle, but whether you'll be cheering him on or chasing him away depends not only on your own ideological bent, but your tolerance (a theme put through the wringer herein) for prattling. Raspail has it in for his countercultural era of the slightly aging hippies and the faux radicals of the early 1970s. He also despises the press, and some of the admittedly best barbs come as his narrator skewers the posturing.

I thought of the New York Times, for instance, when I found a similar send-up of earnestly PC journalists, who lambaste capitalism and despise corporations and capitalism in the same pages whose sponsors are those fat cats, and whose underwriting, so to say, supports the fulsome claptrap.

The key criticism, as Hardin reminded American readers decades ago, is that the "lifeboat" (here not symbol but story itself, multiplied all over the ocean as refugees set sail for Europe and the rest of whatever is the Western world circa 1973) cannot hold everyone. Either the rich have to share, and become poor themselves as such largess will not balance but tip over everyone into poverty, or they have to defend their realms with force, and "contempt" as Raspail later put it, lest they lose it all.

Odd tangents speckle this work. Clement Dio, a preening poser of the Third World solidarity his own bloodline allows him to capitalize on in more ways than one, is the best of a bad lot. But Raspail's mouthpiece hates worker-priests (back when there were enough clergy to go around), and the Dominicans (not for once the Jesuits) come in for comeuppance. Funny that one Benedict XVI reigns. Along with the Church, the unions, the press, and the military all get their turn at this "roast."

Yes, Raspail makes some points early on about the hypocrisy of the West, the implosion of its value system in a secularizing (well, not quite as it's still France in the post-Vatican II guitar mass phase) and skeptical society, and the contradictions inherent in the post-colonial world supported by the five (now more like six and a half) billion whose labor and losses prop up the seven hundred million whites. "The Last Chance Armada" makes a few at first hesitate but the pressure to welcome the human tide from over the sea leads many addled or idealistic Westerners, guilt ridden and excited to expiate their sins of neglect and greed, to proclaim "We Are All From the Ganges Now" as the first wave from India crests and others then join the exodus to the Northern Hemisphere, at least the wealthy part.

The narrative, such as it is, lurches through scenes of the army, a strange tangent with Benedictine monks, the chattering classes, a token couple from the working class, and those in factories and offices who find, as all anticipate the Easter Sunday mass landing of the sordid ships and their cargo, the early advantages taken by those in France itself who have earlier emigrated, and who maneuver their own prospects, eased by the care or fear taken by their "host nation," as it capitulates to them too

Interesting idea. Promising set-up. Fumbled execution. Fizzled climax. Ho-hum resolution as the narrator and Raspail seem too wearied or jaded to bother carrying on after so many pages of rants.
However, the relevance of this scenario cannot be gainsaid. Look at headlines. (Amazon US 6/5/17)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime": Book Review

No, I never saw the 1981 movie. And after sampling the author himself reading the audio version in a surprisingly perfunctory, even dull, manner, I opted for the book on a recent flight to New York. The story rushed past, and as I was using a Kindle, I had no idea that the novel would finish so rapidly. I felt I was halfway through when suddenly, the characters were all wrapped up and the ending loomed. Like the audio, it's itself perfunctory in places, and it felt as if E.L. Doctorow wanted it over.

Looking back forty-plus years, this 1975 novel feels a bit dated. Of course, it's an historical narrative dramatizing real life characters such as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and a bit of Sigmund Freud and Booker T. Washington in cameos. This is mixed with parallel stories of a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and the "Younger Brother" of a scion of a flags and fireworks manufacturer in New Rochelle, NY. Yes, it's a bit of an easy target for Doctorow, and like the incorporation of the Coalhouse plot that sparks the action, these themes carry a counterculture air of disdain and dismissal for the American dream and its first takers.

The immigrant vs. Yankee, white vs. black, Irish vs. everyone else tensions permeate these pages. It reads well, but the sour authorial tone dampens enjoyment. Doctorow wants us to criticize the wealthy and while this may be an admirable sentiment then as now, the intrusive voice (which in other novels I do not mind necessarily) grates now and then. He keeps a distance between us and the characters, so the events feel more staged than organically motivated. as if to exemplify class struggle. This suits the 1902-1912 focus, but when towards the conclusion, other noteworthy struggles crowd in, the pace alters and one can sense Doctorow's manipulation and compression.

If he'd taken his time in the latter portions, it might have resembled the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos even more than it certainly does, especially in the Younger Brother's picaresque itinerary. Doctorow starts this part off inventively, but he then crams in more telling than showing, and the momentum weakens when it should have accelerated after the pivotal New York City showdown.

The mechanical nature of this storyline may result, as a 1998 piece in the Observer reminds readers, from Doctorow's debt to the novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. While Doctorow nods to this source for Coalhouse Walker, it does tip his own reworking of this idea into melodrama, as this Observer critic noted. Like Dos Passos, the machinations of the characters wind up less engaging than the ideas and the milieu depicted, in the early part of last century. (Amazon US 5-30-17)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Claire Santry's "The Family Tree Irish Genealogical Guide": Book Review

The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Ireland
This is the best resource in print on Irish genealogical research that I have found. I had to learn some of this advice the hard way, before the internet eased the process. Claire Santry had the advantage of accessing much online as well as onsite, and she shows how the first stage can be done before one visits Ireland. Key to success is matching the surname back to its townland--the small area that as she informs, was what a cow could graze on. This focuses an investigation on its narrowest set of data.

She intersperses her suggestions with a general history of Irish events and situations that affected the records extant. While for many of Catholic origins, the trail will end around the middle of the 19th century, she shows how landlords, neighbors, witnesses at marriages and baptisms, and other friends of the family, so to say, can orient a seeker who may have a common surname, common first names, and many families of that line in the same region, or different ones. Particularly helpful are patterns of naming children based on their relatives and ancestors: the reason why so few names are often used, and why they keep repeating down the generations in records or lore, complicating the quest.

The records transcribed or microfilmed are gradually archived online, some free, some not. Santry gives detailed directions on how to organize one's notes, and how best to proceed online so as to get as much of a sense of the local area as possible, before ideally a visit. Civil registrations, church records, census, land and property, newspaper, police gazette, military, and probate documents all are mentioned and often illustrated. Deciphering Latin abbreviations in parish registers is challenging; the appendix provides help. From my experience and I assume hers, the state of the online uploads as to legibility does not improve at all on the physical microfilm in many cases, so be forewarned.

From Santry's book, I learned a few new tricks. Findmypast is a site I'd never seen, linked to the 1749 Diocese of Elphin census, valuable for Co. Roscommon information in my own case. Griffiths Valuations are a lot easier to read than when I needed them on microfilm, and the National Archives of Ireland now has some land valuation notebooks I spent hours paging through in person uploaded.

Connaught and Munster databases for landed estates are now online, as are some Irish and British newspapers (some in my search behind paywalls). Finally, headstones by the thousands in photos and transcriptions are now also on the web. Such tidbits collect rich knowledge in one handy guidebook.

Therefore, lists of genealogy centers, local history organizations, libraries and government offices are also appended, as firsthand encounters may have to be done when net-working only takes one so far. Both American and Irish databases are covered, as well as some British ones, which will please the many millions descended from mid-19c emigrants. The book's narrative concludes with a couple of case studies, showing from researchers how they successfully navigated their way through the data.

I'd add that for certain surnames, blogs or discussion groups or websites are often recommended, as you may find that others have preceded or paralleled your path. I found this out years after my own search of primary records seen in Irish record keeping offices, but at least that then verified my own findings--and that the "tree" on Ancestry-com had an error due to that mixing of common first names and surnames that may likely bedevil even the most diligent tracker, due to traditional naming patterns. I'd add a final caution that even at the parish or townland level, you may find repetition among different families, often related of course, sharing surnames that concentrate very locally. (Amazon US 5-18-17)

Mary Ginsberg's "Communist Posters": Book Review

cover of book
North Korea menaces again as a foe of the United States. Cuba waits as if eager for reconciliation. Regimes against which American expended much manpower and munitions fifty years ago now trade with their neighbors in Asia, the largest of which, China, is capitalist in fact if not theory. Headlines and Wiki-Leaks pepper the news and feeds with allegations of Russia, echoing those of the Cold War.

This range of reactions by the U.S. government and media to Communist nations makes this collection of posters from these and allied nations under red flags relevant. On the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mary Ginsberg edits and introduces the most comprehensive presentation in print of often vivid propaganda, that for a less screen-focused century, captured the eyes and the minds of hundreds of millions. They celebrated, endured, or hated the heydays of Fidel or Mao, Lenin and Stalin, and the various apparatchiks who tried to implement their theories and schemes.

A representative example appears early on. Red Loudspeakers Are Sounding Through Every Home (1972), as Ginsberg observes, documents the use of images to instill obedience. In a Chinese village, slogans, songs and lectures emanate from speakers installed on the streets. Their indoctrination may have seemed inescapable. For such broadcasts cannot be shut off. Other means further the deification of the leader as well as his dictates. The home shown on the poster has only a framed portrait of The Chairman, surrounded by small banners with sayings and little red books. Outside, a family gathers.

Over 330 illustrations demonstrate the range and the scope beyond the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C. Korean, Mongolian, Eastern European, Vietnamese and Cuban chapters provide essays by scholars. These cross-reference the pictures, providing a narrated guided tour that alerts readers to the themes.

These depend heavily on Constructivism and photomontage. Art as function and promotion through photography combine to sell the peasants and workers on these products of the intellectuals. What they peddle are exhortations to produce more, fight harder and act braver. The verbosity of the caption can weigh down the impact of the 1937 image. Sergei Igumnov's red fist emerging from the rolled-up sleeve showing off a worker's clenched and muscular arm strangles a snake with swastika eyes. What this depicts is: "We'll Uproot Spies and Deviationists of the Trotsky-Bukharin Agents of Fascism." Given the relentless purges under the Man of Steel, such creations linger longer for their visual force rather than the ever-changing explanations linking the art to the enemy of the moment.

As dynasties bore down, the masses viewed ideals. Aleksei Lavrov's The People's Dreams Have Come True (1950) has a grandfather resembling Lenin. He clasps a Young Pioneer's shoulder. The old man's smile encourages the slightly wistful, perhaps hesitant, fantasies of the boy, looking up from his book, penned by "a critic of urban social conditions." Pravda sits on the table of their ship's cabin. Behind their sofa a reproduction of "the famous Repin painting Barge Haulers on the Volga" is a bit blurred, but "confirming how terrible things used to be." Outside, ships sail past factories that gleam.

The last Soviet poster blurs into patterns mirroring 1920s abstractions. Other lands drew on their own artistic legacies. Mongolian folk art and calligraphy enter many of its first efforts, while later ones mimic the Chinese Communist preference for red banners, gesticulating vanguards, rosy cheeks and marching masses. Polish aesthetics, as evocatively shown on film posters, also grace political ones. Silhouettes, shadows, stark typefaces and surreal figures shunted aside the Soviet template. Czech and Hungarian designers likewise incorporated pop art and psychedelic patterns into silkscreen and montage takes on opera, a new television model or Allende's brief Chilean victory. Anti-Americanism also heightens for Western audiences a Chinese imitation of an anti-Vietnam war mural, with placards with English-language denunciations of the war machine. North Korea dutifully perpetuates this type.

The appeal of stylized "characters in primary colors, along with shrill slogans, dotted with exclamation marks" predates the reign of Kim Il Sung. But the "visual recognizability and readability" sustain themselves for two-thirds of a century due to the simple, even atrophied graphics. As Koen de Cuester explains in this section, campaigns prove unrelenting under the Kims, and so the shelf life of a given poster is limited: "the message prevails over the package." He also asks a necessary question: "Where does art end and propaganda begin?" For the D.P.R.K., art theory combines ideological with artistic equality through a unified concept. Agitprop exhorts the Koreans to work diligently against an Uncle Sam whose competing tanks, bombers and missiles always loom.
What distinguishes Korean versions is a frequent inclusion of a mythical horse flying over smoking chimneys and rice paddies. Eyes also lead the way as they flare up and as fingers point the way on.

Vietnam takes French and Indochinese influences, hand-drawn lettering, indigenous themes and guerrilla poses from street art for some of its varied products. They stand out as more awkward and more original than the Soviet, Maoist or Korean contributions. They perpetuate the raw, eyewitness sensibility of not an imagined but a real struggle against an imperialist invader, or more than one.

Another rich array of approaches results in Cuban artifacts. International influences entered into the island's art long before 1959. Capitalizing on tourism and a worldwide market, its posters were sold as commercial items. Diminishing the Socialist Realism quotient, they increase the use of stencils, hand-cut and silkscreened. Disparate objects may juxtapose; so may "humour and visual wit." Not to mention Castro's 1977 proclamation: "Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art." Contrasting the sophistication of the Cuban propaganda against the simplicity of Mongolian, for instance, reminds viewers and readers of the connections one Communist enclave may enjoy, as opposed to another.

One closes this collection wondering what the future holds for political posters. Capitalist systems appeal to the watcher of a screen far more than the passerby of a placard. Scholars in this current century may have to hope that our soon-outmoded digital technology records the catchphrases and memes generated by the political spectrum today as carefully as archivists have these bold posters. (Spectrum Culture) 432 pages 04-22-17 Reaktion Books

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lionel Shriver's "The Mandibles": Book Review

After nearly 130 reviews posted [on Amazon US, where this appeared 9/28/16], mine will not rehash much of the story. I like Lionel Shriver's little-known novel on the North of Ireland and while her take on obesity in Big Brother was less successful, I admire her willingness to immerse herself, whether the theme is snooker, bicycling, tennis, or a child who is a bit of a problem. So, as a fan of dystopias, I wondered how she'd handle the near-future economic meltdown of the Renunciation.

Turns out she puts enormous paragraphs in the mouths of not only the put-upon Georgetown professor of economics, but a teen prodigy. They wind up having to explain theory and practice of the "dismal science" to the family, which grows as hard times fall and never ebb in 2029. Shriver tackles the misanthropy and growing chaos well, if from the perspective of a hard-to-like matriarch of a privileged clan in Manhattan. True, pity is needed for those who as the prof notes have more than one pair of shoes, and to her credit, Shriver moves the family tale along rather briskly.

But as the professor lets on early, his pontifications are hard to let go of, and other characters speak like educated folks on paper, with almost no distinction. Only a burst of "black English" by one client of the protagonist of the first 3/4 of the novel seems to come from another class or reality. Still, seeing a New York streetscape where the homeless do include nuclear physicists in fact and not fantasy, and where the street people have their pick of Posturepedic mattresses discarded as the system breaks down and selfishness gives way to brutishness seems to confirm Hobbes.

She gets digs in. No more worries about lactose tolerance, or gender dysmorphia. Or, obesity, in the harsh reality that replaces coddling or comfort.

Oddly, in the last quarter of the book, from the view of a particularly annoying if prescient person, the presumed religious backlash to the surveillance of the resurgent US government is absent. Shriver succeeds as many writers have in showing us the New American Order, but she shrinks from the rural reaction, and her observation of the world outside NYC does not convince. As she divides her time between Brooklyn and London as a longtime ex-pat, perhaps she is too used to reading about her fellow 'Muricans rather than roaming beyond the chattering creative classes she likes to skewer. True, mango-wood side tables won't rouse much of a reaction vs. a 5 lb. bag of rice in 2029 where "dial 2 for English" is the new norm. Her predictions may come true--I fear that of the "cuboids" of dead trees once known as books may be hastened, despite her dire estimation of Amazon itself in this brave new world. Anyone having read Huxley's tale may find The Mandibles an echo, if another uneven message.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Owen Davies' "Paganism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Paganism: A Very Short Introduction

This focuses necessarily on Christianity, as that force has for very long defined what it is not as pagan. For the other side, we lack a lot of trustworthy information. For the enemies of the "pre-Christian indigenous religions," if that slippery phrase itself not wholly supported by Owen Davies is any guide, rallied to denigrate their opponents. Pagans under Rome did not always live in the "sticks," but in cities, furthermore, often.

The opposition faded, but held out among the Balts, Slavs, and Scandinavians. Yet these places also betray influences by Christians. The archaeological record finds temples were probably more political sites than places of worship. And the common appeal popularized by Augustine of Canterbury to build on pagan places the Christian sacred spaces was a clever conversion move, to ease and entice those reluctant to baptism.

While such holdouts in many realms lingered, the claims of continuity from some unbroken underground lineage as advanced by Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner early last century give way to harsh reality. I wish Davies had included those who from Italy or Iceland assert such sustaining practices, but in such a short primer, this shifts rapidly from European to New World and African and Eastern intrusions, as who was pagan grew alongside Christian missionaries' attempts to overcome such beliefs, demonized by Augustine of Hippo and leading to much persecution and death.

I also wondered about Islamic attitudes towards polytheists. Glimpses can be gleaned, but again, this concentrates on Christian promulgations and prohibitions against magic, sorcery, idol worship, sacrifice animal or human, and many gods. Even the term polytheism gains suspicion, for Philo of Alexandria invented it to differentiate those who went after false deities instead of the One True God of the Torah. So, deep within monotheism rests a fundamental distrust and an active determination to root out those who defy the core message of unity and faith, by belief in many powers.

Davies has a lot to compress, so the pace is rapid. The suggested reading list is briefer than many volumes in this series, But the bibliography, even if it is not tied to the chapters that tightly, is in-depth. A necessary corrective to romanticizing or fearing this common belief system, one that in an ecologically threatened reality seeks to restore some semblance of connection to earth, and the spirits and forces that may swirl around us. (Amazon US 12/3/16)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Black Watch's "The Gospel According to John": Music Review

Active since the mid-80s, The Black Watch blends the British and New Zealand indie-pop moods of wistful reverie with the frenetic reactions of The Cure, House of Love, and Echo and the Bunnymen. As with many of its peers, this ensemble continues with its lead singer-songwriter guiding a changing lineup. Tallying as full-length recording fifteen, spanning thirty years of its discography, John Andrew Fredrick and band return with one of the best albums from this reliably satisfying outfit.

Recent releases from The Black Watch tended to linger over delicate moods. These highlighted Fredrick's introspective lyrics. Given his career as an English professor specializing in literature of at least two centuries ago, these meet exacting standards. Now, the archly and typically playfully titled The Gospel According to John preaches assertive vocals over intense guitars. Reminiscent of post-punk sounds in Liverpool and Down Under, these well-sequenced eight tracks dash past vividly.

Brian Jonestown Massacre's Rob Campanella favors a punchy, propulsive production. "Whence" blasts the disc open, glides into acoustic cruise control, and then reverts to the heights. "Way Strange World" prefers a funky nod to recent Brooklyn-based "alternative" moves, combined with an Ian McCulloch-style croon. This ambiance sustains "The All-Right Side of Just O.K" as a blurrier take on this type. "Story" slows only to kick in similarly. A subdued "Jealousy" soothes mid-stream. Whether one delights in Southern Californian Fredrick's preference for British-accented articulation or not, the results will please listeners who admire the legacy of intelligent, textured, and convincing song craft.

The final stage of this sleek record accelerates. "Orange Kicks" plays a precise spoken-word delivery off of riffs which manage to sidestep themselves without tripping up. A hushed and brusque downbeat as "Oscillator Redux" ushers in the whirling sprawl of the orbiting "Satellite." It closes this accomplished effort with a spinning declaration of yearning, over winningly chiming propulsion. (PopMatters 5/8/17; Amazon US 5/12/17)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Elif Batuman's "The Possessed": Book Review

 The Possessed , Elif Batuman (2010)
These garrulous 2010 anecdotes of this Stanford graduate student document how Russian literature permeates the imagination of her peers and mentors. It also shows how unhinged, conniving, and silly academia can be. Nothing new there, but Elif Batuman is also an intellectual, as her Harvard undergraduate preparation shows. She also displays her determination to market herself then as now.

Cadging grants for specious research into Tolstoy's death sets in motion one chapter. Another, the most coherent and slightly less rambling, precedes that in demonstrating how to pitch Isaac Babel in more appealing form than a display of manuscripts in the Stanford library. Here, you get the best example of how Batuman examines herself in relation to her young life's pursuit. She thinks of literature as "a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft." The tell-tale "pretty much..." signals her habitual preference for the chatty over the sober in her scholarship. It's present, but until the last essay analyzing Devils (fka "The Possessed" itself, it prefers to soft-sell the lit-crit for a coming-of-age assemblage of journalism originally appearing in separate form. It shows. Some information repeats, and the Samarkand stint that's interspersed with the Russian-oriented entries makes the collection lurch about, even if she also links events and thoughts together in revised sections. It's ambitious, and it's certainly more readable, if loquacious.

She's attempting to align her dissertation about "big" novels and the way that they try to make the author's life resemble his or her beloved fiction, as with Don Quixote. "The novel form is 'about' the protagonist's struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books." Many who do create out of this tension attempt and perhaps fail to answer some of her big "different, insoluble" questions: "Why were people created? Why are all people unhappy? Why are intellectuals even unhappier than everyone else?" No answers emerge.

What energizes Batuman she finds repeated in a reconstructed palace of ice, "the monstrous crystallization of the anxiety that made authors from Cowper to Tolstoy to Mann cancel out their most captivating pages: the anxiety of literature, that most solitary and time-consuming of arts, as irremediably vain, useless, and immoral." This is livelier than much of Harold Bloom, I do confess.

Some of the best parts show off Batuman's eye and ear. Natalie Babel turns "with the expression of a cat who does not want to be picked up." Another woman "spoke in a head voice, like a puppet." One more "chanted in a half-pleading, half-declaratory tine, like somebody proposing an hour-long toast." And, a "few times I saw a chicken walking about importantly, like some kind of regional manager."

As a critic, she attempts to push her education into the greater world, through an extended stay in Samarkand. Her own quest to see if her Turkish fluency and her Russian fascination overlap as she tries to learn Uzbek flounders, for "that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no preexisting entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked." A different type of anxiety of influence lurks within this outcome.

When she applies Rene Girard's theory, we return to the diligent doctoral candidate. "According to Girard, there is in fact no such thing as human autonomy or authenticity. All of the desires that direct our actions in life are learned or imitated from some Other, to whom we mistakenly ascribe the autonomy lacking in ourselves." As with ads that feature the beautiful or handsome possessor of the bottle of vodka, this supposed freedom that owner displays means that we are driven not "to possess the object, but to be the Other." This discourages her. Why not stop our pursuit? One novel would be all we needed to disabuse our self from illusion. Love and ambition, what Augustine posited as the "basic premises of literary narrative," would prove failures. Who needs any more scholars "in a world where knowledge, learning, and the concept of difference turned out to be a mirage?" Still, she ends the final entry by claiming if she did it all over, she'd "choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them."

Does this book of occurrences and contemplation succeed? It left me interested in Batuman's argument. It also left me somewhat bemused by her privilege (daughter of medical professionals, Jersey suburb, elite education, and a seeming knack at finagling her way into gaining funds), for she adapts the position of a six-foot-tall misfit. She cannot have been all that inept. I think she bobbles her attempt to parallel her unwieldy structure to Eugene Onegin's "strange appendix that doesn't make sense until later, out of order" but at least she tries to bridge the gap between the common reader seeking insight and entertainment, in what could have been a tired trope, the long march to the Ph.D.
(Amazon US 5/9/17)