Thursday, April 27, 2017

"The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies": Book Review


The Harvard Classics: Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies
This anthology reminds me of the belletrist, when a newspaper or magazine could afford to host an erudite raconteur to relate his likes and dislikes. Robertson Davies' selected book reviews from the middle-on of the last century, originally published in 1979, recall the age of comfortable chairs and book reviews aimed at the discerning common reader. "Is there anyone who does not know something of the life and career of Sydney Smith"?

Well, I confess as with a few of the (once-)celebrated figures he praises, I knew nothing. I skimmed some entries, but I liked their brevity. One indulgence Davies displays is that he may only at the end of a piece mention the work under scrutiny, or its editor or particular features. He's often content to ramble on for a few pages about his own attitude towards the subject. He may rarely cite passages verbatim, and he prefers to meander.

Yet, glimmers emerge of Davies' preference for the twisted, the odd, the misfit, same as those characters he dramatized in his own offbeat fiction. Speaking of Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" as a "startling and meaty novel, if you happen to have tired of dreary tales of adultery in suburbia, of the despair of illiterates that have never known hope, of pin-heads who fear that they are incapable of love, or any of the other stock themes of modern fiction," (201), the critic and fabulist commingle.

The third part of this collection takes up Davies' own predilections, but it seemed flimsier than the reviews, and even these, for all their eclectic range, by their compact nature did not allow (as on his fellow muse John Cowper Powys) the necessary depth that would have allowed Davies the space to expand his glimpsed observations and extend his snippets of analysis. (Amazon US 2/3/17)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

John Andrew Fredrick's "Your Caius Aquilla": Book Review

In this elegant but pocketable edition, passionate bibliophile Michael Ross has curated 106 favorite literary quotes from the collection of over 1500 well-read books on his shelves—but this isn't your typical rehashing of Bartlett's quotations. Michael Ross brings together men, women, love, sex, money, and death from such a new perspective even the authors themselves will probably find this book useful and insightful. 

This musician-writer-professor revels in wit. His pair of The King of Good Intentions novels enlivened the indie-rock scene in Los Angeles in the 80s, while his band The Black Watch continues to make spirited and smart rock.(Start with his newest album released around the same time as this, The Gospel According to John.) For Your Caius Aquilla, John Andrew Fredrick plunges into an earlier era filled with corrupt politicians, windbag pundits, and callow military men determined on imperial domination: "We enslave the ones we don't like so they can have the privilege of living or loving Rome." So laments the titular protagonist, whose letters to his wife back home in the capital comprise the first half of this entertaining tale. Caius is fighting what his spouse Lora agrees are but "admittedly superfluous barbarians," and he itches to come home to his family and especially her.

The barrier to this reunion is the extended tour of duty, as there are always more miscreants to kill off. Battle scenes are conveyed with Rabelaisian verve and Joycean excess. It's told in a chatty, slangy prose that runs together. Think of Roman inscriptions carved without punctuation or breaks.

However, these headlong blocks of text go on for pages. They can overwhelm the reader. I recalled C.S. Lewis' advice in taking in poetry. Not to slow, but to keep pace, to hear the voice race forward.

Halfway in, Lora's responses begin to fill the tote bag back to the front, or so it seems. The twist I leave to you to find out, but this fiction does reveal in JAF a heretofore occluded display of his erotic energy. From this point on, the shift in tone and content spurs one to the conclusion. In the manner of clever narratives, the author keeps you turning the pages, wondering where Lora's candor will wend.

Along the headlong way, nods to Proust, Hamlet, Aristophanes, the Life of Brian, The Autumn of the Patriarch (at least for me in the refusal to indent), The Tin Drum, Goodfellas, The Smiths, and (not only for the tennis product placement) David Foster Wallace appear. So do the pleasantly antiquated terms such as roisterer, cove, and rodomontade, from the period the professor specializes in way back

It's fun to think of the couple's son Aurelius complaining about lessons with Cicero, too. "I don't want to have to be so logical all the time." This attitude also infuses these pages, And humor is welcome in these parlous (same as it ever was) times. I end with one of the many lively phrases JAF offers. For all the intended cliches ("just sayin'"), the originality (at least to me) of such as "an apple that looks like your great aunt after she's fallen asleep in the bath" linger as testament to JAF's inventive talent.

Yes, it ends suddenly. So did the first installment of "TKOGI." That makes me wonder if more is in the offing from Caius A. After all, it worked for Robert Graves' Claudius chronicles. (Amazon US 4-23-17. Book's website. And, author's website.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Simon Parke's "Conversations with Leo Tolstoy": Audiobook Review

Conversations with Leo Tolstoy - Air Force Digital Media Program
I wanted to hear about Tolstoy, as well as listen to some of his classic works, long or short. Simon Parke's Conversations with Leo Tolstoy featured in online holdings as the only choice. Part of Parke's clever series using himself as a slightly hesitant interviewer hosting great thinkers, here Andy Harrison enlivens Tolstoy in his own words. However, this encounter is long after his mid-life conversion which lured him away from literary circles as he pursued his dogged spiritual quests.

It makes me wonder about Parke with Mozart, Van Gogh, Meister Eckhardt, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jesus. It's a pleasingly disparate set of topics that Parke, assuming the hesitant delivery of a "Very British" pundit-journalist, delves into with Leo. Not only violence, war, and pacifism, but marriage, belief, science, and vegetarianism. For the audio, Andy Harrison fulminates appropriately, as his passionate advocacy of abstention from many delights as well as cruelties characterized his later life.

He despised King Lear, too. So, while I did not get much of the literary fame and fictional achievements, I did learn in these in-depth four hours quite a lot about Tolstoy's spirit. You understand better why his family relations were so tumultuous, and why he courted great fame. (Amazon US 4/20/17)

Friday, April 21, 2017

Paul Strathern's "Dostoevsky in 90 Minutes": Audiobook Review

Dostoevsky in 90 Minutes Audiobook | Paul Strathern | Audible.com
Robert Whitfield in the audio's 128 minutes gallops through Paul Strathern's Dostoevsky in 90 Minutes. Whitfield channels Strathern's condensation of the author's essence. Strathern. He hears rants in the less "civilized" Dostoevsky, for whom those in their late teens comprise his fan-base.

I checked this out from my library's download as it was the only audio title I could find on this writer. It opens with the famous vignette of the man facing imminent execution as part of a set-up, before he served four years in Siberia for seditious activities. That is, joining a reading group on utopian socialism. Dostoevsky was sentenced to hard labor. But out of this struggle began the impetus for his greatest works. Strathern regards them as not quite the equal perhaps of Tolstoy, the inevitable rival.

Yet for their literary intensity, their depictions of distorted ideals and tragic souls, his fiction endures. It may not be as polished as other Russian authors, but it does speak to the unleashed forces within us. This audio goes rapidly, but you get the gist of his career with excerpts from his major novels. (Amazon US 4/20/17)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men": Audiobook Review


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men | Gorgeous Book Covers | Pinterest

One blurb lauds the "hilarious" content herein. It's brief, compared to that bent on a harrowing evocation of the titular hideousness. On audio, there is talent applied diligently by a variety of youngish male actors. But this for four hours bogs down into a combination of raw (more ways than one) material for future dramatic monologues for auditions, and what feels, intentionally surely, the transcripts of a variety of depressed, bitter, lustful, wry, and/or erudite (as the author) case studies.

Halfway, #46 does reach an apex of ingenuity. The metaphorical and moral connections between Viktor Frankl's suffering endured that produced his Man's Search for Meaning and the assault perpetrated with a Jack Daniel's bottle on a teen victim ensure that no reader or listener will ever think of that Holocaust memoir-treatise the same from now on. Yet, as with the content overall, the ending's not surprising. These sound, as DFW intended I assume, as character studies of the dark side. But, as with a surfeit of crime fiction, true or imagined, the consumer may be weary too early.

There's an exhaustive determination to record betrayals, rapes, defecation, disgust, hatred, ennui, resentment, and doomed power-plays, and manipulation, in sex and other exchanges turned violent. It's surely what you see is what you get, but this is not a series of themes I care to return to. David Foster Wallace possesses insight, verisimilitude, and intelligence. But the degree to which he forces himself and then us to listen to these revelations batters you down. "His eyes were holes in the world" is how one woman sums up her attacker, tellingly for these blunt themes. (Amazon US 4-17-17)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dave McGowan's "Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon": Book Review

Weird_Scenes1
This genial set of ruminations reminds me of what were once called "bull sessions." You'd stay up late with a pal who'd regale you with off-beat speculations and ingenious theories that sounded plausible in the wee hours, at least. Dave McGowan compiled such on the Net, and one gathering resulted in this series of connections arguing, loosely, that the CIA and the military were behind the sudden influx of musical activity (I hesitate to label it all as creativity) in late 1960s Laurel Canyon.

As a native Angeleno, my memories remain those of the hazy youngster. Our 44th president, five weeks younger than me, has been relegated to "late middle age" by a journalist I recently perused, so I suppose even those of us on the cusp of fading Boomers and actually more akin to suspicious Gen X rather than the idealism of the previous generation need to be reckoned with. We after all grew up with Watergate, the return of the POWs from Vietnam, and OPEC's embargo as formative memories in junior high, a time when one's conceptions of the systems that entangle us begins to take shape.

I say this to situate myself. The hippies smacked to me of class privilege even then, while the ordinary folks I lived with and watched appeared to have to make a living and pay the bills and go to jobs they did not particularly care for often. My dad: "99% of the work done is by people who don't feel that great"; so his reply when I felt lazy and I tried to get out of weeding, cleaning kennel runs, or whatever required me to leave my bookish niche and venture out under the smoggy sun to get grimy.

Anyhow, as McGowan digresses frequently, so do I. The contents document the counterculture, but also predecessors, however dimly or briefly tied to Lookout Mountain (once the proverbial top secret place of experimentation), the "defense industry," spies, and other furtive efforts, emanating out of the Beltway with eerie regularity, once one connects the dots and fills in the family trees of a myriad.

With little talent more than to be coincidence or happenstance, many of the pampered scions found themselves rock stars, or at least hangers on and movers and shakers and hustlers and victims of such. McGowan delineates with obsessive good humor and wry asides how so many came West. His anecdotes may be familiar to those following the times, but it's entertaining to find him debunk hoary tales such as how Neil Young's hearse in Sunset Strip traffic somehow met aspiring members-to-be of Buffalo Springfield. The doleful tones of The Doors with earnest Jim Morrison (check out his lineage) get their comeuppance. And once more we contemplate the roles drugs played, to bring down such deserving outfits as Love, who could have bettered what the Doors cashed in on instead.

McGowan crams in or appends Houdini, as a coda from his other research, and like this book's trajectory, it's a wandering way into the canyon. Where houses burn with astonishing frequency, runaways get hoisted into fame, and the air of privilege for some never fades despite their hollow claims to liberal slogans. David Crosby (check out his lineage) earns deserved mockery in particular.

This lacks editing. It's all over the place, And how did the Mamas and the Papas manage to record two "fourth albums"? McGowan's affection for this intrigue proves at odds with its need for revision.

It's an enjoyable ramble, even if McGowan must admit he's stymied by the inherent secrecy within the set-ups he tries to trace. This makes for the type of "but it could all be true if we only knew the truth" sort of escape hatch that enables such suppositions their place in pop culture's fringe regions. But for any who like myself wonder why the radical protests and edgy subversion of the dangerous counterculture faded so soon into reveries and moonbeams, this provides a suggestive scenario why.
(Amazon US 5-16-17 except paragraphs 2+3)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Halldór Laxness' "Independent People": Book Review


Regarded as the best of his many novels in English, this is the most widely known and the one which made his reputation and secured for him the 1955 Nobel Prize. Halldór (I follow Icelandic convention as no surnames for most people are used) Laxness' prickly personality seems to be channeled through one of the least likable protagonists ever. One who relegates women and cattle to the same herd, easily or not corralled, Bjartur of Summerhouses holds out two decades to uphold what he insists is his right to the land, the women, his herd.

The story takes its time to unfold. Halldór due to his own intense involvement in Icelandic and Marxist politics places increasingly detailed accounts as the plot progresses. It's clear that while Halldór and his chief character have a lot in common, that perhaps, subtly, the Stalinist sympathizing creator (this was written in the mid-1930s) may harbor doubts despite his determined sloganeering in the noble workers cause, as near the end of the novel they prepare to take up pickaxes against the capitalists in the small town near the farm. But this is a rural tale.

For most of the action, it's away from any habitation larger than a croft or the one gentry's home. As with the island's sagas, bits of previous deeds by the sung heroes sprinkles across the memories and inward voices guiding, or distracting, the man who sets himself against all odds. This complicates itself when his daughter, Asta Sollilja, "the beautiful Sun-Lily" tries to stand up for herself too. Their relationship, as the cliche goes, is complicated. Sexual energy is largely sublimated or thwarted, but as with many traditional storylines, chances are that an encounter will result in a pregnancy appear the norm. This fatalism, as many die in childbirth and many young succumb to the harsh conditions, dampens the mood, and this is a sobering epic. It focuses more on the shadows and the stones than the sunlight and the stars, so to say, and as one traveling itinerant who comes to stay a while at Summerhouses enchants Bjartur's offspring if not himself with snippets of scenes from California and the world beyond, the Icelandic preference keeps one's eyes cast down, intent on hunkering in. 

Such contrasts show the isolation of Asta. When she hears bible tales, she cannot comprehend their messages. A package of books elucidating to her and her siblings the wonders of the greater globe fascinate her, as about the only glimpse of delight. It's that or emigration to America for those who cannot cope with the extremes. Halldór presents his humans as set upon, whether by a co-operative enterprise, by the wealth brought in as Iceland capitalizes on its separation from WWI, and by the monopoly that prevails in the local county, and then under the reign of the Prime Minister, as the nation prospers and its humbler residents endure inequality. 

For all the meanderings of this book, it's memorable for J.A. Thompson's translation. Somehow he captures the rhythms from the difficult native language, into a measured, often slightly dated-on-purpose, quasi-liturgical tone. This enhances the shifting registers Halldór chooses to move about in. As with his other works, so here: the style is capricious, encompassing much of beauty and of pain, and a restless set of men and women, beset by their mental limits, their spiritual capitulation, their stunted intellects, and their political and economic servitude. 

I read this in the 1946 hardcover, but nowadays it opens the series from Viking of his major fiction, brought back into print near the end of a century when Halldór almost spanned its entirety. I did not see the introduction by Jane Smiley, but readers apparently warn the newcomer away from its spoilers. Best to start fresh, and trek on. 
(Amazon US 4/14/17) 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ivan Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons": Audiobook Review

... anthony heald publisher blackstone audio format unabridged audiobook"
I liked Anthony Heald's nuanced dramatization of the easily stereotyped Elmer Gantry a few years ago, when I was listening to Sinclair Lewis adaptations after making my way through his major novels. I assume Ivan Turgenev was in a way the Lewis of his day, half a century earlier, in sending up social mores and what a hundred years after Fathers and Sons was called "the generation gap."

This eight-hour reading of this 1862 work shows off Heald's ability to make characters brusque (Bazarov has a touch of blustering John Wayne to me), timid (most of the women regardless of class), bumptious (Arkady and his father Nikolai too), or flustered (Pavel among others). He also pays attention to the arguments advanced by the rude nihilist, and those of the Kirsanov brothers in reply: at one point the blunt doctor-to-be is chided as being among "four and a half" such angry young men.

In the narrative, both men face the opposition of the nobles and the upper class to their bold rejection of tradition and religion. Turgenev skims past these divisions, preferring to elaborate the psychological tensions as well as highlight the natural beauties apparent to one who in his earlier "hunting sketches" drew the plight of the suffering forward, as contrasted with the angst of graduates.

As my first exposure to Turgenev, this proved an engaging effort. I can see why Henry James praised his control of the narrative, and why Joseph Conrad would be attracted to its dissection of ideals. I'm not sure if it's risible that Bazarov for all his boasts of poverty--"my grandfather ploughed the land" visits his parents' home and mentions to Arkady that B's family only had fifteen (or was it twenty-two in another telling?) serfs. I suppose destitution was relative; I'd like to know Turgenev's take on it all.

As well as what "she's been through fire and water" and as a wag adds "all the brass instruments" means. While a bit may be lost in translation--Heald used the uncredited public domain Constance Garnett rendering while I followed along in the copyright-free 1948 Richard Hare version---this remains a valuable look at the up-and-coming tensions that would in half-a-century tear Russia apart. (Amazon US 4/14/17: Favorite quote from a nihilist: "Death's an old story, but new for each person.")

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Joy Division's "New Dawn Fades" Music Review.

Joy Division - New Dawn Fades Wallpaper
Recorded exactly a year after another Manchester band's dramatic post-punk debut, "Shot By Both Sides" by Magazine, had influenced its guitar riff, "New Dawn Fades" closes side one of 1979's Unknown Pleasures. Like John McGeoch and Barry Adamson in Magazine, the guitar-bass pairing of Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook combines into a disorienting tune that marries anthem with dirge. For just as Howard Devoto dampened enthusiasm in one Mancunian line-up, so Ian Curtis does here.

His lyrics, like Devoto's single, reflect the disillusion following punk's initial burst and fade. They share the same image, too: a weapon, a victim. Curtis intones at the end of verse one: {I took the blame./ Directionless so plain to see,/A loaded gun won't set you free./So you say." Stephen Morris' drums clang away in Krautrock mechanical style. Hook's bass keeps descending as Sumner's guitar ascends. Martin Hannett's icy production layers this in backward tapes from the band's "Insight" to open "New Dawn Fades" with a disembodied whir. Over and over, the guitars sound like dim chimes.

At nearly five minutes, this feels epic. The band locks into its groove, as Curtis shifts in verse two to another perspective. {An angry voice and one who cried,/'We'll give you everything and more, The strain's too much, can't take much more.' Oh, I've walked on water, run through fire, Can't seem to feel it anymore.} However, much as listeners may hear this a a harbinger of his suicide the next year, there is a respite. For Sumner stops the ascent, and ends by a brief guitar snippet with a hint of hope.

Image. This was submitted to Spectrum Culture 8-13-15 for staff pick #8/top ten Joy Division songs.

P.S. We each first had to send our own top 15 picks to be culled, in reverse order. These are mine. 

15. I Remember Nothing
14. Wilderness
13. Shadowplay
12. Atrocity Exhibition
11. Insight
10. Candidate
9. Interzone
8. Disorder
7. New Dawn Fades
6. Colony
5. Novelty
4. Transmission
3. Isolation
2. She's Lost Control
1. These Days

No "Love Will Tear Us Apart." Great song but it's been ruined for me by too many radio plays.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Emmanuel Carrere's "My Life as a Russian Novel": Audiobook Review

 My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir
I am reviewing the Audible version read by the always elegant Simon Vance. The audiobook's performance, as usual by Vance, is excellent. He relates the erotic content with verve, and the emotional trajectories with sensitivity. He captures Sophie's tone as well as an array of Russian men.

As for this first entry of what has become a growing shelf of "nonfictional novels" by Emmanuel Carrere, the benefits and drawbacks of this format emerge. You feel the difficulties Carrere puts "himself" in, but you also note his privilege, his holidays to Corsica and the coast at will, and despite his claims of working as a writer, the elevated position he has as the son of the esteemed "perpetual secretary" of the Academie Francaise. While his difficulties in love will find a reception among any who have dealt with passion, desire, frustration, and betrayal, whether this immersion into what seems like a description transcribed in "real time" weighs down the book past its halfway mark. It's all quite "French" as well as Russian.

Carrere over nearly nine hours hearing his plaints grows, after a promising start investigating "the last soldier of WWII" in a desolate Russian town, tedious for a listener. Simon Vance's talent keeps the listener steadily aware, but despite his skill, the material becomes interminable. Carrere integrates true to the title his detailed ups and downs in love with Sophie, but as the narrative progresses past his own search for his Georgian-born grandfather in the former Soviet Union, it becomes experimental. Sophie becomes the recipient of an overly clever paean from her lover, and while this is "novel" in a different way I have not found in any other fiction or fact, it serves to extend the complaints of Carrere himself.

It's difficult to feel sorry for him. The climactic scene back in the Russian town is expressed powerfully. But then the denouement unravels as Carrere packs more revelations in, and the book seems to fight its own ending. Maybe it does not want to die either. The Russians often seem as props for his own egotistical compulsions to make a film, to write about this to further his career, and the writer-as-writer and filmmaker-making-a-film setups have long outworn their welcome. Carrere does not appear to be aware of this, except when he admits in an aside near the conclusion: "If this was a novel..." One finishes this due to the dexterity of Simon Vance more than the text from Emmanuel Carrere.

All the same, his brief statements about the Gospels and the setting he shows of Russia, however limited in this ca. 2002-2006 span, makes me wonder about the subsequent installments in what seems to be a successful genre for Carrere of integrating his life into the lives of others. So, that is some measure of success. Carrere himself comes off as preening, but there's no denying his "way with words" and his narrative ambition. (Amazon US 4/7/17)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Eric Kurlander's "Hitler's Monsters": Book Review

Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich
This Florida-based historian bases his investigation of the supposed supernatural in Nazi Germany on archival research, vast documentation, and a determination to produce a calm, focused, and sober study of an inevitably sensational topic. He seeks a "post-revisionist" balance to recent claims diminishing or explaining by other means the reasons so many under the Nazi regime sought guidance through "border sciences" of paranormal, Thule-obsessed, and other dodgy speculation.

In this galley, no index was provided. Looking at his admittedly impressive list of sources, one is aware of Eric Kurlander's steady ability to explain such arcane and often disturbing lore and its applications. Spot-checking, for instance, I was surprised not to find any mention of Julius Evola, as his role playing off or even against the German interpretations of esoteric theory is well-known. But within the borders of his narrower topic, this professor provides a surprisingly readable guide. Coming to this as a newcomer, wary of special pleading, instead Hitler's Monsters offers balance.

That is, Prof. Kurlander achieves a combination of the distance from the events that enables reflection, and a firsthand ability to handle primary sources which many who attempt to make claims about this subject cannot support, given their lack not only of the language, but the historical acumen. The "supernatural" takes in much, and astrology, paganism. Ario-centered myth-making, witchcraft are expanded to include "miracle weapons," "supernatural partisans," and unfortunately "racial science" as supporting experimentation, resettlement, and of course mass genocide.

Nearly every paragraph contains superscriptions to the documentation. There a few endnotes elaborate on the text proper. The care taken by Kurlander is evident. With so many continuing to challenge historical veracity on this emotive episode, this caution and meticulous defense from the work of previous colleagues is welcome. It's a valuable contribution to the study of pseudo-science, far-fledged theories, insistent fabrication, and ultimate devastation. Not the kind of power results the Reich wanted to achieve, but the kind it kept churning out in apocalyptic rhetoric and frenzied schemes, even as the enemy closed in around its own borders. Werewolves, vampires, and pre-modern cosmology all played dark roles.

Out of this "supernatural imaginary," as Kurlander calls this plethora of sinister powers, an appeal beyond anti-semites, fascists, and "racist imperialists" enveloped a broader support base. This is crucial to understand, for without clear economic solutions or political policies, Kurlander concludes, the Nazi party came to and maintained its rule by blurring the problems of social and economic reality with this concocted dust of mass media manipulation. Rather than forces unseen, the dictatorship drew upon illiberal conceptions which survived the end of the Reich. As we see...
(Amazon US 4/2/17)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' "Catch-22: A Memoir": Audiobook Review

Hitch-22: A Memoir : Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens ...
Despite his persistent mumble, his habit of gulping whole paragraphs, the elegant prose style of Christopher Hitchens graces this very uneven memoir. So does his erudition. For a "pamphleteer" so dubbed in prep school turns out both a formidable rhetorician and a principled pragmatist. Given the flack which he faced most heavily when he rose to the defense of the Iraq war(s) on moral grounds, Hitchens presents his own rational argument, as many more herein, with gravitas leavened by wit. 

This memoir follows the conventional pattern of formative years, for roughly half its span. By the end of the 1970s, when Hitchens relocates semi-permanently, for he is always a nomad, in first Manhattan and then Washington D.C., it spins off into miniature essays. Salman Rushdie and Edward Said comprise the two most noted of his friends, but as with his best friend Martin Amis and their common (Hitchens corrects us on the illogic of a Dickensian "mutual") friend Ian McEwan, his character studies are skillful. He seems to have read all and met all, and like some Zelig-figure, he is there in the crucial year of '68, at the perfect age of 19, to watch the emergence of his beloved (?) Left

While I will deduct points earned for his delivery, when volumes rise and fall, gaps open, and sentences sink into his collar rather than the microphone, the hours spent vicariously in his company proved rewarding. He tells anecdotes galore. The word games with his learned colleagues, the turn of a curdled adjectival trajectory, the sudden aside (a favorite: the only Federal agency he'd be tempted to run is ATF [Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms). He loves his adopted country, and his post-9/11 analysis reminds readers fifteen-plus years since of the mendacious blame cast on its victims from all nations. 

As an immigrant himself, Hitchens ideally places himself between England and America as a critic. I'd have liked more on some at first seemingly tangential figures he limns, especially Paul Wolfowitz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. More on the evils of Henry Kissinger and the "noxious" Bill Clinton would have added value. However, I assume he's covered both in his abundant journalism. Coming before naturally and sadly his powerful coda Mortality, and after his giant "greatest hits volume, what, three collecting a vast store of polemic, critique, and recollection, Arguably, this shows the "late" late Hitchens as at the age of sixty, he looked back at his participation in so much of recent importance. 

Instead of marriages or children (both of which barely register, as the domestic side remains discreet), the fascinating journey he takes to visit the homelands of the suddenly revealed Jewish (assimilated so well that it vanished into his upbringing) maternal side moves the listener. Coupled with the dramatic story of his mother, which I leave you to discover, this exploration of his occluded identity resonates. Especially for such a vehement scold of the "Torah-toting land thieves." (I quote from a perhaps paraphrasing recall of my own. In spite of Hitch-22's many flaws, this remains recommended

Monday, April 3, 2017

Sebastian Barry's "Days Without End": Book Review

Sebastian Barry, in six previous novels (as well as his play The Stewart of Christendom) takes inspiration from his family members, past and present. More than one Barry narrative features the McNulty clan from the Irish port of Sligo. Days Without End sidles back before The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and A Long, Long Way. Barry credits not only the rumor of a great-great uncle "in the Indian Wars" but he dedicates this latest installment to his son Toby, who has come out as gay.

Whereas those two earlier McNulty fictions began as a Great War shattered peace, this densely allusive, self-aware new narrative begins with the Famine, sending in 1847 thirteen-year-old Tommy McNulty off to Canada on a "fever ship," and then to Missouri. In Daggsville, a town as unpromising as its moniker suggests, he meets his lover, John Cole. Fifty-odd years later, Thomas tells us of their pairing: "We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world." They dress in a "comely fashion" as dance partners to entice lovelorn miners, desperate to be fooled by feminine wiles. During Tommy's teens, this stratagem succeeds. With maturity, illusion withers. The partners join the Army. Heading west, they meet what they expect.

"To tell a story I have to trust it but I can issue a warning like a ticket master issuing a ticket for a western-bound train that will be obliged to go through wilderness, Indians, outlaws, and storms." Thomas's adventures turn bleak in Northern California. Summoned against the Yuroks, soldiers massacre women and children and their "braves." Troops are fooled by darkness, driven by frenzy.

The victors bury corpses. Enlisted men fill in the pits with dirt "like we were putting pastry tops on two enormous pies." Arresting phrases and novel images sharpen this blunt coming-of-age story. Barry balances beauty with horror.  Bloody duties order Thomas and John back and forth across the expanding 1850s frontier. "We wanted the enemy stilled and destroyed, so that we could live ourselves." Thomas recites the details of how these men (un-)settled themselves, unflinchingly. "A man's memory might have only a hundred days in it; he has lived thousands." Death watches it all.

Such a conflict wearies them. Their sergeant ages. Thomas reflects: "Like we got ten faces in our lives and we wear them one by one." For a while, these two young men return to their theatrical niche. In Grand Rapids they court gypsum miners. "We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards." For a while, this satisfies the couple. "Out on stage we hear the first skits going over the footlights like crates of delicious apples. Thomas gets to wear a dress and don female frippery, and does so away from the limelight. But a greater campaign empties Michigan mines of men. John and Thomas join their old sergeant, who recruits both into a Massachusetts Irish regiment.

Marched into Northern Virginia, Union ranks await battle: "Fear like a bear in the cave of banter." After this slaughter, Thomas notices that land wrest back its dominion. "The whippoorwill will call forever over these snowy meadows. But the tents are temporary." That weather worsens along with the plight of the regiment hacking its way into Tennessee. The Deep South holds a fate for the "Feds" which many novelists have evoked. Sebastian Barry, as these excerpts attest, strives to capture the Joycean tone of his storyteller, infused with Barry's small slips of verse within his very stylized prose.

A longtime fellow fighter muses of the typical Irishman in these ranks: "the trouble with him is he thinks when he is bid to do a thing." Independence may be idealized by patriots, but not among the military. "That ain't a good trait in a soldier." Barry channels through Thomas a liberal sympathy for those he must shoot, whether Native Americans or "yellowlegs" with strange accents in butternut rags. The latter foe shrinks as thin as wraiths. Rebels weaken on "fingers" of cornbread, filthy water.

The latter part of this chronicle continues in the pattern of the Western first half. As with another saga which took up the adventures of the Irish during this era, the film Gangs of New York, the scope of Barry's project strains to encompass both the tumult of the decades before the Civil War as well as the conflagrations in the days of Lincoln, Grant, and Lee. While Barry avoids repetition, such elaboration of suffering weighs down Days Without End to resemble its eternal title. Thomas repeats the moral of all this mess. "Everything bad gets shot at in America, says John Cole, and everything good too."

The soldiers respect justice despite slaughter. Their "cold brutal war" on the plains and in the hollows reveals how an armed man keeps "a queer spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that's just a fact." Thomas as he retraces his itinerary into "o'erwhelming country" to rescue Winona, a Sioux girl he had adopted fifteen years earlier (it's a winding subplot), reflects on parallels between the persecuted in his homeland and the Irishman's fate as another empire's cannon fodder and shock troops. "Now we make them this American paradise. Guess it were strange so many Irish boys doing this work." In Indian Territory Thomas peers at displaced natives. "Every face before us looks like it were slapped."

Through many plot complications, Thomas tries to sustain his hard-won family, with one old black veteran, Winona, and himself, part of "a white couple." He tries to settle down. "I hitch up my skirts good as any country girl and I work beside the men. Yet, no retreat from guns and violence lasts long in a violent depiction of more than one American lust. "Flowers draw bees and gold draws thieves."

As Days Without End rambles on, its body count rises. Old haunts spark new hatreds. Reconstruction and the clearance of natives from the supposedly tamed frontier wear down resistance against this relentless Union. "We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain't." Facing his latest in a series of forced emigrations, Thomas reasons: "The ones that don't try to rob me will feed me. That's how it is in America." Dramatizing an omnipresent imperial force, this picaresque yarn speaks for its perpetrators and victims, ordinary men, women, and children. Even if Thomas's yarn relies more than once as a Western tall tale may, on sudden coincidence and daring rescues in the nick of time: "He just appeared like an angel, I says." So does Thomas, but readers of his account may forgive him for these interventions. After all, Thomas won his place on stage and behind a skirt, fooling in turn many.
(PopMatters 3-27-17)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland": Book Review

For all the attention given Icelandic music, scenery, and travel lately, its translated literature lingers in fourth place, at least. A couple of crime novelists follow the Scandinavian boom in gloom and morbidity. Yet, the depth of this island's contributions to the short story remain little plumbed over the sea. Its 1955 Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, has had some of his many epic works find success in English over the past two decades. But even his shorter tales languish untranslated and neglected in our language.

Helen Mitsios edits "Out of the Blue," the first anthology of Icelandic short fiction translated into our language. Its twenty new selections range from a page to many, and many indeed feature what she labels as a native "regard for entertaining conversation." She repeats the familiar lore of the oral tradition and the sagas being passed down for a millennium, and the fond factoid that Icelanders read (and write per capita) more books than any other nation.


"The collection transports readers to Iceland’s timeless and magical island of Vikings and geographical wonders," promises the cover blurb. But little emerges for the careful reader of this collection from that medieval era, or about the haunting or dazzling raw and fiery landscapes. For, these voices speak from their homeland, where both these legacies may seem truly mundane. These stories refuse to romanticize the fabled past or the frenzied present. Many protagonists and storytellers within  sound jaded. They've been unmoored by the whirlwind which propelled Iceland to the heady air of economic peaks, only in the banking crash a decade ago to crash down suddenly.

In his fragmented forward, the poet-novelist-lyricist who goes by the name of Sjón concludes: "Perhaps it is because philosophy reached these shores comparatively late that Icelandic writers have never felt bound by the truth. While recognizing no literature except that which springs from reality, they reserve the right to distort the truth according to the demands of their tales." The experimental and restless tone of these selections stresses the uncanny and the upended. They follow Sjón's sly reflection more faithfully or waywardly than Mitsios' recital of well-worn tourist tropes and touts.

However, the central preoccupation with articulating unease infuses this slim volume. Mitsios compares their contents to "the lyrics of a good country-western song." Regret, revenge, and recrimination reoccur. Fidelity, fun, and feasting more rarely do. The first story, "Self-Portrait," by Halldór's granddaughter Auður Jónsdóttir, captures vividly the mid-life crisis of a harried mother on vacation in the South of Italy. "She's not the same person who left anymore; she can't see home the same way again." With ex-pats adrift in Southern California and the South of France, the next two entries in this collection continue such themes, if less successfully. Given the self-generating acclaim and grants afforded many recipients among the estimated one-tenth of the population who will find their work in print during their lifetime, quality control lags behind such a rapid rate of production. Some stories fall flat, the product of workshops rather than life. The anthology's title sounds stale.

Luckily, enigmatic endings linger in more than one entry. Einar Örn Gunnarsson's "The Most Precious Secret" conjures up the spirit of Anaïs Nin, if less for the erotic than the artistic content. Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s "One Hundred Fifty Square Meters" combines the concerns of a generation raised on Craigslist and now on the dole or working dreary jobs with an encounter with a Cold War past of an island caught between superpowers. A couple move into a flat, a coveted find in crowded and costly Reykjavík. They must share it with the spirit of a vanished tenant. His preoccupations ensnare one of this pair. Kristín evokes the predicament of Iceland's geopolitics and its geography.

Such attenuated connections to departed specters or disturbing partners enliven some of the best stories here. Gyrðir Elíasson's "The Black Dog" puzzles; Andri Snær Magnason's "Grass" recalls a sly folktale. Two longer selections sustain skillful moods of tenderness amidst dissonance. Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir's "The Secret Raven Service and Three Hens" takes the Norse norns of fate and places them in our own times. Ólafur Gunnarsson's "Killer Whale" mingles joy and despair into a memorable Saturday afternoon. As the "Raven" narrator realizes, fate grips every creature, down into the dark. "My raven's beak is specially designed to pluck one of my eyes out! My hand is specially designed to pick fruit at the supermarket." This story works. It captures now, as filtered through then.

Fanciful excursions naturally encompass the narratives chosen by tellers eager to adapt venerable modes to contemporary Icelandic settings. Þórarinn Eldjárn's "Scorn Pole" finds its characters rummaging around their memories of Egil's saga, "some pretty savage stuff we had learned from television," and bits scavenged from televised pop depictions of the occult. These restive fellows summon up a structure to invoke the old powers, in a land where Christianity barely registers anymore, and where incantations may come quickly bidden and almost habitually or unconsciously to the lips of men and women in their moments of fear or stress. This generates an uncertain set of possibilities, as the affluence enjoyed by many in these pages pales before the ultimate mysteries suffusing the island. As its title promises, Jón Kalman Stefánsson's "The Universe and the Deep Velvet Dress" indulges in an astronomical parable. This last story in this anthology ends with the protagonist listening "to the creaking of distant windows as winter darkness tightens around them."

While the fictional craft remains uneven for some of the unnamed entries in this collection, "Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland" merits notice among foreign audiences curious about this now-trendy destination. Alongside the celebrated creative achievements of this place and its people, the art of the story continues to grapple with conditions far changed from the sagas, yet nevertheless constrained by the elements which surround the fragile compounds in the pampered capital. From this tension between comfort and threat, thriving and despair, these Icelandic writers take odd inspiration. (PopMatters 3/31/17)