Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alexander Theroux's "Einstein's Beets": Book Review


My wife tells me she used to think I was just a jerk (I censor her chosen noun here) when I ate foods that contorted my face, tingled my palate, or tasted like aluminum foil. Respectively, my reactions to lettuce, cheese, and lettuce again may, I learned only when our firstborn reported similar stimuli, be attributed to "sensory integration disorder." But for my parents, long before this euphemism was coined for insurance coding and "wellness" profits, no excuse sufficed. Dinner table emptied of Mom, Dad, and Sis, I had to sit until I had choked down that liver hunk or gulped canned cold beets.

That titular taproot and its hirsute hater appear on page 131 of what sprawls as the definitive compendium for this and thousands of digestive or devouring ills. It's probable it is the first and last word on the subject. As my testimony affirms, there may be a marginal but experienced readership for this frenetic inquiry. This "examination of food phobias" spews out small type, nearing 800 pages.

Alexander Theroux exemplifies the maximal style. He inflates what he thunders about, not always heeding a self-editor or any editor. He begins to repeat himself by page 44; he uses tellingly the word "cliché" three times in a single page. You'll toss this pulp chunk aside, senses stunned by stimulation's binge and purge, or you'll dip in and out, as with salsa. If you can't stand salsa, you may like fondue.

For he's an acquired taste. I've enjoyed his curmudgeonly narratives. Starting in 1972, Three Wogs' small trio of eccentrics rambled about xenophobic London. Allowing a detour past his eerily straightforward and perhaps semi-autobiographical exploration of An Adultery, his picaresque misfits in Darconville's Cat and Laura Warholic pleased critics and revived his audience. Savage Menippean satire continued as two genial gripes followed, one on Estonia, one on rock lyrics. Neither limited itself to its proffered topic. Both digressed; he ranted. Theroux found many foes, but kept a few fans.

These fans were let down by Theroux's typos and lapses of fact in his post-millennial texts published by Fantagraphics. As a sponsor of Theroux's didactic labor, that Seattle-based comics-themed press earns gratitude. Yet we few fans who stocked our shelf with enough room for his hefty harangues wondered why one so damning of others' follies (or his patron) fell short when it came to his errors. My advance copy of Einstein's Beets was delayed for galley scrutiny, an encouraging portent for all. However, no documentation assists the curious. Again, agape readers must trust Theroux's veracity.

If Theroux had repeated the minimalist recipe concocted for his twinned collections The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, Einstein's Beets could cut down to bite-size bits. Although claims of plagiarism tainted the Colors, the preparation routine Theroux prefers exposes him to memory's slips. For his books may take decades to emerge, embedded in myriad thoughts. He jots down factoids or snippets. These stack up; he sorts them by sortilege hidden at least to this reviewer. Whether Estonia or lyrics, colors or bons mots, he arranges ideas into voluble and askew portions.

Out of this accumulation, Theroux defies any trim-down resolutions. He creates a tetchy giant. It rises from his means of pen-driven, diligently dogged production. He heaps lore into garrulous, odd, and daunting rhetorical excess between ever-expanding covers, Early in Einstein's Beets, about its aims he propounds: "The examination of a person this way is simultaneously a study of one's hungers, one's point of view, one's quirks, and a very revealing catalogue of an individual's tolerance level, as much as an index of hostility." Reflecting on a typically arcane and loopy theory, set forth by one obscurity, Hans Eysenck, a century ago, Theroux admits: "It sounds a bit of a dog's dinner to me, a random and vague piling together of elements, but I suppose it offers something to think about."

The patient reader will glean, similarly, much to ponder. For instance, we eat 144,000 lbs. of food, at least during an average life span. Jewish dietary laws generate the theological concept of a "scandal of peculiarity," that the creator of the universe fusses over blood spots in eggs. Lincoln liked bacon.

These varieties of gustatory experience proliferate. We may satisfy a sense but then spurn its satisfaction. Attraction and repulsion contending as we consume spurs Theroux to recite a litany of disturbing and disgusting reactions to eating, drinking, and digesting. But he ends this, as he had his mock-epic on Estonian ego, with a sudden, contemplative coda. This time, the former Trappist novice and formidable gadfly summons up three muses. Plato, Wilde, and Jesus consider the discipline of the barrier between ourselves and what we grasp or gobble. Their forgotten notion is that of "hindrance."

Prepare for the unexpected, excavated by erudition, by way of this mercurial mentality of Theroux. "We are also what we don't eat." Theroux flips bromides as he goads us. This massive compendium, like a smorgasbord, must be wisely sampled gingerly. Too much at one sitting will stupefy. Hundreds crowd this book, forgotten alongside famed. An index assists the stumped or the curious. Echoing Thomas Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy nearly four centuries past, this surrounds us as an omnium gatherum. It bounds beyond its subject. It rests beside Theroux' non-fiction forays, in its own niche.

A hodge-podge, if not a dog's dinner, reminds us of that proverbial pot, into which any foodstuff may simmer. If one nibbles, one savors Theroux's slumgullion stew. His teeming potluck, as verbal feast, stirs up for me precedents. Around campfires, people for millennia have bent to eat. Eventually at such sites, dance and worship began. Folk memory may account for holy sacrifice or blood ritual.

"Strangeness is the thrown shadow of food aversions." These innate, primordial energies that excite us persist. We compete with all creatures, who may retreat to imbibe and masticate. Einstein's Beets digs up animal and spiritual drives that lure us to gorge and stir us to gag. Alexander Theroux's eager exploration of this compulsion concocts a subject suited for our foodie, fast-food, gluten-free, all-you-can-eat, prix fixe, happy hour, organic-this, vegan-that, voracious diet-doomed appetites. (As Alexander Theroux's Einstein's Beets Is an Acquired Taste. 5-1-17 PopMatters. All but para. 1 to Amazon US 5-23-17)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

White Fence's "Live in San Francisco": Music Review

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This one-man, four-track, bedroom studio musician faces a challenge. Transferring the intimacy of his warped, intricately textured and lo-fi recordings, taken from five albums, to a tiny San Francisco stage poses difficulties. Tim Presley's White Fence succeeds. These folksy, jangling and rambling ditties transform through a vibrant, versatile band, if only for two nights at the end of March 2013.

At the club Amnesia, caught on a multi-track Tascam 388 by four engineers, Live In San Francisco introduced a series of concerts captured by Thee Oh See's John Dwyer, for his Castle Face label. Dwyer's own band with frequent collaborator Ty Segall has proven compatible with Presley's neo-psychedelic, early Seventies-inspired and Anglophile sounds. Presley's voice will remain an acquired taste, but those who favor Robyn Hitchcock's homage to Syd Barrett, or George Harrison and Ray Davies' earnest, hushed warbles will find Presley's updates on their British style familiar and fun.

For all his quirks on tape, Presley live exudes a detached air. Judging from these results, he might have begun the concerts with trepidation. This album opens as he scolds the audience, followed by some noodling. However, discipline kicks in. The combination of "Swagger Vets and Double Moon" with "Mr. Adams/Who Feels Right" aspires to late-Sixties pop combined with Captain Beefheart's manic arrangements. The line-up allows Presley's compositions to air out from their compressed DIY origins. In this fresh atmosphere, these melodies bloom brighter and their harmonies resound happier.

The best song comes third, not last. "Baxter Corner" may be credited to a notoriously steep street of San Franciscan grade that traps transmissions and terrifies drivers relying on GPS apps and not a topological map of the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Presley now resides. Tripling its original running time, this deft workout jolts, shudders and erupts into fiery riffs. Sean Presley and Jack Adams earn credit for their supplement to Presley's lead guitar. These three lock in to bear down.

"The Pool" blends the queasy melodies of The Soft Boys with a chord progression from The Doors. It's more awkward than the previous tracks. This mid-set shifts into a folksy singer-songwriter mode, as Presley's delivery writhes around skewed lyrics. After the freed propulsion of the see-saw rhythms of "Harness," it's back to the spindly "Lizards First." Slide guitar enlivens this originally wobbly tune. As often here, this version strengthens the Tinkertoy scaffolding of Presley's at-home song structures.

Back when Presley fronted Darker My Love, that band found some of its musicians recruited suddenly from opening for The Fall in 2006 to serving as their line-up, at least for one album. On "Chairs in the Dark," Presley's bark recalls that of Mark E. Smith. That singer must have recognized congenially eccentric talent when summoning DML to fill in on his Reformation Post TLC for 2007.

"Tame" begins as if another mid-tempo jangle, before battering down the house. Nick Murray's cymbals break through, even if Presley's moaning vocals overstay their welcome. Just as Hitchcock relied on Barrett to excess, so Presley stands accused of too closely imitating his English forebears.

But both Hitchcock and Barrett valued power within a cutting chord. One elevates "Pink Gorilla." Guitars snap and catchy notes stick in one of Presley's most accessible creations, testimony to his gift.

The careening "Enthusiasm" blurs past smoothly, despite Presley's increasing mannerisms as his affected voice carries the final songs. "Be Right Too" and the closer "Breathe Again" nod to John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" days, and their daze conjures up a key influence on Darker My Love.

Jared Everett's bass measures these beats while the band wraps up their gigs smartly. Their leader has progressed from hardcore with The Nerve Agents through DML's soaring Beatlesque post-punk to White Fence's memorable take on cult-artist art-rock after the British Invasion. Since this album appeared, two White Fence efforts completed their discography. Today, with partner Cate Le Bon, Tim Presley dismantles the guitar-based rock of this heyday. He pursues an experimental, twinkly and bent approach to songs, having left behind these instrumental constructions of rock as we know it.
(Spectrum Culture 11/28/16)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Arundhati Roy's "The End of Imagination": Book Review

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What happens when a novel from two decades ago remains an author's best-known work? Then, this writer demurs from producing another bestseller. She rallies on behalf of the poor and persecuted. Agitating for those marginalized in her native India, Arundhati Roy champions her controversial choice to pursue real-life rather than fictional conflicts. The End of Imagination collects journalism and talks between 1998-2004. Twenty-one selections drawn from five books allow a wider audience access to a woman bent on confronting the powerful, and challenging control by the "free" market.

The introduction summarizes present-day Indian politics. The Hindu-nationalist BJP in 2014 returns Narendra Modi to prominence as Prime Minister. 2015 finds him greeting Barack Obama while wearing a million-rupee suit with Modi's name woven into its pinstripes. The gap between that purported leader and hundreds of millions of his subjects symbolizes itself in this sartorial display.

Treating the outcast Dalits and "Other Backward Castes" belatedly elevated to grudging consideration for higher education, Roy contrasts state discrimination with the students' Communist cadres. These discontents join those supported in Roy's opposition campaigns. Adivasi villagers resist "Big Dams." Lands of indigenous peoples of the hilly northeast are "acquired'' for development funded by NGO's and international banks colluding with the wealthy in India and within scheming multinationals. Roy reports: "the forest is being cleared of all witnesses." Fears of a coup by the military, enforced flag worship, false-flag terrorist strikes and "limited war" with rival Pakistan cloud Roy's outlook in 2016.

The essays following progress along roughly thematic lines. The title entry addresses the nuclear showdown in 1998 between India and its neighboring nuclear foe. Another compares a Hindu India with pre-WWII Germany. A third considers the legacy of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, given blacks who sought freedom encounter dire circumstances in the U.S and South Africa. Roy targets the Pentagon, decrying a disproportionate amount of recruits drawn from African Americans.

Critiques of war continue throughout this compilation. India and Pakistan's protracted skirmishes over Kashmir reveal the "dangerous crosscurrents of neoliberal capitalism and communal neo-fascism." Part two opens with Roy's confession of the "sheer greed" rather than compassion that spurred her to cover the fight by native tribes pushed out during Narmada Canal's construction. Maheshwar Dam privatizes the basic human necessity of water, epitomizing the imbalance of resources between classes and among the peoples of India and beyond. Too few others care, it seems.

In a lecture at Amherst, Roy's frustration grows."To be a writer--a supposedly 'famous' writer--in a country where 300 million people are illiterate is a dubious honor." Phrases like this show her at her best, pungent and passionate. But for long stretches, her determined research will bog down readers in details which may fail to fascinate the non-Indian adept, or those not seeking a granular depiction of Indian politics and economics during the era of George Bush, Jr. and the War on Terror. Therefore, this anthology will appeal to a few, similar to the diligent analyses of under-reported East Timor by her counterpart, Noam Chomsky. Both occupy themselves with well-documented, tendentious studies of policy. Roy agrees to follow the gadfly she nicknames "Chompsky" for his biting force, as he bores down into a machine creating conflicts enriching war-profiteers and enabling politicians.

Roy promotes herself as a journalist-activist. The God of Small Things earned her the Booker Prize in 1997. Back then, a cushy career beckoned for a chronicler of memory, political and psychological tension and coming of age in her newly independent nation, the middle of the last century. Yet, after a novel four years in the making, she postponed a follow-up. She vowed to fight the profit motive. "I'd say the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export," she tells that Amherst crowd.

The remaining essays tend to repeat issues. Roy ambles towards stridency in her prose and her snark can grate in print. Perhaps her delivery sharpens in person. In various presentations on post-9-11 reactions soon after the attacks, she provokes the West and those who ally with the superpower, Roy exposes Osama bin Laden as "America's family secret," invented for that superpower's greedy needs,"created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI." As Soviet Communism failed, so will market capitalism, she predicts. "Both are edifices created by human intelligence, undone by human nature."

Arundhati Roy, after all, knows both creations firsthand. Born two years after the first freely-elected Communist government in the world attained 1957 victory in her home state of Kerala, she warns audiences of the allure of any system appealing to our better instincts, yet demanding a people's submission. While The End of Imagination, like earlier releases of her work from Haymarket Press, needed a proper introduction for American readers as to its scope, and a delineation of the five texts from which these pieces were taken, this lack of editorial oversight may be balanced against a useful index. Furthermore, a short companion volume, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, provides a furtive, oblique, if timely primer. Essays and conversations from Roy and John Cusack document their late-2014 meetings alongside Daniel Ellsberg, with Edward Snowden. That whistleblower displays bravery in uncovering disturbing truths at the risk of reputation and livelihood, from his asylum in Moscow. For these authors, as capital crushes liberty, protest spreads across borders.
(Spectrum Culture

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Arundhati Roy + John Cusack's "Things that Can and Cannot Be Said": Book Review

Arundhati Roy and John Cusack Discuss What's Rotten in the Political ...
The Indian writer Arundhati Roy's critiques of "what cannot be said" within the war on terror, the "Lifestyle Wars" that seek to perpetuate conflict for the benefit of the few and the coddled, the influence of NGOs and World Bank-types of organizations on taming activism, and the surveillance state are familiar to readers of her many essays. This little book can be read in a sitting, but it sums up many of her positions. The co-authorship with actor John Cusack comes from his proposal to visit Edward Snowden in Moscow. Daniel Ellsberg joins them, at the end of 2014, in Moscow.

Cusack mainly feeds Roy questions; she responds in her accustomed fashion. This as in her journalism can be strident, verbose, and stretch for effect, but her aims reveal her concern for the issues ignored by the mainstream press. She excoriates the current system, lamenting that it lacks a rival structure, and that those fighting it must be resigned to more guerrilla tactics, as Snowden and Ellsberg demonstrate, against the powers.

The brief chapters are mostly conversations. There's also a meeting with Julian Assange. Roy explains that it cannot be accounted for here. That adds to the odd sense of much of this book. You feel these are disembodied voices lamenting the lack of concerted resistance, as if partisans speaking in a trench on a chilly night. The continual fears of nuclear weapons, often glossed over now, comprise Ellsberg's comments, while Roy reminds us of the collusion between Silicon Valley and the Beltway as to data gathering, boding poorly for future liberty from algorithmic control. (Amazon US 11/12/16)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Yuval Noah Harari's "Deus Homo": Book Review


I've been urging this book on friends. Harari's predecessor, Sapiens, gave a brisk take on humanity's past and present. In a few hundred lively pages, this Israeli thinker credited the power of "imaginary orders," fictions like money and theism driving trade and breaking our ancestors out of their foraging. He argued for the centrality of this drive, while acknowledging its many drawbacks and failures.

His follow-up takes us to the future, extrapolating from now. Transhumanism beckons with dreams, but at what cost? If we give over by algorithms to Google and Facebook our intelligence, summed up in data tracking our every, freely given move in exchange for "free e-mails and funny cat videos," what will happen to our long-cherished consciousness? Harari warns that corporations and capital don't need our bodies and minds. They only want our data, to control us better than we can ourselves.

He denies we have a stable self. Humanism's undermined. Why promote a supreme human anymore?

Harari takes in a lot of topics, applying as before pop culture adroitly, whether a song from his native land or Angelina Jolie's mastectomy as somehow relevant case studies. Numbers, he demonstrates, trump the desires that politics, faith, or games satisfy for now. When reality will be worked over by bean-counters and sold back to us as escapist fantasies we can immerse ourselves in, what then? How will our feeble attempts at transformation compare with the forces arrayed to lure us in, to be "gods"?

Futurist assure that all will benefit. Harari disagrees. Few can afford the luxury life-extension vitamins and regimens peddled even now. Why would overlords care about sustaining the 99%?

In conclusion, he leaves us pondering this fate we are rushing towards heedlessly. Concentration of resources no longer relies on taking territory, but on cyber-war. Amassing wealth can happen with clicks. As we give over to AI analyses all of our tasks, they will decide for us, and against us, likely. (Amazon US 11/11/16)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Stanley Spencer's "Looking to Heaven: Vol. 1": Book Review

Two million words from this English artist's manuscripts fill notebooks and diaries at the Tate. Stanley Spencer's grandson, John, edits what he confesses to be "an almost impossible task." His forebear kept starting and stopping attempts to create his definitive account of himself. "I don't want a tidy book," the senior Spencer''s cited here, for "life is not tidy." This statement may surprise those who visit the well-preserved (if far more trafficked today) Berkshire village of Cookham, site of his birth. There a small museum displays many of his skewed depictions of his neighbors placed into biblical or visionary scenes, alongside his accomplished pastoral paintings of the place where he spent most of his life. That hamlet remains neatly preserved in its heart. There many of Spencer's landscapes remain recognizable to the careful viewer over a century after Stanley began his storied and odd career.

John Spencer observes that his grandfather "has been variously presented as a village simpleton, an eccentric, haunted by the erotic, a recluse, an egoist, a victim of circumstance--and also a visionary, a complete original, and one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century." Finally, readers can begin to judge for themselves, from Stanley's diligent letters and lists, the first stages of his British success.

Volume one commences with Spencer's recollections of his youth. Born in 1891, his sketches from his teens appear gracing the margins of this handsome publication. Already a command of line draws one's attention. At fifteen, he began watercolor lessons. These prepared him for matriculation at the premier Slade School of Fine Art, from 1908 to 1912. He commuted to London and back each day.

Tellingly, his classmates nicknamed him "Cookham." Yet he admits that what he "felt" in his village could not be expressed at the Slade. "My knowledge developed by the experience of a series of drunken experiences," unrelated to each other. The key adjective here denotes not inebriation from alcohol, but elevation from his environment, and what he calls an oracular sense of contact with the "Grand Vision." This encompassed his work and his life's perspective, as an alchemy stirring up the quotidian into the mystical. Although a Christian, his faith remained peculiar, generated from within.

His canvas, "John Donne Arriving in Heaven," by 1911 confirms his direction. The Pre-Raphaelites and Giotto combined with modernist elements and foreshortened angles at this formative juncture. The characteristics evident early on would motivate him for a half-century. His return from Slade to his "earthly paradise" back in Berkshire inspired him to create "Apple Gatherers." The wide-eyed or off-handed depiction of faces and gestures looms out of the surface. Limbs distend; bodies contort.

These contortions prefigured his entry into a war that would end this idyll. Stanley's older brothers enlisted. He with a younger sibling joined a Home Hospital Service in the Royal Medical Corps. But he confides to his close friend, Henry Lamb, also now in uniform, that he himself fears being called a slacker. Returning to Cookham, those "wounded are always quiet and never say a word about our not joining." Reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed and hearing a Beethoven movement that portended to Stanley the end of the world reveal his troubled conscience. He tries to align his resistance to brutality with the need to be "a manly man" as a stereotypical loyal young zealot ready to march off.

By his mid-twenties, already known by poet-soldier Rupert Brooke and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, Stanley felt pressured to do more for patriotism. In mid-1915 he followed his younger brother Gil into the St. John's Ambulance Corps. Assigned to the Beaufort Lunatic Asylum serving as a War Hospital. Stanley survives its "crushing atmosphere" bu "means of my own creative feelings." At this point, John's edition lacks illustrations. Instead, a few facsimiles of letters under a YMCA letterhead appear. Stanley longed to flee the "beastliness" of serving as an orderly. He volunteered for a Field Ambulance as Britain mobilized for the "big push" on the Somme, the massive offensive mid-1916.

That September, Spencer landed in Macedonia. In its mountainous terrain north of Salonica, he yearns for "something findable." For two-and-a-half years, this region "became the goal and place wherein spiritually I wanted to find the redeeming and delivering of myself in all the activities the unexpressed me had lived through and in." The verbiage of this phrasing does not belie its sincerity.

Pencil sketches and ink and wash appear in the margins of John's compilation, signalling Stanley's productivity between his duties. His inspiration comes "by praying for the Power to live purely and absolutely you get that power." He acclaims the intense "feelings" resulting as necessary for an artist.

Shakespeare and Hardy, Chaucer and Milton, music and poetry pepper his letters. Despite hospitalization for malaria, Stanley Spencer sustains his cheer. He requests Robert Louis Stevenson and a little book on Raphael. He misses hot cross buns. He envisions martial splendor from the Book of Joshua. He paints his comrades scrubbing shirts in the overflow from torrents. He compares this to "how the old Greek women do their washing." His imagination fired, he writes to Henry Lamb. "I am a thousand times more determined to do something a thousand times greater than anything when I get home, and am storing up energy all the time." Whether betraying a touch of Orientalism or merely expressing his drive to create and to incorporate thus the Other, he tells another recipient: "Yesterday I drew the head of an Asiatic man. It was nearly as exciting as Columbus discovering America."

Early in 1918 he transfers into the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Their foe, "the Bulgars," moves him typically, as Stanley "got the impression of them as beings which came from an essential and permanent night, and that each night we approached their dark abode as midnight drew near and as the morning descended and came away with it." This sentence shifts from echoes of verse to cadences of the Bible, and given Spencer's immersion into literature then, reflects his own mystical reactions.

After he quotes Paradise Lost to a correspondent, he adds: "That's the sort of thing I live on, along with Army rations." He goes on digging, loving God, and reading Milton as his main occupations. This retreat for introspection ended when in May Spencer applied for a War Memorial promotion "scheme" and to be employed by the Ministry of Information to "paint pictures relating to the war."

Then, an extended passage from Stanley's later recollections is inserted in the chronicle by John. This narrates a bivouac, a long march away from battle, and a sense of dreaminess as distance brings peace. Suddenly, scouting a gradient, Stanley met an armed officer who "wished me well out of the way." He was in the British Army. "No wonder they were still annoyed to see that I still existed."

Soon, combat commences. After, Spencer carries blankets to camp. His Regimental Sergeant Major passes by: "I expect you'd rather be painting, wouldn't you, Spencer?" He might have, given malaria again laid up Stanley back in Salonica. There he reads "the Testament nearly all day," in spite of "paganistic sentiments" in "many things." Looking back twenty years later on his Army treatment, Spencer acknowledges the right and wrong issues. But he laments how the "last war was exploited and used as a means of abusing people in their professions so as to be able to give vent to their jealousy of distinguished persons." Parsed in context, by implication, Stanley declaims that artists in the ranks "did not (AS THEY THOUGHT) serve in any way the immediate needs of the country."

The army's "anti-intellectual prejudice" rankles him. Around 1936, he looks askance at his fellow citizens who refuse to accept that Stanley aspires rather to a "true spiritual life." Therewith he strives towards "the model of essential humanness." While imperfect, he nonetheless insists on being treated fairly. Stanley Spencer's humanity, emphasized as this compendium closes, reminds his audience of the aims he would continue to seek through another war and into another stretch of partial peace.

His 1914 self-portrait takes up the cover of this elegant edition. A dark-haired man with dark eyes. A bold, confident, subtly defiant look. He captured himself well.

The final sentence from this manuscript edited by his grandson sums up much to come for Stanley. "I wish always to stress my own redemption from all that I have been made to suffer." His subsequent life, which it is to be hoped will be documented in the next installment(s) of this series, attests to Stanley Spencer's prickly pride, his dogged individuality, and his spiritual transformation through art.
(Spectrum Culture 4/24/17; Amazon US 5/9/17)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Milan Kundera's "The Joke": Audiobook Review

Overall
Performance
Story
"It's not funny anymore"
Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
My mind wandered a lot. I can see why as the Author's Afterword complains the earlier translations (#1-4) edited and streamlined the original. Despite Kundera's protests, it needed revision. It's far too sprawling and disjointed. It turned tedious early on and rarely engaged.

What do you think your next listen will be?
I am taking on a revisit to Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" as a reminder of quality literary fiction.

Did Richmond Hoxie do a good job differentiating all the characters? How?
He tried. He has an avuncular style similar to George Guidall. But for the females, he could not modulate his delivery much. For the protagonist, he sounded too boorish and gruff.

Was The Joke worth the listening time?
A toss-up. While it did give you an insight into Moravian folkways and music, it lacked the detailed impact of, say, how working in a mine would feel for one sentenced to a "black insignia" unarmed contingent of politically suspect comrades in early 1960s Czechoslovakia,

Any additional comments?
This confirms my unease with Milan Kundera's work. While "The Joke" by some is considered a debut (1965-7) second only to "Unforgettable Lightness of Being," I am annoyed by his seemingly slapdash manner of plot. Yes, he weighs in with the philosophical musings early in his career, but this novel frankly merited at least some of the excisions he predictably decries. The 7-part structure is promising but the results are verbose and dull. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Owen Davies' "The Oxford Illustrated History of Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Magic": Book Review

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The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic
These twin topics captivate multitudes. Even by classical times, editor Owen Davies begins, people wondered about magic's origins, and reacted to its practitioners who bewitched by the occult. Beyond frisson or fun, fear or faith, witchcraft and magic free social energy, excite art, and infuriate earthly powers that be or which have been. Beyond European representations, beliefs and practices filtered into and out from Indian and Eastern, along with African and Amerindian, influences. While magic's fundamental concepts trace back millennia, they continue to evolve, as science and religion change.

In learned but accessible chapters, eight scholars explain this process. "Magic in the Ancient World" opens this chronologically arranged essay collection. Four thousand years ago, cuneiform tablets testify to daily emergencies eased by incantations and counter-measures. Dog bites were countered by creating a clay dog. The evil eye hovered over Mesopotamian catastrophes. A professional magician had to be called upon to repel a bird-like demon, attracted by a crying baby waking a household. Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans generated their own mysticism and myths about these mercurial beings. Peter Maxwell-Stuart collates cases; he shows how monks in fourth-century Palestine installed a floor mosaic, patterned with biblical inscriptions to protect both monks and visitors. The incorporation of such verses to ward off ill attests to their ubiquity in common belief.

What these peoples begged to repel were demons. Sophie Page distinguishes normative Church rituals from those persisting which were unauthorized, and these were associated with the Devil. Yet exchanges of learning between Jewish scholars around the Mediterranean and their Arabic peers "transformed the status of late medieval magic from an illicit activity into a branch of knowledge."

Alchemy, astrology, and divination augmented the inquiries of Byzantine magicians, and the Latin West stretched these webs of influence. Political, natural, iconic, and angelic forms of magic attracted those who encouraged demons by necromancy, and those who rushed to exorcise such dark forces.

This trend led to charges of heresy and sorcery. Threatened by the Cathars and the Waldensians, Catholic institutions constructed the Inquisition, with advocates "responsible only to the Pope." The royal courts sought to squelch relatives of the favored ruler, and accusations of the ambitious social climber who was said to have turned to a diviner or soothsayer were common among courtiers. Ambitious females were often targeted, as they were deemed tainted more by popular than learned forms of magic. Both types stirred up a "science of demons" to address and attack malign spirits.

By the fifteenth century, James Sharpe demonstrates, "the Devil was seen as the embodiment of evil." Satan had waited for the Church to promote him from Job's adversary to the tempter not only of the Son of God but the sons and daughters of mankind. Most Europeans agreed, despite the Reformation and the Catholic counter-movement, that the Devil was real. Thus so were his witches. Puritans bickered with priests over the efficacy of exorcism, and the veracity of the sabbat gathering. Witches attended, many Christians concurred. But whether this was by flight (via broomstick in later rumor) or by solely the spirit, as wifely bodies lay sleeping next to their husbands, remained contested.

In the Enlightenment, progressive preachers pushed the priests and ministers asserting the clear and present danger of demonic possession and intervention into the shadows, as irrational superstition. But judicial efforts against witches lived on among die-hards. Rita Volmer enters to guide readers through the once widespread witch trials. These aimed at women, about 75-80% of juridical victims.

Volmer admits this lack of parity cannot be accounted for with any "obvious and simple answer." It was not a "witch craze." Nor was this procedure driven by panic or, if the term is taken seriously, a "witch-hunt" unless this applied to a larger group prosecuted as suspects. Her charts assist readers in envisioning statistics of trials, although data are lacking about totals, numbers, and "final verdicts."

Trials might trap more than one defendant. Allegations of witchcraft did not guarantee execution. Volmer's extensive research merits attention, to counter claims of nine to twenty million fatalities in what 1970s feminists deemed "the burning times." Volmer estimates between 40,000-60,000 died in Europe and its colonies. A significant portion of executions occurred in the Holy Roman Empire.

Wild rumors have predictably multiplied about this purported diabolical enemy. "The Witch and Magician in European Art" commences as Charles Zika examines woodcuts from Hans Baldung, who created the enduring image of three naked women cavorting around a "seething pot." That cauldron contained salves and potions. These, associated with women's wily wicked work, spawned imitations and elaborations. Broadsheets warned of frenetic. fiery, and erotic goings-on at "the witch's sabbath." Sensationally, illustrations delineated conspirators occupied deeply in the pursuit of subversive acts not limited to dancing, feasting, or riding goats. The sexual, the female, and the forbidden beckoned.

With a few color, mostly monochrome depictions of amulets, engravings, and figures engaged in tamer doings than a Walpurgisnacht, The Oxford Illustrated History of Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Magic enables readers to visualize as well as to comprehend the hold of these storied forces on the imagination. Its compiler, Owen Davies, presents two aspects of these phenomena nearing our era.

Popular magic demonstrates application as cures, as transference of bad spirits to an artifact, or as "passing through" a stone with a hole or a narrow stony gap, at least if a prehistoric monument was nearby. Circles kept their symbolic importance, for circumambulation and encircling busied adepts in ancient Egypt as well as seventeenth-century Scotland. Regional diversity contributed to the local efficacy of particular charms and spells. Davies devotes attention too to the Catholic and Protestant distinctions which filtered through folk cultures. One denomination might denounce another's superstitions, only to have its own faithful surreptitiously resort to cunning-folk to get a second opinion when a physician's diagnosis left a patient dissatisfied. These practices lasted long enough to be documented by folklorists. In turn, the survival of popular magic sparks repression up to today.

These rituals and remedies were consigned by missionaries, colonial officials, and pioneering anthropologists as sordid or salacious evidence of an earlier stage of religion, indulged in by supposedly heathen or backward races. Max Weber over a century ago argued that this "age of magic" gave way to first the Reformation and then secularized modern societies bent on progress. Yet, as Davies sets forth, Hermeticism and an occult Enlightenment accompanied early modernism.

Astrology, the Kabbalah, and mesmerism resonated. Freemasonry and mystical Christianity enjoyed prominence in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Rosicrucians, the Golden Dawn, and Aleister Crowley (son of a wealthy lay preacher in the austere Plymouth Brethren) timed their rise to the late-Victorian turn to spiritualism. Gerald Gardner took up a portion of Crowley's occult fame. But he shifted the attention to create, as Davies cautions, rather than discover, Wicca. Gardner's assemblage of what was extant in history, tradition, and orders followed a venerable method among those who were supposed to have revived occult lore, surviving through a secret lineage of initiates.

By the middle of the twentieth century, first Crowley, next Gardner, then Doreen Valente with her coven and Alex Sanders as "King of the Witches" courted British media. As Davies remarks tersely, Fleet Street did not strain for accuracy: "Wicca came to be identified with a lack of clothing." Tabloids capitalized on this new witch craze. The international reach of witchcraft generated suspect but also serious coverage. Robert J. Wallis surveys anthropological theories and investigations.

As Tanya Luhrmann's late-1980s dissertation epitomized, an outsider academic entering a magical circle could upset the trust placed in scholars by practitioners. Letting the right one in to a group widely misunderstood requires truth and tact. Controversy over these topics has shifted from habitual prohibition of sympathy towards witches to an acceptance of how they themselves control scrutiny.

Jenny Blain's approach benefits from the ethnographic framework applied to the seidr, said to be a type of shamanism drawn upon by contemporary Norse heathen reconstructionists. She, Wallis, and informed colleagues contribute challenging studies to "disrupt the insider/outsider, rational/irrational, superstition/science divides." Insiders began to complete graduate schools and obtain professorships. Both successes are very recent, considering the long record of extreme prejudice towards adherents.

A very visible indication of tolerance may emerge from the rapt reception of many towards the Harry Potter books and films. This expands to Oz, Buffy, fairy tales, thrillers, movies and series of varied genres. Willem de Blécourt examines a proliferating array, with due credit to a certain Mrs. Darrin Stevens and her 1960s coterie. Ugly, sexy, or domesticated, once unleashed, witches dramatized as such grab the gaze of the enchanted or horrified audience. Conjured, witches threaten. Summoned, they electrify conflicts, rescue victims, or seek to engender plot complications. Integrating antiquated stereotypes, sent up satirically or exploited lazily, tensions of gender, power, and ambiguity here live on. Audiences may not notice these tropes, but they exemplify the spell magic casts upon millions. 

For those so captivated, suggested reading follows. While certain leading scholars will find themselves relegated to its documentation rather than featured in chapters, this serves as a respectable resource. It is hoped this solid anthology of level-headed observation of topics will supplant spurious New Age-tinged assertions as well as lurid "exposés." This attractive book presents the story of how men and women, and increasingly children and teens react to popular representations of magic. They rush to or flee from a source of energy and mystery which keeps swaying and/or scaring the curious. (PopMatters 4/14/17: "The Sexual, the Forbidden, and the Female Beckoned"; Amazon US 4/24/17)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Prolapse's "The Italian Flag": Music Review

Archeology students plus experimental drama practitioners rarely tend to form a band. In Leicester back in 1991, six young people did. Prolapse means "to fall out of." This suits the shambolic style of a group inevitably compared to The Fall. As with its unpredictable presence Mark E. Smith, so here with "Scottish" Mick Derrick. Hirsute and lumbering, he towered over co-vocalist Linda Steelyard. The two tangled on stage, he mumbling and raving in a thick, impenetrable accent. She parried his physical and verbal abuse with her defiant English lilt, and often got the better of him in their tussles.

This relationship, enacted on records throughout the '90s, fronted a post-punk and shoegazer blend of harsh and gentle textures. Prolapse's musicians fought back with their instruments against the vocal tag-team. The band's thundering rhythms and slashing guitars alternate with tipsy saunters. These efforts generated few sales compared with the critical acclaim Prolapse garnered, so revisiting The Italian Flag may entice indie-rock fans two decades on, raised on Wire, PiL and The Gang of Four. 

Three eclectic EPs appeared during 1993 and 1994, unheard by this reviewer, but some of their songs repeated on their first full-length, Pointless Walks to Dismal Places. Accurately titled, tracks such as "Hungarian Suicide Song" and "Headless in a Beat Motel" clanged out a dour mood. The latter song, however, sparked brief energy on a largely listless and downbeat collection of dirges. Signs of sonic resuscitation were sustained in "Tina, This is Matthew Stone," an enactment of kitchen sink strife. It's the kind of manic performance where one expects to have that proverbial sink thrown in.

Prolapse perked up for Backsaturday in 1995. Although laid down in two days, these tunes rattled about more melodically. Their rattle and roll resembles a truckload of instruments careening about. "TCR" highlighted the band's lead track, with a knack for a catchy beat. It eased the trepidation for listeners who may have stayed clear of the band's rowdy concerts, played out as if cage matches.

The thirteen songs on The Italian Flag benefit from enhanced production. Thanks to Julian Cope's guitarist, Donald Ross Skinner, adding keyboards as well as studio expertise, Prolapse return for album three as far more assured. Finally, an entire Prolapse album stays sharp. "Deanshanger" and "Cacaphony #A" highlight David Jeffreys and Patrick Marsden. They hammer out the loud and soft tones needed to complement the tension between Mick Derrick and Linda Steelyard. Churning chords sway about and spin. This guitar duo clamp down and pound in the messages buried in the dense mix.

Unlike Prolapse's previous albums, this one features a lyric sheet. Although its CD booklet renders the typeface nearly unreadable, the clever arrangement of two pages with Mick's words separated from Linda's repeats their call -and-response, phased arrangements. The middle of the album rises to happier moments. "Autocade," "Tunguska" and "Flat Velocity Curve" incorporate chiming keyboards (thanks to Skinner). "Visa for Violet and Van" emphasizes "Geordie" Mick Harrison on bass and Tim Pattison on drums as they interlock. Throughout, tunes remain punchy and compact, freed from the gloomy detours which slowed down many previous recordings. Finally, glimpses of beauty emerge.

"Bruxelles" finds the two singers trading off a litany of nouns. Most are everyday items. But only one gets repeated by both voices in turn: "money." This could have been a Samuel Beckett short piece.

The final entry, "Three Wooden Heads," leaves Linda Steelyard in a schoolyard sing-song mode. She trills a refrain from an old chant, while the distorted harmonies from the band conjure up a rustic and morbid past. An extended take on such an eerie lullaby morphed into Prolapse's final album in 1999. Again well-named, Ghosts of Dead Aeroplanes stirs electronic layers into a guitar-bass-drums foundation. It builds upon the promise of The Italian Flag. These albums, presenting the fruition of Prolapse as a formidable and memorable creation, attest to this ensemble's angular, if ardent, stance. (Spectrum Culture 3/22/17)

Friday, May 5, 2017

"Vasily Grossman from the Frontline": Audiobook Review

Vasily Grossman from the Front Line Audiobook

While many eyewitnesses endured the siege of Stalingrad and the battle by the Soviets to free it from the Nazi invasion, probably none has the stature of Vasily Grossman. His novels recount his and his comrades' experiences, during and then after this Great Patriotic War. when Grossman like so many fell afoul of the Stalinist regime. The Man of Steel's antisemitism increased, and Grossman was censored by the state and investigated by the KGB. Luckily, he was not sentenced to prison or gulag.

As a war correspondent for Red Star, he volunteered for service and spent over a thousand days at the front. The BBC dramatization of three of his wartime reports is well-delivered. First comes a sniper's first two days. His name's Chekhov, but his prowess comes in targeting Germans, and ensuring that their own beleaguered situation grows as the Russians figure out the layout of their ruined city's heart.

Then comes an evocation of Stalingrad. Imagine it on a moonlit night among the bombed buildings and it may nearly for a second seem romantic. Grossman applies his prose style here for more effect than one would I imagine find in journalism from the battleground. It can be flowery, but it can also be deployed skillfully. In Elliot Levey's radio recital of his account, one feels its emotional tug again.

This increases for the bleak report on the Jewish question, as answered in the Ukraine. He reports only one Jew survives in one place, and he hears rumors of two others. Out of what he claims here three million dead, a testament to victims named by trades and traits accumulates into a dour litany. (Amazon US 4/22/17) 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Alex Beam's "The Feud": Audiobook Review

The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful ...
Fame came to Nabokov with Lolita as it ebbed from Wilson after his brief notoriety for the then-racy Memoirs of Hecate County. The two "frenemies" wound up as such, Alex Beam reasons, when the wealthy Russian exile found his comfortable critical and financial perch far above that of the also privileged Wilson. The neediness the emigre expressed to the the literary lion, Beam concludes, had made Vladimir uneasy decades later, and Wilson's attempts to speak truth to the power that became enshrined in VN led EW to try to hold his ground, and lash out, but VN gave better than he got back.

The titular feud began as VN's massive translation-commentary on the supposedly, to Nabokov, untranslatable Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin appeared. Reviewing in the then-nascent NYRB, Wilson, an earnest devotee of Russian but a progressive who sided with the Soviets, rankled the refugee who recalled the Bolsheviks machine-gunning the ship young VN fled on. Not to mention that the Soviets did in his father. So, Beam steadily narrates (via Robert Pullar's at-first hesitant, than warming up to wit in over five hours that felt due to their detail much longer) the trajectory that lifted up VN and drove down EW, after many years of erudite friendship and intellectual banter and support

That support wavered, Beam shows, well before the Onegin fracas that consumed many of the literati of the mid-1960s. EW had little patience for the likes of Lolita; VN. Beam avers, would have had as scant interest in Patriotic Gore, Wilson's in-depth study of the Civil War. Beam introduces each protagonist, documents their alliance, and then dissects their falling out. He keeps the pace lively in spite of dense material. He employs "kiss off" twice, "kooky," and "frenemy" alongside "booted" and "contumacious" and he enjoys the wit that his subjects naturally delighted in as they conducted what VN typically if obliquely given his prickly nature early on called a "friendly" exchange. And it's fun to imagine as some playful Nabokovians do if it was all a game, with VN writing letters to the NYRB and its ilk as EW and he as him, to mock such battles conducted in these journals. Even if it's fiction. 
(Amazon US 4/21/17) 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Christian Marek's "In the Land of a Thousand Gods": Book Review




After two millennia, the legacy of early Greece continues to fascinate scholars and tourists. Less appreciated may be its neighboring realm, which spawned both rivals to and recipients of Hellenic control. Asia Minor, its very name standing for the exotic beyond the ethnocentric Mediterranean, bridges the East and the West. As events from today's headlines verify, the tension between the Asian and European, the Middle East and the great sea over which so many powers have battled for power exerts itself upon this heartland, where from prehistory on, many forces emanate from an epicenter.

In the Land of a Thousand Gods tells the story of this cultural and political hub, from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire. A massive work, it began with the research into cuneiform and hieroglyphics provided by Peter Frei, who taught ancient history at the University of Zurich. His student and successor, Christian Marek, completes this survey. Steven Rendell translates the 2010 German edition and incorporates a few updates to a compilation encompassing classics, Oriental Studies, linguistics, archaeology, prehistory and anthropology. Supplemented by necessary genealogies, maps, documentation and black-and-white illustrations, these appendices total over 170 pages. The text itself, while densely printed and closely argued, nevertheless aims at the general, if diligent, reader.

Details linger within the academic exploits recorded by Marek on every page, as excavators and discoverers vied to leave their mark upon the ruins opened up to acquisition by those in the vanguard of European colonial expansion. Inscriptions upon stone drove Phillipe Le Bas, as the 19th century closed, to boast of his triumph. "I left Mylasa, having squeezed every drop of juice from the lemon. In future, travelers can dispense with going there. I have not left them the slightest kernel to find."

This eagerness to claim and conquer spurred many in centuries previous, too. The region rests on its rubble. Buildings were often destroyed to excavate even older sites. Dams flood nowadays more and more of Anatolia, hastening current archaeological digs. In the past, of course, conquerors eradicated peoples and razed cities, only to have their inhabitants, returning or replacing those victims of war, raise up new edifices, streets rising to shove levels higher. These striated remnants challenge scholars who delve beneath the surfaces, over thousands of years of occupation. From coinage to economics, religion to poetry, science and strategy, Marek allows patient students a comprehensive guide to this evolution from the Bronze and Iron Ages to the incursions of the Persians and then their bitter enemies, the Greeks. The Hellenistic polity in the wake of Alexander the Great gives way to the enforced Pax Romana. Then, the Roman republic capitulating to the imperial imposition of order, the provinces of Asia Minor emerge. Administration and socio-political considerations are then covered.

The results in this hefty volume will overwhelm any casual inquirer, but this book stands as a reference for anyone needing information about nearly any aspect of this period and this landmass. While in-depth as a whole, the chapters, needing to span so much, can race by. The reader will find that the sudden conclusion, as the Byzantine Christian establishment supplants and soon attempts to eliminate its pagan Roman forebears, comes as hastily as the onset of the new faith must have appeared to many who had long lived in Anatolia and its environs, worshiping a thousand gods. (Spectrum Culture 11/11/16; Amazon US 12/9/16.)