Monday, September 29, 2008

Manchán Magan's "Truck Fever": Book Review.

This travel narrative follows Manchán's (he's the kind of writer you want to call by his first name, even if it's mangled in all his books by those with whom he wanders into Mocha; Manchán's a rare Irish saint, and as I dislike coffee, I'll stick with what his parents named him) journeys in the Americas ("Angels & Rabies") and India ("Manchán's Travels"). All of these appear to have happened in the 90's, and while this African installment comes third in English, it appeared in its Irish version back in '98; the Indian one in Gaelic also preceded the Béarla adaptation. Although at the time of the African adventure Manchán was only twenty, years before he'd become a travel writer and documentary filmmaker (using both languages) in partnership with his brother, the scrutiny with which he approaches his task of recording, remembering, and interpreting must have been sharpened early on in his life.

I've reviewed his other two books in English (here on this blog and on Amazon) earlier this year, and I enjoyed them immensely. The Sunday Telegraph's blurb on the back sums up, for once accurately, the power of his style: "His writing is unashamedly sensual and he has an engagingly confessional narrative voice; his adventures are as poignant as they are hair-raising." While he does not delight in the half-learned, half-sniggering tone of Redmond O'Hanlon's accounts of the dangers of tropical parasites, Manchán does evoke in carefully organized, easily flowing prose his own discomforts, whether physical or emotional. Yet, he avoids special pleading or sentimentality. He scours his descriptions of cliché; he labors with Yeatsian diligence to disguise with fluid rhythms what I suspect he has pored long over in private to polish-- and roughen-- in his craft as an observer of what he finds inside himself and outside in a world that discourages, delights, and daunts him.

It's 1991, the Gulf War is about to erupt, and for a thousand pounds this Irish youth signs up alongside twenty British (with a few from the Commonwealth) amateur adventurers, mostly young, all restless, to board a refurbished British army vehicle to trundle down from Morocco across the Sahara into Niger, over to Burkina Faso, Benin, and then, halfway, to swing straight across equatorial Africa through Nigeria, Cameroon, the CAR, the former Zaire, and over the mountains into the descent towards Nairobi and then the Indian Ocean. Thirteen thousand miles, not counting getting to Ceuta at the northern tip in the first place!

I made a shortlist of favorite passages and came up with a dozen, too many for a short entry. However, I will convey the gist of his trek, employing his phrasing when I can to share his perspective. He suspects all twenty of them had a "masochistic streak" to prove themselves to parents, ex-lovers, colleagues, or siblings. "We hoped Africa would be an alembic that would convert our vapid hearts to those of heroes." (21) But, this would prove predictably hubristic. "We were like children swinging ever higher on a faulty swing, showing off to Mummy, unaware of the catastrophe that was to befall us." The group splits, yet patriarchy endures, if in feminist fashion. Suzi, their guide, the most testosterone-fuelled of them all, will lord her power over this fractious band of what soon becomes an object lesson in social regression, the failure of moral evolution, and the limits of safety vs. foolhardiness when the surrogate parent's not around anymore.

Without giving away too much of what Manchán will do mid-journey, it's certainly convincing when he tells us that he made a life-changing decision that led his companions into an extremely dangerous situation when they find themselves trapped in the depths of the Congo, needing to escape, nearing starvation, and finding themselves, indirectly through Manchán's impetuous actions, almost destitute. One element that gains appropriate consideration, given the gravity of his unthinking action-- one that nearly any young person would do in these circumstances-- turns into a reflection upon how his fellow travellers begin to fracture under pressure. A third keep their heads down, hoping to survive the rigors of the six months together relatively unscathed; another group wavers between timidity and the promise of exhilaration; the last faction, with Manchán among them, looks for the feckless and the reckless, if in rather innocent fun.

It's not quite "Lord of the Flies," but Manchán as with his previous books excels at examining how a foreign bureaucracy, strange culture, and a post-colonial revenge, as it were, can conspire to assault Europeans abroad in the Third World. His native guides assure him that while the white men break, trying vainly to reduce all to facts, those who survive the continent do so only by bending, by giving in but not succumbing under pressures that dwarf even Manchán's predicament in the Congo. As he survives his forging in the jungle's crucible, he learns to accept how the lion devours the zebra. His veneer cracks, and, I suspect, he becomes a man at last.

Africa, he muses, seems too advanced in its trust in spirits and chance; Europe, contrarily, appears to be fleeing these sinuous truths that quantum physics and a post-Christian mindset may, intriguingly, only be drawing us back towards. He listens to assorted nomads, native and European, like himself. He repels a Berber boor who appears as if he came from the pages of a book-- "an old book soaked in cheap alcohol." (49) He tries to rescue the females-- after a few months on the road-- from the advances of his fellow mates, who sometimes transform into thuggish Lotharios.

He reads a diary of James Sligo Jameson, who 103 years earlier exactly follows the route he finds himself on, that sought by Stanley into Zaire. He's relegated, at a dismal truck stop in the capital of Niger to cut paper reindeer to festoon the truck for Christmas; it's that or getting the fluff out of tampons to make a snowman. One of the schoolgirls has brought snow spray from London. He meets in Algeria's wasteland the improbably named Salade, a "mature student" among the Tuareg, and she and he bond over their memories of a publican, Dick Mack, they both knew in Dingle. He almost falls in love as he dances the soukous; he sees posters of Zairean dictator Bokassa faded in the sun until only his leopard-print wear and his horn-rimmed glasses remain visible, as if a Joan Miro abstract. A few pages later, a menacing military functionary reminds him, "withered and bucolic," of a Velásquez painting.

Manchán studies the dangers that afflict the body, punish the mind, and corrode the soul. As a remedy, he finds throughout his coming-of-age story, he turns to nature as a comfort. At moments of utter despair, he sees, for example, dawn over Tamanrasset 3000 meters above the Sahara. The sun "began to climb its way through the blackened spires and gnarled columns, carving around the monstrous needles and illuminating bits of quartzite as it went, making the world look like a monstrous neon sea urchin." (97)

Similarly, drifting on the Congo, the nadir of their journey's followed by sudden rapture in the sunlight, as they follow detours that lead them along the same path Conrad gave to Kurtz upriver. Despite the equatorial heat and oppressive humidity, not to mention their own parlous state, Manchán and his mates can rouse themselves in wonder, albeit doubly stupified. "The forest was so all-encroaching and the river so bendy that it seemed as if we were only ever sailing through a tiny, though never-ending, pond." (240)

On the savannah, nearing the end, he learns how lucky he's been to glimpse Africa without pity, to see in its integrity people still inheriting traditional patterns of civility and compassion before globalization and urbanization will wipe their spirit, perhaps, ineradicably away into the backwash of the First World. He ponders zebras under attack by a hyena.
"After the zebras had fled and the dust settled, I noticed the rib cage of a gazelle-- a Gothic cathedral of bones picked bare of meat-- rising starkly up from its wilted carpet of skin. It seemed to have been placed there solely for me: a sign to say that sometimes you had to risk death to be fully alive." (275-76)
Haunted on his trip by dreams of death, getting over the death of his father, Manchán has struggled to stare down mortality, and finally he refuses to flinch.

Manchán at various points in the expedition finds himself chemically altered, not always on endorphins or by dysentery alone, but the appeal of what he witnesses I found enhanced by his ability to balance the artificially induced high with those he attains through pushing his body and his mind to their limits. When you read his story, you gain understanding of how to bend, rather than break, under pressure. The courage that he gains will sustain him well when he roams Canada, the Andes, and India.

Ceaptha do bheirt imreoirí.

Chaith mé mo dheireadh seachtain seo caite ag ceaptha do bheirt imreoirí, Niall ar aghaidh mise. Bhí mé anseo Dé hAoine seo caite ag foghlaim ficheall leis Niall. D'fhoglaim sé chomh a imirt go tapaidh. Chaith sé go maith leis féin. Thosaigh muid ár priomh-cluiche nuair go raibh ag staidear fichealleacht areir.

Cheannaigh mé clár fichille leis foireann fichille ina síopa bréagáin go Pasadena Theas. Bhí níos socair ag cur na fichillín éagsúlaí ar an clár mar sin go bhfuil níos mó chomh sin ina foireann taisteal na adhmad leis píosaí phlaisteach níos lú. Chruinnigh muid ár fichillín dó ansin go dtí bórd nua.

D'imir muid a cheile ar feadh tráthnóna Dé Sathairn. D'inis mé air faoi aistriú. Is maith linn an ridire is maith. Is féidir linn ag bogadh timpeall siadsan. Sé an ridire an t-aon fear atá in ann leim thar fír eile.

Mhuin mé ar mo mhíc imeasc seo. Is cuimhne leatsa go bhfuil ainmheal leis ceann na gcapall. Níl ábalta fichillín eile ag leipreach chomh an ridire.

Tá sé oilte ar gach cleas sa chluiche. Tá Niall fear fichille a aistriú go haireach. Is cosuil leatsa chomh liom féin. Imríonn muid cluiche airdeallach. Níl a fhios ag ceachtar againn chomh straitéis airde go obairte fós.

Ar mbeidh Niall bheith dúilmhear i ficheall go leor? Tá súil agam leis. Bhuel, ní mbeadh Léna nó Leon ar cheachtar den dá thaobh ina teaghlach leis mian uile acusan a imirt ar chor ar bith. Mar sin féin, bainfidh mé féin sult as ficheall leis mo imreoir leictreonach.

Fashioned for a pair of players.

I spent my last weekend as designed for a pair of players, Niall vs. myself. I was here the past Friday learning chess with Niall. He learned how to play [the game] rapidly. He did himself proud. We had started our first game when we were studying the 'art of chess' the previous evening.

I bought a chess board with chess pieces in a toy shop in South Pasadena. It was easier putting the various pieces on the board because these were larger than the travel set of wood with smaller plastic pieces. We gathered our chess pieces from there to the new board.

We played (a game) together during Saturday afternoon. I told him about moves. We like the knight the best. It's better for us to take them around. The knight's the only one who's able to leap over other men.

I taught my son this image. He is to remember that it is an animal with a head of a horse. Other chess pieces are not able to jump about like the horse.

He is up on every move in the game. Niall moves the chess pieces cautiously. It's the same with me as with him. We play a watchful game. Neither of us knows how advanced strategy may work yet.

Will Niall be eager for more chess? I have hope of it. Well, there would be on neither side of the family Layne or Leo with any wish to play at all. Nevertheless, I will enjoy myself with my electronic player.

Iómhá /Image: "Ridire Uigingigh/ Viking Knight".

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Wooden Shjips":
2 Music Reviews

"Wooden Shjips:" s/t

If you like a Doorsy vocal, a steadily repetitive neo-psychedelic mid-tempo sound, this album, all of half an hour, should prove a low-intensity pleasure. While I don't favor Jim Morrison in the original, I don't mind the singing style of the lead singer. He's able to insinuate himself into the guitar-drums-bass-keyboard swirl. If you like tunes that blur into one another as mood music, ones that go in and out of focus as you give yourself over to their single-minded approach, this will bore into you, subtly but steadily.

There's nothing self-aggrandizing about the sonic innovations here. This isn't meant as a criticism. Don't expect any grandstanding on the gloomy, brooding, melancholy restlessness that this S.F.-meets-Brooklyn band delivers. They like this monochromatic texture, which slowly shifts as if somber clouds drifting over a greying, darkening sky.

The group's other record, a compilation of early singles originally released in a limited edition with this self-titled one but now as Volume 1 (also reviewed by me) has appeared separately, shows a more Spaceman-3, staticky and Krautrock-inspired drone. By comparison, there's a tighter, if more slow-burning, approach on this eponymous CD, apparently their later work. This shows increasing movement towards music that's akin in its doomsday threats and understated tension to the Austin, Texas, ensemble The Black Angels.

"Volume 1":

As a handy compilation of material that preceded their self-titled CD, "Volume 1" shows a band much more inspired by Spacemen 3 than the Jim Morrison-style vocals favored on the later full-length record (also reviewed by me). This adjective may be rather misleading, as neither record goes much longer than half an hour. However, the density of these songs makes them seem like they go on forever.

This may be a warning for some listeners and an incentive for others. Being firmly in the latter camp, I liked the band's mix of keyboard Krautrock, guitar-bass-drums straightforward neo-psychedelia, and distortion effects. The emphasis on a slightly punkier, more ragged texture I find more appealing, in fact, than the Doors-Echo & the Bunnymen Jim Morrison-Ian McCulloch type of singing on the s/t record, but each has its own strengths. It seems the band's been evolving into a less loud but equally intense mood.

The songs heard here, therefore, tend towards studio effects that for me work well with the repetitive grooves and infinite space-rock stylings. They remind me of Farflung's "A Wound in Eternity" (also reviewed by me) in their adaptation of a Hawkwind-Chrome-postpunk melange that melds newer spacerock aesthetic with a postpunk aggression. With the exception of the throwaway gimmick "Space Clothes," which knocks down the rating here, it's a satisfying collection otherwise.

Buyers may want to know that Volume 1 had also been issued as a limited-edition (1000 copies) freebie with their self-titled CD, but this two-fer being long out of print, this re-release proves generous and welcome, as these songs are hard to find in their original issues. Support this indie band as they carry on a welcome tradition of forty-odd years of excursions into the ethereal realm of songs that go on as if forever, as if much longer than their brief incarnations here.

(Two reviews posted on Amazon US today.)

One in a hundred, scientifically speaking?

One in a hundred, scientifically speaking?

I took this version of the Keirsey-Bates MBTI personality 70-question test at the The LONG Scientific Personality Test. Explanation:
The test measures you in four different areas. It will measure whether you are more introverted or extroverted I vs E. It will measure if you are more concerned with reality and facts or ideas and intuitions N vs S. It will measure whether you are more logic based or feelings based F versus T . Finally, it will measure if you are more go with the flow or someone who likes to have a plan J vs P.

In "Personal Days" by Ed Park (reviewed by me yesterday here and on Amazon US), one character goes to a NYC shrink who raises his fee to a $100. So, she stops going and sees a life coach in Starbucks instead-- no license, no office, and cheaper. Maybe the competition in Manhattan drives prices down. Computerized psychiatry should further goad the price wars.

No surprises, admittedly. Ideal for me: no cost, objectively rendered, no human interaction, no messy scenes. I took another version on line-- I subbed for a class in which the students in a frosh orientation project had to take it-- somewhere a few months ago. That placed me in the same letters but said I was only 4% of the population; this new one says I'm all of 1 in a hundred. Maybe we are not reproducing and we are dying out. Am I an endangered species?

Your result for The LONG Scientific Personality Test ...
INTJ -The Mastermind

You scored 0% I to E, 16% N to S, 52% F to T, and 32% J to P!
You are more introverted than extroverted. You are more intuitive than observant, you are more thinking based than feeling based, and you prefer to have a plan rather than leaving things to chance. Your type is best described by the word "mastermind", which belongs to the larger group called rationals. Only 1% of the population shares your type. You are very strong willed and self-confident. You can hardly rest until you have things settled.

You will only adopt ideas and rules if they make sense. You are a great brainstormer and often come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. You are open to new concepts, and often actively seek them out.

As a romantic partner, you can be both fascinating yet demanding. You are not apt to express your emotions, leaving your partner wondering where they are with you. You strongly dislike repeating yourself or listening to the disorganized process of sorting through emotional conflicts. You see your own commitments as self-evident and don't see why you need to repeat something already expressed. You have the most difficulty in admitting your vulnerabilities. You feel the most appreciated when your partner admires the quality of your innovations and when they listen respectfully to your ideas and advice. You need plenty of quiet to explore your interests to the depth that gives you satisfaction.

Your group summary: rationals (NT)
Your type summary: INTJ

"No Stress Chess": Game Review

Previous reviewers on Amazon US (where this review has today been uploaded) have generally given praise for this clever game, both an introduction to how its included pieces conventionally move and also, in a twist that even those who know how to play already may enjoy, giving this ancient game of skill a bit of chance. My post shows in more detail how this concept works on various levels according to the directions. Cards for each piece show the moves, and if you draw the card, you must move the piece. If you cannot, you lose your turn. This allows, as the clearly indicated instructions explain, a freedom not open to standard players.

This also liberates the King somewhat, to attack more often. The booklet, which also gives a concise explanation of standard chess, puts the rationale of this version thus: "You can take a chance of exposing your pieces to possible capture in the hopes your opponent won't draw a card picturing a piece he can move to capture yours." You also may draw, in six places in the 56-card deck, a "move same type of piece again," which allows you to use either the card your opponent would draw next or your own.

Level One follows these rules, after an initial non-carded set-up of one at both color's queen's file of the pawn two squares and each king's pawn one. Then, the card shuffle begins. This previous placement opens up the pieces in the back rank for action. Level Two deals a three-card hand to each player before play begins from which he can select one piece; Level Three does this with five cards. This mimics more closely the actual array of options in standard chess.

For advanced guidance into learning chess strategy, there's further variations. You can also add en passant, pawn promotion, castling, and checking to Level Three, therefore following regular chess with the unpredictable card-shuffle of "No Stress." Although by then, I imagine, there'd be enough tension akin to a conventional game! That can be done, naturally, by flipping the laminated cardboard over and pursuing a regular match. Plastic pieces can topple over very easily, a slight drawback, but they are large enough to grasp easily in a child's hand and the green-and-white layout's easy on the staring eyes. The novelty of this board game is that you can combine, for beginners or for the curious, the chance of cards with the skill of chess.

Michael Basman's "Chess for Kids": Book Review.

My nearly-teenaged son's embarrassed by the title when I've carried it in public to study, but he and I have managed to learn (some of) the basics with ease thanks to the clear illustrations, concise explanations, and large format. As with any Dorling Kindersley book, it's attractively designed. Like Daniel King's "Chess" primer (reviewed by me recently here), the graphics can be seen from a distance, which assists you when you follow the moves on a board. It can be laid open for study, and unlike small paperbound introductions, this advantage-- while it may mean less detailed information given the oversized layout can be transmitted to the eye-- invites the hesitant or impatient beginner to try out the strategies.

Basman's prose favors terseness, but he teaches you with memorable metaphors that follow the military inspiration of the game. "The power of the mind-- the avenue to success in business and study-- is awakened, developed, and strengthened by chess." (8) Castling "moves your king to safety, almost as though he is in a real castle." (22) Pawns, knights, and bishops enter early as a "light brigade;" rooks move like two tanks with the queen as a "rocket launcher."

He gives five easy rules for openings, diagrams to understand capturing and value, recapturing, safe and safe-enough moves, and a mental checklist to use before moves. Pins and forks with a simple diagram and a paragraph become comprehensible by the colored squares the photos add to show moves. These are readable and concise. Not only endgames and defensive moves and counterattacks but notably draws earn attention.

There's minimal space devoted to the history and lore; this focuses more on the tactics. Each piece receives a page that shows how it moves and also how it captures. Simple exercises invite you to practice what's been shown. I do find that notation tends in beginner's guides to be taught quickly, and while the basics upon reflection do prove obvious, Basman's book encourages the reader to continue writing the notation and following sample games with a board to supplement the book's directions.

DK's style may emphasize the pictorial over the textual, but for chess, this stress does match the necessity for one to begin as soon as possible to visualize the action. This directness may, however, be a weakness for rapid learners, who I reckon will outgrow much of this book quickly. As I mentioned earlier, the pace moves fast here, and King's text may please learners at a slightly more advanced level. Basman's book's suited for a casual first-timer, and certainly a long shelf of intermediate books can follow once the learner's grasped the basics here.

The text also adds a short glossary, a few websites, and addresses for chess federations that eager players may want to visit to expand their competence. While's there's not as much depth given to the context and culture of chess, the diagrams do draw your eye to the conflicts diagrammed and this visual concentration does match the large-format DK design well. It's probably also more widely distributed in bookstores than more specialized (if probably more profound) texts, available for quick purchase for not only kids but grown-ups wishing (like me) to learn, whatever one's age, this bracing and imaginative pursuit.
(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ed Park's "Personal Days": Book Review.

It's an anomaly when the TV show "The Office" thrives in British and American versions in popular culture, and "9-to-5" survives as a song and a musical, how infrequently we have successful stories that continue the tradition of "Bartleby the Scrivener" as testimonies to soul-crushing clerical jobs. The novel unfolds in three parts: first, told in the first person plural, short vignettes introduce you to the characters and their personalities. This proves the liveliest part, full of snarky humor that Park renders precisely: "We are moderately proud of our youthful haircuts and overpriced rectangular eyeglasses but that's about it." (7)

It's nervously casual, but the menace lingers underneath the banter, gossip, and machinations. The decade may promise casual office wear and work circles, but hierarchies and capitalism still rule. Here's one sub-section in its entirety:
"'The lottery.' We all play the lottery. We buy our tickets individually because we don't want to have to divvy up all that loot in case the numbers come up right." (24)

Joshua Ferris' fittingly titled "And Then We Came to the End" preceded "Personal Days," but this latter novel probably has a better title, which in the closing section warps pleasingly into Joycean style, suiting the confined, pressured, and fading sensibilities of one of a dwindling cadre of office workers in Manhattan. It's a cruel world despite the chatty tone, enriched by Park's mercilessly deadpan excerpts from such so-improbable-they-could-be-real corporate reading as "Yes I Drank the Kool-Aid-- And Went Back for Seconds," "'Three Easy Rules for Impressing the Powers That Be (and Maybe Becoming One Yourself) (A Simpleton's [TM] Guide), by Douglas Salgado and Uri Boris," or "'The Pegasus Plan: How To Get the Job You Want, the Respect You Deserve, and the Employees You Need to Succeed for Life' by D.M.S. Shrapnel, with an introduction by Whittles Langley, CEO of Ptarmigan Group."

As with much of "Bartleby," the city's streets outside earn less attention from Park's dead-on narrators than the cubicles and hallways within a building graced by a gargoyle on its facade. The long over, the remaining employees await their termination by unseen Californians on a speakerphone; their bosses hover about; the tension pervades the corridors and their psyches. The setting reminds me of the documentary film "" about a similar enterprise's boom and bust.
"It wasn't always like this. Before the Firings, a large team worked here, and traces of their residence can still be found. We knew some of them, though not well. We don't really recognize the scattering of remaining employees, who sit hunched with their backs toward us as if awaiting the death blow. Supposedly there are more survivors on the fifth floor, but not too many. These are people whose tasks never intersect with ours, people we never even need to e-mail." (45)

With names like the Crow and the Sprout, one may think of "Bartleby." With names like "K." and Knott and the Unnameable, Kafka and Beckett of course echo forbiddingly. As the plot tangles, the second section brings in Grimes, a CRO in more ways than one, who appears to be an agent of forces that threaten to eliminate the small band of workers from part one. This section does falter a bit, as it's labelled in outline form, told through limited omniscience, and drags down into minutiae that while expanding the situation in part one, does become often a bit dull and rambling. While this does match the tone of the ever-longer outline format, the tone does grow wearisome, if appropriately so as it details how even the letters for the months of the year in Con Ed abbreviation turn as if a sinister message of doom.

Still, in part three, one sentence fighting off "the entropy of fragments," Jonah, trapped in an elevator, types out a message to a fired colleague about what he finds about Grimes, who also is the Crow. It all makes demented half-sense as it's told over nearly fifty pages. While I kept the impression that a more tightly edited version, as a novella, would have packed a lot more punch, and that the impact of the narrative dissipated over 240 pages rather than a hundred, Park wraps up his story in a satisfying manner that allows it to be not too tidily arranged. It remains uneven, but lasts as more than a light read, for beneath its offhandedly oblique satire, there's material that shows wit, observation, and compassion beneath ironic t-shirt slogans, caffeinated ennui, and corporate coprophilia.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nicola Barker's "Darklands": Book Review.

This tale (shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize-- it makes John Banville's "The Sea" read like Hemingway's "The Old Man & the Sea") of madness, confidence tricksters, arcane learning, and characters overcome by ennui in a dreary Kentish exurb where the chainstores and tract homes have nearly obliterated charm, tradition, and Englishness takes up 838 pages of smallish, determinedly severe Helvetica-style font. It's a challenge to read, and while often hilarious in particular scenes that send up the Broad family, a louche set of low-lifes with unfortunately a bit of cash, it does take a very long time to move the intricate plot and many characters along their intersecting paths.

As one of a few dissembling figures puts it late on: "And perhaps I was an unwitting midwife to something, [. . .] but if I was, then it was something that was already born." She dissuades another character, who's encountered rather demonic happenings, from thinking that such crazy occurrences mean any grand convergence. Magicians, priests, psychics and those who fool us, she insists, "play on the universality of human experience, on how bland, how predictable, how homogenous we all really are." (825) Yet, her interlocuter "didn't seem entirely convinced," and I agree. Barker's on to the energy underlying seemingly random events, the "kismet" of crossed destinies, and our eager wishes to make patterns where they may not be.

There's enough strangeness within these pages, with Johan Huizinga's "Autumn of the Middle Ages" discussed at welcome if awkwardly inserted length, with other disquisitions elaborating upon matters such as prana yoga, Flannery O'Connor's peacocks, the Kurdish sect of the Darwasin and their fear of lettuce, Renaissance polymath Andrew Boarde, and court jester John Scogin. Rather unbelievable that many of the characters, given their otherwise suspect literacy, would engage in elevated and extended discourse on recondite lore ad infinitum, but a fantasy world I'd welcome more than the usual diversions peddled them and us to pass the time! I admit not all the patterns cohere at the end; I was disappointed in more than one thread that did not blend into the larger pattern, but this may be deliberate: the book has as many loose ends as it does tied knots in terms of its narrative resolutions.

Perhaps there's room for another installment? As it is, "Darklands" certainly raises more questions than it answers even within 838 pages. This is the third in a series of her novels that explore English life along the southern inland estuaries, and I suspect we have not heard the last of many rambunctious voices. The novel is both more learned and less daunting than other reviewers may have let on. It's not as consistently uproarious as some nervous publicists want to assure readers of its manic scenes. A few of these, starring the Broad clan, make great moments early on, but the general mood darkens as the novel progresses and inexplicable visitations wreak havoc on the hapless inhabitants of dismal Ashford. Possessions, attacks, and subterfuge loom large as the plots thicken and congeal. Surely the Watcher of the Woods in a splendid chapter with a pregnant terrier that appears to have landed within this already uneasy story as if from an ancient Green Man legend, shows Barker's capable of surprises-- this section I found much more dazzling than any other part of this novel. It stands out like a vivid nightmare half-recalled.

So, as long as you can handle a sprawling, extensively erudite, and often baffling and open-ended farrago of information, rumor, visions, inspiration, insanity, and stupidity, "Darkmans" may entertain you. Barker solves much but not all, so be forewarned. And, you may not look at fleas, lettuce, podiatry, or Kurds the same way again.

(Posted to Amazon US today: "Because it doesn't serve our purpose to see the whole picture." 3.5 stars)

Aois na maitheasa.

Foghlaimím as Gaeilge faoi an focal 'aibíocht' inniu. Is cosuil leis 'maith'. Mar sin, ceapaim go mbeadh sé 'maith' go rabhthar na 'maitheasa'. (Níl mé ábalta aistrigh seo mar an gcéanna as Béarla!)

Faighim go raibh an ábhar a aithint go éagsulaí. Gheobhaidh tú go mbheifí 'in imhne'. Nó, tá sé go raibh 'fear a bheadh tagtha in inmhe'. Is maith liom frása eile i mo fhoclóir. Tá sé 'fear déanta'. Is cuimhne liom faoi na Maifhea. Mar sin féin, níor chonaic mé alt seo i measc na liostaí aibítre anseo.

Ar ndéarfaidh mé go beifear 'in aois fir' má cónofaí chomh i bhfad orm? Abairtear go dtaispéana Obama cleactadh ar obair a rialaigh ár tír. Ar ndóigh, nár aontaítear go bailíodh seisean féin dóthain críonnacht go dtí anois.

Tá gaois leis Obama. Tá sé ag eagnaíocht. Ach, níl ciall fior-cheannaithe agam a fháil leis Obama fós. Tá comhaois é féin agus mé féin. Níl sé boal ar chomh sean le McCain, go nádúrtha. Cloisim go raibh Obama beannaithe ceachartha. Feic ar a phóstaer naofa gach uile áit a rachaidh tú. Creideamh duine eile go leor gach lá go mbeidh Obama i ndáil le bheith críochnaithe ina craobh air.

B'fhéidir, an bua a fháil ar McCain. Troid muid cogadhaí anseo agus thar lear. Tá siad buanna Piorrach. Cruinníon céannaire leis cogar ceilge. Is cuma cad Obama nó McCain dúirt siad orainn, is cuma linn. Tá scéal céann ar chuma ar bith. Géill ceannairí na tíre na olagarcacht. Coimeadfaidh na saibhre a chur i gcumhacht go deo.

Tá muid bréagán acusan féin go cinnte. Tá guth an phobhail na h-áilleánach go fásach go tuirseach. Is áilleánaigh muid uile go deireanach. Is críonna an té a déarfadh na blianta le teacht faoi ár náisiún níos ramhar agus níos lag. Suímidis go socair sa teacht bábóige líonadh faoi an dhá bhratóg réaltbhreac.

Years of Maturity.

I'm learning in Irish today concerning the word "maturity." It's like that for "good." Therefore, I think that it should be "well" that one may be in "wellness." (I cannot translate this in the same manner into English!)

I perceive the matter to be distinguished variously. You'll see that one may be "in a position of strength." Or, he is being a "man who is of mature years." I like another phrase in my dictionary. He's a "made man." It reminds me of the Mafia. I did not see this entry here among the alphabetical lists, however.

Can I say that one will be 'at the age of manhood' if somebody lives as long as me? One may say that Obama may show practical experience to rule our land. Of course, one may disagree that he himself has gathered sufficient sagacity up to now.

There's shrewdness with Obama. He's making clever remarks in debate. But, there is not for me the sense of true wisdom having grown within Obama yet. He's the same age as me. I hear that Obama is all but hallowed. Look at his saintly poster everywhere you go. Many other people believe every day that Obama is approaching completion in his victory.

Perhaps, McCain will be defeated. We fight battles for Pyrrhic victories here and over there. No matter what Obama or McCain said to us, it's all the same for us. It's the same story after all. The country's leaders obey the oligarchy. The rich will forever stay in power.

We are indeed their "playthings." The voice of we trinket-people's growing tired. At last, we're all "dressed-up useless people." (As the Irish definition renders it into English.) It'd be a skillful man who could tell the future concerning our fatter and weaker country. We sit still, inside this stuffed dollhouse, under two star-spangled banners.

: Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) Tate Gallery, from "Ten Collages from BUNK (T01458-T01467; complete)."

I was a Rich Man's Plaything 1947.

Collage mounted on card: support: 359 x 238 mm on paper, unique. Presented by the artist 1971. T01462.

These collages are mainly made from magazines given to Paolozzi by American ex-servicemen. They show his fascination with popular culture and technology, as well as with the glamour of American consumerism. The title of the series refers to Henry Ford''s famous statement that ''History is more or less bunk.... We want to live in the present''. It reflects Paolozzi''s belief that his work should respond to contemporary culture.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ken Bruen's "Cross": Book Review

The sixth installment in Bruen's "Galway noir" ex-Garda Jack Taylor's lonely, agitated, and despairing fight to, as he recalls, carry out justice in the alley rather than law in the courts, proves excoriating, harrowing, and satisfying. While I've liked-- if that's the word for such grim fiction-- all of the series, there was a bit of straining in recent episodes due to coincidences, unrelieved mayhem, and Jack's self-hatred. Not that these have diminished exactly in "Cross," but Bruen appears to have better insights into his protagonist's awareness of his conflicted nature.

"I admitted to me own self-- a thing I hated to do-- I was scared. I was alone. Your Irish bachelor in all his pitiful glory, shabby and bitter, ruined and crumbling.

With a plan." (95)

Fed up with a gentrified, commodified, faux-British, and cruel Galway remade by euros and Eurotrash, Jack resolves to sell his flat and move to Florida. There's only a curious case of dognapping and a few horrific murders to solve first. As usual, his scheme to investigate, report, and abscond goes predictably awry.

As always, Galway's a character along with the locals.

"Summer was definitely over. The peculiar light, unique to the West of Ireland, was flooding the street-- it's a blend of brightness but always with the threat of rain, and it glistens like wet crystal even as it soothes you. The edge of darkness in creeping along the horizon and you get the feeling you better grab it while it lasts." (40-41)
Such evocative prose comes rarely here, all the more to enjoy it.

Eyre Square crumbles, a gay ghetto thrives nearby, a Mexican restaurant seems "very authentic," and the housing prices skyrocket despite, circa 2004, the bubble bursting for the boomtown. Guns are sold out of a van by Salthill church; it's hard to find a St. Brigid's traditional cross for sale in the religious goods shop. The pubs are always there, tempting Jack back from sobriety. This element remains one of Bruen's motifs, and he limns well the agony of the recovering alcoholic.

There's fewer of his old friends that return. Often, the price of hanging out with Jack appears to be mortal. Stewart's a welcome presence; his return from his Zen retreat (in Limerick!) to encounter Jack in a rage I found the novel's best scene. It's back with combative Ridge and the irascible Father Malachy, joined by newcomer Gina, an Italian doctor, and such momentarily glimpsed but memorably drawn folks as the mother of another ex-Guard, Mrs. Heaton; King, the owner of a suspicious canned goods exporting firm; and a rather kindly-- for once-- priest, Jim.

The plot, as before, has its twists and turns. Less manic than some before, and there's a growing sense of maturity and its costs upon the hard-living, brittle, and cantankerous haunted figure who pursues evil into the streets and even into the sea. The novel does not make a false turn. You'd have trouble starting in with number six in the series, however, and the narrative plunges you in right away where the last one, "Priest," left off. If you've stuck with Jack in the past, on the other hand, this well-crafted story takes you to its last sentence with flair, poignancy, and weight.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

'Tá tonn mhaith aoise aige'.

Nó, 'tá sé ag dul anonn sna blianta'. Chuir mé cuairt inné leis mo h-athair inné. Tá sé sna déaga is ceithre fichid anois. Tá sé a dhá agus nócha blian ach is beag nach bhfuil.

Tá aoibh bhreá air. Tá sé somheanmnach. Tá sé faoi luisne na sláinte. Tá grioisghruanna aige. Mar sin féin, bíonn sé níos lag. Caitheann sé ag siúl timpeall leis cána.

D'inis sé orm na scéalaí céanna uair amháin eile. Dúirt sé agam faoi a chol ceathrar Roy. Chuala mé faoi Na Cleasaí. D'fhoglaim mé aríst faoi an bean go raibh teifeach Gearmeanách an té atá ar thaobh mo láimhe clé.

Thit sé ar a dhroim an seachtain seo caite ar feadh mean-oiche. Bhíodh sé ina seomhra folctha. Bhuail sé an balla leis a chána dhá uair. Go críochnúil, bhí a chomharsa go raibh ag cloiste an callán. Dhial an creatur bocht 911.

Níl sé obair shaoráideach a feiceáil sé féin chomh seo. Tháinig mo dheirfiúr agus mé an deireadh seachtaine roimh sin ag dúisithe ár h-athair faoi fadbh seo. Níl sé ag eisteacht againn ansin. B'fhéidir, tosóidh sé ag deisiú seisean féin anois.

Tá sé chomh ceanndána le muc. Is mian cabhair aigesan. Is feidir aige ní bheadh sé aonaránach. Tá sé ina chónaí leis féin ró-fháda. Gheobaidhimis síor aire aige as seo.

"There's a good depth of age on him."

Or, "He's getting on in years." I paid a visit to my father yesterday. He's in his nineties now. He is nearly ninety-two years old.

He's in good spirits. He's cheerful. He has the flush of health. He has glowing cheeks. All the same, he's (usually) weaker. He must walk about with a cane.

He told me the same stories another time. He talked to me about his first cousin Roy. I heard about the Dodgers. I learned again about the woman who was a German refugee who is his neighbor on the left side.

He fell down last week during the middle of the night. He had been in the bathroom. He struck the wall with his cane two hours. Finally, his neighbor had heard the racket. The poor thing dialled 911.

It's not easy to see him like this. My sister and I went the weekend before that to alert our father about this problem. He did not want to listen to us then. Perhaps, he will start to fix himself up now.

He is a headstrong as a "pig" (=mule in English!). He needs help for himself. It's better that he not be alone. He has been too long living by himself. We'll get constant care for him from now on.

Iómhá /Illustration: Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Tate Gallery, 1911. `Man Goeth to his Long Home'

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pico Iyer's Tibet Reading List.

Iyer disses Tintin in Tibet but it's the one of the first books I bought to read aloud together when my sons were young. Who can resist a vast, treeless plateau five times the size of Britain, ringed by caves full of lamas, slopes hiding yeti, three miles above the ocean? While writers must distinguish romance from reason, Orientalism from post-colonial rigor, the spell cast upon our young moments lingers long and makes even us professorial types linger within our imagination when we pursue interests today with bibliographies and footnotes. When I was young, I scoured the first two books I saved up for with my allowance. One, a red 1967 two-volume Scott's Stamp Catalogue, from the Pomona philatelist who had it lying around for $7.50 in 1969. The other, a $2.85 boxed set of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in that Gormenhghastly gothic Ballantine edition with the Goreyesque cover art-- the dear pipe-puffing don's earnest warning on the back to accept no unauthorized versions.

Tolkien made me a medievalist, and the stamps I studied-- even if I purchased few-- deepened my quest into the realms of the mind, beyond my dusty house at the edge of a lemon grove, the chaparral beyond. I also loved exotic engravings, meticulously grooved into hundreds of places marked by stamps from one of the paired volumes, mostly the old British empire and the new Commonwealth. You could trace the collapse of the territorial gains, through the independence issues of the late 50s and 60s onward, foreign phrases and freshly minted denominations with jets and factories, farmers and hospitals, tanks and parades under beaming dusky rulers replacing the franked face of young Elizabeth or solemn Georges. The fact that they were all tiny rectangles and squares (or, if Tuva, a diamond!) monochromed and regimented only added to the mystery of what "carnelian" or "fuchsia" might have represented beyond the binding, in their perforated realia.

My imagination kindled from such stamps, but one land I never saw in miniature there was Tibet. Finishing Iyer's The Open Road (which I reviewed promptly on the blog and on Amazon US yesterday), I approved of his reading list as one way for us to encounter what lies atop the Himalayas, as accumulated learning and tested wisdom. Now, it's all becoming a police state-- six million natives already overwhelmed by one of those trains a stamp might celebrate, and eight million Chinese settlers. The flag is outlawed, the language is not taught, and the Dalai Lama's image is prohibited.

There's so much that needs doing for Tibet's cause and heritage. Last night, in my review I lamented the lack of specific direction in Iyer's study for ways we could help with compassion and wisdom. So, today, I figured to assist myself and others that I'd list-- my copy being a library checkout-- for all of you Iyer's recommendations on Tibet.

To start with: Freedom in Exile, the second autobiography by Iyer's subject, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In Exile from the Land of Snows, John Avedon. I have Exile stored away still unread; I still remember Avedon (not stored away-- water damage led to its impermanence) in his careful descriptions of shamanism, medicine, rigors-- and Chinese torture in Amdo's labor camps. I wonder if they're worse now than in the 80s.

On the Dalai Lama:
Martin Scorsese's film Kundun, Diki Tsering's Dalai Lama, My Son; Thubten Jigme Norbu, his eldest brother, with Heinrich Harrer, Tibet Is My Country; his younger sister Jetsun Puma's Tibet: My Story. The first autobiography in 1962, My Land and My People. Michael Goodman's The Last Dalai Lama. Family debates and dynamics: Mary Craig's book Kundun.

Dalai Lama's Teachings: Ethics for the New Millennium for morality; The Universe in a Single Atom for science. Kindness, Clarity, and Insight as an early collection of essays. Particular instructions: The Four Noble Truths as a general introduction to Buddhism; The Good Heart as addressing Christians on the Gospels; Destructive Emotions as a recording of a Mind & Life Institute meeting of scientists and philosophers discussing "which impulses and reflexes tear us apart."

Tibetan Buddhism & transformation:
Robert Thurman's Inner Revolution; Mathieu Ricard's Happiness; Howard C. Cutler's The Art of Happiness-- specific case studies brought to the Dalai Lama by a Western psychiatrist; Victor Chan's The Wisdom of Forgiveness. Also, Manuel Bauer's photographs, A Journey for Peace.

Tibet's History:
Tsering Shakya's The Dragon in the Land of Snows on post-1947 events; Melvyn C. Goldstein's The Snow Lion and the Dragon; Donald S. López Jr.'s Prisoners of Shangri-La on its mythification.

Classic Tibetan Accounts:
Sir Charles Bell on the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his nation; Peter Hopkirk's history of early exploration, Trespassers on the Roof of the World; Alexandra David-Neel's "richly colored accounts of her trips"; Heinrich Harrar's Seven Years in Tibet which I cherished in my vivid red. fragile, gently used English paperback from the 50s; Scott Berry's A Stranger in Tibet which also languishes unopened somewhere in my vicinity, all about "the eccentric Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi" and his rambles.

Contemporary Encounters:
Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet (reviewed by me a few years ago on Amazon US: a wrenching narrative by a former leader of the Free Tibet Campaign's London organization after his disillusionment with the idealization of the Dalai Lama and the status quo stalemate); Robert Barnett's Lhasa: Streets with Memories. Two reactions from Chinese visitors: Ma Jian's Red Dust & Xinran Xue's Sky Burial. In passing: earlier scholarship from Giuseppe Tucci, Hugh Richardson, David Snellgrove and past travellers F. Spencer Chapman, Peter Fleming, Lowell Thomas, Jr.

Newer Accounts:
Isabel Hilton's The Search for the Panchen Lama; Mick Brown's Dance of 17 Lives on the Karmapa legacy; Thomas Laird's interviews with the Dalai Lama about Tibet's formation and evolution (reviewed by me last month here and on Amazon US) published in 2006 as A Story of Tibet.

Buddhism: Thupten Jinpa Langri's Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy; Karen Armstrong's brief entry in the Penguin Lives series (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US last spring) Buddha; Pankraj Mishra's An End to Suffering examines the Buddha's life and influence; Huston Smith's work among his wider contributions to comparative religion for many decades now.

Buddhism in the West: Martha Sherill's The Buddha from Brooklyn about a search for a reincarnated lama; Diana J. Mukpo (the widow of controversial "crazy wisdom" guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche) with Carolyn Rose Gimian in Dragon Thunder; Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door about I believe related issues of tension among Asian teachers of Buddhism in countercultural America; David Chadwick's Crooked Cucumber. Rick Fields' How the Swans Came to the Lake pioneered the narrative history of how Buddhism spread westward; Jeffrey Paine's Reenchantment covers similar terrain. Also listed as authors: Stephen Batchelor, Steve Hagan, Mark Epstein.

The Buddhist Path:
I agree with Iyer wholeheartedly. Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Andrew Harvey's A Journey in Ladakh captivated me when I found them both about fifteen years ago. Both writers somehow on the page managed to articulate what Brian Eno in music has called the "drop," when the bottom falls away from what you've been listening to and all of infinity looms for an ecstatic instant.

Illustration from the Wikipedia entry: Hergé's 1960 Tintin in Tibet. Wiki Excerpts:
Hergé had been recently plagued by nightmares in the period before writing Tintin in Tibet, in which he found himself in a white, featureless world. These dreams are echoed in the white landscape of the Himalayas in the book. This may also be why Hergé's original cover for the book was completely white.

On June 1, 2006, Tintin became the first fictional character to be awarded the Dalai Lama's Truth of Light award. “For many people around the world Tintin in Tibet was their first introduction to Tibet, the beauty of its landscape and its culture. And that is something that has passed down the generations,” said the International Campaign for Tibet's Simon van Melick. [1] During the awarding ceremony copies of Tintin in Tibet in Esperanto (Tinĉjo en Tibeto) were distributed among the attendees and journalists.

In 2001 the Hergé Foundation demanded the recall of the Chinese translation of the work, which had been previously released with the title "Tintin in China's Tibet". The work was subsequently published with the correct translation of the title.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pico Iyer's "The Open Road": Book Review.

Iyer's reflections on the Dalai Lama's complicated situation, preaching idealism while attacked for his patience rather than expediency to assist the dire plight of his homeland's vanishing culture, animate this very thoughtful commentary. Through not a biography in any conventional sense, more a series of essays on the public, private, philosophical, and political facets of the monk elevated by history into diplomacy, Iyer examines the man fairly.

He interviews the Dalai Lama's skeptical brother, listens to those within the exile community who lament the advice of endurance rather than action, and surveys the predicament faced by the Tibetan government-in-exile as it witnesses from a distance one out of five native Tibetans killed or starved by the Chinese; one in ten having been jailed; thirteen monasteries not demolished or incinerated out of over six thousand before the Communist invasion.

Likewise, in the Dharmasala town set up as the Tibetan capital in Indian exile, Iyer sees a wealth of contradictions that depict the place as the ultimate global village. As you'd expect from his previous travel writing, Iyer's at his best in this section as he catalogues the clashes and contradictions of a place where the boys out of Tibet court European girls, long to get out of India to California, and then-- as Iyer a resident of that state wonders- what then? This restlessness pervades the Tibetans he meets, caught between devotion to the Dalai Lama and resignation to the collapse of their homeland.

He listens to harrowing tales by those who have fled, and about those who have returned only to be incarcerated in what Shanghai calls "New Tibet Reception Center." Since Iyer wrote this book, the recent revolts and their repression in Lhasa occurred must further deepen the despair felt by many Tibetans who have fled, or who have grown up abroad. This aura from the past year makes this account even more powerful. What I wish this book would have included, without compromising its integrity, is some guidance in the closing pages for how best for its readers, moved to act out of compassion, to practically and wisely help Tibet there and abroad.

For, as Iyer notes, combining the global with the local remains the burning core of the Tibetan predicament that the Dalai Lama raises. Gandhi and King helped their people as a small way of saving the world, Iyer agrees; "but in the Tibetan situation, again, the clock was less indulgent. If the Dalai Lama offered a new vision for the global century just dawning, he was essentially addressing a century in which Tibet as we knew it no longer existed." (225)

Yet, Iyer ponders if the Dalai Lama takes a wider, subtler range of advice for the rest of the world.
"Of course, we can see the Chinese as enemies, but if we do so, we are saying, in effect, that we are going to spend all of our lives in the midst of enemy forces; the better situation is to change how we think of the situation, perhaps by seeing that our real enemies are our own habitual tendencies toward thinking in terms of enemies. We can always see the decisive effects of action; but what underlies action, in the way of viewpoint and motivation and feeling, is where the real change has to come." (226)
Iyer's learned much from the Buddhists he's interviewed. No pat solutions, certainly.

As a Hindu Tamil whose father knew the Dalai Lama, and as one who has spent decades exploring the global identity he embodies, Iyer's ideally placed to examine this subject. He pinpoints the Dalai Lama's dilemma: he must leave Tibet to draw the rest of the world towards its heritage; in sharing its spiritual legacy, he must speak in a second language truisms that risk sounding childlike in their ethical simplicity and universal wisdom.

Meanwhile, as Iyer observes inescapably from the outside, the Dalai Lama also transmits the tantric, esoteric "science of the soul" gleaned from 1500 years of investigation within the Tibetan Buddhist schools. Iyer's glimpses of such controversies as the Shugden/ New Kadampa dispute whet the reader's appetite for more about this whole topic of the hidden complexities that the Dalai Lama's public, more anodyne pronouncements to the West necessarily must finesse or minimize.

I wish, in this case and others, that more documentation could have been provided. Although a fine reading list appends the book, often Iyer leaves his sources vague or anonymous. He's done his research, but pithy endnotes might have aided the reader wanting to follow up references too casually made in the text. For instance, he mentions a "Western traveler" who walked eighty-one days across Tibet without seeing another soul, but you have no idea who this was.

Still, with his range of experience in so many places, Iyer does keep the story moving with verve. Iyer also does not forget to guide the reader less versed in Buddhism or Tibet. He phrases much of what for the average Western or non-Buddhist reader might be unfamiliar in pithy terms. He sums up the Buddha as more precedent than Jesus was prophet. He notes how the Dalai Lama tends to stress the accessible, "New Testament" morality of Buddhism to ecumenical audiences instead of the "Old Testament" panoply of deities, magic, and rites known to the initiated monks. He defends such a watered-down sharing of compassion and kindness by the Dalai Lama as the essence of a practice anyone can attempt, and remember easily.

The author contrasts the path of Christians from Jesus' redemption to a linear heaven with the Buddhist progression from the dharma of the Buddha leading to an uncertain possibility of rebirth, and far less likely Nirvana. Iyer reminds us of a crucial difference. St Paul told believers to be "praying ceaselessly"-- stressing the deliverance from above; the Buddha counseled "striving ceaselessly" to work towards one's self-delivered transcendence.

The Dalai Lama's split between empowering practitioners with recondite doctrine, governing the exile and refugee communities (as even the most radical insist on no other leader), shuttling about the world talking to leaders, celebrities, seekers, and often starstruck romantics, and meditating four hours a day starting at 3:30 a.m. His lack of formality, frankness, and humor characterize a man many see as a god, but who himself appears to-- a bit wearily by now-- deflate such claims winningly. Yet, as Iyer witnesses, among newly arrived Tibetan refugees, in one powerful passage, the ancient aura remains as if otherworldly.

Iyer, long range among his dissidents and admirers and up close, gets to know the Dalai Lama over decades. While you sense always the respect between journalist and host, you also get the subtle message, as the book progresses over the decades that Iyer got to know the Dalai Lama, that Iyer begins to take in, cautiously yet ineradicably, the gist of the tolerance, long-range insight, and calm perspective that distinguish the Dalai Lama from the rushed and caustic world of the press among which Iyer has for many years earned his living. The example of the Dalai Lama appears, by the book's graceful end and within its extensive but heartfelt acknowledgments, to have rubbed off on its erudite, globetrotting reporter.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Vladimir Nabokov's "The Defense": Book Review.

For a novel about Luzhin, a grandmaster, there's less chess than I expected. What you do glimpse unfolds often on a mystical plane within the player's mind, and this is how I imagine chess reveals itself to those skilled in its strategies, as if on a visionary understanding of the game, rather than merely mathematical tactics or rote calculation. More often the book's full of interiors as physically evoked and the memories they elicit-- typical for a Nabokov narrative-- told in the author's ruminative, ornamented, and calm style.

Luzhin grows up pre-revolution in Russia. He goes to school, is bullied, and finds solace in learning chess. He soon triumphs over his rivals until a showdown with Turati halts his rise. He suffers a nervous breakdown, marries, and struggles against the temptation, half-remembered, to return to the game that drove him over the edge. In exile among the emigré community, he must decide how he will respond to the opportunity to play again. The pace remains steady until the last pages, when it satisfyingly accelerates. Nabokov over and over manages to pull a fiction from a melancholy or contemplative state into a dramatic epiphany as the tale reaches its end. Here, for Luzhin, such a revelation unfolds exactly as it should.

Every time I read Nabokov, a few sentences deserve attention. Here's a sample. His father hears his son elsewhere in the house:
"Little Luzhin would go away, trailing his satchel over the carpet; Luzhin senior would lean his elbow on the desk, where he was writing one of his usual stories in his exercise books (a whim which, perhaps, some future biographer would appreciate), and listen to the monologue in the neighboring dining room, to his wife's silence persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa." (32)
The alienation of the father from the son, and the son from his mother in turn, and the strangeness of the silence itself as heard by the separated father all echo poignantly in this domestic setting.

Luzhin, grown-up-- although he never seems quite mature compared to his fully sketched father-- wanders in Berlin and sees a strange site near where his father used to live.
"Presently he stopped stock-still in front of a stationery store where the wax-dummy of a man with two faces, one sad and the other joyful, was throwing open his jacket alternately to left and right: the fountain pen clipped to his left pocket of his white waistcoat had sprinkled the whiteness with ink, while on the right was the pen that never ran. Luzhin took a great fancy to the bifacial man and even thought of buying him." (204)
The passage goes on to drift into the things his father had left behind after his death. The odd description illustrates, with pleasing suggestion yet an indirect symbolism, off-kilter, the patterns of alternating color that still dominate Luzhin's consciousness after his collapse and his withdrawal from the clashes on the chessboard.

This is an understated novel, published in Russian in 1930. Nabokov's forward in expected manner mocks nimbly the "Viennese delegation" of Freudian critics overreading his every reference. While Nabokov gives away slyly the whole plot in advance, his prefaced explanations of the chess patterns in the storyline will assist readers who, like myself, struggle otherwise to keep up with such a master of narrative moves.

Cover: I prefer the British Penguins whenever possible over the American Vintages! The book was made into a film with John Turturro & Emily Watson in 2001 as the original title in Russian: "The Luzhin Defense."

(Review posted to Amazon US today.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Leon ar láthair campála air.

Is maith linn grianghraf seo leis Leon. Bhí sé tógtha ar feadh samraidh seo caite nuair go raibh Leon in aice leis Malibu ar Campa JCA Siochain. Tá sé cosúil lena Seán Penn!

Ar ndóigh, is cosúil go cosúlaigh le a sheanathair Al freisin. Ábalta tú feaceáil go bhfuil na sláinte air féin leis Al anseo: Al i 1940 . Fuair sé féin bás aon bliana go ham seo. Bhí Al a fhichidí go luath ann ina grianghraf mear.

Bhí maith Al ag siúl timpeall na sméaraí dubhaí ag imeall Seattle nuair bhí sé óg. Bhain stoitheadh Al féin torthaí na sceacha tom. Bhí An Meath Mhór. D'ith Al a bheathu leis súthaí.

Inniu, ní raibh mian Leo a déanamh obair crua sin. Tá sé féin an t'ádh. Chuaigh Léna ansiud nuair bhí sí déagóir. Anois, d'imir Niall agus Leon ansin. D'imigh beirt ar trí seachtaine. Bhain sult as acu féin go leor.

Ní maith Leon ag dó sula grian lá samhraidh. Is é an dála céanna. Tá sé beirfean teasa go minic ina gnóc os cionn Malibu. Tá brothall thar meán ina sliebhte Naomh Mónicaigh. Mar sin, tógann Leon go bog é féin! Tá muid i gcónaí i gCalifoirnea, is docha go rabhthar is cuma ar an gcéanna agamsa é.

Leo at his campsite.

We like this photograph with Leo. It was taken during this past summer when Leo was near Malibu at Camp JCA Shalom. He looks like Seán Penn!

Of course, he also resembles his grandfather Al. You can see the robust Al here around 1940. Death took him a year ago. Al was in his early twenties in this snapshot.

Al liked hiking among the blackberries on the edge of Seattle when he was young. Al sustained himself by berries from brambles. It was the Great Depresssion. Al ate berries for nourishment.

Today, Leo does not need to do that hard work. He himself is lucky. Layne went over there when she was a teenager. Now, Niall and Leo played there. The two went away for three weeks. They enjoyed themselves a lot.

Leo does not like burning under a summer's day's sun. It's the same with me. It's a sultry heat often in the hills above Malibu. There is a sweltering over the mean in the Santa Monica Mountains. Therefore, Leo takes it easy himself! We live in California, so it's the usual that it may be the same manner for me myself.

Buddhist Erotic Art: In search of?

Buddhist Erotic Art: In Search Of?

I recall a joke book: "Irish Erotic Art." Opening it, blank pages faced you. While perhaps the palimpsestic scrapings of guilty monks erased whatever salacious scribblings which might have adorned the pages of some Book of Monasterboice or Clonmacnoise or Termonfecken dug up from a bog, I do wonder why such absence, given admittedly-- this being a work computer-- a "moderate safe search" of images (text is anything goes!) of Buddhist equivalents looms in my brief but devoted scrutiny of snaps on the Web. Lacking any books to confirm or deny "Buddhist" + "erotic" / "sexual" + "iconography," I rely on the engines of clumsy cyberspace, which must for now hunt around words coupled near photos for any hints of enlightenment.

This query started when I found a while back the explanation of the one illustration that's ubiquitous: the "yab yum" pose pictured above in an uncredited source (at least triplicated on the Net) of a Tibetan scroll-painting, a "t[h]an[g]ka." Yab= father and yum=mother in Tibetan. Now, the male Buddha-deity represents in his union with his "consort" the joining of his "skillful means" and expression of compassion into the female's wisdom and emptiness. Talk about the big O. Hamlet would have liked this conjunction function.

So do the proprietors of an Amsterdam coffeehouse-cum-brothel, Hong Kong techno LP compilers, a rather dubious San Francisco purveyor of Tantric therapy, and the source of one host of this image, an earnest and learned New Age Dutch fellow enjoying the golden years in a garden in Victoria BC at Free By Nature . (Caveat lector: it's one of those endless pages you must scroll down four years' worth of posts to scan, but there might be pearls of wisdom therein lodged amidst the colorful and erudite musings.)

Still, all this symbol hunting made me feel like poor Causabon in "Middlemarch." I kept pondering: why did Buddhism appear, from the evidence scattered in my unscientific forays, to lack visual representations of sexuality? Did they come to conceive of sacred sex as this pose only? After all, many Westerners-- as with the Amsterdam and Tantric referents-- link liberated lubricity with Shangri-Las and Nirvana on earth. There seems an implicit contrast between the "Irish erotic art" reaction to a severe Christian denial of our urges and the Shiva-limbed, creative, and carefree contortions favored in, famously, one of the few sites to have escaped by its remote jungle overgrowth the annihilation (by Islam, but if the Jesus-freaks had got there first...) of Buddhism in its Indian homeland, Khajuraho. Here's an array of explicit photos from the temple friezes . Luckily, these supple carvings now are protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site, unlike the fate of the Bamian Buddhas obliterated by the Taliban or the deteriorating landmarks at Angkor Wat.

Still, the Buddhist options extant as pictured appear to be either Khajuraho or Yab Yum. Losing one's self, literally, in a higher experience symbolized by blissful conjugation, or losing one's self, temporarily, in a fleshly encounter sculpted for sensory overload. Perhaps two levels, then, may better sum up this dichotomy, this reliance, based on admittedly a narrow range of material and the vagaries of keywords and Google and my own vast ignorance?

I came across on a Tantric Australian site (can't backtrack for it) an intriguing suggestion: the temple had been so graphic on the outside of its depictions for a curative purpose. Once the viewer had gotten over being dazzled by the Kama Sutric variety, then the pilgrim would be ready for entrance into Khajuraho's interior, as austere as a Calvinist kirk of stimuli. (See Michael Rabe's article for details and photos, although he minimizes this Down Under understanding.)) As I wrap my mind around it, Buddhism requires its seekers to understand that desire itself sexually is not sinful as it has conventionally been confined-- if in a distorted fashion-- by Christian orthodoxy. Yet, our libido does keep us attached to the demands of a restless body. Taken as a brutal force or a dangerous drug, sensuality can drag us down into lusts, bewilderment, and selfishness. Rather than freeing us into the spirit that strives to separate itself from its troublesome throbbing shell.

There's considerable discussion, unsurprisingly, in print about Buddhism and sexuality. Lawrence Sutin, in the study which I just reviewed here a few days ago, "All Is Change," records how gay and lesbian Buddhist converts, upset by what they found as a considerably more puritanical set of restrictions on practices allowed under the "Third Precept" that proscribes "sexual misconduct," asked the Dalai Lama to reconsider its prohibitions, as interpreted by Tibetans, of non-procreative activity. Of course, this request came in San Francisco. I see this end run around the tradition to advance modern freedom as akin to what freethinking Catholics might challenge as those actions permissible only as "open to the possibility of conception." His Holiness took their request seriously, I suppose more so than the Pope entertains such appeals to the Magisterium.

Reading Pico Iyer's "The Open Road," (reviewed by me here after I wrote the above paragraph), I add this clarification in the following two paragraphs: Iyer cites a friend and scholar who objected that "the famous injunction against" non-coital "intercourse was a late addition to a text that spoke only against adultery; Tibetan Buddhism at its heart prescribed no such doctrine, which would exile male homosexuality." Iyer has just noted that the texts "said nothing about women," an out(let) for me reminiscent of OT loopholes in Leviticus for the disport of the fairer sex, or the lack of laws against lesbianism in Victoria's England supposedly since the queen'd never heard of such behavior.

"The Dalai Lama, true to form, said that if his friend could produce the text and show him in completely scholarly terms that he had misjudged the old texts, he would certainly be open to changing his mind, but till then he could not go against the code he had inherited." (146) Strict, but at least there's room for a fumble and recovery with the Dalai Lama, who has argued that science can replace Buddhist tenets. For instance, the sun and the moon are not of equal size, and there's no lunar light emitted, contrary to Tibetan dogma! Like Galileo, it may be a long wait for those appealing similar freedoms from the Vatican. For forty years many have protested against the encyclical of Pope Paul VI in vain, to the detriment of common practice and adherence to the faith of my fathers-- and mothers-- by millions of Catholics. Still, it's a tough call, given the coherence of natural law theology. As doubtful to me as the lunar radiance, but an illusion easily followed by many others.

However-- and this remains independent of my own reactions to such doctrinal interpretations-- it seems to me both traditional Catholics and conservative Buddhists share an ineradicable understanding. They both favor the male-female, yab-yum, penile-vaginal connection as fundamental. This must be, at least from my knowledge of Humanae Vitae and the Dalai Lama's "The Way to Freedom" recapitulation of the Lam Rim core teachings of his Geluk Tibetan "ways along the path," cautiously grounded in the conventional norm of intercourse. Deviating from this ideal, both appear to preach, means losing one's self in one's own pleasure rather than the purpose for which coitus has been designed. This in turn endangers a relationship by putting the ego ahead of the other person's needs. And, of course, this understanding runs smack into the problem nowadays. (The reason, I might add, why my wife donated yesterday in the name of Bristol Palin a contribution to Planned Parenthood.) People no longer must couple only to make babies; contraception, education (not the sort Mrs. P. wishes for her daughter or our children) and variety both allow a broader range of sexual expressions, akin more to Khajuraho's abundance rather than Yab-Yum's concentration.

How this erotic expansion fits into the narrower version of proper sexual activity that the Third Precept expects will prove as daunting for Western Buddhists to reshape as it has been for liberal Catholics to reclaim. The erotic may, however, I suspect be more akin to Eastern acceptance of the flesh's right to fulfillment vs. the standard Abrahamic religions that tend to keep the women under suspicion of their Edenic powers of temptation. Now, Buddha five centuries before Christ also labored under his own prejudices. The legends tell us that when he-- years after abandoning his young wife and infant son as he tiptoed out one night and began his quest-- approached her on a sort of grand tour, she refused to see him again despite his fame. ( Andre Bareau: "A Mysterious Being: The Wife of Buddha.") Since I read Hesse's "Siddhartha" as so many teens have, I've always felt sorry for Yasodhara and their boy, Rahula. Junior later became a monk. She, long suffering, deserves a thangka, at least.

Historians assure us that, no less than any other age, even the Buddha instilled prejudices of his patriarchal era. At least his women followers could enter monasteries; the stress, however, on the separation of the committed adept from the lay devotee, in both Christianity and Buddhism, does heighten the tendency to favor renunciation as a necessary corollary of ultimate commitment to the teaching. For this, I do find that Muslim and Jewish practices may be in this case more admirable, for at least they tend to keep the family-- with necessary acknowledgment however fumbling or reluctant-- to conjugal domesticity as the heart of the practice. (If only to make more babies for the Faith, which is a whole other karmic conundrum.)

There's a discipline involved for the committed Christian or Buddhist, contrarily, that demands that he or she distance the body from the spirit so the latter can begin to ascend. Such tension inevitably erodes the erotic expression in favor or its spiritual sublimation. The Buddhists in the West, as Sutin notes, have been markedly reluctant to take on the ascetic attitudes towards the Third Precept's more stringent interpretation. He suggests that this distinction may prove one of those that will encourage a mature philosophy of dharma perhaps, and this is me chattering now-- differentiating Western Buddhists from both the more stringent guidelines of such as the Dalai Lama and from papal or evangelical Christian limitations on sexual choices.

I know many in the West distort Tantra-- in its primary meaning a channeling of the universal energy, achieved not by overnighters at Esalen but by initiates steeped in years of Buddhist study and guru-approved supervision. In fact, such unauthorized detours into the realm of the senses Georg Feuerstein's labelled as "California Tantra," confusing orgasm with sublimity. Maybe it's only a venal sin? Still, as with interpreting the esoteric "Tibetan Book of the Dead" as an LSD manual, anyone translating Buddhist conceptions into countercultural expression may see such metaphors, and simplifications, as perhaps inevitable distortions for eager laity.

For Buddhism, it may be that Khajuraho's the accessible portal into rarified Yab-Yum. We wear ourselves out happily on the lower levels of the playground, and then we climb the ladders. Contemplating the Yab Yum, I speculate on its perspective: the woman is on top of the man; this embrace appears reliably on tantric websites. Why doesn't a feminist paint it the other way around? Give us the back of the Buddha's head and show the whole face of his consort. Make her the one we're gazing upon? And, I keep nagging away: surely there's a wider range of postures that some Tantric initiates must have depicted on some thangka? Where's a 21st c. re-orientation for a lascivious, lithe, and/or laughingly lovelorn lama?

See the "Red Thread" discussion (linked below) by a Zen nun about her own romp along this path from fornication to realization. Could one, I idly and saucily meditate, employ erotica as a visual stimulation into the mysteries of the Buddha-deity and his consort? Or, would such a use tangle one in attachment to karma, to a samsaric want for easy entry into more esoteric insights? Similar perhaps to the distrust-- also noted by Sutin-- of Buddhists for a psychedelic shortcut to what yogis sought to encounter by prolonged fasting and bodily deprivation. Here, too, perhaps Westerners may imagine erotic and pharmaceutical aids towards elevation. Drugs, debauchery, and drink brought down more than one guru in his mission to the West in recent years. Scandals do not only taint the Church. So, another precept's prohibition against stimulants may make this as problematic as alcohol is for the Beehive state full of Jello-addicted Mormons. Still, one wonders what full-immersion virtual reality may bring.

Now, in the service of scholarship I recognize a problem akin to if, in search of Western postures, I entered but two terms, say, "missionary position" and "soixante-neuf." I simply do not know the vocabulary for alternative arrangements that may open up other imagery or information. Not to mention the linguistic barriers. Perhaps this is why Tantric instruction's not given to the prurient? There's always a come-on to lure us deeper into the coming attraction, the price of admission that draws us into the shrouded shade outside the fairground's glare.

I feel as ignorant as those intrepid bible-thumpers stumbling upon a delightful orgy amidst the jasmine and boganvilleas. One wonders how many Khajurahos have been demolished as surely as the Bamian Buddhas. This being said, it appears-- and seems illustrated in later Buddhist art if Tibet's any indication-- that Yab Yum's ecstatic model dominates the discussion; India's earlier exuberance we find preserved only by luck of the jungle vines that shrouded its scenes from Muslim ga(u)zes.

P.S. There's much more on this topic, by its endlessly provocative nature! Here's a list of further reading that I recommend.

Dr. Alexander Berzin: Issues in Buddhist Sexual Ethics. 1998 lecture.

Thich Nhat Hanh: The Third Precept: Sexual Responsibility. 1993 rpt. essay.

Winton Higgins: Buddhist Sexual Ethics. Buddha Net article, n.d. Also see link to a stern "Rejoinder" here.

Stephanie Kaza: "Finding Safe Harbor: Buddhist Sexual Ethics in America."Buddhist-Christian Studies 24(2004): 23-35. Project Muse: not available freely online.

Michael Rabe. Sexual Imagery on the "Phantasmagorical Castles" of Khajuraho. Int'l Jrnl of Tantric Studies 2:2 (Nov. 1996).

"Red Thread Zen: The Tao of Love, Passion & Sex." Dharma Web. 1993 teisho.

Roohi Saluja. Mystic Mandala of Khajuraho. Life Positive. Jan. 2005 essay.

M. O'C. Walshe: Buddhism & Sex. 1975 tract.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Who I Would Be in 1400 AD?

I found this quiz --- among over 35,000 timewasters-- at via Stephen McEvoy's blog "Book Reviews & More." I took similar ones last year on mythological figures and the like. No surprises here, I must admit.

THE MONK: You live a peaceful, quiet life. Very little danger comes your way and you live a long time. You are wise and modest, but also stagnant. You have little comfort, little food and have taken a vow of silence. But who needs chatter when just sitting in the cloister of your abbey with The Good Book makes you perfectly content.

Compared to other takers

* 18/100 You scored 18% on Cardinal, higher than 18% of your peers.
* 97/100 You scored 79% on Monk, higher than 97% of your peers.
* 20/100 You scored 38% on Lady, higher than 20% of your peers.
* 1/100 You scored 16% on Knight, higher than 1% of your peers.

As I was just reading a few minutes ago in preparation for a possible blog entry on Buddhism & Sexuality-- a much more complicated and conservative perspective than many tantra-peddling New Agers may assume from their pleasure palaces-- and thinking about how my wife regards my reclusive, "monkish" tendencies from some past life on an Irish island, I guess my fate's confirmed and my leanings supported.

Photo: Ellesmere MS of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: Monk & his Greyhound Smeared face of said cleric; surprisingly scarce-- only one readable image of this illustration on-line. Googling, images of the eponymous TV gumshoe, model Sophie Monk, Thelonious, and Buddhists immolated or intact all outnumber Christian manifestations, although the Halloween costumes annoy me since they mix friars' brown and rope cinctures into the Benedictine black, Carthusian white, or Trappist brown scapular with white robe proper habits.

Rant: And, for the umpteenth time (reading Lawrence Sutin's "All Is Change" I label him on my list as the most recent offender): Franciscans and Dominicans (and Augustinians, Carmelites, Servites, Minims, Mercedarians, and Trinitarians all deemed idealistically once upon a late medieval time as beggars or "mendicants") are not "monks." They are not confined to "just sitting in the cloister of your abbey"; they were founded to serve the urban communities in which they lived. This did lead, confusingly, to them living in "convents" often and later these tended to be called in rural areas-- as they regressed perhaps from reforms-- as "monasteries." Yes, a bit confusing, but scholars, journalists, and damned well everybody else discussing these "four greater" and "lesser orders" should know better.