Sunday, February 28, 2010

Solala Towler's "Cha Dao: The Way of Tea": Book Review

Slow down, avoid clutter, take time. Simple Daoist precepts as embodied in a cup of tea and twenty minutes to make and appreciate its ritual savor. This sums up this short primer subtitled "The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life." It introduces you to Daoism and Cha Dao, the way of tea, and looks at Zen and "wu wei" or non-striving as represented by tea. The connection may be new to you, but Towler shows it's a venerable association from ancient times.

He intersperses inspirational tales from Daoist (Taoist) masters, Zen practitioners, and Japanese and Chinese lore. His own visits and anecdotes explore the philosophical connections with tea and a more balanced harmony with nature and our own attitudes. Those familiar with "zazen" or "just sitting" may find a kindred set of spirits within these simply told pages.

Towler writes these, in fact, rather sparingly. It's as if they sound translated from another language. Many are, of course, but a slight remove from idiomatic English permeates this little guide. His two decades of study and practice may be credited, perhaps, for this pared down prose style, but I found it rather surprising. It may testify to his devotion to a stripped-down, more minimal outlook, but the book does appear on the short side without a lot of information as opposed to inspiration if you wish to learn about tea. The details about types of tea or how to make a cup are minimal, chapters are often brief, and the emphasis is more on the outlook of those who use tea more ritualistically or symbolically than on practical methods or culinary details about tea itself.

I review this in tandem with Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China" about the botanical espionage engaged in by the East India Company to smuggle out Chinese "bohea" black tea seeds to grow in India, so this type of larger cultural context and historical impact may be found there, for example. For Cha Dao, the stress is on no stress, the tea mind taking over and the reason for tea being not a substitute for coffee's jolts in our overstimulated world, but for a return to a dignified, less jittery way of relating ourselves to an essence of leaves and water, heat and coolness. Towler's rather timeless collection may not satisfy the hungry customer demanding instant knowledge, but it may soothe the tired wanderer seeking a longer-lasting, more restorative path to domestic wisdom. As Laozi asks: "Who can be still while the muddy water settles?" (Posted to Amazon US 2-24-10)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China": Book Review

Subtitled "How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History," so part of a genre of how one product changed our lives. Perhaps Britain more than America was so altered by the export of cheap, tasty black tea in Victorian times. Yet, Rose shows how globalization, the drug trade, rapid transport, and botanical espionage and corporate deceit managed to boost Robert Fortune into his modest role as the East India Company's operative who'd pluck Chinese tea seeds and smuggle them out in glass boxes to India, where they would become the hybrids mingled with Himalayan plants to make the black tea we enjoy today.

This would earn billions for a British empire tangled in the opium trade with a restive China, and replace that nation's supply of tea with that grown by its more reliable subjects in India. This shift kept English domination, expanded globalization, set off quicker tea clippers to bring tea to an invigorated porcelain and clay manufacturing region, and would increase health standards as less beer and more water was boiled and then brewed.

Tea picking, she explains, is as if the topmost boughs and last couple of leaves of a Christmas tree were selected. Extremely laborious to gather, 32,000 shoots make ten pounds, nearly what a picker could gather in a day. Five pounds of fresh leaves produce one dry pound.

I found such details intriguing. As Vine offers a proof to read, I do not know if maps and pictures will be included, but no such evidence is in my copy. These features would have enriched the text, for while Rose tells the journeys of Fortune carefully, Western readers unfamiliar with China might have benefited from charts here. Also, the Sepoy Mutiny episode, however crucial to the hold of the East India Company and the British empire over India, appears tangential to merit its own chapter, however skillfully summarized.

Rose tells Fortune's own dramatic story well. As he wrote his own account, there is necessary paraphrase and citation, but largely we hear it retold by Rose rather than recounted by Fortune. Along the way we learn about gardens as incorporating the dimension of time into space, of Chinese "face," the sordid coolie trade, opium dens, Enfield rifles, pirates, and how Fortune gave his name to the edible fruit he found, Citrus fortunei, or the kumquat. His 13,000 original seedlings in terraria failed to survive, but another batch did, and from these, the Assam tea business and Darjeeling blends thrive today. He also learned what confounded earlier botanists: while green and black tea plants are harvested separately in different regions, the tea is from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, but only black is cured or "harvested." Cheap sugar boosted the British preference for a tea able to take milk and sugar, the black kind. But, the Indian Assam variety originally was too harsh for European palates, and a hybrid from the protected Chinese varietals was demanded.

Fortune's journey along the "Bohea" Great Tea Road is the highlight of this narrative. At the Wuyi Shan monastery, Buddhists cultivated the craft. Today, the Da Hong Pao type is still guarded by armed men, worth far more than its weight in gold. Here, Fortune found the seeds he'd sneak out that would become today's tea stock. It was a business even around 1850 bringing in $650 million annually in today's money, and out of such a lucrative commerce, Rose demonstrates, globalized networks began to extend that we rely on today with Asia and beyond. (Posted to Amazon US 2-24-10; if you can, dear reader of this blog, kindly post a positive rating for my review there-- the day I put it up, already four people rated it, but only two positively, which depressed me as I thought as with all my reviews this one's scrupulously fair and I rarely rank five stars anyhow, contrary to most Amazonians, it seems.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Frank Delaney's "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show": Book Review

How do legends emerge out of truth, myth from fact? Ben MacCarthy in a Year of Destiny, the election of 1932 as Fascist Blueshirts menace Ireland's uneasy democratic shifts, finds his young life's love. He must also grow up fast, gain revenge, rescue his family, and learn awful lessons. Delaney tells this in a narrative that convinces by its digressions, and teaches by its hard-won insistence not on stoic rejection, but profound understanding.

"I know that, at the end of it all, I did some remarkable things, far beyond the reach of a man of my age." (50) At eighteen, Ben must quickly come to maturity, as a detective of sorts, and as a sudden husband barely off the farm as he wanders Ireland in the company of a group of dramatic players. That his father has run off, preceding him, is only the first in a series of surprises, and shocks. He plunges into the saga of the Kellys, of whose scion King early we find: "His full name, Thomas Aquinas Kelly, was a comic misnomer. The only moral inquirers this man ever made had to do with money-- the inside track, the shortcut, the influence, the bribe, the pull, the means, typically foul, of getting what he wanted. He came out of the womb a criminal." (18)

This passage typifies Delaney's style. He conveys an old man looking way back to seek answers, but he keeps the verve of a young man's hopes leavened by a maturer fellow's rueful, worldly-wiser, philosophy. The book moves in and out of digressions as Ben seeks to puzzle out what happened in '32, and along the way a reader will learn about Irish politics, storytelling, and mores. When Ben makes his big move, the young man from the provinces going off to seek his fortune, or take back his family's small share of such, he admits his boldness and his foolhardiness in equal measure: "I was feeling the safety that's embodied in commitment, no matter how heartbreaking it may be." (268) It's a coming of age story in a time when the young Irish Republic comes of age.

There's far less about the Blueshirts themselves than I had expected, but then, they were a small movement with perhaps not much of an ideology to go on about at length anyhow, as Delaney seems to imply. The funhouse, satirical atmosphere of the traveling show fades as the novel goes on and the show gains some Shakespearean class. Cameos as the man in the leprechaun hat running for office and the ventriloquized Blarney (whose eloquence from the mouth of Venetia to me remains a mystery on one disturbing level which perhaps is as it should be, to keep its power over an audience member such as me) will reward the persevering reader.

Real-life sidles in, in a small detail such as Kalem Studios coming to make silent films in Ireland, or large one as in Eamon de Valera's uncanny hold over his admirers and detractors. Between the famous and the obscure, the nation being a small one, Ben will wander much of it as he tries to follow his own calling, and to figure out his own place in an island where feuds and memories cannot stay buried long. Don't expect an exhaustive travelogue even if Ben roams much of the Republic; it's more of what you'd hear from a man who sees his homeland but may also have been worn out by it, for in his travels he went more out of necessity than choice. Having visited myself many of the places in the Limerick-Tipperary rural stretches where most of this action occurs, this often overlooked terrain does gain its own dignified presence, but it lingers as backdrop, as a native lives with it, not a tourist, so the descriptions ring as more sparing and less rapturous in fitting tone.

The minor characters may stay so, and some of the major ones lurk long offstage after all are brought on in the first seventy pages, but like a dramatic show, the director will have reasons for bringing them off and on as the play goes on. The pace may seem rather unexpected, but as Ben himself strives to put together again what happened in 1932 at a far remove, the scattered elements begin, as best as he can reassemble them, to come together-- to a point, which is the whole novel's point. Free of cliche, and mercifully absent of many stereotypical figures that appear to infest market-town Irish vignettes even today, Delaney intersperses via folklorist James Clare a flavor of richer narratives, drawn from the elusive well at the world's end where ordinary folks enter extraordinary derring-do.

My dog-eared copy of his "Legends of the Celts" attests to Delaney's skill at enriching a modern account with mythic undertones without being too obvious or too oblique, and when reading this novel, I was reminded of how events over the years warp and fade. Ben warns early on: "Of the principal characters in this drama, I alone remain alive." He hopes to be proven wrong, however, and as he promises, the rambling and complicated story that he tells, no matter its twists and turns, winds up a rather compact comeuppance tale at its darker heart.

Late in its unfolding, we learn of its titular character her acting ability shines as she can hold back to draw the audience into her performance. Holding back, we come to appreciate as this ambitious novel reaches its climax, pulls the reader into Delaney's evocation of how family greed and young dreams clash and tear apart those caught in this year when "the tension in the country at that time" resembled "those photographs at night, when the camera's flash turns the neon into streaks and colored streamers. No wonder we all went a little mad." (105) (Posted to Amazon US 2-23-10)

Monday, February 22, 2010

"In airde san aer": Léirmheas scannáin

Bhreatnaigh mé seo faoi deireanach. Cheap me go raibh sé ach réasúnta mór. Mar sin, ní raibh is fearr nó is measa aice.

Ghlac an phríomhpháirt i ndráma Seoirse Ó Clunaigh le Riain Bingham. Bíonn Riain ag obair ar dtus leis deireadh a chur le obair le duine eile. Scanrú siad roimh ag teacht Riain.

Thaistil Riain fad Meiriceá ag déanamh seo ar feadh ár Cúlú Mór. Ar ndóigh, bíonn sé is gnóthach anois. Fuair Riain leis bia agus eitilt den chéad scoth gach áit.

Tagann fostaí nua ag freagairt Riain, ag déanta i bpáirt le Áine Níc Eanraic. Casfaidh Riain dó a mbeidh inchurtha leis í a bhí ina leannan dána le Vera Farmiga. Tógfaidh dha bean airsean.

Aontáim go raibh an-chosúlacht mhaith an ar giniuint air. Mar sin féin, ní maith liom ag seinm ina scóir nó an coiscéim scéil ann. Bhí a léiriú ina scannáin air ró-lag i bhfad fós-- d'ainneoin aisteireacht go láidir.

Smaoinigh mé go raibh ró-phlur an claonadh ginearálta go Coill Chuilleain aríst anseo. D'fhág mé ag síl a tughta ó Jason Reitman i nglór uasal le híseal anseo. Is comh-scríbhneoir agus stiúrthóir é. Is cosúil Reitman é leis Riain é, go cinnte.

Eiltail Reitman go Chicago go dtí an gCathair na hÁingeal céann am. D'fhág sé ag fáil míle a báiliú ag feabhsú is airde air leis Aerlíne Aontaithe. D'imigh sé ag ceannaithe ach pizza-- dha míle míle amach.

"Up in the Air": a film.

I watched this recently. I thought it was only reasonable ["so-so"]. That is, it was neither the best nor the worst.

The drama stars in the leading role George Clooney as Ryan Bingham. Ryan's working at the start by putting an end to the work of other people. They take fright at the coming of Ryan.

Ryan travels around America doing this during our Great Recession. Naturally, he's busy now. Ryan gets the pick of the best quality in food and flight in every place.

A new employee comes to take on Ryan, in the part of Anna Kendrick. Ryan will meet his match in the part played by Vera Farmiga as a bold lover. The two women will change him.

I agree that there was a promising set-up in the conception of it. All the same, neither the playing of music in the score nor the pace of the story pleased me. There was by far too weak a putting of it on screen also--despite strong acting.

I feel that there was too-elite a general tone from Hollywood again. I went away thinking that Jason Reitman brought a condescending tone here. He's the co-writer and director. Reitman's similar to Ryan, for sure.

Reitman flew from Chicago to Los Angeles one time. He left to get more miles earned for a very high upgrade of his with United Airlines. He took off only to buy a pizza-- two thousand miles away.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Anna Clark's "Desire: A History of European Sexuality": Book Review

Transgressive or sinful, revolutionary or creative? Europeans defy desire's definitions. How has sexual desire evolved within classical, biblical, medieval, and modern contexts from permitted to proscribed, encouraged to persecuted, and now mystified or commodified?

Clark provides a briskly narrated, heavily documented, abundantly anecdotal summation. Her chapters move very rapidly, and she hints when confessing at having to pass over 400-1100 CE how quick the pace must have been for only 220 pp. of text-- but over a thousand footnotes. The range feels compressed by editors, but she keeps academic discourse lightened by fresh insights and intriguing examples. I feared it'd bog down in stolid jargon or theoretical harangues, but it kept my interest throughout as she leavens serious argument with compassion and verve judiciously applied.

An opening chapter cautions us against assuming our times brought sexual liberation, and throughout we learn how crippling this supposed advantage may prove for women not willing to be humiliated or exploited by their radical masters in some rarified, enlightened utopia. Greece & Rome earn attention for the unequal treatment allotted who could indulge and who was constrained. Classifying who acted out a sexual function appears more the traditional concept than asserting one's actions as one's identity, but by medieval times-- Clark shows using Mark Jordan's interpretation of "sodomy," (also reviewed by me)-- this appears to have begun to be formulated. Her work incorporates Foucault's social construction throughout, but she challenges or corrects its application when facts argue otherwise.

For instance, heterosexual desire was not normal for medieval clergy. No desire between humans was "sexually normative," in fact, to a clerical adjudicator. Men and women craved each other as a result of the expulsion from Eden. Intense passion between a married couple-- as ridiculed in pagan Rome or as condemned by papal Rome-- signaled danger. Any uncontrolled desire among humans in medieval times might result in disruption, of a marriage, or within a monastery or a convent. The orderly function of society demanded control.

Two chapters on medieval sexuality into the Renaissance offer a welcome amount of detail as legal and religious administrators clashed with an increasingly restive populace, from at least the extant records we find. Against imposition of penalties and punishments for sexual excess, "twilight moments" when untolerated activities or deviant desires were followed in the shadows by otherwise upstanding citizens often. Clark uses this term for many human moments of release and abandon that did not leave their perpetrators permanently stigmatized. The doers were regulated in that they had to, at dawn's early light, return to conformity, but Clark shows how often people managed to find desires fulfilled without fatally compromising their positions or their safety.

The case of "la Malinche" opens a section on the New World; it explores the impact of Old World attitudes on Mesoamerican situations deftly. The book skips to the Enlightenment and the rise of appeals based on nature against these imposed norms. Sex radicals led by such as Rousseau attacked aristocratic libertines; if sex was a natural drive, then the middle classes needed it to be freed of "artificial lust" as the nobles flaunted. Laborers expected better too, and while revolutionaries played into feminist and proletarian protests for divorce and equality, they also reinforced against the libertines' vices a call for chastity within marriage. Radical calls for sexual freedom could trap women within male domination as well: "If sex was a natural pleasure to be indulged in like food, women were just objects to be consumed." (121)

It took until about 120 years ago before the female body's sexual responses began to be understood, and disentangled from those of reproduction. Homosexuality was coined in 1869; "inversion" as a same-sex identity began to be debated. Victorian and 19c continental reactions to more politicized or bohemian sex radicals and the competing school of "social purity activists" complicated intellectual attempts to formulate sexual categories. Many feminists "asserted that females had evolved to a higher level than men, because men did not seem to control their primitive sexual instincts." (150)

By the 1920s, especially in Germany and England, sex advisors inspired by Freud and Wilhelm Reich, modernism and Marxism, the "New Woman" and Darwin, took advantage of a weakening clerical control and a wealth of consumerism to promote "marriage counseling." Of Theodore Van de Velde, Clark notes how his explicit instructions for mutual orgasm made it seem "a daunting task much like assembling a piece of Ikea furniture with moving parts." (175)

Sweden, in fact, gains a prominent role as Gunnar and Alva Myrdal spearheaded what appears to be the foundation of the secular welfare state. Whether sleeker lines of chairs or streamlined methods of sterilization, Sweden leads Western Europe into a managed approach to sex, as opposed to procreation. Bolshevik and Nazi attempts to adapt political transformation to utopian or efficiently marshalled sexual energy earn nuance in Clark's careful explanations of the failure of Soviet reforms and the ambiguity of homosexual relations as expressed or repressed during the Third Reich.

Finally, the postwar era opens with a comparison and contrast between "Humanae Vitae" and the author of the soft-core "Emmanuelle" novel's spirited, defiant response to Pope Paul VI. Both, Clark finds, champion the mystical, transcendent notion of sexual transport, despite their obvious differences. The ideal of sex as a release for a higher calling fades as consumerism voraciously reduces desire back down to a commodity.

Clark concludes rapidly but thoughtfully on this theme. Did sex radicals win? Sexual pleasure is seen as a right; abortion and birth control are allowed by governments. "Yet the idea of sex as creative, spiritual and revolutionary no longer seems central to radical movements. Of course, the idea of sex as transcendent may persist in underground cultures of raves, of the drug ecstasy, S-M, tantric sex, goth subcultures, or anarchists, but this is not prominent in public discourse." (219-20)

Are younger Europeans bored with sex? Is it so freely available that it's banal? Clark proposes some reasons why this may be so in Western Europe. Televised pornography in France, or the widespread collapse of Catholic power: neither satisfies her, for religion remains influential in the US even as Americans also have lost an expectation of "sexual utopianism."

"Sexual consumerism" bested the utopian dreams of pope and porn star, apparently. Given "virtual sexual exchange" that can be assumed on the Net, identities grow fluid, as "the sexual self can be detached from the body." (220) Sexual entitlement may spread via pornography, but Clark cites sources that may indicate this works to women's satisfaction even more than men's. Making sexual fulfillment too dreamy and ethereal may be impractical, risible, or unattainable compared to a consumerist marketplace peddling possibilities.

"On one level, sexual desire cannot be 'liberated,' because there is no 'authentic' natural desire to be freed; rather, sexual desire is now just constructed in different ways." Maybe we have lost hope for utopian imminence in any fashion. Yet Clark ends by lamenting the reduction of sexual desire, the loss of trust in it "as creativity, as fuel for a larger revolutionary vision of transforming society and the self?" (221)

This volume may be marketed for classrooms, but the general reader will find it largely accessible. A wealth of everyday detail adds to the usefulness of this study, although the editing down of the packed chapters makes the last chapter shorter than the topic of contemporary sexuality studies deserved. Intellectual debates merited more coverage: Lacan vs. Deleuze & Guattari may get short shrift, for example. I wish more than the last few pages had been devoted to defining today's qualities of Western European attitudes and how they differ more broadly from American ones.

Overall, I recommend this. Its generous attention to academic studies in the endnotes may inspire readers to investigate more the many sources Clark incorporates, however briefly, into her text. Its brevity nevertheless directs you to a depth of research that should entice many to find out more about one of the most enduringly provocative topics of all. (Posted to Amazon 2-20-10)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mathew Kuefler's "History of Sexuality Sourcebook": Review

Naturally fascinating, this anthology deserves use beyond classrooms. A first of its kind, ranging over all of history and every region, it offers legal, erotic, religious, political, and poetic texts. More than two thousand years of resources, a few visual as well as print, enrich this collection.

Looking up medieval and Buddhist sources, I found myself engrossed beyond my initial inquiry. It balances pre-modern with recent resources, and its cross-cultural scope juxtaposes novel entries otherwise likely never to have been found by a researcher or student wanting a specific range or region to investigate. This perspective widens and fits the editor's determination to expand one's "range of vision in the history of sexuality."

For instance, Part III, "Sexuality as Identity," begins with Luther, moves on through such as Sade to a Chinese erotic album, and then shifts to Marx & Engels and Communist tirades before ending with a Nazi poster and letters from a anti-colonialist Javanese daughter of a governor 1899-1904. Preceded by Part I, "Sexuality as Social Custom," and ""Sexuality as Ideology," these in turn are also sub-divided into topical categories.

Briefly, patriarchy, marriage, varieties of expression, and public & private forms comprise ancient sources for Part I. Part II ranges over ancient and medieval periods as questions of sex regarding human existence, renunciation, tradition & elaboration in religious texts, and dissenting voices in turn contend. Part III continues into modern times, first with Puritans & Libertines (the chapter summarized above); The Other; 20c. scientific studies; social factors from more recent centuries.

Also in Part III, "Speaking Sex" covers abortion, prostitution, censorship, lynching, birth control-- a debate between Margaret Sanger & Gandhi-- VD, drag, gay rights, AIDS, and female circumcision. "Sex & Self-Fulfillment" explores the more intimate expressions of desire ranging from a ode by a 19c. fiancé about his betrothed's breasts to Wilhelm Reich to Picasso to Helen Gurley Brown to S/M. Finally, historical paradigms and globalizing tendencies earn attention.

Notes follow every chapter, carefully directing you to more sources, and often Kuefler suggests which are best and which may be found wanting. One minor drawback to a field where the appeal to the eye counts emerges within. Many monochromatic reproductions appear too small to make out details or, as in a 1920s halitosis ad that popularized "always the bridesmaid never the bride," the ad copy itself, which might have benefited from being then transcribed alongside the headline. The visuals are rather few compared to a massive amount of text, and perhaps in a future edition, this graphic presentation can be clarified, so to speak.

Kuefler certainly appears to have read widely and closely in an enormous range of primary and secondary material. The 183 entries start with the "So-Called Venus of Willendorf" and conclude with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick the "Queen of Queer," a testament to the panorama within these packed pages. It's a compendium that I hope will find a wider audience than a world history seminar, on a subject I doubt that any reader, even if given this as an assigned text, will fall asleep over. (Posted to Amazon US 12-15-09.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae": Book Review

Her first chapter dazzles. 39 pages astonished me with her passion. I wondered if she'd sustain this intensity.
"Out with stereotypes, feminism proclaims. But stereotypes are the west's stunning sexual personae, the vehicles of art's assault against nature. The moment there is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to. Not sex but cruelty is the great neglected or suppressed item on the modern humanistic agenda. We must honor the chthonian but not necessarily yield to it."(39)
So section one concludes.

She surveys the history of these personae in the West. Prehistory, Egypt (a fine evocation of its eerie gaze, its monolithic agenda), Greece & Rome, then a skip over to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and especially the Romantic and Victorian eras. Much of it reads like a literary critical thesis (as you'd expect from Yale UP) and this tone may have discouraged many attracted by the initial fireworks of the start of her show. I finished this in a hardcover, issued before Paglia's fame, before her leatherjacketed stance adorned mass-market paperbacks full of her essays that followed the surprise breakthrough of what's an erudite, energetic, and weighty tome. On it, a blurb by mentor Harold Bloom shows Paglia's Yale connection, a few other intellectuals nod to her, and the book's presentation's much more sober.

This demands attention to its dense contents. After these, me coming two decades too late to its initial and excited reader reception, the pace can slacken over 673 long pages. Still, I always admired Paglia for her attention to lively details within the usual academic accrual of texts, citations, theories, and analysis.

For instance, she enlivens the Dionysian cult of "sparagmos" or tearing the god's body in ritual ecstasy to devour or scatter it. Osiris, Jesus, the sacrifice of the Mass: these combine with cannibalism and dismembering a grocery chicken and oral sex. Paglia reminds us how "swallowing the god's parts was an act of physical love." (93) Then she turns to a news account of a plane crash, full of body parts. In such sensations of transformation, she excavates "the grotesque truth about reality."

She returns to Rousseau but champions Sade. "For Sade, sex is violence. Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature." (235) She has little patience for caressing the urges we all are trapped within. "We are skin drums on which nature beats." (95)

She tracks the will-to-power of the Western male. The "Birth of Venus" reminds her of today's pornography. Wolf-whistles appear in ancient comedy as well as on the corner from leering men. Her take on stodgy pieties within academia can be bracing: "The reform of a college English department cuts no ice down at the corner garage." (22) As a working-class Catholic girl turned Ivy League Ph.D., Paglia speaks to her audience in a more diverse, and more innovative, fashion than her colleagues content to preach diversity from behind a safely tenured stance. Her outsider status lecturing at a little-known college when this book was published gives her a fresher, sassier style that's not the usual fare from a professor.

She compares the etymology of matzah with Amazon; she chastises those who'd not get their bridges built by macho men in our brutish society that rewards brawn. She compares women's intimate smell with fish, and takes this as a humbling, persistent reminder of our primeval origins. To enliven her broader thesis, she recruits Black Flag roach motels, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Gracie Allen, and the Beach Boys.

She can be so taken with her arguments that they lose slight clarity. She delineates how rapists claim "she wanted it, she asked for it." But she then elides over how this can clearly prove that "{c]oercion requires free will, in both homosexual and heterosexual acts." (254)

The closing sections tend to drag once her foundations have been established, and I found the later chapters stodgier. Their high points diminished. But they deserve to be quoted. Blake's "child-slaves advance from childhood to old age without passing through adult virility. As in the penalty card of capitalist Monopoly: 'Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.'" (271)

Tackling Virginia Woolf's query about why so many books showed men wondering what women want rather than vice-versa: "from the beginning of time men have been struggling with the threat of woman's domination. The flood of books was prompted not by woman's weakness but by her strength, her complexity and impenetrability, her dreadful omnipresence." Then, Pagila leaps as she may from explication into her own poetry. "No man has yet been born, even Jesus himself, who was not spun from a pitiful speck of plasma to a conscious being on the secret loom from within a woman's body. That body is the cradle and soft pillow of woman's love, but it is also the torture rack of nature." (296)

Later on Woolf, within her final chapter on Dickinson, Paglia challenges us. "Culture, I said, was invented by men, because it is by culture that they make themselves whole." (653) She notes how rare's a woman even today "driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternate form of crime and ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species." (653-4) This is not your usual professor seeking security by another footnoted monograph.

Instead, the reason Paglia's work drives into the popular culture's zeitgeist's due to her ambition, her push to plunge ideas from herself into us by a primal, erotic, and death-haunted penetration. Deep into power-play in Coleridge's "Christabel," Paglia diverts us a typical moment: "Murder here is sexual intercourse, for sex is how mother nature kills us, how she enslaves the imagination. Nature draws first blood, of virgins, of us." (335-6)

In her chapter on Poe, when reaching "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," similar observations wake a perhaps weary reader. "The white curtain over life's mystery parts, and the frail soul-boat plunges into the birth canal. At degree zero, a seminal torrent rushes eternally into the womb of matter. The smothering white shower is phenomena sinking back to primeval origins. White noise, white hole, the birth and death of stars: this spectacle of soundless sensory deprivation is a Romantic triumph. All hysteria resolves into oppressive calm." (579) From this, you won't get much of a context, if unfamiliar with Poe, about the novella in question, but you may well remember such a passage long after you close a dozen other commentaries on Poe written by lesser colleagues.

She can, finally, even make Henry James' "obscure late style," never a favorite of mine, a tad less oppressive. "Page by page, the metaphors are sharp points of visibility that, like a matador's cape, make the reader lunge past a protective center. Their function is to pretend something is being revealed, when it is not. The metaphors are 'apotropaia,' like the ugly gorgoneion hung on the oven door to ward off evil spirits. The reader, both invited guest and intruder, is lured and misled. We are pulled into a labyrinth or meander, then left in the dark." (620) I felt better after my own grad school difficulties with James after all.

And in such a way, this skilled teacher shows how she reacts to texts, and how we can pull our own anxieties (as with her mentor Bloom) into our own reactions to many books and poems and myths. The length of the resulting volume and the depth of her explorations did tire me out, but in this ambitious expedition, for the patient reader, sights of wonder do emerge out of the murk and the chasms. And, you'll never find so many mentions, if applicable for once, of "chthonian" outside a Scrabble or crossword puzzlers convention, I predict. (P.S. I wish she'd finish the follow-up to the 20th century she promised to write circa 1990.)(Posted to Amazon US 12-7-09)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Helen Fisher's "Why We Love": Book Review

Playing devil's advocate teaching "Othello," I argued to my class about Iago's sensible, rational view of lust as nature's trapping us into coition, genetic reproduction, and then our own obsolescence. I wondered if any scientists backed him or me up, so I read this popular survey by a leading anthropologist of romance.

Fisher sprinkles literary allusion and ethnographic musings throughout a brisk, accessible, if summarily brief text. Iago gets a nod, as he should, for Shakespeare's confrontation of rational control (although Iago's hardly in the long run the epitome of detachment) over one's longings appeals if by its very un-humanness to us four centuries later. Fisher maps, congruently, why we find ourselves enslaved to passion, and then calmed by peace-- until the next onslaught brought on by perhaps a passing glance, a flirtatious gesture, or a past flame's return.

Using brain chemistry as the central topic, and how dopamine can mirror the rush of drugs upon our receptors, Fisher in accessible language-- although I felt it often too perfunctory, too content not to delve deeper into the physiological workings-- shows how we have evolved for such strategies as falling for two mates at once: dual reproductive strategies designed to enhance our genetic dispersion. Norepinephrine and dopamine release appear at the heart of the book's argument but they get treated in rather cursory fashion. Insights like how seminal fluid contains chemicals that release passion within the female also needed more attention than a paragraph. Too much of the hardcore science in this narrative gets summarily treated, compared to the well-chosen but rather tangential literary allusions and apposite citations generously scattered in these pages instead.

Still, this being a topic few of us can turn away from we find such lessons as how the rage we feel when dumped may cause us to fight harder for our offspring's welfare. The depression we may also feel when jilted may have developed to warn our intimates and companions of our need for care, and a demand that the offending lover be banned from the clan. Fisher shows how defensive and offensive strategies burrow into our instinctive behavior from hundreds of thousands of years ago.

However, she defends monogamy and denies polyamory. (I thought the latter merited more consideration as a modern coping strategy hearkening back to primitive models, but Fisher appears determined to reject it outright with little patience for its proposals.) She offers advice on getting over love and finding it, and on how, based on the studies integrated into the text of rejected lovers, we can learn to cope with one of the most common of all human experiences.

Antidepressants and therapy, for Fisher, serve as models of healing, and she seeks to demonstrate how we can learn patterns that force us, as it were, to re-enter the arena of love's combat once again. There, as a reader finishing this book, you may be reminded of the happier times of Othello and Desdemona, rather than the tragic aftermath of destructive rage engendered within Othello by Iago. Both reactions, it appears from Fisher's laboratory observations and historical research, appear deeply rooted within nearly everyone of us who identifies as a human being. Lust, romance, and long-term attachment play out a very old game. (Posted to Amazon 10-24-09.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

"South Park" explains Purgatory

My son asked me how one can be an expert on purgatory. I told him I theoretically qualified but I'd never made a living at it, despite my 500-page, 500-source dissertation. So, he comforted me with this "South Park" clip.

Midway into a predicament-- unseen by me-- that's caused by my favorite Southwestern condiment, chipotle, the boys at the hospital, apparently there due to the digestive distress of a pal, find out from "the Doctor of Spooky Things" (illustrated above) about the place neither heaven nor hell. It's halfway through the 2:32 clip above, around 1:18. Before that, jibes about ghosts and a send-up of cable t.v. shows I've never seen about spirit-chasers take up the minute-plus. No less incredible a tale for today's narratives and listeners than this once-ubiquitous (yes, kids, even within my barely post-Vatican II lifetime) teaching, now nearly as moribund as the other one mentioned, Limbo.

The Doctor's metaphor's excellent. She compares this afterlife situation to "being on an airplane but you're in the plane, waiting for takeoff, yet still sitting on the runway." I paraphrase. You can't get off the flight. But, there's no bathroom breaks, the pilot gives you no information about when you'll depart, and there's no drinks either. Not sure but you may have to stay in your cramped seat, hands folded in empty lap, for an hour before landing, recent updates inform. On some flights, you might have a broken watch and therefore no idea how long you have until departure. Jet-lagged, dyspeptic, gagging on fumes from the broken air vents. With no iPod, no book, no distractions but a glandularly dysfunctional, inevitably "big-boned" Cartman-esque seat mate. Oh yeah: God is not your co-pilot, but the only one in charge of the plane, and He may not care about you back in coach much at all. Replace stewardesses with demons, forget the snacks unless they're fiery flavored Cheetos with no Coke even without ice to be had at any price (cash no longer accepted, by the way). You can fill in your own details, or not.

Temporary hell: how often do we think of this now to describe airports and flight? No terrestrial transcendence "to touch the face of God" as dreamt of by our medieval and ancient forebears. Sums up liminality for our age as well as Dante did for his. Or Sartre, but with much more welcome humor than your typical Gallic existentialist.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies": Book Review

This strange satire of smart-set London in a sort-of early '30s feels as rapidly written as the novels its quondam protagonist Adam feels he'll have to dash off at one a month for a year to gain any income. Waugh anticipates "A Handful of Dust" in its bleak ending, and follows "Decline and Fall" (see my review) in its send-up of mores. It's darker, however, and mostly grim.

"Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of sea-sickness they had indulged in every kind of civilized witchcraft, but they were lacking in faith." (4) The moral censure, however casually or insistently applied, stings through the tawdry trappings that drape this critique of a world where, as Fr. Rothschild warns, "radical instability" looms. The rich cavort, but a suicide in an oven and death by chandelier also enter the frivolity. War threatens to break out again, and beneath the chatter, anxiety lurks.

That Jesuit later opines of the young folks: "They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade--and all they seem to do is to play the fool." (183) There's a despair underneath the endless motor-car racing chapters and gambling and drinking that betrays hollowness, and the ending of this novel is one of the oddest I have ever encountered in its evocation of this emptiness beneath the facade of extravagance, consumption, and energy expended as waste.

I felt, given the novel appeared in 1930, that Waugh's aside must have reflected the fate of some episodes he intended to include. You get the impression the more daring scenes suffered on the cutting-room floor. Of an editor: "it was one of his most exacting duties to 'ginger up' the more reticent of his manuscripts and 'tone down' the more 'outspoken' until he had reduced them all to the acceptable moral standard of his day." (32)

There's a madcap series of loosely-linked, if barely so, episodes, but the storyline appears to matter little. I felt frustrated by this lack of cohesion, but Waugh for his second novel does not appear to care much about an intricate, clever plot. This may mirror the insubstantial, flimsy nature of the entire milieu through which his characters careen. Dashing about, falling in and out of bed if not love, the characters are types, but barely recognizable. They yammer and sigh, all the same, as at a late-night party where a dozen of them form "that hard kernel of gaiety that never breaks." (69) Out of this woeful vision, a wake-up call comes-- after many languid mornings after, in a sudden and disturbing manner-- for us and for Adam. (Posted to Amazon US 2-10-10)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Paul Torday's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen": Book Review

A British, totally secular fisheries expert spearheads a sheik's scheme to bring the comforts, and faith, inherent in angling to the desert. This idealism infuses a thoughtful narrative about diplomacy, hope, and fate. Mixing genres, styles, and voices, bureaucrats, lovers, soldiers, politicians, terrorists and pundits jostle in short chapters which construct a light but instructive fable.

Torday manages to capture the tone of how a yuppie banker vs. a Scottish local newspaper, an Al-Qaeda operative vs. an extract from "Hansard," a scientist's diary vs. a Prime Minister's PR man, would add to the complicated reactions to the sheik's proposal to flood a Yemeni wadi with tanks, sluices, and cooling to support fish imported from Britain. The audacious plan's unfolding leads to the main character, Dr. Alfred Jones, confronting the stagnation of his marriage, the routine of his job, and the contrast between a land where a "Sunday ritual" means shopping at Tesco's vs. an Arab culture where faith in its simplicity, apart from fanaticism, enriches life and brings solace to a country where the divine religion still allows dignity despite the absence of the fatal faith of the West, the religion of money.

I came to this out of its title, and my interest in Yemen. I recommend Tim Mackintosh-Smith's "Yemen," (reviewed by me) better called by its British title, "Dictionary Land," as a companion to this novel. I know nothing about fishing, but a glossary and a steady stream of subtle explanations allow any reader to follow easily the angling terms and biological data. The shifts between materials and speakers and writers keep the novel moving, if perhaps slightly off-kilter at times.

The success of Sheikh Muhammed's project pulls in events as disparate as the war in Iraq, a TV pilot, ecological and fishery activists, Islamic fundamentalists, and the simple, nagging question of how Western and Muslim societies struggle towards common ground in an ancient, humble hobby. The landscape of Yemen does not emerge until nearly two-thirds of the way through, but the novel deepens and widens its scope as we see through English eyes the meaning of what the sheikh has tried to show his skeptical colleagues: "Faith comes before hope, and hope before love." This lesson will change more than one life, and alter more than one course, as the novel reaches its conclusion. (Posted to Amazon US 1-29-10)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What's my (Celtic Zodiac) Sign?

"What's your Celtic Zodiac sign?" with the result Oak - The Stabilizer.
June 10 – July 7.

Those born under the Celtic tree astrology sign of the Oak have a special gift of strength. They are protective people and often become a champion for those who do not have a voice. In other words, the Oak is the crusader and the spokesperson for the underdog. Nurturing, generous and helpful, you are a gentle giant among the Celtic zodiac signs.

You exude an easy confidence and naturally assume everything will work out to a positive outcome. You have a deep respect for history and ancestry, and many people with this sign become teachers. You love to impart your knowledge of the past to others.

Oak signs have a need for structure, and will often go to great lengths to gain the feeling of control in their lives. Healthy Oak signs live long, full, happy lives and enjoy large family settings and are likely to be involved with large social/community networks. Oak signs pair off well with the Ash and Reed, and are known to harmoniously join with Ivy signs too.

Sign: Oak Tree (Duir) Symbol: The White Horse or The Golden Wheel Ruling Planet: Jupiter - Jovyn Celtic Gods: Dagda.

Image: "Celtic Zodiac" Me? Exuding easy confidence? Hmm. I also lack a large family and thus any "setting" to enjoy. Maybe social networking with friends real, electronic, or both replaces this need that the lack of progeny surrounding me provides. However, the bent for history, ancestry & knowledge of the past, the imparting by teaching, and blogging, to others, fits me perfectly. You can find out more at the link above, or via the Facebook Quiz from which I took this, without taking it, thanks to a post from a friend who shares my birth-month. Not a "real" believer in astrology, but I liked this result better than "What Hero from 'The Táin' Are You?" pairing me with hapless Fergus Mac Róich. And I must admit, via the URL link above, it's fun for this Californian Celt to have as my Amergin Verse: "I am a God who sets the Head afire with Smoke."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Gealach": Léirmheas Scannáin

Tá plota scéil go díreach ann. Mheas go raibh scéal go dílís. Bhí sé neamh-ghairéad i gcóiriú.

Ní mbeidh mé a nochtadh fadhbannaí ann. Inseoidh mé agaibh beagán. Ar ndóigh, is an insint í leis an ionad ar an Gealach.

Is spásaire Sam Bell é. Téann sé go An Gaelach ag obair le "Tionscail Ghealaí." Caith Sam ag fanacht ag feadh trí bliana suas ansin.

Foghlaimíonn sé faoi rún ansiúd. Níl dúil leis an a lucht fostaithe mórchuid sabhair le oibrithe saor a glacadh le fírinne chuige Sam. Fuaireann sé amach, nuair a bhfuil sé ródheanach, go contúirt ag imeall go leor air.

Bhí chuimhne liomsa faoi "2001" agus "Solaris" nuair a breathnaigh an scannán seo. Mar sin féin, is maith liom é. B'fhéidir, mbeidh tú ag feicéail sé go luath.

"Moon": Film Review.

The story's plot's straightforward. I thought it was a sincere story. It was simplicity in its arrangement.

I will not reveal complications there. I will tell you all a little. Naturally, the narrative's with a location on the Moon.

Sam Bell's an astronaut. He goes to the Moon working for "Lunar Industries." Sam must stay for a period of three years up there.

He learns about a secret over there. There's no desire for his wealthy employers running big labor for cheap workers to admit the truth to Sam. Sam finds out, when it is too late, that there is danger all around him.

It reminded me often of "2001" and "Solaris" when watching this film. Nevertheless, I liked it. Perhaps, you will see it soon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Heather Terrell's "Brigid of Kildare": Book Review

It's an ingenious twist on a medieval glitch. If Gerald of Wales in his 12c journey through Ireland saw a treasured book that was not the famed one already at Kells, but that of Brigid's Kildare monastery from the 5c, how might its reliquary, and its secrets, alter-- if slightly-- how Rome treats women, and how the Church interprets the cult of the Virgin Mary?

Terrell, in the style of theological speculation in the form of historical fiction, shows how Alex Patterson, an appraiser of relics and reliquaries, learns about the altered tale via the apocryphal "rejected" gospels that come with refugees after the collapse of the Roman Empire into Ireland, bringing with them alternative views of Christianity. Terrell interprets Brigid as part-goddess by will, part-bishop, open to a blend of matriarchal and Marian devotions, who consecrated by a dying Patrick manages to bridge pagan with Celtic church practices-- until Rome gets wind of "heresy" and sends Decius, a spy posing as scribe.

The story, for me, appealed. Yet, as with the nun early on lecturing Alex about the dates and facts necessary for us (if not a scholar) to find out about the English invasions and Roman domination of Ireland's countercultural worship and somewhat suspect beliefs from the 5th c, it gets awkward to read a novel where characters must recite such information to each other for our necessary benefit. This is never easy to do, and Terrell by mixing the account of Decius with an omniscient portrayal of Brigid's earlier life, alongside Alex's mission to uncover the story of the relic from Kildare, makes for an ambitious narrative for a short tale.

Still, Terrell manages to convey the facts along with the fiction efficiently. The book flows well, but the language edges into cliches of Irish beauty and Roman severity; I'd have appreciated more nuance in the modern-day people in particular. Her characters in contemporary form don't jump off the page, and I wish Alex had more depth; Terrell with Brigid herself and Decius to a lesser degree manages to flesh out more of their inner struggles more satisfactorily. The last chapter does take, considering history's direction with this particular chronicle presupposed, a sudden diversion that does not, for me, jibe with the actual report (I am staying vague here to keep suspense) we have. Therefore, it threw me off, much as I found the scenario Terrell conjures up intriguing in its own way.

So, I recommend it to an general audience who might wish to learn in an approachable way the intricacies of early medieval Ireland and how the Celtic Church might have evolved "off the record", even if as a novel it's a bit romanticized and fanciful compared to what seem the harsher realities of Irish life back then. There's a respect for the material and a level of discussion of the spiritual and practical ramifications that suggests the thought behind the tale. Although the characters veer towards standardized figures, there's a lot of slightly subversive ideas worth mulling over-- I wish they were mulled over more. (Posted 2-2-10)