Friday, July 30, 2010

Paul Murray's "Skippy Dies": Book Review

Neither Hogwarts nor "Catcher in the Rye," this captures the "de-dreamification" of being a boy of fourteen and a teacher at twenty-eight. Murray sets this in a Catholic day & boarding school in Dublin, where he lives. The novel yesterday's been placed on the Booker Prize list, so it'll surely gain attention. It's long-- 660 pages to be divided into three volumes for its official release.

These handsomely watercolored covers add to the appeal of a book that may seem pitched more at the J.K. Rowling than the J.D. Salinger set. However, as an "mature" reader, I reckon that adults will enjoy (or cringe) more at passages such as: "there are only the pale torpid days, stringing by one like another, a clouded necklace of imitation pearls, and a love binding him to a life he never actually chose. Is this all it's ever going to be? A grey tapestry of okayness? Frozen in the moment he drifted into?"

The plot expands rapidly. "Hopeland" introduces the college, the boys and masters. "Heartland" brings romance attempted or achieved to various aspirants. Parallel universes beckon others. "Ghostland" darkens the action as the enemies loom. It takes in poetry, physics and virtual reality in an ambitious manner reminding us of the possibilities of release from the mundane.

In a narrative merging the imaginary with the actual environments, it may prove an early foray into a 21st century novel that mixes the way that young people enter stories that they see as well as those they have (or have not bothered to) read. Even in a dumbed-down secondary (in more ways than one) world, that of consumer-addled suburbia in a crowded and weary Irish city landscape, Murray seasons his chronicle with insights into ideas. He reminds you of the power of what lies beyond what we can see.

This complicates this story, which begins to unfold on different levels, akin to the mind-altering nature of what a circle of Seabrook's teens find. There's some unevenness in tone; a tale this elaborate does wander. Murray's style relies now and then on too many adverbs, but Murray's excitement shows through his obsessed characters. The conniving figures peopling Seabrook College-- from teachers, students, and the game world that draws in the youths-- do demand patience to get to know them, in their adolescent banter or mature ennui. Murray can delineate both the domestic frustrations of middle age and the terrors of teen-inflicted torment.

It's gently satirical. It dares to reach further than most books do that send-up growing up. There's a humanism here and a respect for learning, for all the double-entendres and schoolroom follies. And, as the title shows, death comes, on page one. Maybe it's not Beckett's "Malone Dies," but there's the grimly wry Irish touch of mortality, here at a doughnut shop run by malaprop-mocked Chinese immigrants.

Murray seems to have come up through such cruel society as reduced to this boy's school-- on both sides of the lectern. It can be bruising and tender to compare your own coming of age to that endured by the teens at Seabrook. I liked his ear for idiom and slang, and his knack for entertaining but sharp explorations of fads, trends, peer pressures and their impact on fading tradition in his home island.

Therefore, for those looking for 1) a sprawling evocation of how Irish life's altering under affluence, 2) how teenaged boys change and don't change from how they've been, and 3) how literacy however threatened by electronics and gaming may be able to still immerse you and these characters into intricate, panoramic plots, a bit messy but all the more accessible for their approach that takes in so much of modern life-- this novel's recommended. It takes you away from the everyday into the fantastic. But it remembers you must come back down to earth, after all. (Posted to 7-30-10; Amazon 8-7)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story": Book Review

I like dystopias. Or I like books about them. I don't like smartphones. But I feel it's inevitable that I must use one and that will draw me away from reading print into scanning not even text-bits but bytes and images. In turn, this may shift a dystopia where nobody's not connected-- via a smartphone on steroids-- from speculation to reality. This direction, extrapolated into the near future, expands into this ambitious, readable, satirical yet philosophical novel.

America's "president and his pretty wife" grovel before the Chinese Central Banker. The dollar's tied to the yuan. Bipartisans, a one-party government, run with military surveillance and the National Guard the cowed nation. Its credit-challenged, morally bereft people, even those in the Media & Credit elite, fear losing their jobs and homes. Troops flail in a doomed Venezuelan invasion.

Everyone's using an apparat, which makes the iPhone look like a transistor radio. This transmits credit ratings, sex appeal, and intimate details of those you beam it at. They point their devices back at you. Lenny Abramov, 39, works for a firm selling immortality technologies to a few chosen wealthy applicants who High Net Worth Individuals. Of course, he cannot afford the "dechronification" treatments.

Returning from a failed business stint in Rome, he falls into debt to his employers. He's forced to claw his way back up a brutal corporate hierarchy. He's fallen in love with a Korean American fifteen years younger, Eunice Park. Her appeal may baffle you. Downstairs she's attractive, with freckles even. But upstairs, as I suppose for all of her generation, she's been raised without reading anything longer than a text-message. This despite what once might have passed for a liberal-arts education, so she's pretty vacant. That's a slight stumbling block for me in this plot.

The tone can be uneven as the story shifts from dystopian send-ups to the dynamics of tyrannical immigrant families. Eunice, caught in her own cultural transitions, struggles. She yearns for empathy, and learns the comforts of her nebbish, "tuna brain" Lenny, but her character's lack of articulation does make her lighter in density than her bookish lover. Her hypersexualized banter, however, conveys convincingly via her device her own shallow literacy and the lack of meaning in her life. So, when looming, flabby Lenny courts her, she succumbs despite his unattractiveness.

Thus the clunky title-- that's about as eloquent as Eunice and her pals might be able to express the narrative that Shteyngart unfolds. Her reality-show diction intersperses with entries made by Lenny, in a more conventional novelistic tone. Their messages become this book. He still reads Tolstoy and Chekhov in a world where nobody else seems to open a smelly book.

He wanders a New York where campsites of the homeless spread from Central Park. It's as if the Bonus Army in the Hoovervilles of the Depression's inverted into Aziz's Army, rallied against the Retail & Media & Credit & military elites. Soon the Harm Reduction cleansing of the homeless away from the motorcade for the Chinese banker's visit will spark riots. This leads to The Rupture.

This brings them, in dystopian fashion, into a chaotic scenario that accelerates away from the character study of the first half of this ambitious novel. As with many Jewish protagonists, Lenny, despite his assimilation and distance from his Soviet-era immigrant parents, struggles with what they and his genes seem to have left him: the feeling of being an outsider, watched by his betters and always found wanting.

"I saw one possible end to my life: alone, in a bag, in my own apartment building, hunched over in a wheelchair, praying to a God I never believed in." Against this despair, he wants to "remind myself of the primacy of the living animal, of my time amongst the Romans." This book can be frank. It's a society that does not hold back its desires, its lusts, its wares. It's all ranked, rated, and shared. "How desperately I wanted to forsake these facts, to open a smelly old book or to go down on a pretty girl instead. Why couldn't I have been born to a better world?" It's the same old lament, that of any sensitive observer of the madness around us.

His boss, ever younger, tells him of his co-workers that Lenny reminds "them of a different, earlier version of our species. Don't get pissed at me, now. Remember, I started out just like you. Acting. The humanities. It's the Fallacy of Merely Existing. FME. There'll be plenty of time to ponder and write and act out later, Right now you've got to 'sell to live.'" And Lenny can't afford what he sells--- the promise of eternal life.

As with many predecessors, Shteyngart gives us an outsider who's a native of this megalopolis. But he also shows us a possible future that does not seem that exaggerated. Little by little, the more we channel ourselves into networks, the more we may lose our souls. Latinos are exhorted by the government to save, Chinese are told to spend. Everyone's searched and monitored, with no downtime to ponder, to wander, to wonder. Instead, the author takes his hero and his beloved through hellfire sermons, riots in the crumbling streets, tanks at the rail stations, and into the heart of post-American darkness. That's the world they've been given, and the one that they've made, by slow steps once called progress.(Posted to Amazon US--where it could use some positive reviews after the initial negative ones--& 7-27-10)

P.S. Gary Shteyngart's essay expands his reflections on the online addiction: "Only Disconnect" and his interview with Deborah Solomon in the NY Times the same issue. His book also got reviewed there! The press copy I have promises lots of online promotion along with TV and book tours. I guess I did my duty; I earned two negative ratings instantly. Most of those reviews already up for SSTLS have at least one, all but the most gushing. I wonder who's behind this? We all endure surveillance.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Solas "The Turning Tide": Music Review

This veteran Irish American band merges traditional with folk tunes. Fourteen years on, they provide consistent, accessible interpretations of standards, along with original songs in the Irish style, and on this new CD, covers of Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter, and Karen Polwart.

This broad approach places their style at the middle of the road. Séamus Egan favors in his multi-instrumental leadership a clean, lush, friendly sound. Little of the darker, somber qualities shroud this music for long. Although their covers are, respectively for the artists above, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "The Poor Ditching Boy," "A Girl in the War," and "Sorry," these socially aware lyrical themes seem novel as conveyed through the soft vocals of recent recruit Máiread Phelan.

Phelan's breathy, whispery delivery expressing Tom Joad's "a hole in the belly, a gun in my hand" forces listeners to reconsider how we react to such a violent tale of revenge in the name of justice. She does not switch the gender of Thompson's lament, and hearing "she cut me through to my bones" likewise catches the audience off-guard. While I am not sure if this was the intended effect of singer matched with these songs, it makes for a more unexpected encounter with venerable folk themes of discontent. Softening their punch, it freshens their sting.

Session musicians on acoustic and electric bass and on drums move some songs towards a mainstream, studio-friendly ambiance. They smooth off the rough edges other Irish bands keep, and this may please or displease aficionados of this genre. Winifred Horan's fiddle, Mick McAuley's accordion and concertina, Éamon McElholm's guitar and keyboards provide modest rather than bold backing on many tunes. They create an ambiance of contentment despite the discontent sung about in the cover songs.

"A Sailor's Life," far shorter than Thompson's former bandmates in Fairport Convention had adapted, waltzes and reels, and the gentle closing guitar-based "A Tune for Roan" show other directions for the band, closer to their previous albums. Solas, whose name means "light" in Irish, tends towards sunniness. Despite the waves that grace the inside folds of this compact disc's presentation, the musical forecast again proves to be brighter. (Posted 5-12-10 to Amazon US and featured 5-26-10 on Pop Matters.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wire's "Object 47": Music Review

Wire's now at version 3.5. Bruce Gilbert's departure after his low profile on the e.p. "Read & Burn 3" (which this resembles more than "Send") does not seem to have altered late-00s styles that Wire advances. For musicians at it about 35 years, they sound impressively energized in "One of Us" that rouses you to a propulsive beat at the start of this short record, and its closer, "All Fours," that resembles "Send" most in its more relentless aggression.

The middle shifts around. "Circumspect," "Mekon Headman," and "Perspex Icon" continue the pace of the opening track handsomely, and these first four songs raise hopes of a stimulating, intelligent effort to rival their late 80s version. But, "Four Long Years" sounds about as long, and slows the pace to a methodical step. "Head Currency" begins as a dance track, and then guitars kick in to upgrade this into a successful combination of electronic and guitar that pleased me.

"Patient Flees" brought my hopes down, plodding and spoken-word dull rhyme recital over an indifferent, faceless backing. I understand this "message" or intentional design might provoke me, but it did little to make me want to listen again to it. "Are You Ready?" as the penultimate track is a solid song, akin to much of later Wire in its steady beat.

This is a sort-of midtempo album compared to the renewed, unexpectedly vigorous industrial-strength assault on "Send" and even better their live interpretation as "The Scottish Play." It follows the more accessible songs on the ongoing "Read & Burn" e.p.'s. Fine, and few bands from the '77 era of punk bother to take their music seriously anymore, so I wish Wire well in continuing to remind us of how they and we can evolve. (Posted to Amazon US 7-17-10)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lang Linkin's "Liv": Music Review

This CD-DVD celebrates forty years of this Danish trio’s folk music. Their waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and Danish selections show their interest in dance music. They mix the conservatory approach to preserving and playing older songs with their love of the dance floor, and this live recording captures this ambiance.

That being said, the twenty-one tunes proved rather monotonous. “En pige vanked’” with its more expressive tone evoked the Appalachian fiddle tunes that carry a more emotional depth. Yet this ability to capture the heart of the song was fleeting.

Nearly all the songs rely on similar times and instrumentation. This may be the result of the live setting or the needs of the dancers for a certain set-list, but for a listener removed from the venue, the cheery, lighthearted tone seemed to weigh down this record, which needed ballast. While it may fit the dance floor, it does not make for enough variety for a listener needing more range in melody and emotion.

The appeal of this record may therefore be best appreciated by devotees of the Danish dance genre. On the surface, it resembles British folk dance music, and this may please those who favor a very consistent, evenly pitched, carefree delivery of perky tunes on keyboard, fiddle, and accordion. But the casual vocal outbursts and giddy pace seemed more disconcerting than diverting after so many tracks with so little variation.

(It has not gone up there, possibly due to my downbeat nature, but I wrote this review for "" and their "RootsWorld Bulletin" site, the great online magazine and store for world music.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sneachta ina Mhí Iúil

Thiomaint muid go gContae na Sierra an mhí seo níos luath ar ár turas aeraíochta. Ní fhaca mé ionad sin i bhfad uait riamh. Mar sin, ní raibh fhíos agam gheobhainn radharc ina Mhí Iúil leis sneachta-- ach go raibh is airde sa mhullach cnoic gharbh, ach oiread.

Bhuel, bhí maith liom é go leor. Chonaic mé an Abhainn na h-Iuba ar feadh dhá uair nuair ag leanúint í ag imeall an bóthar mór. Tá sí abhainn órtháigeach ansin.

Is áit é stairúil go cinnte. Tharla órthóraíocht air ansúid, ar ndóigh. Bím spéis a chur i ré agamsa féin le mo ré go hiondúil.

B'fhéidir, is docha go raibh súim go nádúrtha orm. Rug agus thóg me ina Stát Órga. D'fhoghlaim mise fadó faoi órthóraíocht ar Thuas i gCalifoirnea.

Ba mhaith liom a filleadh mo shuaimhneas a ghlacadh go ceantar i bhfad ón gcathrachaí. Shuífinn imeallach srúthain go suaimhneasach. Léifinn in aice leis scardán go síochánta. Chódloinn faoi fhad láimhe ciúine.

Snow in the month of July

We drove to Sierra County earlier this month on our excursion. I had never seen that faraway location before. Therefore, I did not know that in the month of July I'd get a view with snow-- but high atop the rugged mountains, for all that.

Well, it pleased me. I saw the Yuba River during two hours when following it alongside the highway. The river's gold-bearing there.

It's an historical place, for sure. Gold-diggers happened on it up there, of course. I've customarily had an interest in this era all my life.

Perhaps, it's probable that it's a natural interest for me. I was born and raised in the Golden State. I myself learned long ago about gold miners in the North of California.

I'd like to return to take my rest in this region far off from cities. I would sit close to a soothing stream. I would read near a peaceful waterfall. I would sleep within arm's reach of silence.

Grianghraf/Photo: Abhainn na h-Iuba (Faoi Cathair Nevada/About Nevada

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jason Siff's "Unlearning Meditation": Book Review

Jason Siff advises “what to do when the instructions get in the way.” That is, for both beginning and experienced meditation students, he encourages practitioners to relax. Letting go of grasping one form of meditation, or one imposition of discipline, frees up the seeker to apply what works best to open up one’s meditation experience so it can illuminate the rest of one’s day and guide growth. His book may benefit Buddhists most, but its guidance will inform anybody wishing to begin or refresh meditation.

Siff presents “unlearning” meditation practices. Most meditators learn to silence inner voices and emotions. For a meditator who is facing impasses after initial progress toward contemplation, he shows how “transformative conceptualization” can urge a meditator to examine “mental constructs” as a path toward non-conceptual understanding. This formulation challenges the assumption that such a non-conceptual realization comes only when the seeker has attained the goal of a purer, non-intellectual, sense-experience. This can be an elusive “concept” to comprehend. To assist the reader, he explains how his own method evolved.

Siff relates his own evolution from vipassana “insight” training into a more fluid, open-ended direction. While grounded in Southeast Asian Theravada traditions, and grounding samatha (calming) and vipassana (discerning) techniques as the foundation for his path, he advises the meditator not to become attached to any one form, if that form becomes too “grounded” so as to discourage the seeker, or ossify the spirit. He offers a commonsense, slightly but subtly radical, existential attitude.

After all, he reasons, if one regards the Buddha’s dharma doctrines “as concepts,” then “none of the teachings are true.” But they remain self-improving narratives. This interpretation compliments Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs in its agnosticism. Batchelor’s new study, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, [see my reviews of "BWB", and "CBA"] resembles Siff’s mixture of reflection with autobiography and textual explication. Siff advances a meditative “Recollection Awareness” dharma-based response based not on beliefs or theism but “experiential knowledge.”

If “nothing arises in isolation” for Buddhists, why not let thoughts, images, and moods filter and float into one’s meditative mind? Rather than resisting mental imagery and inventive narratives that arise during meditation as tied to the ego, a receptive process allows practitioners to integrate narratives and reactions into their sitting still. This flexibility increases gentleness and eases pain. Tolerating one’s experiences replaces suppressing or overcoming their influence. “Drifting off” can even help us “wake up” to the enlightenment from within and without one’s self that comprises the message of the Buddha.

He devotes the second part of his book to impasses and calm states. He looks at samadhi (conventionally translated as “bliss,” but here applied to being drawn toward tranquility), and how this state might be dipped into as the meditator does not resist “daydreaming” or even drifting off into semi-slumber. He intersperses journals kept by his students that illustrate well a variety of reactions to meditating. Instead of polished assurances of masters that usually provide the standard narratives by which students can judge their own progress or shortcomings, Siff provides excerpts from journals kept by average meditators. They record their struggles. These descriptions provide comparisons for a beginner or advanced student.

This is not a primer on Buddhism. However, a newcomer may pick up the basics while studying this book. Siff instructs subtly. He uses a running analogy with being snowed-in to show how patience and alertness present opportunities for success. The more meditation can link to the rest of one’s life, and not be apart from it, the more its insights can smooth rough edges. Siff avoids platitudes. He shares suggestions, not prescriptions.

Unlearning Meditation is not technical, and not inspirational in the pat sense. It’s suited more for those open to therapy and journal-keeping as compatible methods by which Westerners choose to confront (and make friends within) themselves. Still, due to the discussion of complex material into only two hundred pages, a few points merited expansion.

While the whole book is an elaboration of the concept, more space could have been devoted to “dependent origination,” simple to sum up but difficult to keep straight as, “When one thing arises, so does another.” Comparisons with other approaches might have enriched the discussion. For example, Siff’s techniques may compare or contrast with “just sitting” in Zen. Also, the treatment of a “connected process” of beliefs differing from perceived wisdom as or as not originating in “unified states of mind” compressed into half a paragraph a vast, phenomenological topic. Although accessible for those from any mindset, this book tilts towards non-theism for those pursuing Siff’s “unlearning” model; similar to Batchelor, Siff leans toward existential rather than faith-based philosophies or mentalities.

Siff touches on hypnagogic states. These happen usually as we drift off into sleep. This “drop off” during reverie from awareness to inner peace, he suggests, matches the Buddha’s own embrace of lights or images as perceptions not to be fought off but to be encouraged, for those so inclined. Siff favors “fragmenting” and “wondering” as positive passages toward mental focus and deeper connection.

Contrary to the usual interpretations of meditation as an austere avoidance of distraction, Siff allows the aware meditator to “float off” toward a parallel entryway that aligns with our mind’s constant movement as its own inescapable experience. Moment by moment, minds change. Given the fundamental Buddhist teaching of impermanence, Siff figures this reaction offers a less defensive, more accepting manner to ease wayward minds into meditation.

Finally, he urges meditators not to get too attached to any one process. If it works, great; if not, let it go, mix it up, move on. He compares this inventiveness to adding new ingredients to a favorite dish. He orders meditation styles into three primary categories: generative, conflictive, receptive. He adds three developed methods: explorative, non-taking-up, connective. He encourages meditators to adopt more flexible goals of a forgivingly humane taxonomy of a quest suited for reluctant, restless, skeptical, and/or creative folks.

He concludes with the hope that this more accepting, less ascetic stance might loosen up practitioners who tire of one approach, who feel guilt over one way not working, or who give up in frustration after not getting the big breakthrough promoted to the striver--if forever delayed for many everyday seekers. Siff’s “skillful meditation” empowers the individual.

This book might supplement a student working with an innovative teacher, or enrich those meditating on their own. Siff condenses decades of study, but he speaks as a practitioner who does not preach. That is, he distills thousands of his own “sittings” into advice that convinces the reader of Siff’s own authenticity even as his own story does not call attention to his own recommendations. Somehow, Siff exemplifies his profound advice without promoting himself as a role model or his suggestions as the only way to incorporate his example into one’s own practice.

Siff does demonstrate, instead, his own convictions, based on the dharma teachings of the Buddha rather than his own self-aggrandizement. He wraps up this steady, brisk (but never superficial or pandering) guidebook by boosting the confidence of those often kicking themselves for not meeting the exacting standards of master teachers.

His final sentence sums up his hope for the reader: “You have developed greater trust and confidence in the meditative process, which is none other than trust in the path of inner awakening, otherwise known as the Dharma.”

(4.5 stars; posted in earlier form to & Amazon US 7-18-10. Revised as above [without hyperlinks] 8-12-10: "New York Journal of Books." Author's book website. More resources at: Skillful Meditation Project).

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation": Book Review

This condenses neo-atheist arguments efficiently if briskly. It sums up secular humanism. It prefaces longer works by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. It’s a pithy, barbed attack.

I’ve reviewed on Amazon, alongside with hundreds or thousands of bickering peers, “The God Delusion,” “god Is Not Great,” and “Breaking the Spell”-- as well as “The End of Faith.” (See my Amazon US review in Oct. 2004). Compared to “End,” I preferred Harris’ 2006 riposte. It ups the ante. Yet, it seems a lost cause no matter if you agree or disagree, given the polemical stances most critics assume. However, I tried to read this as fairly and objectively as possible. For comparison, I’ve also reviewed works such as Dean Hamer's “The God Gene” and Francis Collins' “The Language of God."

Given less than a hundred small pages in large print, this response to Harris’ outraged Christian readers cannot equal the scientific depth of Dennett, the cultural critique of Hitchens, and the magisterial tone of Dawkins. Instead, a rapid paraphrase of opposing views to his compressed assertions suffices. This review cannot address the immense philosophical arguments or the geo-political ramifications of the neo-atheist agenda. Instead, I will cite his main points. Judge if this book merits your attention.

He repeats Dawkins’ complaint that liberal believers “lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.” (ix) He thinks progressive adherents lend comfort as it were to the “divisive, injurious, retrograde” versions of Christianity, for instance. However, he grants that liberals and moderates “can recognize a common cause” with unbelievers as they confront extremists and fundamentalists. (x)

Belittling literalists: “If we take Jesus in half his moods, we can easily justify the actions of St. Francis of Assisi” –- His other half justifies the Inquisition. (14) Yet, Harris acknowledges that such sacrificial self-denial for the greater good may be admirable. It’s only that one need not be a believer in the virgin birth or that Jesus “will be returning to earth as a superhero to take those teachings to heart.” (25) For those who condemn enemies of organized religion as atheist monsters—-Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots—-Harris coolly stresses how their problem is not that they “reject the dogma of religion,” but that these tyrants “embrace other life-destroying myths.” (41) Not extreme rationalism but unfettered “political and racial dogmatism” can be blamed for this totalitarianism. As with religious intolerance, it’s rooted in dogma.

Intriguingly, he finds red states in their religious and social conservatism in worse shape as to crime; 50 nations lowest in the UN’s “human development index” he concludes “are unwaveringly religious.” (44) Harris claims that atheist societies in advanced economies devote far more to charitable aid and social welfare programs. They also have far lower rates of CEO vs. worker income disparity: compare 13:1 in Sweden to 475:1 in the U.S. Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S are four-five times that of other advanced nations even as the U.S. proclaims far higher levels of devotion to Jesus.

“Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” (51) No more than Zeus or Poseidon, Harris regards God or Allah. “An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl—-even once in a million years—-casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.” (52) Due to doubt, nonbelievers who question taboos, hatreds, wars, even “diversion of scarce resources”—all the suffering attributed to religious fanaticism-- get relegated to the margins: compared to “the fantasy life” of one’s “neighbors.” (57) “Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.” (65)

He neatly inverts the arguments used by Christians against atheists to ask why Christians are not convinced by Islam. “Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.” (7) Conflating the claims of damnation sallied by Muslims with those of Christians, he warns how elusive will be the hopes of interfaith dialogue among pacified People of the Book. Millions will ally to die fighting against Christians before “they would allow your version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.” (86) We don’t worship the same God in the same way, he chides; ask the Shi’a about the Sunni.

Raising children as Jews, Muslims, or Christians, he complains, is a “ludicrous obscenity.” He repeats, if more strongly worded, this protest from “End of Faith.” I am not sure how Harris can persuade his opponents, but he articulates the defiant unbeliever who denies the confidence of the faithful. This charged language may inflame his foes further, but he matches their fire with his own. Whether this is the most successful approach to take may not matter. I find corroboration in his dismissal of interfaith dialogue and platitudes about reconciling “worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision” (87). As with slavery, biblically sanctioned, he muses it may be a long struggle to convince irrational believers that scripture cannot trump morality to extend human rights.

Scientifically, Harris strives to dismantle, if hurriedly given the space allotted, the intelligent design proponents as well as creationists (the latter a Gallup poll tallies at 53% of the U.S. population). Of our plumbing that mixes our windpipe with our esophagus: “perhaps God has prepared a special reward in heaven for every child who chokes to death on a bottle cap.” (79) For those less trusting in inscrutable ways of a Creator, Harris can only sigh: “How is it ‘moral’ to think like this?”

Harris concludes: “This letter is the product of failure” for the attacks on religion that preceded it to bring about the death of God. (91) He wonders why the schools have not taught this message, why the media fails to criticize “the abject religious certainties of our public figures,” and the despair over the social failures “great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently.” He cannot accept why Muslims chant “death to whole nations of the living” and how Christians deny “tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.”

I’m unconvinced Harris’ vehemence will sway any Christian soldiers. His frustration shows. This may be more a handbook for those happy being preached to by the choir, but for that, Harris’s return to the polemical arena may be a welcome harbinger of the long-delayed victory neo-atheists seek in their resurgence to win. He refuses to back down, and he seems to relish this combative stance. He tires of conciliation, and wearies of compromise—and here he matches those he resists, as in any epic battle. (Once more into the fray, posted to Amazon US after 600-odd predecessors, 7-16-10)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Requiems for the Departed": Book Review

Ancient Celtic myths tell of vengeful thieves, backstabbing comrades, inebriated thugs, and wicked women. This collection brings characters inspired by these dubious role models into (mostly) today’s Ireland. Their mobile phoning and pill-popping counterparts rely on criminal pursuits – and the pursuit of criminals. The beer, the wanton women, and the chemicals may be more exotic in the retellings, but the (mostly) grim tales of haunting, revenge, and payback capture the raw scenes of the original tales, full of passion, release, death, and vendettas.

Editors Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone arrange 17 entries. Stuart Neville opens the anthology with a lively take on his Armagh hometown’s Queen Macha. Her erstwhile latest paramour, as he approaches her modern incarnation, reflects: “Back then he’d have done anything for a taste of the Queen, but as she took the last of him, his fingers tangled in her dyed crimson hair, he noticed the blood congealing on her knuckles.” Sam Millar spins his shamus Karl Kane’s saga wittily. “If I’d been any more sociable, I’d have needed a condom.” Kane and colleagues investigate, of all places in Belfast, a Jewish abattoir. As with many authors here, Millar ingeniously arranges venerable symbols into surprising patterns.

T.A. Moore’s “Red Milk” in its mayhem reminds me of a savage screenplay. A wake may seem too familiar, but this scene gains sharpness: “They sat around a table in their black shabby plumage, drinking sweet tea and saying the faults of the dead like a rosary. Go in there, and they wouldn’t be backward about coming forward with the sins of the living either.” Later, one sinner warns another: “I will beat you ‘til both sides of your face match.” Moore renders her snarling, shouting characters vividly. As with other stories, hers takes place among stables and beasts. The ancient tales shared these scenes, but not as chronicles of the cooking of chemicals or the distribution of drugs.

Tony Bailie serves up druidry and reincarnation as revenge. Maxim Jakubowski follows the triple goddess the Morrigan through lowlife Dublin. Arlene Hunt regales us with horse trading. Ken Bruen in his characteristically staccato style conjures up the banshee. Three authors in their introductory notes credit the ‘70s electric folk-rock band Horslips for inspiration. I recommend their albums "The Táin" and "The Book of Invasions" (both reviewed by me on Amazon US) as a soundtrack to amplify these tales. These renditions of passions and betrayals of ancient Ireland filtered through traditional and rock music share the bloody, loud, and ornery nature of characters in these pages.

As the collection continues, stories start to echo one another. For instance, the tragic lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne earn a similarly sad version from Adrian McKinty.Then, Garbhan Downey revamps their tale into a lusty, silly send-up. Warrior clans evolve into Derry’s football rivals. Teams stock their ranks with immigrants from Chechnya, Russia, and Brazil. This comments cleverly on today’s cosmopolitan Irish society.

Two roughly paired stories at the center of this collection evoke poignantly another cultural transition. They are the only two stories not taking place in contemporary Ireland. John McAllister sketches how a rough justice emerged as Christianity loomed over 5th century pagan Ireland. Una McCormack shifts a few years back in this same setting. She imagines a confrontation between Celtic and Roman methods to correct injustice, through the arrival of the boy who will become Patrick. Both stories capture the uneasy atmosphere of an island filled with clans – loyal to pagan gods and brutal customs – who must soon face the coming of Christianity.

Neville Thompson’s “The Children of Gear” sets the story of The Children of Lír among the addicts and dealers plaguing today’s Dublin. This sparely told tale haunted me as much as the original, with its abandoned children, cruel stepmother, and trapped father. Dave Hutchinson, like Millar, puts an attenuated Jewish connection into his story; his opens as a reality show features “the last surviving and very aged member of U2.” One old woman has faint blue tattoos like many from the past (and our present) generations; another upright gent conceals in his trousers his risque piercing, a Prince Albert. Hutchinson directs us to look backward from the prospect of the near future. Today’s daring poses will turn frail and awkward soon enough.

In the closing story, “The Life Business”, the fantasy master who writes as John Grant draws upon his “real name” and real-life teenage stint as a British cadet. He integrates disturbing and emotional reveries into his shape-shifting characters. His story rattled me the most. Grant eerily channels otherworldly senses into a psychological study of identity.

I’d caution that if you lack familiarity with these Irish myths, some stories may elude your full grasp. All contributors give introductions, yet some gloss over their original inspirations. The stories fall into three sections paralleling standard classifications of the Ulster cycle, folk figures, and Fianna warriors, but the editors could have followed through on reminding readers of the context for this archaic arrangement. A couple of stories, very compressed, moved too swiftly for me to grasp them.

All the same, for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the original stories, sample Frank Delaney’s "Legends of the Celts" or Mary Heaney’s "Over Nine Waves." Or check out those two Horslips albums. With the combination of murder, mayhem, and madness on the page matched with what blasts from your speakers, this will transport you back to the spirit of a Celtic past, and the multicultural island’s present. This book’s full of entertaining slaughter, gory slug fests, and, being Irish, the lingering touch of inevitable longing, heartache, and loss.

[Posted to Amazon US 7-7-10; to British Amazon 7-12-10. Revised for PopMatters 8-2-10.]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Benjamin Black's "The Silver Swan": Book Review

"The world has fallen asunder" in Dublin still paralyzed. Many readers appear to be disappointed by this follow-up, but I liked it much better. The only drawback here is the reliance on coincidence, but this in Joyce's city where everyone knows everyone's business may be less of a fault than I found the set-up for Quirke's début. Here's why.

I reviewed recently the first installment of John Banville's sideline from his more philosophical novels. Quirke returns as an driven, yet awkward, amateur investigator into another series of murders in middle-class 1950s Dublin. The pace here quickens from "Christine Falls," which I found murky and plodding. The characters here gain energy, and their depth expands and sinks into the pages more satisfactorily, and disturbingly. Mal and Rose and of course Phoebe all join Quirke, along with closer attention to Inspector Hackett. Sinclair, Q's assistant coroner, lurks intriguingly in the background, but I'd like to learn more about him.

Similar to Jack Taylor's battle with the bottle in Ken Bruen's "Galway noir" series of mysteries, Quirke finds himself starting this narrative sober and haunted. The raffish Leslie, the creepy Hakkim Kreutz (I sense a Nazi "crooked cross" buried in this name), the elusive Kate, and thuggish Billy Hunt all surround the doomed Silver Swan, Deirdre-Laura, in her attempts to enter a more exotic and daring realm of the body and imagination than that afforded her by her mundane Irish prospects. The author moves from one character to another, and this kaleidoscopic presentation allows greater detail and variety than the monochromatic and to me more monotonous prequel.

As with my reviews of most of Banville's fiction, I always highlight a chosen passage. Banville here reaches his mark more readily as Black, closer to his erudite and ambitious character studies under his given name. Here's two excerpts. Rose comes on to Quirke, and he hesitates as his daughter watches. "Rose took a cigarette, and he held the lighter for her and she leaned forward, touching her fingertips to the back of his hand. When she lifted the cigarette from her lips it was stained with lipstick. He thought how often this little scene had been repeated: the leaning forward, the quick, wry, upwards glance, the touch of her fingers on his skin, the white paper suddenly, vividly stained. She had asked him to love her, to stay with her." (141) Quirke elsewhere has noted that the touch of man's fingers to another man's can happen also sharing a light; one of the only permissible times.

Quirke later comes upon a crime scene. The plot has been cleverly choreographed, and the payoff's better than in "Christine Falls." The author plays fair with you, hinting at all that transpires, but unless you're smarter than Quirke or most any mystery writer, chances are you will be entertained by how rapidly Banville-Black has shuffled the pea under the shell before your eyes. The climactic scenes crackle with intensity and they'd make a great film, so visually are they described.

"Over every scene of violent death Quirke had attended in the course of his career there had hung a particular kind of silence, the kind that falls after the last echoes of a great outcry had faded. There was shock in it, of course, and awe and outrage, the sense of many hands lifted quickly to many mouths, but something else as well, a kind of gleefulness, a kind of startled, happy, unable-to-believe-its-luckness. Things, Quirke reflected, even inanimate things, it seemed, love a killing." (248-49)

As Deirdre-Laura puts it on her death-day, "The world has fallen asunder." The author takes you into her mind, drugged and erotic, and as with other characters, you pass from Dublin's stilted shabby-chic facades into fevered lust, hatred, or inarticulate longing. The author here excels at pitting the real-life dullness of his dramatis personae against their dreams of escape, as if Joyce's "Dubliners" still were paralyzed in post-war Ireland, still struggling to break free of the city.

But, they cannot. Irish complacency shrouds this novel. As American Rose critiques: "The way you go about in a cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding that things should change or be fixed or made new." (256) Quirke, in a magnificent long single paragraph of an epilogue, achieves the level of Banville's best creations, and I look forward to another encounter with him and his ineradicable meddling.

P.S. On Amazon I've since recently reviewed the third installment, "Elegy for April." "Swan" and "Christine Falls" I've earlier posted on over there but I only found I forgot to post "Swan" here thanks to my finding yesterday Sheila O'Malley's thorough and insightful "Swan" review at her own great site,"The Sheila Variations."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bhí muid crannaí fadó

Bhí banna ceoil áitiúla, Spréachaí na Coille Trá. Tá dlúthdhiosca dara agam duinn ann. Tá ainmnithe "Bhí muid crannaí fadó ann."

Chonaic mé cóip an tseachtaine deireadh. Chuir cuairt muidsa leis ár cairde, Bob agus Críos, ag imeall an cathair Naomh Crios i gCalifoirnea Thuas. Tá dha úinéir dó freisin.

Is maith liom an diosca sin réasúnta mór é, ach níl go mór é. Tá cuid mhaith ann amhráin níos lag air. Is cosúlacht "Buffalo Springfield" orm é.

Smaoinigh mé faoi an frása cheirnín an lá eile. Tá mé ag dul spaisteioreacht nuair ag tógtha ar cíos muid an bothóg do cábán againn i gcóngarach ár cairde. Shúigh mé in aice Srutháin Pónaire i ngar Sliabh Hermon.

Bhí aithne liomsa é an teideal albaim seo ansin. Níl fhios agam cén fáth, mar sin féin. Bhí mé i mo shuí ar an mias garbh slíne ann.

Chuala mé an fuaim snámhach gan strus. Bhí mé do shuaimhneas a ghlacadh mise féin. Níl a shárú faoi rás na gréine bhreac nó na crannaí ruadh.

Once We Were Trees

There was a local music band, Beachwood Sparks. I have the second album from them. It's named "Once We Were Trees."

I saw a copy the end of last week. We paid a visit to our friends, Bob and Chris, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz in Northern California. They are two owners of it too.

I like that record reasonably well, but not a lot. There's a share of very slow songs on it. It resembles "Buffalo Springfield" for me.

I thought about that record's phrase the other day. I went for a walk when we rented our cabin near our friends. I sat next to Bean Creek around Mount Hermon.

I remembered myself the title of this album there. I don't know the reason, however. I was sitting on a rough slab of slate.

I heard the flowing sound without stress. I was calling down peace on myself. There's no match for this under the dappled sun or the redwoods.

Grianghraf stairiúil Sruthán Pónaire ar bealach ó An Leabharlann Naomh Crios/ Historical Photo of Bean Creek via the Santa Cruz Library

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Fall's "Your Future, Our Clutter": Music Review

A solid rock: thrown, dusty, thudding like adobe. Clean & consistent? For a Fall record, is this praise? Indeed.

The production's snappy and the instrumentation-- same line-up as "Imperial Wax Solvent," (see my review)-- stays sharp. While I miss the chanted, catchier tunes of mid-decade "Real New Fall Album" & "Fall Heads Roll," their best from the '00s, this resembles "IWS" with its more keyboard-driven, vamping sound similar to mid-80s Fall. With this band, great eons of time pass between line-ups, fallow and fertile periods, and attitudes of Mark E. Smith, his partner or lack, and whomever he recruits or demotes in turn every few years, or months.

The stability of this backing band therefore shows similarities with the preceding CD. And "Mexican Wax Solvent" dutifully blends south-of-the-border airs with "IWS" electronics; "Chino" queasily wrenches rhythms into am aural hangover a few songs later. There's a twangy air in the mix that recalls Western bleakness and Tex-Mex raw, weathered decay. "Weather Report 2" seems to revisit 1988's bouncy "I Am Curious (Orange)" but with a bleary nod ("I gave you the best years of my life") to the past legacy of Smith and his sonic youth.

The album runs rapidly. Many Fall records have fifteen or so songs and often falter towards their finish. Brevity and clarity work here for a tougher, more chewed-off and spit-out delivery from vocalist and band that hurries this along in more hectic fashion. For a 53-year-old singer, I admire this performance. The musicians support MES in quick step and the combined march of leader and followers makes for a healthy workout that players half the age of the singer might be flummoxed to match. It's a trimmed-down, bulked-up hefty sound that races past rather than lumbers by.

So, rewarded by attention to coherence and a focus on concision, I give it as I did "IWS" four stars for a strong effort. From the 2000-2010 era, it's (arguably as any Fall fan will agree) probably a contender for third but no more than fourth out of the last ten studio creations. It has bashing backing, grumbling keyboards that veer off on tangents, garage-rock basics, predictable mid-song digressions ("Bury Parts 1-3" takes you through the evolution of a song) and an obscure cover stomped through, Wanda Jackson's 1961 "Funnel of Love." With a band so long in pedigree-- this the 28th studio effort-- it's as if I'm listening to a distant cousin of the '78 début, but as any fan admits, it's the same band only different with each year, each new CD. I keep listening, and how many of you can say that to any functioning band still issuing original material every year, one that started in the middle of the 70s?

P.S. It's good to find them on Domino. Perhaps they and Clinic will tour together? For back catalogues in handy compilations, try "Complete Peel Sessions: 1978-2004" and "The Fall Box Set: 1976-2007" (both reviewed by me on Amazon US as was this CD last month).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our road trip, Summer '10

We left for our semi-annual road trip north with what's become a ritual. This time, after a few hours on the freeway, we departed, found the back road that is strangely Highway One at its southerly stretch, and then after a dozen miles of calming farms we stopped. La Simpatica being closed for seismic repairs as was our second choice, El Tapatio, in the farmworker town of Guadalupe at La Fogata. That my family walked a half-mile (the Bataan death march for my teen sons) back to where I'd insisted I'd seen a yellow building and a sign promising homemade tortillas testifies to their appetites after a long stint in the car. My mahi-mahi lacked beans and the rice was blah, but the fish proved fine and the Negra Modelo refreshing. There was a drive-in lane outside but a truck parked in front of a sign made it look abandoned. I noted for all its "Dog Burger" option, but that was a frankfurter-enhanced patty, I admit.

Niall did not find, this a few days after doomed defeat of my non-hometown Celtics to my hometown Lakers, his size for the t-shirt celebrating those tiresome champs, but I noted at Masimoto market an elderly Japanese man shuffling back to the door next to said apparel on the sidewalk. I wondered if he was the owner, as a younger Asian man in this totally Latino town worked the counter. I figured odds were very good. I wondered how long the family had been there in this place, and what they'd seen from their spot on the main road over the decades where little seemed to change.

But it surely did. Central coastal California fills with those like us weary of L.A. Each visit, it seems there's a bit less farmland and yet more concrete.

More subdivisions sprout even in Guadalupe, let alone golf-linked Nipomo behind the eucalyptus at the right-angled turn, and each trip sprawl spreads along the 101 and the 5. The stores in the interior we pass this time, Camarillo, Oxnard, Ventura, Orcutt, Atascadero, Paso Robles, King City, Greenfield, Soledad, Salinas: they turn identical. Only the grocery stores shift to Safeway from Vons, the one regional quirk among the Applebee's, Starbucks, Taco Bells, Jamba Juices, Carl's Jrs., and the same gas stations that we must patronize, despite our mandated (largely by me by paternal dictate) dislike for chains and franchises.

When it comes to filling up tanks and carts, markets and oil companies seem to compel all but the few holdouts affluent enough and/or living outside the law, who ride bikes in the sylvan college towns, like Davis, Berkeley, or Santa Cruz. A few principled sorts can resist the Combine, saving their money for designer eco-gear, artisan eclairs, or raw-vegan organica. The rest of us suck up fossil fuels, push through aisles stocked with preservers on pallets, and return to less quirky, mostly less funky or even less hi-tech, jobs requiring often oddly more formal wear.

We stayed to give the kids a treat in San Luis Obispo at the pink-daubed faux-fairy tale fake-turreted Madonna Inn, but that edifice now adjoined a shopping mall on land the crafty owners had developed among the horse pastures and rolling landscape called Irish Hills. Now, as for most of the inland, sunbaked year, those slopes looked more like scorched muffins than gentle drumlins. In our themed room, as they all are but on hundreds of different motifs, we had a comfortable nook to unwind. Although I could hear 101's traffic, the site felt less kitschy and more endearing than I'd remembered. We noticed, or my wife did, Asian lesbians in the coffee shop; informants who know more than even she about such told us Cambria for fishing and Morro Bay for bikers attracts the sapphic set. Our Sky Room featured delicate clouds as stencils, and the Alpine washed blue blended well into the Gothic stone feel of the place. It reminded me of "The Sound of Music" meets La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of Carthusians in that most strict of all monastic orders.

We, unlike at an ascetic hermitage, encountered a strong shower, a bidet, and heated toilet seat. I forgot to use the latter two, but my family surely did as I could hear their squeals behind the bathroom door. We elders had a loft forced to occupy as the kids insisted on the tv and king-size bed below. As the upstairs beam was poorly placed for those wayfarers over six feet tall (beware, booted and/or heeled lesbians) I kept slamming my head, as my wife dutifully chronicled in her own blog entry. Winded by the fourth blow, I lay down on the floor, but no bumps, oddly. Thus I celebrated my birthday, seven-squared so I figured it was luck, if inverted.

We made it north of Santa Cruz, hit the New Leaf with its high-priced fare, but I did find an ethical tea as advertised from Ceylon that I tried varieties of, Dilmah. I read William McGowan's harrowing account of Sri Lanka, "Only Man Is Vile," not too long ago. I wanted to support the resurgency-- not of Tamil Tigers or Sinhalese troops, but of the native tea industry devastated by civil war. I looked as is my want in strange markets for beers I'd never sipped. I bought a few.

To our friends Chris and Bob, we arrived, and my birthday dinner featured a special limited edition brew from (speaking of monks) an imitation Belgian-type Lost Abbey purveyor from San Marcos, CA (the same place as the great Stone brewers, which made me wonder about a shared plant). The most expensive bottle I'd ever had, but as I rationalized, the fanciest beer in the world can be bought at the price of a decent (for my tight budget) wine. It resembles Sam Adams bock in the blue bottles, that is, brandy. You'd never mistake it for beer if blindfolded. Complex concoction, but not really what you'd expect as ale. I bet it's more sipped than quaffed.

Leo and our hosts went off to hear Pavement on their reunion tour up at Berkeley, a long rush-hour drive. Niall and Layne and I hung out and relaxed. I kept eating cherries from the Prunedale market we'd bought on the way over; they were the best I'd ever tasted. Otherwise, I had no recollection of what we did that night. I pawed back issues of the New York Review of Books, played with the dogs, and wandered the net. Don't blame the brew for my vagueness as we all waited up for the other trio to return. For the record from the next day, the Eel River Tangerine wheat beer, three adults agreed, kept admirably a balance of fruit and tartness that often fails in blends, and I recommend it.

Around this time, I finished Martin Amis' "The Information" (1995). I found its remarks about the end of the novel appropriate even before the rise of this medium you and I share now. The narrator relates seasons to literary genres. He tells how the novel's weary of itself, reduced in its dotage to writing about writers. The tale veers from astronomical analogies to revenge thriller to satire of, yes, the publishing, promotional, and reviewing sides of bookselling. Hundreds of pages passed with you finding out nearly nothing of the protagonist's wife or the antagonist's prose style which in his superficial utopian story sent him into the literary stratosphere. Amis crams three novels into one. While it started off with the proverbial bang, it fizzled and sputtered long before its climax, when the sexual surprise revealed itself to be for me a damp squib rather than a payoff shot full of fireworks. But perhaps this was a metaphor for the whole narrative enterprise, which felt flaccid, lackluster, and bored of itself.

Next night, Niall got to stay home again, but the rest of us went to hear one of our favorite bands. For my money the most consistently talented and longest successful (not in acclaim or sales but in solid records) band of the era, Yo La Tengo. This indie rock trio from New Jersey played at Left Coast Live, a San Jose street fair very underadvertised. We got within three or four people of the front, and watched them as the moon rose behind the bassist. While my bad knee ached as the amps pounded into my legs that could not move much, and my ears rumbled as I never could take concert-level sound, I enjoyed seeing them, despite their recent forays into bossa-nova. That was a respite from their trademark folkie-jangle meets guitar feedback + pounding drums + steady bass delivery of extended riffs based on the Velvets or the Kinks or punk-pop that never get bored of themselves.

The next day we drove up to Sacramento. For the car, I borrowed Bob and Chris's copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which I'd fantasized resembled the decaying lane near their house, more below about that. The titular thoroughfare did not match the eroded byway as the interstates in the apocalyptic aftermath survived better at least in the short term of the horrific tale, but it did put my own worries into perspective as I'd angled after a notification e-mailed from my work threw me off my hard-earned relative balance. Unlike Amis, McCarthy relished telling his simpler story, and it stayed alive. Its prose-poetry stayed powerful, and the book left me curious how the movie did or did not live up to the harrowing saga McCarthy crafted.

As our pre-apocalyptic predicament, I watched the endless raw incursions of Contra Costa, the exurbs of the Bay Area, full of tall homes and sheared hills. Dublin looked as lackluster as Joseph O'Connor commemorated it in his excursion to all U.S. places named after his hometown, in "Sweet America." Pleasanton defies its name, a monument to ugly corporate buildings plonked as if by toddlers in lots among fields of stubble and brush. Danville, Martinez, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield, Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn may have enchanted emigrants making their way from the coast to the mines 150 years ago, but they all looked the same.

Did whatever the miners jerry-build look as out of place among hacked stumps and trashed meadows? All Californian stake a claim to the Gold Rush mentality, the eagerness to build a cabin, hammer a fence, cash it in. Forty million of us, and most of us still demand open space, a lush estate, a grand carriage. In a century, will we regard office parks and big-box stores as nostalgic? Lots erected as if yesterday, the same lack of context or culture that covers our colonized continent, outside of the shiny courthouse dome and the brave attempt at a preserved street in that last town where we left the interstate, a remnant of Gold Rush treasures.

The streets were empty and we saw the State Capitol's golden, yes, dome. We entered the city on a golden-painted bridge over the American River. We walked under searing heat in Sacramento's Old Town restored, peeked at the Wells Fargo Museum, marvelled at the artifacts, and ate a surprisingly solid meal (given a tourist-trap risk) at Fat City, on the site of the first market in the city, 1849, founded by one Samuel Brennan, undoubtedly an Hibernian emigre. That's how Levi Strauss got rich-- selling denim to the miners rather than chasing down another measly grubstake. The Fat family runs, the menu mentioned, half-a-dozen eateries around the capital, and my Old Thumper English Ale was excellent, wherever it came from up the delta to the hot valley.

A coupon for a free sample of candy lured us in to the mercantile emporium that may be for now as lucrative as was the stagecoach and Pony Express for earlier strollers there. I tried maple and rum taffy and a Mary Jane, which tasted sort of like my favored Bit o' Honey, which my wife bought for me along with other mysterious brands she then kept to herself. I never got any. I found wrappers in bed and in the washing machine.

Off to Grass Valley next, to see my wife's niece and her husband. The last time I'd been to this historic foothill town, their daughter was still a teen, and the weather was near a hundred. The temperature was the same now, but she's now engaged and living not far from us in L.A., where she works with the Upright Citizen's Brigade comedy improv ensemble at their theater. We stayed at a motel up Main Street and walked down a steep decline into the heart of its intact Gold Rush district.

Lola Montez, a captivating Irish-born (as Eliza Gilbert) companion to the nobility and long-reigning chanteuse, an formidably astute "actress-model-whatever" who'd now have her own reality show, lived down Mill Street 1852-55. Bruce Seymour, as my blog on the right lists this among my favorite reads, masterfully tells her saga. No relation to the Italian-Swiss innkeeper family, Madonna-- and Lady Gaga-- owe Lola shout-outs. She danced the "Black Widow," and I wondered how erotic it was compared to a gal festooned with rosaries over lace bustiers, or another Italian American tarted up in gawky fashion disasters. I walked past the house where that earlier paragon of reinventing one's sexual persona as a vamping, knowing, voracious celebrity had kept a bear. The gate was slightly ajar.

Up the block, three brothels survived into at least the Depression to serve the miners; not to mention the "houses of joy" in the large Chinatown-- a feature of many small hamlets turned boomtowns, ten thousand or so in the pioneer heyday about the same as the numbers today. Now, commuters endure the three-hour drive each way to the Bay Area so as to be able to live in these handsome Victorians-- if somewhat I trust cheaper than the Painted Ladies in San Francisco. Silicon Valley money must infiltrate these counties, where we passed immense gated subdivisions nestled by lakes. For the rest of the folks, same as ever, it's tough to make a living in the hills. Even as I later found on this vacation, a relative of a host tried to grow pot in these mountains and live off the proceeds; like arriviste entrepreneurs then as now he forgot he lacked buds-as-customers to sell his stash to.

I wondered about this cash flow as we ate at three places in town. Another way to make it in a boom: sell food to those who follow you. Designated a charming town, tourists come. Recently fewer, I estimated. A boomlet-- fueled by Silicon Valley and Bay Area money in many cases-- in wineries courted trade, but the Holiday Inn on the site of the old Chinatown did little for me to arouse aesthetics or credit for blending in to the humbler facades around it. All the same, I welcomed the chance to enter 49'er-era buildings erected over a century before my own newly 49-year-old bones were assembled. Tofarelli's on the site of an 1859 market served good pasta, well flavored. My kids had half-touched bowls I wanted to finish.

But the beers, Sierra Nevada Summerfest and my wife's Alaska Summer Ale, or vice versa as the server did not bother to tell us the difference, tasted flat and lacked verve. A tiresome man boasted in a voice filling the mostly empty brick-lined room of his mechanical and financial exploits for what felt like hours. Two women of a certain age if not yet mine lingered at the bar and waited for what or whom I could not hear. An old couple came in as the distaff half squawked: "You never wait for me to sit down" even though he cradled a walker. There was a notice posted by its door by a businesswoman looking for legit, non-horizontal transactions: "in these economical hard times..." I did not read on.

At Diego's the next night, a short jaunt from the home of my wife's relatives, in turn a half-mile from the motel, it reminded me of what I had not experienced for many years, decades even: being able to navigate where you live to eat, shop, and work without needing a car or public transit. My wife's niece walks to work, a few blocks away. I wondered how my life would slow in such a town as I ate hearty Chilean-based cuisine; the Lagunitas IPA predictably's bold. Chris later gave me a Wilco Tango Foxtrot Stimulus Recovery Ale that true to the brand packed a wallop, as Lagunitas tends to deliver.

Evening three we passed a women's softball game at the park. We walked to the building across the street. It had been, our hosts told us, formerly the Duck Inn, a joint where pool tables rested on crooked wooden floors. Now it was spotless, airy, and spacious. We trooped upstairs. Spain-Portugal World Cup game flashed in silence. Even for a soccer fan like me, the only one at the table, a dull match. Our tattooed, lively, punkish waiter anticipated the Giants game but we informed him that (at least some of us) were Dodger loyalists, and he cringed. The game the previous night saw the boys in blue triumphant, as would this one. I recalled two years ago to nearly the day: we in the park in SF, magnificent view of the bay, as 40,000 screamed all around us "BEAT L.A.!" And that came to pass.

Well, at Goomba's: pizza emerged truly rustic, no weird imprint of the pan on the bottom of pre-fab dough. I liked Oregon's Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale, reminding me of a Belgian Duvel almost in its red-brick depth. Made me wish for real Cascadian climates as the summer heat endured and the game ended, with revellers looking like firemen with great miner-era mustaches, requesting rounds of Coors or some swill.

Our residence was set near a field. It looked as if stakes for vines were being set up. A cross loomed over the back window from the Lutheran church. My sons saw a deer over the fence as we left; a novelty for us. Formerly Sierra Motor Inn from the key, now boosted into Sierra Mountain Inn, the place looked immaculate. Even if the proprietress had no conditioner for my children's demands, no bath gel, and only two forks and two knives to accompany the one bowl and plate that supplied our kitchen. The sheets were not changed, but towels were replaced. I could hear the neighbors coughing all night behind the thin wall. A third way you make money in a boom: sell rooms to those who show up looking for get-rich or back-to-nature quick fixes. My wife's niece told us this site was a homeless shelter before its conversion.

One night in our room, diversions being less than in Gold Rush days for us sober married types, we watched a show I'd never seen, it being the dregs for us of no cable: "To Catch a Predator." Some episodes took place in the city where I teach, and I reflected on how the males trapped could have been my students. The program capitalizes on men who after chatting online with girls who claim to be thirteen set up a rendezvous at "her house," complete with suburban hot tub. They enter, go around back, she as decoy retreats after brief greetings to "change." Then the blazered host-- with a lockjaw accent that I in my Angeleno ignorance imagine sounds like Tom Wolfe's Yale classmates, "Love Story," early Philip Roth or all of John Cheever-- comes on to recite didactically said suspect's incriminating sex-talk transcribed by our enforcers of law and order. The sting made me uneasy; I don't like entrapment, and it preyed on lonely men if for purportedly just ends. As my wife observed, you don't go after the whores but the johns to clean up the block, but I wondered if these men's actions really constituted "attempting a lewd act upon a minor." I leave this to more conniving, judicial or calculating minds than my own.

A few minutes from that motel, you can find Lotta Crabtree's house; she was the protege of Madonna as Lola, who lived on the same street. Lotta's first appearance as the Lady Gaga of the mid-19c supposedly was dancing on the anvil at Flippin's Blacksmith, in nearby Rough & Ready. She grew up to become her own famous performer, and I wondered in Gold Rush times how miners and mulers regarded their versions of "Toddlers in Tiaras," comely come-ons from minors.

Off camera, two cats rested outside, free of hot tub props or Internet trolls, under an umbrella against the foothill glare. Perhaps they were feline descendants of those who sidled around the ankles of Lola or Lotta, dashing away from a bear. Air conditioners whirred as Main Street hissed of tires that never stopped until the middle of the night. This on a byroad to the highway for Marysville, I could not figure out why so many cars and trucks took this route. Maybe they were commuters to the gated lakeside stucco mansions.

Our journey up into the Sierras and maybe nicer weather took us first through the Rough and Ready, a hamlet back in 1850 that briefly seceded from the Union over a miner's tax reminiscent of the Tea Party's reactions today. We passed those lakeside new mansions and more dismal construction. I glimpsed a sign for Ananda, the breakaway sect of the New Age SRF who occupies the hillside estate a mile from our house. Then on down a curving declivity to the 250-foot covered bridge over the Yuba River, where Layne took this blog's photo of me looking out as I rested in the cool interior. I gazed out over a vista nearly identical to that seen by Gold Rush riders, who paid Wells Fargo-equivalents of bullion for the steep crossing fare.

We saw French Corral, with its Wells Fargo ruin of an office. Did the Pony Express stop here in 1856? Equestrian countryside surrounded us. I then recalled a cyberfriend lived nearby; I wondered which horses might be his.

Slowly, we drove up the well-named Pleasant Valley Road back to Highway 49 at North San Juan, near the pot growers and Gary Snyder's own homestead, the Beat guru whom I blame or name for alerting hippies, dealers, and dot.commers about this region. I'd been up here once, to the Malakoff Diggings torn out of the mountains for gold, hearing the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas proceedings on the radio back then, surreally. Back then, we got a flat tire on the rental car; three separate cars stopped to ask if we needed help. I hope people would be as friendly now twenty years on, or that I'd be to them.

Sierra County even at the end of June, high up around 8000 feet on its buttes showed some snow, and we followed the Yuba's fork for most of the drive. We passed a Sierra Shangri La so named that appealed to me, cabins by the creek, and then another Sierra something with a rope-bridge over the less-than-rapids. Chris later told me that this was the height of the water, which I did not expect, so I guess the Yuba does not get that turbulent. But from the still-standing snowplow markers, with their own height, I reckoned that snow gets pretty deep up here in a long winter. The weather that day, even under fifty-odd miles of trees roadside, stayed warm.

We dipped into Downieville's tidy bends, Sierra City's faintly Swiss echoes, and down Yuba Pass (6,600 feet) into Sierra Valley, the largest Alpine meadow on the continent, where Sierraville (get the drift?) languished despite a sign for pies I wistfully noted, and then to lunch in Loyalton, pop. 850 or so, where we looked in vain for a bathroom at City Park and Museum, but where we ate, without bathroom, at the only place open in this half-inviting, half-forlorn ranching stop founded by Swiss-Italians, Rhonda's Lil' Frosty.

The sun beat down. This felt more like the Old West than the Sierras. We had crossed the Pacific Crest and the divide between coast and mountain, interior and range, had given way to the other side before whatever the Gold Rush pioneers had come west to find. The desert neared on the harsher air and in the wide-open landscape.

Road workers lined up for burgers; kids wheeled by for drinks; men scarfed soft-serve; we waited nearly half an hour for what were indeed flavorful fries, and my cod basket no matter how far from the ocean proved worthy of my patience. We'd watched one dog chase another, led on a leash by her owner as she biked down the main street. Then, a few minutes later, that free dog ran back up the street, on his own. Loyalton's little children played, summer at last. They teased each other, two boys vs. two girls, and I reflected how in caretaker nanny L.A. that in many neighborhoods you'd sit a long time before seeing kids on bikes all alone anymore.

You'd see dogs and bikes and grown-ups, but kids? Not out "unsupervised" without their guardians, or strapped in seats in SUVs. Compare the death march of our two sons in Guadalupe. A half-mile, and I walked back alone to get the car to put it in the lot so as to pick them and their mother up before the meal even arrived!

We returned to Grass Valley, and the next day we left after we bought veggie pasties (it being a local specialty from the days of Cornish miners who may not have hankered for non-meat varieties) on our way back to Santa Cruz. We had to split our stay due to concerts and accommodation demands; but I liked the change in scenery and welcomed a return to cooler weather. It was easily twenty-five degrees less than Grass Valley. We got over the Bonny Doon hill from above SC and when shopping at the first-ever organic berry farm in the state, at Swanton, it was ten degrees lower, around the low 60s, the Pacific air blasting us like a giant fan. We got ready for a night out in another historic, if post-Gold Rush, downtown.

We walked through the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to the beach for a free showing of "The Lost Boys" on an inflatable screen alongside 8,500. We ate the pasties. Next to the screen we could see the Boardwalk's stately stretch in its neon glory, where that silly vampire flick was filmed circa '87. An odd juxtaposition of set with reality, stage with the real, however glamorized in that inimitable (I hope) mullet-haired, fey Goth, moussed and fussy Eighties style. Corey Feldman, one of the stars, sang with his band prior to the movie. The props on the platform with the musicians featured a girl in a hula hoop, a girl as a robot, a giant beach ball, and dry ice. They played their CD, "Technology Analogy" in its entirety. Suffice to say that it sounded like sub-Bowie meets prog the last and only time I'd been to the Boardwalk-- summer of 1976. Feldman explained: "This is a concept album. It has a beginning, middle, and end."

Still, the crowds cheered. It was so jammed I could barely walk along the promenade this time, much remodeled since the '89 quake, but still redolent of over a century now of energy and grease hawking this longest of American attractions, at least on the West Coast. Due belated thanks to its early mayor and astute promoter Swanton, named after which is where we'd bought a tart ollallaberry pie perches in the sea-pummelled wind the other side of Santa Cruz about twelve miles north. While deep-fried Twinkies remained the most noteworthy of current culinary delights on the strand, not that I tried them, we did have a fine picnic as darkness fell. I could barely smell the surf or the salt. Venus dipped below the scaffold where the band had blared. Then we remembered how uncomfortable the sand can be without a folding chair. I dug into the sand for a kind of seat, but nature allowed me only a few inches lowered tilted respite from my bony frame and my awkward pose.

We stayed at the cabin behind Chris and Bob's. We watched Wini be as bad as our Oprah in canine crime. The US lost to Ghana; Argentina lost to Germany. We sampled a dry, assertive Wandering Aengus cider named after Yeats's verse; the Mariposa-based owner had left us kindly a bottle of a mellow Butterfly Creek merlot '03. We liked as we did the Tangerine cousin Eel River's Acai Berry wheat beer which tasted neither like berries nor beer but a pleasant blend nonetheless. Definitely a brand to check out, and organic, a rarity for beer due to the difficulties in brewing. We read, we rested, we puttered. The cabin, as the guestbook told us, was around a century old; a great-granddaughter of the family who'd bought it in 1925 stayed there not long ago.

My favorite walk on the road that has been overtaken by the landslide I've written about before here. In 1968-69, a time of heavy rain, the subsiding hills around the quarry nearby advanced 4-6 inches at a time. As this was the main route in and out of what had been founded in 1907 as a Christian retreat center, the noise from quarry trucks drove those seeking peace among the forest into desperate pleas for divine intervention, or failing that, a road re-routed around Mt Hermon. Kay Gudnason's 1972 local history "Rings in the Redwoods" explains how this came to pass. Conference Road since that stormy winter comes to a halt, the sand and trees and soil covers up its middle. Another road, even more travelled I confess than Main Street, Grass Valley, takes a load of heavier traffic from Scotts Valley (talk about suburban strip mall blight) to Felton. You still hear it through the trees. At least it bypasses the Mount, which has its own desecration in erecting a "redwood canopy" attraction to account for at the lofty seat of its Creator.

The clamor of youngsters and oldsters who use pulleys to swing up and down these trees saddens me. They whoop and holler and I know for them it's like being on a ride on the Boardwalk. But, I wrote thoughtful letters years ago to the directors of the Mount Hermon Christian Center and never got any response to my concerns about the environmental and acoustic damage of this "attraction." It went in without permits, over objections of neighbors, and with disregard for the effect on the ecosystem. Profits matter more than principles to these stewards of what they call God's creation. Canopy rides bring in big bucks. Mount Hermon covets lucre.

So, I never turn towards the Christian camp anymore on my stroll. I move along the other direction of the stream, however short a distance. Dappled maple leaves shine brilliantly as day-glo under slants of sun speckling pools and rivulets rushing over fallen branches and raised rocks. I sit on slanted slate and let my mind rest.

I'm lucky to find a place relatively untouched, upstream if not always out of earshot from the yodeling youths. In that same year so momentous for our state and the Sierras and the trees, 1850, Bean Creek was settled by a family of that name a few miles nearer its source. We know nearly nothing of the Ohlone who foraged there; the difficulty of extracting felled timber from bottom of canyons preserved a few first growth redwoods despite fires nearly a century ago that devastated the Mount.

Later that day, I go with Leo, Layne, Bob and Chris to an art gallery. My attention focuses on "LA to San Berdoo" by Jim MacKenzie. He took shots of what he saw along the rail route that passes mainly industrial parks, warehouses (much of the 75% of truck-freighted items from China to the U.S. comes in via ships at Long Beach and then's loaded up the freeways to these vast distribution sites), and my lifelong pet rant, ticky-tacky little boxes as houses and malls and acedia. My favorite photo: "Gated Homes from 300k" bannered in front of a tagged, graffiti and trash-strewn end of a cul-de-sac with the San Gabriel Mountains behind it, barely visible. Fittingly, neither my wife nor I could afford the $395 or so displayed or the unframed $165 print of this image, but in our own recession-prone postures, we sympathized with this shot taken by a native of Mentone, near where Layne once lived, in the semi-rural (within our "living memory") Inland Empire that both she and I shared for many years, sometimes even overlapping if unknown then to each other across fifty-odd miles.

From that art exhibit Leo and I went next door to Streetlight record store on Santa Cruz's main drag, Pacific Avenue. I admired a Galaxie 500 DVD, as I've been listening to them a lot lately and got Leo interested in them too. I turned later to find it proffered, Bob's kind gift to me. I also turned to meet myself as the subject once of Chris's rapid photos. Leo and I wandered happily; Layne found some videos perfect for work. (Speaking of day-glo, I made a note to look up "The Perfumed Garden" CD set. 82 tracks of British psychedelia, '65-'72!)

We met up with friends of Bob and Chris at Hoffman's on the main drag of this quintessential college town enriching this now-upscale and progressive resort for intellectuals, surfers, trustafarians-- and bums. Jazz filled the restaurant. I had salmon accentuated by a bottle of Rautberger's sour but filling Dunkel beer. While I liked my meal, the waitress declining to serve a party of seven at a significantly priced dinner a second helping of bread gratis appeared churlish. As we left, the same woman came out to ask if we'd meant to take the remainder of the meat loaf; as it was Chris's friend who'd ordered it, he advised her that said male was in the bathroom to where she could deliver said leftovers.

We played Scattergories the last night together; I am notoriously ill-tempered when competition and timing are involved, a trait inherited by my eldest son as his ACT preparation has revealed to us. My overwrought performance might have diminished the ease of parting for Bob and Chris. But, next morning, we missed our hosts already.

Stuck in Fourth of July traffic near Salinas, we made it a long but uneventful trip back towards home. Amazingly, stocked with snacks in the car, nobody had to stop all the way down until a hundred miles from home at what's become a second ritual the past few trips (as it was not there before then) at Murray's Family Farm off the 5 at Copus Road near the Grapevine. First time there, I was angered by a couple who in a hundred degree heat had left their pooch in their SUV, no window opened even. I was about to go to the store to alert the owner when they came back, and I stared daggers at them, half-wishing I'd deflated a tire of the vehicle but knowing the dog would have suffered more. Next time there, I entered the Murray's bathroom and found a wallet left behind, which I took to the clerk, who found in it a South Carolina license and information he'd use to track down the owner, who'd left it a half-hour before, he estimated.

This time, I entered and while I was availing myself of the facilities, a woman opened the door. She told me, as I was immobilized, that the door had not been locked securely. No, not the waitress with the leftover meat loaf. Well, another odd encounter, and on the way out in the corridor I again apologized as did she, but we both handled it smoothly, I suppose!

That's about it for this journey. On the way back, I reflected on my reading the way down, Michael Downing's "Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco's Zen Center." (2001, about the scandal in 1983 caused by the successor to Shunryu Suzuki, Richard Baker. See my review of David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki, "Crooked Cucumber.") In the turbulent wake of these immigrants, who sailed to Gold Mountain not for wealth but wisdom, and forged a cultural vanguard and retail juggernaut for Western Buddhism, Downing examines who pays for those who dream.

Mount Hermon filled in a lake to build a field for campers and increase the parking lots to draw in more paying guests. They damaged their share of the Bean Creek watershed to lure thrill seekers rather than spiritual seekers. Other Christians, at La Grand Chartreuse, solved their "economical hard times" by brewing liqueur. This also kept the austere recluses isolated from their tippling customers.

Tassajara wrestled with how to sustain its own community of dreamers. It lies at the bottom of a very remote canyon. But unlike the distantly situated Carthusians, they are not celibate. Men and women join, unlike traditional monasteries Buddhist or Catholic. They meet, they mate, they breed. They live 150 miles from San Francisco. So, who cares for this brood of believers? These questions never faced Buddhists before, ever. How do you start a monastery from scratch with little water in harsh wilderness in the '60s, full of The City's impecunious dreamers? You pay them stipends to sit doing "zazen," baking bread, boiling soup, feeling groovy in the search for enlightenment. But, sites must be bought; bills must be paid.

I've found myself intrigued by the challenges of running Tassajara as the first non-Asian, co-ed, non-celibate foundation of Buddhists in history. By the way, Gary Snyder appears. He and Allen Ginsberg bought that Nevada County site-- as a mooted alternative early on to Tassajara. The third point in this NorCal Zen triangle, Marin County's Green Gulch Farm across the hills and bay from Contra Costa, earns this pause early on from Downing: "maybe we all are at odds with where we live. Rich soil, clean water, and cool air nurture a landscape's wild and ramshackle nature." (xvi)

Back in the city, back at work, I cannot carry away the stream, the summit, or the breezes from more temperate or less peopled terrains with me. I've never visited a Buddhist shrine. I sidle away from the Christian campers. And I haven't tried Chartreuse. But I can try to incorporate Zen's lessons from nature, and how we can tame our own wills to more peacefully live within wherever we must toil, far from affluent Marin, arid Tassajara, or San Francisco's Painted Ladies. Or Victorians in Grass Valley, creeks in the Santa Cruz watershed. If nearer the asphalted and franchised horizons of half of California, for my weary eyes. Tastes stick with me, and smells, and textures.

So, I've been eating lots of cherries the past month. Tangerines fill winters, cherries and berries summer. Can't pass them up. Those Bings from Murray's filled me today along with my oatmeal; the blackberry flat's already recruited into my wife's cake. Spring passes, fruits ripen, and I grow older.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Diarmaid Ferriter's "Occasions of Sin": Book Review

Can Irish sexuality free itself from the criminal evidence, the violent expression, the caricatured reaction? Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, a Dublin-based historian, assembles the evidence that challenges the stereotype, often advanced by his colleagues, that blames the Catholic Church for every evil and which mocks the past generations for a Victorian ignorance of sex that persisted through most of the last century. Yet, Ferriter must rely upon not only “biographies, diaries, letters and literature” but also “state papers, court records, and the documents of voluntary organizations.” These attest to the long persistence of a guilt-ridden, suppressed, and intolerant reaction to sex from many in a rapidly liberalized Ireland.

Ferriter in his The Transformation of Ireland: 1900–2000 (2004) assembled a narrative that interspersed a wide array of sources within a readable chronological presentation. He favors short subsections headed by a pithy quote that intrigues the reader and summarizes the topic. Occasions follows this pattern. Although the apparatus of hundreds of endnotes and works cited demonstrates his smoothly integrated learning, the grim tallies—which favor testimony from courts, clerics, bureaucrats, and doctors—far outweigh the pleasurable endorsements of sexual behavior.

As such, the results can prove tough to enjoy. Ferriter sifts the claims of revisionist scholars who castigate Irish Church and State collusion to control sexual expression. He adds fair-minded insights into the difficulties faced by people under such a regime. The problem for the earlier decades of the twentieth century: how to police a nation where so many married late or never married. Land, identity, and economy limited the freedom of Irish men and women to find partners. Many remained in a nation with little industry and few jobs. While there were lots of farms, land went to the eldest son after the death of the father.

In 1926, 72% of Irish men and 53% of women between 25 and 43 were unmarried. In 1936, a quarter of Irish men and women were permanently celibate; these trends did not shift until the 1950s. Most couples when they did marry often sired six or more children. This social imbalance exacerbated complacency. The discontented tended to emigrate while spinsters and bachelors stayed on the farm.

This created tension. The clergy searched back alleys and dark fields for miscreants. British influences were feared. Censors sought to keep Ireland pure. At the tourist resort of Roundstone in County Galway, visiting priests noted “mixed bathing by strangers, all night dancing in farmhouses, company keeping . . . the Parish Priest formed a vigilance committee to stamp out mixed bathing. Visitors had introduced men’s dress for women but the Legion of Mary is going to deal with this scandal.”

It would take until the 1970s, or so one tale tells it, for this surveillance to soften. A priest sent a note to a bikini-clad parishioner to don a one-piece suit. She responded by asking him which piece should she remove. Ferriter seasons recitals of self-denial with wit. Women entertaining visiting American servicemen in Northern Ireland during WWII boasted of new “utility knickers.” Its wearers testified: “One Yank and they’re off!”

Most of the sources, given over to policing and punishing, obscure the joy that some Irish must have gained. The public stance more often resembled the private situation. Gene Kerrigan’s memoir from 1950s Dublin reports how “there were not things talked about back then, though they were no secret—for instance, there was a right way to be born and a wrong way, and those who came here the wrong way and their mothers were risking stone-faced rejection and years of misery.”

Kerrigan’s sobriety jibes with Ferriter’s findings. He explains the low levels of illegitimacy, the abortions sought in Britain, and the climate of fear. He exposes the omnipresent fear of scandal that drove so many, once pregnant, to emigrate, to hide their condition, or to be institutionalized as “fallen women.”

While the postwar Western world supposedly underwent a revolution leading to moral laxity, the Irish continued in a culture where the secularizing and sexualized messages from the media clashed with Catholic-dominated control of books, films, and advertisements. People lacked knowledge of alternatives to sexual conformity that they could act upon. Laity were expected to consult their priest for ethical and practical guidance, and in a small nation with many gossips, secrecy was hard to keep.

The clergy perpetuated their own restricted upbringing. Some were unsuited for their calling, taking it up with little option given that farm-based, firstborn son’s inherited pattern. Many abusers languished low on the Church’s pecking order. They lashed out against inmates of industrial schools, Magdalene workhouses for “fallen women,” and orphanages. These clergy “were products of a uniquely Irish mixture of large families, thwarted ambitions, rigorous segregation of the sexes and lack of economic opportunity, as were the children they took out their frustration on, often in the most sadistic of ways.”

In parishes, clergy served as counselors by default. Lacking training in the nuances of human sexuality, some celibates revealed their lack of experience through brutal advice, not always adhered to by the teller. A 1967 documentary featured only one woman in a documentary promoting a “Father Trendy,” a priest later found to have fathered two children. Another priest chided a woman who after “yearly pregnancies” tried to practice coitus interruptus for three years. “Go home like a good child and move to another room, because as long as you’re sleeping with him, you’re the occasion of his sin.”

Sexuality within marriage tended toward embarrassment, furtiveness, and superficiality. Denied contraception or abortion by the Irish government, women suffered. Many husbands worked in Britain for many months a year, so the raising of large families back home wore down mothers. Children grew up with hearsay and little guidance about their own sexuality; homosexuality, adultery, and pre-marital sex courted shame and condemnation.

One aspect remained under examined by Ferriter: how the Northern Irish experience differed, or did not. He mentions in passing that sectarianism counted little to differentiate sexual mores between the Catholic minority and Protestant majority. Still, the access to British media, mores, and culture might have created a different set of challenges for those raised under clerical rule and within another oppressive State, one only partially Catholic— often fundamentalist and evangelical among Protestant denominations— in its supervision and scrutiny of sexual practice.

Also, while the scope of sources impresses, Ferriter does not include a couple of useful books. Mary Kenny’s Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (rev. ed. 2000) offers a less rigorous but socially wide-ranging account that compliments Louise Fuller’s 2002 academic study of post-1950 Irish Catholicism. John C. Messenger asserted in his anthropological study, Inis Beag, that this pseudonymous island circa 1958–1966 lacked any evidence of pre-marital sexual activity, so strict were its standards. If inevitably, Ferriter accentuates such negatives. Little of Irish affection survives, it seems, only so much woe.

This may affirm the severity with which intimacy was treated in Ireland. Ferriter glides past how quickly today’s Irish seem to have switched to a looser acceptance of sexual practices. His study does not fully examine the implications of such a moral alteration. Today, one-third of Irish mothers are not married, a third of all those treated for sexually transmitted diseases are female teenagers, and London beckons women unable to procure a legal Irish abortion. Britain also attracts same-sex Irish couples seeking donor insemination. These wider impacts may instigate scholarship. Choices have emerged for lesbians, gays, single mothers, and unmarried couples quite rapidly to supplant an eroding Catholic heritage.

Today’s Irish sexual culture remains in transition. Ann Lovett in January 1984 gave birth and then bled to death from shock and exposure that winter, at the foot of a Marian grotto in her village. She was fifteen. Fifteen years later, a sex shop opened— across from the iconic symbol of Irish insurrection and patriotic rebellion— on Dublin’s main thoroughfare. Indulgence replaces chastity for most Irish walking past the General Post Office and crossing O’Connell Street to browse Ann Summers’ wares.

The long struggle for a united Ireland by the men and women who fought in 1916 and paraded as a devout cadre of Irish men and women appears to have faded. What cause won their loyalty? European integration. Laws may lag, but customs alter. Consumers demand satisfaction. The Church succumbs. The media sells gratification as independence. Not for a republican ideology, but private fulfillment. Rather than political transformation for a united Ireland, sexual freedom by united Irish men and women has been gained. “Make love, not war," won the sexual battles on this island after all.

Published July 1, 2010, in the New York Journal of Books. A shorter review not citing this entry above posted to Amazon US 7-4-10; there I reviewed "Transformation of Ireland" a few years ago.