Monday, February 28, 2011

Fernando Báez' "A Universal History of the Destruction of Books": Review

This Venezuelan librarian answers what a history student, at Baghdad's university in 2003, wonders after the library's been looted of every volume: why does man destroy so many books? The book begins and ends in Iraq, where the earliest texts we have survive, only because of the flames that consumed and preserved their clay tablets. Twelve years of research results in the first "single history of their destruction" (7). Intriguingly, the author has "concluded that the more cultured a nation or a person is, the more willing each is to eliminate books under the pressure of apocalyptic myths" (18) Bibliophiles often can be biblioclasts. We all, he insists, in dividing up "us" vs. "them" negate each other, and play into censorship, exclusion, and eradication as we cannot tolerate criticism or opposition.

Translated in pithy style by Alfred MacAdam, it's a fluid and direct overview. Uruk, where the first surviving books can be found in Sumer, represents the creation simultaneous with the destruction of texts. Tablets were baked in the fires of battle, between 4100 and 3300 BCE. Little survives from so many ancient eras: 75% of Greek manuscripts lost; 80% of Egyptian texts vanished. This grim catalogue continues, as we find patterns repeated from the start of civilization, as invaders and barbarians plunder and eliminate no less than the kings and the clerics.

It's a study perhaps better sampled, as Báez suggests, rather than taken start to finish. The nature of the topic makes an uneven, incomplete, and enigmatic treatment-- appropriately if frustratingly-- for the material. The tone's not always scholarly; there's moments of verve that ease the flow of often disheartening lists of the losses that have been incurred by fire, insects, weather, and ideology. Qin Shi Huang's forces in 213 BCE carried out a typical binge: "Functionaries went from house to house seizing books, which they then burned in a bonfire, to the joyful surprise of those who hadn't read them." (68) Augustus the emperor "burned more than 2,000 Greek and Roman works he didn't like. He was a severe critic." (77) "The life of Yakov ben Judah Leib Frankovich was that of any fanatic: unsettled, no security, immodest." (178)

You learn about Nicolas Turrianos, who in copying codices for the Spanish king Philip II enabled "a special collection of forbidden books made up of volumes sewn shut so that no one could read them." (174) Or, how the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, after Stalin's security chief Beria's death, sent subscribers a postcard of the Bering Sea to paste over the entry on that now disgraced chief of Soviet security.

And, while you may recognize the name of the venerable Swiss library at St Gall, I doubt if many will have heard of the first woman formally canonized, St. Wiborada. She threw herself on top of her buried books after the Huns set fire to the abbey. Her mutilated body was found above the library's contents, protected by her foresight beneath the earth. For this, she's venerated as the patron saint of librarians.

While the Nazi desecration gains attention, along with the Islamic and Christian efforts to silence those texts that challenged hegemony, you also learn about both sides in the Spanish Civil War, or Latin American and Bosnian examples, perhaps less documented. Chinese and Soviet biblioclasty, by comparison, received much less space than I expected, and the sustained attention to particular countries or centuries does become sporadic. This may be due to the outbreaks, followed by recoveries, and then-- unfortunately-- usually more outbreaks of fanaticism, that become never predictable throughout five thousand years of purportedly civilized society.

Báez, ending a brief chapter on "the natural enemies of books," notes how fragile transfer to CD or flash drives may be. Even if we can save 14 million volumes on a disc, all it takes is a single scratch and we've lost everything, once more. E-Books are no insurance against loss, for hackers will supplant Huns in coming centuries.

This survey moves, in Borgesian fashion like the allusion in its title, mainly by such anecdotes, short essays, and dutiful lists of what patrimony we have lost. The chapters progress largely chronologically. They often contain factoids and reflections that delight or-- more often-- depress, but the ability of a reader to use this compendium as a reference source may be limited. The index lists only book titles and proper names; the endnotes guide the inquirer to further reading, but the many references and asides in the text to other texts, lost or found, cannot be pursued easily. Citations outside of the endnotes absent, one cannot follow the leads that Báez creates, a strange self-referential system that again may recall Borges, as we're forced to take the author at his word about words we can or cannot track elsewhere. (Posted on 10-23-2008 on Amazon US.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Féile Phistéise Lá Domhan

Scríobh mé as Gaeilge i mo h-aiste níos luath ar an bhlag ar feadh mhí seo is deánaí faoi na cnó pistéise. Tosaigh ag ithe siad go déanach. Mar sin, tá me mír go fiosrach na stair futhú agam anois, ar feadh Phistéise Lá Domhan 26ú na mhí Feabhra.

Inniu, d'fhoglaim mé eolas gearr agus buntáistí sláinte acu anseo: Stair Phistéise. Fhás siad ar dtús i 7000 RC i dTurcai. Bhí siad go cáilúil triu an Soir ar Lár ar feadh i bhfad. Mar sin féin, níl fhás siad i SAM riamh 1976 ag trachtala.

Measaim go feicthe siad nuair ag tiomaint ag imeall i gCalifoirnea lárnach. Fhás rudaí Mheirceanach beaghnach gach ar chor ar bith i mo Stát Órga. Tá mearbhall orm idirdhealú a dhéanamh ar crann pistéise agus crann almóinní, áfach.

Sa Leabhar Geineasas 43:11,"Ansin duirt Iosrael an t-athair leo: 'Más eigean an scéal a bheith amhlaidh, déanaigí mar leanas: Cuirigí in bhur gcléibh cuid do thogha torthaí na tíre agus beirigí síos chuige siúd mar thabhartas beagán balsaim agus meala agus guma agus tragacant agus cnónna pistéise agus almóinne.'" Thúg "torthaí na tíre" nó Talamh Naofa le mhic na hIacóib go hIóseaf san Éigipt. [~An Bíobla Naofa as Gaeilge.]

I finscéal Moslamach, Adam tugadh iad chun talamh. Bhí brea siad le Banrion na Sheba. I ngairdíní crochta de Babylon, chuir Nebuchadnezzar siad ansin.

I mbhóthair síoda ón tSín, dhéanamh ceannaithe cnónna pistéise mar fada buan acu. Tá vitimíní, mianraí, agus saillte deas acu. Tá siad sláintiúil ann.
Happy World Pistachio Day.

I wrote in Irish in the entry earlier on the blog recently during this month about the pistachio nut. I started eating them lately. Therefore, I have a bit of curiosity about their history now, on World Pistachio Day.

Today, I learned brief facts and health benefits for them here: Pistachio History. They were first grown in 7000 BCE in Turkey. They were well-known through the Middle East for a long time. Nevertheless, they were not grown in the US commercially until 1976.

I think that I have seen them while driving around in central California. The American kinds grow nearly all in my Golden State. There's confusion for me distinguishing between pistachio trees and almond trees.

"Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift--a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.'" The "fruits of the land" or Holy Land were taken by the sons of Jacob to Joseph in Egypt. [~NIV translation]

In Muslim legend, Adam brought them to earth. They were loved by the Queen of Sheba. In the hanging gardens of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar planted them there.

On the Silk Road from China, merchants carried pistachio nuts as they lasted long. They have vitamins, minerals, and "good fats." There's health in them.

Grianghraf le/Photo by Borut Gorenjak.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Randall Jarrell's "Pictures from an Institution": Book Review

What a strange novel. I knew of it vaguely as about Mary McCarthy's stint at Sarah Lawrence in the postwar idyll when college jobs appeared easy to get and the literate spoke of German poetry in the original and listened to twelve-tone music, but Jarrell's only fiction's certainly exceedingly odd. It meanders, it ruminates, it penetrates, all in an elusive style permeating tone, voices, conversations from a curiously placed, not quite omniscient, narrator sounding a lot like the poet himself.

Moments of mockery, as in the performance of "The Life of Nature" ballet by students, or poignancy, as with Constance's immersion in the Grimm's tale of the Juniper Tree, alternate. Gertrude as the McCarthy stand-in for me seemed less engrossing. Descriptions such as "torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile" make her seem more evilly enjoyable than she really is as a figure to be caricatured. "She's the worst Southerner since Jefferson Davis" is a great line, all the same. I guess you, as was Jarrell, had to be there.

Other characters such as the boyish booster President of Benton College, and his dull wife, and other cowed faculty (few students make much of an impression, tellingly, and few scenes take place in class) float by with similar blends of observation and detachment. The attention given Dr. Rosenbaum appeared enormous given the relatively small role his part added up to in terms of advancing the storyline. The college appears as if remote from the rest of the world, even as it determinedly (this being 1954) imposes its progressive values on generations of women, bohemian or polite, mannered or gawkish. "Living around colleges the way you do, you've just lost your sense of what's probable," Gertrude chides the narrator.

Gertrude's predecessor goes off to another college.
"Somehow, after sixty years in it, the world had still not happened to her, and she stood at its edge with a timid smile, her hand extended to its fresh terrors, its fresh joys--a girl attending, a ghost now, the dance to which forty years ago she did not get to go."
There's not much plot, which is the point our narrator makes about Gertrude's own attempts to make out of this bucolic college year a ripping satire. "Her books were a systematic, detailed, and conclusive condemnation of mankind for being stupid and bad; yet if mankind had been clever and good, what would have become of Gertrude?" Such remarks keep you turning the pages, even if it's a slow, skewed, and oddly paced narrative.

I valued this novel for its sudden, unpredictably placed, passages of insight.
"Poor moths attracted to the lepidopterist, who trade them their soft wings for the hard conclusion that they are typical specimens of genus A, species B, sub-species C--and who murmur with their last breath that he is a typical lepidopterist!"

"Someone at a travelogue cannot help feeling, even if he knows better: 'Lucky coolies, to be there in the midst of the romance of the East!' But they aren't in it, they are it, so it is no good to them."

"The people of Benton, like the rest of us, were born, fell in love, married and died, lay sleepless all night, saw the first star of evening and wished upon it, won lotteries and wept for joy. But not at Benton."

Saying "I guess," the narrator notes, is a tic of Americans. They cannot match their jaded, harsher, crueler European counterparts. But, I guess that nobody other than a poet could have written this eccentric, eloquent, enigmatic, and enduring, novel. It's an acquired taste that may come and go as you read it, but it should linger, as the passages I cited do, at their own offbeat, barely registered, moments. (Posted to Amazon US & 9-24-10)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Engineers' "Three Fact Fader": Music Review

I heard of them, but as they're only on import, never heard them until on an in-flight CD player back from Dublin. They came into the rotation and I was amazed. Even on cheap airplane headsets, the album sounded powerful, produced with depth and panoramic scope that opened up the painstakingly constructed (thus their name?) tracks. I had to get this.

It's worth the price to buy as an import. It's reminiscent of Britpop of the 90s combining a shoegazing blurred wall of guitar distortion with heartfelt but assertive vocals that sweep across a booming, deeply tracked terrain. The soundscapes open up well on headphones and for what may have been a small budget and modest label for this Northern English foursome, the confident result's particularly impressive. It's more accessible than much of what I listen to in this genre, and Doves might be a fine comparison to guide you by here.

Nearly every song works, and even the less impressive or more ordinary tracks fill in the gaps more strongly than their uneven but solid s/t debut (also reviewed by me), which I like but which by comparison sounds much more mundane, if respectably made, next to this far more explosive, propulsive second record. I like postpunk of the early 80s as well as shoegaze, and this ambitious disc combines both genres without imitating them. Somehow, Engineers build their own walls of sound that while they seem familiar enough to the ear, still manage to surround you with a bold, big, vigorous architecture that should encourage them to keep striving for continued sonic heights. (Posted to Amazon US 12-20-09)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Engineers": Music Review

I heard "Three Fact Fader" and loved it. I found their 2005 debut first, and bought it. By comparison, much more mainstream than the 2009 follow-up. That is, more like Britpop of the 90s dusted with shoegaze from a decade earlier. ("Home" is a cinematic track that appropriately is the theme for HBO's "Big Love" series" starting in its 2009 season.)

The album's a solid one, but the songs in striving for a big epic quality threaten to dissipate into pleasant rather than propulsive sound. The tracks as they go on tend towards a sharper, bit harsher delivery. These enhance the production better than the dreamier, diffused approach that dominates this CD. "TFF" (also reviewed by me) expands the more experimental, less pop approach that's hinted at in a few songs here, and the band chose wisely this evolution.

It's a good listen and is made for headphones. Those who seek a progressive, slightly danceable at moments, and poppish style of rock may rate this higher. Doves are a fine comparison if you have not heard Engineers, who so far languish on small import-only labels as far as I can tell. This Northern English quartet deserves attention and I am pleased that they kept with their struggle and held together after this and the label troubles for their second CD. This is an obvious place to get acquainted with a band that holds much promise and I wish them well. If your tastes tend towards dreamy rock-pop with a room-filling ambition, it's an album that you'll return to. (Posted to Amazon US 12-20-09)

Friday, February 18, 2011

"The Selected Works of Samuel Beckett": Review

Given two-thousand pages, seven major texts, thirty-two dramatic pieces, plays, thirty poems, three early stories, an early story collection, twenty more stories to total fifty-two, texts, novellas, three pieces of criticism: what can one add? This brief review surveys instead the value-added, the perceived advantages of this slipcased, four-volume compendium. These works are “selected” rather than “collected,” for they do not incorporate some untranslated poems and critiques written in French. Neither do they publish Beckett’s first novel, From Fair to Middling Women, nor his play Eleuthéria which he prevented from appearing during his lifetime, so by excluding what critics generally concur are decidedly minor efforts, they are not a “Complete Works.”

However, as series editor Paul Auster explains in the only commentary within all these pages, a six-paragraph preface, “the works on which Beckett’s reputation rests” are all here. This collection duplicates, at first glance, the hardcover editions (if with different artwork), commemorating the 2006 centenary of the author’s birth. They appeared in a limited (and soon sold-out as a tetralogy) press run. Therefore, I opened these paperbacks expecting to find the same contents in a more affordable version.

The press blurb for the box-set of these Grove Centenary Editions noted: “Typographical errors that remained uncorrected in the various prior editions have now been corrected in consultation with Beckett scholars C. J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski.” I assume these texts have been reprinted in paperback unaltered. This may be of passing interest to casual readers (if any exist for Beckett) but a few, especially in academia or who conduct research upon this most dazzling of modern authors—who succeeded at fiction, drama, poetry, and criticism equally, and in two languages—may need to know this notation. Earlier printings of Beckett’s work, often published in the United States by Grove, suffered from textual errors. Therefore, the scholarly community and the theatrical performers who energize Beckett may welcome these handsome volumes, designed in paperback with bold photos by Laura Lindgren, who created for the hardcovers minimal icons; these decorate the back of the paperbacks.

Unfortunately, Grove-Atlantic has not kept the introductions by noted contemporary writers which graced the hardcover versions. With more than a couple thousand pages already, why a few more could not be spared for these essays puzzles me. Colm Tóibín had introduced the earlier and Salman Rushdie the later novels; J. M. Coetzee had discussed the poems, short fiction, and criticism. Edward Albee prefaced Beckett’s drama. The loss of these contributions weakens the impact of this paperback set.

However, the abundance of what remains, Beckett unfiltered, direct, and freed from interpretative templates or critical constraints, proves welcome. Instead of many small volumes of many of these works, a reader may purchase this collection and have nearly all of what Grove-Atlantic keeps in print in one convenient container, rather than a small shelf of paperbacks, as most readers of Beckett had to accumulate over the past half-century in order to read this author’s prolific productions. Even in smaller anthologies by genre, Grove-Atlantic still gathers nearly all of Beckett in eight volumes. Ultimately, the reduction of his life’s work into these four uniform volumes with handsome typefaces and readable presentation (even if not on acid-free paper, another disappointment) improves upon the less attractive fonts and galley plates used for many Grove printings when Beckett’s works began to be issued by the same press decades ago. The scholarly editions may wait, but as with his correspondence which after a quarter-century of preparation and litigation has begun to be published, delay may be a consequence of contentions between his estate and those who (as with certain dramatic productions) seek more liberty.

The contents themselves have generated large rather than small shelves of reaction from critics and professors and actors themselves. Rather than adding to them here, any reader curious about this bold author, who confronts the Big Questions without Easy Answers, needs to return to the originals. Perhaps, cleared of even the short introductions by his followers that nestle in the hardcover editions, the paperbacks present Beckett as he deserves to endure: direct, compassionate, unflinching, and brave. (New York Journal of Books for 2-8-11 & & 2-20-11)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chris Hedges' "I Don't Believe in Atheists": Book Review

Don't trust leaders, to quote whom Hedges does not, Bob Dylan. "The refusal to acknowledge human limitations and our irrevocable flaws can thus cross religious and secular lines to feed both religious fundamentalism and the idolization of technology, reason and science." (16) Hedges, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and son of a Presbyterian minister, tires too of mainstream Christianity's pulpiteers, with their "habit of speaking on behalf of people they never meet." (4)

He harps on Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens for their advocacy of attacks against the Islamic fanatics. He mistrusts Richard Dawkins' or E.O. Wilson's faith that we will evolve into a more perfect human community able to alter its genes and improve its makeup. "Dreams of fantastic miracles and collective salvation, whether through science or God, will accelerate our doom, for they permit us to ignore reality." (32)

He cautions us to narrow our hopes, to mitigate disaster and promote cooperation rather than to incite conflict against a billion Muslims or another billion Christians. The Enlightenment may direct humanists into a futile expectation of earthly liberation equal to that preached by those following Jesus, Marx, or Muhammed. Hedges quotes Karl Popper: "It appears to me madness to base all our political efforts on the faint hope that we shall be successful in obtaining excellent, or even competent, rulers." (qtd. 39-40)

Instead, he urges humility, and counters a progressive perfection or fundamentalist salvation. He suggests that the Hindu or Buddhist cyclical distrust of linear marches to a better purpose may provide a better model than what some call the "Whig version" that we always improve upon our ignorant ancestors, and that we are smarter and wiser. Of course, Hedges acknowledges the move away from slavery towards women's suffrage and greater human rights, but he doubts the leaps in power that geneticists anticipate.

He goes on to explore literary and philosophical reactions to the modern enterprise. Conrad shrinks back from its horrors; Beckett's protagonists exist in a "perpetual middle" where we live--they see it better than we do from the fringes. Hedges distrusts grand narratives and epic schemes. For, no matter who is elected, "neither Christian fundamentalists nor the new atheists question the rape and pillaging of the country by corporations and the dismantling of our democracy." (87) Utopia by salvation or ideology or the free market's flatteners is always anticipated, promised to us while always delayed.

Anesthetized, we wait. The enemy first must be defeated. "The war on terror is another in a series of campaigns by those who practice barbarity and violence in the name of utopia." (I note that I learned yesterday that the US spends about half of all the military expenditures in the world.) However, while Hedges condemns our current war, he also dismisses pacifists, and this confused me. He reasons that in WWII they gave comfort to an enemy they sought to resist, but I remained puzzled about Hedges' own position regarding war. I assume for a just cause he's for it as a necessity to counter the inherent evil that penetrates our irredeemable selves, but this point became obscured.

These chapters jump around, and his chiding tone does weigh this slim book down. He tends to repeat and tends to generalize. I wondered if more nuanced thinkers whether believers or atheists might be better foils for him. See my review of a nuanced take, Michael Krasny's "Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest," for a 2010 study which many readers sympathetic but not swayed entirely by Hedges may appreciate.

Hedges near his conclusion poignantly cites Proust's madeleine, Schopenhauer's comparison of our personal past to a novel dimly recalled, and our ability to strive for goodness despite the failed pieties of fundamentalists and the arrogant hubris of those who'd change the world if only believers could be eliminated from it. He castigates us, who "sit for hours alone in front of screens. We are enraptured and diverted by bread and circuses. And while we sit mesmerized, corporations steadily dismantle the democratic state. We are kept ignorant and entertained." (175) (See my Amazon US remarks about his similar lament in "Empire of Illusion.")

Amusing ourselves to moral death and intellectual regression, for Hedges, Americans fall behind as the image-based culture advances. He may be a bit simplistic here, for if you read this review of him on a screen, it's full of words, but his larger point that literacy declines as diversions increase remains arguably true. He closes by reminding us how few who profess faith bother with dogma, and his illustration of Catholic dismissal of papal bans on contraception (and often abortion) speaks to this tendency. Hedges figures that post-Darwin, the churches have lost the battle to convince moderns that God's in charge of all creation.

But, he admires the broader religious contributions to moral inquiry. He regards their mission to "unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism" as admirable. (184) He aligns these with the Greek admonition to "know thyself." He rejects absolutism, and preaches awareness of "our limitations and imperfections" to counter the utopian dreams. Humility for humanity shows, he concludes, "the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion." (185)

(P.S. I've reviewed, among thousands of others on Amazon US, the authors he criticizes: Daniel Dennett, "Breaking the Spell"; Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" & "Letter to a Christian Nation"; Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great"; Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion." Posted to Amazon US 11-5-10 & 12-5-10. My reviews, more recently, on Krasny, and Hedges' overlapping "Empire of Illusion," also appear there.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion": Book Review

This dispiriting chronicle castigates our doltish nation (‘ours’ being ‘America’s’), ruled by corporations, dulled by entertainment, and stupefied by magical thinking. Chris Hedges repeats the mournful litany that dominates his previous books condemning the dumbed-down state, its media stooges, and its capitalist manipulators. While never pleasant and rarely the least bit optimistic, Hedges’ wide-ranging survey, with many citations gleaned from his fellow intellectual cadre, assures if nobody else the few literate citizens whom he believes may survive a slide into mediocrity and idiocy that awaits us as a probable American future.

Hedges amasses interviews, citations, what he has read, and what he ponders about the collapse of democracy and literacy. The results here benefit somewhat from wider range of example than his standard journalism, which examines these topics relentlessly if intelligently. These chapters, which often resemble extended and sometimes discrete articles, sum up his cultural concerns, after his two decades as a foreign correspondent and now as a think-tank resident based in Princeton, New Jersey. Although a prep school and Ivy League graduate, his roots in a working-class Maine family widen his perspective. While one never forgets how his erudition and privilege has distanced himself from the common folks he includes alongside the professors and pundits whom he quotes liberally, in more than one sense of the term, Hedges tries to listen to the concerns of everyday people. He transcribes WWE pro wrestlers, porn stars, harried undergraduates, and the unemployed who line up at food banks.

His book opens with an examination of the cult of wrestling, the pull of instant fame, and the lure of “reality” t.v. upon the masses. Hedges decries magical thinking as a “currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture.” He fights the seductive but blind faith in a secularized version of a born-again solution, which promises tough times never stay for long and recovery always awaits those who believe in themselves.

Next, he reports on the porn industry, stressing the latter term, the production and commodification of the human into the deadened, the corpse, the willingly debased and utterly compliant woman. Her degradation worsens as “gonzo” films for the Net replace the awkward scenarios of “adult movies” from a few decades ago with endless cruelty and graphic violence. As one producer admits, he “makes stupid content for stupid people.” For an audience with short attention spans, porn serves as a synecdoche for a fan base seeking necrophilia, however airbrushed, shaved, and shot. This chapter marks the nadir of Hedges’ dour encounters; he notes in his appendix but oddly does not cite in the chapter David Foster Wallace’s similarly exhaustive examination, published as “Big Red Son” in Consider the Lobster (2005). Both Hedges and Wallace by alienated scrutiny render porn into disembodied form.

This defines Hedges’ strategy: to defamiliarize by meticulous accumulation of facts, interviews, and block quotations. However, by chapter three, in his critique of the educational-corporate complex, this weighty approach threatens to dull the reader. Hedges prefers to lump great chunks of what he has admired by similarly astute observers into his reports. In his contributions to Harper’s or The New York Review of Books, Granta or Mother Jones, such topics in their magnified scale but briefer versions might not diminish one’s attention span. Over dozens of pages, with less variety in tone or perspective, even sympathetic readers may wish for some comic relief, some saving grace of levity.

However, Hedges’ grim recitals linger beneath the stolid prose that often resembles a strong if often impassive honors’ thesis. Now and then, passion breaks through the objective surface. Sadism, he laments, “runs like an electric current” through trashy tv, porn, the “compliant, corporate collective.” Proclaiming a false promise of social harmony for all, driven by markets towards affluence for a very few, today’s elite students prepare to shuffle numbers and negotiate contracts, but they have sold out to any hope of insight morally or intellectually. They fuel an endless war economy that funds so many research institutions. They feed the beasts of Wall Street and White House.

Those from the working classes trying to pay the tuition at lower-tier colleges gain much less notice in Hedges’ collegiate chapter, but they may face franchised dead-end jobs resembling that held by Anthony Vasquez, a UC Berkeley student who worked for FedEx Kinko’s. He describes his forced immersion into the coercive harmony of “positive psychology” peddled by management gurus in universities and before boardrooms. Vasquez regards happy talk as “a euphemism for ‘spin,’” for employees get so disoriented by this cult of work circles and mandatory group-think that “they forget they do the work of three people, have no health insurance, and three-quarters of their paycheck goes to rent.”

How can everyday workers in a crumbling economy off-shored and outsourced compete? Globalization’s leading commodity, furthermore, trades in arms and weapons. Across an increasingly securitized state, Hedges warns of democratic meltdown (this book first appeared in hardcover in 2009). He appears to almost welcome social collapse as a fitting reward for America’s imperial folly.

His final chapter wanders across an America gutted by the rich and lied to by its leaders, some elected, many more invisible to those who represent a citizenry fooled by free-marketeers pretending that deregulation and self-regulated markets (unless Wall Street or Detroit need a bailout) represent the post-Cold War fulfillment of our freedom. He fears that we may not “radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state.” Instead, his final pages explore how the Christian far-right may align with the capitalists to “employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent.”

This prediction may be dismissed as scare quotes by some. This book leaves it unclear how our bankrupt ethical, political, social, and financial systems can be saved from those who can patrol the nation. They may censor opposition, distort dissension, and mock protesters, if the media workers as he shows do control the networks through which nearly all our news emerges, according to Hedges.

“We let the market rule, and now we are paying for it,” he insists. He quotes Charlotte Twight’s summary of our charade of voting, where for many in our nation today, the winner of American Idol matters more than who wins an election, as “participatory fascism.” That is, the common people are given the pretense of entering a game in which the true winners are those who remain the real elite, hidden in the curtains, behind the glitz.

Decrying a “Peter Pan culture”, Hedges believes neither in a saving deity nor a secular system. He asks for his readers to trust in love, and simple verities that outlast chaos and the collapse of civilization. He returns to his favorite theme, that the true divide is not between red and blue states; neither is it between race, class and gender, nor rural and urban. What separates a saving remnant from the rest? A few will remain literate and marginalized, apart from those who have given into the illiterate masses.

This conclusion may leave readers wondering what readers can do. Awaiting the apocalypse, he finds no solutions, no twelve-step plans to salvation. He does not deliver any platitudes about hope and change.

Hedges despairs at the pain that awaits those of us who stand up and demand humane alternatives to the dystopian spectacle broadcast by the wealthy and funded by the corrupt. He forces us to tally up the damages for unchecked environmental destruction, diminished resources, and a decline in incomes, prestige, and lifestyle. America’s buy now, pay never mentality racked up debts financial, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional which demand reckoning. As in his earlier books, Hedges shouts a wake-up call after our long national binge. He ends with only a fragile defense of hope against all these power elites can summon against the human spirit, which stumbles blearily on a chilly morning after the party’s over.

[I also reviewed his "I Don't Believe in Atheists" at Amazon US 11-3-10 and my blog. Above review featured at PopMatters 2-3-11: "Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain"]: On 2-20-11 and on 2-5-11, in revised and condensed form, it's up at Amazon US with a lot of others divided on the book's merits.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ag ith cnónna pistéise

Bhí mé ag ithe cnónna pistéise faoi deireanach ann. Tá siad cnónna blaosc-thorthaí ann, ag saillte in amannaí. Thósaigh mé ag ithe siad nuair bhí ocras orm go tobann mó ó shin.

Chonaic mé siad i mbabhla ar feadh fhéile bheag sabhaile; rinne mé iarracht acu. D'ith mé siad ina h-uachtar reoite ach ní bhíonn mé ag ite aonorach. Mar sin féin, bhí maith liom an blas subh seo as sin amach go raibh mé níos óige.

Níl fhios agam go baileach cé fáth ag ith mé siad anois. Is amhlaidh, ní raibh maith liom cnónna go hiondúil. Tá ailléirge agam mar ní raibh mé ábalta ithe cnónna eile ar chor ar bith nach beag, de bharr thocas leis mo liopaí!

Tá greannú an gach chuid dom saol ann. Ní fheadar cé acu na cnónna pistéise atá rudaí difriúlaí i gcomparáid le gnáth-cnónna. B'fheídir, bím pistéise as an gcoitianacht ormsa ann.

Adhmáim ag ithe síoltaí lus na gréine annamh. Ach, ní maidir le cnónna eile, ní beith ag ithe siad! Níl aon spéis sa cnónnaí 'greannú' seo agam fós, dá ainneoin sin.

Eating pistachio nuts. 

I'm eating pistachio nuts lately. They're shelled nuts. sometimes salted. I started eating them when "there was hunger upon me" suddenly a month ago.

I saw them in a bowl during a small party at home; I "made a try at" some. I ate them in ice cream but I never ate them (usually) alone. All the same, I liked this sweet flavor ever since I was very young.

I don't quite know a reason why now I am eating them. In fact, there's usually no liking of mine for nuts. I have an allergy because I'm not able to eat nearly all other nuts at all, on account of an itch with my lips!

I have had that irritation for all my life. I wonder whether the reason's that the pistachio nuts are a different kind compared with everyday nuts. Perhaps, pistachios are out of the ordinary for me.

I admit eating sunflower seeds rarely. But, in regard to other nuts, I will not eat them! There's still no interest in those "irritating" nuts for me, nevertheless.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Frank Delaney's "The Matchmaker of Kenmare": Book Review

This sequel to "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show" (see my review) continues Ben McCarthy's search for his disappeared wife, combining this quest with his companionship of the titular character, Kate Begley. She's inherited her mother's skill of matchmaking, and matches made and the difficulty that Ben shares with Kate over their own intimate alliances comprises the theme of their adventure during the later part of WWII. Being both from officially neutral Ireland, their own political identity allows them to enter the battlegrounds of Western Europe, three times, as they seek Kate's own lost love and encounter the tensions of what neutrality demands from the pair.

Delaney teaches writing and he knows how to tell a good story. The title and cover make this seem like a light romance, but it's realistic and often sobering. He avoids sentiment and prefers understatement, while conveying a subtle mystery about Kate and her needle that locates lost people that parallels the curious nature of Venetia's articulations from her ventriloquized dummy, Blarney, that ran counter to the expected tone of his previous novel's plot. Here as in that book, there's hints of folklore that emerge, as in the "night of the wolf," that deepen the resonance of events. Delaney depicts the darker side of violence, whether in a sudden bombing of a village party, the shock of firearms, the lust for revenge, that overtakes otherwise sensible people caught up in private wars as well as world ones. He enriches Ben with a depth that he expresses naturally, and this novel reads smoothly, as if told by the teller as is the conceit, and fluently.

This novel's about obsession, of pursuit of a vanished partner. This unites Kate and Ben, awkwardly but firmly, across the three years of this story.  Ben tells the tale to his children, as a very old man. His idealism and his pain combine as he explains his decisions back then to them now. He was employed by the Irish government to collect folktales told by rural folk. His mentor taught him "that if you can tell yourself your own life story as though it were a legend, you can cure many of your ills."

Without divulging too much, the fringes of the war as seen by Ben and Kate show Delaney's skill; he integrates enough of the horror to plunge you in to the mayhem, but he sparingly relates the scenes so as to maximize their impact without exploiting the situations. One of Ben's first glimpses of the front as the Germans keep retreating: "a white pony sprawled in the road, his stomach burst like a rotten fruit; a headless black and white cow; three sheepdogs lying dead side by side on the street, as though they had a suicide pact."

He keeps an eye, from his officially neutral but secretly conniving pair of main characters, on humanity as it's warped and beaten down. As Ben helps Kate in her quest, his own recedes, under the pressure of WWII. They return to the battle front, unbelievably to Ben as well as both Nazis and Allies, to hunt for her vanished husband: "What did I find? If I expected water, I found blood. If I expected a soft breath, I found a gale. If I expected a mourner, I found a dervish."

Their neutral status allows Delaney a fresh perspective from which to view conflict, especially as the Irish people had emerged recently from their own bloody battles against first the British (why the Irish Free State chose neutrality is explained deftly) and then between themselves. Ben learns from his rare perspective from both sides in the war: "Enemies are natural creatures, like friends or lovers or couples." But not all are enemies, he finds. The novel does veer sharply in mood under mercurial Ben and determined Kate, and once in a while even if Ben explains the logic or the emotion why for these shifts, the plot does swerve, as perhaps life does with its own sudden shocks.

Late in this wide-roaming plot, Ben sums up what his search for his own lover has become: "I might be about to travel across America with a darling giraffe, a charming little pink pig, a fat man with a pigtail and no other hair of any kind, and" Kate "who could tell the future and find missing people using a needle, thread, and a map." Even in the closing scenes, it seems Ben cannot let go of his search for Venetia, while the affection Delaney shares for the quirks of traveling shows makes me wonder if even more can become a third novel.
(Posted to Amazon US 2-8-11 & 2-20-11)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mathieu Ricard's "Why Meditate?": Book Review

Fluently translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn from the 2008 French original, this primer introduces meditation to the non-Buddhist. Grounded in Buddhist philosophy, however, and seasoned with Tibetan advice, Ricard as a monk in Nepal speaks from over four decades of experience to relate ancient teachings to Western readers. Gracefully and clearly, Ricard displays the benefits of a meditation that keeps a realistic, even tough-minded, approach that faces reality and stares down pain.

Lucidity opens his survey. The meditator seeks the fundamental clarity of the original purity which persists beneath a conceptual haze that swirls within the spirit distracted by life’s passing concerns and the mind’s deluded grasp of what proves fleeting, whether born out of pleasure or anguish. This Buddhist conception represents in its root Sanskrit meaning “cultivation” of the harmony that every human may achieve, with focused attention gained by daily meditation and expressed by loving-kindness to all beings. 

Commitment to practice makes a successful meditator. One cannot only look at a menu if one needs nourishment: one must taste the fare. One cannot learn a Mozart sonata by tinkling the ivories a few seconds each day. Ricard urges the reader to discover the deeper, calmer reality beneath the pressures and temptations of mundane activities. The “monkey mind” cannot be tamed by tying down a restless beast; the liberation will come only when a chance for release happens, when the monkey momentarily finds a calm respite from its own frenzy. Meditation works its remedies for inherent suffering when the time is taken to seek peace which enables the mind to contemplate itself and the body to balance itself. 

He leads the novice into how to sit, how to concentrate, and how to handle distractions. His commonsensical suggestions, interspersed with the pithy poems and reflections of lamas, enrich this presentation. He also reminds us of his own French training in science before he became a Himalayan monk, citing Edwin Schrödinger on the reality of the present moment as “the only thing that has no end.” Footnotes to medical studies on the advantages of meditation add to the usefulness of this guide for the newcomer, as well as perhaps further persuasion for secular skeptics in the audience.

Buddhism and physics agree: now is the only time in which we live, ungraspable and forever unchanging as humans watch life passing and unfolding. The necessity to transform one’s circumstances, to take advantage of the fragile and transient lifespan given for liberation from the ego’s folly, for cultivation of one’s altruism, remains the foremost goal of one who seeks enlightenment. One must act upon wisdom learned in insights and calmness of disciplined, but heartfelt and compassionate, meditation undertaken seriously.

Mindfulness, despite perhaps becoming a buzzword or cliché in Western pop culture, at its moral core brings one more into the world, rather than apart from it. Ricard explains the healthy mind and body that can result from steady meditation done daily.  He also emphasizes the practice of exchange, of trading another’s pain for one’s own pleasure, that profoundly exhibits the promise taken on by committed Buddhists. While his explanation subtly conveys this “bodhissatva vow” rather than explicitly naming it, the noble intention stays the same. The meditator leaves behind the attachment to ego and embraces a compassionate offering of one’s self, freed from egotism, to ease the pain of other beings. 

One faces “afflictive emotions” of anger, desire, and anxiety unflinchingly. In their place, the practitioner becomes kind-hearted, braver, and more daring. Rather than shutting off the meditator from society, Ricard notes how meditation enhances ethical action and communal support. As the sympathy for others in pain grows, the meditator, rather than being detached or reclusive, devotes attention to easing those who suffer.

Beneath this activity harnessed to help others, the meditator learns the connection that transcends the ego’s passing fancies. Ricard devotes many pages in this short book to pain in its mental and physical manifestations, and how meditation can prepare one to confront it with courage and steadiness. Underneath the surface, despite the sufferings that fill one’s days and haunt one’s nights, Ricard cites one guru who assures that “the clouds do not change the nature of the sky.” That is, transient joys and sorrows pass over the fundamental presence of a deeper existence, rooted in a fresh, vibrant, original nature, waiting to be discovered and nurtured by the meditator willing to make the commitment. (Posted to New York Journal of Books; released 9-1-2010 but review appeared 9-1-2011. Also at & 2-20-11.   )

[P.S. For more on Ricard, see my Amazon review of "The Monk and the Philosopher," a fascinating series of conversations between a father, secular political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, and his son, Mathieu Ricard, physicist turned monk.]

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Ireland's New Religious Movements" book released

My research on "The Invention of Celtic Buddhism: A Literary and Intellectual Tradition" appears in Ireland's New Religious Movements. You can link here to order a copy of essays exploring this timely and intriguing field-- as this is the first book on the subject-- from Cambridge Scholars Publishing in England. On February 1st, 2011, the work appeared. This is Féile Bhrid, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc, the Celtic feast of "in the belly" of winter as spring nears.

Here's the body of my essay as Chapter Four (pp. 74-96 if without the works cited as this is a single appendix for all contributors combined) as a proof-text. A sample.pdf  online of the first few pages of the book offers its Table of Contents and some of the editors' introduction. You can see here its handsome cover in fitting "Irelantis" homage to Seán Killen's whimsical paper collages!

I thank Olivia Cosgrove, Carmen Kuhling, Peter Mulholland and especially Laurence Cox (who with Maria Griffin offers a groundbreaking article on the history of Irish Buddhism) for their editing and hosting of the  conference about which I blogged fifteen or so months ago. My own research has been very rewarding on such a fresh topic. As Professor Cox noted, the cycle from Samhain 2009 for the NUI Maynooth (my blog entry) conference on Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland (NUIM link) to the publication of selected proceedings Imbolc 2011 symbolizes an appropriate arc.

Here's the publisher's overview:
Until recently, Irish religion has been seen as defined by Catholic power in the South and sectarianism in the North. In recent years, however, both have been shaken by widespread changes in religious practice and belief, the rise of new religious movements, the revival of magical-devotionalism, the arrival of migrant religion and the spread of New Age and alternative spirituality.

This book is the first to bring together researchers exploring all these areas in a wide-ranging overview of new religion in Ireland. Chapters explore the role of feminism, Ireland as global ‘Celtic’ homeland, the growth of Islam, understanding the New Age, evangelicals in the Republic, alternative healing, Irish interest in Buddhism, channelled teachings and religious visions.

This book will be an indispensable handbook for professionals in many fields seeking to understand Ireland’s increasingly diverse and multicultural religious landscape, as well as for students of religion, sociology, psychology, anthropology and Irish Studies. Giving an overview of the shape of new religion in Ireland today and models of the best work in the field, it is likely to remain a standard text for many years to come.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Joseph O'Connor's "Ghost Light": Book Review

This dramatizes the engagement of Molly Allgood, aka Maire O'Neill, an actress, to John Millington Synge. It does so with warmth, wit, and sadness. Synge died young, although when he met Molly, she was still eighteen and he thirty-seven, so the fear of scandal, according to Joseph O'Connor's version, kept him from marrying her. O'Connor attributes, in his version, Synge's hesitation to a habitual, perhaps half-calculated, sense of "eccentric ineptitude" cultivated by the shy, awkward playwright.

Great scenes highlight Molly's rows with Synge and with Yeats at the Abbey Theatre during rehearsals. "Yeats and Lady Gregory had been tense, exchanging inscrutable looks, like Easter Island statues contemplating adultery or murder." (48) Other episodes touchingly portray their clandestine love, while a sort of stage-Irishry enlivens an imagined scene in which Synge's family has Molly over to meet his fearsome mother. Played for laughs and poignancy, it reveals a deft hand by O'Connor in celebrating and sending-up the stereotyped speech as well as deeper class distinctions, colored by O'Connor's familiarity with critical debate on this dramatist by later Irish post-colonial critics. His endnotes show what he has invented and what he embellished; we only have Synge's letters to Molly saved, and not hers to him.

"There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly. It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Liliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress." (16) O'Connor imagines what transpired, more behind the scenes as we rarely witness here what happens on stage. He conveys both 1907 Dublin and 1952 post-Blitz London as unsurprisingly often grim and dank cities, but glimpses of Synge's beloved Wicklow provide a respite from the scrutiny of their fellow Irish and the transports later of what Molly views at the National Portrait Gallery in London allow the imagination freer rein.

Kindness also eases pain, and the novel can be extremely moving in the way it shows the affection of an old bookseller for Molly, as well as very comic in the way Synge's mother on the outside and Molly on the inside mutter imprecations and bitterly funny curses at all around them. One of the first sentences the imperious widowed mother utters to her bohemian son: "Have I not been wounded and cut at sufficiently to placate the wicked selfishness you appear to regard as a devoted parent's due?" Yet, O'Connor, skilled at characterization and careful to be fair, makes her eventually understandable in her mortal fears, no less than the BBC producer whom Molly meets again, Synge's uncle who mourns for him in his own clumsy way, or her hilarious, yet affectionate somehow, recollections of her fat old seducer J. Seamus Shannon.

O'Connor as a native Dubliner knows his city well. He has an ear for its speech: as he speaks of one citizen's "ability to express disapproval by the giving of compliments" as a municipal facility and professional advantage. He also incorporates American scenes, no surprise to readers of his previous pair of historical novels, "Star of the Sea" and (reviewed by me) "Redemption Falls" along with an earlier travelogue in search of wherever was named Dublin in the U.S., "Sweet Liberty" (also reviewed, as was "The Salesman," a thriller set in suburban Dublin). A hint of Joyce flitters by in a trio of references, and the density of prose, although a bit lighter in tone than the historical novels set in the post-Civil War era with impressive narrative structure and complex plots, still makes for a novel that demands close attention, for the action filtered nearly entirely through Molly's consciousness across a day and over decades does reward concentration.

I found one chapter near the end, although it expands and may wrap up strands left open, slightly digressive compared to the earlier focus on Molly's relationship and its memorialized echoes in London forty-five years later. Still, I understand its inclusion even if it slowed the pace markedly. Overall, quite a humane testament to dignity, generosity, and courage lived out however humbly, off stage and under duress.

The novel ends with a reminder of another fictional Molly from Dublin in a chatty letter, perhaps what might "bloom" if Joyce caught the vernacular a generation or so after his own classic conclusion to another Irish novel. You also find out what the title means. Over all of its range within a short span, we appreciate not only Molly but her lover, in his bold attempt, along with the unnamed Joyce and the inspiring if maddening Yeats as shown here, to enter via language and the pauses within it our own private "Eden, the inner realm of silence" that separates man from beasts, and gives humanity some salvation from "the filthy undermurmur of living."(Posted to Amazon US 12-30-10 & 2-20-11. Featured at Pop Matters 1-31-11.)