Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bia agus ól ar Thuas

Scríobh mé agaibh faoi an priomh-leath de mo turas go gCalifoirnea Thuas an uair seo caite anseo. Inseoidh mé anois faoi mo turas ar ais mo bhaile ar feadh an turas féin. Ar dtús, d'iarr muid a ceannaigh bolg silíní dubh eile agus cliabh sú talann níos mó ina margadh Ghleanntan Prúna ag imeall an cathair na Salainn.

Ach, ní raibh muid ábalta a dhéanamh deas-iompaigi go margadh sin. Ní raibh muid ár gluastain a déanta seo ón mbóthar mór 101. Bíodh brú tráchta go minic ansin. 

Mar sin, thiomaint muid níos sia ar aghaidh i bhfad. Chonaic muid fógrán poíblí ag díol sútha talann ar an taobh thall den bóthar. Mar sin féin, níor thuig muid go mbeadh oscailte an áit seo ag imeall an cathair na Salainn. 

Is maith liom ag dul ar an bóthar 101, áfach. Tá sé níos mall, ar ndóigh. Is brea liom a fheicéail na feirmeachaí agus an mám go an tAigéan Ciúin in aice leis Naomh Barbara.

Ní bhfuair ár bialann Meicsiceach ceannán ina sráidbhaile na Guadalupe ag trasna na stasiún traen ansin. Dhún é. Tá brón orainn.

Bheul, níor d'ól mé beoir saor ina bialann eile ansin; thug mé ina gluastain beagán buidéil leanna dubh ar bhaile go Naomh Críos, fós. Ní raibh maith ag "asalín glasraí" agam níos mó, ach bhí maith ag ithe Niall, Leon agus Léna reasunta mór ina "El Tapatio." D'iarr mé ag tiomaint go tuathród 135 go Guadalupe go dtí suas Naomh Mhúire.

Cheannaigh muid sútha talann chomh milis le mil in aice leis sráidbhaile na hOrcutt. Chruinnigh siad is nua. Stád mé amuigh faoin aer úr in aice leis an farraige glas i tsamraidh ansiúd an Sleibhte le Cladach.

D'ith mé na sútha is milis riamh an maidin lá arna dhiaidh sin i mo bricfeasta. Bhí cuimhne liomsa an feirm agus an aer aríst. Is docha, cuirfeadh mé cuairt eile go "Feirm Pheadarín" a cheannaigh sútha an turas seo chugainn ar thuas. 

Food and Drink to the South

I wrote to you all about my first half of my trip to Northern California the last time here. I will tell now about my journey back to my home during this same trip. At the start, we wished to buy another bag of dark cherries and a basket of more strawberries at the Prunedale Market on the outskirts of the city of Salinas. 

But, we could not make a left-turn to that market. Our car could not do this on Highway 101. There's often heavy traffic there. 

Therefore, we drove a bit farther on down. We saw a sign selling strawberries on the other side of the highway. All the same, we did not understand where this place might be open around Salinas. 

I like going along Highway 101, however. It's slower, of course. I love to see the farms and the mountain pass to the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara.

We did not find our favorite Mexican restaurant in the town of Guadalupe across from the train station there. It was closed.. We were sad.  

Well, I did not drink cheap beer in another restaurant there; I had taken in the car a few bottles of dark beer home from Santa Cruz, still. I did not like my "little donkey" (~veggie burrito) much, but Niall, Leo and Layne liked eating well enough at "El Tapatio." I sought to drive the country road 135 from Guadalupe to below Santa Maria.

We bought strawberries sweet as honey near the town of Orcutt. They were gathered the freshest. I stood out in the fresh air near the green summer coast over the Coastal Range.  

I ate the sweetest berries ever the morning after for my breakfast. I remembered myself the farm and the air again. I hope, I may pay another visit to "Little Pete's Farm" to buy berries on my next trip North.

Grianghraf/Photo: Sú Talann (Albanachaí) ó Naomh Mhúire/"Albions" from Santa Maria

Friday, July 29, 2011

Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints": Book Review

This novel's advance copy comes filled with breathless "in-house praise" and a back cover full of promotional strategies across media. This energetic campaign may reflect the edgy mood of the setting, the straight-edge hardcore punk scene of 1988. The novel nears its end during the Tompkins Square Park anti-gentrification riot in Mayor Koch's Manhattan. Its immersion in the streets and back alleys of New York City attests to the confidence that Eleanor Henderson brings to her debut novel. Over four-hundred pages, it follows the convoluted year in the relationships between teenager Jude Keffy-Horn and his father's girlfriend's daughter, and the complications that she, Eliza, escalates once she finds herself in an all-too familiar female predicament.

The story shuttles between small-city Lintonburg (~Burlington), Vermont, and NYC's Alphabet City. I did not find either locale as intricately evoked as I'd expected, although the places gain sufficient elaboration. Neither did I find Henderson's prose, an indirect narration that subtly filters the characters' perspectives (if sometimes too subtly, as the tone often blurs as the controlling narrator tends to dominate), as particularly quotable or dazzling. Her tone stays modest, generally cleansed of ego.

Its teenaged and young adult characters assert individuality against a system that has co-opted its idealistic elders. Still, they too shave their heads, get "X" tattoos on their hands, and shut out or beat down those who don't conform to their non-conforming credo, tunes, and tribal rituals. This moral novel's more traditional than its sordid or exotic settings may make it seem.

The author's aiming here to instead focus on characterization of a half-dozen or so late-hippie-era pot-addled parents who found themselves deserted by and deserting their children. Some of them, as here, grow up to embrace, if for a time, the austerity of a celibate, vegan, and Hare Krishna-core punk ethos as an alternative. These straight-edge seekers  value loyalty, purity, and idealism. The trouble solved by eschewing stimulants leads to its own dangers, kids being kids. Revenge and payback prove natural temptations for young people seeking to join up "true 'til death".

Henderson charts the tensions between youthful ambitions and profane temptations, and the gang-like element that coheres around the Green Mountain Boys which Jude sings with for me was a clever theme to explore. This was the reason I chose to read this book, but as it went along, the sounds themselves and the squalor of the spartan lifestyle lived in vans and on tour albeit told well recedes as the difficulty of keeping one's self upright and honest becomes the larger message.

As with the Hindu elements that initially color the ideology that attracts the straight-edge recruits, the hardcore scene recedes often as the backdrop rather than the primary theme. While Jude becomes the singer of his own band, you rarely witness him on stage. However, the rigors of an ascetic life on the road and in the van gain gritty detail, gleaned from Henderson's research into the 1980s rock underground scene.

The novel hones in on family ties unraveling, attenuating, and reconnecting as exes reunite and bicker and spar. These settled or unsettled parents contend to keep their offspring apart or estranged from their current partners--potential or actual surrogate parents--as well as the progenitors' former partners. Henderson follows every combination and permutation of such couplings and sunderings. While this leads to a somewhat schematic playing out of every possibility as to who will or will not take in the wandering children, this activity does allow her to keep the plot convoluted enough to propel it over so many pages, and overall, she manages to keep the character-rich story sustained.

Without revealing the consequences of such hard-won truths learned by adoptees, strays, divorcees, and stepfamilies, suffice to say that Henderson's earnest exploration of hippies and punks moves along smartly. The climactic scenes set around Alphabet City and Tompkins Square felt rather hurried, but this may reflect the characters' own weariness with fighting the system as the yuppies move in, the straight-edge scene stagnates, and AIDS infiltrates this puritanical counterculture.

I found the novel at times intriguing for an aspect that some readers may find challenging. Henderson prefers to delay exposition of certain plot pivots until a few pages after one character begins to divulge the twist. She is to be commended for this daring, but this may put off as many readers as it may win over. However, the book's largely free of the MFA-style of showy prose and self-aggrandizing displays of irony or sentiment that many of her peers attempt to sell as fiction these days. At the heart of this sprawling tale is an elaboration of counter-cultural but still persistent, however tattooed, stoned, and amplified, family values, defiantly rallied in the last year of Reagan's rule.

(Featured at Pop Matters 7-28-11; posted in shorter and earlier form to Amazon US 7-3-11)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kevin Belmonte's "Defiant Joy: G.K. Chesterton": Book Review

Chesterton's impact, through his many writings, remains the emphasis; his life's the backdrop for a talented critic, fantasist, poet, and controversialist who never seemed to stop working. Belmonte covers GKC's career efficiently, in many short chapters, most focusing on a particular major work. That some are forgotten now only highlights how renowned they once were. Graham Greene on "The Ballad of the White Horse," T.S. Eliot on "The Napoleon of Notting Hill," or Orson Welles on "The Man Who Was Thursday" jostle with H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, and G. B. Shaw, his formidable adversaries and friends, for as his biographer documents, GKC knew how to debate spiritedly while keeping his balance, and his wit and warmth with those who were his intellectual opponents.

Such a quality endears him to Belmonte, and to us. We see through Gerry Wills or Philip Yancey, J.R.R. Tolkien or Harold Bloom, C.S. Lewis and Sir James Murray of O.E.D. fame the effect of GKC as informed critic as well as Christian apologist. While Belmonte does relegate Chesterton's supposed anti-semitic or racist-tinged rhetoric to an endnote, and while he blurs such facts as exactly when and how he converted to Catholicism while writing his study of St. Francis of Assisi, or his relationship with Hilaire Belloc, these details get subsumed in his mission: to provide lengthy excerpts from the original works and from those who responded to them, positively and negatively, then and now, a century and more later.

It's astonishing to read a student essay at St. Paul's, from his teens, on Milton; its acumen and prose style appear worthy of an Oxford don. He never got through much university training, starting in his early twenties and producing criticism that has the aplomb and depth of few skilled critics of any age. While some of it has dated, and while his paradoxes and barbs sometimes weary modern readers, Belmonte diminishes their mustiness, and deflects those who ignore or denigrate his criticism, as compared to his Christian defenses such as "Heretics" and especially "Orthodoxy."

That 1908 book, along with "Thursday" the same year (Belmonte gives hints of that anarchic fantasy's compelling plot without spoiling it!), makes the strongest impact here. What applies to the preceding "Heresy" stands for his motive. He decried a second fall of Man. The first had brought at least knowledge of good and evil. The second, in an atheistic and secular age of progress towards a good that nobody believed in or could define or agree upon, led to, in GKC's paradoxical view, the knowledge of evil. What previous ages had labored towards as the role of the good man or the right life had collapsed for those entering the modern era and the new century. Instead, the 20c had rejected a truth that was not relative, in a time of "a great silent collapse" of belief.

Belmonte defends his subject, although he may share his subject's generosity towards aphorism and the well-turned phrase while the more intricate philosophical and theological points get deflected in the deft parry that GKC perfected. Belmonte and Chesterton tend to forgive their foes rather than mow them down as thoroughly as we in a more confrontational age may expect. But this tolerance is part of the message of this biography.

Parts of the debates get short shrift, but this may be due to GKC's own ability to dazzle with a dexterity on the page and I assume in person that left contenders speechless, in awe, and/or sputtering. But there's a generosity here missing from many contemporary showdowns between believers and deniers, skeptics and the convinced. So, for a brisk, accessible, and thought-provoking introduction (or refresher-- it's been years since I read some of these books and others I never have), this is recommended for any open-minded thinker.  (Posted to Amazon US & 3-1-11.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Richard Ford, ed. "Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work": Review

Thirty-two accounts, fewer than you’d expect told on the job, but the duties of making a living, or failing to do so, haunt them all. Alphabetized by surname, this (lack of) arrangement appears a bit of a cop out, for the reader must labor to make more sense of how these disparate tales fit together. Nearly all take place in America, all were previously published by Americans, and all but one feature Americans.

What does this focus, then, reveal about occupations and careers? Richard Ford’s introduction tells us more about a put-down at a dinner party he attended than the collection he edits. The reader must therefore figure out why each story was included, and overall, if this represents the best ever compiled about how writers imagine how the bulk of our lives are spent, at least five days a week for most of us, then recent fiction may stint on what even its most accomplished practitioners expend on its evocation.

I sought patterns of connection. Russell Banks’ “The Gully” reveals how vigilantes in a Third World city manage to succeed as entrepreneurs, while T. C. Boyle’s “Zapatos” offers a shaggy-dog story which explores similar terrain with a clever nod to the unnamed country of Chile’s delineation. Junot Díaz navigates his familiar arena of tension between Latino immigrants, here a Dominican-born pool table deliveryman in “Edison, New Jersey” whose lack of principles throw off the reader’s expected sympathy. As with “Drummond and Son” by Charles D’Ambrosio, set in a Seattle typewriter repairman’s store where the owner must deal with his unstable, damaged son, these milieux, with blue-collar settings, enlivens their skewed narratives.

Similarly, the hustling done by Max Apple’s character seeking financing for her frozen yogurt enterprise in “Business Talk”, the desperate dodge planned by the exploited protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ ”Great Experiment”, the collapse of a parent’s marriage as overheard by two paperboys, the brothers of Andre Dubus’ “Delivery”, the sexual harassment charge hovering off-stage around the couple in Richard Bausch’s “Unjust”, the escape plotted by the wife in Deborah Eisenberg’s “A Flaw in the Design” from another damaged household-- all attest to the pressures endured by ordinary folks. Consider Eisenberg’s unraveling family at the dinner table. Eisenberg’s narrator reflects: “For a moment, we all just sit there again, as if someone had turned off the current, disengaging us.

Such weariness infuses many of the better stories. Eugenides’ ambitious entry contrasts the success of a millionaire pornography magnate turned, at 82, free-speech publisher with his editor, whose denied his health-care coverage despite five years of loyal service. This far-younger Chicago writer never wanted to live like his parents, but neither he nor his wife can afford, well, a wife. Their marriage “as countercultural, an artistic alliance committed to the support of vinyl records and Midwestern literary quarterlies” flounders. A fixer-upper can’t be fixed. Desperately, the protagonist seeks rescue, during Bush-era deregulation and Enron.

Those lower down on the scale struggle, as always. Edward P. Jones’ “The Store” and James Alan McPherson’s “A Solo Song for Doc” follow two black men who grow up by serving customers, one taking care of a corner grocery in D.C. during the start of the 1960s, the other ending around 1965 after a career spent in railroad dining cars. As with Thomas McGuane’s “Cowboy”, or the long litany of woes tallied in Annie Proulx’s “Job History” for a luckless Wyoming worker who refuses to give up, the dignity as well as the duplicity involved in getting paid keeps strong stories from succumbing to sentimentality.

Stuart Dybek often touches on spiritual longing in his Chicago fiction; “Sauerkraut Soup” tries to slip a weightier message into a saga of a student turned ice-cream factory worker. “That terrible lack of sympathy pervading all locker rooms hung in the air”. Marzek learns that everyone on the shift gives in to an inarticulate, then submerged, resignation about “the way time was surrendered”. This leads to his existentialist epiphany, in the pink “deceptive light of Indian summer”.  Stories such as Dybek’s interest us when they use the backdrop of a job to display the character’s inner turmoil; the best here do.

J.F. Powers, often overlooked in anthologies but as with Dybek a writer’s writer, in “The Valiant Woman” nimbly addresses Father Frank Firman’s resignation to his rectory’s housekeeper, his life-long if never courted companion, Mrs. Stoner. He settles down for their, or her, evening routine, a game of cards called “honeymoon”:  “Father Firman scratched in his coat pocket for a pill, found one, swallowed it. He let his head sink back against the chair and closed his eyes. He could hear her moving about the room, making the preparations: and how he knew them—the fumbling in the drawer for a pencil with a point, the rip of a page from his daily calendar, and finally the leg of the card table sliding up against his leg”.

These careful details mark many heartland-based stories. I’m not sure why suburban malls, franchises, and corporate-branded workplaces serving as employers for so many today are absent. Exurban sprawl, high-tech, the downsized blue-collar or stagnating white-collar predicaments earn quick attention, but more obliquely than directly. Perhaps this reflects treatment of similar issues in most movies and television shows, which also tend to use the workplace as background rather than center stage.  (Unfortunately, in a volume dedicated to one of everyday America’s greatest chroniclers, Raymond Carver, Ford notes that Carver’s estate denied permission for “Elephant” to be included.)

Despite the predominance of later 20th-century stories, many feel as if set in a slightly earlier era. Only one story appeared before mid-century (if well before Arthur Miller’s play), Eudora Welty’s “The Death of the Traveling Salesman”; this feels as taken from a folktale, its eerie Southern Gothic mood very distinctive from the Midwestern or small-town settings preferred by most contributors. Very few stories take place, as does Apple’s, in the suburbs or even next to the chain stores. Ford prefers a skewed, small-town provenance for many stories that feels at odds with how many Americans survive today.

Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy” set in a Maine village, however, shows one local reacting to the chain drugstore replacing the pharmacy, the trees cut down for its parking lot. “You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things”. Many writers relate their stories in this worldly wise style, as if out of a writer’s workshop, and as with Ford’s own “Under the Radar” or Donald Barthelme or Ann Beattie or George Chambers’ inclusions, these often drain the energy from stories which adapt distance rather than confrontation within a recognizable, daily workplace. Beattie’s “The Working Girl” deconstructs romance, but displays little of the working life. While Alice Munro’s control of place and time enriches “Some Women”, the payoff for such subtlety, for me, appeared too genteel.

Some prominent authors, however, manage to combine observations of everyday life with a snappier professionalism. Joyce Carol Oates’ “High Lonesome”, Lewis Robinson’s “Officer Friendly” and Tobias Woolf’s “The Deposition” dramatize unpredictably how the law may create disorder. James Salter’s “Foreign Shores” about a Dutch au pair and ZZ Packer’s “Geese” about a black woman’s job searches in Japan present challenges that update those of Díaz, Jones, McGuane and McPherson as people scheme. “Minotaur” by Jim Shepard succeeds as it glimpses obliquely at the “black world” of secret projects at Lockheed. “A Glutton for Punishment” by Richard Yates follows a fired worker home as he tells his wife.

Inevitably, some writers write about writers writing. Barthelme fails and his postmodernism (as with Chambers) grates as it dates poorly.  Eugenides, by veering off into free enterprise, keeps his story fresh. John Cheever’s “The World of Apples” examines gracefully a Robert Frost-type poet pestered in his Italian idyll by admirers of (only) his first book; in old age he determines to renew his passion. In “The Writer’s Trade”, Nicholas Delbanco introduces steadily a debut novelist as he reacts to sudden acclaim.

Writing also infuses the reason for this publication. This anthology benefits 826michigan, one of the 826 chapters which nationally support youth tutoring, writing workshops, and field trips. As with Ian Frazier’s Humor Me anthology for the national efforts by this same non-profit, which I reviewed for PopMatters [and Amazon US and my blog] last year, the uneven contents of Ford’s anthology dissuade me from unqualified support of such means, but the end to which such anthologies aim, for 826, is one I certainly support. Since my review of Frazier’s book, I have participated in 826 work as a volunteer at my city’s own branch, as a footnote for my critique or a recommendation of its programs.

The most successful story, for me, integrated the job of a tour guide in India, who moonlights from his regular employment as “The Interpreter of Maladies” by translating at a doctor’s office. Jhumpa Lahiri deftly depicts him at work, while fantasizing, until he’s forced to wake up to the truth. Such a story, realistic yet expansive enough to allow the rest of the world beyond the job to enter, demonstrates the most accurate, if for some competitors in this collection still elusive, fictionalization of factual necessity.
 (Featured in slightly altered form at PopMatters 4-28-11; as above at Amazon US & 4-30-11.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall": Book Review

Deservedly a Booker Prize winner, this ambitious story conveys a novel of ideas as well as of (half-)familiar figures. It narrates an unlikely hero, a flawed protagonist, a conniving yet moral-minded man at the heart of the court of Henry the Eighth, as he plots to divorce Katherine of Aragon so as to marry Anne Boleyn. Many reviewers have emphasized Thomas Cromwell's role here as bitterly opposed to Thomas More, but Hilary Mantel presents both chancellors as equally obstinate in their convictions. To Cromwell, service and loyalty to his king coincide with his determination to free England from subservience to outmoded ritual and oppressive mindsets; Cromwell recognizes his master's flaws, but he remains faithful to his wishes, and as the king's fortunes increase, so do Cromwell's.

Along the way, we meet many of those who oppose the king's sexual and imperial desires. But Hilary Mantel refuses to caricature Mary Tudor, Katherine, those executed for their Catholic resistance, or the many figures forced to save their lives or their livelihoods as they choose between England and Rome, "the living against the dead" as Henry declares his realm as an empire freed from the Pope. She evokes sympathy with More's victims, those burned or disemboweled for their courage, and she shows how More himself expected more than what he gave those he persecuted and condemned when it came to final mercy. Yet she does not allow More in these pages to become a cartoon, and she carefully explores his own predicament, infuriating as More's refusals are to his foe Cromwell.

This material over five hundred complicated pages holds up astonishingly well. I had to consult the chart of the characters more than once (lots of Marys and Thomases) and Mantel integrates their complex fates, providing contexts-- if often very subtly-- to convey essential information: it all comes from the direct observation, hearsay or indirect reporting of Cromwell himself, a difficult feat to pull off smoothly for an audience so far distant from these tumultuous times, ones so often presented in cartoonish fashion or garbled summation. Technically, this requires patience on the reader's part, as Mantel chooses a perspective that doggedly must be followed, even if angles and distortions enter the vantage point of Cromwell's largely unruffled consciousness. My only reservation is that this exacting method in which the tale is told, via "he" as Cromwell, can be momentarily confusing in the passages when others enter in the same third-person; the movement from one male character to Cromwell and back can be very slight, and demands attention.

The humor and wit may be sparse but all the more welcome. In this era of the rise of individualism and humanism, ideas leap out, for this is a novel not only about characters and alliances and defiances, but about the slow arrival of early modern society. In 1530, Henry hears from Cromwell about the monks: "It cannot always be Lent. What I cannot stomach is hypocrisy, fraud, idleness--their worn-out relics, their threadbare worship, and their lack of invention. When did anything good last come from a monastery? They do not invent, they only repeat, and what they repeat is corrupt. For hundreds of years the monks have held the pen, and what they have written is what we take to be our history, but I do not believe it really is. I believe they have suppressed the history they don't like, and written one that is favorable to Rome." (180) This has the force of eloquence, as spoken by a wise, fervent counselor to a monarch.

The shift in power later comes to mind as Cromwell humiliates a would-be suitor of Anne, Harry Percy: "The world is not run from where he thinks." Not the Scottish borders, let alone London, but from mercantile centers in Antwerp, Florence, even Lisbon. "Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot." (310) Cromwell's eye for details, of fabric from his past as a wool merchant, from his father's trade as a blacksmith, and from Cromwell's negotiations as soldier, businessman, and now diplomat infuse such moments.

Tension permeates this novel, as individual lives are sacrificed and a nation's direction waits upon the dictates of kings and popes, parliaments and supplicants. "The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower of rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh." (499)

"The king is good to those who think him good." (318) This barbed motto could serve as the theme for Cromwell's unsparing tone and the slogan for those who must remain under the service of their king, or who must oppose him to protect their Catholic, European, or personal interests. By 1535 as this novel ends, Cromwell is at his zenith even as Anne Boleyn begins to waver in her sex appeal to the king who has overturned Christendom in order to wed and bed her. Her marriage has not brought the male heir the king craves; meanwhile we see Elizabeth as "the ginger pig in the cradle," bristly haired and angry.

Staring down a doomed More, Cromwell in the disgraced statesman's cell notes how even in summer, More has drawn the shades, as his books have been taken away. "A handful of hail smacks itself against the window. It startles them both; he gets up, restless. He would rather know what's outside, see the summer in its sad wreckage, than cower behind the blind and wonder what the damage is." (519) More represents the overturned realm of the past, full of obesiance to papism and suppression of thought; Cromwell for all his faults seeks to illuminate the possibility of a freer world where a Bible in English may be read, ideas considered without imprisonment, and where people begin to learn to think for themselves.

Still, Cromwell ends this novel in his own limitations, even as he is to follow the king away from London, the day of More's execution. Cromwell will seek out the Seymours who live at Wolf Hall; their daughter Jane has caught Cromwell's eye as a lady-in-waiting in the Boleyn employ. That episode and the next five years, it is to be hoped, will provide a sequel as Cromwell himself learns the vagaries and passing fancies of the monarch whom he seeks to please. (Posted to Amazon US 12-23-10 & 2-20-11)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

John Burdett's "The Godfather of Kathmandu": Book Review

Resisting the Chinese genocide of Tibet, Buddhism's apocalyptic appeal, a bit of Tantric sex, lots of lemon iced tea, conniving drug lords disguised as a police chief and army general, and sorrow over a devastating personal loss energize this, the fourth in a series about Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep's Bangkok investigations. Even as a first-time reader of Burdett, I could follow it all along, although the personal loss appears to either be off-stage or between this and the third novel. Intrigued by the topics and settings, I enjoyed this.

A rapid read, but intricate enough that it improves upon the mystery template. John Burdett's reflections upon crime, faith, karma, and greed deepen the tone here. Mimi Moi, a doctor with a sinister twist, and Tara, a Tantric emanation, both entice Sonchai as he pursues the case of a Hollywood filmmaker's disembowling and the clues that he seems to leave behind. He also is made "consigliere" as a go-between for a big drug shipment that challenges his own Buddhist ethics.

There's a spate of sudden leaps in logic midway that threw me off, so closely and rapidly do they arrive. The pace starts and goes erratically at times as Sonchai's own confrontation with the mantra he receives from Doctor Tietsen in Nepal makes this a curiously off-kilter look at how the West and East, in this half-Thai, half-Western detective clash. He, an outsider-as-insider and vice-versa as far as his fellow Thais perceive him, looks into a case that represents the appeal of a less capitalistic, less greedy way of life, even as that way of life is financed by drug running, corrupt bureaucrats, sex workers, and tricky Buddhists making their own living in a heartless global economy. Tietsen explains his motive for a scheme involving drugs-for-dharma: "We've invaded the world. But we've lost Tibet." (38)

The flavor of this book lingers in the pithy, wry, thoughtful dialogue. It mixes the everyday with the mysterious, One prostitute tells our protagonist: "After sex men go vague, if they don't fall asleep." (145) Sonchai notes on the next page how "witches are best approached by water at night without prior warning, right?" He's told by Moi: "Pets die. Children are a pain in the ass for the duration."

Tara tells him: "I think it is difficult for people with a Western background to understand how impersonal bliss really is." (174) Sonchai learns from a spectral informant: "Our extreme-- you might say homicidal-- aversion to pain and suffering makes us the ultimate apostates in the business of life." (210) He later muses how, based on Hong Kong's frenetic pursuit of goods, this is "what happens in societies with too much money and too few brothels: citizens are forced to play with themselves in cyberspace." (247)

Finally, in one of those extended speeches that in movies don't play well but which sometimes work in fiction, Robert Clive, founder of the first corporation, the East India Company, gets linked to the drug wars he helped expand into our globalized economy. Tietsen tells Sonchai: "He was the first to make the connection between arms and narcotics." He blames "the sociopathic nature of the modern corporation" on the British Empire's export of the opium trade, a private army, and a system to spread this all over the world by "narcotics, slaves, and weapons. It's the great tripod upon which our global civilization continues to be based, even if they have changed the labels and the slaves get health insurance." (287)

The novel takes about halfway to really get rolling, and supporting characters appear often underwritten but this may be since some of his co-workers earned more time in earlier installments. Not only Bangkok but Kathmandu and Hong Kong earn vivid description, and food, sights, sounds, and textures infuse these pages. So, despite a sometimes sudden leap by Sonchai and his helpers into logic that helps solve this case, and a tendency to rely on the deep meditation trance to get Sonchai in and out of his narrative, this proved a worthwhile tale, and one that ends with the Beijing 2008 Olympics and a subtle feature that you and I may have overlooked during its broadcasts of one of the latest imperial pageants that celebrate global domination.(Posted to Amazon US 10-24-10 & 10-28-10)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dinty Moore's "The Accidental Buddhist": Book Review

The author spends a year pondering the shift to Buddhism among a few fellow Americans. He goes on retreat at a strict Zen monastery and a loose Therevada center. He interviews experts, visits a pair of struggling cushion makers, gets to ask the Dalai Lama a question at a talk at Indiana U., and intersperses a bit of his own personal quest for meaning after the God of his youth fades, but not the nagging sense of suffering.

I'd known of this book for a while, but the title and the author's name (beef stew?) made me think it was a quick send-up of facile gurus and silly posers. But a friend who shares my ethnic and religious background (also the same as the author as it happens) and my half-skeptical, half-intrigued approach to Buddhism as adapted by earnest Westerners recommended it. Often, it's been checked out from my library, so I had to wait. Thirteen years after it appeared, I finally got around to reading it.

It proved a worthwhile, often modestly told exploration--not so much about the factual basis for an Americanizing Buddhism (I'd been learning this the past few years), but of one man's middle-aged quest. It tends towards the under-promoted, less visible side of how Buddhism's filtering into American life, and this model for Moore fits better than the dramatic, shaved-head and mantra-chanting, incense-wreathed scenarios most Westerners associate with dharma. Moore looks for what can replace his lapsed childhood faith-- as guidance towards confronting and enduring the big questions that haunt many of us, dissatisfied and wandering.

My favorite chapters are the sixth, "Catholic Boy Zen," and the ninth, "The Plain-Spoken Theravadan." He talks to Fr Robert Jinsen Kennedy, a Jersey Jesuit, who combines Zen with Catholicism. Their conversation intelligently addresses the lack of maturity in much of the way Catholicism had been presented to those of Moore's generation, about the last to get a pre-Vatican II version of a negative "thou shalt not" mindset combined with a simplified version of God and Jesus manufactured for easy transmission to a billion followers. Moore acknowledges his current attraction for Buddhism may be an over-reaction to his childhood Catholicism, and even the Dalai Lama's own caution for Westerners not to over-romanticize Buddhism as opposed to their "Judeo-Christian" mentality hits a nerve inside Moore as he listens to the Tibetan leader respond to his own question in Indiana.

Chapter nine reveals a growing comfort with dharma. Moore takes pains not to glamorize those who adapt Buddhism. He's well-read in the field, but his sources remain largely invisible, as he aims for an accessible, jargon-free presentation that any reader can understand. (A glossary of a few terms is appended.) He concentrates on overcoming his "rock" within, his resistance and his angst, his entrapment in the cycle of suffering, of keeping anger in, familiar to many Irish Catholic males of at least a certain age and upbringing.

His life has compelled him to look for what is missing, what has led him to find out more about Buddhism. He attempts to get over the "if only" postponement of happiness that permeates our mental habits. He compares this to rushing down a hiking trail eager to finish while missing the sights and sounds; he drives down the interstate and thinks of how its engineering detracts from distractions, but also blurs any sense of the journey's own beauties and discoveries. He fears he will zip past forty-five years of work and worry the twenty years of retirement over lost opportunities. This challenges him to slow down, to appreciate wisdom.

He tries as any meditator to silence the restless "monkey man" inside, before calming down: "Maybe enlightenment is when the monkey just sees the sunset, and then, when the sunset ends, the monkey just looks at the stars." He knows full well a few hours at practicing Buddhism over a year will not bring about dazzling illumination. But, after a successful second Zen retreat, he glimpses more than he'd started with. "You can't slow the brain down with a few brief attempts any more easily than you can stop a speeding freight train with a white picket fence." However, he adapts well to sitting still, to his astonishment. While no dramatic changes occur in his life, he grows calmer, more equitable, and perhaps happier.

This is a quiet, rather than self-promoting, journey towards insight. Perhaps too low-key for eager inquirers, but I found this at the right time and if in the right mood, this should satisfy the patient, quiet seeker. Moore concludes that, concerning God's existence, he's not going to worry. "If there is a God, I should live my life according to principles of kindness, compassion, and awareness, and if there is no God," the same principles apply, his summation of an intimate Buddhist perspective. (Posted to Amazon US & 10-10-10)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Avi Steinberg's "Running the Books": Book Review

This flows as I anticipated, a sometimes meandering often observant account ca. 2006 of Steinberg's stint. As the blurbs sum up, this yeshiva student turned Harvard grad's hired as the "accidental librarian" at South Bay prison in Boston. The characters, mostly inmates but also colleagues and guards and bosses, share stories, square off, tangle, tease, and endure.

There are not many melodramatic moments, as the author's own insight prevents him from facile moralizing, but interesting as this tale naturally is for a fresh look behind bars, it does not follow a strongly constructed, tightly woven narrative. The chapters will seem to roam around his personal story, local history, and literary interests (notably Sylvia Plath as much as Talmud), and while the arrangement subtly coheres near the close, the story does accumulate considerable detail that may make some readers impatient. Yet, as a creative writing teacher too, he keeps the offbeat pace quirky enough that others may be charmed and moved by his array of anecdotes arranged to reveal lower-key development of symbols (cupcake, skywriting, kites, hawk, ribbon) and deft disclosures of loss and fear.

I reviewed Michael J. Santos' "Inside" about a Federal penitentiary inmate's first-person account, and Ted Conover's celebrated memoir of his year as a guard at Sing Sing, "Newjack." This, by contrast, offers a third narrative by a different prison reporter, the civilian worker. Therefore, as a dealer in one of the only freely given commodities inside jail, that of books, Steinberg reminds us in a realm given over to escape by the word created by writing and reading, how precious a possession literacy becomes when few other resources are present for liberation.

(Posted to 9-26-10. As to date of original posting there the sixteenth review, I gave less detail as my predecessors had already done so. Also posted to 9-27-10.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bia agus ól ar Thuaisceart

Chuir mé cuairt eile go Califoirnea Thuas faoi deireanach. Thiomaint muid go an cathair Naomh Críos aríst. Chonaic mo teaghlach ár cairde dhíl Bob agus Críos go bhfuil i gcónaí in aice leis an cathair sin. 

Bímid áiteannaí go coitanta a feiceáil go hiondúil ar feadh ár thuras ar thuascaint anois. Mar shampla, cheannaigh muid bolg silíní dubh agus cliabh sú talann ina margadh Ghleanntan Prúna ag imeall an cathair na Salainn ar dtús. Measaim go raibh siad so-bhlásta is fearr orm gan amhras. 

Tá muid ag dul siopadóireacht go gróseara orgánach Duilleog Nua ina sráidbhaile na Felton in aice an gráig Sléibhe Hermon. Go nadúrtha, níl siopa fiorsaor ann. Mar sin féin, faigheann mo bhean a tí bia níos halainn gach uair ansin. 

Is maith liom ag ól tae speisealta freisin. Ní raibh ábalta tabhairt ar ais bocsa Dilmah Síolónach ina margadh an samhraidh seo, ach níl creideamh go raibh sé a díolta chomh fada le mo bharúil sa lá atá inniu ann dóibh. Mar sin, thug Léna beirt bhoscaí tae Numi de dom.

D'ith muid taos araín géar de Bhaile Watson. Déannann sé leis rós Mhúire agus gairleog ann. Nílim dith a stópaidh ag ithe aran de sin, go cinnte. 

Ar ndóigh, tá mé ag foghlaim faoi leanntaí áitiúlaí ansiúd. Fuair mé leann dubh leis min choirce ina Naomh Críos agus leann úll maith ag déanta ina gCalifoirnea agus Oregon. Inseoidh mé duit níos mó faoi ár leathanta saoire bheag an mí seo caite as Gaeilge an mí seo chugainn, is docha. 

Food & Drink to the North

We paid another visit to Northern California recently. We drove to the city of Santa Cruz again. My family saw our loyal friends Bob and Chris who are living near that city. 

We habitually see familiar places during our northerly journey now. For instance, we first bought a bag of dark cherries and a basket of strawberries in the market of Prunedale on the outskirts of the city of Salinas. I reckon that they are the tastiest for me without a doubt. 

We go shopping at the New Leaf organic grocers in the village of Felton near the hamlet of Mount Hermon. Naturally, the shop's not dirt cheap there. All the same, my wife finds very lovely meals every time over there. 

I like drinking special tea. I was unable to bring back Ceylonese Dilmah from this market, but I don't believe it may be sold there any more as far as I know nowadays. Therefore, Layne brought a pair of Numi boxed teas from there for me. 

We ate a loaf of sourdough bread from Watsonville. It's made with rosemary and garlic. I have no wish to stop eating a loaf of that, for sure. 

Of course, I learned about local beers up there. I got dark beer (stout) with oatmeal in Santa Cruz and good cider made in California and Oregon. I will tell you more about our little holiday last month in Irish later this month, I hope. 

Grianghraf/Photo: Múrmhaisiú/mural-decoration, Margadh Duilleoige Nua/New Leaf Market, Felton

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ronald Hutton's "Blood & Mistletoe": Book Review

As the leading social historian of pagan movements today, Professor Hutton explores how the Druids, from the scant literary accounts left by their foes and by the few material traces left by themselves, have been interpreted over 2,000 years. He focuses upon their appropriation as cultural symbols, for better or worse, by the English, Welsh, and Scots. They have presented these ancient practitioners of wisdom and magic as demonic, romantic, proto-Protestant, anti-Catholic, death-obsessed, and/or socialist.

This broad array of categories demonstrates both the scope of the research necessary to uncover such traces in the British imagination, and the skill with which Dr. Hutton applies his understanding of historical bias and wish fulfillment to all who seek to claim or condemn the Druids as ancestors of the island’s three major nations.

Frequently, Professor Hutton notes how he had to condense an already massive study. This expands his popular 2007 study, and the endnotes, small print, and the elevated tone (leavened by humor as with his other books) do not detract from its readability for an audience committed to the advanced degree of both sympathy and distance which the author brings to his project.

He has gained in past work the cooperation of those who, as neo-Pagans, his own research has helped to challenge in terms of their own “origin myths.” Professor Hutton should earn again the respect of those open minds within the pagan community for his honesty, acumen, and fairness.

Blood & Mistletoe reminds us of the manner in which historians carry into the past their own present preoccupations. As a case study in the reconstruction of a barely-glimpsed group for whom linguistic or archeological evidence remains notoriously perplexing, the way in which scholars as well as seekers have labored to recreate the Druids in the images of their own ages and mentalities serves as its own testament to history’s inherent bias.

As soon as the Druids were introduced by such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus to their Roman audience, the priest(esse)s were caricatured as wise magicians (mistletoe) or barbarian butchers (blood). As with the Scottish highlanders or Native Americans cleared off their lands only then to be celebrated by their colonial conquerors, so, Professor Hutton demonstrates, the Druids were romanticized by the Romans after they had been castigated as savages. The evidence for an Iron Age Druid as selected from surviving later Celtic texts combined with archeological data, Dr. Hutton asserts, becomes warped by “the instincts, attitudes, context, and loyalties” of the interpreter.

Tracking the next 16 centuries, Dr. Hutton surveys the building of the legend. Historians, he explains, tend to follow a “hard” approach that favors a bold intervention by a person who shakes up the world, or a “soft” one that follows the cultural, political, and social shifts whose dramatic results may be delayed until the right person comes along. For this tale, William Stukeley follows the latter definition. His attempts to interpret the stone circles and monuments that puzzled the British ensured his popularity. He began by claiming a less Christian framework for their construction, but his increasing piety then led him to shift his argument. Either way, his influence persists even today among certain—if decidedly “alternative”—adepts.

Iolo Morganwg, the name assumed by Edward Williams later in the 18th century, follows Stukeley. The chapter on his checkered career as a “wayward genius” as determined to forge a future for the Welsh who resisted Anglicization and British imperial control shimmer with insight. It displays Professor Hutton’s command of complexity, for Iolo’s mission confounded a nation. Morganwg tainted the medieval Welsh-language sources he claimed to discover and edit. He ensured that the culturally threatened Welsh people would be trapped in their recovery of their own history as one in which truth and falsehood had been intermingled by him over decades, in ways so intricate that it took many years and considerable scholarship by experts to correct for some of the forgeries he crafted as claims of archaic Welsh rituals, legends, and occult practices.

However, from his entry into the historical record, Morganwg also inspired his fellow men and women to reclaim the practices of the Druids as they imagined them to have been carried out long ago. The traditions, albeit invented ones, have energized Welsh-language culture ever since. These also influenced the Georgian and Romantic poets and scholars who across Western Europe as well as in Scotland and England struggled to build frameworks based on Celtic and Scandinavian myth, the classic texts, and the Bible “in which to contain the early European past.”

When science emerged with Darwin to undermine biblical models of progress, antiquarians and then archeologists rushed in. By their own cultural assumptions via “explanatory models” stamped by their own time and place, they intruded heavily upon the same limited, fragile, evidence.

For nearly a century and a half, English figures of white-clad Druids (assembled as spiritual practitioners and as mutual support societies) have concocted their own ceremonies, fashions, and origins, based on Stukeley, Morganwg, and the nearly as challenging countercultural characters from long before the hippie era, first the formidably eccentric William Price and later the Universal Bond as headed by the intransigent George Watson MacGregor Reid. Price and Reid intriguingly shared a determination to legalize cremation, one of the many byways that this book reveals as it delves into the underbrush of British popular culture and social change from progressive and dissident forces. From the 1920s onward, the spiritualist and then New Age movements also overlapped with those who called themselves Druids, harbingers of change.

The familiar processions chanting around Stonehenge and similar Stone Age sites, as Dr. Hutton shows in English Victorian and early 20th century commemorations, have become less the radical, secular, or early countercultural protests they appeared to traditional Christians and more, by the advent of the rock-and-roll era, a sign of British tradition against modernity.

Full of anachronism, nevertheless these Druids came to stand for an enduring summer solstice tradition of their own. This modern invention on June 21st has persisted, on if often off, since the 1860s.

Even as the Bible was discredited and Darwin deified by many who shared the leftist mindsets of many Druid adherents, problems persisted among those who claimed to correct earlier misinterpretations. Popular perceptions a hundred years ago settled upon a romantic, Celtic visualization; secular scientists looked not to the Bible itself but to the same Middle Eastern roots for a civilization that dispersed its lore across the world, all the way to pre-Roman Britain. Professor Hutton incorporates his own knowledge of recent scholarship and his schooling with some leading scholars who proclaimed this model of diffusion from a far-off land of knowledge.

This section bogged down with intricate debates among archeologists, but even at its densest, the range of sources and energy brought to this project displays the professor’s sharp mind and generous spirit. The novelty of the Druids whose archives he scours appears to have lessened, despite the charges kept alive by a few reactionary Christians of their murderous sacrifices of babies, prisoners, and criminals.

I admit with surprise that recent film treatments such as The Wicker Man were not analyzed, and as the professor admits, nearly nothing seems oddly to remain extant of memoirs or accounts by the common folks who joined the Druid organizations in the past few centuries. However, this is already a substantial, long, and very detailed book.

Finally, Professor Hutton shows the mingling of those who speak for and then as the Druids—Stukeley, Morganwg, Reid foremost—as also those who make up its rogues’ gallery. Mingled deceit and honesty persists in this clever trio. They all provoked controversy and then shunned the limelight once public opinion fanned by prejudice or ridicule turned against them. Later, it edged toward them, attesting to their own adroit manipulation of a certain kind of media magic.

Secrecy endures as the ultimate legacy of this mysterious movement, then as now. Professor Hutton has uncovered and shared with us all he is able to in a book of 500 learned but accessible pages. It should remain the definitive source, not on the Druids about whom we know so few facts, but on those who claim in their homelands to remain true to their enigmatic but compelling spirit, thousands of years later. (Featured May 10, 2011 at the New York Journal of Books)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tommy McKearney's "The Provisional IRA": Book Review

Books on the Provos, the dominant faction after the 1970s IRA split with their more Marxist comrades, tend to fall into two categories. Historians and academics such as Rogelio Alonso, Kevin Bean, J. Bowyer Bell, Richard English, Henry Patterson, and Robert W. White tend towards heavily footnoted, analytical narratives; journalists from both Ireland and abroad such as Tim Pat Coogan, David McKittrick, Eamonn Mallie, Ed Moloney, Malachi O'Doherty, and Peter Taylor combine equally footnoted but more anecdotal accounts gleaned from a life or a stint reporting from the heartland of the Troubles during which the contemporary IRA revived and roared, mostly within the Northern Irish province.

What has been lacking from the growing shelf of studies are books which combine a journalist's verve with an historian's detachment. Until now.

This new book--so up-to-date that it covers the Irish Republic's elections this spring after the Dublin government collapsed into debt and sought an EU bailout--comes from a former IRA member who served over a decade and a half in the maximum-security, brutally-run prison known to the British securocrats as the Maze and to the Irish republicans as Long Kesh. Tommy McKearney speaks from the position of an insider, although his own crucial contributions are nearly unacknowledged. He was part of the 1980 hunger strike and helped spur (along with fellow critic of current Sinn Féin policy Anthony McIntyre) the prison movement the League of Communist Republicans in the later-1980s. McKearney gives but one parenthetical aside to the League as to his own leadership, and makes no mention of volunteering for the first of the major hunger strikes that soon would bring worldwide attention to the plight of Republican prisoners "on the blanket".

The results, therefore, serve to offer an objective, almost clinical, view of IRA strategy and tactics. These sections are preceded by chapter vignettes which open each chronological section with powerful paragraphs about the decisions made by various Northerners growing up in the Nationalist community, or coming into contact with it, who had to decide, by the end of the 1960s, whether to take up arms or to hoist the placards to bring about social change and more freedom for the Catholic minority. This community's rights were suppressed by a sectarian regime guaranteeing, by gerrymandering, discrimination, prejudice, and violence a "Protestant state for a Protestant people" ever since 1921 had compromised an Ireland into a Southern Republic and a Northern statelet.

The author rejects the revisionists who claim the Protestants were merely misunderstood; he places the blame for the conflict on a British-run, Protestant-majority system meant to keep the Catholics down. No moral or cultural equivalence can be sustained, and no civil rights movement seeking by peaceful means to bring about change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, McKearney insists, could have challenged the Crown enough to bring down an entrenched establishment. Even if the PIRA could break the Orange state, the one that followed is not quite Green, he adds.

That is, the IRA insurgency brought Northern Ireland to a standstill but not a military victory against an enormously capable British defense force and a political power able to resist reform. The Unionists now share power with the Republicans, but the new state, he finds, remains sectarian, if on a compromised scale according to Protestant and Catholic representation. Class solidarity is weakened while ideological separation, on parallel tracks, is strengthened. Capitalism continues, and socialism totters, undermining any claim by Republicans and radicals that cross-sectarian alliances might bring about equality.

McKearney's take, therefore, reflects leftist rejection of his Republican colleagues who have entered into the political parliaments, North and South, which they cannot overthrow. This has been the fatal attraction for generations of Republicans, for none have been able to overcome their minority status as a party or faction against their rivals already conducting affairs and running the state, who vow to keep business as usual. Poverty persists on each side, post-Celtic Tiger, of the border, as his end-noted statistics tally all too well.

Those who sought economic and social justice as new leftists, such as Bernadette Devlin in the civil rights days before the Troubles erupted, were able to wrest power from such as Communist organizer Betty Sinclair. Devlin, approaching Derry city, led marchers. She convinced crowds not to sit down alongside Sinclair, but to charge the barricades. But, as McKearney reminds readers, such heady promises of radical revolution soon failed when the guns of British troops killed fourteen innocent protesters on Bloody Sunday at the start of 1972. The futility of non-violent unrest convinced many to rise up and fight against the British.

As Provos took the advantage and took up arms, they did so in McKearney's view first as self-defense, then as a deterrent against reprisals, and then in a hope that the British could be forced by guerrilla warfare (and attacks in the British homeland) to withdraw from Ireland. No master plan carried this strategy out, as it was an ad hoc policy worked out hastily by often passionate volunteers committed to action rather than reflection, militarism rather than politicking. This weakened the Republican Movement in the 1970s as it had in earlier decades for those who ran the Irish Republic. Those who fought did not make necessarily the best candidates for leadership in the political parliaments they then sought, eventually, to enter rather than to erase.

Still, as others retreated from British guns, those who fought back inherited the responsibility to keep the struggle underground in a tiny island where guns, people, and talk all could be followed easily, by suspicious neighbors, by informants, by Protestant foes, and via British intelligence and informers. When, as recent years have shown, the head of IRA internal security and the right-hand advisor to Gerry Adams have both been revealed as informants to the Crown at critical stages in the Troubles dating back to the mid-1970s, no wonder the IRA failed to bring about its idealistic goals of a 32-County socialist, secular republic.

Principles and prudence clashed with the brutal realities of torture, betrayal, and weakness as working-class men and women sniped and bombed an enemy on many fronts--the Protestant militia, Loyalist paramilitias, the local police, and the British army. (McKearney skims over another factor, violent feuds with the Provos' former Marxist comrades, as they splintered and turned against one another.) Yet, in McKearney's pragmatic explanation, the PIRA had no choice, abandoned by the Republic of Ireland who viewed the resurgent Republicans as "the real problem rather than a response to it".

The PIRA found arms from their old boys' network through those who had fought fifty-odd years before for a partial independence from Britain. Yet, at the heart of this book is McKearney's avowal that the real mission of the Provos was less to gain that delayed unification of Ireland and more an overthrow of the Six Counties, the Northern Irish statelet.

Best to Come to This Book Informed & Alert

He compares the post-1998 expectations of the Provos since the end of their war to an imagined decision of Hamas to recognize Israel and to give up the refugees' "right of return". The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged with an all-Ireland vote (the first since 1918) that the island would for the present follow a "unity of consent" affording the Unionist majority in the North their right to ally with Britain. The Irish Republic abandoned its constitutional claim to jurisdiction over all of the island.

As with Anthony McIntyre and other prominent opponents to this peace process, the objection of these peaceful radical Republicans comes not from any regression to a "fetish of armed struggle", but to the fact that the Republicans entering power in Sinn Féin have given up on any attempt to bring about any more than a vague aspiration towards national unity and socialism. Some who fought for the ideals of the Provos now feel that their leaders lied to them even as they sent them to fight or saw them off to prison, and have since then sold them out.

McKearney holds no romance for the Fenian cause, but he does remain driven by its energy. Sinn Féin's neo-liberal economics, status-seeking respectability, and patterns of suppression of dissent within Republican communities inspire McKearney to the revival of an earlier Irish radical dream, that of a more just society based upon a class-based, secular solidarity.

The hope of a transformed Ireland does not seem to appeal as much as it once had. The Irish Republic ends its national phase, content to govern three-fourths of the territory and to follow neo-liberal capitalism however cloaked in republican rhetoric. The rejection of "single-issue Republicanism" bent on one Ireland means that sectarianism in the North is solidified on Catholic and Protestant identification (a communal one that does not depend on religious affirmation; similar to the Jewish conception of themselves as a people and not only a religious entity).

For McKearney, a non-establishment version of Radical Republicanism perhaps represents the only hope. This book may not convince those unsympathetic to his vision. A marked understatement about what Republicans (if not herein) call "the physical-force tradition" reveals indirectly his own experience in the IRA. He never reveals his own story, but his combination of vivid characters called in to start each chapter as composite representations perhaps of what volunteers and fellow-travelers endured shows his ability to infuse with journalistic energy and a storyteller's skill the idealism and the agony (and a bit of welcome if droll wit) of the Republican who slogged through the streets and ditches in hopes of bringing about Irish freedom.

However, the horrors of assassinations and of bombings with or without warning, of vicious attacks on civilians, on children, on raw recruits as well as prison staff, on and off duty, does persist, if well outside of this narrative. Some readers may react to this passage with a range of feelings: "Whatever rationale the IRA offered for the imperative of acting as it did, many Protestant people viewed this campaign as a sectarian assault on their community. This anger in turn lent a semblance of justification from a Unionist point of view." There is a careful, diplomatic distancing within this phrasing. While McKearney throughout this book combines a short, powerfully imagined scene with a more academic analysis of the PIRA's campaign and tactics, the scholarly register here may speak to some skeptics of a continued reluctance to accept blame.

I can hear on the page (even at a distance) the power of McKearney's position; in meeting him once, I was impressed by his compressed energy, his adroit intellect, and his steely insistence that his intricately argued philosophy presented progressive Republicans in Ireland with an alternative to what Sinn Féin and its leaders had proclaimed the party line. The appearance of the renewed leftist bloc Éirígí may signal a wider application of core Republican activists who seek to work within a wider constituency of those disenchanted with capitalism. These progressives seek (as the answer to continuing Irish inequalities in opportunity and in equality) a fairer system, cognizant of class and not sectarianism as the ultimate divide keeping many on the island from fulfillment of their common hopes.

As in person, so in this book: McKearney packs so much material expressing both progressive dreams and pragmatic strategies into such a brief time that one must come to him informed and alert.

His history, one that brings the impact of informers (if not the IRAs killing of supposed or real informers), elections North and South, and the continued economic meltdown of capitalism and neo-liberal policies inflicted upon the Irish population throughout the island, makes this a valuable and recommended study. Some of those authors whom I mentioned earlier will prove easier guides to the entire story of the IRA (before and after its spats and splits). But for a contemporary analysis of the main IRA force in its forty years "from insurrection to parliament", from a participant not in a seminar but a cell, as an operative and not as a professor, as not a reporter but a volunteer and a leader of the IRA, this is the report worth pondering.

(Featured on June 29, 2011 in RePrint at PopMatters; also posted July 4-5 to Amazon US & in shorter and altered form.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fernando Tejerina's "The University: An Illustrated History": Review

Fernando Tejerina edits this first single-volume survey of the evolution and current state of institutions of higher learning. Nearly 40 contributors provide in-depth chapters as well as shorter essays covering mainly European contexts, but with a markedly Hispanic perspective. This large-format compendium, handsomely designed and translated from Spanish by Kate Angus and Mike Escárzaga, therefore provides a Spanish and Latin American emphasis that opens up a fresh perspective upon what often has been presumed to be a British, French, or German-dominated system in its traditions and prestige.

Earlier centuries gain less coverage than later ones; however, as Pablo Campos Sotelo summarizes, during the Middle Ages, masters and students formed a “universitatas magistrorum et discipulorum” as a city guild. The Oxbridge model still follows this communal ideal, as a training ground for the ruling elite. Ignacio Sotelo reminds readers how the “know-how” of those who ran the realm has been inculcated by not the power of the sword, but by “noblesse de robe,” the “majesty of the gown.”

While Chaucer, with his famous tale from an Oxford clerk, gleans barely an aside, Cervantes, with his references in Don Quixote to the University of Salamanca, earns his own essay by Luís E. Rodríguez-San Pedro Bezares. Illustrations and details plucked from legal depositions and popular culture enrich these early centuries, when so many students remained anonymous. Candida Höfer’s dazzling photographs of the libraries at the Swiss Abbey of St. Gall and Trinity College in Dublin typify the graphic support this volume generously offers. Such illustrations expand the contexts to portray the ideal of the enclosed place set aside for learning, even as it became urbanized and then secularized.

The ideal of the monastic cloister, as Pablo Campos Sotelo explains, left its impact upon architecture. The quadrangle remained the pattern for many universities, as the shelter of the walls enabled the students and masters to pursue their own endeavors separated from the cities that began to grow up around cloisters and colleges. Mr. Sotelo shifts from this venerable template to the virtual university constructed today, and as with other contributors, he contemplates the meaning of this transformation.

Financed by the Spanish-founded Eurozone banking giant Banco Santander, this book provides an example of where also the Old World stretches into the New through university expansion. It documents in its many illustrations as well as its texts the story of European integration into native modes of learning. It covers the elimination also of previous indigenous methods, as in Luis Ugalde’s entry on the Jesuit role in Latin American education, or Manuel Burga’s essay on the Inca string “quipu” as a mnemonic accounting tool.

The Spanish accent throughout encourages the reader to respond to this educational innovation through byways and sidebars that may be less familiar to many English-language audiences. For instance, Manuel Tello debates the tension entering emerging nations now as they consider state-funded vs. private or for-profit models. Whether higher education under capitalism should be considered a public good or a private commodity informs his discussion. Joseb Jărab, as a Czech who was educated under the Soviet regime, narrates this story from his own experience. Within later chapters, the impact of global education on African, Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern campuses receives related attention.

The North American model, based often on massive dormitories near large classrooms, but following European patterns of research for large state-funded projects, emerged from a clash between two definitions of a university. John R. Thelin contrasts the forward-looking research university that in the late 19th century emerged as a rival to the smaller, traditional colleges often reliant on rote pedagogy. Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago typify this new university, determined to pursue research and graduate studies with fewer undergraduates and far more specialized, advanced fields.

Today, as Enrique García Santo-Tomás reminds humanities scholars, relevance remains essential if a discipline is to escape the dead ends of theory, contention among schools of thought, and media which may not advance to keep pace with the virtual arena and electronic databases which enliven the sciences. He urges liberal arts to adapt. The photograph of the Mare Nostrum supercomputer in a former chapel in Barcelona symbolizes this humanistic transition across the cyber-linked frontier.

This elegant tribute to the past, present, and future of the university should inform many who study at, graduate from, and teach at such institutions. A few shortcomings persist. As a medievalist, perhaps I paid closest attention to these sections, but I found a few errors. For example, the medieval French abbey at Cluny housed not “black-clad friars” but Benedictine monks; by comparison, Dominicans are not “monks” but friars. The “Carmina Burana,” based on medieval songs by wandering scholars, was composed by not “Karl” but Carl Orff. Finally, the lack of any introduction by the editor, Mr. Tejerina, plunges the reader immediately into ancient science, somewhat disconcertingly, as this hefty volume opens.

I welcomed this volume for its global range, its historical perspective, and its contemporary focus. It reminds readers of the nobility of the pursuit which matriculation, degrees, dissertations, tenure, and grants may represent at their best, however rarely. Finally, it appeals to the wonder that many of its libraries, towers, and quadrangles continue to aspire to as repositories for creative inventions, necessary careers, practical ambitions, idealistic schemes—and even utopian visions to become reality. (4-28-11 posted at  New York Journal of Books)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nuala O'Faolain's "A Radiant Life": Book Review

The consistency with which the late Nuala O'Faolain relates her thoughts echoes in this collection, largely of her columns for the Irish Times of Dublin. She combines erudition with no-nonsense observations, and her calm, steady, but ethical and forthright presence graces this collection. I heard some of this material on an audiobook version of her Almost There sequel to her international breakthrough memoir, Are You Somebody? and her voice can be heard as clearly on the page as on the tape. That is, a composed, opinionated, but compassionate and reasoned p-o-v.

The seventy-one entries of this collection start in 1987. The first piece looks at the Statue of Liberty refurbishment celebrations broadcast, but from an Irish view, that of the global underdog, not the flag-waving immigrant. She contrasts the Reagan years' rhetoric with the realities where the world's comprised of Sandinistas as well as Sinatra fans, and how the two may even overlap, in a vision outside the narrow patriotism marketed as entertainment, as American, she notes, as is St Peter to the Vatican.

She's a fair-minded critic of Catholic restrictions, imposed upon body and mind. Many essays explore the impacts of belief, fear, and capitulation to the demands of the Irish state and its clerical power. She also represents the liberation of an older generation from what she regards as the confines of a mental dictatorship and a physical regimen of joylessness. If you want to understand how far and how quickly Ireland's become secularized, O'Faolain offers a tangential as well as direct testament of how it happened since the late 80s, so rapidly, but perhaps because it was based on such shallow grounds. She notes in an incisive entry, "Irish Atheism", how ingrained the habits are, for communal standards and not personal conviction, to go along, from mother to child, with the system of faith that few believe but which fewer dare to challenge, for fear of upsetting the elders.

These pieces flow along often magically, as one topic one month fits into the one a few weeks later. She avoids easy sentiment and lilting cant. She's tough minded, yet open hearted, a tricky combination. Her steady output published here reflects, then, O'Faolain's curiosity, her evolution as an observer of her Dublin-based, but also Belfast and Manhattan surroundings, and how she kept her thoughts channeled as they did not drift but moved along, say, maternal lack of faith to babies once given up by the thousands by unwed mothers, to abuse in schools by clerics and nuns.

The American title's A Radiant Life but the Irish original's A More Complex Truth. The former choice pitches herself maybe as known to international readers, her vibrancy and down-to-earth quality. The latter title edges towards a knottier Irish refusal to let one opinion, one fact, one voice dominate a conversation. Each entry's short enough not to tire the reader, but long enough to engage the audience for a few minutes. This compression suits the contemplative tendency of her columns, as they mused about a point for a thousand or so words.

She finds fresh angles on familiar topics. About violence against women, she commences with her walk as night fell at 4:30 on a remote Irish island, and how surprised she was to see stars, as she realized how long it'd been back in the city since she went out in the dark alone. She laments her dental care, the death of her dog Molly, and she slowly moves, if beyond finally and inevitably beyond the last pages here (she died a year after the last 2007 column) into aging and mortality. She faces her future with admirable balance and brave rationalism, but she does not act as if she has the last answer to the eternal mysteries which she ponders, if without the conventional pieties professed, at least publicly, by most of her readers and neighbors. This broad-minded approach, combined with a patient ear and an eye tilted towards the have-nots and the overlooked, wins one over.

O'Faolain dismisses hero worship, of local boys turned idols U2, of the neighboring island's royals, of native politicians and prelates and celebrities. She does not do this out of spite, but out of morality. She does not pander to her everyday attitudes, but she explains them simply as those emanating from a well-educated woman with the right to her own informed views, and a forum to express them with as much composure as those granted pulpits, cameras, and platforms for cynical, destructive, and sinister intentions. This anthology offers a modest, but lasting memorial to her journalism. She confessed her own inadequacies at its limits, but for me, it shows how the past quarter-century felt to a bold Irish woman despite her leanings for the cozy corner and not the media spotlight.(Posted to Amazon US & 4-26-11. Featured on PopMatters May 20, 2011. )

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Benjamin Black's "A Death in Summer": Book Review

Detective Inspector Hackett early on finds to his disappointment not a murder but a seeming suicide, but then not one, "for the corpse was holding the gun in his own hands." The ensuing narrative shows, again, Quirke entangled in love, but a bitter, harsh, sulpheric sense of it never goes away. This novel ties together somewhat with themes of abandonment at an early age, first surfacing in "Christine Falls." While this story can be followed  independently, it's enhanced by familiarity with the motifs of betrayal, deceit, and institutional corruption in the book that introduced us all to Quirke.

I liked this as much as the other installments. It lacks the oddly enticing, if dreadfully faux-exotic whiff that enlivened dreary, postwar Dublin in "The Silver Swan" but it continues the relationships opened up in "Elegy for April" with daughter Phoebe and with Quirke's new lover. I'd missed pathologist assistant Sinclair in "Elegy," but in "A Death," he plays a major role. We find out about his past, and about his connections with yet another shadowy association of Ireland's leading figures in another conspiracy. This familiarity, as it recalls "Christine," slightly weakened the impact of similar revelations in "A Death." Still, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black satisfies with a solid story.

There was a bit less of the breathtaking prose that always can be found in this writer's fiction. Characters enter (many from past encounters with pathologist Quirke) and their reports, rendered as an indirect voice shifts in Joycean fashion subtly from consciousness to consciousness, move the story of three-hundred pages along neatly if somewhat schematically. The steady tone rarely departs from a detached, impassive viewpoint. Many characters do sound a bit too often similar, even a French one, a foreign entrant added as in earlier novels to show how the Irish respond or do not respond to outsiders. The situation of the Jewish residents of Ireland is part of the context here, if in passing more than deeply explored, but again, as with other novels, this deepens perspectives.

Responses of the characters convey welcome imagery. Sinclair recalls Phoebe who "looked like nothing much, with that stark little face and the hair clawed back from her face as if it were a punishment that had been imposed on her for an infringement of some religious rule." (49) The half-sister of that corpse Hackett finds is regarded by Sinclair as if with "the air of a debauched virgin."

And, no Banville or Black creation can come free of a gorgeous passage. I've reviewed most of Banville's fiction and the three earlier Black novels and for each I've cited a favorite snippet. So, Quirke "imagined them, hordes of enraptured lovers down the ages, millions upon millions of them, lashing at the poor old globe with the flails of their passion, keeping it awhirl on its wobbly axis like a spinning top. The love that people spoke of so much seemed a kind of miasmic cloud, a kind of ether teeming with bacilli, through which we moved as we moved through the ordinary air, immune to infection for most of the time but destined to succumb sooner or later, somewhere or other, struck down to writhe on our beds in tender torment." (183)

While I remained less convinced than Quirke of the charms issuing from object of his desire in this installment, that may be my cooler reaction as angled against his chastened one. As before, Quirke manages to unlock yet another grand scheme against the innocent and the defenseless. As his nemesis warns, stirring up the depths of the water can be fatal. "Remember," his foe threatens, "the little fish, and the big fish. And the mud at the bottom." (168)

Yeats' line about "the blood and mire of human veins" cited here contends against the vision of what Quirke glimpses as he falls in love: "Twin stars of light from some far window glowed in their straw-colored depths." (62) The pure contends against the profane. Quirke sums up his efforts to his police counterpart in investigation, Hackett: "We haven't grown up yet, on this tight little island. But we do what we can, you and I. That's all we can do." (307)

(As above, to PopMatters 6-23-11; Posted to Amazon US & 6-1-11)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Christopher Murray's "Samuel Beckett: 100 Years": Book Review

Thirteen scholars revisit his work. They each have 29 minutes on Irish radio. They sum up why we still read his often baffling fiction and watch his sometimes plotless plays a century after his birth.

Drama professors Christopher Murray, Anthony Roche, Gerry Dukes, J.C.C. Mays, Katherine Worth, and Declan Kiberd represent leading scholars. Historian Terence Brown, actress Rosemary Pountney, actor Barry McGovern, philosophers Dermot Moran and Richard Kearney, and novelist John Banville offer equally elegant entries. None of these are weak; despite the time constraints and implicit expectation that the listener's already familiar with Beckett's formidable work, the essays avoid cant, jargon, or tedium.

I'll briefly sum up each contribution. Murray introduces the collected Thomas Davis RTÉ lectures by emphasizing Beckett's notion "never less alone than when we are alone." (7) His anti-heroes "aim for Nirvana and miss." (3) They're captivated by the captive voices we all have within, the consciousness which never rests, which "is really conscience in disguise."

Dukes explores the early, unpublished play "Eleutheria" alongside "Waiting for Godot" to attend to the evolution of Beckett's most famous work. "En attendant Godot." Dukes notes how 'attentistes' as those who (in French) wait had been used during the Resistance in WWII as a put down for those who (unlike Beckett), put up with the Occupation rather than fight against it. Beckett chose to act, to resist authoritarianism, at great risk.

His characters attempt to understand life's cruelty. Kiberd finds in "Murphy" a protagonist enamored by The Other, in an insane asylum, but in this relationship, he fails to escape his own mental and physical isolation. The novel attempts to delay such reckoning, and as an aside, Kiberd finds in a convoluted sentence a delay shared "with many Irish politicians" Wylie's "ability to rob his own sentences of the meaningful climax of a finite verb." (38)

Later, Kiberd looks at Murphy's relationship with the prostitute Celia: "He fears, like many men, that his partner wants to change the very thing in him with which she originally fell in love." (42) Beckett's often unfairly targeted by casual readers for his inhumanity, but as this theme reveals in this early tragicomic novel, beneath the odd learning and puzzling jibes, the ideal of emptiness, of utter self-sufficiency, beckons as its moral and its caution.

Both Mays (on poetry and prose poems) and Moran (on philosophical contexts) quote the same early verse, "Gnome," and who can blame repetition of: "Spend the years of learning squandering/Courage for the years of wandering/Through a world politely turning/From the loutishness of learning." Beckett's cutting of what his mentor Joyce compiled, his gradual whittling away in his prose and drama of easy resolutions, thematic digressions, and plots themselves, makes him astonishingly central to the past century's confrontation with our legacy of learning.

Anthony Cronin, in a magisterial lecture on the prose trilogy, speaks of how Beckett "by reducing his characters to the extremer simplicities of need and satisfaction and the grossness of its perhaps necessary illusions."(88) "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable" strip away narrators and leave us with voices. But, how can we relate to such severity?

Cronin-- whose masterful biography "Beckett: The Last Modernist" (reviewed by me on Amazon US) remains my favorite of the three lives to date for Beckett-- concludes that he exaggerates to make his comic, tragic point. Heroes and lyrics fade, and poetry leaves empty air.
"Deep in our collective soul is a collective unease about the contrast between the traditional ecstasies, nobilities and romantic passions of literature and what most of us actually feel, the state of mind in which most of us actually live most of the time. And indeed between our portraits of our supposed selves as decent, kind, caring and unselfish and what is actually our psychology, actually our outlook. In its exposure of these gaps, Beckett's trilogy has a profoundly cathartic effect." (91) It may not say all that must be said, but what it says may liberate us from pretension.

Other academics share Cronin's careful estimation of Beckett's difficulty. Anthony Roche tells how he saw "Breath" as a teen on tv, and how its strangeness contrasted with the enjoyment of seeing "Godot" on stage. He later connects talking on RTÉ about the intriguingly titled "Krapp's Last Tape" the afternoon he learned of the 9/11 attacks. Somehow even the emotions buried in that play managed to inform Professor Roche's review on the air that day.

Beckett's power can unsettle. Rosemary Pountrey describes her own stage performance of "Not I," requiring her to be bound into a dark box. Richard Kearney compares his student reactions to Beckett as a "pompous bore" with his encounters with the plays performed live. Barry McGovern as a skilled speaker of Beckett's lines shows their energy in his plays for radio. Katherine Worth reminds us of their global impact, and the battle between the estate which demands fidelity to Beckett's directions with those who wish to free his drama for interpretation to keep it relevant.

John Banville, whose novels combine often hints of Joycean abundance and Beckettian austerity, can be as serious and unstinting as Beckett. But Banville sees humor within our habitual unhappiness, and so does Beckett. He's not a pessimist any more than an optimist, Banville decides after pondering his work: "like all true art, it simply is." (127) He adds, in a fashion Beckett would have admired: "By its very existence it affirms, but affirmation is not always positive."

Kearney stresses "Beckett's own refusal of easy solutions to life's ultimate questions-- life and death, theism and atheism, meaning and absurdity, self and other" as "one of his most abiding gifts." (121) The more I reflect on him, the more Buddhist (a term I have not found mentioned explicitly in his 1929-40 letters or any of his texts published [but see my speculations]) he seems. Perhaps by his honest elision of what constitutes the conscience, the voice, the mind, the self, Beckett in his passing over any conceptual definition or conventional approach (such as Buddhism, appropriately) proves truest to those few authors who attempt to articulate what noise and what silence lies within us all.

P.S. Posted to Amazon US & Britain, and 9-16-10 But without those hyperlinked speculations to their source, my "Beckett, Buddhism, and the Void" from Horizon Review 4 (2010).