Thursday, May 31, 2012

Urú gréine, ina tí solais

Chonaic mé grian-éiclips faoi deireanach. Dhreap mé suas fána ar-ghéar ag trasna ó mo theach. Bhí luí na gréine nach beag.

Chuir mé bileog páipéir ban síos ar an talamh. Choinn mé bileog eile leis an solas. Rinne Léna poll beag leis biorán a feiceáil an radharc os cionn chomh ceamara.

Fhéach Léna, Niall agus mise dealbh bídeach ar an clar na talún. Bhí sé míon. Bhreatnaigh muid ach oiread na fríde ar páipéir thíos.

Bhí cuimhne liom go raibh ceann chomh seo thart ar dhá scór bliain ó shin. Níl ábalta a fhíos agam más rud é nach mbeidh eile ar feadh mo saol, go cinnte! Mar sin, ná raibh sé grian-éiclips eile ag imeall an áit anois ar feadh lena liomsa.

Chuala mé ní raibh eile sa cheantar chomh seo go dtí 2071. Ar ndóigh, b'fhéidir beidh mé anseo. Mar sin féin, beidh mé céad agus deich mbliana d'aois.

Solar eclipse, "in the house of the sun."

I saw an eclipse of the sun recently. I climbed up a very steep slope across from my house. It was almost sunset.

I put a sheet of white paper down on the ground. I held another sheet up to the light. Layne made a little hole with a pin to view the scene above like a camera.

Layne, Niall, and myself looked at a tiny image on the page on the ground. It was very small. We watched but a bit of it on the paper below.

I was reminded of how there was one like this that happened "two score years ago." I wasn't able to know if there will be another one during my life, certainly. That is, there may not be another solar eclipse around the place here during my lifetime.

I heard there may not be another one locally until 2071. Of course, perhaps I'll be here. All the same, I'll be one-hundred-and-ten years old.

Grianghraf le/photo by Mike Maginot, Gleann Féir i gCalifoirnea/Grass Valley, California 20ú Bealtaine/20 May, 2012.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Stephen Prothero's "The American Bible": Book Review

"Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book club when Jefferson, Lincoln, and King are in the room?" To arrange such a conversation, Stephen Prothero compiles our nation's "core texts" from our "de facto public canon" into an "American Talmud," offering speeches, songs, stories, and sayings to spark discussion and debate as primary "books." Following each inclusion, he chronologically arranges dissenting and affirming comments from activists, lawyers, politicians, writers, and scholars. Ten "scriptural" sections comprise this biblical inspiration, mixing at first predominantly religiously infused arguments with, as the nation evolves, more secular and diverse texts. Furthering this Boston University professor's survey of contributions to our public discussion of issues that matter, it's a logical follow-up to his 2007 study "Religious Literacy."

Professor Prothero aims "not to create a canon but to report upon one." He seeks to overcome our bipartisan antagonism and our weariness with policies, parties, and principles which seem to shift. Returning key texts that matter to our public conversation, he hopes to renew hope among Americans. In this affordable, thoughtful, and balanced collection, Prothero invites us to listen to what our fellow Americans have discussed over almost four centuries as our necessary exercise in self-government, an experiment as open-ended as any ever attempted by citizens anywhere, anytime.

The book begins, logically, with "Genesis": colonial calls that often reenacted the Exodus story. "Law" follows as constitutional traditions and Supreme Court decisions from Brown in 1954 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. "Chronicles" relate "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Huck Finn" excerpts on slavery neatly, while a telling absence of an intended excerpt, denied by the estate of Ayn Rand, allows "Atlas Shrugged" to enter only in its commentaries, not the original text! Surely a moral lurks in this refusal.

Songs as "Psalms" follow, and for "God Bless America," even an Indiana billboard attests to its power, alongside "This Land Is Your Land" for a sharper counterpart to jingoism and patriotic cant. "Proverbs" places aphorisms around a Talmudic pattern of surrounding voices, before "Prophets" announces "Civil Disobedience," Eisenhower's farewell address about the military-industrial complex, King's "I Have a Dream," and Malcolm X's autobiographical defense of his "demagogue" role with a predictably if astutely chosen chorus of dissenting as well as assenting voices joining in as commentary in the decades since, with our current president among poets, pacifists, and preachers.

Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" opens "Lamentations" fittingly; Prothero prefaces this with an exegesis of how this "new gospel" elevated the Address above not only the "letter of the Constitution" but the "spirit of the Declaration of Independence." It redefined America as more revolutionary than conservative, in the professor's perspective. He then juxtaposes this with another dramatic response to war, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and ends that section with Bill Clinton invoking in turn Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to heal the damage of the Vietnam War.

Appropriately after this division, the book breaks into its "Gospels" with inaugural addresses by Jefferson and FDR, before a surprising entry by Ronald Reagan. Not from his presidency, but from nearly two decades earlier, when on television he endorsed Goldwater and argued against LBJ's Great Society, to set the course for the resurgence of his own career and that of the GOP. Prothero tips his hand perhaps away from the expected tilt of many in academia towards the left. Although his sympathy may hover, he does take pains to present the views of conservatives fairly in such chapters. Examining the comments appended to "The Speech," from Reagan's demythologizing biographer Lou Cannon to his memorialist Sarah Palin, the sharp voices for these polarizing texts prove lively.

After the figures of such bold presidents, "Acts" may seem anticlimactic.  Yet, the Cold War insertion of the "under God" clause into "The Pledge of Allegiance" merits extended analysis in one of the most informative segments. "Epistles" from Washington's "Farewell Address" prove relevant in terms of both the rise of the Religious Right and the controversy over "entangling alliances" as foreign policy. Lesser known one may hazard to nearly any reader than other entries: Jefferson's "Letter to the Danbury Baptists" in 1802, over the separation of church and state. At the time of this letter, a national church was prohibited by the First Amendment, but not by states. The "establishment clause," articulated here by Jefferson, became long a tenet of Democrats--at least until the past decade's return by even many liberal candidates towards espousing in public their own faith.

Faith supports the second document from King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." No book of revelation or apocalypse concludes this compendium, although the Civil Rights Movement has its own eloquent speakers in the commentaries that follow, if oddly nearly all after the initial unrest during which King's letter was delivered. The epilogue wraps up the presentation with more on the race question, which Prothero emphasizes as the key question in all the "American Bible," as a melting pot has not endured as a model, but a fiercely partisan, multicultural, and multiethnic polity.

Prothero reminds us of competing readings we bring to this anthology's issues. Dissent erupts, even as it's channeled into conversation, as heroes rise and fall and politicians come and go. This dynamic, as this edition represents handsomely (even if the parchment-type of background for primary texts may jostle aesthetically against the brown-on-beige commentary footnoted therein), may not resolve these worthwhile wrangles Americans love to engage in, but they stand for our "shared practice" to argue the public good (I think of the ideal of the founders, a "res publica") as regularly as some go to Mass, attend sermons, or visit temples. (Amazon US 5-29-12 via a review copy; author's website)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya": Book Review

Two months after a 17-year-old Tibetan nun was murdered by the Chinese police, this reporter for London's paper The Mail on Sunday followed her footsteps, and those of the 70 surviving refugees who made it across to Nepal in 2006. His coverage here sums up what became a fine account of what to my knowledge has not received attention before: the intersecting paths of mountain climbers from the West, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale Cho Oyu or Everest, and the desperate Tibetans attempting, under increasingly brutal conditions in their homeland and progressively more invasive surveillance by spies, technology, and soldiers, to find freedom on the other side of the Himalayas. Green writes movingly of the contrast between such climbers as famed guide Luis Benitez and the photographer Sergei Matei (who filmed some of the shootings of the refugees that his climbing party saw from a distance) and Dolma Palkyi, in exile now, the best friend of the murdered girl Kelsang Namtso.

I heard this story on an audiobook. William Hughes reads it fluently, with at least to my untutored ears an accurate rendition of the many Chinese and Tibetan names and places. His rendition keeps the slightly distant tone adopted by reporter Green, who strives to find out as much as he could despite a fearful tendency of the Chinese to suppress protest and squelch dissenters in the West not to mention the East. Yet, Hughes' voice and Green's style also strive to discover the conflicts beneath the initial press flurry of attention to this story.

Its comparative rarity lies in the fact it's the first time since the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959 during the Chinese conquest that documentation has existed of a murder by the communists. As Matteo Pistono has revealed in his own eloquent book, "In the Shadow of the Buddha", getting out hard evidence of atrocities from Tibet is next to impossible. Both sides engage in propaganda, and hearsay inflates the real suffering perpetrated. As Green himself is told by the Dalai Lama when he visits him in Dharamsala, the need to stay "honest" is difficult advice to follow when telling of Tibet.

Lots about Tibet is interspersed with mountaineering and Everest-variety lore, and while to me this was integrated well, it does demand close attention as the points of view shift between Benitez and climbers, historical background, and the lives of Dolma and Kelsang and their band of escapees. Green, in the penultimate section of this necessarily expansive book, delves (for me too briefly but this may be due to Chinese spin doctoring at home and abroad of pro-Tibetan voices in print and online) into how complicated the whole issue has become. What the East denounces as feudalism and the West often romanticizes in Tibet clash with the political ramifications and economic realities of a superpower determined to crush dissent and to, in the times during and after the 2008 Olympics, to squelch the truth. Small wonder, Green finds the Dalai Lama bursting out into anger as he laments how the death of Kelsang represents the true face of Chinese power, and how we in the West acquiesce as readily as did the mountaineers (who symbolize perhaps this accommodation) to favor.

Green considers, near the end of his narrative, how the Romanian photographer's choice to document the killing that suddenly erupted below the slope came from his awareness of oppression under totalitarianism, and how to him, freedom meant more than personal security or safety. Yet this same bold individual tells in the presence of his own meeting with the Dalai Lama a markedly off-color phrase to show how his photos and video "embarrassed" the Chinese! Green to his credit keeps his own objectivity, even as he naturally cheers on the choices of the Westerners who felt, finally, they had to tell the world what the majority of the climbers did not want to reveal about Kelsang's death.

Benitez, an American guide, contended with his own reputation as a driven, perhaps self-aggrandizing (to his many critics among fellow climbers, a contentious lot) Westerner, torn between the love of the mountains and his duty, reluctantly and imperfectly realized, to tell the world what he and his clients (who felt they could have done nothing and did not want to anger their Chinese upon whom they depended for permits and access and patronage by bribes) had seen. Dolma in India finds herself, along with many refugees, ironically comparing the more modern Lhasa (under relentless colonization by the incoming Han Chinese and tourism now by rail) with the backward conditions of her asylum in India, even if she is nearer the Dalai Lama whom she and her companions had longed to meet. No one here seems to have found a truly happy ending.

I cannot help but compare what I and billions heard about the Olympics against what I never heard in 2008 about this one woman's murder from afar at the Nangpa La pass. The imbalance, despite Green's commendable work, grows more and more against Tibet and on the side of a Maoist Nepal all too willing to support its watchful neighbor, the dominant and implacable China. One closes this thought-provoking, ambitious, and ethically relevant book soberly. (Amazon US 4-20-12)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jim Reynolds' "The Open Path": Book Review

This modest, unprepossessing diary chronicles the bicycle journey of a Southern California man, who wants to become a Buddhist monk. Before he does so, he at the age of 25 travels overland, often in disguise as a Mao-era peasant, when China still permitted independent tourists in a post-Cultural Revolution, pre-Tiananmen Square, thaw. An uprising in Lhasa after he had left there forces him again to evade the officials and their unpredictable demands. this led to a crackdown on all tourists from other lands in Tibet. His 1987 account remains blessedly free of romanticism.

After all, he makes his pilgrimage as a "dukkha-" (unease, dissatisfaction are preferable to the usual translation as "suffering") based exploration of discomfort. Reynolds seeks to immerse himself in rigor and strain, to encounter harsh terrain, petty bureaucrats, and miserable room and board along the long way. He hitchhikes a lot and relies on chance meetings often. He drinks dairy tainted by Chernobyl and sold off cheaply to the Chinese, who distribute it to such as him and his hosts. He suffers from diarrhea, understandably, but as he resigns himself to what the days and nights bring under dazzling stars at dizzying heights, he appears in often good humor.

For instance, about the people he finds in Eastern Tibet and its borders: "Khampa men have it pretty good. They are in charge of drinking tea, talking politics, looking handsome, and acting macho. All this keeps them quite busy, so the women take care of the heavy labor and the hard work." (57) He teaches kids how to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Psycho Killer," both evident favorites.

His companions that he meets, originally two Swiss women and later joined by two men from Colombia and Sweden, gain little description and Reynolds himself appears rather self-effacing. Instead, he emphasizes the mundane encounters and the tedium often missing from more polished presentations. He reasons that in such honesty will be the truer rendering of what in hindsight is often glossed over in memory, and his diary grounds him as it does the reader in the often uneventful trek as well as the highlights of sightseeing.

He quotes John Lennon and Little Feat and meets hardships on his outer path with hard-earned equanimity, no doubt good practice for his subsequent career as a forest monk in Thailand along the inner path.  He learns to confront his hedonism and he readies himself for renunciation. "No one can make my load lighter. No one can walk with me. No one can tell me when I've arrived." (134)

The basic black and white photos don't do the deserts or mountains of Tibet justice, but they remind one of the faces he meets along the way. His circuit around the holy Mt. Kailas can be compared with Colin Thubron's eloquent version over two decades later, "To a Mountain in Tibet", for how rapidly even remote Tibet and the Himalayan fastnesses are changing under the modernization that at the time of Reynolds' visit--just before the region was opened up to foreign tour groups--appear not to have taken hold much, even in Lhasa. It's an unadorned tale, but of interest for its calm, direct tone. (Amazon US 5-20-12)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jamie Zeppa's "Beyond the Sky and the Earth": Book Review

In her mid-twenties, delaying a doctoral program in English, Jamie Zeppa leaves Toronto for Bhutan early in 1989. What she finds in part confirms her fears of hardship, isolation, and loneliness, but she overcomes her fears of leeches, rats, and fleas (she counts 50-odd bites early on) and learns to love her  intrusively generous junior-high students in a Southeastern Bhutanese hamlet where she volunteers on a Canadian government program. Soon, she transfers to where she had been turned down for her first assignment before departure: the nation's first, small university, Sherubtse, closer to the central region in Kanglung of this vertiginous realm.

She'd been rejected for fears that her youth and inexperience would lead to a romantic liaison with a student there, and soon, she falls in love with one to whom she lends Garcia Marquez' novels, Tshewang. His intelligence and shyness attract her, and Zeppa writes convincingly of her struggles not to succumb, for fear of her reputation in a land where everyone knows too soon everyone else's affairs. "History" is translated in the local language as the stories that people tell.

She contrasts this network well with her Christmas holiday back in Canada, where Western individualism, privacy, and consumerism grates on her after being abroad. Bhutan's connectivity, where one realizes who purchases what, who made that, who knows whom, enchants her, but she remains honest about the drawbacks of intimate life in a kingdom where she will never fit in, and her romanticism contends against the poverty, conformity, and censorship she witnesses as the threatened monarchy cracks down on the Nepali immigrants who have settled across the open border with India and who, the kingdom fears, may overwhelm the Buddhist culture and indigenous peoples in the manner that China has conquered Tibet and that India has subdued Sikkim in the same manner.

In her grad school seminars, talk of cultural construction of values comes easily, but as she teaches Shakespeare at the university, she sees how her classes divide bitterly over these ethnic and religious loyalties. Underneath the respect shown her by Bhutanese schooled in obedience to authority, she suspects a complicated scenario that remains hidden from her sight. She fairly examines, as best she can as an outsider forbidden to meddle in internal issues, the Situation, as it comes to be called.

Meanwhile, this chronicle adroitly takes us along as the events occur during her teaching stints. She lands in a place quiet and still: "It is easier to picture a giant child gathering earth out of armfuls, piling up rock, pinching mud into ridges and sharp peaks, knuckling out little valleys and gorges, poking holes for water to fall through." (14) Yet this land's filled with dogs, chatter, and nosy neighbors along the paths and roads that link its inhabitants on muddy slopes beneath vast vistas. "Every sign of human settlement repeats the mantra of contentment, 'this is enough.'" (109)

Amidst intimacy and plenitude, she does not discount the human toll to preserve such a fastness between two superpowers hostile to its ancient faith and suspicious of its geopolitical position and its mineral and timber resources. She finds the division of the people into "two solitudes" sobering, and she realizes her attempt to discover an easy solution evades her and her hosts. "I love the view, but I would not want the life," she reasons later in her residence as the Situation darkens her mood. (220)

The outcome of her three-year stint I will leave you to discover. She slips into meditation easily and although her predilection to find out more about Buddhism precedes her arrival, she takes refuge, to enter into buddha-dharma, rather suddenly at least by the leisurely pace of what her narrative has revealed up to then. Zeppa tends to gloss over portions of her stay, to protect I assume her privacy and that of others (despite some adroit characterizations of her often overqualified and under-motivated colleagues at both schools imported from India). Also, the book could have used a much more detailed map and a glossary of terms. All the same, it proves a recommended interpretation which tells her tale--in a land where the roads average seventeen curves per kilometer--straightforwardly and, with a few elisions, smoothly. It does end abruptly, again for discretion perhaps, but more of a sustained fadeaway would have suited the tone better of the preceding story.

I also reviewed Francoise Pommaret's guidebook and that of Lonely Planet: what Zeppa's version offers is the necessary personal perspective, if altered inevitably from two decades ago, as the kingdom now seeks to triple visitors and make it the jet-set contrast to backpacking Nepal. Complementing Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La" (see my review 3/2011), which stays more in the now-changed capital of Thimphu nearly two decades later, Zeppa's account wanders the rural landscape and small settlements, and her careful eye for detail highlights this graceful, frank, and thoughtful depiction of her adapted home. (Amazon US 5-21-12)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson": Book Review

This follows the stadiums full of cheers for the Dalai Lama's righteous but perhaps quixotic cause by many Western supporters with an insistent voice of reason. As an experienced China-based journalist, sympathetic to the underdog but determined to tell the truth, Tim Johnson's well placed to hear the Mandarin side of the debate and the PRC's position as it crushes dissent in Tibet and abroad. That is, post-2008, few articles and fewer books have emerged to date chronicling the shift towards heavier suppression and heightened surveillance as Chinese bullying escalates and as the rest of the world capitulates to the economic superpower's demands for cooperation with the anti-Tibetan crackdowns.

What happens is that China lobbies in American corridors of power for a narrow view: any pro-Tibet stance legislators may adapt equates for a return to barbaric theocracy and despotic feudalism. This contradicts, of course, the Dalai Lama's reiterated position for a truly autonomous Tibetan entity, if not the desperation of a marginalized people who, as the internal exile poet Woeser laments here, find it now impossible to change their own destiny, as marginalization accelerates and the environment, ecologically and culturally, faces irreparable damage. He shows how discrimination against Tibetans continues in universities and jobs, and how as in Lhasa Han and Hui Muslim immigration weakens the native culture and their means of making a livelihood in an increasingly desacralized tourist trap. Full of brothels, many owned by government, party, or military, this symbolizes Tibet's subservience.

Johnson visits Tibet, on a tourist visa; he tells how as a blacklisted journalist, media access is denied those considered pro-Dalai Lama--a sign of the PRC's success in propaganda bent on repairing its image. Activists have their human and cyber networks hacked; academics toe the Chinese line or face funding cuts and loss of student tuition from a lucrative market of immigrants; He opens his account with a warning: "Today it is the Tibetans. Tomorrow, those harmonizing about the glorious blue skies of China could be you or me." (26) As China rises in power, the fate of the Uighurs (suspected post-9/11 as subversive, their ancient cities bulldozed into featureless flats) or Mongols (not too long ago, outnumbering the Han Chinese 5:1, they now find their language and culture fading under relentless resettlement of the Mongol homeland by the Han majority) now is that of Tibet.

As one activist laments, among those contemplating fighting back, "We are going to be wiped out in another thirty years. It is now or never, do or die." (113 qtd.) Johnson examines those who differ with the patient, non-violent, nearly invisible pace of resistance commended by the "god-king," and he explains how the eminence of the Dalai Lama overshadows that leader's encouragement that the exile government (itself well-described in its comparative modesty in half-trendy, half-slurried Dharmasala) seek democratic consensus to move alternatives forward. He also reveals how ghosted systems installed by the PRC obtained many internal documentations and communications among the pro-Tibet networks worldwide, and how the Chinese use their clout to get their way to keep "trade."

Johnson, capable of relaying the views also of the Chinese as leaders and followers, does take pains to show their perspective {contrary to what some reviewers and commentators assert at Amazon}. As a skilled reporter, his tone may not captivate as much as those who rhetorically root for the Dalai Lama, but he in a quieter fashion builds a balanced presentation, afforded by his position within China for so many years, and his own contacts there and overseas. He shows how the Chinese cleverly commented on how Obama claimed in 2009 to have learned from Lincoln's Civil War role. Surely, the Chinese lectured America's first black president, such a man must admit that the racist Confederacy could be compared to the "splittists" blamed for, as with other minority populations in today's PRC, agitating against the fatherland's benevolent wish for unity. However, it is undeniable that China funds many who speak on behalf of its own hardline policies.

Sowing discord, as with the "Shugden affair," and the diplomatic and well-financed business efforts to sway leaders abroad away from pro-Tibetan statements let alone action demonstrates how the Chinese operate. Even among Buddhists drawn in China to study in Tibet, they obey largely the dictates of their government and party rather than their spiritual mentors, and Johnson's visit to a vast complex near Serthar in remote Tibet shows this conflict, or lack of such, in intriguing detail.

This book sits on a small shelf of recent coverage; I also reviewed Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya" (on the murder of a fleeing refugee near Nangpa Pass mentioned in passing by Johnson if unnamed by him on p. 104), Matteo Pistono's clandestine coverage "In the Shadow of the Buddha,", and Stephan Talty's conclusion,  "Escape from the Land of the Snows." Johnson's dispassionate tone, more akin to journalism than advocacy, may be less gripping than Green's conflicted mountain climbers and desperate devotees, or Pistono's dramatic eyewitness testimony, but as with Talty, Johnson provides valuable interpretations of why Tibet matters to at least a few of us.

Other chapters feature the impact of the rail line to Lhasa, the forced relocation of Tibet's herders into housing tracts, the unrest in border areas beyond the Chinese T.A.R. boundaries, the Karmapa and the Black Crown intrigue, similar complexity around the Southern California prep-school educated, pampered daughter marketed as "The Princess of Tibet," and the Dalai Lama's own articulation of his own challenging array of roles he has to play. What happens after his demise, of course, overshadows the predicament of Tibet's future. The good will conveyed by the present Dalai Lama may not survive his death, and Tibet may be relegated to the comparative neglect of Uighurs and Mongols in the attentions of the rest of the world, which already pays its situation little heed outside a few circles.

As Johnson titles a telling chapter, "Hollywood vs. Wal-Mart," it appears that we Westerners "might adore the Dalai Lama, but many love their high-paying jobs and their cheap Chinese-made products more." (289) For all the proclamations passed in the world's legislators and fundraising dinners acclaiming the Dalai Lama, China blocked in 2009 his attempt for a South African visa to attend a gathering of Nobel Peace laureates.

In closing, this sobering book merits attention; I came across it only by chance. If its comparatively modest profile is indicative of the reception of his necessary call for more action and less talk about Tibet's crisis, perhaps this promotion of its message will be one small step forward. It's well documented and carefully end-noted. A telling indicator of the gravity of its contents is that many names must remain anonymous, given the mortal threats many of his informants live under. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lonely Planet's "Bhutan": Book Review

Compared to Francoise Pommaret's Odyssey guide, Lonely Planet under the team of Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra for its fourth ed. (2011) looks far more user-friendly. Charts in blue and white leap out, icons direct, sidebars beckon, and the data are chosen for practicality. For instance, Pommaret generally tells what medication to bring; LP tells you specifics in far more detail for what with one limited hospital in a challenging terrain and high altitude can be a daunting journey.

Contrasting, while far fewer color photos entice (a few in the front compared to many in Pommaret), the small size (a half-inch off her guide's size) and compression of information for the day-to-day trekker more than the armchair traveller I confess to being (and at the rise to U.S. $250 per diem from $200 will likely remain indefinitely) do not offer as much a visual feel for the place. Lacking photos and excerpts from past explorers of this Himalayan kingdom, the traveler will not gain from the pages as much of a cultural introduction as the Odyssey travel guide provides in more leisurely narrative fashion. Yet about 40% of this LP guide is given over to non-itinerary information, so it can balance the necessary facts with nature, religion, history, do's and don'ts, and a short glossary of terms, as you'd expect in such a guidebook from a familiar and reliable publishing firm.

I'd opt for both books to take on my imaginary visit, Pommaret to read up on in my lodgings before seeing the sights and LP to take along on the excursions as it's packed with prices, phone numbers, hours places are open (not often perhaps off the main road), and the type of rapidly retrievable data needed on the go. It sounds as if the "low volume, high value" motto leads one to expect that this cultural heartland and wildlife reserve (35% of the land is protected) is less unpopulated than its small native populace may make it seem, oddly, given the limits that its few highways and places to stay in such dramatic settings have to as it were channel visitors into a east-central-west pattern of movement, unless treks take the hardier off the highways, themselves sounding harrowing despite their lovely vistas. This is a less polished and rougher realm to navigate, part of its charm, after all.

These treks, 25 of which are government approved, are emphasized along with mountain bike trails. A chapter details some treks, and the tilt of some of the contents shows an expectation that many visitors will welcome the chance to get outdoors. Of course, festivals held at the many temples, filled with art and color, will invite many visitors to another form of elevation, and these are described too.

There's useful summaries of where to stay and eat, naturally. As Bhutan requires a guide (why that per diem tariff is fixed), there's perhaps more give-and-take with a personal guide than on a tour, but both options are presented along with many itineraries fixed into how long one will stay. I finished this still curious about how the guides work with one to plan, or if plans are best made in advance, given what I imagine can be unpredictable challenges with weather, arranging transport, and finding suitable accommodation. "Booking Your Trek" is generally written, when it might have been more focused. It seems that group tours are common and nudge aside individual travelers, reading a bit between the lines, so this guidebook may be more essential than one may imagine if elsewhere. Despite an inevitable generality in this essential, mandatory planning section, certainly nobody visiting this realm could leave without this guide in their backpack. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Francoise Pommaret's "Bhutan": Book Review

This new edition features what has made this Odyssey guide so popular; it's the first written on this Himalayan kingdom (originally in 1990). Translated by Elisabeth Booz and Howard Solversen from the French, it carries in its tone a slightly old-fashioned feel which enhances the eye the Tibetologist and resident Francoise Pommaret brings to her adopted home. Her photographs, along with those credited to Yoshiro Imaeda and Lionel Fournier, enhance the value of this as a cultural guide, interspersing tidbits from past explorers and short topical essays on culture, religion, language, medicine, and other nuances.

The main text gives a general overview (compared to Lonely Planet's details as in what medicines to take--a few words here vs. lots of specifics there), the lay of the land, religion and the concomitant frequent festivals, and history. Then, the center portion starts where the visitor will arrive, the Paro Valley and Thimphu, and takes one around there and then to central valleys and eastern realms. A short trekking section follows, and glossaries conclude this compact (if a half-inch or so thicker than Lonely Planet) introduction. Here, with some verve (also best found in her section on landing near Paro and then visiting the streets of the capital), Dr. Pommaret's text comes alive. The author states it's "less a catalogue of addresses" than an introduction to the culture, to be fair to any reader contemplating its purchase. Still, I wish it had more than one map for a place the size of Switzerland. All the same, the illustrations and elaborations of customs and backgrounds provide their own value. Lots of temples to see, crafts to buy, and hills to climb: that's the gist of the contents.

Like the "Blue Guides" for other countries, which nod more to cultural landmarks and historical context rather than the phones and websites and opening and closing hours of where to eat and where to shop, this Odyssey guide features a companion akin to a travel guide in person. One who's able to point out the significance of the sights, and to alert one's eye to what might not be seen or missed or misinterpreted otherwise. One advantage it possesses over Lonely Planet is more photographs; one disadvantage is the less-user friendly organization, as it's more a narrative than a rapidly accessible itinerary arranged by days, charts, icons to be taken in at a glance. Similar information is here, but it's nestled deeper.

I am (to date, alas, and with fees jumping from U.S. $200 to $250 per diem in 2012) an armchair traveller, but I found this a helpful companion after reviewing recently Barbara Crossette's 1995 account centered in Bhutan on the vanishing Buddhist kingdoms surrounding it, "So Close to Heaven." She speaks at length of the dogs barking, and I note ear plugs are recommended. I am not sure given altitude and winding roads how rapidly visitors acclimate to the terrain, but it seems enough must, as visitors increase along with the guide fees seeking wisely to limit access and protect cultural change. Still, as Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La" notes (see my review 3/2011), change must come, even to this remote destination.

Therefore, books such as Dr. Pommaret's are necessary to show visitors, at a distance in fantasy or up close in reality, the nature of the place so far away, and protected from intrusion for so long. She's a sympathetic observer of its qualities, and although her very presence and this guide represent the inevitability of change, it's best to have such shifts controlled by those who can mediate between the influx of visitors and the wishes of the Bhutanese to handle change. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An tae is blasta--go dtí seo

Chuir mé an tae is blasta. Bheul, bím ag insint agaibh anois ar an laghad. Go dtí seo, sílím go mbeadh is fearr liom é.

Cheannaigh mé blasannái samplaí go leor ó Upton Tea Imports faoi deireanach. Ní raibh mé a iarraidh malaí tae ar bith níos mó. Ina theannta sin, bhí mé ag lorg ar an idirlíon.

Is maith liom beagnach gach cíneal a mhéid ó Upton. Nuair a chuirtear mé mo ordú dara, ghlac mé an deis. Rinne mé rogha. Chuir mé mala rialta ó tae de hAssam go raibh ainmithe Eastát Numalighur TGFOP1.

Ní raibh sampláil mé a sula é, ach is brea liom é go laithreach. Tosaigh sé leis blas géar agus trom ach taithneamhach freisin.  Tá tae dubh go bhfuil leideannái fíon agus fíonchaoraí triomaithe air.

Mar sin féin, d'fhoghlaim mé nuair ag filleadh ar ais an suíomh ar an ghréasán nach bhfuil ar níos mó ar díol ar chor ar bith.  B'fhéidir, is féidir liom a fáil mala eile riamh fómhar seo chugainn san India. Dá bhrí sin, beidh mé ag ól é leis eolas 'milis agus searbh'.

The tastiest tea--so far.

I found the tastiest tea. Well, I'm telling you all--as of now. So far, I think it may be my favorite.

I bought lots of various samples from Upton Tea Imports recently. I didn't want any tea bags any more. Furthermore, I searched online.

I like nearly all types from Upton. When I was placing my second order, I took a chance. I made a choice. I got a big bag of Assam that was called Numalighur Estate TGFOP1.

I had not sampled it before, but I loved it immediately. It started with a sharp and bold taste but also pleasant. The black tea has hints of wine and dried grapes ("raisins").

All the same, I found when I returned to the site on the web that there isn't any more for sale at all. Perhaps, I will be able to get another bag after the next harvest in India. As a result, I will drink it with "bittersweet" knowledge.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pico Iyer's "Sun After Dark": Book Review

Compared to its predecessor "The Global Soul," I found this 2004 essay collection stronger in part. Although some of the pieces precede "Global" in their original publication in magazines, Iyer chooses wisely to gather them into as the title foreshadows a dimmer look at "flights into the foreign." The relentless jet travel returns, as defining Iyer; one essay here is all about jet lag, how one eats six lunches in one day.

Not that this has happened to me, but he charts one jaunt that took him thirty-three hours, from Santa Barbara to Oman, and he draws on certainly a far wider range of experiences than most of his readers, I reckon. "Since then, like many of us, I've run into the Tibetan leader everywhere I go--at Harvard, in New York, in the hills of Malibu, in Japan"--this from an essay on the Dalai Lama after Iyer tells of his own father meeting the DL when Iyer was three back in Oxford. Of course, we read Iyer for his wider perspective, but as in "Global" (see my 5/12 review) one cannot shake his air of entitlement that accompanies his evocations.

Neither can he, in part. The post-9/11 mood of many of these fifteen inclusions does force Iyer to confront the poverty and pain within those whom he meets. One strong essay, "On the Ropebridge," contrasts the wish-fulfilling image (as it were) of wondrous Tibet he brings as a Westerner to that land; another surveys the begging children in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge at Angkor as Iyer must compare their fate as skeletons, or as parasites, on the tourism that is seen to revive a shattered Cambodia. These sorts of Hobson-Jobson choices (a term he explains in a smart section on Hinglish, or how Indians adapt and alter English a half-century after independence) speckle these pages.

These essays, admittedly, do vary in quality. After a strong start with the first two (your reactions may differ, and I write as one less enchanted with the famous, rich or otherwise, than Iyer, despite my sympathies for the Tibetan cause), the rest offer ups and downs, and some merit more skimming than immersion. Iyer's talent may, I suspect, get rushed along by deadlines and compress itself by word counts for the magazines to which he contributes if "often in very different form" the originals that are the core of the essays anthologized. Like many essayists or travel writers, the uneven results do betray a sense that it's another two or three years, so it's another collection.

I suppose the "Open Road" book (see my 9/08 review) which a decade later followed the article on the Dalai Lama included some of the material here as the 1998 "Making Kindness Stand to Reason"; still, this affectionate portrait shows the subject with a real rapport alongside Iyer. So does the one before it from the same year, an elegant study ("A Gathering Around a Perplexity") of the willfully gnomic Leonard Cohen at his Mt. Baldy Zen retreat in Southern California. "Where else should he be, where else could he be, than in a military-style ritualized training that allows him to put Old Testament words to a country-and-western beat and write songs that sound like first-person laments written by God?" (31)

Many are shorter, more like vignettes, on Angkor or La Paz, Ethiopia or Bali, Easter Island or Haiti. These help balance the profiles and the reviews of W. G. Sebald and Kazuo Ishigawa; I can see why he reads Ryszard Kapuściński--Iyer appears to channel his style in some shorter entries, for better or worse. There's not many surprises here; that consistency may ground Iyer or it may make him mundane, for all his globalized enthusiasms. He tells us what he sees, but remains often possessed of considerable sangfroid, even if he convincingly reports the oddity of so much jet-lag from his Japanese home and his long flights to Santa Barbara to see his mother, so often these days.

The one piece that throws me as it did him is the end of his Bolivian stint, when he visits, along with other tourists, a prison--arranged it seems by the inmates who call the shots. Here, I found as with Graham Greene or Kapuściński the jolt of the sudden lapse from civility to brutality. You don't know, for once, what happens next, and Iyer in the telling improves on his experience by not telling us the whole story, but by editing, as if a dramatic film recreating the event, to heighten the unease he feels. Along with that sustained passage into the unpredictable, the more familiar encounters with Cohen and Dalai Lama essays were my favorites, and the jet-lag and Tibetan accounts runners-up. Iyer, by focusing less on his elevation above so many of his compatriots, in his best journalism manages to remind us of what he has in common, as do we, with the diverse peoples he keeps finding and the conversations and reflections he manages to record, relate, and revamp. (Amazon US 5-5-12)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pico Iyer's "The Global Soul": Book Review

I liked Pico Iyer's debut collection of essays "Video Nights in Kathmandu" and his recent "The Open Road" on the Dalai Lama (the latter reviewed 10/08). A friend of mine leaving the U.S. to live in Ireland over a decade ago recommended this exploration of globalism from Iyer's perspective. I found it predictable, better read perhaps in its original version as magazine form rather than as seven essays.

The reason is, as a passing phrase such as Iyer claiming to be "middle-class" despite coming from an academic family in tony Santa Barbara who sent him to boarding school and then Cambridge, or his "whenever I attend an Olympics" about his reporting on many of these events, betrays his privilege. That alone cannot justify a critique of what he conveys in his journalism, but it does repeat a note of what he finds in Toronto as "rootless cosmopolitanism" and this note sounds on nearly every page, until it dulls the senses. 

He works hard to evoke his settings: the house on fire and amid flood atop a Santa Barbara hilltop; the hideous LAX where an Ethiopian arrives to find herself surrounded by her former enemies, the Tigreans, in a city where nothing matches the movies seen abroad of the palm tree celebrity paradise; his friend in Hong Kong who roams the world as, of course, a management consultant; Toronto's similar megapolis of new arrivals and "visible minorities" in a "postmodern Commonwealth"; Atlanta's Coca-Cola sponsored Olympics amidst a sprawl that's the "urban equivalent to bottled water"; London as seen through his semi-deracinated perspective; and finally a graceful depiction of his home in the Japanese locale of Nara.

Not to say moments emerge of insight or wit. "One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory." So he sums up Toronto (159), although naturally this could be anywhere he visits. I wish he'd tightened, as Toronto compared and contrasted with Los Angeles begs for an extended treatment, the connections between essays. The one on Toronto and the one on Atlanta drag on endlessly, when a revised version of these articles might have looked at all three, cut many of the vignettes and conversations, and focused on the best examples from the dozens that stuff each chapter.

That way, his identification as "full-time citizen of nowhere" might have sharpened, as the closing chapter shows best, when a customs officer as he comes back to Japan grills him: "What prompted me to bring antihistamines into a peace-loving island?" (277) Lighter, more streamlined, moments such as these in more abundance might have lightened the load of an ambitious but ultimately predictable array of observations on the global soul. (5-3-12 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ian Morris' "Why the West Rules--for Now": Book Review

Engagingly written and necessarily "all over the map," Ian Morris provides an accessible survey of what in lesser hands could have been too much information. I love history, facts, cultures crammed into such one-volume tomes, but less captivated readers may find themselves in a plethora of Qin, Hurrian, Hilly Flanks, Bactrians--and that's one-third of the way in. Yet, maps and charts (one titled "the dullest diagram in history" to document Morris' key plotting of Eastern vs. Western social development on a point scale) do aid the less geographically and archeologically adept follower. His prose carries the heavy lifting of so much data into a comparatively compact space. Even at 650-odd pages of text, the book balances necessary depth with narrative awareness of how much a reader can comprehend.

For instance, to take three examples from a pivotal portion on the Axial Age: Morris sums up its progress while returning to the post-Ice Age motivator behind this era. "Lazy, greedy, and frightened people found easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things, in the process building stronger states, trading farther afield, and settling in greater cities." (263) He stresses how top-down "high-end" state systems centralize power, and use bureaucracies to run taxation gathering to generate income for a military force who enforces its collection. Lots goes out in revenue, but more comes in, so "the rulers and their employees live off the difference." More pithily, in China: "Lords built icehouses in their palaces; peasants slid into debt." (251) Lessons to be learned--as well as don't wipe out buffer fiercer invaders will likely take down the imperial center of power. Expansion of markets and territory, of course, impels this whole upward spiral that his charts follow over thousands of years.

I was mildly surprised that Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" theories did not gain wider analysis. While Morris challenges both "long-term lock-in" theories (similar to Diamond) and "short-term accident" explanations for Western dominance on pp. 17-18, I was left unsure how Morris improved or challenged Diamond, other than calling the ancient core the "Hilly Flanks" and not the "Fertile Crescent." East and West themselves shift, but a strength of this work is that Morris accounts for why Qin China and the Roman Empire succeeded-- and then due to geography and noble bickering became unable to control the frontiers of its vast territory. Migrations, climate change, plagues, and famine take center stage.

He also attends minutely to weather patterns and how this factor accounts for many periods of stagnation or expansion. "Energy capture" is a novel way to explain why cultures take off and soar as they harness their resources and labor potential. Morris may be criticized for not adhering to historiographical models of leaders or ideas, but as an archeologist, it's expected that he examines the material record and he reminds us early on of this tricky interpretation. Flowers left on a Shanidar grave in today's Iraq may have been brought into the burrow by rats; a puppy buried within the embrace of an elderly woman 11,000 BCE at 'Ain Mallaha may not have been placed there "as if asleep" so conveniently!

Where this balance of facts and research shifts is in spot-checking for sources. For instance, take those Bactrians. I found one source for them cited in the end notes, but that was all, and this section was embedded into a much larger chunk of the chapter at hand, with seemingly few references for a considerable narrative stretch. There appeared a tremendous amount of secondary scholarship examined by Morris. To his credit, yet not all of that was "common knowledge." It's not always easy to track back to the works cited to hunt down facts or data in the narrative. A casual style of giving a key phrase from a page and a citation at text's end is fine, but often Morris makes leaps over what he has compacted down into such a small block of a chapter, so it's hard to "unpack" this scholarship if you wish to track down the primary research.

Yet, any single volume designed to reach out to wider audiences than a monograph or university press tome will get hit with flak. I'd urge an open-minded reader to come to Morris' endeavor with a lively mind and lots of patience. One's curiosity will be rewarded, and one's mind stimulated. Those who enjoy playing games of conquest or watching multi-season series of imaginary realms hacking and scheming should find this real-life predecessor as worthwhile, for it, after all, is our story.

Overall, I liked this book as I teach a class in "Technology, Culture and Society" that looks at Diamond and Ray Kurzweil's "singularity." Morris plays Kurzweil's optimism off of Isaac Asimov's story "Nightfall" well. As with those thinkers, critics will have plenty to carp about in anyone trying to present thousands of complex ideas and findings within a few hundred pages for a wider readership. As with such books, this one-size-fits-nearly-all ambition is both admirable and perhaps doomed to its own minor shortcomings. Still, I recommend Morris' book for its verve and energy, and it will enrich the hours you invest in its unfolding of our own story, told yet again in epic fashion. One wonders if we will last, as a civilization, long enough to see the projected Eastern regaining of the lead over the West in 2103. (To Amazon 4-17-12.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster": Book Review

I'm about the same age as Wallace, too old for the Gen-X category to which he has often been consigned as one of its infinite jesters, and too young for being a full-fledged baby-boomer, seeing that we came of age in the 70s and at the tail end of that. This ability to tilt between the boomer's desire for a utopian and liberated zone of unrestricted freedom and the anomie of the slacker's suspicion in an era where all politicians are tainted by the ghosts of Watergate and the relentless marketing of alt-culture's corporatized irony and self-referential smugness: here Wallace thrives. I have never read his fiction, and admired his journalism mostly at a distance. But, my curiosity got the better of me. His early essays seemed too jejune. Yes, he himself delights in loops of references and doggedly pursues his subjects with rueful sardonicism, but he has grown as a writer and a human being since his earlier journalism collected in 'A Supposedly Fun Thing...' into a more compassionate witness, a more disciplined thinker. While these essays tire you out if read too many at a sitting-- the effort to follow the notes in 'Host' being the worst-case scenario of his Stern-like (Tristram more than Howard I think?) passion for footnotes, asides, and marginalia-- they do inspire self-examination.

I would not have expected to sum up these essays with the term 'moral clarity,' but this is precisely the ideal that Wallace seeks amidst adult porn, Kafka's very un-American humor, prescriptive rules rather than only descriptive analysis of American Standard White English usage, or the reactions his midwestern neighbors have as they watch Dan Rather the morning of 9/11/01. He stops and notes, if in passing, a small detail in each essay that shows, despite the shenanigans and digressions, that he possesses intelligence and compassion. He reminds me of Tom Wolfe in that he is not so much a satirist as a moralist, in that he expects people he observes to live up to their code, and not to lie to themselves when they recognize a glimpse of truth within our cynically commodified market-driven celebrity-crazed dumbed-down culture.

For instance, in the porn article, he notes a retired cop's admiration for adult videos: they show, in the unguarded moments when the purported nasty bad girl experiences unfeigned pleasure as shown by a moment of ecstatic happiness on camera as she reaches orgasm, a window into our vulnerable humanity that mainstream actors can never equal. An insipid, ghostwritten autobiography of Tracy Austin moves former tennis sub-star Wallace to muse about its laconic dullness: could this not represent the inner drive, the absolute non-verbal total state of concentration that the superstar athlete can enter and so triumph over their nervous opponent? John Updike's turgid 'Toward the End of Time' contrasts its narcissism with Wallace's refutation of its 'bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants to is a cure for human despair.' Kafka's ambivalent wit resists reduction even as it can be summed up in the ultimate joke: 'the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.'

[A brief aside: in the American usage essay, Wallace correctly castigates theory-addled academics, but his footnote only gives the newspaper secondary citation for a source that looks-- lots of "carceral" blather-- to be another Marxian jeremiad from (perhaps an acolyte of?) Angeleno apocalyptic Mike Davis; Wallace needed to credit the primary author of this excerpt of the worst scholarly boilerplate award circa 2003.]

His long investigation into American usage leads Wallace into a realization that the SNOOTs (his acronym) who obsess over proper standards reveal the lie that so many Americans are taught: contrary to our attitude of populist reverse snobbishness, conventions do matter after all. Despite our American 'we're all just folks' insistence that class does not count (in both the classroom and the economic applications), Wallace reminds us that, like it or not, we are judged by how (and if) we handle English in a somewhat competent fashion.

The news footage of 9/11 leads Wallace into an uncomfortable epiphany: those who fly the planes hate not the America of his gentle elderly female neighbors nearly as much as the macho, aggressive, self-aggrandizing America he and his fellow younger men represent. A trip with John McCain inspires an essay far too long, but which hammers away at the complacency that, contrary to rhetoric, the parties in power love to sustain and churn up: keep politics dull, sanctimonious, and so repulsive that voters will stay away in droves and all the incumbents will be all the more secure come election day. McCain, whose Vietnam torture Wallace describes movingly (and which I, contrary to his assumptions, knew nearly nothing about beyond the fact he was a POW for five years), drives Wallace into an impossible predicament. Is McCain calculated in his public persona or is he genuine, and where does one end and the other begin if one is an intelligent candidate in the public eye for months on end? On a lighter note, any writer who can link the Hanoi Hilton to the mundane torment more familiar to the rest of us as a chain motel deserves kudos. The essay is wearying in its detailed itineraries, but after a while you enter a Zen state akin to that of stupor on the campaign trail, which may be its sly intent.

The title essay similarly challenges moral assumptions held if not often examined by most Americans. If PETA is right that 'Being Boiled Hurts,' how does this pertain to boiling lobsters for our delectation? Why do we kill other creatures? How do we justify doing so? Can we question our habits without ending up equating rats with pigs with each other? Writing for Gourmet, 'the magazine of good living,' Wallace honestly scrutinizes the uncomfortable truths about the need that drives us to consume animal and fish and bird flesh-- that most of us every day when we eat likely choose not to consider. He does this without sounding preachy or pompous, and ends his essay just in time, I suppose, about this difficult subject.

Joseph Frank's studies of Dostoevsky are interpolated with Wallace's own précis of the philosophical quandaries his reading of D. conjures up. These, again, illustrate Wallace's growing sophistication in tackling the tough questions, the existential angst we feel, especially as we age. Wallace conveys the core of Dostoyevsky's thought. Wallace deftly draws us into the limning of our own circle of responsibility, where we find the sheer impossibility to separate our selfishness from our altruism, and laments our lack, in today's writers, of any serious successor to D's own 'morally passionate, passionately more fiction' that somehow manages to be realistic and convincingly human.

Finally, in the interminable if intermittently interesting 'Host,' among many other issues around the supposedly populist voices of AM talk radio, Wallace does raise relevant questions. Why do so many on the left lack the cohesion and the passion with which conservative pundits can express their ideas? Why do the chattering classes hold the flyover states in such contempt? In blurring moral and cultural critiques with political right-wing lobbying, how do talk-shows promote the status quo rather than truly upending an unjust status quo? And, how much do these pundits pander as corporate shills for all sorts of products pitched to play into their listener's fears, credulity, and loneliness? He also challenges us to imagine why, beyond the stereotypes, many listeners to such shows may well be right (no pun) in their judgement that-- as the first essay showed us with porn that itself seems to have no taboos left to its voracious market expansion except the (so far) off-limit snuff films-- America has drifted away from a moral center-- however hypocritical or distorted, standards did once hold sway-- into debauched cultural permissiveness.

Wallace wearies this reader, but he does make me think harder about such issues. He goads us by his presentation of the material, and irritates our complacent expectations of how passive readers should be. The author has done more work here than the usual journalist. It may look undisciplined, but it is carefully-- if rather too generously for our patience-- constructed. Wallace kicks out the chair from under us, and makes us scurry about his pages as if they scurried away from a Kafkaesque typesetter.

The book jacket inside cover blurb trumpets this book as funny, as if to assure the cowed reader that all the footnotes won't be too scary. Yet amidst the flash of the rather undisciplined form, the content does contain sustained depth. His jacket photo studiously expresses Wallace's wish-- as he says in the usage article-- to be able to blend incognito with the rural midwesterners of his childhood. He does strike the requisite grubby pose. But, as he admits, he also carries his parents' own elevated (and at times snobbish-- but in a good way!) expectations that we everyday people live up to our potential intellectually and ethically. I know this is not the same as "uproariously funny," but in the tradition of Tom Wolfe, Mencken, or Gore Vidal, Wallace combines his own stint in the ivory tower with long treks across the lands where lurk the rest of us, the great unwashed.

He admonishes us, himself included, to live up to what America and our own abundant resources allow us to profit from: the exertion of our minds for the betterment of our souls. Not a flag-waver, but nonetheless another prophet awakening us from our malaise. I wish the press promoters would have advertised this morality supporting Wallace's social criticism. Perhaps his own essays will draw more writers-- and better yet readers-- towards the serious examination of cultural and moral trends that Dostoevsky might have expected us to continue.

(Since I posted my review of "The Pale King" yesterday, this one is reprised from 12-25-06--5:10 "helpful votes" w/one comment: "Pathetically pedantic. Get over yourself." via  Amazon US)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King": Book Review

I never thought I'd finish a hefty novel about the IRS in three sittings. Unfinished as it is, I enjoyed most of this and closed it disappointed by its unfulfilled promise. I've read (and reviewed on Amazon years ago) his essay collection Consider the Lobster, and like A Supposedly Fun Thing..... his essays were my way into Wallace's formidable work. However, unlike most readers of this last novel, I haven't navigated the depths, annotated and intricate, of his fiction. So, I came to this story curiously, to see if it'd sustain itself in its recovered and necessarily incomplete state.

With no knowledge of accounting and little of taxes, I learned a lot about both. Wallace includes plenty of expository detail in a deft manner, difficult when it's discussed (as is mentioned in a telling footnote) by characters who deal with its minutiae every boring day. The parking lot at the Peoria center, the confusion of the two David Wallaces in the bureaucratic snafu, and the Midwestern sunrise that comes like a light switched on with ten degrees increase at once: such scenes enliven the plot

Two characters stand out, signs of how the novel if completed might have succeeded if they had been allowed to develop more. Toni Ware's coming of age in a trailer-park hell, told in a faintly archaic, British style of prose, sears. Likewise, Leonard Stecyk's cringeworthy do-goodism early on segues into a dramatic voc-ed scene which the author handles masterfully to enrich this difficult character. Wallace does not flinch from the challenges of constructing the novel, and his notes let us in on the process in a less-preening, more informative manner than post-modern authors often assume. 

I transcribe a few passages that reveal the potential novel of ideas that underlies the storyline of many characters and different perspectives. The story is surprisingly coherent in its assemblage, and the brief notes Wallace left about the shape of its foreshortened arc shows the control he had over it. 

Chapter 19 is masterful as it maps out, with Glendenning as the titular figure involved in a three-way conversation about the transition of the IRS from an ethical purpose--to run the country fairly by requiring all to contribute their fair share--to a profitable entity which seeks to maximize revenue by monitoring with newfangled (as of circa 1984) technology designed to minimize human and maximize computer scrutiny of "noncompliant" returns from those audited who will pay more in penalties to please a Reagan-era shift in tax laws and loopholes and income and power-shifting. 

"'Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes the important things aren't works of art for your entertainment.'" (138) This speaks for the novel's serious intentions. 

A few pages later, in a prescient passage worthy of far more quoting, this key chapter predicts what not only Bush-Reagan represents for our current state of the nation no matter who's in charge. For, we elect "a symbolic Rebel against his own power whose election was underwritten by inhuman soulless profit-machines whose takeover of American civic and spiritual life will convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless humanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless. We'll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit. A rule of image, which because it's so empty it makes one terrified--they're small and going to die, after all--'" (149)

Further on, "Wallace" wonders whether "real memory is fragmentary; I think it's also that overall relevance and meaning are conceptual, while the experiential bits that get locked down and are easiest, years later, to retrieve tend to be sensory. We live in bodies, after all." (289) Wallace evokes the predicament of entrapment in an office, a job, a routine that snags many of us, and his own vision darkens, as does that of a nation as it shifts, mid-1980s, from producing to consuming things. What comforts or torments some, as in Toni and Leonard and the narrative Wallace's cases, are memories.

While being "immune to boredom" is an essential condition for one's success in a bureaucracy (and the happy hour conversation between Meredith Bond and Shane Drinion wears on me as it did on them), and while a bureaucracy famously represents a daily challenge in representing these states of mind and body and spirit for many of us "TPs," Wallace keeps the humanity in the dialogue and monologue. He means to plunge into reality at (near-)modern work, and few novels dare to do this well. He does not opt for mockery, but a more nuanced, reflective humor that leavens the serious message. Immersion in the moment, suspended like the massive clock's hand, symbolizes our response to our choice or our fate.

(P.S. One persistent if minor mistake if I may mention it, given the draft state: Jesuits do not staff the Catholic university of DePaul, which by its name derives from St. Vincent, and it was founded by Vincentian priests.) (Amazon US 1-24-12)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cory MacLauchlin's "Butterfly in the Typewriter": Book Review

As an admirer of "A Confederacy of Dunces" when it appeared (in mass-market Grove paperback for me), the little I found that was marketed back then about John Kennedy Toole tended towards the tortured artist. Walker Percy's promotion of his fellow Southern Catholic (if, being obviously of Irish descent, cradle and not convert) helped launch Toole's novel as if he was a figure as odd as Ignatius J. Reilly, his memorably offensive and irascibly brilliant protagonist. Toole's suicide in 1969 at 31, and the long delay before the novel was championed and won the Pulitzer in 1981, became associated with Toole's failure to get his novel published.

Cory MacLauchlin corrects this misattribution. He separates the novel's fate in publishing from that of its author three years later. He handles the coverage of Toole in the "popular media" and places it against the legacy that his mother took on of protecting her son's reputation. He notes the sympathy of the critics who found in Toole's tragedy a ready myth. He removes blame from Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb; he does not speculate as many have about Toole's alleged homosexuality. Necessarily, he patiently delves into the mental illness which perhaps, left undiagnosed, hastened Toole's inability to cope. Confronted with his demanding mother Thelma and his namesake father's own decline, Toole could not endure the future. He came back from Puerto Rico where he had taught Army draftees. The freedom he had in New York City during grad school, in traveling, in teaching, was contrasted with his family and his responsibility. He looked at his parents; he left after his Christmas break from teaching. The road trip through the South appears mysterious. But, two months later as Mardi Gras came and went, apparently on the way back towards New Orleans, he ended his life.

As a fellow English instructor at a perhaps less-heralded institution (as am I),  MacLauchlin finds a match in Toole. Those of us who teach others how to read and write better in modest classrooms understand the challenges and the satire inherent in these daily duties. (As an aside, it shows how talented Toole was--without finishing a Ph.D. at Columbia, he was offered a professorship, at 22, at Hunter College.) The correspondence and the mimicry about his earnest or hapless peers recall Flannery O'Connor (even if he did not enter her house alas, on his last journey, contrary to rumor); the academic send-ups of his medievalist colleague Bobby Byrne who teaches Boethius to every class, even frosh comp, certainly shows how Toole found ready humor and a model for Byrne and his New Orleans misfits who populated his fiction, his work, and his leisure in his hometown.

Toole could be cruel; MacLauchlin quotes, for instance, from a letter to his parents insulting two "haystacks": the "gray-white, sandy, freckled, powdery" skins and awful dinner from the skeletal, "appalling" parents of his fellow instructor. McCauchlin notes how sustaining Ignatius Reilly took a tool on the novelist. His own arrogance as he balanced military assignments and mundane teaching with investing so much energy into what became far too late a cult novel demonstrates the uneasy relationships he had with others, male and female, and the frustrations with modern life endured by him and his colleagues and creations.

The biographer takes the novelist on his own terms. Drawn from five years of archival research and enhanced by many photos, this merges a straightforward account of his restless life with his swerves between confidence and despair. As a "self-marginalized intellectual," Toole seems to have inherited some of his parents' ambition (his father for school, his mother for the stage) along with the thwarting of early promise. Raised in the off-beat New Orleans scene, Tulane, boho and Beats-era New York, and Army life in Puerto Rico shaped him. The novel he started in 1963 drew his friends and experiences into his fiction. Inextricably, its fate overshadowed his own journey, paranoia grew, and he ended his suffering on a back road,  at the end of March 1969, outside Biloxi.

MacLauchlin tells the story efficiently, if at times with his own overly effusive prose championing his subject. After all, the absurd and caricatured in Toole's vision about a fat man in his native city obsessed with the decline of humanity since the Middle Ages lends itself to its own eccentricity. That inventive quirk is why we remember Toole and his preening, overbearing, and defiantly literate creations today. (Amazon US 4-20-12 in slightly shorter form; 4-23-12 PopMatters; author's website)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day 2012

These posters, about a century apart, show what's changed and what's endured in our capitalist system. Half a year after the Occupy movements rose and fell, and as the supposed Spring '12 events have been revealed as a front for MoveOn and Obama for America, I write this with the same mixture of cynicism and idealism that impelled my comments last November on this blog. I opened a week-old copy of the New York Times to read about suicides attributed to the "economic crisis" rising in Ireland and Italy; the decline of influence of the Catholic Church and the pressure to tie one's identity--especially for middle-aged men--to one's job are culprits. After men face financial disaster and personal loss, the resulting collapse of one's sense of self and one's ability to cope drive more and more to end it all. A fitting epitaph or rallying cry today, also a day whose name signals utter distress.

Certainly, pressures have always been there for any breadwinner, male or female. I watched my dad work often the graveyard shift or the swing shift, after toiling with my often frail mom to run the dog kennel in the daytime that supplemented his wages and kept us solvent, if barely, when often my dad was looking for work. He seemed to find and lose jobs frequently--he explained to me his departures due to a combination of his temper and the unstable nature of a machine shop worker's occupation.

I recall going without what had been once-a-week or so steak for what may have been years; my teeth deteriorated as they came in as permanent ones as we had no insurance and I did not go to either doctor or dentist for what were indeed crucial years. I told my first girlfriend, as I started college, about how much my family made and she--her mother did not work and her own father appeared often "between jobs"--was astonished at how low the figure was. At least it ensured me a Pell Grant, back then for low-income families, and Cal Grants to supplement my financial aid to allow me to enroll at the university I had hoped to attend, in simpler times when one did not make such a choice a decade-long commitment to the right schools, the right tutors, the right scores, the right connections.

For many, as the pyramid schemes illustrate, the gap widens as much as ever between those at the "right" schools and in the right jobs--often benefiting the elite long favored by and comprising the leaders of the right wing, but more and more nowadays--despite the propaganda of the poster depicting our media-military-postindustrial complex today--more "diverse" as to admissions and international membership, if allied with the same powers that be. Those who make it into Berkeley or Harvard, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, MIT or Cal Tech, will not likely be championing Occupy once they make it on Wall Street or in corporate law, a tenured prof like Todd Gitlin or Noam Chomsky or Cornell West's photo-ops and soundbites aside as talk-show book tour exceptions proving the rule. Occupy met with applause on many progressive campuses, and among most of at least their neatly aligned faculty, I reckon; it's estimated in my liberal arts field, 19:20 instructors lean Democrat.

Still, the capitulation of most educational institutions to a corporate model-- if usually unofficially--demonstrates the reality behind the rhetoric. Secure jobs plummet for most of us less favored in getting hired at such institutions even as students are turned away; high enrollments meet budget cutbacks. Online teaching, I predict, will spread to selective universities as it has among many of those with open admissions already. This generates a lot of processed data. Whether this increases the creation of knowledge and wise use, we'll have to see. Electronic databases allow easier access and rapid production of papers and theses contrasted with index cards and library stacks I navigated as one of the last Ph.D.'s to research my dissertation traditionally; I finished just as Netscape blossomed. What happens to critical thinking, as cut-and-paste essays and "distance" degrees flourish, sobers me.

I saw a FB photo today of a mortarboarded grad at a lectern with the caption: "I couldn't have done it without Wikipedia and Google." At least it wasn't subtitled "couldnt of." Remediation, or "developmental" math and writing, take up the majority of courses facing many freshmen before they can progress at our Cal States and in our junior colleges. I have lamented this tediously, so I spare repetition. Suffice to say that the slogan on FB stands more and more for what "research" means now. I heard a tale of a student called in for plagiarism; she had insisted that since she bought the essay online, it was now her "original" work. After all, she had submitted it under her own name.

I face similar situations more and more, and however I try to enforce higher standards worthy of those earning college degrees, the disparity between many of my older students and younger ones regarding articulation, literacy, elegance of expression, and clarity of thought is often telling, and invariably disheartening. Add to this harried vets, inner-city, and international students, a 1.5 generation caught between a native language and an imperfectly learned new one, and a rush to send in rushed assignments overdue or barely on time due to work, socializing, commutes, and/or family life. My students--far from top-tier 1% campuses listed above--compete for fewer jobs and rising debts at the end of their investment. They are also competing, likely, against graduates of highly competitive schools for coveted jobs. Tuition invariably soars yearly, far outpacing the cost of living.

I heard 53% of new grads are looking for work, and out of those who gain it, the growing number of on-call, part-time, temp or "contingent" positions jukes the job stats the administration (as any in an election season) must inflate to keep the voters happy. It's common to see long-time full-timers let go, replaced by a pair of no-benefits, at-will, contracted, perhaps overqualified part-timers. I suppose this makes the government happier: two half-steps forward count as double one step back?

That post-industrial security state depicted above courts campuses and brings lucrative contracts; the liberal arts cannot compete with the hard and social sciences. Business majors lure many debt-ridden students and despite the astronomical tuition, so does law. In whatever the field, tenured radicals are greying and often obtained security in industrially fueled, tax-supported, confident postwar decades when enrollments boomed and budgets soared for those coming out of the Sixties with a doctorate, which also tended to be granted more quickly and with less difficulty than those earned by those like myself who faced straitened job prospects, enormous competition for what positions opened, and fewer hopes in the liberal arts for steady employment at all. Prisons rival schools for funding in California; Jerry Brown's return to govern finds a hammered state budget far different than that of the 70's largesse or his father Pat's social programs after WWII that boosted us all. None of this is news.

I know a woman with a doctorate about to be granted who may emigrate from Ireland to join her brother who tends bar in San Francisco. Highly accomplished in her field, she wonders if she can land a high school post over here. I told her given job layoffs, it might be more difficult than she imagines, although it sounds as if Ireland's austerity budgets make even American ones look lavish.

However, an Irish therapist mused on FB (as I find intellectual and spiritual and political ideas everywhere) how as of the magical 11-11-11 convergence, a feeling of possibility hovered. Yet, it also appeared to have set many people off kilter, and the uncertainty of our times as we are increasingly both linked electronically and cut off intimately adds up to quite a "broken social scene." That scene in "Melancholia" with Kirsten Dunst harnessing lightning from her fingers as annihilation nears appears as applicable as does the equally off-balance "The Tree of Life" with Thomas Wilfred's lumia Opus 161 animation. These two films stood out for me last year as representations of "mythos" today.

I regard this cinematic and philosophical zeitgeist as less hopeful and more unsettling, Both films and the Occupy movement roused hopes and fears; I sense among more than one friend wherever found an untethered mood, as if "all that is solid melts into air." Quoting Marx and Engels from 1848 reminds me of the enchantment of structural upheaval, and how it mixed, often fatally, with the power of disenchantment as harnessed by those shooting soldiers common to both illustrations above.

On the power grid, where do I perch? Privileged, no doubt, far more than I let on with my sad sack self. Yet, unsettled by my own determination to live by a life of the mind, when my soul searches so.

Writing this, I stare at myself with a somber mien. I'm often at a low. When one finds one's emotional support kicked out, and then one's blamed for staggering or falling, the predicament's not a happy one. Instability, personally as well as geopolitically, may make for great art and fine fiction, but when you must live through it, unsure if the ending will be apocalyptic or affirming, it's hard to take comfort in the chronicles of those who have endured similar struggles or who transform them into art.

I close this with a sense of unease. I've been reading lately a lot about the cultural evolution of religion, and I reflect upon the hard-wired nature of our wish for liberating models, inspiring chants, and momentous iconography. The Wobblies who made the older poster and the unknown artist who depicted our Occupy-era 99% share a commitment to a radical reworking of a system that for many in our world stands for the only one remaining. I have FB friends spanning the spectrum from Marxists to Tea Partiers, NRA supporters to grizzled Irish republican stalwarts, New Age infused visionaries and doggedly devoted Democrats with lattes and lapdogs. I am not sure what they share except me, but more than once I found myself sending a post--from a far-left activist turned survivalist if no less tilted to one side--to a Ron Paul military vet stalwart ready to lock and load.

What they have in common may not be much, but on May Day, they unite on a suspicion that those at the top of our pyramid scheme act in our best interests rather than theirs. Buddhists remind us of the "three poisons" of anger/greed, delusion/ignorance, and of desire/attachment. Jewish people retell the Passover story each spring as if it happened to them, to keep the pain and the promise equally alive. That's the longest running narrative handed down orally in our culture, and satirically ripe for parody as it endures, it betters Easter for it can happen to all of us, not only to a Son of God. Beneath ideological differences and political parties, perhaps we can agree that a higher value lurks beneath the slogans and posters, the soundbites and "likes" that more and more substitute for understanding. There remains a possibility for betterment that Wobblies and Occupiers, revolutionaries and reformers, campaigned for: progress for workers everywhere, not as spray painted, but as reified.

Where I teach, the library's stacks are being culled. Thousands of titles will be given to Better World Books, a worthy charity. I have little room for adding to my own collection, but I snatched John Reed's "Ten Days that Shook the World" last week from the pile facing deportation. We know how that idealistic saga from another October's days of rage ended. Maybe past failures will guide us--in this year when Dick Clark dies and some foresee no New Year to celebrate--into a chance for gentle renewal. I found my secondhand copy bought a decade ago on Teilhard de Chardin. That's a nudge.