Friday, May 31, 2013

Slán go Bryn Mawr

Chuir cuairt Léna agus mé go gcathair na dTailte Deargaí aríst ar feadh deireadh tseachtaine seo caite. Tá bheirt againn ag smaoinigh a cheannaigh cábáin ansiud in aice leis in na Sléibhte Naomh Bearnárdín. Bhí raibh i gcónaí Léna ina hEasannaí Fhoraois nuair ag freastail na hÓllscoil na dTailte Deargaí ansin.

Mar sin, tá súil agam a scríobh níos mó faoi an abhar seo go luath. Ina theannta sin, chonaic mé go leor ar lár stáiriúil. Cheannaigh mé pizza ó Gourmet; a duirt Leon liom ag gabhair é ann.

Ar ndóigh, fhill mé ar an grúdlann Hangar 24 ag imeall ar an aerphort. Fuair mé trí buadhail mhóra ath-lionadh go hionduil. Is breá liom ag fheicéail ar an úlloird óraiste beaga anuas timpeall ar fud na teoireanntaí thuaidh ann.

Is cuimhne liom nuair ag thiomaint go dtí na Cathair na hÁingeal ní raibh comartha bóthair go Bryn Mawr (Mór Cnoc i mBreatnais) idir Taillte Deargaí agus Cloch Deas ar bith níos mó. D'fhoghlaim mé eolas nuair taighde mé go raibh sé i gceangail leis an cathair na Cloch Deas. Mo shoal ar fad i gCalifoirnea, is maith liom ag fheicéail an t-ainm seo ar an bóthar mór fada soir; bhí Bryn Mawr gráig daois haois áit a raibh pácailte torthaí uair.

Gan amhras, finné mé t-athrú gach am go bhfeiceann an Impireacht Intíre. Bhí mé óg agus áthas orm ann. Caithim ag dul i bhfad níos mó ná uair agus leath a chlog (gan tracht ó abhaile nach beag ar lar na gCathair na hÁingeal!) a fheicéail ach fheirm bheag anois.

Goodbye to Bryn Mawr

Layne and I paid a visit to the city of Redlands again during a past weekend. The pair of us are thinking to buy a cabin out there nearby in the San Bernardino Mountains. Layne had lived in Forest Falls when attending the University of Redlands.

Therefore, I hope to write more about this material soon. Furthermore, I saw more of the historic downtown. I bought Gourmet Pizza; Leo told me to get it there.

Of course, I returned to Hangar 24 Brewery on the outskirts at the airport. I got three large bottles refilled as usual. I love seeing the last few orange orchards around the northern borders there.

I was reminded when driving back to Los Angeles that there was no road sign for Bryn Mawr (Big Hill in Welsh) between Redlands and Loma Linda anymore. I learned information when researching that it was joined with the city of Loma Linda. All my California life, I've always liked seeing this Welsh place name on the long freeway eastwards; Bryn Mawr was a hamlet a century old where fruit was packed once.

Without a doubt, I witness change each time I see the Inland Empire. I was young and happy there. I must be going far more than an hour and a half (without traffic from my home nearly in the center of Los Angeles) to see but a small farm now.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Michel Peissel's "Tibet: The Secret Continent": Book Review

This Himalayan explorer's renowned for his four decades in Greater Tibet. In 2002, this serves as a fitting survey of his twenty-six expeditions, and a teaser for his earlier narratives such as from Mustang in Cold War Nepal in 1964, a Bhutan facing India's intervention in 1970's Lords and Lamas, and his stays with the Minaro (The Ants' Gold") along Kashmir's forbidden zones in the early 1980s.

Tibetan Pilgrimage conveys with his watercolors and his architectural emphasis some of the same terrain. What this large-format collection of his photographs and reports adds is an overview of how the vast open territories, as he has it, demonstrate the youthful vitality and energy that has characterized this realm since it was united under the sixth-century Songsten Gampo around 650. After introducing the land, flora and fauna (pandas gain credit for their Tibetan origins), the people and society (ditto, polo), and the rise of the nation, the early medieval period ushers in the empire that burst forth.

Peissel reminds us, if in gentler fashion than some passages in "Pilgrimage," of how later Tibetan progress towards a land wealthy enough to allow first sons to inherit land, but restricted in size and resources so as to steer second and younger sons to study at monasteries. Not cloistered, monks (maybe a third of the male population) were supported by their farming family's plots and in return often returned to help their siblings learn and harvest. This broadens perceptions of Western readers, who may too quickly transfer feudal models of the Church and fealty from Europe to Central Asia.

He later critiques the Dalai Lama, starting with the Fifth, who started an unstable domination by Lhasa over the rest of Tibet, beyond the third of the terrain it ruled directly. A particularly lively chapter shows how the Europeans began to enter the guarded kingdoms, or how they tried to. Peissel emphasizes: "Tibet remained one of the few lands in Asia where the Westerners were neither gods nor masters." (172) The outer areas began to be taken over by British and independence-era India, Bhutan, Nepal, China, and Pakistan.

Later sections unfold the collapse of the Tibetan kingdom. However, Peissel takes pains to present the Chinese side, and he rightly shifts no small blame to the imbalance of power that gave Lhasa and the Panchen and Dalai Lamas too much control, and too many pro-Chinese advisors who feared Britain as the alternative ally. Soon, Nehru's India was courted by the Communist Chinese to counter any politicking the Dalai Lama in exile might make.

As one who witnessed the fate of the Khampa freedom fighters courted before abandoned by the CIA in Mustang during the Cold War, Peissel relates vividly the predicament of those caught on the ground and on borders who could not go along with the elite who appear to continue their "court intrigues" in Dharamsala. "Such people tended to have a greater concern for power and fortune than for prayer, and in the past they had taken their services to the highest bidders, be they Mongol, Manchu or Chinese." The present Dalai Lama by way of his allegiance to the same "monastic theocracy" does not escape diplomatic criticism for the "lack of foresight and for not having established sufficient links with the international community." (203)

This tone infuses the near-present illustrations of Tibet poignantly and honestly. Peissel writes of his love for the people and their homeland, but he does not offer a soft-focus perspective in words or imagery. A couple small slips in proofreading (as in "Greek Marco Pallis" when that mountaineer turned mystic scholar was of Greek parentage but Liverpool-born; see my review of "Peaks and Lamas") do not detract from this volume's value. While parts may appear to gloss over his own encounters, they are often quick snippets gleaned from his past books reporting on regions. This book appeared before his death in 2011, more as a capstone for his career. He stays frank, and he lives up here to his life's ambition, to visit and share Tibet with us.

While the language and largely Buddhist culture endures under pressures exerted all around its heartland by foreign powers, Peissel ends with guarded optimism for the survival of Tibetan mentalities and customs as its peoples realize the fate of the heartland and the frontiers is connected, by their vulnerability and their necessary flexibility--as its art and architecture symbolizes. (Amazon US 2-4-13)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Michel Peissel's "Tibetan Pilgrimage": Book Review

Nearly half a century of Himalayan and Tibetan exploration and nearly thirty expeditions on, this handsome edition offers nearly a hundred watercolors from a renowned adventurer-anthropologist. The late Michel Peissel illustrates "what the lens of a camera cannot see," and he tries to express the inner construction hidden on the outside of the fortresses, homes, monasteries, cave dwellings,  chortens, and castles he surveys. From the western realms of Zanskar, Mustang, and Guge to the Tibetan heartlands around Lhasa and Tsang, to the sites on the eastern Chinese frontiers, this covers immense terrain.

Skillfully suggesting solidity in his lines, yet open to a range of colors symbolizing monastic affiliations and cultural alliances, the exteriors Peissel documents unfold as the clear and cogent narrative keeps pace. It begins with the Songsten Gampo early-medieval dynasty which forged a national Tibet, and shows how the revival of Buddhism enabled monasteries to emerge as akin to universities. Second sons, freed from the land by relative wealth of farmers under a form of feudalism secured by armed power and remote terrain, became monks. This also kept land freed up, as fewer populated it and as brothers commonly shared a wife.

Peissel terms this a golden age, for four centuries, Greater Tibet could afford to feed its people and defend them, while not letting the balance of humans to resources tip against sustainability. While the Fourteenth Dalai Lama represents a peaceful mien, his predecessor the Fifth ruled ruthlessly, bringing to an end the amity. Peissel reminds us that the Dalai Lama, ruthlessly, dominated a third of Greater Tibet, in earlier times by a far more hostile attitude which alienated and persecuted those who opposed rule from Lhasa. We understand why so many monasteries resemble fortresses.The Fifth lama sided with the Mongol and Manchu patrons; he pushed out right, left, and center competing Tibetan families and powers, spreading opposition to Lhasa and the Potala, which housed a palace and prison.

It's noteworthy how Peissel counters the popular image such as Robert Thurman and New Age proponents simplify of a benevolent realm enduring free of strife. Armies, assassinations, and fear dominate the Tibetan past as much as the recent era, and the cease-fire lines across Kashmir, the borders shutting off ancient trade with Bhutan, and the Chinese crackdowns show all too well. These perpetuate the logistical and diplomatic, as well as expedition and geographical difficulties Peissel tells of in his journeys to Mustang in Cold War Nepal in 1964, a Bhutan facing India's intervention in 1970's Lords and Lamas, and the Minaro (The Ants' Gold") along the Kashmir forbidden zones in the early 1980s.

This elegant, readable narrative is short, but long enough to join Peissel's many journeys across his beloved landscapes. Focusing on the man-made environment it does not attend to the human, animal, or ecological encounters of his travel books but it provides an accessible introduction to his career. A short list of his expeditions and books appends this large-format, appealing collection of art and words which take you into the perspective of an artful tale-teller showing us his favorite sights. (Amazon 2-1-13)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Michel Peissel's "The Ants' Gold": Book Review

Herodotus popularized what many sought in vain: "gold-digging ants" somewhere near the Himalayas in the northern Indian or western Tibetan reaches. Intrigued by this mention, Himalayan explorer and Tibetan expert Peissel seeks the answer that scholarship fails to provide. He travels in 1980 to the India-Pakistan forbidden zone along the cease-fire line in the endless Kashmir dispute. 

He takes, to my befuddlement, a Harvard director of graduate admissions, Missy--who needs leg braces and cannot navigate well by horse or foot the screes and slopes. In this landscape which soothes more the soul than the eye, its barren ten-thousand-foot expanses delight Michel. He returns as in other books (see my recent reviews of "Lords and Lamas" in Bhutan, "Tibetan Pilgrimage" and "Mustang") to a place that compels him. He feels as if descended from its people, so close does he resemble his companion there, with Caucasian long nose and grey eyes and features more European than Asian, and a temperament more excitable and enthusiastic, recalling his own French heritage. 

This may not be so far-fetched, if Peissel's theory is true. He posits that the Minaro people here are the "Dards" credited by the ancients with the realm of the ants and the gold. He also reasons that their ibex hunts, rock art, and customs link them to Neolithic inhabitants they may be descended from or may have supplanted. They survive as the last remnant of (now archaically Tibetan-speaking but) pre-Tibetan peoples pushed by warlords who took control from farmers, into terrain where they stayed independent of imperialism, technology, and kings. In turn they by dolmens, matriarchal rule, a maternal goddess-oriented "religion of man," and vestiges of a non-hierarchical agricultural and nomadic life, may exhibit as proto-Aryans the long-fabled "Aryan" heartland which has beckoned for many European scholars. Of course, this has been controversial and continues to be so now.

His travels, increasingly surreptitious as the Indian bureaucrats and military repel his entreaties to study the Minaro and the Baltistan and Zanskar homelands, prove intriguing, given the inherent interest of this topic for me. His account of twelve hours in darkness trekking in terrifying heights so as to penetrate the closed-off frontier India guards is gripping, and he knows how to keep you turning the pages. I will leave it to you to learn how Peissel solves the ants' identity. He loves this subject of "the discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas," and he convinces you of its importance to him and to academia.

But, given the limits of his conversations (his colloquial Tibetan differs from the Indo-European dialect the Minaro preserve), contacts with everyday people there as his visits keep getting truncated by India, and his Moses-like glimpse of the promised land of the ants' gold he cannot enter, the results, however readable, remain despite what he reports as eventually four years of research compiled from among the Minaro, still elusive. Fittingly if frustratingly so for this mystery, perhaps. (2-1-13 to Amazon US)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Peter Hopkirk's "Trespassers on the Roof of the World": Book Review

This lively book sums up primary accounts by those in the Great Game rather than expanding their substance. Hopkirk here aims for a popularization of previous Tibetan explorers. For instance, as I enjoyed "Kim" earlier this year on audiobook by Ralph Cosham accompanied by Edward Said's Penguin ed., I learned more about the real-life pundits who inspired Kipling's novel. I note the same author's later matching of fact to fiction in "Quest for Kim" as exemplifying more of this approach.

Overall, we get the score as hapless or determined, female and male, missionary or military gatecrashers fail to enter Lhasa. Eleven Europeans over the nineteenth century are repelled. The Nepalese close off their kingdom, as did Bhutan: that leaves a nation wanting to be left alone, which never asked for the interest shown given its strategic perch between empires and superpowers. The Russians, however encroaching in history, for Hopkirk will be relegated as tsarist-era sidekicks. Protagonists enter a three-way contest between Victorian, Chinese, and Tibetan contenders. He sympathetically takes the side of the Raj and the Crown, but as in the retelling of the 1904 Younghusband expedition turned invasion in the last decade of disputed Manchu suzerain status over a primitively armed and equipped remote realm where the Tsar crept closer and China started to lose its grip, the British advanced.

It wasn't easy. Weather, spies, betrayal, banditry, and the blunt difficulty for blue-eyed Westerners to pass muster let in first Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese Zen monk, at the dawn of the last century. He had it a tiny bit easier, being Asian. (See my Feb. 2011 review of Scott Berry's 1989 "A Stranger in Tibet" that takes you through the intrepid monk's Nepal-Tibet adventures.)

As Hopkirk shares his tales from what one traveller estimated a Forbidden City whose filth surpassed the rest of India or China (no small feat apparently), it's sobering. Henry Savage Landor in his tale (as with Alexandra David-Neel) might have "enhanced" torments or talents, but the raw and cruel nature of Tibetan treatment of those who dared to defy the lamas and lawmakers shows the side of Tibet glossed over by many then and now who laud its simpler times supposedly free of violence. The sad fate of Susie Rijnhart's baby son and devoted father will move you--not only people but nature could punish those who ventured into sub-zero altitudes three miles high.

The harrowing tortures inflicted on miscreants, and the deaths exacted upon any caught aiding and abetting foreign entrance into the Land of Snows make for graphic lessons that should disabuse New Age romanticists about the pre-modern Tibet being some pacifist Shangri-La. Everyone in Tibet feared assisting interlopers. This, naturally, spurred a few hardy or foolhardy adventurers.

After Hopkirk tells of earlier travelers who'd been pushed away, one finds by the end of the Victorian reign only the power of diplomacy backed by rifles, Gurkhas, British leadership, and machine gun assault at the forlorn locale of Guru in the Tibetan hinterland between Sikkim and Bhutan prevails over Tibetans. Hopkirk carefully phrases the retelling. He sides with the interpreter Frederick O'Connor and Francis Younghusband, who narrate how the firepower against those who blocked their way to Lhasa "had" to happen the way it did: given the Tibetan intransigence--"or rather the fanatical lamas who sent conscripted peasants against the invaders" (177).

He rapidly skims past an intriguing situation a few years later. The first approvals for expeditions to Everest had been given by a Dalai Lama eager to get weapons to continue the fight against the new Republic of China whose forces had been menacing the borders. It seems neither the Manchu nor the Nationalists let Tibet alone, and that the supposed peace during the period Tibet asserted post-1912 its independence against Peking was not accepted. The British, in this tumultuous period, seemed preferable to tsar or Soviet as diplomatic allies and military enablers. This episode doesn't get the explanation needed, but the mountaineering excites.

Hopkirk does not ignore the inequalities of Tibetan life before the Communist onslaught, but you cannot read the last chapters without acknowledging the scope of destruction. He wrote this in 1982 originally, when less was known about the truth of what happened in the dark decades after the 1950-1959 invasions and then during the thaws of sort post-Cultural Revolution. He correctly shows no Tibetan observer reports without bias, but one who finishes this account cannot but help siding with the current underdog, even if the author stands along with the British against other empires in his preceding chapters.

He opens as he concludes. "Even today, the package tourist is really a trespasser, for it is not the Tibetans but the Chinese who have invited him there." (4) He wonders how the Tibetans will endure the endless stream of visitors, a century after the first successful intrusion into Lhasa. All this "cheerful, patient and long-suffering people" had ever asked was "to be left alone." (266) (Amazon US 12-24-12)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Michael J. McRae's "The Siege of Shangri-La": Book Review

This preceded Ian Baker's 2004 first-person account (see my Oct. 2005 review)  "The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place", but I did not know about McRae's work until I stumbled across it, the lone Himalayan-themed title in my local urban library. McRae provides a deftly drawn depiction of Baker, and his colleagues and rivals. In the 1990s, they seek in what becomes an unseemly fashion to rush to be the first to "discover" (as opposed to more correctly "document, as Baker wishes) the last five-mile gap with its "hidden falls" of the Tsongpo Gorge that will flow into the mighty Brahmaputra river.

McRae, as a National Geographic editor, does not play favorites in his telling of the quest, even if his magazine sponsored one of two competing, as it turned out, teams. Furthermore, the Chinese massed to rush into the competition, and the conclusion shows them eager to exploit the prospect of a national park for eco-tourism and all the natural and cultural destruction in the name of profit that designation entails.

This account, preceded by an equally worthy narrative of how earlier British explorers had struggled to penetrate this blank spot on their maps, emphasizes in pithier and more naturally detached form than does Baker's longer book the research he and his partner Hamid Sardar conducted of Pemako's "inner and outer geography." For, these scholars and Buddhist practitioners reasoned that "the canyon's crumpled topography concealed a sacred landscape visible only to those of adequate spiritual preparation, and that the path to this holy realm of peace and plenty would lead them, as Baker explains, 'beyond geography.'" (87)

While they experienced in their quest a "creative regression" as they gave up fighting the elements, more skeptical adventurers, in the pursuit of "canyoneering" that McRae conveys vividly, shrugged and saw the purported "beyul" or entrance into a sacred hidden realm as merely a "hydrologic event." McRae notes how the same terrain might enchant one adept but leave another, more secular, nonplussed. This "Shangri-La" may be more a product of clever marketing than tangible grasping.

Those who enter must be pure of intent and possess sufficient merit, for "all others will find only empty mountains, blinding storms, landslides, floods, and perhaps even death." (50) The predecessors Bailey, Kingdon-Ward and Lord Cawdor, among others, struggled mightily and repeatedly to find the waterfalls that nested unseen but sensed and rumored within the gorge. McRae compares this stretch to "scaling the pleats of some giant accordion, then rappelling down the other side, only to begin again." (35)

I will not reveal what the author himself finds when he travels to the region near the millennium. Part of the appeal of this accessible, detailed, but also open-ended account lies in the dogged physical exertion those determined to enter this elusive gap expend. Another part, which expands as the narrative continues, delves into heir mental and spiritual motivations, or lack of such. One wonders if any of the modern tourists who may soon flock here will possess the necessary insight that the Tibetans taught was a prerequisite to understand this domain. The wild will be tamed, dammed, and damned, perhaps, but a hint remains that even when destruction dominates the world, a portal to a better land will persist here, maybe within the waterfall, to beckon those able to discern its presence.

McRae in his sobering study of what's driven men and women for nearly a century into this remote and difficult landscape leaves the reader only wanting more. This short book took quite a while to read, and I slowed as it demanded a different frame of mind as the expected travel narrative hinted at more profound concepts. I wish he provided more photos, and that his map was even more detailed, but perhaps he intends to leave part of the sketch open to interpretation, on more than one level. (Amazon US 11-16-12)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"The Rough Guide to First-Time Asia": Book Review

As an armchair traveler, I've visited Asia often. But never in person. The noise, heat, crowds, poverty, distances, languages, food, sanitation, topped off by my wish for solitude and a low profile when on the road, discourage me.

Leslie Reader and Lucy Ridout encourage. They offer over two-hundred lively pages--speckled with equally well-written and entertaining or dire sidebars by those who have been there, done that--about "the Big Adventure." Planning proves the theme. This is less a book to take with you (although I'd imagine it should be, as nobody can recall the massive amount of sage advice herein on the go) than to use to work out the details. Visas, flights, insurance follow, and then when to visit. (Whenever that is, they advise to land in daylight with time to get out of the chaotic airport into what can be a hectic city via a challenging commute, perhaps full of logistical and linguistic and currency barriers.)

Costs, guidebooks and resources, what to take, "the first night," jet lag (one snippet to cope from their list: "Switch on Star TV, the less-than-riveting Asian cable station."), and culture shock follow. Acting responsibly, dealing with unpleasant realities, getting around, customs, health, communicating with folks back home, crime and personal safety, and coming home--with help on volunteering and other ways to contribute to the betterment of the region you've left behind, conclude. It's geared in its style and slang to a British audience, but this for me only adds to its charm, and all prices have dollar/sterling equivalents.

A sample of the researchers' attitude in the passage on budgeting shows their commonsense. "It's relatively easy to sit at home and swear you'll manage without air conditioning, bathe in cold water and love it, and never want a private toilet, but after a week with 45-C heat, a few cold showers at 3000m, or three days with chronic diarrhoea, your priorities will certainly alter." (75)

Their second half of this compact guide offers a brief overview of each nation (with the exceptions of Burma which at the time was under a boycott requested by Aung San Suu Kyi, and naturally, North Korea) with highlights. This is more hit-and-miss, as it gives two dozen appetizers rather than main courses, but consider it a snack tray and not a smorgasbord. There's just enough to whet the appetite. They also append to each nation an eclectic if frustrating (many not issued on video or in print at least overseas) array of books and films to consult, and contact info on and off the net (use with caution; not all sites remain active). Even if you stay in the comfy chair for now, you may find yourself more open to the possibility of going to Asia after a few hours spent in the company of this guide. (Amazon US 11-29-12)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Nataly Kelly & Jost Zetzsche's "Found in Translation": Book Review

As a contributor to the Huffington Post as well as a court interpreter and market researcher, Nataly Kelly and her co-author, the technically oriented linguist and translator Jost Zetzsche, start off the volume with lively anecdotes and interviews gleaned from political, legal, multicultural, diplomatic and military situations. A couple of early [Amazon] readers of this accessible and casual but learned book offered in-depth reviews, so mine will be briefer.

The pace is casual, full of pop culture, and very rapid, perhaps suited to those skimming these short factoids and small features within each chapter. Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Google Translate, TED, IKEA mix with biblical, literary, sports, and musical lore. It's similar in tone and insight to what you'd peruse online or as a sidebar in a magazine. This proves a refreshing counterpart to the stodgier academic treatments of translation studies.

Sometimes I wished for more depth. Even in the snippet on how "adult" content challenges "search engine optimization," certainly an intriguing topic, the lack of "hardcore" examples puzzles. It's a brisk look rather than exhaustive investigation, however, pitched more at the casual language buff or curious bystander who may happen on this in a bookstore. I admit that's what pulled me in!

I picked this up, as one who likes language but never learned another one easily. As a longtime, struggling adult learner of Irish, the inclusion of Gaeilge here early on delighted me. It even shows how Shakespeare borrowed in his themes and lyrics from the Gaelic. But this entry comes right after life-and-death issues of translation in the first chapter that had begun with court cases and interpreters within predicaments of danger, so I was unsure why the sudden entrance of my ancestral language.

Also, a statistic as to speakers in 1890s New York City refers to the edition of essays in which the scholarly article appeared which analyzed this case study. But the endnote only gives the general editors and the book title, not the actual essay by another professor, and it's uncited as to the page itself to back up the claim of 75,000 Irish speakers in the city back then. This may be overly picky, but given other references are paginated, to be noted for those using Found in Translation to track down the primary sources the authors list.

Overall, I enjoyed this. I wondered about diacritics and keyboards, and how users of other languages who must mix them in one document fare. I have seen Kindle texts unable to insert Greek, for instance, into older English works from a time more learned than ours. I figure, as the text ends with futurist Ray Kurzweil, that soon we will figure out many problems that challenge and stimulate us by the medium we share online here. (11-28-12 to Amazon US.)

(P.S. Nataly Kelly posted there on 11/30:
... thank you so much for your kind review! I am glad to know that you enjoyed the book and in particular the story about Irish, a language close to my heart as well. The page in the book referenced is Page 274 (in Chapter 10). I will send the page reference to the publisher so we can update this in time for the next printing. Appreciate your careful reading!)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ag siúl go mBaile tSín

Chuaigh Léna agus mé go mBaile tSín le déanaí. Ach, ní raibh muid ag tiomáint ansin. Bhí an tráthnóna fionnuar ann.

Mar sin, shiúl muid ar chéile. Thóg sé thart timpeall uair gach bealach. Rith muid tríd an Airde na Lincoln agus thar an droichead abhainn Fhonn Dea i dtreo ar lar na gCathair na hÁingeal.

Ith muid béile blasta Vítneamis ag Caife Via mar is gnach. Roghnaigh mé rís agus iasc leis anlann trátaí. D'ol mé beoir ainmnithe Tíogair go Singeapór.

Cheannaigh sí dhá fianáin cnó coco riamh.  D'imigh muid na soilse neoin deargaí leis dragúin agus pagodaí. D'fhill muid oirthuaisceart ag imeall Pairc Elysian agus in aice leis Staideam na gCleasaithe.

Chuala muid na manaigh suairc ar feadh seirhbhísí na hoiche Búdaíoch i timpeall buí ar mBealach Leathan. Bhí macalla fada na ghuthannaí agus drumaí ag teacht agus ag dul dá thrá nuair a shiúil ag sé dhá uair. Chuaigh ar ais an droichead concréite thar na h-abhainn concréite ár bhaile.

Walking to Chinatown

Layne and I went to Chinatown recently. But, we didn't drive there. The evening was cool.

Therefore, we walked together. It took about around an hour each way. We passed through Lincoln Heights and over the grand Buena Vista river bridge towards the heart of Los Angeles.

We ate a tasty Vietnamese meal at Via Café as usual. I chose rice and fish with tomato sauce. I drank a beer called Tiger from Singapore.

She bought two coconut cookies after. We left behind the red neon lights with dragons and pagodas. We returned northeasterly around Elysian Park and near Dodger Stadium.

We heard the monks chanting during the Buddhist night services in a yellow temple on Broadway. There was a long echo of voices and drums coming and going both ways when we walked by it both times. We went back over the concrete bridge over the concrete river to our home.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Richard Lingeman's "Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street": Book Review

After reading Mark Schorer's 800-page 1961 biography, this 2002 one at two-thirds the length flew by. Following Lingeman's study of Lewis' rival for fame and acclaim as a scourge of Midwestern mores, Theodore Dreiser, Lewis appears as similarly driven to castigate and satirize his fellow Americans, if with a soft touch. That might have been subtle, for as he opined later in life, "I love America, but I don't like it." (547) Still, as Lingeman regards his subject more than the famously severe Schorer, Lewis cared.

I agree. Some reviewers found Lingeman too forgiving, but compared to the relentlessly meticulous archival and firsthand research applied by Schorer, less archeology and more of a guided tour meets the needs of contemporaries visiting what's now the work of a once-renowned writer whose best work from the 1920s now may be nearly as little read as Dreiser's and those who took on, before modernism, the campaign to convince by caricature.

For the prolific Lewis, it was a career. Schorer makes much of his irritating mimicry and his cursed gift for endless monologues before party guests in the guise of his characters, but like it or not, Lewis had talent. As Richard Lingeman concludes: "Yet who else depicted his country's faults with such coruscatingly funny, ambivantly loving satire?" He hated the war machine, the mass commodification, even the environmental degradation he saw as undermining whatever good lurked in his pioneer neighbors and small-town mentors. While he escaped the Minnesota prairie burg as soon as he could, to attain a Yale education and when he could afford it, London tailoring, he harbored a love-hate relationship similar to that of his first heroine, Carol Kennicott.

He begged the patrician, British-born Grace Hegger, his first wife, to intervene, to pray for him to turn more mannerly, more quiet, more patient. Early on, churning out hack work to make it, he could not express his conflict between radical sympathies and WWI censorship. He recognized his idealism, yet he had to support a family. He knew his faults, but these enabled him to succeed, for a stretch, once Main Street topped the bestseller list. Lingeman parallels Carol's ambitions with those of her creator. "He shows modern marriage as the struggle between a wife seeking autonomy and a husband enforcing patriarchal authority." (162) Carol opposes Gopher Prairie's conservatism and philistine mindset, but "the brain-dead conformity" overwhelms her, in Lingeman's estimation, and she succumbs to being Mrs. W.J. Kennicott, the doctor's wife and the mother of their children. She fought the good fight.

The biographer shows how carefully Lewis planned this, and Babbitt--maps drawn, research plumbed, professionals interviewed. This sociological pattern, and the trajectory of his success, continued with the medical figure as Arrowsmith, inspired in part by Lewis's own father. "Dr. E.J. could never know how his son had internalized his own values even as he rejected them, creating a personality that was an unstable mix of love and fear, conformity and rebellion, realism and romanticism. The son inherited the doctor's professionalism, his disciplined work habits, but he melded them to an undisciplined personal life. He also took the ability from his father to observe life with the cold, impassive eye of a country doctor surveying a German farmer's gangrenous leg."(287)

Already, his drinking by mid-decade increased; the Nobel Prize in 1930 after Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth already appeared to date him as a chronicler of a giddy era that the Depression, political unrest, and radical upheaval threatened to erase. While It Can't Happen Here represented a later return to provocative and timely (melo-)drama, it like even his work post-Babbitt showed signs of weakness, with perhaps his drinking and his emotional condition undermining his writerly devotion. Lingeman locates, in his Nobel address, the fleeting moment: "He had achieved the validation he craved, but even the honor of the whole world could never appease the hurt-hunger of the boy inside. Fame is too vast and thin to be any love at all. Nor could it quell Lewis's inner doubts or banish the knowledge that he was being honored for work already fast receding into the past." (359)

He descended, with fame, into what he deemed "fictional vaudeville." He covered up with raillery his bitterness, but as with "moisture dripping from the walls of a cave," in his critic's elegant metaphor, he mourned if with no tears in public when his eldest son Wells was killed in action during WWII. He roamed wide, settling in Duluth for a time after the collapse of his troubled second marriage to journalist and firebrand Dorothy Thompson, and in the wake of his predictably difficult relationship, begun when he was fifty-four, with an eighteen-year-old theatrical ingenue, Marcella Powers. There, he failed to write the great labor novel he tried to make for years, but he did expose racism however awkwardly, and he explored feminism and religious intolerance, in his lesser-known later fiction.

Easily bored when not maniacally writing, needing friends but alienating them as too-diligent a host, he settled then in Williamstown, MA before ending up not quite intending exile in postwar Florence. He turned off many of those he courted, as they feared--as with the professors at Williams College--to appear distorted and ridiculed in his next novel. His end came after years of exertion and the bottle.

"Fear and terror, experienced in the unknown, broke his heart." (543) So Lingeman cites the existential autopsy by a German doctor looking at his corpse. Lingeman adds that Lewis rounded on a man who denigrated him for only seeing the shady side of Main Street. "Don't you understand it's my mission in life to be the despised critic, the eternal faultfinder? I must carp and scold until everyone despises me. That's what I was put here for." (546) Lewis could be his own best critic--now and then.

Lingeman provides what a reader today needs to understand Lewis. I remain unsure that newer revelations have improved upon Schorer's massive undertaking forty years before this appeared. Lingeman, however, offers a shorter, and less compulsively thorough narrative of where Lewis went and who he met. Therefore, I recommend it for a reader wishing to read only one life, even if it is less comprehensive, more anodyne and forgiving in places, compared to Schorer's prickly attitude.

It flows smoothly and the sympathy of the biographer although more generously bestowed than by Schorer is not without severity when merited. Not many may share my interest but not a duty to learn about Lewis enough to read both this and Schorer, but this recent biography matches the former in providing a necessary study of why Lewis matters, then and now. (Amazon US 11-11-12)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mark Schorer's "Sinclair Lewis: An American Life": Book Review

I used to see a used copy of this at the UCLA Library's secondhand sale room. Once, I picked it up, leafed idly through, and wondered what author merited such heft. I put it back on the shelf. Over 860 pages, it sat there my whole grad school stint.

Coming back, after only reading "Babbitt" sometime in those formative years of my literary tastes (probably bought in that same room; I enjoyed it), hearing "It Can't Happen Here" on audiotape and then "Main Street," I have decided to move forward through Lewis' major novels, with audiobooks of "Babbitt," and "Elmer Gantry" to come  {well, finished by the time I put up these reviews on the blog--all 4 reviewed recently}.

While "It Can't" boosted Lewis in 1935 with its clever alternative history-in-advance of a fascist-populist takeover in 1936-39 of America, it was his last success. I admit it's more of a tasty potboiler however than brain food when it comes to cultural critique. It's imaginative and feisty, but it nods into sentiment and betrays a lack of decisiveness even if its self-effacing but quietly defiant, principled if wavering narrator knows his shortcomings, perpetuated by the unresolved narrative itself, filtered through Lewis' witty. sly, sharp but sometimes grating, mimic, and ranting talents.

Some say Sinclair Lewis' talent declined with every major work of his in the '20s. Certainly, Schorer's 1961 biography, a decade after Lewis' death, promoted this argument. It helped diminish the already fading legacy of this chronicler of Americana. Like John Dos Passos' "contemporary chronicles," Lewis heard the post-WWI era and transcribed it vividly, full of detail, but so much that it threatened to overwhelm its message, as the medium dominated by its massive, rapid, chattering, and certainly frenetic pace. Both outlived early success. Lewis seems nearly as ignored by many today as "Dos."

As for me, I like this sociological strain in lit despite its flaws. Schorer locates in Lewis' first novel (1914) his characteristic contribution: romantic as it looked backwards, a "coy sentimentality" that crept into the naturalism and realism that he pursued archly but with an underlying unease. Melodrama played off unsparingly imitated American speech, pop culture contending with idealism.

By thirty-five, before "Main Street" sent him skyrocketing, this prolific plot spinner's stories betrayed contrivance and fixation: "The audience he was addressing demanded the explicit, the demonstrated, the heavily documented, the overdrawn and the broad. The style, like the man, was made." (241)

It made him a millionaire many times over. Philandering, scoffing, a bore, a scold, he defied his critics and proclaimed his genius to all. He continued to live out of hotels or with friends, but he kept moving as he promoted himself for a Pulitzer (and after "Babbitt" was passed over, he wished to get it for "Arrowsmith" so he could then turn it down) or Nobel. He continued to pile up floor plans, indices, jargon, consultants, and collaborators to assist him with his busy dramatizations of realtors, bacteriologists, preachers, and manufacturers. Schorer post-"Arrowsmith" sums up Lewis, monocled and spat-wearing, at his '20s peak: "Attacking materialism, he doubled his bank account." (415)

Even with that third novelistic success, Lewis knew the run wouldn't last. He confided that "Babbitt" was what he'd be best known by and that "Arrowsmith" remained his favorite. "Elmer Gantry" gave another title to the demotic, but the predictable immersion in research, Schorer avers, resulted only in another static plot: the trap of detail that confirmed only what Lewis wished it to. By "Dodsworth," its European setting shared Lewis' own aspirations to a parody of his rambling, part-poetic, part-satirical, yet mechanical and imperfectly plotted evocations of success. A success he, as "The Nation" summed up in 1927, craved as "proletarian plutocrat, bourgeois gypsy, patriotic expatriate, unmannerly critic of manners, and loud-speaking champion of the subdued voice." (qtd. 483)

With the Nobel Prize won in 1930, Lewis felt the long slide down. His drinking, the failure of two marriages due to his peripatetic infidelity, his inability to settle down and leave behind his cruel gifts of unedited imitation and louche garrulousness, his derision, his self-lacerating moments: it wore him down, and wears us down. Schorer shows how Lewis struggled to capture the downside, the fate of labor in the Depression, a topic that predated it and that he'd longed to write about, but he failed. Did "It Can't Happen" channeled some of his heartfelt passion for common folks into his last bestseller?

Lewis dismissed this chart-topper, even if he kept writing. Two years later, he met a seventeen-year old amateur actress, and he fell in love. Even if Marcella Powers' hold over him did not keep him from letting her arrange liaisons with men closer to her age than the fifty-something celebrity, he managed to find contentment for a while, and with her mother as a companion-housekeeper now and then. He courted conventionality even as he, like so many American observers, found eventually a vantage point abroad. The second postwar era could not compete with the mores, the slang, the patter he captured of the first. He died after Florentine lassitude in a hospital on the Roman outskirts, of paralysis of the heart.

Schorer places him within the tradition of those who examined social class, the final follower of Thoreau, Whitman, and the early Twain to find a wide audience. Like them, he championed the individual's attempt to break out of routine; the system, society, it seemed, hammered the rebel down. While the "worst writer" in modern American literature, in his biographer's memorable conclusion, Lewis nevertheless sought to remind us of the forces of our nation, and he shaped its literary culture.

The book that looks at Lewis delves into intricate detail, from schoolboy marginalia to often awful poetry, from garrulous letters to colleagues' catty reminiscences. Many call Schorer's biography, nine years in the making, a hatchet job, with a marked distaste for its yammering, bumptious, yearning subject. Certainly, the relentless, obsessive nature of Schorer's quest to know Lewis from his every scribble shows a determination, beyond even scholarly precision, to peer into Lewis' hidden strife.

However, I find sympathy: Schorer as a near native neighbor--from Sauk City WN to match Lewis' Gopher Prairie neé Sauk Centre MN--went to Harvard; Lewis to Yale. His diligent biographer after a Wisconsin Ph.D. then taught at Dartmouth and Harvard before he chaired Berkeley's English Department in the first half of the '60s. This context allows Schorer to enter into Lewis' Ivy League dissidence, his Carmel-by-the-Sea "Hobohemia," New Thought flirtations and "New Masses" rejections after Yale, and their contrasts with a Main Street-oriented outlook looking to the frontier, but pulled East as his American, if indelibly Midwestern no matter where he roamed, predicament. Schorer's correct: early readers of "Main Street" weren't sure if Lewis meant to caricature Carol Kennicott or to praise her, but the novel captures her stasis as much as Doc Will's: both made Lewis.

While Lewis knew every nook of his hometown, he "had never possessed it, nor it him: the result was that he could never really leave it." (10) Mocked as a "Moon-Calf," embodying the gawky, red-headed jape, Lewis represented the lanky literary lumpish farmboy braying in New Haven or Greenwich. In college diaries, he limited his revelations of despair. He scattered seven lean years before his first novel, of cattle-ship voyages, off-on magazine yarns, grunt-level journalism, virginal swooning, gauche flirtation, mooching (Californian bohemians and sponsors, dad), and earnest patronage. Lewis' self-censorship, for Schorer, portends "perhaps the kind of novelist he would become: one who could never be able to project in art the forms of his suffering, one who would never wish to allow--if he could--his writing to confront his subjectivity--if it was there." (56-57)

The nature of that claim, in the dashed qualifiers, shows its hesitancy. I limn more self-awareness in his conflicted characters than Schorer, however exacting his scrutiny of every scrap from Lewis he tracks down, slots, and interprets. His biographer hears "a life of noisy desperation" in this admirer of Thoreau; Clifton Fadiman called Lewis a "Mercutio of the prairies," exhausting in his rhetorical excess. So far, if from more limited reading and that gleaned from some of his most prominent novels' protagonists, I sense sympathy within the satire; Lewis cocked his ear closely, even if he couldn't hear himself as much. (To Amazon US without the first three paragraphs, 9-17-12; compare my review of the 2002 Richard Lingeman biography of Lewis here.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here": Book Review

I recommend this deft audiobook rendering by Christopher Hurt of Sinclair Lewis' last true success, "It Can't Happen Here" (1935)  predicting an alternate history. It's strange as it happens almost as it's published, more or less. A 1936 FDR's re-election gets shunted aside for a corn-pone fascist recalling that played by Andy Griffith years later in "A Face in the Crowd." Berzilius "Buzz" Windrip takes over as president, with a clever calculation of xenophobic rhetoric and progressive bluster that appears buffoonish, until he solidifies power with the 50 million during the Depression desperate enough for "hope and change"--out of a nimble combination of populism, prejudice, and pandering, Windrip, a homegrown dictator with a down-home twang and an aw-shucks demeanor, matches the might of Hitler and Mussolini, in Lewis' dire (melo?-)drama.

Playing this a year after the Occupy movement started and while the Tea Party tries to balance power-sharing with compromise, it's intriguing to hear of the "League of Forgotten Men" under Peter Paul Prang, Methodist bishop, early on attempting to align anti-corporate cant with pro-nativist slant. It reminds me of how a campaign, if it somehow managed to connect the anti-banker with the pro-populist attitudes, might work itself out in today's America, after what we don't call another Great Depression, but dare to label only a Recession. Communists rally and socialists bicker, but the left cannot block the desperate "League" and their combined alliance with Buzz's right-wing minions. Lewis, from the depths of distress in the 1930s, took a bold move in making his story conform so closely to possibilities extrapolated from real-life scenarios and threats of unrest around him.

Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" (see my review) trod similar terrain recently, and that book shared with this one some plot leaps and expository compression. Parts do go on a while, and Lewis can get carried away with his invective and his intricacy of how Buzz's New Order establishes itself. However, seeing this spanned the then-near future of 1936-39, it's amazing how the rise of the gulags, concentration camps, and tyranny was anticipated. Also, the long-winded if appealingly recognizable protagonist calls himself a "small-town bourgeois intellectual," this doughty. sixty-year-old, "well-meaning, cloistered" journalist his wife calls "Dormouse" deflects criticism before we can do so, or his neighbors and then his foes--foreshadowed by Shad Ladue.

I admit a soft spot for sociological literature of this era--I like John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" and "USA" trilogy, tellingly; this earnest, hectoring, self-consciously inflated, detailed style has fallen long out of fashion from the bestseller list. Similarly, Lewis likes to hear himself talk on the page through protagonists like himself. It's can be awkward now and then but, as with Doremus, it becomes endearing, for the teller (at least sometimes) realizes he carries on.

As eighty-plus others beat me to this book, my comments cheer on the audiobook. Christopher Hurt (for Blackstone Audio; see also my review of Brian Emerson's reading for this label of "Main Street") captures the no-nonsense dialogues of Vermonters, the faux-hick accents of skilled operatives in the Beltway and beyond, and the gentler tones of those fearing the dictatorship's tyranny. I urge you to hear this novel, as reading it may tempt you to skim over a lot of the wry, poignant, or impassioned prose that Lewis ladles on: "ape with a manicure," "a human blackboard," "certificates of pedagogy," come to mind out of many well-crafted phrases with a pictorial or punchy effect. Hurt navigates his way through the somewhat-dated contexts skillfully, and highlights the humanity beneath the bluster.

A discovery at the end of 12 hours of this audiobook: Hurt leaves out the last few sentences, on the final page of the Michael Mayer-introduced reprint. He stops at the bottom of the penultimate page, and for me, that improves the conclusion!

I kept nearby that reprint in tandem, to check phrases, look up allusions, and ponder monologues and dialogue. The best parts ironically were the chapter colophons from Buzz's (or that wonderfully oily Lee Sarason) "Zero Hour." They smack of many a ghostwritten political screed or supposed autobiography rushed out a year or season prior to an election run! (8-5-12 to Amazon US)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry": Audiobook Review

After finishing this, I learned it won a 2009 audiobook award. Certainly, Anthony Heald's masterful performance swings and swirls you into the first couple of decades of the last century vividly and adroitly. While the Burt Lancaster film portrayal of Elmer Gantry remains the most recognized version of Sinclair Lewis' novel, Heald makes the protagonist--and what's tougher yet--everyone else in this sprawling and somewhat untidy if lively story--vivid.

It's a pity Amazon does not easily differentiate between formats for classic books. The audiobook version makes this a success as a dramatic entertainment. Many have reviewed the book and its contents and characters have been analyzed. What I'd add for this brief entry is how Heald can dramatize the nuances of a vexed, complicated, conflicted figure the author sets up for more than easy satire or tiresome denunciation. It's a five-star performance for closer to a four-star book.

I've been on a Sinclair Lewis kick lately. I reviewed the past year the audiobooks of "It Can't Happen Here," "Babbitt," and "Main Street," the Library of America's volume of his earlier novels (including "Babbitt"), and the biographies by Richard Lingeman and Mark Schorer. So, I came to this anticipating Lewis' typically diligent research into the religious industry--gathered after many interviews with active clergy, hanging out with them so as to understand their trade secrets and war stories, and to genuinely try to get a feel for Midwestern 1920's bible schools, tent revivals, rural churches, and urban complexes, all with competing clerical demands.

Those who have read "Babbitt" may note George F. makes a cameo appearance, for eventually Gantry comes to stake his career on the same Zenith. The backstory of Babbitt's own Sunday School marketing expands in this novel that followed, and it adds to the pleasure of immersing yourself in the slang and registers of everyday American speech around a century ago. One of the best moments comes as Heald articulates in a variety of accents and attitudes the letters written to the preacher by his congregants, as he tries to start over as a Methodist pastor in the humble hamlet of Banjo Springs.

Heald summons up the Aimee Semple McPherson-like figure of Sharon Falconer, the meek ministrations of Elmer's wife and the bolder connivances of his mistress. Lewis with female characters takes on quite a challenge, and Heald's up to it in his own pitch and tone. For Frank Shallard, his old classmate and scrupulous voice of reason who haunts Elmer as his guilty or ethical conscience, Lewis had difficulty with this counterbalance to the domineering and ambitious Gantry. Still, despite the plot's melodrama--Lewis claimed he wrote the final fifty pages in a drunken binge--the reading of this by the talented Heald draws you in and holds on despite the novel's unevenness.  (Amazon US 4-28-13)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt": Audiobook Review

I've been on a Sinclair Lewis kick the past year. I reviewed the audiobooks of "It Can't Happen Here," and "Main Street," the Library of America's volume of his earlier novels (including "Babbitt"), and the biographies by Richard Lingeman and Mark Schorer. These all helped me understand what the library labels as his "didactic fiction." It may be out of style now, but I enjoyed my return to "Babbitt."

Hearing Wolfram Kandinsky's voice read this for 11 discs, I wondered if I'd get used to the audiobook. He used a grating, abrasive tone for his omniscient narrator, one that while it may suit the acerbic, dry attitude of Lewis, appeared too harsh for George Babbitt. But, over hours, I learned to like it enough, and when he modulated for the whiny Zilla, the put-upon Paul, the shrewd Ida, or the genial and bumptious sidekicks of George at the lodge or while camping, it softened enough.

The discs also allow you to hear Lewis. On the page, he may annoy--much of this novel feels episodic for long stretches, as if character or setting sketches. But if you listen to the slang, the mundane detail, the yearnings of escape Babbitt at 47 still wishes for, more nuance comes across. "Victim of benevolence" is a great way to sum up being trapped in a social setting by an over-solicitous interlocutor, while "an old-maid and chow-dog flat" pins down Babbitt's disdain for Tanis--his sometime suitor--accurately.

Many comment on Lewis' mission here to pin down and stab the Midwestern Middle American 1920s conformist. Yet, after studying Lewis, I appreciate his ear for more nuanced interior monologue as well as go-getter peppy dialogue that marks how we sounded a century ago. Lewis knew the idealism of the common man, and the difficulty of labor and social reform. Babbitt even dares to attempt some sympathy with strikers and radicals, however awkward and halting, for a while, as the one dissenting voice among his stodgy cronies. When he is ostracized rather than welcomed for this, it's more realistic, if less dramatic as a climactic moment.

I read this in college and raced through it. I doubt if much of it stuck beyond the obvious satire. Now, middle-aged, knowing more about life and defeat and dreams, I can relate more to Babbitt's predicament even if at the end, the obvious about-face that he makes, chastened by his wife's brush with mortality, appears too neat. What also appeals are the glimpses into hucksterism by Sunday School marketing and officious doctoring that will enliven "Arrowsmith" and "Elmer Gantry" to come. (Amazon US 3/1/2013)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street": Audiobook Review

I enjoyed Brian Emerson's reading of this classic. Although a Goodreads commenter panned this for its lack of nuance or emotion, I wonder if this commenter listened to this all the way through. I did, and after over a month of my commute with this as my companion, I recommend it.

The Widow Bogart gains a wonderfully obnoxious whine. Jim Blosser sounds as boosterish as Babbitt in the making. Miles Bjornstrom finds emotion as he shifts from rabblerouser to family man to tragic figure in the eyes of Gopher Prairie. The setting, too, full of tension, satire, and warmth--for Lewis truly loved as well as hated his hometown inspiration--emerges.

While often Carol Kennicott's struggle is viewed as a social one, as she seeks to reform the town, it's also Will's drama, as he tries to court, win, and keep his wife's loyalty. Whether Lewis meant to make fun of or make a role model of Carol can still spark debate, as it did (see my review of Mark Schorer's massive biography of Lewis) when it debuted and caused a sensation nearly a century ago. Carol's coming-of-age and her maturity, fraught with doubt, find insightful articulation through Emerson's reading of her plight, as well as a host of Scandinavian, Yankee, and German-inflected settlers who contend for Carol's mind and heart in these still-gripping story.

Her marriage tempts her to turn back to the East, the civilized, the citified. Her idealism beckons her to the West, and in the Midwestern prairie of Minnesota, she is caught. Here, Lewis locates a heroine based on his more glamorous first wife, as if she came back to his hometown to marry someone like his own father, a down-home doctor.

Sure, a few sections betray what would become Lewis' typical love of rambling, if well-imitated, commentary from the local folks, combined with an eye for detail to the extreme in documenting at a sociological level his hometown and his nation. I learn from Lewis' on audiobook how those Americans now in the grave or near enough to it once--if they were toddlers then like little Hugh--ate, chatted, dressed, and dreamed. Listen to Emerson's dramatization and you will find compelling characters and a story that will bring you back to the small town as America transformed from its rural roots.

(P.S. I heard this after his more uneven but entertainingly imagined fascist send-up of an America under an aw-shucks dictator from 1936, "It Can't Happen Here," read aloud by Christopher Hunt also for Blackstone Audio, equally well and reviewed by me in August, 2012. This review to Amazon US 10-19-12)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street + Babbitt": Book Review

Relevance: a word often associated nowadays with a writer whom many (Mark Schorer's 1961 biography seems to blame) regarded as "the worst {American?} ever to win a Nobel." When some of us wonder if the political and cultural divisions that persist and morph in our nation have deeper roots than the newest pundit on Comedy Central or the newscast on Fox News, the radio left or right of the dial, here's one novelist who was reflecting on the American divide between heartland and coast, city and farm, hamlet and suburb, nearly a hundred years ago.

His two most famous novels, back-to-back bestsellers early in the 1920s, here are joined in a typically handy and handsome edition from the Library of America. Like many in this series, there's few notes. John Hersey finds a few arcane references we need to know, and there's a timeline of Lewis's life and a brief note on him, but the editorial policy appears to let the reader confront the text as much as possible. Neither of these two novels gained perhaps the long-standing media recognition of "Elmer Gantry" (Burt Lancaster's appeal may be credited!), but they provided us with "Babbitt" as a byword for small-city conformity, and "Main Street" as shorthand for small-town stultification. (Preacher "Elmer" along with "Dodsworth" the physician and "Arrowsmith" the auto manufacturer appear in a second LoA volume.)

Lewis's liberalism never's disguised, and part of the awkward tone if well-intended, bluntly persuasive charm of what are clearly propagandist pieces as well as entertainment. As a promoter of values I suspect are close to her creator, Carol Kennicott's decision to settle down in Gopher Prairie to try to inspire its stolid natives takes a long time to elaborate its ramifications for her and her neighbors. Clearly, Lewis looks at the town based on his own Sauk Centre as a template upon which to sketch his grievances with the heartland, but you also sense compassion and sensitivity as he listens to Carol and watches her confront the forces that keep pressing her down to do as the local folks do.

With George F. Babbitt, you get two years of his boosterism and boorish encounters in Zenith, a larger Midwestern burg. Here, Lewis plays off of his foil as the lead. Babbitt may not be as much a would-be rebel, but as with Carol, he chafes in his own way against the bit, even if he must (as many of us) resign himself to be part of the herd. Lewis gives us a recognizable caricature, then tries to make someone we can understand.

I liked both novels with their respectively calm and frenetic ability to convey what people nearly a century ago read, ate, debated, and dabbled in. Lewis paints his targets and splatters them relentlessly, but underneath I sense also a desire to comprehend how so many millions invent or indulge in the opinions they do, and how they act. I confess the sociological style of his novels (as with John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" and the "USA trilogy") may not wear as well for today's readers. However, I enjoy the brisk, peppy immersion into slang, diction, and ideas that swirled around those caught up in the Twenties, full of wealth and ambition for some, that remind me of more recent boom times--and busts.

By the way, speaking of busts, I recommend a deft audiobook rendering by Christopher Hurt of Sinclair Lewis' last true success, "It Can't Happen Here" (1935) and that prediction of an alternate history. It's strange as it happens almost as it's published, more or less. A 1936 FDR's re-election gets shunted aside for a corn-pone fascist recalling that played by Andy Griffith years later in the film "A Face in the Crowd." Berzilius "Buzz" Windrip takes over as president, with a clever calculation of xenophobic rhetoric and progressive bluster that appears buffoonish, until he solidifies power with the 50 million during the Depression desperate enough for "hope and change"--out of a nimble combination of populism, prejudice, and pandering. Windrip matches the Hitlers and the Mussolinis, in Lewis' dire (melo?-)drama. (8-5-12 to Amazon US)