Saturday, November 30, 2013

Go Fraincis Ceanada

Ag taistil ar thuas, thíomaint Léna agus mise go Stáit Nua-Eabhrac go dtí i mbaile d'aois i Montréal. Ar dtús, tháinig muid go dtí an h-óstán fíneáil ainmithne ina dhiadh file tSiombhalachais de bhunadh Cheanada-Fraincis agus Gaeilge Emile Nelligan. D'fhoghlaim mé tar ais filleadh abhaile go raibh Quebecois ó h-Éirinn atá thart ar cúig faoin gcéad na n-inimirceach ansin; bhí fhormhór mhuintir na hÉireann go leor chomhshamhlú leis an Caitlicigh na Fraince ann. 

Tá reir bhrí "baile" maidir do "Cheanada" as Iroquois, ach tá talamh an-mhór, gan amhras; bhí duilleogaí mhaiple go leor ach bóithre folamh lasmuigh den séasúr ann. Go deimhin, i Stáit Nua-Eabhrac ina h-Adirondacks agus i Québec anuas ar teorann go Maine, ní raibh muid ag éisteacht comharthái raidió ar chor ar bith. Ar ndóigh, chuala muid an teanga Fraincise go minic chomh mar as mháthair-theanga ghnáth gach cearn den Ceanada.

Anois, b'fhéidir, beidh mé ag foghlaim roinnt Fraincise roimh an chéad am eile go bhfuil mé ar ais ansuid. Bhfágfadh mé i gcónaí é sin a dhéanamh féin. Thosaigh mé leis Duolingo ar mo fón cliste chéana féin.

Shiúil muid ag imeall Montréal ina tstráideannaí cloiche cúngaí le solas gáis--agus "malls" siopadóireacht faoi talamh. Bhreathnaigh Léna agus mé an Abhainn Naomh Labhras síos na tór ó na séipeal Naomh Máiread Bourgeoys agus Ár n-Bhean de Maith le Cuidiú aici (Notre Dame de Bon Secours. Chuir cuairt muid go An-Mhéara (Chateau) Ramezay faisnéiseach fós: tá "rotisserie le madra atá a gcumchachtú" ansin sa céistin boghtach thíos air.

D'imigh go cathair eile d'aois na Fraince: Québec. Chonaic muid an músaem mhór na sibhialtachtaí agus na céimeannaí géar ar lár sean-bhaile. Bhí sé Oíche Shamhna, ach bíonn go leor na baistí; agus riamh turas de uair a chlog ina calèche ag tharraingt le capall timpeall an dún agus catha Machairí Abraham ag rith muid le taispeantas soilse féile uaigneach in sa gceo in aice leis an abhainn fuar. Ith muid cócaireachta Cheanada le linn oíche fuar ar an-sean bialann Aux Ancien Canadiens, go nádurtha.

Chodail muid ar Manoir d'Auteuil. Ansin, cosúil le áiteannaí eile go raibh le feiceáil a muid riomh (Áit Montgomery i nGleann Hudson agus Chateau Ramezay mar shampla), bhí i láthair fhilleadh an Cogadh Réabhlóideac. Ina theannta sin, cuireadh léirítear Benedict Arnold, Ben Franklin, agus General Richard Montgomery i thaobh éagsúla, triu shúile na Fraincis Cheanada, dílseoirí Mheiriceá, nó Breataine ina ionad.

To French Canada

Traveling north, Layne and I drove from New York State to old town Montréal. We first arrived at a fine hotel named after a Symbolist poet of Irish/French-Canadian origin, Emile Nelligan. I learned after returning home that Irish Quebecers were about five percent of immigrants there: most Irish assimilated with the French Catholics there.

The meaning of "village" for Canada is in Iroquois, but it's a very large land, no doubt; there were maple leaves galore but empty roads off-season. Indeed, in New York State in the Adirondacks and in Québec to past the Maine border, we listened to no radio transmissions at all. Of course, we heard the French language often as the mother tongue normally all over Canada.

Now perhaps, I'll have to learn some French before the next time that I return back there. I've always meant to do so. I started through Duolingo on my smartphone already.

We walked around Montréal on stony narrow streets under gas light, and in shopping malls underground. Layne and I peered down on the Saint Lawrence River from the tower of the chapel of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys and her Notre Dame de Bon Secours. We also visited the informative Chateau Ramezay too: there's a "dog-powered rotisserie" in its vaulted kitchen below.

We went off to another old French city, the town of Québec. We saw the grand Museum of Civilizations and the steep steps of the old center of the city. It was Halloween, but there was lots of rain; after an hour's journey by horse-drawn calèche around the fortress and battleground of the Plains of Abraham we passed the lonely festival lights in the mist near the cold river. We ate Canadian cuisine during the chilly night at the venerable restaurant Aux Ancien Canadiens, naturally.

We slept at the Manoir d'Auteuil. There, similar to other places that we saw before, (Montgomery Place in the Hudson Valley and Chateau Ramezay for example), at present the Revolutionary War returned. Moreover, we were presented with Benedict Arnold, Ben Franklin, and General Richard Montgomery from a different side, through eyes of French Canadians, Loyalists, or British instead.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Patrick deWitt's "Ablutions": Book Review

I recognize the "anonymous smaller roads of the working class" taken by the narrator as he weaves his "magical Ford" junkheap home after his latest binge which nearly closes this short novel blearily or sharply told to us in the second tense. Many compare Patrick deWitt's debut to Charles Bukowski, but I favor deWitt's take on downbeat L.A. It's less self-indulgent if staggering around similar subject matter: an attempt to try to dramatize what happens in the dull hours and dramatic moments in a bar where I imagine no windows, a shadowy entrance door, and no clocks.

Most of the content--I hesitate to call it all action--occurs inside. When the novel gets outside in daylight, it's rare. Pedaling (rather than peddling) from what appears to be around Echo Park down Sunset to downtown L.A., the narrator tries to call out to the "night crawlers" on addict-ridden Broadway. "They are tired and uninterested in all you have seen or think you have seen. They have seen more and their eyes are not glowing golden but gray and lifeless." (35)

There's much anonymity despite the characters named and pegged by the barbacker's narrative. He knows them mainly or totally by their talk inside the bar, and this novel tries to show us what the protagonist knows. Not much of the outer world impinges, while his marriage falls apart, and this fits the self-absorbed claustrophobia. Only when his wife leaves him does he wander off on a Southwest binge in a rental car. This third section does not expand the inner state of the character much, but at least we leave L.A.

Pilfering and petty theft consume the teller. Part four builds up to a set scene which while to be expected in an experimental, artistically avant-garde novel may not satisfy the reader. This on reflection I reckon is intentional, but it does set the narrator off on another open-ended, unresolved quest. This novel, however brief, packs a lot in, and it took me a long time to read, as it forces you to slow down and imitate the sense of lost time and trapped sensations felt by anyone choosing to stay in such a bar, with only a few denizens as driven to drink as one's self, for whatever passes as the leisure time allotted those who populate this dreary, gloomy realm. (Amazon US 7-1-13)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Patrick deWitt's "The Sisters Brothers": Book Review

His experimental debut "Ablutions" demonstrated deWitt's invention of a compelling narrative voice; this second novel reveals his ability to channel depth into what at first may seem a satirical Western. While the reason Eli and his brother Charlie must hunt down Herman Kermit Warm delays its gradual impact until about two-thirds into the plot, it's compellingly built up through vignettes slyly letting us view as if in documentary fashion the frequent brutality and occasional (thanks more to understated Eli) compassion allotted those who have the often bad and terminal luck to stumble into their path.

An Indian fallen off of his horse, a testy tycoon of a tiny town named after him, a pair of duels--the first witnessed, the second enacted-- and some hospitable ladies at certain hotels occupy the few events, which transpire at a slow pace of a frontier era: sudden bloodshed, frequent boredom. There's a restless, itchy refusal among many here to stay put for long. Eli analyzes Gold Rush "hysteria": it's a "seductive notion" to seek fortune among the "unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others." For Eli, luck is not discovered but "earned or invented through strength of character. You had to come by it honestly; you could not trick or bluff your way into it." (116) For all his misdeeds, Eli possesses a moral code he tries to follow.

Asked about his calling, Eli responds: "'Each job is different. Some I have seen as singular escapades. Others have been like a hell.' I shrugged. 'You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a life entrusted to me." (139) This displays the tone of his Victorian-meets-American speech, slightly formal to us, measured and carefully parsed even among the less educated. As Charlie recalls of his brother from their youth: "you were always off in your private world of thoughts, quiet in the corners." (166)

The hired pair's trail takes them from Oregon City, 1851, down to San Francisco. In a short scene, deWitt conjures up the City. Ships crowd the harbor, anchored as their cargoes rot, their crews having abandoned them to rush into the gold fields, "hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides." (171) Warned by a solitary dock stroller of the City's "madness of possibilities," the prospect of San Francisco looms. The man lingers. "A single pistol shot was heard in the distance; hoofbeats, a woman's scream, which turned to cackling laughter. 'A great, greedy heart!' he said, and then walked toward it, disappearing into it." (176) Entering this "wild time here" chills Eli and we the readers even before the brothers leave its beach.

Charlie notes as a fourth prospector along the way looks sorry: "It would seem to me that the solitude of working in the wilds is not healthy for a man." (230). There's no romanticism in deWitt's vision but neither is there an easy lurch into cynicism. Instead, this resembles a series of stolid, caustic tintypes.

When again Eli must confront once more the situation he and his brother enter, as they eke out their living by ensuring the dying of others, he lets us into his transformation. "My very center was about to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle, or I become my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wanted." (246)

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Sisters Brothers improves on Patrick deWitt's debut. While facile criticism may equate this to a snarky take on the Western genre, its carefully measured stance and attentive prose style demonstrate a writer concerned with morality as well as entertainment. (Amazon US 7-7-13)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Desmond Berry's "The Chivalry of Crime": Book Review

This epic wraps the core of Jesse James' saga within a teenager's obsession to buy a pistol like the one that pitiless bankrobber wielded. Joshua Beynon meets Bob Ford, the infamous executor of Jesse, and Ford entangles Josh into his own machinations as he tries to make his own life over in Weaver, Colorado, a few years after the death of his former comrade Jesse. Welsh novelist Desmond Barry skillfully enters the indirect first-person narration via Josh, Bob, and Jesse in turn, and his blunt, brutal, or enraptured cadences filter through these three men to present the "burned lands" of the Civil War border skirmishes in Kansas and Missouri, and then a mining town in the degraded Rockies.

Here's a few samples of Barry's style. "The sheriff had the air of a man taking a goose to slaughter, sad to lose it, but hungry, too." (93) " An Osage scout arrives in the guerrilla's midst: "The horseman stared up at him as if he had just emerged through a rupture in time and was a vision unwanted by them." (145) {This image recurs in a very different 2004 novel I've also reviewed by Barry, "Cressida's Bed."} Amidst Jesse's quarrelsome, suspicious, insular clan: "The whole kitchen was transformed into a silent waltz of impending violence." (251)

There's a compelling theme of how life's balance tends to be controlled by those connivers in league with the deceitful, the (il-)legal, and the cynical, and how easily an lowlier person's less privileged place in the social hierarchy can be easily and fatally upset by violence. Early on, Josh considers the entrance of Ford and the sudden plunge into power and surrender that this encounter sets in motion. Bob Ford traces the history of violence that Josh now enters in 1892: "It's just cause and effect, boy." (101) The lack of control when forces come down to invade one's life crushes many in this challenging, densely told narrative. In unravelling Josh's role in this fated, unpredictable situation, Ford must reveal his own part in the chain of guns and killers, and this sets up the middle chapters, beginning during the Civil War and ending in 1882, when Jesse learns to come on as an extra and then to dominate center stage. Later, Bob Ford explains to Josh: "When you kill someone, you unleash a force in nature that turns the world agin you. It ain't like killing an animal. It is as if something has tilted off-kilter and nature seeks to put it to rights, no matter what the cause of the killing." (363)

Barry packs an impressive amount of research into 470 thoughtful, lively pages. He acknowledges The Pogues' song on their debut LP as inspiring him to wonder how the story of Jesse James might sound coming from the "coward" who shot him down. Closing this, suffice to say that you learn--and may well empathize with--why an associate of Jesse might well come to make the decision he did.

The dust jacket notes how Barry grew up immersed in tales of the American West, and his pacing, diction, dialogue, and interior monologue convey the feel of the time when outside of fragments of the Bible or Shakespeare, a frontier character might well think and speak in sawed-off cadences, sheared of nearly all affectation. Barry avoids cliche and you press on not knowing what happens next. A prizefight, a eulogy, the jittery nature of guns in the hands of their uneasy possessors, bank robberies, a horse race, police interrogations, Federal depredations and Confederate reprisals, guerrilla war, butchery, betrayal, and revenge: scenes come across with near-photographic vividness. Barry gets the spoken rhythms right, and despite some languid parts later in the story, which begins and ends well, this 2000 novel is recommended. It may wear down a reader not as captivated by considerable amounts of graphic violence and stoic fortitude, but Barry hones his style to fit his ever-closing circle of haunted and desperate men who must cut each other down to survive.

I read this in two-and-a-half days; it kept me up late. A good sign of a gripping tale, when despite the knowledge of Jesse's fate, the manner in which that well-rounded tragic but increasingly cruel figure evolves from young victim of Union savagery to hesitant bushwhacker defending the Confederacy to ruthless, always rationalizing and calculating fugitive determined to advance the Lost Cause and then his own gains as the pitiless head of the James Gang makes for compelling tale-telling. Some in the Gang and as a posse's associates don't receive the depth created for key protagonists, but this may be Barry's decision so as to emphasize how they're pawns of the kings and knights here. While the last vignette ends when it seems another story could have emerged, given its date and place, and while the open-ended nature of the conclusion makes one wonder why Barry stopped when he chose, it's an imaginative and, overall, convincing re-creation of just over a century ago. (Amazon US 12-31-12)

Friday, November 22, 2013

William Azuski's "Travels in Elysium": Book Review

This philosophical thriller mixes a novel of ideas with a mystery plot on the Greek island of Santorini. The site of an immense volcanic cataclysm recorded about 3600 years ago, wiping out this bastion of Minoan civilization known once as Thera, at the village of Akrotiri (where real-life digs began in 1967) around the time of the military junta forty-odd years ago, a group of archeologists convene. They hack into the tephra, to claw into what some imagine might be remnants of Atlantis.

Whether this is metaphor or "Trojan Horse," farce, mass hypnosis, wish-fulfillment, or some "echo" of the "Perfect Form" perplexes student Nico Pedrosa. From England, he's recruited hurriedly to take his place alongside the scholars under the supervision of Marcus James Huxley. On this island, names and much more suggest hidden meanings. As Nico learns more about the rivalries, factions, and uses to which he and his fellow enthusiasts are applied under Huxley's charismatic but unsettling power, the novel burrows into the possibilities that the excavation appears to reify or which appear to recur. Frescos appeal to the imaginative, and Platonic forms appear as if to revive, deepening the uncanny.

The plot must be left somewhat vague to remain surprising to you, but this suspense earns genuine engagement by the reader.  It's not easy going; characters needed development and early on the style appeared too awkward. The book takes its time, and it's longer (I was asked to review an e-book) than I expected.  Often, the style felt overwritten. However, in conveying Nick's own youthful bewilderment and eagerness it makes sense for awhile, to portray an student in his early 20s plucked from British academia to be plopped onto a sunny island. His predicament, and his difficulty in deciding whom he can trust, enable this novel to be a coming-of-age tale, set among a lively and vivid locale, but one with its own spirits which may be emanating from its mythical shadows. This grounding in place, stranded on an awesome otherworldly terrain, heightens drama effectively.

It reminded me of some Iris Murdoch or Charles Williams storyline, or Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris." A character wonders if this isn't all an "archetypal Greek tragedy." For the Mediterranean setting, compare "Ghosts" by John Banville in a similar motif. Or even Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Abzetis manages to hold his own with a narrator who never lets on where he is ahead of the moment; this verisimilitude lets the reader along with Nico as "sorcerer's apprentice" listen to back-stories and lore.

Plato's conundrum, optical illusion, necropolis, Isles of the Blest, Oracle of the Dead, and/or the Burnt Isles: Santorini resembles other islands towards or beyond the sunset, a feature in mythological landscapes the world over. Why this attracts seekers, such as the Friends of Orpheus, and how near-death experiences may intersect with what Huxley and his rivals and supporters investigate draws in both Azuski's reflections in this intellectual whodunit, and Nico's own quest to figure it out.

Doppelgangers, ignis fatuus, wish fulfillment, Critias and Socrates, Solon and Plato: these inspire new allegories of these caves below Santorini. One character responds with a lovely analogy to coming back from the dead: "siphoned back into my body like a captured cloud," and Azuski does strive for fresh imagery. The second half of the novel does slow, as Huxley's motives keep shifting as Nico and the reader struggle to keep up with this enigmatic antagonist. He's not necessarily evil, but he's the type of elusive antagonist that compels the outmatched protagonist Nico to pursue him.

Certainly, near the end, Azuski packs a wallop. I think to enhance this impact, earlier sections needed trimming, and sharper arcs of maturation for supporting characters. Certain people come and go as if to prop up the meandering, repeatedly delayed or attenuated plot. Still, as an intellectual project, this must have consumed him as much as Huxley regarding the grand metaphor underlying, physically and psychically, this complex story. "The final deception is not the deception that comes last, but the metaphor that makes sense of all the others." Nico tries to figure out Huxley and the increasingly bewildering or dazzling insular swirl around him and emanating behind the entrance marked #34.

I would have advised stronger delineation in terms of the supporting characters in terms of this penultimate situation and how they respond--the prose does not distinguish a range of personal testimonies although a shared education may elide or mask their respective tone and fluency. While the ending does keep its own enigma that causes one to rethink the entire novel, the value of immersion in a thoughtful if sprawling examination of Thera's mythic power is ultimately evident.
Amazon US 7-23-13)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

John MacGregor's "Propinquity": Book Review

This takes place in Australia starting around forty years ago. Clive Lean relates nearly all of the story firsthand, yet his school chum Julian Lake's early portion comes via an omniscient narrative from the outback. John MacGregor conveys Clive's tale from an exuberant sensibility open to irony and levity. By contrast, Julian's snippet comes in a straightforward, unaffected tone: this does, however, make you wonder why this portion departed from the first-person perspective dominating Propinquity.

Originally published in 1986, it's now re-issued as an e-book by the author, who requested my review.  (There remain typos and misspellings; not sure if this is due to transfer to Kindle format or if they were in the printed edition. The author has reported to have revised the e-book since my review.) I liked Clive's schoolboy glimpses of countercultural fervor and political naivete; the author's own subsequent work to assist others abroad, his journalistic coverage of abuses in East Timor and among his homeland's politicians may be predicted from this novel. A lot of Australian-specific references that eluded me, but the general plot however uncanny remains clear.

Clive deals with the ups and downs of his father's garden equipment business while Julian wanders into a seeker's quest. Part two introduces Eustace Harkin, a WWII vet on the down and out, to Clive. A surprising transaction follows, enabling Clive to leave Australia to study medicine at Oxford. At Oxford, he falls in with friends (the Vishenkar group) who experiment with psychedelics. (Meanwhile, Gilberte, their classmate, is a bodyguard for the Italian president, unfortunately Aldo Moro; Alistair, another classmate is in Baby Doc's Haiti, during the era of contras and CIA blowback: their itineraries eventually intersect with the main plot neatly if a bit predictably.) In transit through London, Clive meets Sam Goode; her familial ties to the "Royal Peculiar" status of Westminster Abbey picked up (for me) the pace. This will be sustained by quite a memorable place for a tryst.

Berengaria, not a figure likely to ring any reader's bells, but Richard the Lionheart's peripatetic and bold queen from Navarre, comes to light in Sam's recital. Then, the novel unlocks the Abbey's secrets. Kabir, a Vedic teacher, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gnostics intertwine with Sam's "spellbinding" tale to Clive ca. 1200. The nature of fiction, as in real life, requires this emerges "as told to" in long conversations. (The Benedictine monks as far as I know were removed from the Abbey about forty years before 1599, but I am unsure if this date was shifted forward by MacGregor--or Sam--for the novel's own purposes.)

How students' medical expertise merges with medieval evidence merges in the book's second half. It moves as expected, an entertaining story mixed with a clever, erudite "what-if" premise. Given the dramatic findings, there's an understated tone of acceptance that either betrays the author's own attitude, or the characters' sangfroid in a chiller climate than Australia to the startling revelations. However, a madcap abduction later restores vigor, and earns "eleven minutes of national prime time." It ends in a modest resolution, open-ended while keeping the mysteries uncovered open to possibility.
(Amazon US 7-23-13; the author informs me the typos have been fixed since I read a review copy.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Robert Ferrigno's "The Girl Who Cried Wolf": Kindle Book Review

Skilled thrillers with a moral undertone, Robert Ferrigno's "Assassin Trilogy" entertained me and kept me intrigued by an alternate future history of an America split between Islamic sharia rule and Bible-Belt fanatics. Reviewing the three titles back in 2009, I noted Ferrigno's ability, even when plots bristled with betrayals and duplicity, to keep the ethical dilemmas of his vengeful villains and conniving heroes vivid among the mayhem caused by ideologies grown rigid, cruel, and hypocritical.

No surprise that his new novel features Glenn, an unhinged eco-activist with a penchant for murder in the cause of a "PMS" Mother Nature. I confess as a native Californian a sneaking sympathy for environmentalists, pitted against McMansions and despoilers of the coast, so I approached this e-book (provided for review) curiously. The bias from the start is quite tipped against Glenn, Tree, and Eli: the Monkey Boyz (a jaundiced nod to Edward Abbey's early-1970s Monkey Wrench Gang?) come off sounding like Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli. Ferrigno's conveyance of their inner monologues and spoken dialogues doesn't spark much confidence in the state of current education of Western American youth. Their contact, Cleo, contrasts as a bit more savvy, for her own reasons we learn.

In Seattle, the Boyz kidnap Remy, who as her name hints is from a more luxurious social status.  Her father, Brandt, as a magnate, is judged guilty by Glenn for crimes against old growth. Glenn's using Tree and Eli as dupes for his own scheme hatched with Cleo to profit off of Remy's abduction. Of course, with Remy a Stanford-educated entertainment lawyer, and the aspiring ex-cop "tough guy" Mack Armitage (great name) teaming with Seattle detective Marcus Hobbs, complications ensue.

True to form as in the Assassin books, Ferrigno delves into a radicalized mindset to reveal some nuance. The Birkenstocks and granola anarchist milieu of Seattle, where he lives, is ripe for parody, but the author does not take too many potshots. While the book is tilted, it does show the other side. The difficulty is that most of the rumpled and marginal ecologists aren't very compelling in their articulation of their cause, and while this may be accurate in terms of their diction, it doesn't generate much reader enthusiasm for what is "naturally" a dramatic campaign. He alludes to one character's taking on a "deep woods glide" that shows a welcome eye for what immersion in nature can offer, and toxic waste, poaching, and logging receive pointed observation.

People come alive best with brief scenes of the first meetings of Hobbs and Mack, and with Sky as an inmate who warms a bit to Mack: supporting characters are not many, but Ferrigno at his best can flesh them out. I cannot reveal the ultimate antagonist although this figure appears early on: suffice to say as with previous villains Ferrigno creates I found this character the most intriguing by far. I wanted much more of this character. Others--including the main antagonist--move the plot along but I found them less likable and at times even dull. Maybe they heightened the impact of others. Yet, some key figures often lacked a flair and over-the-top boastfulness that made their counterparts in the Assassin books so enjoyable if also in the service of a thriller that might leap the limits of the plausible. Mack to me seemed more drab and functional, but some of the others drew me in as the plot spun about, the usual body count rising as the climax approached.

Any thriller relies on happenstance paired with smarts, chance with luck, and random encounters with set-ups. Ferrigno's in his element as he delivers a rousing tale. I'm between three and four stars as this relies too much on stereotypes, but these move action efficiently. This author knows his genre and delivers at a rapid pace, in nearly a hundred short chapters.

True, it's not very subtle in its satire or bad guys. His choreographed violence remains (as in Darwin in the Assassin books) his most vivid skill, delivered here again in cinematic scope if with far less of a total casualty list than that trilogy. Ferrigno puts in enough twists; this kept me reading it all in one sitting, ending two hours after midnight. (Amazon US 3-30-13)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ian McEwan's "Solar": Book Review

I didn't expect to enjoy this much. My impression of Ian McEwan's been grim. I found remaindered his teen incest romp "The Cement Garden" as a teen myself back in the late 70s and that was it, even for a pessimist like me. So, when my wife recommended this, I was skeptical. But, she insisted.

Well, the satirical nature of the polar zipper episode; the delights of salt and vinegar crisps; the joys of fat; the backwards faux-steps on the stairs of a cuckolded husband with his hands to make it seem as if two people are leaving his place, so he can annoy his fifth wife who's carrying on with a builder; the ruminations of au courant, correct thinking feminists angered at Michael Beard's earnest if wobbly defense of the gender roles within scientific careers; the social construction of a gene (if we aren't aware of a cancer cell, can it kill us?) asserted by humorless humanists; the rather predictable British romanticization of the down-home Southwest if unexpected double-wide trailer-settled love: the storyline swerves and taunts. It's all over the place, this novel take on a scientist caught up, in 2000, 2005, and 2009, in trying to launch a way to harness by photovoltaics to save the planet and harness the sun's energy. I hover between three and four stars: it teaches you while entertaining you about scientific advances at least for short stretches, and it contains worthwhile ideas to explore.

Quantum physics for poets, almost literally, enters, and so does the debate over alternative energy and global warming. McEwan must as fiction demands gloss over Beard's "conflation" discovery but tying it to Francis Bacon in the gentle denouement is an elegant touch. Much of the preceding plot proves divergent in tone and intent. I liked it, but it seems deliberately ramshackle, its waddling form following its protagonist's own bulk, appealing for a few if repulsing others. It reflects the mind and intent of a globe-trotting intellectual celebrity who falls and rises in the media, over a decade.

Beard, as one lover of many tells him, is 'still cranky about sunbeams' during the past decade, as his career is revived, shattered, and revived again in a way not very convincing but still lively and often hilarious in a mordant way. He becomes the 'sole witness to his own innocence,' and this impels you to turn the pages, even if the climax is predictable given lots of foreshadowing, admittedly some of it in clever understatement and not too obviously. The symbolism is there, but the story is ragged, the ending weary and rushed, supporting characters rarely more than caricatures or devices to move forward the picaresque episodes, and it veers all over the place in slapdash mood, time, and sympathy for our vexed Beard.

Oddly, the portion of Beard's first wife and his Oxford schooling which formed a compact story in the New Yorker a few years back, also integrating John Milton's poem on light movingly, is not credited in the acknowledgements. It works well here as a core, later in the rambling tale, to show how Beard could charm the ladies. Yet, even for a Nobel laureate, his lure for women two decades or more younger remained for me hard to believe, given his reprehensible if entertaining morality or lack of. I found it unlikely that women would fall for him in his ponderous state, and that he'd settle for the ones he did by the story's end. Yet, McEwan does take the trouble to let us into Beard's loneliness, and his calculations. The challenge remains in contemplating human disaster and ecological meltdown in such an offhand, truly sophomoric manner. 

This offbeat sense, not knowing where Beard will go or what he will do, and not sure how we are meant to respond to him, reminds me of a character Kingsley or Martin Amis might have manufactured. McEwan appears to want to write a lighter entertainment (I think of Graham Greene's difference between his theological themes in his fiction and his criminal or spy thrillers) than his reputation would let on. I did admire how McEwan did not push some metaphors too far, so I recommend this as a summer book for intellectuals. (I stayed in a Palm Springs motel during 115 degree heat, suitably, to peruse it. 8-12-12 to Amazon US)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ag taistil go dtí Stáit Nua Eabhrac

Chuaigh muid go dtí Colaiste na Bhaird a cur cuairt ár mhac níos óige le linn an dhá tseachtaine seo caite. Bíonn Niall i gcónaí ina Stáit Nua Eabhrac ina gcolaiste, ag imeall an Abhainn Hudson. Go deimhin, tá séisean ábalta fheiceáil an abhainn mór in aice leis an ionad álainn seo.

Bhí muid ag taistil chun freastal an deireadh na seachtaine do theaghlaigh ansin. Chuala Léna agus mise ceantannaí agus mion-rangaí. Shiúl muid ar fud an champais (agus reilig phictiúr anseo) íomlán an duilleoigaí an fhomhair.

Ith muid leis Niall, fós. Tá béilí ar "The Local" agus "Terrapin" i Rhinebeck ag an dá blasta. Cócaráithe Léna bia "ar bhaile" leis comhábhair úra ón margadh feirmeoirí freisin; is maith leo é ag ith Niall agus cúig na chairde air.

D'imigh muid go bPittsfield i Massachusetts a foghlaim faoi Herman Melville ar An Athenaeum ansuid agus an músaem go aisteach agus taitneamhach i gcathair beag sin. Tháinig muid go baile na Melville, atá ainmnithe "Arrowhead," go raibh dúnta. Mar sin féin, shíul muid ag timpeall a cluain agus coillte; bhreathnaigh muid an h-iomaire "Greylock" chomh míol mór-cruthach atá spreag, b'fhéidir, an cruth na Moby-Dick.

In aice-láimhe, i Lenox, chuairt muid an "An Mhóta," an Ard-Mhéara na Edith Wharton. Go fírinne, tá sí an-mhór. Ar ndóigh, bhuail muid leis ár chara Jerome ina suíomh ina chineál céanna i tSaratoga Springs dhá lá ina dhiaidh sin, mbealach chun na Fraincis Ceanada.

Traveling to New York State.

We went to Bard College to visit our younger son during the past two weeks. Niall's living in New York State at college, on the edge of the Hudson River. In fact, he himself is able to see the great river near this lovely location.

We traveled to attend a weekend for families there. Layne and I heard speakers and mini-classes. We walked around the campus (and graveyard pictured here) full of leaves in autumn.

We ate with Niall, too. Meals at "The Local" and "Terrapin" in Rhinebeck were both delicious. Layne cooked a meal "at home" with fresh ingredients from farmers' markets also; Niall and his five friends liked it. 

We went off to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to learn about Herman Melville at the Athenaeum over there and the museum strange and interesting in that small city. We arrived at the home of Melville, which is called "Arrowhead," but it was closed. All the same, we walked around the meadow and woods; we viewed the whale-shaped "Greylock" ridge which inspired, perhaps, the design of Moby-Dick.

Nearby, in Lenox, we went to "The Mount," the mansion of Edith Wharton. Certainly, it's very grand. Of course, we met with our friend Jerome in a similar setting in Saratoga Springs two days later, on our way to French Canada.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Norton Book of Science Fiction": Review

Having taught at a technical college from this assigned anthology a course in SF, I found a wide range of reactions. When I used it in the late '90s and early '00s, my students--all majoring in non-liberal arts--did not note as much its inclusion of "soft" SF aimed, as co-editor Ursula LeGuin champions in her spirited, quirky introduction, to challenge the canon of "hard" SF with its spacecraft, battles, gadgets, and stoic or sexist men. I was able to balance its editorial tilt with another collection featuring older stories, and an international array of tales. This time, I had no option but to use this text; a decade later, I noticed a far more polarized reaction to its intentions.

Six-sevenths of my class were male, and a couple of my female students told me that it was suited for those who didn't like, or didn't think they'd like, science fiction. One liked it more for precisely that reason, and others may have too. But many students vociferously reacted to the thick book's relative dearth of machines, concepts, and inventions. Too much fiction, not enough science?

The strongest of the dozen stories I used seemed those able to enchant or challenge expectations. Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" worked well for a class filled with those who knew inner-city Los Angeles well. John Kessel's "Invaders" perplexed with three storylines, but those with Latin American roots welcomed its reversal of New World conquest. Bruce Sterling's "We See Things Differently" for a story from 1989 anticipates post-9/11 attitudes and a sort of Tea Party-meets-Occupy grassroots movement eerily well. These, full of conflict in a weakened America, met with most enthusiasm.

James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," Margaret Atwood's "Homelanding," Joe Haldeman's "The Private War of Private Jacob," and Cordwainer Smith's "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" sparked imaginations. "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl's very much part of its 1966 air of condescending hipness, but it shows how a writer assumed from his audience what a writer later on would not. Greg Bear's "Schrodinger's Plague" caused many to give up as it was too clever; Michael Swanwick's "The Midwinter's Tale" showed mythic power, while Michael Blumlein's "The Brains of Rats" met with lots of dismissal for its disturbing gender excursions. Post-modernism does not appear to be a favorite among many students more linear-minded.

Other stories are far weaker, or sentimental, frankly. (While neither weak nor sentimental, I don't think Philip K. Dick is best represented by "Frozen Journey," as an aside.) Still, one advantage is that I can test selections in the classroom, and the 850 pages allow enough room for choice. Many stories do seem dated, 1960-1990, all American or Canadian, as the technological shifts towards dystopian apps and pocket or installed devices tracking our every move evident in post-millennial fiction as gathered in John Joseph Adams' great anthology "Brave New Worlds" (reviewed by me in Jan. 2011) seem more appropriate for younger students now then the coke-addled (more than one story!), landline and often pre-PC-toting folks of the pre-Net era found in these pages often, more holdovers from the Aquarian Age than Gen X's children! (8-7-12 to Amazon US)

Monday, November 11, 2013

John Leonard's "Lonesome Rangers": Book Review

I read this for two reasons. I wanted to find out Leonard's take on Jáchym Topol's novel "City Sister Silver" in light of the Velvet Revolution and Leonard's visit a summer after, and, sparked by James Wolcott's nod in "Lucking Out" to his fellow reviewer for his doing so as "performance art," I was curious about Leonard's style. 

This 2002 collection theoretically looks at "the literature of exile," but when Bob Dylan, Eugene Debs, Jeremy Rifkin, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger sit as subjects alongside Bruce Chatwin, Ralph Ellison, Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie, you can sense it's a loose theme. Leonard's energetic pace and penchant for stuffing his reviews full of quoted phrases from not only the work in consideration but it seems all that novelist or writer's past work can be admirable and wearying. It depends on how much you share his particular enthusiasm or excoriation for the creative talent elevated or skewered.

He will surprise nobody with his politics, but I found his contempt for Bill Clinton's second term an encouraging sign of the sell-out nature of politicians of either party, and he argues well for the emergence of alternatives. He later cogently explains why parties failed the Left, and why socialism never made it in the U.S. As a young man from the city I teach in, he tells briefly why the "West Coast Progressivism" did not outlast the Wobblies long, and how the unions capitulated to the usual powers that be. I wish he'd shared more. He's able to sum up a lot in a little despite rambling on: he finds the problem in post-apartheid South Africa the result of the redistribution of power but not the redistribution of wealth.

As this shift of power and wealth infuses the Czech book which brought me here, I liked his credit to Topol for "an entirely original novel, in which one of those old-fashioned go-for-broke Author Gods, like an aborigine on outback walkabout, sings the world into being." (225) And, while he hates Roth for telling you what to think about his characters long before they appear, and while the "gripes of Roth" must have been a phrase he was just waiting to type, the tone of his essays can pummel you--his erudition and energy expended on Saul Bellow, say, or Norman Podheretz may excite you or make you pause for a break.

He notes in his last chapter--it goes on a bit too long, whereas many pieces feel balanced even if you lament their frenetic prose or shrink from their expectation you can follow all the references and have read all those books, too--that it's better for him to review other people's books rather than write his own. Either way, he's amassed an immense draw of recent literature to draw on in magpie fashion, and what he stuffs into this nest of essays shows the value of mining a life spent immersed in books and the publishing world. (9-6-13 to Amazon US)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Earle Labor's "Jack London: An American Life": Book Review

The subtitle has been applied by many previous chroniclers of other people's lives, but in Jack London's case, it fits well. Earle Labor has made London's life and work his lifework during the past half-century. Labor introduces a man who roamed not only the Americas but Asia. He set off when only a teenager. Labor corrects Jack's boasts by corroborating his claims against testimony of his friends and family-- and the historical record. Sympathetic to London's compassion, energy, and ambition, Labor compiles a sober, smoothly told, careful study which will prove a definitive, comprehensive biography. Labor emphasizes the life far more than any work, so this is not a critical examination of the writing, but a retelling of London's career.

As an early pal saw Jack, he strove "to be the conqueror". This, Labor argues, was London's greatest asset and his greatest liability. A born tale-teller, he embellished his own family's hardscrabble but never truly impoverished condition. He was raised around the Bay Area, where he was born in 1876 in San Francisco. His putative father denied paternity, and Jack appears to have been born illegitimate. He came of age during the settling down of the frontier, and his family tried to farm on and off around the Bay Area without lasting success. Tough times by the 1890s, akin to our own Great Recession, found many conniving employers trying to profit from their own start-ups: the factory system with its increased automation, doubled workloads, and slashed payrolls. Jack had, in shoveling coal for the electric utility and in running a laundry, twice to do the work of at least two men laid off before he was hired. The first job reduced him to a wreck. After the second such lowly paid and repetitive, dangerous job feeding a machine, he refused to bow to the "work-beast" again.

Instead, he relied on his strength, his determination, and his wits. A voracious reader, he yearned to be a writer, but he failed for a while to get even his imitative hackwork accepted. Nineteen hours a day, he turned into another kind of machine, calculating what the mass-circulation magazines wanted, as improved technology accelerated an cheaply made, illustrated medium, an action-packed short story for busy but "virile" male readers. He finally sold a couple of "yarns" at the age of twenty-one. Most writers at this stage would have little to go on from their experience. Jack had plenty.

Labor takes us through the early years, already crammed with possibilities for the later London to draw upon. At fourteen, he worked in an Oakland cannery. At fifteen, he was an oyster pirate in the tidewaters and estuaries around his East Bay. At sixteen, he tramped across America, becoming the hobo's highest rank, the "profesh", before returning back home to sign on as an able-bodied seaman, quite a feat for a seventeen-year-old. He went off to Japanese waters, gaining the global exposure he would soon put to good use for his stories and reminiscences.

At eighteen, he joined millions of desperate, destitute men in Gilded Age America marching east to protest at the Capitol, as part of General Kelly's Army of the Unemployed. A grifter with a smile, Jack could talk up a smooth line to finagle goods and generosity. He stuck it out until the Midwest, where bad weather and wary townsfolk put an end to his schemes. He went on, riding the rails to Niagara Falls. He watched its moonlit vista until midnight. That next morning, arrested for vagrancy, he was sentenced to a harrowing month in Erie State Penitentiary.

Nineteen found him at Oakland High School, cowing his classmates with his "truculent" Socialism and his gruff manner. His curly hair and open-faced good looks undoubtedly improved when he received an upper plate to fill in his missing front teeth, and when he started to brush them for the first time ever. He crammed for admission to the University of California but soon, finances forced him to drop out. After his menial labor, he vowed to find a better way to make a living.

Then, the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush spurred him and his uncle north to the Yukon. Labor memorably captures the excitement and dread of this hyped event. While we never learn how London eked out his five dollars worth of gold, this is not Labor's concern. He wants us instead to learn how Jack began to listen, watch, and ponder what he saw all around him. Out of this, soon after, nearly eighty stories would emerge when, finally, he left hard labor behind for a career as a paid writer. 

What distinguished London from his contemporaries who had beaten him back to cash in on writing about the Klondike and the Northland, Labor finds, was Jack's "human interest, romantic imagination, and sympathetic understanding". He gets the silence in, the primitive pull of the landscape, where its woods and animals lurked, and where foolish men fell to the harsh climate. Although late to the rush to get the Yukon down on paper, London's fiction remains in print today.

A popular writer, one whom before Labor chose him for his dissertation in 1961 lacked respect among the professorial establishment, London for Labor represents not only a dynamic, clever hustler, but a man in thrall to his own vitality, however dampened by his weakness for alcohol--as a teenager, already he had a near-fatal poisoning one night. He scrapped, he connived, and he conned. He watched other men give in to weakness, and among tough guys, he soon got the hang of survival.

London wisely slowed down--somewhat--once he found a publisher. At a thousand words a day, six days a week, by 1900 this "Self-Made Man" was acclaimed as "the American Kipling" with a similar knack for conveying high-minded ambitions in vernacular, jocular terms, and with a commitment to convey on paper the voice and temperament of an observer vowing to remain "original". Both were inspired by Western efforts to colonize and civilize the wild reaches. Yet, Jack resisted imperialism.

Drawing on his own radical tendencies and encounters on the road of hobo and tramp sailor, London balanced his hard-headed nature to cash in as a professional, stable writer (he was the first to combine his reportage with photography) with his political and social concerns. He ran for Oakland mayor on the Socialist ticket, gaining only 246 votes. As fame beckoned, he tried to remain unpretentious. While his romantic life turned rocky--on the rebound from his muse and eventual if brief mistress Anna Strunsky, he proposed four days later to another woman, Bessie Maddern--he gained renown as he was drawn into the inevitable "Crowd" of Bay Area bohemians. His tales earned him success.

The Call of the Wild remains his best known from 1903; he signed away for $2000 to Macmillan the rights, but on the other hand, he rationalized, that publisher put out many of his lesser-heralded works, to even the accounts. He helped invent, long before Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism ca. 1902 when he went undercover into the slums of London's East End, for The People of the Abyss.

Fighting depression, he channeled the breakup of both his marriage and his affair with Anna into a love story inspired by his Japanese voyage, The Sea-Wolf. He fell in love with Charmian Kittredge, schooled by her aunt in "free love" and unmarried into her thirties, having wooed married lovers herself--and possessing typewriting skills admired by Jack. A friend of Bessie's during his affair with Anna, Charmian had earned no attention from Jack until he made a pass at her when she was packing him food that Bessie had sent her to buy for him, as he was off to the resort of Glen Ellen, where Jack had sought a shelter from his crumbling marriage. She, no pushover despite her open-mindedness, resolved to have an affair on her own terms. Playing Jack to her advantage, Charmian came out of their first week with a lifelong lover. "To protect Charmian from suspicion, Jack advised her to stay in touch with Bessie, adhering to her role as confidante." This scandal perhaps bettered any fiction.

Confused by his passion for Charmian, his guilt over Bessie and their little daughters, and his wanderlust, London went off to cover the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 for the highest bidder, William Randolph Hearst. Deep in Korea after he watched mounted Cossacks charge an old walled city, Jack learned that due to a blunder at Hearst's Enquirer, Charmian's letters had been forwarded not to himself but to Bessie. Expelled from the conflict after he decked an insolent Japanese officer's groom who had stolen fodder meant for Jack's horses, the notoriety boosted his career. Teddy Roosevelt cabled a diplomatic protest to the Japanese, who released London from custody.

Docking in San Francisco, Jack was served with divorce papers, and a headline in the hometown Chronicle. Bessie on her lawyer's advice in what they thought was a sealed case had chosen to defame Anna rather than Charmian. A newspaperman gained access to the file and made his scoop.

His relations with Charmian proved rocky after, but she proved loyal when he did not. Jack amused his friends by his socialist proclamations when he hired a valet-cook-housekeeper: Manyougi, the same helper who had caught the groom's theft in Japan. Yet, his affection for his companion endured despite his bourgeoisie habits, and his expense account--lessened considerably after Bessie's alimony.

Restless, he wandered on the waters where once he stole oysters, and he toured the lecture circuit, preaching revolution to acclaim in Berkeley and shock in Stockton. One night at Glen Ellen he slept a whole eight hours, double his usual quotient, and he marveled at the difference. In 1905, he moved to the Valley of the Moon, his rural haven, fifty miles north of the Golden Gate: "I found my paradise."

Still, he would be pursued. He needed money to expand his holdings in Sonoma County. On a lecture tour, in Illinois he married Charmian only to find out he violated that state's law. The newspapermen circled again, and the negative publicity of one who had abandoned wife and children in retrospect seems to have increased attention for his rabble-rousing, radically leaning lecture tour back East.

1906 found him an eyewitness to the fires after the San Francisco earthquake, before another project. Sparked by Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago and Upton Sinclair's invective against the stockyards, London stirred up a potboiler predicting revolt. Yet  The Iron Heel, despite in Labor's terms being Jack's bravest if not his best book, met with a tepid reception from the socialist press. However, with the rise of fascism and its communist enemies, his book earned a belated audience.

Sailing the sloop Snark to Hawai'i and the South Pacific, Jack and Charmian landed on the Solomon Islands, eluding a volcanic eruption. The couple and their crew suffered malaria, yaws, fevers, and, for Jack, hives and fistulas. Its indentured natives fared worse, in what Labor equates to the Belgian Congo as the "most damning evidence of colonial rapacity". The pair fled a harsh copra plantation, where two of its British overseers soon after were beheaded, and a third succumbed to dysentery.

Back in California, the charm of Beauty Ranch and a custom-built Wolf House provided retreat in Sonoma County. In Carmel, Sinclair Lewis struck up a brief story-swapping deal, while in Los Angeles, amidst "hackwork", Jack supported anarchists in the Mexican Revolution, and met with agitators Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons. His stress increased, worsened by a set-up fight he was drawn into, amidst the sorrow of losing his daughter with Charmian, Joy, after only thirty-six hours.

More publicity followed. By thirty-five, London was "firmly established as headline copy for every newspaper in the country" and as Labor reminds us, before radio, the press possessed massive influence. Jack welcomed attention, but he also needed a rest, as his health suffered from the tropics. Inspired by the ranch and his love for Charmian, he wrote his longest novel, The Valley of the Moon.

At the start of his unlucky year of 1913, he contributed installments of his "Alcoholic Memoirs" to The Saturday Evening Post. Blight, death, shootings plagued the ranch, where Charmian, after a miscarriage, flirted diligently. A jealous London, recovering from an appendix operation and with kidney ailments, had to mortgage one ranch property to finish Wolf House before winter. Four days later, the new home burned down. Joan, one of Jack's older daughters with Bessie, sparred with him. His investments failed him, too. By the end of the year, he had ten dollars as his total bank balance.

He split with the Socialist Party, beginning with the Mexican revolt, affirming a firmer "big brother" in the guise of Uncle Sam was needed to save the nation from "herself". On his ranch, faced with bankruptcy, he had to turn entrepreneur and write to support his family and his beloved retreat. His schemes to lend his name to grape juice and his earnings to plant eucalyptus trees floundered. Although the highest-paid author in America, with a million books sold by Macmillan, he found himself pitching "crackerjack" serials as "a dog writer" to grab "the biggest public I have".

Another Hawaiian cruise and a visit with Wyatt Earp and film director Raoul Walsh in Hollywood followed, but Jack's system had filled with poisons. His dissolution deepened, his animosity towards his daughters grew, a lawsuit over riparian rights on his ranch consumed him into his last month alive. Ranting, he wrote, faithful to his routine. But his longtime allies began to keep their distance.

Late in 1916, despite or because of a daily diet of duck, he gave in to uremia. He was buried "beneath a giant lava boulder rejected by the builders of Wolf House". Labor concludes with a nod to the pilgrims who continue to visit the grave, nearly a century after London's death.

Those visitors continue to read London's fiction and journalism. Outside of this circle, for whom Earle compiles this intimately told account, fewer may recall much about this media-savvy author's impact. Labor amasses the details, drawn from reliable sources. While his results may cause the curious to marvel more at London's frenetic pace rather than the more than fifty books he found time to produce, his life remains engrossing. Perhaps Jack London pioneered the style of the bestselling adventurer and rogue; his lecture tours anticipated the talk shows and book signings accorded his equivalents today. Separating the claims of many previous biographers from the facts, Labor's report of Jack's vital if too vigorous (given his premature demise) gadabouts tells his own brawny epic. (In shorter and rewritten form to Amazon US 10-15-13; 10-22-13 as above to PopMatters)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Alain Badiou's "Cinema": Book Review

Thirty-one essays and reviews comprise this collection, translated well by Susan Spitzer to convey this French political philosopher's applications of film study, from his student days in 1957 up to Clint Eastwood's A Perfect Heart in 2010. Badiou, I have found in his theoretical efforts, can daunt the reader by his immersion in qualification and enumeration. He pokes a bit of fun at his "Chinese" tendency for the latter penchant in an opening interview.

A bit of levity is needed, for this is usually a very serious study. The "seventh art" takes in all the rest, he notes, and it shows us as possibly no other art form can a sustained exhibition of fluid (or must it be fixed?) sexuality, for instance. He watches Antoinini and wonders if cinema is "an art of love" or desire or lust. He muses whether love is "human or non-human," and how cinema can display it, either way. He, called now a "Platonic communist," looks to Plato for direction, too.

Such asides, for me, resonated more than the pronouncements of his Maoist phase. He denounces revisionist film and the French Communist Party in any of its forms, and his late-1960s period captures the confidence and the hard-headed utopian demands of that era. He inveighs against "big-city journalism" when reviewing Volker Schlondorff's Circle of Violence purportedly about Lebanon: he compares the self-absorbed Westerners depicted as its protagonists to the Jesuit chroniclers who popularized the efforts of an earlier "imperialist domination."

I relished such analogies in his comments, however predictably leftist: again, these remained foremost in my mind more than his more laborious, now dated manifestos. Often his reviews get tangled up in making political or theoretical points; although I expected this, I would have liked these points to have been made more tersely, as when Badiou lets us look through his eyes at what he sees, the results can be more valuable, decades later.

Still, this collection of over half-a-century shows the evolution of Alain Badiou. And he watches in a way that, although ideologically separate, can credit such forebears as Andre Bazin and later, Gilles Deleuze (he nods to both, especially the latter, whom he regards as an influence more than perhaps any other for his reflections). The core of his insight arrives in an untranslatable bit of wordplay. "After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing." That is. the film exists only as "an idea come to its take [prise]"; the wonder or pull of the film comes in "how it is overtaken [sur-prise]."

Five ways of thinking about cinema characterize Badiou's argument. Enumerated. of course, 1) Image, its ontological basis. 2) Time. 3) Historical succession of the arts. 4) Art vs. "what is not art." 5) Ethical or moral perspectives. As with sex and editing, Badiou returns to cinematic sums of discontinuity and continuity. He assimilates impurity and he finds that cinema, out of "infinite complexity" can purify this material into the "modern social imaginary" to make it our era's art form. (Amazon US 10-9-13)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

James Wolcott's "Lucking Out": Book Review

In 1972, dropping out of college on the strength of an encouraging letter from Norman Mailer, Wolcott moves to Manhattan. He comes of age in a dramatic decade, and this brisk, sharp narrative conveys his story in fresh language and enjoyable style. Working his way up from the slush pile and circulation desk to a byline at the Village Voice, moving into the coterie around Pauline Kael, watching the rise of punk, risking his life at the fringes of "adult" entertainment before exposing himself to ballet, and finally reflecting on his arc as a reviewer and journalist, Wolcott's worthwhile.

Despite his patrician name, his humble background didn't nurture high expectations "in my neck of nowhere back then; children weren't fawned over from an early age as 'gifted' and groomed for a prizewinning future; self-esteem was considered something you had to pluck from the garden yourself." (6) Always cautious due to perhaps this upbringing but bent on breaking in to the circle of New York intellects and characters he idolized, he sums up its limits once he entered their liberal arena. "Everybody seemed to be staring at the same targets through the same pair of binoculars." (24)  

He realizes his luck. Fired from the Voice for daring to display a clean desk twenty minutes before closing time, he writes for a living, "something that would have been impossible if New York had not been a city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn't require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes." (47)

The New Yorker gains its evocative place, with its ramshackle airs and many characters, back when (a few) writers had offices and editors met with journalists face to face, to dissect their submissions. Pauline Kael takes Wolcott into her own entourage, and we marvel along with Wolcott, "just a few years after leaving college, sitting at the Algonquin with the greatest film critic then or now, part of the gang, wearing jeans that probably need washing and nursing a Coke, the only thing I ever ordered." (103) His affectionate but honest appraisal of Kael and many other talents shows his balanced sensibility, self-aware of his own potential while modest enough to realize his rare luck.

He learns from her to burst into enthusiasms and not to hold back when championing an unfamiliar artist or an unpopular critique, for that may be the only chance "to make people care" about it. "It's better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat." (109)  He segues from the movies to CBGB's and his vignettes with Patti Smith, John Cale, the Talking Heads (he has a crush on Tina Weymouth), and Tom Verlaine enliven this moment of fame as it begins to peep out for a few talents, while leaving others in obscurity. The fickleness of who makes it and who doesn't works for other fields, too. Pornography, ballet, and punk all receive Wolcott's attention as places for the body's pain or transcendence in an awkward or bold moment.

Yet he refuses to "romanticize the antiromanticism of Times Square in the seventies, mourning a lost vibrancy and Brueghelesque teem more authentic that the toy mall we have today, where few tourists will ever know the thrilling fear of having defecation thrown at them or being caught in the middle of a difference of opinion between two hookers ready to cut themselves into unequal chunks." (186) This register shows Wolcott at his sharpest. While despite his verve some of this meanders (the ballet section, for instance), and the five-act structure forces some areas to be attenuated or foreshortened.

He wryly imagines himself as a literary critic, and how bitter he'd be now. "Staring out like Tommy Lee Jones in a bad mood, having long been farmed out by whatever magazine employed me and wishing I had drunk more so I could write a sobriety memoir." (245) Ideas turn into weapons, as exponents bicker and jostle. Wolcott now writes for Vanity Fair, so the clash of celebrities with social critique mixes in a manner suited for that readership. In his final pages, he looks over the decade's literary highs and lows, and how (as in ballet) they gave him a respite from street life, when parks and alleys meant danger. The pleasure of his style moves this memoir along, in its best parts with flair.
(Amazon US 9-5-13)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

James Wolcott's "Critical Mass": Book Review

In Lucking Out, his memoir of dropping out from a rural Maryland state college in 1972 to come to New York City to make it as a writer, James Wolcott surveyed the magazines which employed him, the films he reviewed under the guidance of Pauline Kael, and the music he heard at CBGBs as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and the Talking Heads began their careers. Finally, Wolcott's recollections shifted into ballet and literary criticism as he looked back at the start of his long career at, in turn, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Readers of his articles have long praised or damned Wolcott's confident, acerbic tone, and his use of metaphor and the polished phrase to sum up or put down the figures and films he covered. Those familiar with his memoir will find certain episodes repeated from CBGBs or his movie reviews, and within this five-hundred page anthology of his past forty years, perhaps inevitably,  stylistic tics ("Whatever." "nowhere fast") appear more than once. The payoff is finding Wolcott engaging, irritating, and insightful.

Over six-dozen entries defy easy summation. Working through the galley proof (which limits my ability to evaluate Wolcott's style, as this hampers my scored rating), my attention did not flag, a testament to the author's commitment to record his reasons, his emotions, and his insights, honestly and determinedly. While my wife--whom I have urged to persevere through Lucking Out-- avers that the only reason I find Wolcott more amenable is that I share his curmudgeonly manner, I counter that Wolcott (to steal a phrase from one of his preening subjects, John Lydon) means it, maaaaaan.

Wolcott explains he selected pieces able to stand up long after the cultural moment had passed. He leaves out those needing footnotes by now, he keeps those relevant decades later, and he even lets go some that while they "still have a bop to them" might have further damaged their targets. He laments that criticism, dulled by the medium by which you and I connect for this review, has lost its clout compared to the heyday of the underground as well as popular cultural and music magazines.

Nothing monopolizes the conversation, as "mainstream dissent" in The New Yorker under Wallace Shawn once did. "Although we live in a culture of uncircumcised snark, it actually seems a more deferential time to me, the pieties and approved brand names--Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino, Junot Diaz, Mark Morris, Judd Apatow, John Currin (feel free to throw other names into the pot)--more securely clamped down over our ears." Anyone taking on a "major reputation" does so more out of self-referential deference, he adds. Critics these days watch their own Twitter and Facebook feeds, fearful of their own status, careful not to upset those whom they cover.

Therefore, Wolcott, while not going soft, learns from the four decades of shifts away from critical punch to online tweets. He arranges this anthology with nostalgia. "But there's solace in knowing I learned and stole from the best", and his college dropout status keeps him studying more. That aspect, considering the amount of literary as well as cinema and music and media critique this collection amasses, attests to Wolcott's largely autodidactic training (compared to many of the critics he at a doleful 1980 Skidmore conference on the decline of American culture sits through and here sends up) puts him in the tradition of many of the cultural critics he praises from mid-century, when a Ph.D., tenure, and sabbaticals might not be the prerequisites for holding forth on novels, film, and poetry.

Let's look at some of the highlights of Wolcott's holding forth. "Talking Furniture" begins with television reviews. Mary Hartman, Dennis Potter, the local NYC crank Stanley Siegel (an exception to the footnote needed, but a special case close to Wolcott's curdled affection), SCTV, and The X-Files fill the chapters. Examining Vanessa Redgrave in the Holocaust melodrama Playing for Time,  he concludes with a balanced look at her controversial political stances, given her role here as a Jewish prisoner. "Perhaps Redgrave's political passion and her passion as an artist spring from the same rich source; perhaps the gall and the energy which propel her all over the globe to spout Marxist rubbish is also what enables her to enter so deeply into a role that she becomes transfigured--luminously possessed." Wolcott remains sensitive, open to Redgrave's own reactions onscreen.

Similarly, he watches for cant, complacency, and stasis. Designing Women, in its Clinton-era cant of feminist bromides, languishes by its seventh season in its own lame-duck predicament. "The characters seem sandbagged to the set, baying to each other from the far reaches of the Naugahyde." Yet a punchy observation like that can be followed by this: "[Delta] Burke settled into the sofa as if were her baby bath. The echo in her features of Elizabeth Taylor's suggested a luxury fund of food-libido." The odd metaphors sag--bath, echo, fund, libido--and bob about each other, soggy.

Turning to comedy, I admit that while the passing reigns of late-night t.v. hosts never interested me, I followed Wolcott's eager depiction of Johnny Carson closely. Wolcott drew me in. Citing fellow transplanted Burbanker Bob Hope as claiming comedians thrive on their own "insincerity", Wolcott applies this to 1979 Carson: "he has a gift akin to David Bowie's for copping from others and yet appearing totally self-invented." I doubt if a television critic other than Wolcott, equally attentive to rock, would make such a comparison. By 1992, the "nonstop" drummer Carson endures as the "comedy's last practitioner of white jazz", his "steady pistons" pumping on from the "bachelor pad of passé legend". Staring back at David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien, Wolcott pounds away, before switching to Jerry Lewis' hectoring marathon years to typically delightful, coy, and wry effect.

Music follows his memoir's subjects settled in New York City, but he looks beyond CBGBs (and ballet not at all). David Byrne's shtick by now feels at best as rehearsed as Carson's golf swing, but in a Village Voice review of his band, we see him as in 1975, fresh. He "has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who's spent the last half-hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk on Mars."

He decries a few whom many worship. By 1976, Lou Reed's own stage patter had worn thin: "though he probably couldn't open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence". Patti Smith, whom Wolcott early on idolized, gets in a 1996 retrospective a more reflective veneration, updated in a postscript for 2013. Noting the coverage given Smith's handshake with Pope Francis, Wolcott weighs this elevation of her as "high priestess of lost bohemia" as "a testament to our own sense of loss--our bereavement over the death of the counterculture, of any hope of new rebel energies rising through the thick sediment of money, snark, accreditation, and digital distraction". There's "snark" again as our own era's characteristic, post-Occupy, post-Letterman. 

Furthering this look back at icons, a defense of Albert Goldman's often derided The Lives of John Lennon demonstrates Wolcott's appreciation of a principled analysis of how to fairly counter the smug platitudes, sung or paraded, of the counterculture. As for smug, the Rat Pack contrasted with the remake of Ocean's 11. The original, filmed in Vegas when the sun was high, after the Pack had lounged away each night, makes them "look like sirloin in the atomic light of day".

As expected from a protegé of Pauline Kael, much of Wolcott's volume scrutinizes movies. Brian De Palma and Woody Allen gain multiple exposures in related reviews; Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, New York noir, and an eager endorsement of "the greatest film Billy Wilder never made", The Americanization of Emily, show Wolcott's range. He captures as he did in his memoir the glare of his adopted city, refusing soft-focus. "You'd ride the New York subway just hoping to reach your destination, hell, any destination, suffering claustrophobia from the graffiti-sprayed windows, the lights blinking on and off like a submarine under attack, staring impassively ahead as predators loped from car to car, stalking prey." The feral rhythms of his longtime home, as he peers back at the B-movie antiheroes of the 1970s, cement his credibility as a critic who has met his subject personally.

He can also roam, in a less wary, more urbane pose. In a postscript to a 1993 piece on John Updike, Wolcott apologizes for his own snark about that writer's love of Doris Day, which he comes later to appreciate, as Wolcott's carefully observed 2000 article on Rock Hudson and Day diligently affirms. Such a reconsideration reveals Wolcott's ability to remain alert, to re-examine his own prejudices.

In the literary section, he opens up, with asides and instances taken from his own study of the classics, old and new. He can drop a reference to War and Peace in as nimbly as the Cowsills or woefully as Pauly Shore. He dismisses the posturing of bad guys in print as he has on stage or on screen. A protagonist of the much-praised (by others) Richard Ford keeps "dropping clichés into the slot until he gets the click of a dead phone". Critic Marvin Mudrick's glee at being credited by a student as "the funniest writer I have ever read" is as touching as is Wolcott's sharp notice about critic Seymour Krim: "In a couple of his books he even reprints his letters to the editor, a sure sign of a crackpot". Wolcott includes none of his own; doubtless his entries generated hate mail galore.

But maybe a few of his detractors had a point, or a persnickety prick. Wolcott (beyond any glitches of this galley proof) may be faulted for his own fumbles. Reviewing Martin Amis' autobiography, Wolcott introduces it confusingly. "Marketed as a literary hullabaloo so frank and blazingly humane it has to be kept in a Domino Pizza's carrier, Experience is a Lazarus act of self-resurrection. Contradicting Amis's cold-fish image, it's a confessional strip search, personalized with schoolboy letters and family-album photos--a portrait of the artist as a battered man reborn." Hullabaloo is a term that I struggle to picture as so fiery in its intangible humanism that a pizza box could hold such a phenomenon. Let alone that Lazarus did not raise himself from the dead: Jesus did. Maybe He could explain how a strip search is confessional, given Lazarus' own sorry post-mortem, tomb-smell state.

When Wolcott takes on mournful Joyce Carol Oates for her own forays into the grave and the Gothic, "wonders of reckless energy and dishevelment", the resemblance to scattered passages in Critical Mass persists. Yet, on the next page in the Amis article, Martin's dissolute. portly, and almost constantly drunken father Kingsley "toward the end" resembled to Wolcott "a pickle jar with a stuck lid": a quirky but accurate caricature, one suspects. Wolcott, with his own wry eye, can reduce a novel or author to its essential gift or flaw. After citing an errant passage: "That's what John Updike's naturalism in Rabbit is Rich comes down to: telling you every dumb thing that is on Rabbit's mind."

However, as I referred to earlier regarding Updike on Doris Day, Wolcott resists pouting, at least now and then. "Since Updike knows intimately every blade and pebble in Proust, he can alight like a robin and spot the worms in Pinter's adaptation, removing them with a few light tugs." Even Ayn Rand earns grudging respect for her pop-culture pull. He sees her "as the last industrial novelist, the last to lyricize the urban might of stone and metal". For whomever he analyzes, Wolcott shows patience.

Jack Kerouac's minor works resemble "listening to a musician tune up, only words are more than notes and sounds; they signify and convey meaning". A commonplace comparison in some respects, but relevant by Wolcott's context and placement for it. When he corrects a writer, he also commends, or at least shows us how to regard him or her with more generosity than we might have. He parenthetically closes his essay on Kerouac: "(he's the deadbeat dad everyone's decided to forgive)".

Near the end of this hefty collection, Wolcott approves Gore Vidal's put-down of professorial "scholar-squirrels" who dig among the detritus of a writer's life and texts to find a petrified scrap. Wolcott, who never gained "accreditation", sought to emulate Norman Mailer, the New Journalism, and "mainstream dissent". He made it in the Big Apple by hard work, with a dash of luck.  

Critical Mass testifies to his ability to avoid "academic robot-speak" and to convey his critiques of high and low culture, transmitted on stage, in print, on television, and at the movies, in a winning way. His own small slips make his achievement more accessible to us. We look on, over his shoulder, as he directs our eyes and ears to the intellectuals, entertainers, performers, and/or celebrities who have graced, cursed, or captivated him ever since he quit Frostburg State and hit Woody's Manhattan. (Altered and shortened for Amazon US 10-15-13. As above 10-21-13 to PopMatters)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Donna Weston and Andy Bennett's "Pop Pagans": Book Review

Paganism and popular music share a love of physicality. Rooting this scholarly anthology not in beliefs constructed by modern society referring to nature, but arising rather from earth's own manifestations by cultural contexts, co-editor Donna Weston introduces thirteen contributions to the study of Pagans and music now. (The capitalization is significant: convention prefers a "P" for modern followers and a "p" for pre-Christian adherents.)

This usage in turn informs how today's Pagans regard technology not in opposition to a natural construct, but as an interplay of vibrations within earth-based awareness. After a suitably spirited preface by Graham Harvey promoting a proper polyphony of primitive and progressive practices, co-editor Andy Bennett offers a brief survey of counterculture influences, e.g., Woodstock, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. While as with some entries Bennett's quick essay feels truncated, its thesis matches the scope. For progressive bands of the Aquarian Age, heavier and lighter elements mixed, demonstrating eclectic harmonies that evaded blues-dominated chords, to color darker metal themes or pastoral lyrical hues with a British folk shimmer.

Black Sabbath's own 1983 debacle at Stonehenge, confusing metric measurements for stage props with imperial feet, fueled Spinal Tap's satire. The reverberations of these immense pillars, for hippies, Goths, Guitar Hero, and neo-Druids, beckon many from the ranks of the "postmodern homeless self". Rupert Till credits the reverberations resounding in its stones. This mysterious monument reifies the yearning shared by ancient with contemporary pagans: ancestral communion and ritual celebration.

Donna Weston's chapter glances at five "exemplars" beginning with Paul McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son" and ending with XTC's "Greenman" but with only a page devoted to all five songs, her theory-laden analysis demonstrates the limits of academic publications on popular culture. When authors tend to turn to other scholars first and singers and musicians and performers a faraway second, the energy of this topic dissipates. However, Weston reminds us that paganus derives from the Latin "people of place" to designate those who clung to land, locale, and nature for their faith.

This territorial connection sustains Pagan metal. Native landscapes, with cover photos favoring icy or forested scenes, typify the imaginative realm which emerges as massive guitars mingle with hints of folk instruments and, beneath the mighty roar, lyrical flow. Especially in Scandinavia and the former Soviet bloc, Deena Weinstein discovers, within an engaging mix of sociological statistics and targeted interpretation, that the two lands share resistance (to the European Union and to the USSR respectively) which erupts as protest against cultural, linguistic, and ideological assimilation.

For Jason Pitzl-Waters, this exploration continues into three "waves" of Goth music. By the mid-'90s, British promoters used "Goth" and "Pagan" interchangeably. The older island tradition, of folk, revived with the past century's romantic, ruralist, and religious seekers combining idealism with instrumentation. While guitars by the mid-century were imported from American genres, archivists enlivened rock music with an amplified blend of back-to-nature aspirations and more danceable, or raucous, tendencies. As Rob Young's Electric Eden (2010) elucidates (see my PopMatters review), the blend of rock's marketing power and folk's sensitive aura simmered into many musical genres.

A post-folk musician, Andy Letcher, mingles his own avocation with his scholarly training to deny folk's roots in any pagan British tradition. However, keen to explain why this search for meaning has lingered so long among his colleagues, he guides us to understand how the song "John Barleycorn" or the film The Wicker Man typify from the 1970s pagan origin myths for the British counterculture. He locates the tension of allegiance to a "common man" as a durable aesthetic, contending against "irrational superstition" within folk music and its surrounding culture. For instance, even if scholar Ronald Hutton proves the Morris dance originated in Tudor court, its current association with pre-Christian mummers endures on its own terms. "Folk was never pagan," he argues, "but the twentieth century made it so".

Dance and music accompany each other often. From Australia, Douglas Ezzy applies "somatic awareness" to a "collective ritual" at Pagan gatherings. He shares his own "flow" as the music takes him and many away at such venues. This affirmation enables Pagans to leave the "broom closet" where for fear of discrimination and persecution many still lurk.

Identity solidifies in other far-off locales. Graham St. John tells of the awe of standing in the path of totality at the "sweet spot" of an solar eclipse. Globalization, cheap travel, and eco-tourism mesh with raves and New Age rituals to establish a unique convergence. Unlike other sacred spaces, the 100-mile-wide swath cast by the conjunction of sun and moon ensures each event "will rarely if ever transpire in the same space again". Within this "cosmic mandala", Pagans convene to celebrate.

They also flock to EDM raves, where shamanic ecstasy (and perhaps the chemical variety) converge to offer Pagans a "primordial religious experience" in a secularized, non-Christian setting. Alan Nixon and Adam Possamai contrast if in passing evangelical and Pentecostal predecessors with Pagan assemblies to call down spiritual transformation. "Techno-shamans" try to tap an elusive force.

Communities comprise the concluding section. History, genre, and performance while gaining their own sections earlier, here combine into electronically enhanced or enabled connections. Christopher Chase traces American "sacramental song" from Walt Whitman to Loreena McKennitt and Charlie Murphy among the eco-critical, pluralist ethos.

Celtic Pagan websites break free of genealogy or geography to encourage a membership by desire. Family trees do not matter; for a "cyber-diaspora" as Narelle McCoy surveys, the conflation of "Irish" and "Celtic" while incorrect exemplifies the marketing of such identifiers in a global marketplace. (Apropos as an unwitting indicator, a couple of Irish-derived names are misspelled and some Irish-language accents are absent in this section.)

Moving from the layered gloss of Enya to the "esoterrorism" of Genesis P-Orridge proves a leap. Christopher Partridge delves into the "occultism" perhaps coined by this crafty provocateur. His performance art, his industrial music as jolting installations and disturbing video with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV among other manifestations attests to his violent, morbid, and erotic visions. These,"designed to perplex" as the late DJ John Peel phrased them, evoke a true "Heathen Earth" not found in a meadow but a "menacing urban space". Brutal, not bucolic; "free-thinking, hard-headed".

With that jarring transition from rustic reverie to concrete chaos, Pop Pagans: Paganism and Popular Music ends suddenly. Its best entries encourage the reader to imagine the channeling of black metal vocals into words that even if inarticulate, allow the singer to dramatize his or her passion; to wonder at the moment of a total eclipse on a faraway landscape with hundreds of fellow Pagans; to dance with them at an Australian rave; to understand the appeal of the natural hum or roar beneath the city.