Monday, September 29, 2014

Ag baint fhómhair beag

Ar moch ar maidin inné, chuir báisteach sé. Bhí ach an h-am gearr ann. Mar sin féin, dith muid é anseo.

D'imigh mé amuigh a cur uisce ar gairdín níos déanaí. Thug mé faoi deara go raibh boladh milis ann. Caithfidh a bheith fhómhair, b'fhéidir, ag deireanach.

Bhol mé an bháisteach ar an duilleogaí. Tá muid tar eis a plandaí ag fás ar feadh an tsamraidh seo caite. Anois, is feidir liom a fheiceáil trátaí beag chomh cosúil leis na chin ar an grianghraf seo (ach ní sin!).

Ith mé eigin nuair a thit siad ar an talamh. Tá siad spíosra agus milis ann. Bíonn siad a casadh dearg.

Tá cairéid ar an méid de mear coise is beag agam. Tá oinnúin freisin, an-bheag fós. Mar sin féin, tá mé ag fanacht ar chor ar bith sútha talún ansin.

A little harvesting. 

Early morning yesterday, it rained. It was for a short time. Nevertheless, we needed it here.

I went outside to water the garden later. I noted a sweet smell there. It must be autumn, perhaps, at last.

I smelled the rain on the leaves. We have been growing plants during this past summer. Now, I can see tomatoes like those in this photograph (but not these!).

I ate some when they fell on the ground. They are spicy and sweet there. They are turning red.

There are carrots the size of my smallest toe. There are onions too, very small also. However, I am waiting for any strawberries at all there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Curzio Malaparte's "The Skin": Book Review

Born Kurt Eric Suchert, this half-German writer castigates his losing side, as the Allies "liberate" Naples in 1943. Their new Italian allies take up the uniforms of the dead British they have recently killed in the defense of their Fascist nation. Italians now resolve to fight against the deposed Mussolini and the Germans. How the Napolitan natives feel about this has been rarely acknowledged by many who dramatize WWII. Malaparte, as his nom-de-plume indicates, takes the "bad side"; he shows the physical and moral costs of capitulation when one's own loyalties insist one was never defeated, and cannot surrender one's liberty unless once a slave. 

Such complex questions drive this 1949 novel. A work of fiction, but in its headlong prose rush and its tendency to indulge in set-pieces and tirades, I suspect this is better understood as thinly disguised or ambitiously elaborated vignettes from Malaparte's own experiences. The results fit better not as a sustained narrative but as episodic depictions of encounters between the Italians and those who now occupy their territory as erstwhile comrades, but also as avengers, judges, juries, and executioners.

Like Céline, Malaparte brings a complicated and shifty set of his own alliances into play, as he survives the shifts in regimes and ideologies. Similarly, this also needed an editor, for parts lapse into opprobrium, and the long conversations untranslated in David Moore's English version from French, between Malaparte's mouthpiece and his charge, Colonel Jack Hamilton, may slow the pace or dissuade a less cosmopolitan reader. But in the central section, "The Black Wind," one glimpses, finally, the power Malaparte can summon.  He had traveled to the steppes and witnessed the barbarities of the elite Germans (in this novel he appears slightly anachronistically already as "the author of 'Kaputt'"); he transforms this into a nightmare of crucified victims of the Nazis appealing for his assistance, before this segues into a tribute to his beloved greyhound Febo, and then a moving scene set in the last hour of a wounded American soldier. These three scenes, at first disparate, cohere as a meditation on death, and how we come to it ready or not. Malaparte takes dramatic license here, but the chapter works, as the central pivot in an otherwise metropolitan setting, to free the narrative from its concentration on the the demi-monde of Naples, of satire against the Allies, and lurid excess.

Rachel Kushner introduces the New York Review Classics 2013 reprint (with added passages expurgated from previous English printings) by calling Malaparte a plague or a pest, taking down all with him, and this fittingly finds an echo in the first chapter. On pg. 34, Boccaccio is cited appropriately, as compassion is felt for the afflicted of a great disaster, but this time, also by the Americans for themselves, as Christian benefactors. The trouble Malaparte finds is that such largesse cannot be reconciled with Naples' more pagan heritage, and the fact that Italian suffering predates Christian concepts. The last virgin in the city is shown intact, admission required for gawkers, and this emphasis on the grotesque (dwarf prostitutes, "Negro" soldiers hoodwinked by local "brides" and their scheming, black-market connected families despite smiles, merkins, "inverts" galore) may delight some, even if it soon gets tiresome. I get the point; Malaparte for 330 pages keeps making it.

He avers, in more provocative mood, that "capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail." (63) Malaparte distrusts the civilizing mission of the Allies, he dislikes the craven bargaining of his false nation, and he seeks to distance himself from a Fascist past which despite partisans and reprisals does not recede so rapidly.

As with many European mid-century intellectuals, Communism hovers as a possible alternative. But Malaparte, true to his contrary nature, wonders if "pederasts" and "inverts" flocked to the red flag as if some pawns in a "Five Year Plan" hatched for easy marks among those who sought to deny their bourgeois nature and pretend to be proles, or to seek rough trade and fresh conquests among such who were driven by desperation and hunger to sell themselves to the "international community" of opportunistic coquettes and dilettante poseurs. A horrible interlude of the aftermath of phosphorus bombs in Hamburg conjures up a Dantean diorama, and innocents suffer horribly, cant and ideology aside. Children are sold to Moroccan soldiers, the Church connives, and the author speculates that this is not the inevitable outcome of moral breakdown so much as a sly campaign via Marxists to undermine the standards of a West they despise. Malaparte's suppositions may anger us, but he forces us to consider how popular or romanticized ideas generate unexpected, ugly impacts. People do not try to save their souls. all labor for good or bad only "to save their skins, and their skins alone." (129)

The rest of the book continues in the same mood. A bizarre birthing scene, a banquet of "fried Spam and boiled corn" for the Allies, a girl's death and her posthumous transformation, the eruption of Vesuvius, the entrance of the Allies into Rome--where a man welcoming the troops is run down by a Sherman tank, and a "flag of human skin" seems the appropriate icon for the Europe thus freed, reprisals against teenaged boys who fought for the losing side, and a recognition that it is a "shameful thing to win a war" (343) wrap up this journey into the rotten core of a continent as it is conquered.
(Amazon US 9-27-14)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange New Things": Book Review

I have enjoyed all of Michel Faber's fiction, from sly fables to his eerie alien-on-Earth examination as Under the Skin to his triple-decker epic about a prostitute fending for herself in the labyrinth of decadent Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and the White. Faber displays calm aplomb in inventing fresh tales. Faber tends to peer in at human activities with slight discontent, and to present our foibles and ambitions to us as if with a faint air of disapproval or unease. He escorts us into intricate scenes amid inventive locales. Faber keeps readers wondering, through his unruffled, spare, and steady narrative style. He reminds readers of his skill in creating narratives which disorient us, even as they entertain. His subtle detachment doesn't weaken his literary craft, but it sharpens it, for we see through him our own estrangement.

In The Book of Strange New Things, Faber explores Christianity  (mocked memorably in his novella The Fire Gospel) but he (except in one welcome chapter of this more dour new novel) dampens any satire about faith and belief. Instead, we scrutinize a short span in the life of Peter Leigh. He's a reformed English alcoholic and addict who has turned his life over to Christ. He is recruited for a mission to minister the Gospel to natives. We soon learn they live not on our planet, but another, called Oasis by a shadowy corporation, USIC, which colonizes it.

Chauffeured to Cape Canaveral for his space flight, Peter admits he has no idea what USIC stands for. "Search me,' said the driver. 'A lot of companies these days got meaningless names. All the meaningful names have been taken. It's a trademark thing.'" Although Peter seems to be correct that the first part stands for United States, this multinational firm furthers a enigmatic corporate mission, a truly universal one, so to speak, which will extract energy and resources from Oasis. Faber, keeping the scope of USIC's cosmic ambitions shadowy, heightens their impact upon their newest employee.

Leigh leaves behind his wife, Bea, on a near-future Earth wracked by freakish weather, natural disasters, and social breakdown. The distance between this couple, conveyed by their transcribed transmissions, demonstrates Faber's skill in evoking a fraught relationship. Leigh's own confusion begins to grow despite his debriefing and training as to USIC's protocol. On arrival at Oasis, Peter finds "a red button on the wall labelled EMERGENCY, but no button labelled BEWILDERMENT".

Such suspense throughout The Book of Strange New Things remains vivid, for in Faber's alert depiction we must watch him, always at center stage. Faber juxtaposes the tension of Peter's first assignment, to create an ad hoc eulogy for a coworker he barely has had time to meet, with the news of Bea's pregnancy back on Earth. She tells Peter of its devastation from climate change and economic implosion. By contrast, the placid testimony by colonists and Oasans, as far as Peter can discern, appears to cloak two mysteries: what USIC intends, and why a few natives have embraced the Good News. The abyss between a dying Earth and USIC's coddled comforts on Oasis deepens.

Confronting human colleagues chosen for "no drama", Peter struggles to learn why USIC has sent him to Oasis, and why its some of its inhabitants wish to so fervently adopt the Christian message. Cut off from an increasingly fraught Bea and a home planet whose problems he cannot solve, he strives to rise to his new calling as a chaplain. Meanwhile, adjusting to the indigenous diet and trying to talk like an Oasan, he begins to drift away from the mentality of an earthling. Isolated from his colleagues, his brain starts to scatter, as "it sifted intimacies and perceptions, allowed them to trickle through the sieve of memory, until only a token few remained, perhaps not even the most significant ones".  In turn, he immerses himself into his task, to translate some of the Bible, and to go native as much as possible. Tension increases between his devotion and the mindset of his USIC comrades.

It's refreshing to finish five-hundred pages, which I read in two sittings, that refuse to show off a writer's style or parade his own predilections. Faber manages to speak through Leigh sympathetically. Committed to his calling, Peter honestly responds to all who need him, human or alien, as he strives to do good. Even the USIC plant's heliostats, for solar power collection and storage, cause Peter to be moved by "their inanimate confusion. Like all creatures in the universe, they were only waiting for the elusive light which would grant them purpose". Yet, the omnipotent author remains separate from his troubled protagonist, for we learn of his thoughts only by indirect first person narration, and through the letters Peter and Bea exchange from a vast distance, as their own estrangement widens.

For instance, Peter begins to regard himself, cut off from familiar surroundings and stimulation, differently as he ministers more to the natives than to his own needs. As he preaches to the Oasans, and as he learns their language, he increases his cultural dislocation. "He imagined the scene from above--not very high above, but as if from a beach lifeguard's observation tower. A tanned, lanky, blonde-haired man in white, squatting on brown earth, encircled by small robed figures in all the colours of the rainbow. Everyone leaning slightly forward, attentive, occasionally passing a flask of water from hand to hand. Communion of the simplest kind." Faber leaves these analogies with previous holy men or desert scenes for us to fill in. Their sketchiness enables the reader to view Peter's maturation and his acceptance of a hard-earned wisdom. Faber hints at an objective response, but he presents us only with Peter's subjective resolve. This unfolds convincingly, as this novel with its cautious pace takes its time to portray Peter's transformation on Oasis into a different person.

The novel is simply told. The desert climate of Oasis and its vaporous atmosphere challenge Leigh and his human coworkers to endure its harsh environment, mentally and physically. Endurance dwindles for a few. Faber keeps mum about the back story regarding both planet and the corporation he dramatizes. Whoever knows more about USIC, the Oasans, and the mission Peter joins is not telling. As in Faber's previous fiction, the situation the protagonist meets appears to be more complex than what this idealistic but flawed Everyman can fully comprehend. Not all questions find answers.

Therefore, the ambiguity in this tale, and the "elusive" purpose for which Leigh has been recruited and USIC set up so far away may not find full clarification, any more than the message of Jesus may find complete explication for Oasis' natives, or for Peter Leigh himself. While he imagines success, the ultimate lesson of this philosophical novel may lie in its acceptance instead of what one of Leigh's predecessors may have found, during his own "ecstasy of derision". Faber leaves us, along with Peter, wondering about these elusive and haunting, yet ultimately poignant and down-to-earth, life lessons.
(As above 10-21-14 to PopMatters, originally in shorter form 9-15-14 to Amazon US)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Davide Longo's "Last Man Standing": Book Review

I like post-apocalyptic novels, and after reading the previous reviewers' responses, all over the map, pro-and-con, to this ambitious story, I wanted to try it out for myself. Some compared it to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and certainly it shares a father and child facing devastation. One mentioned J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace," and we find the middle-aged (about the same age exactly, I reckon, 52 when the narrative begins) professor shunned after a sex scandal, and finding himself alone, amidst savage elements, canine and human, and facing his own existential loss. He determines to stay a "vertical man" as the Italian title has it, and in Silvester Mazzarella's smooth translation (my galley has one glitch, a gap where Richard is introduced), Leonardo the protagonist learns to stop backing down.

What does Davide Longo add to the familar arc of a man realizing his worth amidst hardship? Like the backdrop of two recent attempts to delve into a near-future ravaged by global breakdown, David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" or Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange and New Things," Longo places Leonardo, his daughter, and his ex-wife's stepson in a landscape we watch as unrest widens, banks close, communication ceases, and tribalism returns.

Longo only mentions Italy by name once, and he alludes to locations by initials as perhaps they are no longer cities, anyway....He tries to strip familiar places down so we see instead what they are a few decades from now: as Leonardo reflects in an empty church, the crucifix peers down as if a person giving a last glance to a place once loved well, and now left behind. Faith fades, death looms, and barter and extortion replace civility as women become commodities, youths feral, and old people victims or hostages, traded by rival roaming gangs. The "outsiders" mostly are repulsed, but beyond Italy's borders, mystery hovers, for nobody knows anymore what the earth contains, as information shrinks and survival takes daily precedence.

The shift from "with" to "without," Leonardo realizes early on, signals this new dark age. Refugees from Azerbaijan show Leonardo in an atlas from whence they came. "The man passed his hands slowly over the atlas as if sweeping crumbs away from his own country and toward Europe." (100) But they will find no welcome and neither will the Italians beyond the Alps. It looks as if each nation has secured its fortress frontier against each other, and those in what was the Italian nation find themselves grappling for news, loot, food, and shelter.

While I did wonder how Leonardo and others managed winter, given their lack of much protection, Longo succeeds better in showing how Leonardo's fellow men and women fare when similarly beleaguered. The "germs of evil," he wonders, may be innate within humans, or perhaps instead they were spread by infection, leading to degeneracy. This conundrum leaves Leonardo wondering, and like much in this tersely told novel, Longo refuses to fill in the blanks.

Ultimately, as the dangers increase, Leonardo asks if he is being subjected to "an act of purification. Or whether sentence has already been passed and a bizarre judge has placed a scaffold a long way from the cell." (194) Fire and water, goodness and balance, on the other hand, symbolize for Leonardo and those whom he tries to protect some meaning for hard-won wisdom, and as with "The Road" and many such tales, it's telling that Longo seems in the final sections to shrink from the horrors he has amassed, in hopes of peace and safety. This may let down some wanting more of a realistic story, but it may assuage the sensibilities of others needing respite after many pages of memorable but dispiriting dramatization of life lived near its end. While the elephant and some parts of the narrative seemed too contrived to convince as real-life predicaments, in total, "The Last Man Standing" manages to tell a powerful tale of a man's attempt at redemption, in a world without belief, only power and utter endurance. (Amazon US 9-24-14)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Upton tea notes, rounds 2.5+

I reported on my first round of tea tasting with twenty samples from Upton Tea Imports in mid-April 2011 here. A year later, I bought twenty more, mostly caffeinated this time as I require fewer nights at work with decaf or tisanes and the warmer weather means my focus will be on a hefty daily cup each morning. This list took much longer to work through as hot weather intervened and my night non-caf doses at work used up old teabags to make room for new tastes below. Yes, after this, I figured I'd be ready to make my pick. But, a delayed version 2.5, for as luck would have it with my first entry:

Black Tea:
Namalighur Estate Assam TGFOP1: A knockout, a home run. Sparkly, lively, effervescent on the tongue. Richly complex with raisin hints and wine-like astringency, not bitter, more tingly than malty. Sometimes it tastes like a glazed donut; other times like mint candy in its tingle on my palate. Sustains flavor with milk all the way to the bottom of a cup. Two months of satisfaction. Too bad it's not in stock anymore. I bought a whole bag on a whim when ordering my samples: simply wonderful.

So, off to samples again, arranged probably by quality and price a bit, as last time. This took me two years to try, at the slow pace of bigger bags. You get used to one for awhile, and move on. Not to tilt the scale; this allows me a chance to compare like blends nearer each other, and to learn to taste for nuances and differences (or similarities) in styles as I learn to figure out what I like better and why. 

Yunnan Fannings: this Season's Pick despite its bargain bin price tastes refined. Much smokier than my usual, but well-balanced and takes milk well. If you paid $5/cup for this in a hip café, you would.

Nilgiri BOP : this is clean and balanced, like a Ceylon black. Goes with milk and sweetener fine. With the right balance of milk and sweetener, effervescence unfolds. 

Sikkim TGBOP SK-3: this intensely earthy, floral aroma permeates a more Chinese-style tea, lighter in color but heavier in flavor. Contains a hint of effervescence with more sweetener. Without milk, similar to a jasmine tea. With milk, that nuance is replaced by a steadier, but still heady "Asian" feel.

Temi Estate FTGFOP1 Cl. I drank this without milk. Musky leaves, redolent of an Asian fragrance crossed with Ceylon delicacy. Consistent if for me less vibrant; quality brew for sophisticated palates.

Amgoorie Estate STGFOP 1st Fl: Maltier but temperamental. A few cups hit the sweet spot with sweetener and milk. Some stayed less effervescent. Similar to Namalighur, if at a less reliable level.

Assam GBOP Tippy Orthodox: Mellower malt. More nuanced, rounded, less bold, but satisfying. 

Assam FBOP Tippy Orthodox: Toastier without milk, nearly identical to GBOP with milk. 

Black Label Blend: Fannings? The bite of Assam meets a rounded feel of Ceylon. Tasty without milk, with it, a mellow but full-flavored cup. Reminds me of a big urn as a British restaurant's brew. 

Mincing Lane Blend Loose-leaf, Yunnan smoke meets Assam heft. Better without milk to bring out the aroma and lingering woodsiness. But, even with milk, strong enough to sustain its liquid forestry.

East Frisian TGFOP Very similar to other Frisian; hearty and takes milk with lots of sweetener to bring out candied, dessert flavor. Dense, thick mouthfeel, much more filling than other varieties. 

Turkish Blend Ceylon More Chinese, earthy, vaguely smoky, pleasantly gritty, without milk.  

Black Orange: Rather chemical taste, like orange oil, spicy rather than sweet. Dried peels added. Sweetener cuts the bite. No milk.

Wild Cherry: Tangy and tart, with or without sweetener. Not as "artificial" tasting as many cherry flavored concoctions. The black tea leaves combine well with the cherry leaf bits. 

China Black BOP Organic. Smoky, dense, hefty mouth feel, this infuses into a strong, appealing aroma. Strong, with milk and sweetened. (My wife found it at her office from the tenants moving out. Packed in spring '06--and opened-- I doubted the aroma-less contents in its foil bag would match even a tired Lipton orange pekoe teabag. If it was this tasty in Dec. '12, imagine it when it was new.)

Ceylon Premium: this resembles Ceylon Fannings Organic more than Assam CO2 from last batch. Yet, careful sipping reveals in its elegantly long leaves a more lasting release of taste. Lacking the fishy smell of cheaper decafs, its earthier, astringent, lingering flavors could pass as a regular cup. Works well with milk, although most of my cups were without. Very dependable, sustained, round. (I decided to order a bigger bag of this as my go-to evening or afternoon blend, out of three samples.)

English Breakfast CO2 Ceylon OP: hearty, filling, good with/without milk. Easily a back-up choice. Rounded and pleasantly aromatic loose leaf. No discernible difference from caffeinated.

English Breakfast Organic: Blends Ceylon with Assam for an earthy, smoky resonance when sweetened. Surprisingly robust, heftier than the norm: not loose leaf but fannings. Another back-up.

Sweet Orange CO2: much better than Black Orange, lacking that chemical taste. Balanced blend of orange flavor and black tea heartiness. Sweetener enhances the appealing aroma and mouthfeel.

Fruit + Tisanes
Maracuja-Orange: Delicate, very beetroot in color as in ingredient than orange, but with sweetener, balance emerges. Good match with light desserts. Not hearty; delicate hibiscus mouthfeel.  

Honeybush Superior Organic: fragrant and smooth, but more nuanced than flavorful. Hearty with or without sweetener. 

Roobois Rote Gruze: Slightly astringent, cough-drop flavor. Floral notes plain, cut by sweetener. Cherry syrup or blackcurrant, sharpish taste. Good for a cold day when snuffles loom. 

Version 2.75...early 2014:
Green Honeybush: Pleasant tasting, full not floral, but inviting aroma and appealing mouthfeel. Needs neither sweetener nor milk, as it delivers a satisfying, cheery, complex aroma and texture. 

Vanilla Honeybush Organic: South African import, wonderful aroma and appealing look. Not as strong a vanilla flavor as expected, but a quality product and a good match for dessert or after meals.

Gu Zhang Mao Jian: Normally I wouldn't order green, but this was a bonus sample in "version 2.5." "Sky between the Branches": it's earthy, twiggy, and surprisingly very hearty and satisfying.

Version 2.5 for Assam blacks:
A year later, that is, two into the tea trade with Upton, I asked its customer service's recommendation given the Namalighur no longer was sold. After a blizzard had shut down the Massachusetts vendor, the next day a kind woman responded with her own suggestion (not in the catalogue) for a Meleng varietal, and two from colleagues too. I took a chance and ordered bags for all three. As before, I tasted them in order of price, wondering if that made much if any difference. I don't peek at catalogue descriptions before I sample each in turn over a few days, so as to be "fresh" in my blog blurbs here.

Ananda Bag Estate TGBOP1: Slightly earthy and floral fragrance, with hints of honey. At first, appears too subdued, but a rounded soft depth emerges mid-cup, with milk and sweetener. Not bold, but sophisticated balance without the maltiness of Assams I tend to prefer. Goes well with fruit. Resembles East Frisian when cools off a bit. Very rounded, hearty, sweet density in mouthfeel. 

Mangalam Estate GBOP Cl. Spl.: Similar to Ananda Bag in tingle and Namalighur in earthiness. Somewhat bolder initially in aroma and mouthfeel than Ananda.

Meleng FBOP Cl. Spl.: Me so malty. True to the astute Upton's customer service rep, her three recommendations concluded for me with the priciest, but reliably on target. But, can you believe for version 2.75 early '14 I ordered Mangalam FTGFOP1, promising "hints of malt and sweet raisins"? Plus the Season's Pick bulk Assam Organic, and for non-caf, Honeybush in Vanilla and as Green.

Version 2.75...early 2014:
Season's Pick Assam Organic: Cocoa hints. Very good bargain, indistinguishable from higher priced varieties. Large leaves and pleasant fragrance, good with or without milk if with sweetener.  

Mangalam Assam FTGFOPl: Improves with time after steeping. Malty quality subdued, but more rounded flavor emerges with milk and sweetener. Without milk, resembles a Ceylon or Darjeeling.

Photo from "Heard on the Plane: Sikkim with Shakti Himalaya"

Friday, September 19, 2014

Judith Flanders' "The Victorian City": Book Review

London epitomizes the Victorian city. It doubled in population between 1800 and 1850, and this growth spurt was witnessed by its most famous author, who moved there at the age of ten, in 1821. Gleaning the most informative or entertaining evidence from the author's many books, Judith Flanders combines Dickens' life and works with archives as a "perfect optic through which to see the city's transformation" during the reign of Queen Victoria and Dickens' life span. While these do not align perfectly, as the queen reigned between 1837 and 1901 while Dickens died in 1870, the general fit proves neat enough here.

This is thick, and therefore a congenial match for Dickens' own sometimes voluble texts. Well illustrated with period lithographs and engravings, prefaced by helpful maps reminding us how much that capital does and does not match the layout of the ever-congested megapolis today, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London keeps to the streets themselves rather than the interiors and domestic duty. These streets prove noisy, as horses clopped and cabs rattled. Sellers shouted, carts crashed, horses neighed and cattle bellowed, from what seems before dawn until midnight, daily.

Flanders opens with a look at how early many had to wake up. By two or three in the morning, some had left home miles away, even in the countryside, to hike in to the markets and to set up stalls in near-blackness. Many returned home in the same lack of light, through dim, dangerous, and unpaved streets, after twelve- or fourteen hour days. Saturdays some might leave work at ten p.m. They were condemned by Sabbatarians who chided those who dared to shop in turn on Sundays for their scanty provisions. Lives lived in the open meant that few of the poorer classes kept food at home, where storage was lacking and vermin abounded. Instead, people ate on the go, many trudging everywhere.

The ratio of black cabs today to people in London is over 1:400. 160 years ago, there was about one horse-drawn cab for every person. The traffic had to, at Temple Bar which divided the City from the West End, narrow to a space twenty yards wide, and coaches and livery jammed into what was likely a perpetual bottleneck. Such situations multiplied over the city, as the poor had to live near their jobs and the rich sought to travel if possible by more amenable transport than on foot. But these rides could be harrowing, and the mud, rain, smoke, fog, and excrement that abounded meant whatever one's rank, the weather and the smells took their toll on one's health, one's clothing, and one's nerves.

Some sights jolt us by familiarity. Traffic clogged, even as a lunchroom promised free delivery within a ten-mile radius. Grand illuminations lit up London with huge displays, even if this same city could be so dark before streetlights that firemen tried to put out a blaze they kept glimpsing beyond, which turned out to be the Northern Lights. Other features remind us of distinctions. Waiters had to pay for their laundry, supplies, and a place at the chophouses where they then had to count on tips for their wage. Oysters were craved as then as now, but back then, were a cheap source of food for the poor.

What differs is the diminution of animals from these dense streets today. The horrors of Smithfield Market with its braying of terrified livestock sent to slaughter, the din of those goading them with whips, the escape of maddened bulls, the press of cattle and sheep in the small pens, the stench: this created a scene that as the animals were herded through the streets few could fully escape, or forget.

However narrow, streets certainly have widened in the never-ending construction which marks London for two centuries and more now. This also led to slum clearances, as either well-intended or speculative interests sought to raze medieval warrens and tiny alleys where filth emanated, among humans and beasts and factories. Yet, this pushed the poor, who still had to walk to their work--often on the streets themselves--into nearby neighborhoods, accelerating their decline even as the inner city (then as now) soared in desirability. Even the Tube followed this pattern; Flanders reminds us that unlike Paris, London's planners kept many underground lines out of the innermost ring of London (or at least diverted from regal proximity). The Underground in turn sparked more sprawl, more crowds.

It can surprise us how frequently Queen Victoria survived no less than seven assassination attempts, given the proximity of herself to these very crowds. She, perhaps appropriately, rarely appears in these pages, although other royals do, often at clubs separated from the pubs where lowlier folks flock. While Flanders' survey suffers from a shortcoming of not entering as many interiors, beyond the public gaze, as a reader eager to discover Victorian minutiae might anticipate, she examines in a frisky chapter the veracity of claims for prostitution by a considerable number of women on London's streets. She avers that although such a profession was attributed to milliners, that occupation's required hours of fourteen or sixteen hour shifts meant that even if  those women still had the energy after work to pursue liaisons for profit or pleasure (the two could blur), they likely had not the time.

The challenge no matter the labor most Londoners had to eke out was how to stay healthy, dry, shod, and fed. Until nearly 1850, Westminster and surrounding areas were supplied with drinking water from sewers. Dregs from the glasses rinsed in a pub were sold again to the poor. Scraps similarly were fed to the same. Cholera spread, and infection grew. The conditions under which Londoners breathed, dined,a and drank prove the dismal nature of the fog-bound and soot-showered streets. On these, everyone appears to have plied a trade, licit or otherwise. Watercress-girls, cats' meat vendors with horse chunks on skewers cut to order, dog-carts (alas no canine-power), touts for dolly shops (unlicensed pawnbrokers), crossing-sweepers, costermongers with strawberries sold in paper cones, match-sellers, hot-potato vendors, chum-masters in charge of who was jailed with whom for debt or for crime, and pimps consorted in the mews or shoved each other at Covent Garden or on the Strand.

The circle of who sold what comprised its tidy if ironically drawn economy. Tea leaves after stewing were rinsed, dried, and sprinkled on carpets to draw up dust before sweeping. "Once this had been done, some charwomen sold the leaves to unscrupulous dealers who mixed them with new tea leaves, selling the tea at bargain prices. It was these very women and their kind who were most likely to purchase the lowest-priced tea, and who were drinking what they had lately swept up." (148)

Flanders sprinkles such observations throughout. She sets up one theme per chapter and moves within from topic to topic carefully. Occupations or their lack, health or its lack, entertainment for all, and nighttime temptations and dangers create the four foundations upon which her solid scholarship rests, in brisk, clear prose. She opens each chapter with a dramatic vignette from an elaborate hoax, a fire on the Thames, a skating disaster at Regents Park, and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington to conjure a fitting mood.

I did close this still pondering a few questions I had expected to be answered by the conclusion, as so much detail fills this book. What about the cultural impact of the Great Exhibition, and of the museums and galleries which already had begun to be built?  What did the fabled Leadenhall Market look like? In an era torn between reason and faith, surely these debates of the Victorian era must have generated friction on the street among preachers and debaters, and left their mark on passersby.

While some of the amassed data may overwhelm a casual reader, Judith Flanders admirably avoids jargon and keeps this always pitched at a general reader. A hundred of the just over five hundred pages are notes, a bibliography, and an index, assuring its value as a reference as well as a narrative. (PopMatters 7-22-14

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Travis Elborough + Nick Rennison's "A London Year": Book Review

This clever book celebrates diarists, letter-writers, and journal-keepers who, day by day as chronicled here, add over two hundred of their famous and humble voices to the eight million who currently crowd this city. (Not counting the tourists.) Fittingly, where Samuel Pepys pioneered the diary as a record of an individual's reactions to the collective crush. the variety of stimulation, irritation, and celebration comprises a novel way to roam London. Editors Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison also work as booksellers, and the handsome presentation (graced by a pale blue ribbon sewn into the hardcover binding as a marker) enhances this big volume.

The opening endpaper maps London from 1574 as drawn by a Flemish cartographer. The closing endpaper charts Twitter and Flickr feeds from the sprawl that extends ten-fold, centuries later from the core glowing with electronic transmission. What in Shakespeare's times comprised the City of London and a less congested stretch down along the Thames to Westminster's royal enclave spreads today into distant suburbs. But the ancient turns of the serpentine city's northern course, considerably larger but still identifiable as a concentration along the north shore of the river, twists on, near giant blocks discernible as parks that have been plotted out.

This combination of streets and space, planned after the Great Fire which Pepys described so well, allowed his successors to note their ability, frustrated or eased, to escape the loos for the lawns. One will benefit from a map of one's own to plot one's route for instruction or orientation, or an A-Z guidebook. The intricacy of networks and referents becomes to those acquainted with the labyrinth at the city's heart somewhat more familiar, but as any visitor or native agrees, its name-maze endures.

The editors note how certain tropes repeat down the decades: "The impossibility of getting around the place. The dirtiness of London's streets. The unpredictability of the weather. The expensiveness of food and lodgings. The snootiness of shopkeepers, restauranteurs and/or publicans." Consistently, complaints repeat, notably the "difficulty of finding somewhere decent to live and, interrelatedly, the worry about whether the price of X and Y neighborhood will go up or go down." Finally, as Charles Lamb summed up in 1829, the old place isn't what it once was.

In a short review, five-hundred pages of extracted narratives defy summation. Yet, patterns emerge. They share often the nostalgia of Lamb (not included), but they reveal many emotions. I opened the book at random, as many readers may (once they check their birthday or today's date to see how the mood or the clime correspond or not to their own wherever they peruse this, in whichever borough or suburb wherever), at 28 May. "A Man Vomiting Blood" in St. James's Street, observed by William Windham and his colleague, detains them from their entrance into the House. Parliamentary affairs, it transpires, can wait, as the two statesmen repaired to a club instead in 1760, according to his diary.

Mary Berry's journal commemorates that same date the visit of the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands to the capital. "Her savage majesty appeared much more occupied by the red-plumed hats of the musicians than the music." Berry notes how the Hawaiian ladies, encumbered by the folds of their voluminous "European dress", walked awkwardly; "there was nothing of the free step of the savage".

"All are caged birds; the only difference is the size of the cage." So muses Thomas Hardy, in characteristically epigrammatic style, after waiting that day in 1885 at the Marble Arch to watch the people pass in their finery. "Hurry, speech, laughter, moans, cries of little children" enliven for Hardy the human "tragedy" along this "hum of the wheel -- the roar of London!"

Most dates offer an equivalent sampling of entries, from as diverse a cast. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, but also Nils Stevenson from the punk era in 1977 and Aaron Burr from 1808. Lord Byron and Lindsay Anderson; Michael Palin and Keshub Chandra Sen, a Bengali philosopher in 1870; emancipated slave Ignatius Sancho from the Georgian period and Emily Shore, who after her visits in 1830 as a girl would die of consumption a few years later. These are the people through which we see London, those often who have come to stay for a short time or a lifetime after being born elsewhere. Along with natives (ranking far fewer, as in many cosmopolitan cities, it seems) such as Charlton F.C. fan Russ Wilkins, nearly unknown Victorian clerk Rafe Neville Leychester, or late nineteenth-century minister's daughter Helen G. McKenny, we see from the recognizable names and the obscure bylines the range of perspectives and persuasions drawn by tellers who put down on paper their reactions to the London they occupy, for a surprise or a memory, as a souvenir of their passing moment day by day and year by year. (2-24-14 to Amazon US and 2-20-14 to PopMatters)

Monday, September 15, 2014

William Alexander's "Flirting with French": Book Review

Learning French, even for a middle-aged Francophile, proves elusive. Its infamous pronunciation, its maddeningly gendered nouns, its elisions, its lack of syllabic emphases: William Alexander laments them all. Going on 58, after writing successful books on mad ambitions to achieve the perfect garden and bake the perfect loaf, he seems as well-suited as any driven autodidact for task three.

Most adults will never fully master a second language. Alexander's ambitions meet the obstacle most of our brains encounter when we try to learn a new language post-puberty. As he explains, once the neural networks have sparked childhood fluency, our valuable hard-wiring gets diverted so the brain can apply it to non-linguistic necessities as we mature. Our innate capacity which enables us to quickly attain our native language in infancy then fades; consider how even teens struggle with foreign conjugations and prepositions.

Alexander sums up linguistic theory and neurological research, but he finds that these cannot account for the other 8/9 of our body. Acting out French sentences, he shows, overcomes his brain's hesitations. Reading a play by Sartre or reciting into a microphone via Rosetta Stone stymie him. French evokes from Alexander emotions, impulses, and gestures, beyond vocabulary lists and conversational lessons. He wanders along this book's way to relate his correspondence with a pen-pal, his stints at total-immersion French environments, the history of French, the sly promises of machines such as Google Translate, and the daunting barriers to fluency.

Alexander plugs away. He claims to work, but from the obsessive attempt he documents, pursuing  French becomes what seems to me a full-time job. Inspired to overcome his mental block, with visual imagery he memorizes a thousand words in a children's bilingual dictionary; he strains this same memory, on the other hand, to recall common verbs while chatting with classmates. The yin-yang of advancing and regressing in language learning will comfort any student who has faced, for example, the clash of decimal and vigesimal (base-twenty) counting systems. He finds fresh examples, too.

"Soixante-neuf  is the last 'easy' number in French. Should you want to turn your lovemaking up a notch to seventy, you'll find there is no "seventy" in French. This is undoubtedly due to French frugality." One adds ten to sixty, and up to "sixty-ten-nine", before one hits eighty, as "four-twenties".

Metaphors beyond the most famous of French numbers also enliven his narrative. Alexander's lively chapter on colorful idioms entertains. To tie the marriage knot is rendered as putting a noose around your neck. Having a wet dream equals "to make a map of France". One suspects male-authored phrases so far, but anyone can find a stroke of good fortune. However, few of either sex, whatever luck comes their sudden way, may long for more than a linguistically evoked "ass full of noodles". Outside of a few (non-?) French in recovery, who would not acclaim the praise given a delectable glass of red wine? "C'est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!" "It's the Baby Jesus in velvet shorts!"
Wine may well be prescribed for Francophiles eager to escape the rigors of battling French itself. Alexander's cardiologist asks about any new stress in his patient's life. "Well, I am studying French." Alexander avers near this book's conclusion that he has been learning a lot of French, but not "learning French". The latter goal may recede; his native-born teacher suggests after five to seven years, living in France, of course, he may get pretty good at it. Over thirteen months and nine-hundred hours, he drives himself on towards fluency. Complicated by his arrhythmic heart and a series of surgeries, the results of his sustained immersion will surprise him, at the end of this genial narrative. During to date only half the time Alexander spent, I've been cursing daily during my online French lessons, fifteen minutes or so each. That's all the patience I can summon. But Flirting with French gave me faint hope; as another middle-aged learner, who began during my first visit to Québec last autumn, I recognize in Alexander's story my own frustrations, magnified or diminished. (Amazon US 9-3-14; PopMatters 9-14-14; Author's website)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Slán a fhágail dó Taffy

Fuair Taffy bás amach ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Féadfaidh tú ár Corgi Phembróc in earrach seo caite anseo. Bhí maith leis a suí chomh seo liom.

Bhí Taffy ag ár teaghlach ó 2004 ann. Chuir muid sé nuair raibh sé coileán. D'fhéach sé cosúil le coileán sionnach.

Is breá liom feoil. Go fírinne, díth air a ith achan bia. Bhí léas mór ina á shúil nuair chonaic lón.

Ghlór mé Taffy "tafalach" go minic. Lig mé go raibh Taffy ina gadaí. Bhí mhaith liom a rith i ndhiadh dó amháil is dá feargach.

Bíonn Taffy i gcoirt go coitanta. Chuala muid sé ghile faoi a choisaint chugainn in ár teach agus ár clós lá agus óiche. Deanfaidh muid chailleain dó. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sé sásta leis caoireail sna scamaill anois agus i gcónaí.

Saying Farewell to Taffy.

Death took Taffy away during the past week. You can see our Pembroke Corgi last spring here. He liked to sit with me like this.

Taffy was with our family from 2004. We got him when he was a pup. He looked like a fox cub.

He loved meat. Truly, he had a need to eat every food. He had a great shimmer in his eyes when he saw edibles.

I called Taffy "tafalach" often, I pretended as if Taffy was a thief. I liked to run after him as if angry.

Taffy was commonly barking. We heard him dashing about our house and our yard to guard us day and night. We will miss him. I hope he is happy with sheep in the clouds now and always.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"To End All Wars: the Graphic Anthology of the Great War": Review

Harry Patch, World War One's last surviving British veteran, was asked what he would tell young people. Defining war as "organised murder", he responded: "Don't join the army." Pat Mills in his introduction adds that this comment was scrubbed from the finished version of Patch's interview. This graphic collection opens with the greatest of such cover-ups; Brick's "The Iron Dice" sketches how millions were sent to slaughter, by imperial cabals protecting profits and peddling patriotism. This anthology's website sums up the consequences: "The so-called ‘Great War’ was the first truly multinational war, the first heavily mechanised war, the first oil war, the first fought to the benefit of capitalists on both sides, the first to murder millions of civilians and the last orchestrated by kings, barons and lords as if it were a ripping game of polo." 
26 contributions by 53 artists and writers from 13 nations represent the global impact of this subject. Depicted over four continents are the four theaters of war: land, sea, air, and the home front. A century later, few graphic novels have depicted these early horrors (and heroics, deluded, desperate, or gallant as they may be judged in sober retrospect), compared with the media attention devoted to its successor, WWII. This stark, chiaroscuro, thick compilation begins to redress this deficit. It promotes a humanitarian view of the worldwide conflict as witnessed by not only famous and everyday men and women, but also by a diligent elephant, hounds, purported angels, and an Alpine cat. (A share of U.S. and British profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders.) 

Familiar names such as Winston Churchill, Rasputin, Baron Von Richthofen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mata Hari appear, but most entries feature unheralded men and women. Mostly inspired by true accounts, those who volunteered talents to script and illustrate these boldly drawn or softly delineated stories share sympathy for the plight of those cajoled, conscripted, or, as in Colm Regan's "No More Than Cattle", among hundreds of thousands of Africans under German or British colonialism forced to participate as porters or combatants. While the full list of over two dozen selections cannot be covered in a brief review, a few examples reveal its range of concerns, biographies, and approaches. 

Clode's "The Coward's War" takes up a topic which remains controversial today. "If an army is the reflection of the society for which it was created, Thomas Highgate was the first crack in its mirror." Executed for desertion in 1914, he was one of over three hundred Commonwealth soldiers who met that fate, in a time when very little was understood about stress, shell-shock, and fragility under fire. Clode's dramatic shading (here as in his other inclusion, "The Black Chair" about the Welsh bardic poet Hedd Wyn) deepens the ambiguity of this tribute. It portrays uncertainty. when those leaders ordered to force troops into battle no matter their condition were also victims of this era's ignorance. Prejudice persists. Clode reports how Highgate's hometown in 1999 refused to let his name be added to that feature of many towns, schools, and village squares among the Allies, its local war memorial.

"Il Gatto" saddened me. It follows an intrepid cat who crosses Italian to Austrian lines during the bitter war in the Alps. At one point, Stuart Richards places the feline facing the frozen front, its head above the icy trench, alongside a long line of helmeted soldiers, dug in with rifles drawn for assault.

Sean Michael Wilson's "Live and Let Live" cheered me. It narrates the stand-offs arranged tacitly on the front, so neither German nor Allied troops would fire on each other, as long as no mortal threat was raised. This sensible compromise allowed many soldiers to survive, and affirms common sense.

Yet, that solution could never be published during the war. The plight of journalists, whom the British would shoot as spies, meant that front-line, honest reporting would not emerge for those on the home front. "Truth Be Told" in Pippa Hennessy's unsparing words and Danos Philopoulos' scorching illustrations claw at the page. These convey the quest of one bold correspondent who fought to live.

Survival, in Dan Hill's take on solidarity, "Where Others Follow", educates readers. It explains how sheep have evolved to protect their pacifism. Watch-sheep emerge to guard the flock. Although a single herd rallies against predators, the group recognizes individuals and remembers each one's presence, If in a flock as with troops a single member is subsumed into a collective, an evolving balance endures which meets individual needs and demands of the group. It's a clever lesson, or fable.

But crammed together, endurance drags many down, crushed by the pressures of killing. A U-Boat commander succumbs. After a series of Allied sinkings, he lets his submarine be rammed by a British destroyer. Similarly, elite aces in planes give in after one too many dogfight victories, once the cost to their psyche has been tallied. Tanks explode and bodies shatter across wastelands. Many German versions of testimonies wallow in mud and grime. Dark pages overwhelm the light in  acrid, gloomy evocations of bomb craters and gray hell. "Poppies" depicts the artist Otto Dix, whose engravings acidly commemorate the searing visions he could not escape, as deftly rendered by Kate Houghton.

After such tales sink in, the reader reflects on the legacy left for us a hundred years later. Growing up, I heard very few scattered memories from WWI veterans, rambling anecdotes passed down from two old men. Fewer seem to understand today (with few films let alone novels or testimonies taught in schools today) this fatal march to a war that wiped out, disproportionately, about ten million young men in uniform, along with seven million civilians who never signed up or resigned themselves to fight for empires. The anthologists rouse readers to resist seductive, sinister calls for yet more war.

While a few entries dithered about despite their brevity, dissipating their force by narratives revealing gaps or leaps in time or space, most succeed very well at teaching this persistent lesson of peace. "Perhaps the decision to go to war should never be decided by men in wood paneled offices of state, but by a committee of mothers on both sides, advised by those who have seen war and what it does to soft human bodies, to the fragile mind and very soul." So Joe Gordon concludes this collection with his "Memorial to the Mothers". He reflects on a Royal Scots gravestone he passes often; the father buried beneath died on a 1918 battlefield. There, his son rests too, suffering the same fate in 1940. Gordon wonders about the unheralded mothers left to grieve. He speculates on these women's sorrow and anger and loss, as our inheritance during every war erupting after WWI. "And then perhaps we might finally learn to stop, for what mother really, truly believes anything was worth her bonny boy?"
(Amazon 9-15-14; Pop Matters 8-25-14; Author's website)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Joshua Dubler's "Down in the Chapel": Book Review

While academic articles have scrutinized the range of religious observance behind bars, and while popular culture capitalizing on this milieu treats these activities with passing or prurient interest, few in-depth treatments aimed at a wider audience have appeared. Adapting his Princeton dissertation, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester, Joshua Dubler, guides readers through a prison week in early 2006. He uses a week's chronology to intersperse summaries from ethnography and sociology on prison religion, mingling these with a year of sacred and profane discussions among those who gravitate towards one prison chapel, which can be a bleak or comforting "cellular edifice". Combining scholarly distance with first-hand reports as a participant-observer, he introduces us to 15 chapel workers chosen from a general population of 3,500, their five chaplains, and a pair of officers enlisted to keep order in this quiet corner of Pennsylvania's Graterford State Correctional Institution.

The inmates reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of this prison, thirty-odd miles northwest of Philadelphia. About a quarter of those locked up there identify as Muslim, often drawn from the same South Philly neighborhoods which claim the allegiance of inmates at Graterford, about two-thirds of whom are African-American. Trusting those who they knew outside before they all wound up on the inside, many stick together to attend a particular service among the Islamic options. Three include Warith Deen as the successor to the disbanded Nation of Islam, the Nation of Islam itself as revived under Louis Farrakhan, or an enduring manifestation of earlier Islam in black America, the Moorish Science Temple. Dubler explores this trio; he elaborates how tensions in this prison had once worsened between factions of black Muslim observance. These sparked resentment among staff and politicians who suppressed what they perceived as subversion in a more permissive atmosphere. In a 1995 crackdown on drugs and smuggling, tough-on-crime authorities gained control over Graterford.

Dubler "as a Jew and a pluralist" sides with these expressions of black identity. As a counter to the "expansionist universalism" of Sunni Muslims, fervent Catholics, or fundamentalist Protestants, he admits his soft spot for a "living genealogy of black religion". This heritage, however, seems increasingly an urban African-American legacy within a globalizing community, open to religious competition. Reverend Keita is a Bible-based Protestant from Sierra Leone; the prison imam is from Nigeria. This pair ministering to Philly-loyal inmates stands out, as immigrants into black America.

Today, many African-American Muslims opt for an increasingly appealing take on fundamentalism, imported from the Salafi sect in Saudi Arabia. The selection of that imam from Africa may reflect a wish among supervisors to inculcate a more traditional, less politically charged, style of supervision through conducting services and monitoring inmate activity. Whatever the denomination, Dubler reveals the tensions chaplains share. They soon are "burned" by the appeals and scams of inmates conniving to use their phones or computers (rare instances of such devices accessible at Graterford, at least legally), so chaplains can "burn out", caught between the strategies of staff who use chaplains for surveillance and the scams of inmates who seek to manipulate those assigned to care for them.

Nevertheless, a "palliative" quality of religion, in one common explanation for its ubiquity (which Dubler diminishes as he does any neat formula to shrink down human experience to theory), sedates. At least according to the conventional wisdom, which justifies a widespread practice of prisoner faith. As the liberal Lutheran, Reverend Baumgartner (some names are changed in this narrative), avers, the jaded staff regards chaplains as "as affable opiate peddlers", in Dubler's memorable phrase.

This book peppers such phrases into its style. Prisoner Teddy and Officer Watkins debate the truth of the Bible, as Dubler judges them "nothing if not readers of outrageous confidence". He then segues into a rundown of the Second Great Awakening nearly two hundred years ago. As a Muslim, Sayyid may deny evolution and assert God's control, but "his claims to lockjaw epistemological modesty are belied by his exuberance". A Jewish inmate, the rabbi's clerk, enters: "Fastidious in his appearance, with pressed browns, sculpted hair, shadowless cheeks, and, in summer, the uniformly bronze hue of an intentional tan, Brian carries himself with the harried air of a corporate professional." Neshawn rises during a Nation of Islam gathering to talk about an incident "on the block"; his "appetite for unpolished provocation" hints to Dubler of "a mind run amok". Such vivid details humanize those Dubler introduces, and they enliven the gist of a book which can wander off into professorial prose.

This tone, drifting between character studies and theoretical rumination (nearly thirty pages of dense footnotes attest to the origins of this project), creates frequent shifts. Dubler as an Ivy League-trained professor incorporates ten theses, in self-aware, suggestive language, which highlight his attempts at applying theory to the situations he studies. This can disconcert, for the range of this study is vast and despite lots of documentation, he can assume his reader is as smart as he is as to certain allusions or scholars. However, he alters this density by varying narrative voices to highlight his own predicament, listening to those on the inside, but always knowing he possesses the freedom denied his informants and confidants. He stays cautious of the staff and cameras watching his moves.

He reports in long conversations the tensions of the body and the spirit, the restless minds and the stifled desires. These he dramatizes, from inmates, chaplains, and guards. (I wondered how often he took notes, took liberties with dialogue, and/or if he transcribed tapes but I cannot ascertain--except for one mention of him transcribing a brief sermon--the precise methods by which he recalls so much, given this hefty expansion of his dissertation.) He blends academic discussions with hip-hop lyrics, trash talk, debates, and his hyper-aware sensibility. After all, he does not fit into this regimentation.

Raised well-off in Manhattan, he reveals how he descends from "agnostic observant Jews" who don't believe in God anymore but who take comfort in belonging to a set of values, a community, and a family. This key insight emerges late on, for it's not until Friday of the dramatized week when we hear it, by way of Dubler at Shabbat service. He then opens up, badgered by Brian, to account for his own Jewish identity, and the merits of his dissertation. How can this one prison stand for millions incarcerated? How can a single study account for unprecedented religious variety among inmates?

Dubler accepts the narrow limits of his project on practical grounds, but he rejects expansion of his observations to create a heady, sweeping statement about religious life in all American prisons. He admits its small scope. He strives to follow academic convention in methodology. Yet, he rejects rigidity as to theory. Earlier, he dismisses both the "bad man" trope where those incarcerated use religion as part of a con and the "poor man" stance where those convicted turn to religion as solace: humbled, beaten down, or too weak to react in other than a pitiful submission to life's hardships.

Investigating the marked "do-or-die certitude" habitually if not totally asserted by most of the six Muslims, four Protestants, two Catholics, as well as the one atheist who works in the chapel, Dubler notes the necessity for prisoners to adapt such a stubborn line of defense for survival. It's rare to hear irony when they proclaim their beliefs, for Graterford like any prison is a place "where men tend to bind themselves to the masts of their convictions and tenaciously hold on to those revolutionary moments in time when they first become what they continue to resolutely become". This subtle phrasing typifies Dubler's preference for a flexible expression of religion, rooted in his preference for postmodern lack of resolution and his professed tendency to act out, rather than mull over, ideas. He suspects those locked into a warped, defensive pose, who cannot flex or bend to save themselves.

Among his Jewish fellows, Dubler lets down his academic guard. He has opposed the liberal Protestant position which courts have adopted. This criterion aligns the sincerity of what is professed "interiorly" with what is indicative of truth through an exterior manifestation. This limits the expression of a sanctioned faith to a denomination demanding a material representation of belief. Dubler resists any judgement which promotes religion by a particular legal or academic label. He responds to Brian's challenge: "As I see it, rather than in the discreetly mapped forest, it is in the territorial mess of trees and shrubs, undergrowth and earth, where the stuff of religion takes place."

In such a thicket, he orients himself, given a wavering reaction towards his ancestral Judaism. Rejecting facile scholarly definitions, Dubler affirms that religion is a convivial activity, but it need not be profession of a creed or a ritual enacted as in scripture. It can be what is joyfully, intuitively shared. He equates religion with eating and drinking at a meal "with one's friends, with one's people".

Among others, too, he seeks to understand varieties of religious experience. At a Spanish-language revival service, he wonders if the preacher's fulminations against "the Jews" are meant symbolically, practically, or personally. He sits gingerly on the frozen ground as part of a Native American circle. He follows Father Gorski to the death row block. He talks with a Catholic inmate applying Franciscan principles of restorative justice to ease relations with the family of his victim. Dubler attends what he confesses to be a dispiriting Mass on a dreary Saturday night. The surge of emotional relief he feels, he and the priest confide when they leave prison confines for the parking lot, testifies to the pressures built up within the forbidding place they both choose to work at, but from which they both can walk away each night. This freedom divides those who care for these inmates from those inmates. Still, as the book nears its conclusion and the year reaches its end, Dubler lets readers glimpse his growing sadness at departure. He assures those he has spoken to he will treat them fairly.

Within Graterford, neither jailhouse terrorists radicalized by Islam nor crazed prophets railing at the their carceral confines materialize. Dubler concedes long-term prisoners learn to endure as ascetics rather than revolutionaries during harsh sentences. "Not system shatterers, today's religious prisoners are, in their own quiet and righteous way--much like the majority of us--system sustainers." Demonstrating devotion to a system, even in its "messy and putatively noncoercive assemblage of music, altar patter, and Bible readings", the "anticlerical, antiliturgical" Protestant Sunday service led by Reverend Baumgartner rouses gratitude at God's call. Joy sustains its appeal into the rest of the congregants' week. Certainly, Dubler enjoys it much more than the Catholic Mass the previous night.

This book educates with references to Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach, along with casual nods to The Wire, Dungeons and Dragons, and pro football. Dubler diligently navigates between his privileged status as an academic and his trusted role as an interviewer in an unpredictable environment. He may never shake off his own protective garb, that scholarly, liberal, idealistic mindset which drives him to spend a year at Graterford for his doctoral fieldwork, but he lets down his guard long enough to learn lessons from a formidable cadre of teachers and mentors on the inside.
(Edited for Amazon US 8-1-14; PopMatters 8-11-14. See also Karl Woolf at NYJB, same day.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lewis Buzbee's "Blackboard": Book Review

A product of the golden age when California's postwar public schools were ranked first in the nation, now a writer of children's books, Lewis Buzbee returns to where he started, nearly a half-century ago. From kindergarten, he moves through his elementary, junior high and high schools, before summing up his stint at three institutions of higher learning, and then his career teaching writing to extension students. Throughout, he briefly explains how education has developed, and he blends light analysis with his own quest as a student.

In the Santa Clara, pre-Silicon, Valley, he began in 1962 at Bagby Elementary, one of many sprawling, open-aired, low-slung, baby-boom, suburban schools, this one built a year before he was born. He finds much the same expanse today, and he juxtaposes his younger self as he stands in the same classrooms. The poet and creative writing instructor that he is now surfaces, as in this passage: "Mrs. Babb would be grading papers at her desk, and I would be standing just outside the classroom door, thwocking the erasers together, teacher and student working in concert somehow, me watching the words and numbers and ideas from the previous week as they drifted across the playground." While whiteboards and dry-erase markers replace the chalk-dusted, eraser-powdered, durable black or green boards, those lasted two decades, he tells us, while today's stolid computers may be turned over every two or three years now.

He shows how kindergarten, as a garden to cultivate the minds and bodies of children, grew from German reformer Friedrich Froebel in 1837; the roots of "school" burrow back to the ancient Greeks, who used the word for learning together as derived from the one for "leisure time", denoting what for millions of children elsewhere in the world may still be an unachievable dream, the freedom to learn.

This opportunity, when Mrs. Babb called upon young Lewis to show his work at the black or white board, comes with struggle. "School can, in its best form, allow us to move beyond our terror."  Buzbee relates his own fear of "showing" math problems, and he reminds us how school, with supportive teachers (one can never fully account for the same patience in one's classmates), can overcome our uncertainties. He reveals how not only at Ida Price Middle School but in his bass guitar lessons on the side, being a successful learner demands one take risks. He mastered skills by memorizing times tables, musical scales, or French conjugations. These mental exercises, as with a guitarist figuring out riffs, cut grooves into the mind by repetition. These years of drill and discipline, as he recounts from lessons in junior high and at Branham High in San Jose, turned him away from a working-class household, where he struggled with doubt, into a confident, college-bound student.

Part Two tells of his shift from orientation to matriculation. While the transformation as a young adult in the mid-1970s was less swift than the two years of junior high, where he entered liking Bobby Sherman's sappy "Honey" and left humming the Beatles' menacing "Helter Skelter", Buzbee kept testing himself. After a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he returned to the Bay Area to be near a girlfriend while attending the local junior college. He praises evenly the highlights of both places, followed by the completion of his degree as an English major at nearby Santa Clara.

After that, he rejected a career as a high school English teacher for one as a writer. Successful enough to live in San Francisco, he returned to the classroom to teach creative writing, first at Berkeley and then the University of San Francisco in extension programs. He adds his own continuing education as a student, this time learning how to draw. Meanwhile, he compares the progression of his daughter, Maddy, with his earlier journey through California's public schools. They have changed, certainly.

Educated at a Montessori kindergarten, a French immersion grade school, and a Friends junior high, Maddy represents a generation raised by parents unwilling to commit their children to decaying city schools even as they wish they could improve. As my wife and I are the product of Californian public schools in that golden age (and former teachers in the Los Angeles schools ourselves in a far more tarnished era full of cutbacks, unrest, population growth, and declining standards among both faculty and students), we had sought alternatives, however rickety or utopian, for our children, educated within our city's similarly declining system. So, I understand Buzbee's dilemma. He may sidle past certain problems; he tries to solve others. He concludes with seven strong recommendations.

First, he would halve K-12 class sizes. Doubling salaries, while tripling those in junior high, he would have new teachers mentored, giving sabbaticals every fifth year. He'd happily, showing his NoCal leanings, tax away to pay for this, as well as classrooms reliably hot in winter and cool in summer, stocked with supplies, and surrounded by open space. (One casualty of urban overcrowding on many Californian campuses is the loss of fields and P.E. for overstuffed two-story, rather than open-plan, classroom structures resembling motels, by the by. He does admit that desks have increased in size, to account for the spike in childhood obesity.) Finally, Buzbee would enable daily time to stare out the window. He'd also abolish bake sales to raise funds for strapped schools.

This ambitious plan, with a touch of Swift's "Modest Proposal". pivots around the simple fact that schools are not factories, and mechanization is not the answer to what human enterprise can do. As a father of a private high school student, Buzbee assures us he will be happy to pay higher taxes so that the rest of the public school youngsters in California (and the nation) can enjoy the golden age of education which he, myself, and millions once did. If only my sons, his daughter, and millions of our neighbors' children (and adults) could do so now. (Author's website; PopMatters 8-5-14/ Amazon US)

Friday, September 5, 2014

George Saunders' "The Braindead Megaphone: Essays": Review

In the title essay, the Megaphone Guy struts in, sets up his amplified bray, and his listeners find themselves unable to carry on their conversations, forced as they are to adopt his expressions, giving way to his domination, without realizing his sway. More relevant than ever ten years on, in an age of click bait and Buzzfeed and Facebook “likes” pestering us alongside pop-ups and pundits.

Covering excess in Dubai, Saunders reflects amidst the predictable if dazzling glittery glitz how universal the Other remains, appealing by common human dignity and compassion to connect people no matter who or where. Under the snark, his essays at their best sustain the impact of his stories, where empathy mingles somehow with satire, and pop psychology send-ups deepen the poignant attempts of put-upon everyday people, corrupted by systems and co-opted by corporations, to maintain dignity against all capitalist odds. The profit motive reigns in Dubai; Saunders accepts in reporting for GQ his complicity, but he wonders what else he, gawking at Third World workers happy to toil in the desert, should or can do.

As for the media he represents, on the border near Laredo, he gently mocks his Minutemen companions, as an East Coast journalist. Accused of not being a properly neutral reporter, Saunders fires back: “We’re being neutral.” “By not making fun of you.” (152) While insistent on his liberal bona fides, Saunders here allows himself to hear out the often caricatured other side of the issue, and the border. He never gives in, but following his coverage, he begins to become more patient, and we share the tolerance for insights transcending sound bites or partisan treatment of hot-button issues

Beneath a smart-ass tone, Saunders keeps aware of the need for honesty. He wonders if we may be wired by one of two nodes neutrally. Some protect what they have, and crouch and hunker down to guard it. Others pop up, eager to share, open to the new. Perhaps, he reflects, our politics thus emerge.

This continues into an excellent introduction to Huck Finn. “Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies.” (203) Out of this conflict, Saunders maps the war within the American (and World) Psyche, ever contending. Apropos, he finds in Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme congenial fellow travelers.

What links these writers is a refusal to give into the narrative's comforts, and to allow uneasiness. As Saunders finds investigating a report of a boy meditating for seven years: “A human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear.” Visiting a Nepalese Buddhist shrine, wary of miracles, he still muses: “all of this began when one man walked into the woods, sat down, and tried to end his fear by doing something purely internal: working on his mind.” (216). Saunders diagnoses this as a possible remedy for our “ambient fear” of knowing that when we love, we realize “there must someday come a parting.”

While a few essays fall flat, feeling like sketches for stories better dramatized than satirized, and while his strength remains in fictionalizations of the predicaments he doodles in the lesser entries, overall this 2007 collection plays to the quirky elements that make his inventive tales so successful. (7-25-14 to Amazon US)