Friday, January 29, 2016

Tsering Woeser's "Tibet on Fire": Book Review


Since the Tibetan uprising of 2008, nearly 150 monks, nuns and laypeople have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese domination. Poet-activist Tsering Woeser argues that this defiant act of self-immolation is not an act of despair but “a positive symbol of action, national identity, and spiritual strength." Woeser’s short book explores the context and the fate of these bold dissidents.

The author is a dissident "under close surveillance" in the Chinese capital, and speaks out for those silenced in their decimated and deracinated homeland. Woeser explains that there is no tradition of this fiery act in her native Tibet. She tracks its sudden and recent escalation to the month of March, a period full of holidays celebrating the Himalayan realm that has become a time for national and cultural pride and resistance to Communist suppression. Rather than judge self-immolation by Buddhist principles, Woeser regards this act as "ignited by ethnic oppression."

Woeser lists five reasons for Tibet's fierce opposition to Chinese domination. First, the forced "patriotic education" given monastics. Next, the damage done to the Tibetan plateau, destroyed by exploitation and global warming hastened by Chinese capitalism. Third, the discouragement of the Tibetan language. Fourth, the massive immigration of lowland Han into the region. Finally, top-down control of the region by "nets in the sky and traps on the ground." Data secured by aerial footage and on land by cameras or spies capture many who are fighting for Tibet's survival. Postcard scenes of Lhasa romantics admire disguise a venal economy and a police state.

Analyzing nearly 50 statements left behind by those who have set themselves on fire, Woeser and her husband Wang Lixiong determine two central concerns. The protesters emphasize the restoration of the Tibetan language, proscribed and disdained by the Party and its native collaborators. The Tibetans also promote the independence of the Land of Snows. This tactic separates these restive rebels from those such as the present Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, which has adopted a less confrontational and more diplomatic set of negotiations presented to the People's Republic of China.

As only Chinese-approved journalists can operate openly in Tibet, videos and testimonies by native sympathizers are difficult to obtain and dangerous to transmit. Woeser changes identifying names and places, and narrates the stories of those who have set themselves on fire, including the disturbing cases of those who survived and were spirited away by Chinese authorities, never to resurface.

These acts are considered not only religious protest but political protest. With the completion of the first rail line to Lhasa in 2012, the
Chinese Han majority enter the former Tibetan capital with greater ease, while Woeser and Lhasa natives are corralled and interrogated by Chinese police before they can enter. Limits to Tibetan freedom are only increasing, not only by bureaucratic obstacles but by closed circuit television monitoring, collective punishments for families of protesters and rewards for informants. Due to restrictions and caution, Woeser can only report limited evidence. Journalists who are not in favor with the PRC occupation are forced to smuggle out firsthand reports from those trapped inside a militarized crackdown. Yet this book is as thoroughly documented as possible, with current websites and interviews appended or elaborated in end-notes. Tibet on Fire may be a concise volume, but it conveys rare voices that would otherwise be hushed.

After the failed rebellion in 2008, Woeser regards non-violence as the only solution. Recalling  Thích Quảng Đức’s  iconic self-immolation in Saigon in 1963, Woeser points to the Buddhist presence of a "lamp offering" as a congenial image. Using their bodies as candles, Tibetan protesters radicalize their uprising. They turn themselves into light. This harms no others, Woeser concludes, and by this horror, the attention of the world may be held.

Another dissident, the artist Ai Weiwei, memorably portrays this struggle. His cover design for Tibet on Fire reveals a hidden message under a logo of swirling flames: the names of these human "lamp offerings" are embossed into the background. May their impact widen among those who fight for freedom against an empire. (Spectrum Culture  )

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Encountering Buddhism in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature": Book Review

While cross-cultural studies of the transmission and reception of Buddhism within historical and sociological contexts multiply, those examining literary aspects remain less common. These eleven essays examine American and British authors during the past century who have taken up Buddhist themes; some of them have taken refuge in Buddhism. Aimed at an academic audience, these entries generally remain accessible to a broad readership. This collection, despite its high price as sold by an academic press, may appeal to many inquirers intrigued by its wide coverage.

Introducing this book’s range, co-editor Lawrence Normand surveys the reception and adaptation of Buddhism in the West. He cites Donald S. Lopez and David McMahan. He supports their responses to the ways in which Buddhism has been reshaped for twentieth-century concerns. Lopez and McMahon have analyzed how meditation and modernism influence recent cultural trends. Normand notes more of an emphasis on the needs of the body. The contemporary insistence of concentrating on the breath focuses on the mental flow of images. This shift engages more than one of the authors investigated by Normand’s international colleagues.

Erin Louttit in “Reincarnation and Selfhood in Olive Schreiner’s The Buddhist Priest’s Wife and Undine” reminds readers that this South African writer, despite her late-Victorian period of production, looks forward in time. Both the story of the priest’s wife and Schreiner’s novella Undine humanize and normalize Buddhism. Death is blurred. The self survives the body in her post-Christian perspective. Schreiner considers and acknowledges possibilities of reincarnation.
Normand’s “Shangri-La and Buddhism in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Ascent of F6” contrasts two treatments of this earthly paradise. Thanks to its film adaptation, Hilton’s 1933 novel endures as certainly more popular than Auden and Isherwood’s ambitious if flawed drama. Incorporating historical crises and struggles of personal alienation, both channel the appeal of the late-Victorian romances which J. Jeffrey Franklin in The Lotus and the Lion (2008) investigated in imperial and colonial British literature. Hilton’s quest entices the reader as if possible; Auden and Isherwood’s satire demolishes the dream as futile. However, the limits of the duo’s Buddhist sources (including Alexandra David-Neél’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet) blunt the dramatic impact of their barbed points.

Via readings of D.T. Suzuki, Erin Lafford and Emma Mason take up another poet’s mid-century approach to Buddhist content. In “‘ears of my ears’: e. e. cummings’ Buddhist prosody,” the pair (sticking to that author’s conventionally unconventional spelling), looks at Cummings by way of Martin Heidegger. This philosopher’s challenge to the ego atomizes the sense of self. Similarly, Cummings’ poems, grounded in the breath’s rhythms, aspire not to human voice but to birdsong, in Lafford and Mason’s report on this poet’s craft. It rewards listening, meditation, and silence.

The center of this anthology finds many names repeating, as Cummings and Suzuki begin to sway other writers and thinkers. “Zen Buddhism as Radical Conviviality in the Works of Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, and Thomas Merton” features three leading advocates during the period during and especially after WWII who begin to react against conformity. Manuel Yang applies Ivan Illich’s “radical conviviality” as akin to the “creative spontaneity and non-attachment” connecting these three countercultural creators. (p. 72) Promoting “spontaneous convergence,” the trio shares a commitment to a “non-action, non-institutional” form of “spiritual assonance,” their non-conformity appealing to dissidents. Yet, many then conformed.

They conformed as the Beats. The appeal of Buddhism for 1950s seekers rebounded off of two other poets based in the Bay Area during this restive postwar period. “Radical Occidentalism: The Zen Anarchism of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen” offers James Patrick Brown’s analysis. He shows how the Beats adapted Suzuki’s teachings into a nascent counter-cultural milieu. Brown avers: “Suzuki translated Zen into an American idiom that hit some of the keynotes of American anarchism: a rejection of cultural conditioning, institutionalism, and traditionalism; an affirmation of individualism and radical self-reliance in the Thoreauvian vein; and a language of revolutionary aspiration.” (pp. 94-95) For more about these anarchist roots within American Transcendentalism, a translation of the Slovenian professor Ziga Vodovnik’s The Living Spirit of Revolt: The Infrapolitics of Anarchism (Berkeley CA: PM Press, 2013) is recommended.

Unsurprisingly, “Buddhism, Madness and Movement: Triangulating Jack Kerouac’s Belief System” follows. Any analysis of American Buddhist literature should include Kerouac. What has been less examined, as it lacks pop culture appeal, is his retreat back to boyhood Catholicism after his 1950s immersion into Buddhism. Bent Sørensen explains the breakdown of his “hybrid system of faith,” triggered by a 1960 visit to those whom Kerouac called the “Mexican Fellaheen” or poor peasants. (p. 106) He pivoted from a romanticized fatalism to “a complete lack of compassion” for those who refused to better their condition. Kerouac, fueled by drink, flirted with madness as his guilt persisted and his sense of sin returned. His characters by the 1960s often entered silence, before death. Kerouac accounted for their dire straits by resorting to Christian rationales “as a punishment for sin.” (p. 118) Like their author, his protagonists try to move on, but samsara catches up with them and thwarts their doomed quests to escape justice.

Another gloomy fiction from the early 1960s depicts this “cyclical nature of suffering.” (p. 136) “Biology, the Buddha and the Beasts: The Influence of Ernst Haeckel and Arthur Schopenhauer on Samuel Beckett’s How It Is” displays Andy Wimbush’s recovery of Haeckel’s A Visit to Ceylon (1882). Beckett mentions this author in his grim 1964 novel (translated from Comment C’est (1961). Both versions plunge into an unsparing reduction of existence through an agonizing series of reincarnations. These enable torture of lower life-forms by the Sinhalese, witnessed by Haeckel. While the natives do not kill beasts and creatures, the Sinhalese justify treating them badly. For, they reason, if they had not merited life in such debased versions, they would not be such. This application of Buddhist concepts to real-world dukkha sobers the reader.

A return to Isherwood, now living in a more congenial incarnation in Southern California, finds him thriving. In “‘That Other Ocean’: Buddhism, Vedanta, and The Perennial Philosophy in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man,” Bidhan Roy shows how not only the author’s well-known immersion into Vedanta but his exposure to Buddhism and fellow British expatriate Aldous Huxley enters the 1964 novel, based on Isherwood’s own sojourn. Filtered through popular reinterpretations of Buddhism in vogue by then, Isherwood’s novel reveals his sympathy with Buddhism, contrasted with the arch satire he and Auden had deployed for The Ascent of F6.

For writers closer to our time, “Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior as Mahayana Meditation” finds Sarah Gardam examining Pure Land sutras and Mahāyāna emptiness doctrines. Gardam uses these to explicate Kingston’s Chinese “talk-story” in her 1986 memoir.

Elena Spandri’s “The Aesthetics of Compassion in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea” affirms another doctrine, that of the Middle Way, as a compliment to Murdoch’s philosophical career. This champions humanism rather than a Kantian or utilitarian ethics in her 1986 novel. A compassionate ethics wins out, in Spandri’s articulation of Murdoch’s plot and character choices.

The final entry tackles one more formidable topic, arguably more arcane than any philosophy. “Strange Entanglements: Buddhism and Quantum Theory in Contemporary Nonfiction” unravels the tangle of two popular if recondite genres. Anglo-American popularizations of physics and debates or attempts to reconcile debate between science and religion both, in Sean Miller’s energetic chapter, seek to posit parallels between physics formulae and Buddhist or Taoist descriptions of phenomena. Fritjof Capra, B. Alan Wallace, Matthieu Ricard, and Trinh Xuan Thuan typify decontextualized efforts. Miller doubts their truth-claims for dharma as science.

He finds futile their attempts to reconcile Sanskrit texts full of “imaginative parataxes.” (p. 205) Contemporary exegetes wind up at dead-ends. They wriggle in fudge factors and they refuse to admit their results, which tally only as logical incoherence. Miller pinpoints irony in the Vietnamese-born, American-educated astrophysicist Thuan’s deferral to the “ecclesiastical authority of a French-born Buddhist monk who resides in Nepal.” (p. 214) On the other hand, according to the French-language version of his eponymous website, Ricard earned a Ph.D. in cellular genetics in 1972, after which he entered monasticism.  Miller could have delved deeper into Ricard’s scientific training, as how much Ricard has kept up with his past field and that of astrophysics alongside his Tibetan adaptation and practice, granted, remains a relevant topic to debate. All the same, Miller relishes the chance to tackle a topic which diverges drastically in tone and approach from his predecessors, and this intriguing chapter deserves attention for that.

Miller concludes by summing up the current position of Buddhism in the West. “Stripped of its literary and cultural contingencies, in its mildest form, Buddhism becomes a form of self-help therapy contained by a consumerist market-logic, a happy face put on a liberal humanism purified of reductive materialism. And at its most stringent, Buddhism becomes a form of submission to a hierophantic theocracy, however benign.” (p. 213) This collection needed this voice calling out what some of these writers treated tended to sidestep or gloss over: the manner in which messages of Buddhism warp through our capitalist mindset into globalized commodity.
Normand in his introduction noted how pre-1945, the textual approach of T.S. Eliot and Hermann Hesse’s Buddhist “engagements” dominated Western reactions. (p. 15) But, neither Normand nor subsequent contributors elaborate sufficiently as to how these “engagements” entered texts during the last century. The earlier impact of Edwin Arnold’s bestselling life of the Buddha as The Light of Asia (1879), J. Jeffrey Franklin has begun to show, reverberated into the next century. This issue, likewise, does not earn any mention beyond Normand’s few references.

All the same, this book’s emphasis on the Beats, more than its scattered coverage of writers after the 1960s, should encourage more research by scholars. Additionally, Sean Miller’s divergent if necessary exploration of a dimension of Buddhism in non-fictional literature may encourage scholars to pursue the portrayals of Buddhism in other scientific and philosophical contexts, a subject needing as much if not more attention than, say, Kerouac’s appropriations of the dharma. For now, this anthology serves readers as a portal, opening up into a display of texts which have integrated Buddhist characters, settings, debates, and insights, gathered during the past century.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Anam Thubten's "The Magic of Awareness": Audiobook Review

I reviewed Anam Thubten's companion collection of talks, also read by Frank Stella,  No Self, No Problem. This addressed those with a familiarity with Buddhism, but who (reading between the lines) seemed to have become frustrated with their lack of progress towards "perfection." Thubten directs practitioners away from this false hope.

These talks continue this path, grounded in meditation and in cultivating awareness. For convenience given the format on audiobook, I will copy and paste my Audible guided review

"Laying down our burden"
What made the experience of listening to The Magic of Awareness the most enjoyable?
Frank Stella's earnest, emphatic, but calm narration is well matched to Anam Thubten's insistent message that urges the listener to abandon the ego's defenses to find bliss within.

Who was your favorite character and why?
Not applicable. This is aimed at Buddhist meditators and practitioners. I reckon it's too advanced for those without some experience with the teachings and the path. It may encourage, like his other book "No Self, No Problem," those who have hit a dry spell.

What does Fred Stella bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
Buddhist teachers convey their instruction by personal conferences and talks so the oral nature of this medium makes it well-suited. His steady voice deepens the ambiance.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No, as it is too much to take in. Even four hours at twenty minutes or so a chapter concentrates a lot to ponder. The oral presentation may reward revisiting and rewinding. My one improvement would have been an introduction, as the chapters feel more discrete and the unifying approach taken by Thubten needs more attention and effort to be grasped, especially given the audiobook. The words are often simple but the intentions are profound.

Any additional comments?
Thubten's theme is that the dharma tells us to "lay down our mental burden," the constructions of the mind that prevent it from seeing the "groundless ground" and the Tibetan concept of "luminous mind" that transcends by "prajna" our thoughts and concepts. He wants us to abandon our "spiritual library" accumulated of concepts learned but not experienced. This "prison of duality" prevents the ego from dying and ultimate truth emerging. "Oneness-emptiness" cannot be found by speculation but by direct encounter. (6-27-15 to Amazon US)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anam Thubten's "No Self, No Problem": Book Review

Buddhist teachings are traditionally conveyed in the spoken word. "Getting rid of baby teeth" means that we need to get away from childish expectations of what the spiritual search is all about. Anam Thubten divests us of trappings and veils around the core.

I liked the glimpses of the author as he talked to a very affluent NoCal-Berkeley audience, probably, and tried to steer them away from what Chogyam Trumpa called "spiritual materialism," adding up "points towards perfection." Thubten advises inner direction, grounded in meditation and awareness.

What lingers are the sections when Anam Thubten talked about prayer, not as a petition to a divine entity, but a search for the transcendent truth of prajnaparamitra. This is not found by speculation but by a direct encounter with the ultimate within which we find our being. This firm caution from Thubten steers us from setting up goals to meet, or fulfillment to rush after over and over.

"Spirituality is Not a Teddy Bear." Anam Thubten challenges us to take on a spiritual discipline, not to escape into petitioning a god who denies or accepts our pleas. He reminds us how the quest for truth is full of ego traps, and how difficult it is to stay focused upon it. This book is best read (or heard) by those who have basic knowledge of Buddhism and have been practicing a while, but who might have hit a dry spell or wondered why more "fireworks" have not happened. Thubten cautions us against such hopes.

Frank Stella narrates this audiobook with emphasis and delicacy. He reminds me of Martin Sheen or Peter Coyote, as he seems in tune with the countercultural message. I do have an ego-block as I wonder how letting go aligns with the needs of the poor and the exploited, and how fixing the world is not a mere "illusion"--but social critique is absent from this individualistic, dogged approach. (To Audible + Amazon US 6-25-15; see my review of his other audiobook, The Magic of Awareness)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Adam Roberts' "Salt": Book Review


I wanted a smart parable about anarchism and I have already read Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed." Adam Robert's debut novel from 2000 came up in my search and it sounded intriguing. Obvious predecessors are Le Guin, and as he acknowledges, Nabokov's wonderful "Bend Sinister" (which personally I enjoyed more than this novel or Le Guin's work, as an aside).

But Roberts opens with a powerful evocation, with religious as well as chemical references, about the powers of salt, and how sodium brings humans closer to heaven in its ubiquity, and towards hell through chlorine. This recalls many SF descriptions of hostile battle and unforgiving terrain, as well as the gloom accompanying conflicts.

Analogies flourish in this narrative, and Roberts alternates the hierarchies of the Senaan society, one of those who have colonized the planet Salt, with another tribe, as it were, a nation of Alsists who have Magyar names and an anarchic way of life, where "to have love" in its brief manifestation sexually is about the only thing that can be possessed, according to their rigid refusal of any claim to ownership of anything. Roberts introduces Barlei and Petja as spokesmen for the two clashing nations. Zealotry fuels the Bible-based civilization of Senaan, sort of a combination of Zionist remaking of a desert into a garden, and a Spartan regime bent on military triumph and fierce patriotism and class divisions.

Neither the Alsists nor the Senaans come off as very appealing. I liked Petja proclaiming how his rivals have internalized the law, so they cannot function outside of their own mental construction and practical prison. One's sympathies may be with Alsists in the beginning, but that protagonist on behalf of his side shows his folly, understandably if predictably, when escorting in rather ambiguous fashion the stranded representative, Rhoda Titus, from the Senaan's hostile camp. War ensues and violence consumes both nations. The course of the novel plays out depressingly.

The decision of Roberts to shift to a third narrator to close this stern debate shifts the balance, and while this appears to open up another sequel, it leaves the reader a bit let down. The absence of humor, unless unintentional, in the Alsists' stolid refusal to compromise, played off the Senaan elevation of duty and order and conformity, drags down both cultures to similarly grim levels. While this is Roberts' intent, it makes "Salt" bitter. (Amazon US 1-12-16)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

John C. Wathey's "The Illusion of God's Presence": Book Review

 The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

This computational biologist crunches the data to investigate why humans "are prone to the feel the illusion of God's presence". Examining evolutionary theory, John C. Wathey looks at the hard-wiring that underlies spiritual and religious emotions. He explains that his sequel will tackle mystical experience, while this first volume disenchants readers who may be caught up in unverifiable beliefs, and who may assume that the call of the ineffable or intangible belongs only to humans in nature. 

Instead, "belief appears to be a completely natural, neurobiological phenomenon". Wathey compares religion to language as a cultural universal, to which our make-up predisposes us, and one that our cultural exposure shapes into a particular expression of our faith. This may or may not be a personal God. But, Wathey confronts the problem at the heart of such a being in the Western monotheistic tradition, as well as in certain Hindu sects. Cruel judge or loving presence, the Almighty in this dual manner rules over 80% of the world's faithful.

In his phrase, Wathey grabs the elephant in the room by his tusks. He draws from his own experience for a religious encounter, according to his definition, which happened to him as an adult and as a non-believer. Devoid of spiritual content, this event nonetheless matched the parameters for an otherworldly intrusion. This puzzle drove him, raised Presbyterian, to write The Illusion of God's Presence. He wonders why so many naturalistic definitions of faith avoid accounting for the believer's subjective experience.

He labels such a situation as a by-product of "a human neo-natal survival instinct" built on an "infant's innate neural model of its mother". Born with a "circuitry" as a bond and as dependence, the adult version normally lies dormant. But, under stress, this innate model triggers religious belief through religious experience. A certainty that God exists as a presence is felt. Prayer, linguistically, replaces an infant's cry for this comforting maternal being. Humans relate this to their previous cultural model of a spiritual deity. This may account for the persistence of the feminine in so many spiritual conceptions, sexual obsessions, compulsions to pray, and the tilt of women to believe more.

Basing his concepts on biology, sea turtles, gulls, or rhesus monkeys (to name a few), Wathey offers precedents for innate cognition. Our conceptions of God may be supernormal stimuli which fill a God-shaped vacuum (adapting Francis Collins' metaphor) with emotion and cognition. Wathey reckons that God's presence as humans sense it is "largely innate" on a neural basis. The detail as Wathey's argument continues may overwhelm the less biologically fascinated among readers, but the documentation and the evidence, sifted thoughtfully, should enable audiences to support the author.

Wathey advances beyond Freudian theories to critique a dual personality model of a God, who as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark determine, operates successfully within a religious organization by a theology "that can comfort souls and motivate sacrifice". He inserts testimony from a follower and survivor of Jim Jones' People's Temple as a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of credulity. 

Most of this book investigates, however, not the social but the neural root of the biological causes nurturing religious beliefs. That comfort of a personal caregiver clashes with the demands by a formalized authority. Wathey argues in Part Two that a two-dimensional approach explains why a religious or spiritual emotion persists. Cognitive theories are also biologically based, but only this dogged dual-root system delves deeper, he asserts.

In the last third of this narrative, Wathey shifts from the "why" to the "how", as neuroscience begins to include behavioral, psychometric, and twin studies. Wathey integrates these to start to scrutinize the "sensation of God's presence". Wathey avers that this may be an "accidental consequence" of evolution. A "trick of the brain" may endure in human adults, that another being exists, who may bring us love and comfort. For many grown-ups, religious emotion resembles addiction, while certainty without proof characterizes faith. For "in the light of biology, God is a spiritual phantom rather than a supernatural spirit". Born with a longing for this being, many humans craft this desire into a being. Those who believe tend to increase their offspring and pairing with mates similarly inclined reinforces mutual trust as adherents of a particular cultural manifestation of this "universal" formulation. Wathey left this reviewer wanting more, but after all, a second book is in the works.

Concluding, Wathey welcomes personal implications. He particularly urges his readers who have become uncertain about their own faith to face these scientific findings bravely. He examines mind-body dualism, the hope of immortality, and our duty to care for our earth. Rather than theological bickering or "irrelevant moral imperatives", Wathey reminds us of our humanism and our hubris. "We have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and no God had to cast us out of our earthly paradise as punishment. We are trashing it ourselves." Leaving behind fear or hope in the imaginary, John C. Wathey in this erudite, engaging study guides readers towards a secular ethics aimed at reducing our numbers and easing our impact upon "the web of life that is our real creator". (New York Journal of Books 1-11-16; excerpt 2-5-16 via Salon on "God is Not a Prude".)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fiosracht faoi na Gearmáine Thoir


Le déanaí, bhreatnaigh mé an scannán "Victoria." Tarlaíonn sé i mBeirlin inniu. Bhi chuimhne liom go raibh mé fiosracht faoi an hOirthear na Gearmáine ar feadh i bhfad.

Thósaigh mé a léamh úrscéalaí agus neamh-fhicsean faoi na DDR. Ach, níl sé leabhair go leor áistriú ag Béarla. Mar sin féin, fuair mé sinn roinnt sa leabharlann.

Nuair bhí mé óg, le linn an Chogadh Fuar, bhailigh mé stampaí. Bhí maith liom ag foghlaim faoi áiteannaí i gcéin. Chónaic mé an séala na Germáine Thoir lena casúr agus compás.

Machnaimh mé a thromchúisi. Bhí mé ar eolas faoi na daoine a bhí ina gcónaí ann. An raibh siad i ndáiríre cosúil le Stalin agus na cummainaithe, mar Gearmánaigh iad féin?

Ina theannta sin, rinne na Seápaine agus Germánaigh mhaith linn, áititheorí Mheiriceá? Thuig mé ag duine mar a bhí in usaid dom go stampa. Maith nó olc, bhí mé cosuil leis ó léi.

Curious about East Germany.

Recently, I watched the film "Victoria." It happens in Berlin today. It reminded me I have had a curiosity about East Germany for a long time.

I started to read novels and non-fiction about the DDR. But, there's not many books translated into English. Nevertheless, I found some in the library.

When I was young during the Cold War, I collected stamps. I liked learning about faraway places. I saw the seal of East Germany with its hammer and compass.

I pondered its severity. I wanted to know more about the people who lived there. Did they really like Stalin and the Communists, as Germans? 

Furthermore, did the Japanese and Germans like us, American occupiers? I realized a person like me had used that stamp. Good or bad, I was like him or her.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ruth Francisco's "Amsterdam 2020": Book Review

Amsterdam 2020
This sequel to Amsterdam 2012 continues the resistance by a few against the Islamist takeover of Eurabia. That first novel focused on America, despite starting in Amsterdam, where murders sparked a worldwide revolt that led to much of Europe capitulating to Muslim regimes and submission to their demands by the remaining Jews and Christians and secular residents. Among these, as well as some liberal Muslims, the Dutch fight back against the Islamic Republic of Holland. Here, Katrien, who converts with her family--as many do---takes the name Salima, but goes underground as Lina.

Her dual existence is of course complicated. The first novel made links between Ann Aulis in Southern California and Anne Frank, and similarly, another young woman--younger than Ann--faces the predicament of an arranged marriage with a leading kingpin from a prominent Turkish-Dutch Muslim clan. Teenaged Lina must face the challenge of the Resistance to infiltrate this family as a new bride, while trying to figure out the true motives of her husband, fifty-two year old Kazan.

On her author's blog, Ruth Francisco tells of finishing the book, started in 2013, in the past year of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan murders, and the San Bernardino CA shootings. While many reviewed her first novel on Amazon and dismissed it as far-fetched or needlessly provocative, readers intrigued by the dystopian scenarios of Muslim domination imagined in Robert Ferrigno's Assassin trilogy or Michel Houellebecq's similarly barbed Submission (both authors' works reviewed by me) may welcome this. I found the writer's voice for Ann earlier and Lina here engaging, even if in this 2020 installment, the choice to make a transition between her narration and a third-person indirect for another key character sometimes a bit bewildering, as chronology is no longer straightforward.

The supporting figures get fleshed out more, as in Kazan's school friend at a Swiss academy, and humor in the pranks played there, or the "plucked and marinated" chicken the oiled and depilitated virginal Salima feels herself on her wedding day, offer some needed levity to a tense thriller. The delight Ruth Francisco has in plotting out the geopolitical and practical ramifications of Islamist social power gives her details more depth here, and from inside the divided Dutch culture, we understand the difficulty the Muslim authorities have in getting even their fellow congregants to submit to sharia law and all the puritanical trivia enforced on the Westernized Muslims themselves.

I also liked the Resistance scenes. Many of these were pitched for action more than insight, but how the burkas are deployed by men and women alike against the Islamic police and military makes for clever encounters. I felt there was more of an attempt by Ruth Francisco to delve into the intricacies of how an Islamic imposition would play out in daily life, and how individuals react and endure. Again, the parallels to Nazi occupation are evident, and the Dutch setting draws out "secret annexes" and hidden rooms, traditions still clung to by some Netherlanders, effectively to enhance a setting.

Suffice to say that Ruth Francisco slows down here to let us understand Kazan better, and how Lina (under more than one name or identity) relates to her new spouse. While as before some leaps in the tale-telling and the jumbled order challenge the reader, headings break up the chapters and dates are there to guide the confused. It's not perfect, but it's intelligent. This expands in dramatic fashion, more smoothly in a narrative than 2012 if bumpy as a thriller. (Chance meetings and just-in-time interventions make this a bit melodramatic at times.) The inherent interest in how Islamists might expand their caliphate and how those within it and from the outside might oppose it sustains itself. I am not sure of more to come is on the way from the Amsterdam series, but this is enjoyable. 
(Amazon US 1-12-16)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ruth Francisco's "Amsterdam 2012": Book Review

 Amsterdam 2012 (Amsterdam Series)
I was offered a chance to read Amsterdam 2020, but then I found out this was a prequel, setting up the Eurabian War between Islamists and secular forces, and the American response to the conflict, as well as the pandemic that weakened much of the world in this debut novel. So, while you can find reviews posted earlier that in 2010 often belittled the premises of a hostile Muslim takeover overseas and a subtler integration of Muslim values and standards into much of urban America, five years on, the premises may not appear as far-fetched to some. The extrapolations of politics, the speed with which the riots and the collapse of much of Western Europe takes place may seem the stuff of fantasy, but as with the blitzkrieg and the Anne Frank comparisons throughout Amsterdam 2012, there are parallels that show Ruth Francisco has cleverly embedded historical predecessors for this blitzkrieg.

As for her writing style, it moves the story along in a "you are there" fashion. There is a tendency to tell rather than show, as so much is reported from a distance. Ann Aulis' narration, that of a young woman barely in her twenties, feels serviceable. (Some typos mar this, and it needed editing.) Living a few miles from her residence in Southern California, I liked the places and references that added local L.A. color. However, I did not feel that much a sense of the region in the novel, nor did I get much characterization outside of her immediate family. The story is told from her perspective, and she is understandably self-centered. Her maturation, as she is separated from her boyfriend, feels awkward, but this is not a surprise, given that disease, death, and altered sensibilities challenge all in this suddenly dystopian scenario. The adjustment to this, as she tells us, no matter how far-fetched, is however a wise touch, for it shows her ability to withstand pressure. I thought the Feds would be after her more, but she escapes less unscathed or monitored than seems probable, at least from what we know now of the NSA, data mining, and mass surveillance.

The conclusion needed more depth. The epilogue could have been its own sequel. It speeds up events and the pacing of the previous adjustments to a strange new life and society are thrown off. This may be Ruth Francisco's intention, but the change in the last few pages deserved space and time for it to unfold. Still, for those who may have read Robert Ferrigno's Assassin trilogy about a partially Islamicized America, or Michel Houellebecq's philosophical or louche Submission (all reviewed by me), this story may provoke reflection. (Amazon US, copy provided for review 1-8-2016. See my review of the sequel, Amsterdam 2020.)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Michel Houellebecq's "Submission": Book Review Submission: A Novel (9780374271572): Michel Houellebecq ...While the release of this book in its original French will be inevitably tied to the article about its author, Michel Houellebecq, featured in Charlie Hebdo the week of the Parisian murders of its staff and other innocents last January, the novel itself merits attention.

Readers of Houellebecq's previous fiction will recognize familiar elements. The discontent of his early middle-aged, educated, ornery French narrators in Whatever and The Elementary Particles repeats. The unease in {Platform} that lust brings to those with sagging bodies and ebbing desire persists. The longing for an escape from a declining European culture returns after The Possibility of an Island with its utopian fantasy, and aesthetic debates dramatized in The Map and the Territory.

After this newest novel's French publication, critics sought to blame, once again, its satirical author. Inevitably, Soumission entered the bestseller charts in first place. Some on the left regarded its themes as needlessly provocative. Many called them racist, appealing to baser instincts among French nationalists. Taken by English-language audiences at more of a distance, these issues may recede.

If treated as another in a series of Houellebecq's jabs at coddled liberal sensibilities, Submission loses some sting. Houellebecq proves rather, once again, he delights in the novel of ideas. He places his narrators within unbearable situations. We then watch them try to wriggle free. Within a French situation where the thought-police seek to patrol the sensibilities of all who reject secular platitudes as much as they may religious ones, the topics Submission investigates enrich its suggestive title.

Suffering from "andropause," our forty-something narrator encounters the steady decline of literature, values, culture and his libido. The teller of Submission is an expert on J. K. Huysmans, who over a century ago startled an earlier French readership with decadent novels, considered "sodomitical" and Satanic. Like Houellebecq, Huysmans' erudition enhanced his fiction's barbed, bohemian contents. Unlike Houellebecq, Huysmans began a gradual conversion to Catholicism; he eventually lived, if in less than austere style, as a lay oblate attached to a Benedictine monastery. Houellebecq had drafted this novel with a template of a protagonist emulating Huysmans' path; this story becomes in the revised version we have its sub-plot. Meanwhile, the main plot dramatizes French Islamization.

For an acerbic author regarded as unsentimental, Houellebecq begins this novel with a tender, if bitter, homage to the power of literature. It channels for the living the voices of the dead. Directly, by no other means, a reader can enter by a book into the mind of its creator, the spirits of the departed.

The narrator loves this quality. In his dissertation on Huysmans, he sums up an outlook in common with Houellebecq. "Even as he grew to despise the left, he maintained his old aversion to capitalism, money, and anything to do with bourgeois values." The professor avers that "the only thing left to people in their despair was reading," but that solace is chosen by far fewer than in Huysmans' era.

Instead, much of the initial action in this fiction, concerned more with lofty concepts than realism or politics, takes place in languid dialogue or heated exchanges between the narrator and a louche colleague at the University of Paris, Steve. The protagonist spars with him often, in "that odd ritual,. part buggery, part duel" that is "conversation between men." When the teller is jolted enough by the violence breaking out as the far-right spars with Islamic factions during the Presidential primary, the empty rural roadscape he sees, static on the radio, a clerk shot dead at a convenience store, feels less real and more contrived. It is akin to horror as glimpsed in a J.G. Ballard novel, drained of emotions.

After all, Houellebecq detaches himself from his narrator--and through him. He leaves enough of the Huysmans-driven plot to move him along, as he attempts a retreat himself at a Catholic monastery. But this fails. He has no deep contempt for his former "fellow believers" who cling to the Church. Rather, he blames "laicism" and "atheist materialism" for the death rattle of Western European values. This critique carries more weight in France than in the U.S. Despite Lorin Stein's flowing translation, readers of Submission distant from the issues that divided France after the Charlie Hebdo shootings and those limits or liberties of freedom to mock any religion may feel that this novel's impact fades.

What international readers, who may be baffled by the dense if understandable references to French media pundits and political maneuvers, are left with is a more classic contribution to a French model. The narrator who employs satire to comment on his homeland from abroad, reporting from a fabled or foreign land, emerges. As Montesquieu's Persian Letters or Voltaire's fiction transported French concerns to imaginary lands, to sidestep censorship and clerical reaction, so Houellebecq places his nameless narrator within a French polity a few years into the future. In Submission to counter a threat by Marine LePen and National Front, other French parties cast their lot with the Muslims. We hear far too little about what follows in practical terms. This lack weakens the novel's impact. Yet the tale-teller laments, typically, the loss of the ability to admire women, now that so many are veiled.

The indulgence granted such a sly teller of edgy commentary enlivens comparisons between French and Muslim mores. Late in the story, the scholar's supervisor--who has converted to the faith that has bought the Sorbonne with Saudi money and rewarded those faculty who give in--links "woman's shamanism to man, as it is described in The Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man's submission to God." The appeal of bonus brides as recruited from two or three female students from the realm of Islam, who are the few remaining who enroll in literature classes at the University of Paris, beckons the narrator to contemplate joining the favored elite of Muslim converts. Huysmans' path diverges from those 120 years later in this French novel, but Houellebecq and his narrator agree. If he submits to God's call, this dissolute intellectual will find favor in the eyes of the pious, and the well-endowed.

We leave this predicament as the protagonist mulls over his choice. Will he embrace "a chance at a second life with very little connection to the present one?" He admits, "I would have nothing to mourn." Christian France is dying. With the nation under Muslim leadership, in a coalition with the Socialists and a center-right party, such are parliaments in a strange land of the near-future, those who wield power and issue paychecks have changed. At this point, the novel sidles away. Submission chooses to remain chary about the full force of such momentous transitions. It prefers to stay coy, and like the delights of the women hidden behind gowns and veils, it retreats into its own fantasy again. (Amazon US 10-20-15; Spectrum Culture 11-8-15 a few days before the [latest] Parisian massacres.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

"The Machine Stops" ed. Erik Wysocan: Book Review


This anthology reprints the well-known 1909 novella by E.M. Forster along with ten contemporary contributions from writers pursuing what Donna Haraway coins as "cyber politics". This concerns the struggle for language against a perfect articulation of its communication. Noise and pollution, as Haraway explains in the preface, represent a joy in the "illegitimate fusions of animal and machine".

Forster's "The Machine Stops" follows Vashti and her son, Kuno, in a future anticipating instant messaging and the Internet. Living underground, humans rely on master machine to meet their needs. Kuno confesses to his mother that he has glimpsed a world above the surface where people live free. But, threatened by the penalty of homelessness, Kuno must accept the omnipotence of the Machine, now worshiped as a deity. Its Mending Apparatus, however, begins to break down, and global chaos ensues. The final sentence of the 12,300 word tale illustrates Forster's command of his prose: "For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky."
Unfortunately. the modern entries placed after the novella cannot compare to Forster's eloquence. This Halmos edition lacks any introduction or rationale, other than reprinting a few pages from Haraway's 1991 article "A Cyber Manifesto". The contents from today's authors prove uneven.

One promising section is the story "Letters to the Machine" (2014) by Julieta Arenda, Fia Backstrom and R. Lyon. This experiments with typefaces and self-references to document how humans try to evade, with decreasing success, an omniscient surveillance system. One thinks of the increasing monitoring of electronic and personal communication by employers, governments, spy devices, social media and corporations to apply to this fiction, and it is not far from Panopticon fact at all.

Pedro Neves Marquez applies another emerging technology, 3-D printing, to recyclable gun production. "The Liberator" (2014) invents "assassination markets" for those using these weapons, and extrapolates from open-source codes a realm where primitivism, anarcho-libertarianism and the deep Net fight back against multinationals and the security state. Virtual arenas get sabotaged along with real ones. Ecosystems emerge and the Cargills and Monsantos find themselves outwitted.

"#NoHorizon: We Have Never Been How We Became: A Manifesto" (2012-2014) takes up another rebellion, post-Occupy. Jeff Nagy's rambling speculations roam back into the revolutionary Levellers of England's mid-seventeenth century. He links this dissenting movement to Haraway's methodology. Nagy tries to connect John Milton, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Norbert Wiener and Katherine Hayles along a timeline of how humans confront a mechanical power, and how cybernetics through its challengers may resist this apocalyptic or milennarian takeover. But a postscript, after what Nagy perceives as Occupy's failure, cautions. "Occupy made visible the bars of a certain grid of control even if it did not shake them. That grid has now closed around us again, even more tightly." He reasons: "It never opened but it closed again. That is its logic precisely. There's nothing to see here but everything is visible." Nagy's pronouncements may strike some as gnomic, others as tautological.

These three contributions represent the highlights. Seven other entries failed to match their insights. The placement of an editor's name only at the back of the book appears a half-hearted attempt to convince the reader that these transmissions exist as if clandestine or samidzat missives, needing no mediator's intrusion. But their purpose would have better succeeded if the audience were guided to find connections or ruptures between Forster's fiction and the facts and fiction following it here. (Spectrum Culture 1-12-16)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Paul Murray's "The Mark and the Void": Book Review

An Irish novelist, Paul, has an offer for Claude Martingale, a French research analyst working for a Dublin investment bank. Why not feature in his next book, depicting, a century after Ulysses, a citizen's everyday life? After all, Paul reasons, the "humanity in the machine" exists in such offices and towers, and "we're all being narrated" within not the printed page, but on screens by our media.

So begins Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void. His third novel continues the quirks of An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003) and the experiments of Skippy Dies (2010). The entrance of an author into his creation is not new. Fans of the film Adaptation, or the satire At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien, will recognize tropes as the inventor finds himself outwitted by those who resist his machinations. To keep such a tale convincing, a writer must convince us of his control over his satire.

Whether this works or not for The Mark and the Void challenges the reader. Paul through Claude and his colleagues at the Bank of Torabundo tries to capture the "narrow minds and broad hearts" of today's Dubliners, often immigrants to a city they make over and live within as if any other. Stripped of much of the local color that enlivened Joyce's epic, Murray's city has had its Monto "Nighttown" red-light quarter overshadowed and obliterated by the high rise mercantile powers and corporate multinationals. This context, after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom and during the austerity cuts imposed upon Greece and Ireland, darkens the sheen of those symbols of capitalism and speculation.

Complicit in these schemes, Torabundo's employees transform. They realize that business' true purpose aims "to replace the shifting, medieval labyrinths of love with the broad, sanitized avenues of materialism," rational reordering of the "lightless, involuted city of the self." Leopold's Bloom finds his concerns outmoded. Paul's Claude hears his calculating author argue for a shift to the web. There, the novel will be replaced "to preserve the illusion," where one can fall in love, and stay in a story forever. Paul tries to entice Claude into investing not in his next novel, but in a novel invention. attempts to provide a lonely searcher with a way to follow the waitress of his choice, by surveillance and by catering to his dalliances, discreetly and at a safe, tempting, distance.

A spin off of Cyrano de Bergerac's courting through another voice enters this narration. But Paul Murray appears as restless as his own stand-in, Paul. The Mark and the Void tries to take on the ethics of the gift economy, the plight of Dublin's poor as "zombies" haunting the banks who did them in, and how prostitution has morphed between Joyce's time and ours into servicing the rich and the greedy. Next to the Famine memorial by the river Liffey, paid for by wealthy sponsors, this novel reminds us that the banks still loom high. There, "the night sky is reflected and intensified in the louring windows of the corporate towers, as though they were mining darkness for the air, storing it within them." This passage demonstrates the force of Murray's prose, as it dissects Dublin's dire vista.

Havoc ensues late on. But the depiction of the River Liffey about to overspill those concrete banks, under the stolid gaze of the banks above, fails to convince, and Murray keeps piling on the intricacies of banking that lack a punch on the page. Claude and Paul want the Irish to succeed, but will they?

Near the end, a German colleague opines that given the clerical domination of Ireland for so long, the natives "already believe they are born in debt, a terrible sin, which they can never pay in full. A people like this is more comfortable wrapped in chains." The value of Murray's novel lies in the unsparing gaze he casts, through his alter ego Paul and through his narrator Claude, into the frail shell surrounding the glitz and the shimmer of Dublin. While it rambles and spins about in a manner not unfamiliar to readers of such self-referential and many-layered narratives, The Mark and the Void reminds audiences of the human costs beneath the rise to fortune of a few manipulators of our money. (1-7-16 to the New York Journal of Books)