Tuesday, February 28, 2017

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks: Audiobook Review

The Bone Clocks Audiobook | David Mitchell | Audible.com
""I've seen the future, and it's hungry""
Would you consider the audio edition of The Bone Clocks to be better than the print version?
Yes, having read the novel first. The characters come alive and the prose sharpens. The plot is clearer to understand, too.

Who was your favorite character and why?
I liked Hugo Lamb. Not to spoil anything, but he bore a difficult role in the storyline. Harder to cheer him on, but his choices are understandable and add depth to the impact overall.

Which scene was your favorite?
Hard to pick, but the last chapter with the Irish encounters appealed. The accents were a nice change from the predominantly English ones and the setting deepens as it's set where the author has chosen to make his home, away from his own island.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The scenes between Hugo and Holly are very human. Despite their differences in class and outlook, their attraction softens the harsher edges of the story, and we need to see these characters in a vulnerable predicament. This also sets up some key themes later on.

Any additional comments?
This book is imperfect, but hearing it, after you read it, is recommended. David Mitchell is a great storyteller and the performances of all six readers keep you engaged. Not a book to be heard in the background. I listened to this late each night, and this enabled full attention...
(Audible 11/21/16)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces": Audiobook Review

 A Confederacy of Dunces Audiobook
""Oh my God!""

Where does A Confederacy of Dunces rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
Up there more for the energy of the plot and the depth of characters and the skill of the telling than Barrett Whitener's performance. I grew to like it, but it has its challenges.

What did you like best about this story?
The twisted relationship with correspondent "The Minx", as well as the "Oh my God!" bursts regularly from our bloated protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly at every outrage he witnesses.

Which character – as performed by Barrett Whitener – was your favorite?
George, the prissy foil who turns confidante to Ignatius in a skillfully paced conversation that shows off the talent of John Kennedy Toole. Toole builds up both interlocutors so that the naivete of one and the conniving of the other get switched and jumbled as well as run parallel. JKT handles the tone of each of his lowlife participants deftly, from New Orleans.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Hotdogs and Pigtails

Any additional comments?
Burma Jones is not easy to convey "live"; Whitener began the novel sounding in the omniscient narrator's voice as far too neutral and robotic. The women are shown with varying degrees of success, and the registers of different N.O.L.A. dialects and timbres is no easy task to keep moving here. The plot does go into a lot of side stories, building slowly, but the value of "A Confederacy of Dunces" rests in the care JKT takes to portray each figure. (Audible US 2/16/17)

Friday, February 24, 2017

George Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo": Book Review

Check Out the Cover of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo , Plus ...
Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie died in February 1862. The grieving President visited the boy's crypt in Georgetown's cemetery several times. Out of this setting of a "white stone house," George Saunders constructs his first novel. Adapting the Tibetan concept of the afterlife perceived as the transitional state of the misleading bardo, he populates his other-worldly realm with 166 voices.

Drawing from the narrative accounts in contemporary newspapers, oral accounts, and narrative histories, Saunders incorporates his research into his fiction. In an appropriately numbered 108 chapters, his tellers from the bardo alternate rapidly and fitfully. Interspersed separately are snippets from the reports of journalists, witnesses, and scholars. It makes a dizzying experience for a reader. 

Gradually, one gets used to the format. Two inhabitants of the next realm, the voluble tale-teller Roger Bevins III, and his calming companion Hans Vollman, dominate. They guide us into this strange world. Preparing us for the arrival of Willie, they also enable us to understand the novelty of Abraham's entry into this space out of time. For the father dares to touch the "sick-form" of his boy. 

The significance of this gesture resonates. Such loving appears rare in this situation. Delusions abound, and a few in the bardo succumb, to a fate uncertain to those who resist, but a state that hints at being less amenable than their current predicament. Saunders subtly reveals the set-up of this Buddhist-inspired but very Yankee take. In elegant or demotic prose, he captures the mid-19th century styles of speech, and he immerses his audience in the ways of expression during the Civil War. He also blends the perspectives of fallen soldiers, slaves, servants, and the lower classes, complicating the milieu to expand it far beyond the White House and its chroniclers, then and now. 

Within this "serendipitous mass co-habitation," the beings ponder why they are there. They agree on the fact that their entry into this enclosure has saddened their loved ones: "Our departure caused pain." Fate, time, destiny emerge as possible reasons. Another does, too, the question of "innate evil" within humans. Saunders places us among fellow inquirers. Even the President "could only stand and watch, eyes wide, having no power at all in this new-arrived and brutal realm." The Reverend Everly Thomas faces the ultimate question of all humanity once they have perished: "How did you live?"

The answers vary among those gathered. Some have been there a while, some recently transported. Suddenly, among them and throughout this story, a "familiar, yet always bonechilling, firesound associated with the matter-lightblooming phenomenon" reveals the departure of particular denizens.
Persisting as mystery to those left behind, and to us as readers, Saunders does not reveal the complete rationale for his situation within which he places his diverse men, women, and children. But an aside from Hans Vollmann suggests a struggle towards a truth. "Trap. Horrible trap. At one's birth it is sprung." In language reminiscent of James Joyce's inventive interior monologues, and contentious scenes recalling the graveyard bickering of fellow Irish novelist Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille (translated into two new versions, The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay, both from Yale U.P.), Lincoln in the Bardo fulfills the promise of Saunders' twisted, inventive, and compassionate short stories. 

In a helpful afterword, the author elaborates his conception of the next life here: "Our habits of thought just get supersized." For those who have wondered why George Saunders has taken so long to move from one type of story to another, he reasons that each "story is as long as it needs to be." He's moved this time from "making custom yurts" as if he was granted a "commission to build a mansion." In such typically quirky and aptly analogized phrasing, Saunders sustains his great talent. (Amazon US 11/30/16; NYJB 2/13/15 in different form.) 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Godwin's Law

When a FB and real-life pal tried to question the overuse of "fascism" in regards to the election of Him, the results were a predictable torrent of "right" (that is, left-) thinking litanies of "outrage." I thought of the non-cosplay stormtroopers (strange as they've been co-opted by Disney into branding, but I might accuse Walt's "happiest place on earth" as a harbinger of fanaticism, pomp and parades.

Many post comparisons to Manzanar, the lagers, the tattoos on the arms, the rallies, the photo of Einstein as if he stood for every refugee. If he was, we'd have benefited by admitting far more into our increasingly sensitive campuses, where the rise of cringing and handwringing a few years ago has led now to crackdowns against any pulled trigger that will nick anyone who's faced discrimination, pain, terror, or violence. Which, in my tally, is nearly all of us. An elevation of victimization raises us to survivors and plaudits. Do we inherit the status of casualties? Is victimization our common identity?

Frank Furedi warns in Spiked:

Holocaust rhetoric relies on reading history backwards. It is an attempt by people to delegitimise their opponents or targets by associating them with the horrors of the past. This strategy is boosted by the fashionable teleological reading of history, which suggests that all the roads of modernity led to Auschwitz. This fatalistic theory of malevolence can be used to indict almost anything that occurred before the Holocaust and treat it as in some sense responsible for the Holocaust. By the same token, treating the Holocaust as the inevitable outcome of otherwise unexceptional things in history that preceded it means that events in the here and now can be held up as precursors of the next Holocaust.

Brendan O'Neill, the founder of the same free-speech fixated, and suitably contrarian (and I often disagree with it, fittingly, over its anti-ecological stance) Spiked concludes on a related subject:

It is a fantasy to claim fascism has made a comeback. And it’s a revealing fantasy. When the political and media elites speak of fascism today, what they’re really expressing is fear. Fear of the primal, unpredictable mass of society. Fear of unchecked popular opinion. Fear of what they view as the authoritarian impulses of those outside their social, bureaucratic circle. Fear of the latent fascism, as they see it, of the ordinary inhabitants of Nazi-darkened Europe or of Middle America, who apparently lack the moral and intellectual resources to resist demagoguery. As one columnist put it, today’s ‘fascistic style’ of politics is a creation not so much of wicked leaders, as of the dangerous masses. ‘Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you’, he says. ‘Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you.’
In short, not leaders but the led; not the state but the people. This, precisely, is who terrifies them. This, precisely, is what they mean when they say ‘fascism’. They mean you, me, ordinary people; people who have dared to say that they want to influence politics again following years of being frozen out. When they say fascism, they mean democracy.
Inevitably, raising Godwin's Law muddies the rhetorical sludge. Those bent on seeing jackboots at every door will invoke accounts of cowed Germans and herded victims. Those opposed to a policy, an administration, or a statement will insist that if the foe is not linked to the despised predecessor, He has won. So we will be rounded up for FEMA camps or Guantanamo Bay or a religious registry.

Those such as O'Neill, Furedi, or me will be dismissed as naive. That this election, this regime, this leader, this time is unlike any other ever and that we will succumb unless the images and icons remain invoked daily to remind us of what we must never forget. The reduction of those heaps of corpses who endured more than hurt feelings or suspect looks or snide comments, the millions in so many outrages beyond the one we all study at least superficially or see when the reliable enemy is mowed down in a Hollywood blockbuster or Oscar-angled art film or documentary attest to an iconic afterlife, both of those rightfully mourned and the persistence of this facile comparison that cheapens.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Frank Norris' "McTeague": Audiobook Review


"Melodrama from old San Francisco"
What did you like best about McTeague (Dramatized)? What did you like least?
I liked the melodramatic flourishes of McTeague and his fellow rogues. The naturalism of Frank Norris a century-plus ago comes off very strong here, and the narrative feels very dated. That is its strength, as it captures the down and outs of S.F. well, but it's repetitious and heavy-handed.

Would you recommend McTeague (Dramatized) to your friends? Why or why not?
It's probably more entertaining to hear the novel dramatized by an enthusiastic cast. But you need patience, for at eleven-plus hours the plot goes on and on, wearing out its welcome.

Have you listened to any of the narrators’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
I liked the L.A. Theatre Works' "Babbitt," done in similar form by a cast of (as of the late 1980s) respected actors. Sinclair Lewis' was a bit more skilled at narrative than Frank Norris, but the social message type of novel both men favored is suitable for such radio ensembles.

Was McTeague (Dramatized) worth the listening time?
It was fun, as I chose it for a drive across the California desert. Let's just say it remains in The City for most of its running time, as I cannot give away any plot spoilers. It's a period piece I always meant to read, and hearing it kept me entertained despite repetitious prose.

Any additional comments?
Perhaps this was published as a serial? The novel keeps repeating the same phrases for certain characters, and passages verbatim or near it come again to remind readers of the action or the characters. Still, for all its moustache-twirling menace, it's a reminder of the harsher conditions endured by ordinary men and women in urban California, little romance at all! (Audible US 2/16/17)

Monday, February 20, 2017


My wife has, inspired by Stephen Colbert's series (more about him and his ilk below), installed a setting that changes all mentions of the D.'s surname to his original German ancestral Drumpf. Although I learned years ago at Ellis Island that the "they changed my name to so-and-so" is a canard, as what the immigration staff did was compare the passenger lists compiled in the foreign ports with the arrivals, it's understandable that in this case, the Teuton tribal variant morphed rapidly into a card-game slam.

But the greater issue, of the conflating of every damn other event since November's election to the Reichstag fire, the rise of the Leader, and fall of every pantsuited feminist parading "I'm with Her," rankles me. (see more in my next piece about the rhetoric indulged in by the left, against the trolls on the far-right.) While admittedly I must agree with said spouse in that others are far more likely than your scribe to face potential and actual restrictions under the new administration, I counter that under Her, She would have escaped most scrutiny, just as she was afforded the "get out of jail" card in the game that was the campaign, while her fellow-contestant Bernie was trapped and thwarted all along. We know who won this round of Monopoly, but either way, the neo-liberals play deep-state puppets.

So, the eagerness of the mainstream press to claim every "outrage" and to keep the CNN-MSNBC news drip flowing into the likes of many around me who stay plugged in, delighted and scared, must be set off by the likes of a rather dodgy alternative source. While its "Russia is happy" tone recalls the "useful idiots" co-opted to praise the glories of the CCCP in the West, David Walsh at this site sponsored by none other than the "Fourth International" does warn us well. The late-night comedians claim to send-up both sides, but they are hypocritical. They are backed by the MSM and their cronies.
The comics are working off a script provided for them by the Democrats and the media and political establishment as a whole. Stupid, irresponsible and conformist, they take the line of least resistance. In fact, in pursuing the campaign against Russia, they are able to feel at one with powerful political and social forces. It is a warm, comforting sensation.
Their wealth is a significant element in their political and social conformism. These are not individuals who want to rock the boat. O’Brien’s net worth is an estimated $75 million, Colbert’s is $45 million, Kimmel’s is $35 million, Fallon’s is $25 million, Olbermann’s is also $25 million, Maher’s is calculated to be between $23 and $30 million and Meyers’ is $10 million.
For eight years, these people shut their mouths about the crimes of the Obama administration against the populations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. They kept quiet about the growing misery of the American working class. They proved themselves the worst sort of sycophants and toadies.
Now they’ve “come to life,” opposing Trump on the most unprincipled and reactionary basis. They deserve only contempt.
On the inevitable other hand,  I found in my e-mail an earnest rejoinder to that penultimate paragraph. Alexis Shotwell decries this: "Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call 'purity politics': because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives use purity politics to try to close down critique and action."

True, but so do her progressive pals. Those on MSM networks fail to engage other perspectives unless as token debate fodder, or as freaks. I recall how Jill Stein and Gary Johnson's positions were so mocked. Not that either candidate was free of folly, but the tone eliminated both as ranting idiots.

Would any socialist, left-libertarian, or anarchist earn any show or even a spot worthy of ratings? Can one conceive of a European nationalist, an Afrika separatist, return-to-Aztlan, or Hawaiian native rights advocate network host? How often are the works of Arundhati Roy decrying the collusion of NGOs/ philanthropy towards the Third World assigned by the tenured purporting to fight the power? Do they teach the many veterans I do, and invite their perspectives into a supposedly diverse setting?

While the faults of both the Democratic mainstream and both Her and her predecessor have been routinely ignored, so that air time rushed to the tweets and sputters of her train-wreck ranting foil. The DNC blames "fake news" for Her defeat. FB hires left-wingers to screen. We the bobbleheads are treated as if fools, granted suffrage and the right to fight for the military complex, but not afforded the ability to reason for ourselves. While I'm no cheerleader for our collective (il-)literacy or acumen, the distance between the hackneyed praise given us every four years by candidates contrasts with this diminishing of the abilities we are supposedly able to exercise for the survival of our society or globe.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yellin' with "Ellen"

Waiting for my physical, one other person preceded me. An obese man in his thirties. T-shirt, shorts, sandals with socks. Resembling the character on "30 Rock" with the ironic trucker's cap. His hair, brown and wavy, hung down his back from beneath a UCLA hat with smaller letters my lenses could not make out. His lenses were standard hipster heavy plastic black frames. Which complement very few facial types. He stared into his phone, its smallness evident against his bearish paws. I chose to sit beneath the t.v. rather than face it, knowing from previous long perches the added aggravation of the daytime fare it peddled. At Loma Linda, where I had often taken my wife for dental work, Fox went on and on, and I endured the news cycle every half hour, repeating nothing in particular. At least in Burbank, it was tuned to one of the networks, with what used to be deemed housewife fare, "Ellen." She boasted of turning 59, amid her schtick. Canned or not, cheers followed every utterance.

I had snatched up a book before I dashed out. Traffic filled the 5. I took Riverside Drive along that concrete stretch, through Griffith Park. A few glimpses of the riparian and hilly settings that I have witnessed nearly all my life, usually from car windows. I got to my appointment just in time, not that it mattered. Still had three-quarters of an hour ahead, and then five others entered. All greyer than me.

First a solicitous yenta, showing the indifferent receptionist an ad from "one of your magazines." Then her husband, more rotund, on what used to be deemed a cane. He looked dazed and pale. She and he watched the television. So did another couple, a dark-dyed haired wife who looked happier than her dour tubby husband. Finally a stiff balding man walked in and took the chair next to mine, dragging it away from me towards the door. I felt a bit hurt, wondering what I looked like to him.

I dipped into a book I can drift in and out of. John Cowper Powys' 1934 autobiography is an odd work for its time, the kind of upper-middle-class account of nature, prep school, Cambridge, an allowance to live on sparely (if it seems always at ease) from father, and the first job teaching, in a girls' school. That's where I am about 40% in, not that much happens. His intent is rather to give the mental and emotional state of himself, curious even by English eccentricity. His measured admissions of sadism, and his decision to excise his mother, his wife, and any other female paramour except by vague allusions attests to his oddity. Apparently not to offend, but the imbalance given his preoccupation with keeping his savage impulses controlled leaves an strange impression. A muse, a magician, a would-be mage, JCP argued for a native, natural, and naive approach to life in its energy.

His erudition evident, but his preference for his attenuated "Celtic" wild quality makes his claims rather specious, he one of many children of a Derbyshire cleric. He wrote his life around the age of 60, and four years after his first major and of course heavily autobiographical novel was published.

He had lived as a lecturer in the U.S, and his turn to writing to support himself as radio displaced the appeal of the wandering entertainer indicates an era when the written word still commanded enough of an audience among the discerning and the curious to pay the bills in upstate New York. He might be a blog pundit now, with his own YouTube channel. He spoke of his own wish to fit in with the hardy folk as he strolled about Cambridge's flat fens, even if he stayed balanced enough to realize he resembled "a caricature of Taliesin." This reminded me of the scene around me, in everyday Burbank.

A city I had begun my childhood in, having moved there in pre-school and left after second grade. We lived two blocks from the 5 Freeway, where my parents ran a dog kennel on an industrial street. Now the world's biggest IKEA looms over "Beautiful Downtown Burbank," while a shopping sprawl with the usual big-box logos replaces the aircraft factory my mom had worked at as a secretary. Watching these streets for over five decades, it used to be mocked in my childhood on "Laugh-In" but now the Middle-American complexions of its residents had given way to the gray, in a place heavily Armenian and Latino, as much of the San Fernando Valley, now that Bob Hope was dead and gone.

I've related last November my conversations on the bus tour of Irish Montana with an anthropologist who had retired from the Army to live with her family off the grid near the northern border. She and I wondered where smart misfits fit in, who cannot handle either the earnest platitudes of the urban intelligentsia with its kale smoothies and NPR (ok, I listen now and then, when the classical station has a pledge drive) or the inspirational claptrap of the super-sized Wal-Mart megachurch heartland.

These dovetail with a decision of a colleague who relocated to Cascadia, weary of the academic betrayals and "misguided liberals" who thwarted her path in SoCal. How many share the quest of these two women, with doctorates, who dwell far from the "hot, brown, and crowded" sprawl (to twist a term from globalization shill Tom Friedman, used by a third Ph,D. to refer to her and our hefty sitter's UCLA thirty thousand aspirants, at our drought-plagued, charm-challenged alma mater)?

Around me, those at the doctor's waiting room gazed up at "Ellen." A woman with a vacant expression except of utter awe, grey hair like a hippie caricature, face pink and soft, eyes wide open, heard the celebrity and a singer named Adam who apparently replaced Blake as Nicole Kidman's arm-candy ramble about paying off an audience member's "wedding debt" to braying applause. And this was the "better" of the humbugs taking up the allegiance of the yearning masses breathing free.

Like JCP, if from a source far closer to the toilers than he, I'm a coddled holder of an elite degree among the masses. Unlike him and some of the Whole Foods contingent (ok, I have shopped there for their great beer selection, but I prefer a local-run place near work), I don't romanticize the hoi polloi.

The current fetish to laud "immigrants" regardless of their legal status as heroic reminds me of the folly of liberal rhetoric. You get Nobel laureates and shot-callers, Boston bombers and studious refugees, shady scammers and diligent toilers. The pitch made by progressives elevates all as if fleeing annihilation, when nearly all of the million-plus entering the country yearly come as part of a family chain, preferred over those with skills unmet by the American-born. For every twelve people we could aid in their own country, we pay for one to come here. I remain rarely moved by appeals to heartstrings, and this may betray my rational bent, as I'd like less immigration and fewer people overall. The more people in America, the heavier their environmental footprint. On the other hand, call me out as a father of two, and a hypocritical immigrant's son who burrows back into the oul' sod.

I know how corrupt, ecologically damaged, spiritually wounded, and socially unequal Ireland too remains, alas. There's no shelter for the pessimist, the cautious idealist, the searcher for solace. As JCP learned in his upstate hideaway, the world demands us back. He had to leave for England as the war loomed, and then fled to his dim ancestral Wales to claim his turf as if its lord. We mix our real and our fantasy lives, as he knew well, and we must endure as mortality looms and doctors await us.

Photo:"Celebrity Worship Syndrome"

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"The Vikings": Book Review

The Vikings
First off, that titular word's more a verb than a noun. Derived probably from {vík} for inlet, bay or fjord, the derivation suggests a pirate lurking within these waters, going {a-viking}. Second, while the Vikings receive a bad reputation, and their descendants may revel in such, the peoples of Scandinavia who undertook such raids did so not merely to carry out rapine, but to break out of a stratified, limited society. This led war-bands to assemble. Violence became institutionalized in the Northern lands.

The division of the peoples into a king {jarls}, (earls), {bóndis} (freemen) and thralls reminds readers of the harsher reality beneath the boasts and brawls of a militant troop. Slaves could be snatched up by raiders and delivered to Dublin or Byzantium markets. Without forced labor, farms could not operate, for the freemen had to serve in the royal levy. Some farmers sold produce in town. Others sought their own fortune {a-viking}. While they invaded monasteries such as Lindisfarne and gained ecclesiastical condemnation early in the medieval period, the Viking targets, one of the joint authors of this book avers, were selected not out of a desire for desecration as much as sudden self-valuation. 

The Church and State did not collude to restrict aggression outside the English Saxon kingdoms. Therefore, the Vikings aimed for lucrative centers, whether monks lived there or lay-folk in a trading port or river town. Those privateers marshaled against the Continental or British and Irish storehouses formed a "fundamental combat group," with ties beyond blood linked to a gift economy connecting a warrior to his lord. Freely pledging their troth, the fealty of a Viking to his commander could be tenuous rather than permanent. 

The flexibility of this arrangement enhanced their fighting tactics. The combination of nimble sailing and rapid mobility enabled shield-walls, with soldiers formed up to five deep in a phalanx. These "artificial tribes" as {Jomsvikings} formed professional cadres. Norwegian king Harald Hardrada tried to claim the throne of England in 1066, using this arrangement. He met his doom at the hand of Harold, Godwin's son, who too soon after was forced to rush to Hastings with the same battle plan, only to lose his exhausted men and his own life to another Viking descendant, William the Conqueror, less than three weeks later. The intricate web of those from the North who sought a greater share of the Northlands draws in many from the territories; Harald had been a mercenary in nascent Russia and among the Byzantines as part of his long and storied career as a Viking overlord.

This wanderlust compelled some such as Harald to journey south. The Russians, Greeks and Arabs all called these intruders Varangians. A guard of this name protected the Byzantine monarch in the city his guardians called Miklagarðr, that is, “big wall/stronghold.” One roamer gave his name to Russia. Others fared as far as Newfoundland to settle, if temporarily given their combative temper and disdain for the natives. The lively illustrations in this little volume will appeal to those curious about how the Vikings dressed, fought and celebrated. Motivated to join Odin in Valhalla, those fallen in a bravely conducted struggle found reward with more daily fighting in their eternal hall, followed by feasting. 

The last section of this primer explains the function of the longship. These crafts evolved to carry trade and terror more widely. But the voyages must have wearied even doughty crews. For no fixed seats were installed on the vessels. Instead, for that same flexibility, rowers made do with crates. 

This colorful compilation of excerpts from the military publisher Osprey's series of historical guidebooks lacks some cohesion, not to mention a proper introduction and conclusion. Marketed as a "gift book," the results will appeal to the fan of strategy, war-games, history and re-creation of venerable warriors. They sought fame in this world and continual strife, if for play themselves, in the next realm. (Spectrum Culture 1/19/17; Amazon US 2/16/17)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Neil Gaiman's "Norse Mythology": Book Review

Cover Unveiled For Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman | GalleyCat
This prolific and popular fabulist retells the legends he first loved. As an English boy, Neil Gaiman took inspiration from stories set in the Northern lands. He credits Roger Lancelyn Green and Kevin Crossley-Holland for their compilations of its lore. What Gaiman contributes to this short shelf, beyond name recognition, is wit and verve. His Norse Mythology compiles brisk chapters revealing a cosmology's creation, and the fulminations and machinations of its gods until its destruction. 

We retain few sources about this venerable treasure-trove. Gaiman's brief introduction surmises: "It is, perhaps, as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were of the deeds of Theseus and Hercules." Similar to the 85% of classical literature lost, a fraction of the Northern corpus survives. From these fragments, Gaiman in everyday language which children and adults will both enjoy invigorates a wise and worthy chronicle of exploits, often tricks, schemes and brawls.

"I was surprised, when I finished the stories and read them as a sequence, to find that they felt like a journey, from the ice and the fire that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world." Gaiman's admission prefaces an exciting episode of the dawn of his frozen setting. Inside Ymir's skull, readers see the how the Norse sky shines as stars, as sparks "that flew from the fires of Muspell." Clouds pass as the remnants of Ymir's brains, "and who knows what thoughts they are thinking, even now." Gaiman's simple prose allows readers to enter into a mindset of primeval awe. 

Odin's plot to build a wall may remind audiences of another land of fire and ice, in Game of Thrones. Today's fantasists as fans and writers turn to George R.R. Martin as they long have to his predecessor J.R.R. Tolkien, whose scholarship and passion for the sagas enriched his mythology. Trolls and giants, elves and the dead, humans and dwarfs and demons loom large in Norse Mythology too. Action does not falter in Gaiman's performance (also issued as an audiobook). This collection flows, caught up in primal energy. As a towering figure takes on Thor, the narrative suddenly veers to his rival's perspective. "The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again. A piddling pair outwitted flail in a rowboat "like a couple of bearded lobsters." 
Such imagery and control show Gaiman's affection for his material. Frey from Odin's throne looks out over the four points of the world. "And then he looked to the north and saw the thing that was missing in his life." Echoes of oral tradition linger on the page. Drama and love enter, and then tragedy.

A terrifying climax pummels the reader. Ragnarok, as doomsday, dominates an apocalyptic morass. Within it, Naglfar arrives. "This is the biggest ship there will ever have been: it is built out of the fingernails of the dead. Naglfar floats upon the flooded seas. The crew looks out and sees only dead things, floating and rotting on the surface of the sea." Poe or Conrad, Melville or whatever account of Noah or a "perfect storm" rivals or heirs to these primordial tales may invent cannot improve on this scene. Given storm surges and "sunny-day flooding" pepper our news lexicon now as common phrases, this conclusion to Norse Mythology remains relevant. Neil Gaiman charms and frightens his wide readership with this welcome, memorable compendium. (Spectrum Culture 2-12-17; A different version to Amazon US 2-7-17)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Neil Gaiman's "Norse Mythology": Audiobook Review

 Norse Mythology Audiobook
"From the lands of ice, snow, and fire"
Would you listen to Norse Mythology again? Why?
Definitely. I read an advance copy of the book before hearing this, and I enjoy the experience of learning about a body of lore I had remained unfamiliar with for far too long in my life. Neil Gaiman is at ease with the corpus after many years of immersion, from his boyhood on.

What other book might you compare Norse Mythology to and why?
The retellings of myth by such as Robert Graves or Edith Hamilton for the Greeks, or the Celts by Frank Delaney or Marie Heaney. That is, they make the stories into our own diction, and they encourage as Gaiman does to relate them in turn to each other under the stars.

Which scene was your favorite?
The ending. Terrible and unfortunately relevant, in an era of melting icecaps and "sunny day flooding." Ragnarok is horrible, and the apocalyptic climax betters the stories in Revelation.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
Yes, but two or three are more likely as it's nearly seven hours. Neil Gaiman takes up a rather mid-Atlantic accent and the narrative pace is steady. It's appropriate for the effect.

Any additional comments?
Recommended for a family, as the stories teach us about trickery and truth, honesty and betrayal. Not sure if the pantheon are role models all, but it's instructive to consider gods and goddesses as if archetypes from one's culture, and less supernatural and apart from people. The name recognition Gaiman holds will surely find new audiences for these ancient quests. (Audible US 2/7/17)

Friday, February 10, 2017

"An appropriate response"

This was the answer a Zen master gave to one who asked him to define enlightenment. I attend a more-or-less monthly sitting with a few people. Over the years, we've gotten used to the routine. Our moderator gathers us, we practice what's loosely called "recollective awareness." It's based on using the Buddhist insights to look into what happens, when we meditate, whatever it is, and then report it.

While I am the shyer type, the fact I knew the moderator, trained in this, long before I knew he'd been in fact doing this on his quiet retreats he'd go away on and never talk about, at least with my wife and her workmates where at the time he joined them, convinced me I could trust him and then the setting.

Today, the five of us (there are up to seven of us total, but often one of us, me included, has to work) reflected, unavoidably on the news of the past few days. Last month, the anxiety some attendees exuded was palpable. While I reacted, it seems, with more equanimity and calm, along with surprise, than nearly all around me who'd invested their hopes in Her, the aftermath, of course, is one we're all feeling. So, the reminder of the parable of a poisoned arrow was the subject of the day's recollection.

The point (!) of this is simple. The Buddha urged us to act as if we were on fire, fleeing a burning house, to seek the way out of endless repetition, the same-old same-old, the illusion it's all permanent. With examination, one found nothing arose on its own, and all things depend on other things, and all things must pass. The clinging to these notions of stability, to a self, to a soul, creates pain or unease.

Related to this central teaching, those who became distracted by the causes of the effects of "dukkha" (like I get distracted) were foolish. Metaphysical analyses were fruitless. Pierced by a poisoned tip, one plucks it out. One does not speculate on the color of the arrow, the feathers of the shaft, or even the nature of the concoction threatening to flow into one's veins. Instead, one plucks out the arrow.

Our moderator related this familiar tale to the current news. Why do we wallow in self-pity? I might add, comparing last Tuesday to 9/11, or throwing rocks through windows? Are marches premature? (N.B. After I put this piece up, I found this in my FB feed: Buddhist teachers respond to T's win.)

The new president has 75 or so days before taking office. Perhaps reasoned discourse might be given a chance? If we are deeply divided, I remarked, we are also united by various forms of suffering. The pain felt by the electorate came out partially before and partially after Election Day. The "protests" feared by the blue states now loom large in headlines, whereas if the red states had lost, their "riots" would have been disdained and ridiculed as the tantrums of spoiled losers, just sour grapes squashed.

Political activism is necessary. Complacency all around has lured us, by our gadgets and distractions, away from social change. But channeling that in careful ways will result in gains that knee-jerk name-calling will not. Not sure how wearing a giant safety pin to assure those tearing out hair and gnashing teeth if that'll get across "you're safe with me" amidst the presumed unleashing of the Beast.

Meanwhile a FB pity party: the frantic posting of toxic social media memes: the status updates as all-black, the lamentations and jeremiads of apocalyptic doom. A Play-Doh and coloring book safe space for the bereft U. of Michigan Law School students. Giddy news snippets exaggerating the slightest slight someone receives as if Kristallnacht has returned, or if the Antichrist is knocking on a post-Halloween door. The frisson of leaving a horror movie, cuddling with sobbing pals against the orange bogeyman, is fun. But as Stephen Greenblatt told us a week ago about Richard III, Something inside of us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power." Yet, I ask if that esteemed Shakespearean critic at Harvard might be trapped in his own echo-chamber, for his analogy to the election leaves out any other figures from any other plays. Surely She could be held as liable to the fatal flaw as Him? (I wrote all of this back on Nov. 13, 2016, but only found it in my archive now...)

A final note is to ask how much we invest in a human, fallible position as president. Why do we invest so much emotion, and billions of dollars in influencing our fellow citizens to vote as we do? Is it wise to place so many elevated expectations in He or She? Examining our own complicity, our internal delusions, might be recommended before pointing the finger and tossing the brick at those we mock as the Other. The fear of the ignorant (a contingent to which I was assigned by a trans-activist who'd surely not stereotype any other group outside the white working class from which I was raised, for better or worse) remains even within the liberal, educated, progressive crowd, it seems. One way to counter this relegation of millions to a despised status is to spread healing, and to listen to each other more, and condemn or preach to each other less. We all bear slings and arrows.

When I left the all-day session, the sun was setting over the distant Pacific, a sliver of it barely visible fifteen miles west. The clouds ran reddish pink in the blue sky, tinged with white. I took it as a sign.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Self-care or no-Self

Comfortable: EMERGENCY CARE WALL for sadness for loneliness for self ...
1. Don't use his name; 2. Remember this is a regime and he's not acting alone; 3. Do not argue with those who support him--it doesn't work; 4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state; 5. Keep your message positive; being angry and fearful is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow. 6. No more helpless/hopeless talk. 7. Support artists and the arts. 8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it. 9. Take care of yourselves; and 10. Resist! So encourages a FB post that I shared, curious about its reception. The answer--my friends agreed. On the other hand, or a related finger, a right-wing site documents this update on this twist on post-1984 Newspeak: Google defining fascism as "right wing"

As I write this, "fear" enters two FB articles alerting the kitty ear-capped and sign-waving masses to the need for a word two friends of mine, both living in Silver Lake, the gentrified, bien-pensant bastion, noticed in the caffeinated and dog-park walking ambiance between the rain we're welcoming.

"Self-care." While I could find no illustration of this amid the current national nightmare many claim we're entering, this phrase, which I had not noticed, appears, as one friend reasoned, better than the 70's-tinged "self-help." Which in turn reminds me of the November-timed billboards each year where Big Med confesses a sudden concern for our "wellness" (why not health?) akin to the attention we voters get every election season, only to be used and abused by the powers that be every other time.

Voters certainly resemble the "enabler," to grab another trendy term, lining up to dote on the object of affection, only to be discarded over and over. And unlike love, lust or substance abuse, the regularity of these symptoms can be perfectly timed as closely as an Olympiad. Still, we race to the bottom, desperate to clutch at the pantsuit or toupee, canonizing Her or Him as our savior and our role model.

As Roger Balson updates the imperial Roman model of handling us:  T. "is only part of what I would call the Great Diversion -- the alleged source of all of our troubles, when in fact the real problem is a ruling structure coupled with a compliant population bribed by bread and distracted by circuses."

Meanwhile, C.J. Hopkins at Counterpunch suspects both sides, the "Resistance" and No Name's ilk. 

What is being marketed to us as the “resistance to Trump,” technically, is a counter-insurgency operation … the global neoliberal establishment quashing the neo-nationalist uprising. But that kind of thing doesn’t sell very well. What sells much better is Hitler hysteria, neo-McCarthyite propaganda, and emotionally loaded trigger words that short circuit any kind of critical thinking, words like “love,” “hate,” “racism,” “fascism,” “normal,” and of course “resistance.”

It's deep in our amygdala that our savanna-engendered primitive responses to the Other originate. We're attuned to the 99% of our existence in primal rather than privileged surroundings to suspect the foe. Media thrive on this raw reaction within us. "So let’s not be too hasty in how we judge the impact of brain-based biases on our opinions and our votes. Nobody is innocent when it comes to deep brain wiring. Yet, whether we’re considering race or party affiliations, reconciliation can win out over bias." Mark Lewis in The Guardian warns of this slant, and suggests remedies to overcome.

Reflecting more lately rather than reacting, I encourage my wife to reduce her addiction to CNN. My friend who discussed with me the concepts I am elaborating here the other day noted how that channel, more than Fox or MSNBC, thrives on peddling conflict as it purports to be a centrist network. I agree with his notion, although I fault CNN for ignoring Bernie's campaign policies in its wish to entertain us with Him, and eliminate from HRC and the DNC's media range any strong contender against Her. The collusion between CNN and the pols can be found, if one trusts "leaks."

Anyhow, my friend also connected this to Buddhist reminders of no-self. We anchor ourselves to reality by tribalism, I realize more and more, as if a "contingent truth" akin to Nagarjuna's teaching. The underlying "truth" is unstable, but for our daily sustenance and mental survival we accept as if true that it's all solid beneath and around us. Of course, according to Buddhist philosophy it's not. 

That illusion that permanence persists in our parties or our poster-boy and -girl idols. Memes and slogans tempt pink pussy-knitted protestors. Their Obama was worshiped in Soviet-inspired graphic propaganda. She was promoted as the reason why to vote for Her, on the basis of those pronouns. Many mocked Bernie as a dithering Jewish pinko. Godwin's Law dominates post-election discourse.  

Rushing to "resist" reminds me of the Marlon Brando pose from The Wild One. Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against? Johnny: Whadda you got? And like that padded icon, his stance on political opposition may come off sounding more patronizing (as the Oscars showed and will again surely) than encouraging. If the failed policies of Obama and the Clintons are all the earnest marchers have to cheer for their predicable outrage as a nostalgic restoration, getting stuck with another Democratic administration will snare us into the identity politics and special pleading of every special interest claiming "outrage." We need a class-based, direct action, non-partisan response, not one divided among divisions that He exploited and She enticed--or enraged, depending on your "truth"...

Finally, we need a way to incorporate instability as a given. Clinging to groupthink, a "resist" against inevitable change and let-down, magnifies illusion. I hope those on the high of acting out can come to see the wisdom of settling in, for the long haul and not the short-term spotlight. As in contemplating direction rather than stimulating soundbite reaction. As the poet-practitioner Ben Howard reminds us: “Zen master Shunryu Suzuki summed up Buddhist teaching in this simple phrase: ‘Not always so.’”

Monday, February 6, 2017

Robert Graves' "Claudius the God": Audiobook Review

Claudius the God CLAUDIUS THE GOD 4D (CSA Word Classics (Audio))

"Messalina meets her match"
What made the experience of listening to Claudius the God the most enjoyable?
Who else but Derek Jacobi would be the choice for this interpretation? He's ideal, and he provides the ironic pauses (if none of the stammers made famous in his BBC acting role). He allows us to understand the considerable erudition of Robert Graves' version, intelligently.

Would you be willing to try another book from Robert Graves? Why or why not?
Perhaps. Graves can be windy with his prose, and I'm unsure if he works as well in audio. His learning expects us to keep up, but few of us inherit his classicist, donnish education.

What does Derek Jacobi bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
The humor and the wit emerge. He tells of the British invasion (the original one!) and of his wife's machinations spiritedly. I think if I'd been left to the unabridged book, my interest would have palled. The abridgement is less chopped up than I, Claudius and the episodes are longer and more sustained. This helps coherence, even if parts weren't as engaging or vivid.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Becoming a God means battling your demons

Any additional comments?
Not as successful as the predecessor, but Jacobi does his best with Graves' material. (Audible 2/7/17)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Robert Graves' "I, Claudius": Audiobook Review

Historical Fiction
"At last I will find readers for my histories "
Where does I, Claudius rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
Derek Jacobi enlivens the prose and brings depth to the proceedings. I'd rank this pretty high

What other book might you compare I, Claudius to and why?
With its self-conscious chronicler, perhaps the last book I heard at Audible, the equally erudite combination of mysterious murders and historical intrigue, The Name of the Rose.

Which scene was your favorite?
The climactic one, as the predecessor to Claudius gets his comeuppance.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Watching the defectives

Any additional comments?
Robert Graves' novel is heavily abridged here, broken by classical music interludes, but the plot is seamlessly edited. I wish there was more dialogue and less reporting. Rarely do you hear characters speak, and it's almost a shock to hear both fey Caligula and stammering Claudius engage in an extended conversation. (Audible US 2/3/17)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose": Audiobook Review

Download The Name of the Rose Audiobook | Umberto Eco | Neville Jason ...
"Hic sunt leones
Would you consider the audio edition of The Name of the Rose to be better than the print version?
I read the novel when it was translated, in the early '80s, in William Weaver's fluid voice. Hearing it, decades later, enlivened the discussions on theology and poverty, truth and superstition, that enrich so much of these erudite pages. I recommend the audio version.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Name of the Rose?
The climactic scenes carry along the antagonist and protagonist's clashing perspectives on what should be known by people, under authority of an organization or leader. versus what they are entitled to speculate upon and figure out freely. It sounds dense and can be, but Umberto Eco's skill survives the translation and audio renderings, and it's engaging debate.

What does the narrators bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
The three narrators (uncredited alas as to who does what) convey the accents of some of the more memorable monks and ecclesiastics well. The Latin is read very smoothly, and with an understanding of it, for those of us who can remember our courses in it, and the challenge of keeping in-depth discussions lively as well as the central mystery succeeds by their talents.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No. I had to portion this out an hour or so at a time. It's a lot to take in, the pace can be slow, and the demands of the ideas presented as well as the strange setting and medieval mindset all reward concentration in smaller segments. It can weary you at longer intervals.

Any additional comments?
It's a credit to Eco, Weaver, and these three actors that they managed to make debates over the poverty of Christ and the role of Aristotle so gripping, in my opinion even more so than the central whodunit intended as the page-turner. This is a rare novel of ideas that succeeds. (Audible US 2/1/17)