Sunday, June 18, 2017

China Miéville's "October": Book Review

book cover of 

Known for his post-modern fantasy and science-fiction, China Miéville enriches these genres with his expertise in international relations and critical legal studies. Educated at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he argues in the 2005 adaptation of his doctoral thesis: "The attempt to replace war and inequality with law is not merely utopian but is precisely self-defeating. A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law." Recently a very unsuccessful Socialist Workers Party candidate for the House of Commons, he has since helped to found the anti-capitalist "red-green" Left Unity party.

His biographical data assist the reader of this version of the Russian Revolution. Although a fellow-traveler alongside many of those whose tales he retells, Miéville sustains a detached stance, if an implicitly radical affinity, for the rebels and malcontents within the nine months of 1917 he explores.

He offers the pre-history of that year, especially the anti-tsarist tumult in 1905. That earlier October, Moscow's print-workers started a strike. The reason? Having been paid by the letter, the typesetters demanded added remuneration for punctuation. Massive unrest spread. Debating such resistance, Bolsheviks agreed that the time for a socialist uprising led by proletariat and peasantry remained premature. Their semi-rivals the Mensheviks counter that a democratic and capitalist insurgency is acceptable, given the need of the bourgeoisie to guide under-prepared factions in a backward land.

Miéville commences his chronology of the pivotal year in February of a century ago, in the former St. Petersburg. The imperial capital witnesses its mill-workers rallying. They turn to meet Cossack cavalry facing off against. then letting through, thousands of marchers again on strike. The horsemen stay still as protesters duck under their mounts. "Rarely have skills imparted by reaction been so exquisitely deployed against it." With so many of the military turned against their royal commander, by March the Mensheviks are in charge. Under Alexander Kerensky, the moderate leftists struggle to keep order. Vladimir Lenin returns from exile to incite a new "second stage" revision of his earlier opinion that the revolution could wait. He regards Russia as ripe for leadership by the workers allied with the poorest peasants. Rejecting collaboration with the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks edge towards the seizure of the councils, the soviets, established by the proles and farmers. They want power now.

However, triumph will not hurry itself. The First All-Russian Congress of Peasants' Soviets convenes during May in Petrograd. Out of 1200 delegates, nine are Bolshevik and 14 affiliated. Urged on by Lenin and his comrades, their numbers will soon balloon. But others contend against them for a share of the action. Anarchists attempt to occupy a right-wing press. Not amused, the authorities push them aside. "Up with these anarchists, they decided, they would not put." A rare glimmer of levity lightens the recital of figures and the recording of events that may sink heavily, for this is quite a dense story.

While Miéville provides a glossary of key characters and an annotated reading guide, keeping the zemstov straight from the Trudovski remains a challenge for any novice inquirer unfamiliar with this milieu. To his credit, Miéville patiently lists the constantly warping factions and their fleeting moments of notoriety. Still, the pace of change occurs so rapidly that it requires very steady attention.

By July, the Kerensky government weakens. Bolsheviks bicker. Hearing armed masses approaching, someone "in the room gasped: 'Without the sanction of the Central Committee?'" Miéville remarks on the gap between party and populace: "How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move." This showdown nudged the Bolsheviks against the soviets, now dismissed as counter-revolutionary. Although they numbered 8000, a tenth of the Menshevik ranks, momentum was theirs. Under Lenin and Leon Trotsky, they sought "direct seizure of power by workers and the party."

August witnesses Kerensky despairing. "I want to take the middle road, but no one will help me." A right-wing military coup fizzled. September opens as the Petrograd Soviet finally adopts the Bolshevik militancy as a socialist wedge against the Provisional Government of the Mensheviks and their wavering allies. But this policy is rejected by a pro-Kerensky committee. Worsened by insistent opposition to Russia's entanglement in the Great War, troops desert and mutiny, filling the cadres of radicalized Bolsheviks back in Petrograd. Europe itself appears to tip towards the long-anticipated socialist revolution. German's kaiser totters towards chaos. Lenin reckons the time to act has arrived.

The titular month starts with Lenin returned from his flight to Finland. Disguised in a grey wig, he enters crime-riddled Petrograd. The last bastion between the Eastern front and it having been abandoned, those within the tense capital prepare for second overthrow of a Russian regime that year. "Upheaval was traced over a regular city dusk." Strollers continue; gunfire peppers cold air nearby.

Over an attenuated 26th of the Julian calendar (November 5th by the Gregorian reckoning superseding it the following year), Miéville depicts not a dramatic raid by eager recruits on the Winter Palace, but a stultifying endgame. Shots from a naval vessel meet with little response from cadres on the ground. Inside the grandiose redoubt: "Men skirmished in stairwells. Any creak on the floorboards might be the revolution." The victors find a dim dawn, with a hint of lightening above.

In a necessary epilogue, China Miéville charts the trajectory of the Bolshevik overthrow. While never diminishing the human costs of the Soviet triumph, he insists upon a balanced tally of the progress achieved for millions, in a dim but persistent era of advancement away from serfdom and bigotry, oppression and submission. "Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not be always followed by night." At the close of Miéville's narrative quest, he considers the metaphor and fact of 1917 as a "revolution of trains." He aptly concludes: "The question for history is not only who should be driving the train, but where." (Spectrum Culture 6/8/17; in slightly different form to Amazon US 6-1-17)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ian McEwan's "Nutshell": Book Review

Compulsively Readable Novels

I've only read two of this prolific talent's novels, the lesser-known Solar and The Cement Garden. McEwan tells stories in a dour but somehow spirited fashion, garnering a wide readership while appealing to the critics and academics, over many decades. Indeed, I found Cement remaindered when I was still in high school, shortly after its publication. I never forgot its chilly air, but it may have steered me away from following the disparate paths taken by him in other foreboding tales.

With a keen interest in Hamlet going back to high school too, I was eager to enjoy Nutshell. It flows well, and can be finished in a long sitting, as it's two-hundred pages that turn easily for the rapt reader. Suffice to say that as in the original source, you cheer on the revenge sought by the protagonist. But, attesting to the skill in creating Gertrude in 1603 or Trudy in 2016, I also wanted her flawed, brittle character to succeed. Her machinations with boorish Claude against his brother John Cairncross (not Hamish so-and-so, I suppose!) unfold with the same suspense Shakespeare sparked.

"The rustling sound is a plastic bag containing groceries or tools of death or both." So reports the fetus narrating the plots of his mother against his father and with his uncle's collusion. He gets a buzz of Trudy's wining and suffers the slings and arrows of her unsteady gait up and down the stairs, too.

McEwan's ingenuity in giving the first-person voice to one inside the womb limits its reports to what his senses pick up, enhancing the eerie nature of this account from the not-yet-born. "Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome. Where's boredom or bliss in that?" The teller misses Dad.

His replacement fails to satisfy. As Claude accepts some chore Trudy metes out, we are told: "The man who obliterates my mother between the sheets obeys like a dog. Sex, I begin to understand, it its own mountain kingdom, secret and intact. In the valley below we know only rumours." These analogies are spare, but they speckle the story with McEwan's delicate prose, sharpening the plot, too.

Asides are bearable. Digressions, after all, enliven Shakespeare, McEwan discredits religion for the past millennium of "groundless certainty" and threatening under fanaticism today to sweep Europe. The dubious primacy afforded one's fluid feelings as the ultimate determiner of identity and selfhood looms in Trudy as indicative of the failure of the Enlightenment, as reason diminishes in us moderns.

And, climate change and global warming threaten our very existence. McEwan hovers via his hidden narrator here between hope and fear, like many of us who read this. In the end of this thoughtful thriller, as it turns out to be in its final section, we are left with a sudden burst into this chaos of life. (Amazon US 11/19/16)

Monday, June 12, 2017

John Boyne's "The Heart's Invisible Furies": Book Review

Hearts Invisible Furies von John Boyne. Bücher | Orell Füssli

I liked John Boyne's depiction of two priests in the Ireland changing over the past fifty years, "The History of Loneliness." A few years later, Boyne returns to his native island, with a much longer and ambitious portrayal of another man who over the past seven decades has witnessed, and been a part of, the massive social changes there. The boy raised as Cyril Avery tells his coming-of-age saga from his mother's conception of him in 1945 up to 2015. The narrator's voice also tells part of his birth mother's predicament. The two lives intertwine and separate, in a vividly told tone.

"The Heart's Invisible Furies" in its blurbs sounds cliched: redemptive power of the human spirit, you laugh and cry, beloved author. However, I am pleased to report that beyond the boilerplate, the praise is merited. Boyne's an author aiming at the popular audience which was disdained by Cyril's "adoptive mother" (read yourself to find out why this phrase is so stressed) as a novelist herself. But he integrates period detail, character studies, and social commentary adroitly. It's clear that beneath the accessible story-line and snappy pace, that Boyne's ear and eye craft a careful fiction.

A fiction not too far from fact, certainly, in the clerically dominated Ireland that looms over this as his previous theme in his earlier novel. Boyne does not offer facile stereotypes, but he delights via some of his restive Irish men and women to challenge the dead grip over the generations. While the opening scene led me to wonder if he'd lay it on too thick, as the plot develops, and as it twists and turns, nuance enriches the telling.

Sexuality, and those seen as aberrant in this period, gains too Boyne's careful depiction in the protagonist. I will not divulge any developments. Suffice hear to say that Boyne presents a thoughtful, entertaining, and believable voice through which to tell the stories of son and mother.

And many more. One favorite scene a third of the way in features Brendan Behan in a great cameo. The conversation, or what the Irish call the "craic" snaps, crackles and pops in this as in many chapters. Boyne does indeed make one smile and wince, and with grand figures such as his "adoptive parents," the louche Charles and the aloof Maude to set off our picaresque hero into modern Ireland, you see how his formative years go.

Finally, the prose does not call much attention to itself, as the talent Boyne has is put into the narrative in modest but well-earned application. Yet a few phrases do linger. I could "devour a small Protestant" says one friend to another after a long journey by bus from the far-off hamlets of West Cork. In their destination of Dublin, the Liffey runs "determined" to slough off its brown waste as it hastens seaward. Praise is given as convincingly by one to another akin to a Parisian lauding a meal in "Central London." This is recommended, as both engaging and provocative.

While the contexts of "unwed mothers" and their offspring have, like the clerical abuse coverage, gained much by journalists and filmmakers of late, depictions in popular fiction not of the crime genre, aimed at a wider readership, but not sensationally, gain depth by Boyne's careful efforts. (ARC review; Amazon US 6-11-17)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revisiting Rollerskate Skinny

Rollerskate Skinny
When Paul McCartney's younger brother broke into show business later in the 60s, he did so as "Mike McGear." After Kevin Shields' band My Bloody Valentine broke into the British charts two decades on, little brother Jimi stuck with his surname. But in the intimate Dublin rock scene, the association with MBV dogged him and his mates, who in 1992 formed Rollerskate Skinny, They languished less lauded than Mike McGear's The Scaffold, who at least had their one-off novelty hit.

Named after Holden Caulfield's praise of a girl who was "rollerskate skinny" in The Catcher in the Rye, the quartet brought an ambition rivaling the Beatles to their two albums. All Music Guide's Tim DiGravina compared their pair of full-length albums to a combination of Beatles melodies, MBV feedback and experimental song structures akin to The La's, Killing Joke, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Echo and the Bunnymen, Rollerskate Skinny captured the neo-psychedelic, post-punk and indie guitar moods of their contemporaries. But the four men rejected easy choruses and catchy repetition.

Instead, Shoulder Voices, co-produced by Guy Fixsen (who engineered MBV on Loveless) featured odd pop filtered through chiming miasma and clattering dynamics. Alternating delicate tunes with aggressive roars, Rollerskate Skinny refused to play along with their peers, who often toned down their idiosyncrasy to get aired on stations beyond the college radio, critically admired, fringes of that era's alt-rock. While spot-the-influences tempts critics, this band sneaks around any fence-me-in.

A few albums rush out of the starting gate and then settle down halfway down the track, ambling into the finish line fifty-odd minutes later, hardly recognizable as whatever or whomever had started them off. This pattern distinguishes both recordings. Beggars Banquet distributed this band's 1993 debut. 

Its first five songs rattle along with threats and chants. Jimi Shields integrates the traditional Irish bodhrán drum into "Lúnasa," which mixes in the ominous percussive beat under a tribal melody. Recalling an earlier, inventive and overlooked Dublin ensemble, The Virgin Prunes (there the relation is to U2 rather than MBV in civic genealogy), that song conveys an intelligent nod to the island's folk roots, enriching the noise rather than smoothing it out. "Bring on Stigmata" finds Shields' vocals echoing and wailing as keyboards churn, credited to Shields and Ken Griffin. Meanwhile, Ger Griffin (no relation) supports with unpredictable guitar. Stevie Murray's bass thunders under "Bow Hitch-Hiker," the last combative contribution among the eleven songs. For, after the first side's sonic attack, the second side settles into pleasantry, akin more to later Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips. As with those bands, this music provides decent pop-rock, but it's no match for those outfits' once-amplified, addled first few albums. Luckily, Dave Fridmann, producer and tamer of both those American bands, was not on hand to dampen down whatever Rollerskate Skinny had turned up to 11, at least for a while.

Apparently, the constant references in coverage of the band to brother Kevin led Jimi to quit before 1996. That year's follow-up Horsedrawn Wishes found the band reduced by one, relying on session drummers. A leaner Rollerskate Skinny thickens the layers of instrumentation, creating even denser and more challenging harmonics. The band's confidence shows. With co-producer Aidan Foley, they reached a clever apex in exploiting well whatever Warner Brothers had shelled out for studio costs. 

Perversely or intentionally, the band also delivers album two on the same template as the first. Until the end of the seventh entry, the three musicians, now all playing what the liner notes reveal as the guitars and keyboards (which Jimi had mastered on Shoulder Voices), shine. "Speed to My Side" is the tune AMG reviewed as marrying Beatles shimmer to MBV shudder. It saunters like opera, rising and falling. These skewed songs float and dip, cresting and dipping over waves of volume as texture. Rollerskate Skinny stack up the voices and pile on the momentum, if for half the tracks each outing.

"Man Under Glass" has the members vowing their hate of the sun, or maybe the Son. This bobs over a mad flurry of mechanical tinkering, over rhythms capable of crushing the wary or inspiring the saintly. The music swerves and spins. The bands listed above may offer rough similarities, but the determination to resist the usual rock styles makes them again akin more to humbler if sassier misfits such as The Virgin Prunes. In a city where U2 reigned, it must have been a daunting challenge to go against the flow and to insist, as Rollerskate Skinny does twice for a stretch each album, on audacity.

Why each album glides after soaring may not need any answer more profound than rest after exertion. Their energy dissipates gradually, as sides two bring a listener back to firm ground. But the best moments remain in the unsettling, giddy, surprising and woozy rides that precede the landings. 

The members went on after the band's demise following their second album to the usual side projects. Dave Fridmann inevitably weighed in as co-producer of Jimi Shields' Lotus Crown. Their Chokin' on the Jokes (1997) resembles Fridmann's main bands, but it also tilts upon a shoegazing foundation on which Jimi builds up engaging and offbeat songs. It also suggests that Ken Griffin may have been Rollerskate Skinny's mastermind, rather than Shields. For Dead City Sunbeams, the project of Griffin's alter ego Kid Silver, managed on JetSet to rouse critical applause just before the millennium.

Ken then created a collaboration with Aspera, Philadelphia neo-psych veterans, as Favourite Sons. They released a few Iggy meets The Strokes or Echo-plus-The Church records, after all moving to Brooklyn. Finally, The Radio (2004) generated Ger Griffin's dream-pop back in Rollerskate Skinny's hometown. It's a shame that streaming services do not enable audiences over two decades later to enjoy all of Rollerskate Skinny. For now, Lotus Crown and Shoulder Voices survive as bits and bytes.
(Spectrum Culture in re-edited form as part of its Revisit/ Rediscover music feature series 6-6-17)

Robert Musil's "The Confusions of Young Torless": Book Review
A serious, saturnine investigation of the sordid goings-on at a provincial boarding school, this sounds like what you'd expect. Robert Musil's first novel resembles the hothouse atmosphere mingling asceticism, philosophy, sexuality, violence and ideas which characterize his Five Stories and of course his unfinished, massive The Man Without Qualities. Its pre-WWI, Austro-Hungarian setting gets evoked well in the bleak opening scene, and the novella reeks of miasma, murk, and mischief.

Reiting, Beineberg and Törless punish their classmate Basini as a scrounger and a thief. The blackmail deepens, and Basini proves himself willing to debase himself as you'd imagine. Meanwhile. Reiting uses this situation to study the application of cruelty, while Beineberg waxes in esoteric fashion about Eastern this and Indian that. Törless tries to distance himself from the conniving ringleaders, but he too is drawn in, his curiosity aroused by lust and the need to straighten out his mind. It's been disordered by the pursuit of imaginary numbers, and a mathematical sub-plot is capped by a dream the protagonist has complete with Kant donning a peruke. Based on whatever happened to Musil in his military academy, its prescience into the rise of fascism seems inevitable.

Coming out in 1906, its depiction of a naked Basini, with welts, cowering in the dank quarters where the ritual abuse occurs, must have been shocking for some readers. It holds up despite some languid or self-involved passages, but it's not entertaining. Rather, it's an examination into dismal events. That atmosphere, and the boys' preening posturing presumptions, emanate in discomfiting fashion.(I review the Ernst Kaiser/ Eithne Wilkins translation, but this Penguin has the better cover photo.)
Amazon US 5-30-17

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Phillip Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary": Book Review

book cover of 

The Gospel of Mary
Since I was a teen reading James Michener's "The Source," I've had a weakness for "So-and-so has discovered a missing Gospel" yarns. I liked the prolific Professor Freeman's recent Oxford UP retelling of Celtic mythology, so I gave this a try. Via an e-galley, I did not know until I finished that this is the third in his Sister Deirdre series. That explains some backstory I kept wondering why not more was divulged herein. I had no trouble following along, but it's better I assume to have caught up with the previous books, for the main character evidently has a complicated past and much to tell.

Not be confused with another, recent Irish-oriented story, Colm Tóibín's drama "The Testament of Mary," Freeman's "The Gospel of Mary" features the rapid pace, genial tone, and expository dialogue that fills us in on an Ireland when Christians still number few. Deirdre's grandmother was a druid and she claims the same identity, although when her mother died, her grandmother fulfilled her promise to raise Deirdre in the new faith. With allusions to a failed marriage, other past liaisons, and a child who died young hovering about, it's clear that Freeman's protagonist has had more adventures than most nuns might have, at least in later times. She lives with her friend and sidekick Dari in a monastery founded by Brigid, which to Rome's discomfort hosts celibate men and women together.

Rome's unease deepens as it sends a clever emissary to find out what the truth might be to a manuscript smuggled into the island with haste, secrecy, and danger. It is, naturally, the tale of Jesus told by his mother, and its passages intersperse, as they are translated by Dari from the Aramaic, with the fate of the two women as they get caught up in keeping their treasured text safe from the Church. The Church, after all, fears that its integrity will crumble if Mary's words are proven true, and even if they are not able to be verified, that the heresies and tumult generated by them will bring down Rome

It all moves satisfactorily. I read it in a sitting. Freeman has done his biblical homework, and he blends it with a quest that dashes about Ireland. There's plot complications, but the story line as a whole does not surprise. It's a pleasant narrative, and it likely will educate as well as entertain you.
(Amazon 9/5/17)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Jean Raspail's "The Camp of the Saints": Book Review

The Camp of the Saints - Wikipedia
Recent flotillas of refugees from Africa and Syria caused a few bookworms and pundits to name-check this 1973 novel. Liberals practically put "scare quotes" around a mention of what they term a racist screed. Conservatives may praise it as a "classic." I knew of it way back via the maverick Garrett Hardin's perspective; he appealed if in different aspects to both ends of the political spectrum.

It popped into my mind the other day so I sat down and read it. It took two sittings. Raspail, as here translated by Norman Solomon, has a feverish, testy style that Michel Houellebecq, in his formative years in France, I suspect may well have come across. However, as Houellebecq's mordant fiction gains the same condemnations in bien-pensant right-thinking and left-leaning circles as Raspail's book, readers familiar with H. may find an encounter with R. bracing, infuriating, or baffling.

Raspail is credited on the blurb for The Camp of the Saints as a prize-winning author in his native land. Yet this novel flails from the get-go. The end of the story, or near it, jumbles up chronology. The sneering tone of the misanthropic narrator, the overabundant detail, the cardboard characters, the fact you don't care about anyone in the entire storyline: Raspail has scores to settle, but whether you'll be cheering him on or chasing him away depends not only on your own ideological bent, but your tolerance (a theme put through the wringer herein) for prattling. Raspail has it in for his countercultural era of the slightly aging hippies and the faux radicals of the early 1970s. He also despises the press, and some of the admittedly best barbs come as his narrator skewers the posturing.

I thought of the New York Times, for instance, when I found a similar send-up of earnestly PC journalists, who lambaste capitalism and despise corporations and capitalism in the same pages whose sponsors are those fat cats, and whose underwriting, so to say, supports the fulsome claptrap.

The key criticism, as Hardin reminded American readers decades ago, is that the "lifeboat" (here not symbol but story itself, multiplied all over the ocean as refugees set sail for Europe and the rest of whatever is the Western world circa 1973) cannot hold everyone. Either the rich have to share, and become poor themselves as such largess will not balance but tip over everyone into poverty, or they have to defend their realms with force, and "contempt" as Raspail later put it, lest they lose it all.

Odd tangents speckle this work. Clement Dio, a preening poser of the Third World solidarity his own bloodline allows him to capitalize on in more ways than one, is the best of a bad lot. But Raspail's mouthpiece hates worker-priests (back when there were enough clergy to go around), and the Dominicans (not for once the Jesuits) come in for comeuppance. Funny that one Benedict XVI reigns. Along with the Church, the unions, the press, and the military all get their turn at this "roast."

Yes, Raspail makes some points early on about the hypocrisy of the West, the implosion of its value system in a secularizing (well, not quite as it's still France in the post-Vatican II guitar mass phase) and skeptical society, and the contradictions inherent in the post-colonial world supported by the five (now more like six and a half) billion whose labor and losses prop up the seven hundred million whites. "The Last Chance Armada" makes a few at first hesitate but the pressure to welcome the human tide from over the sea leads many addled or idealistic Westerners, guilt ridden and excited to expiate their sins of neglect and greed, to proclaim "We Are All From the Ganges Now" as the first wave from India crests and others then join the exodus to the Northern Hemisphere, at least the wealthy part.

The narrative, such as it is, lurches through scenes of the army, a strange tangent with Benedictine monks, the chattering classes, a token couple from the working class, and those in factories and offices who find, as all anticipate the Easter Sunday mass landing of the sordid ships and their cargo, the early advantages taken by those in France itself who have earlier emigrated, and who maneuver their own prospects, eased by the care or fear taken by their "host nation," as it capitulates to them too

Interesting idea. Promising set-up. Fumbled execution. Fizzled climax. Ho-hum resolution as the narrator and Raspail seem too wearied or jaded to bother carrying on after so many pages of rants.
However, the relevance of this scenario cannot be gainsaid. Look at headlines. (Amazon US 6/5/17)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime": Book Review

No, I never saw the 1981 movie. And after sampling the author himself reading the audio version in a surprisingly perfunctory, even dull, manner, I opted for the book on a recent flight to New York. The story rushed past, and as I was using a Kindle, I had no idea that the novel would finish so rapidly. I felt I was halfway through when suddenly, the characters were all wrapped up and the ending loomed. Like the audio, it's itself perfunctory in places, and it felt as if E.L. Doctorow wanted it over.

Looking back forty-plus years, this 1975 novel feels a bit dated. Of course, it's an historical narrative dramatizing real life characters such as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and a bit of Sigmund Freud and Booker T. Washington in cameos. This is mixed with parallel stories of a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and the "Younger Brother" of a scion of a flags and fireworks manufacturer in New Rochelle, NY. Yes, it's a bit of an easy target for Doctorow, and like the incorporation of the Coalhouse plot that sparks the action, these themes carry a counterculture air of disdain and dismissal for the American dream and its first takers.

The immigrant vs. Yankee, white vs. black, Irish vs. everyone else tensions permeate these pages. It reads well, but the sour authorial tone dampens enjoyment. Doctorow wants us to criticize the wealthy and while this may be an admirable sentiment then as now, the intrusive voice (which in other novels I do not mind necessarily) grates now and then. He keeps a distance between us and the characters, so the events feel more staged than organically motivated. as if to exemplify class struggle. This suits the 1902-1912 focus, but when towards the conclusion, other noteworthy struggles crowd in, the pace alters and one can sense Doctorow's manipulation and compression.

If he'd taken his time in the latter portions, it might have resembled the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos even more than it certainly does, especially in the Younger Brother's picaresque itinerary. Doctorow starts this part off inventively, but he then crams in more telling than showing, and the momentum weakens when it should have accelerated after the pivotal New York City showdown.

The mechanical nature of this storyline may result, as a 1998 piece in the Observer reminds readers, from Doctorow's debt to the novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist. While Doctorow nods to this source for Coalhouse Walker, it does tip his own reworking of this idea into melodrama, as this Observer critic noted. Like Dos Passos, the machinations of the characters wind up less engaging than the ideas and the milieu depicted, in the early part of last century. (Amazon US 5-30-17)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Claire Santry's "The Family Tree Irish Genealogical Guide": Book Review

The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Ireland
This is the best resource in print on Irish genealogical research that I have found. I had to learn some of this advice the hard way, before the internet eased the process. Claire Santry had the advantage of accessing much online as well as onsite, and she shows how the first stage can be done before one visits Ireland. Key to success is matching the surname back to its townland--the small area that as she informs, was what a cow could graze on. This focuses an investigation on its narrowest set of data.

She intersperses her suggestions with a general history of Irish events and situations that affected the records extant. While for many of Catholic origins, the trail will end around the middle of the 19th century, she shows how landlords, neighbors, witnesses at marriages and baptisms, and other friends of the family, so to say, can orient a seeker who may have a common surname, common first names, and many families of that line in the same region, or different ones. Particularly helpful are patterns of naming children based on their relatives and ancestors: the reason why so few names are often used, and why they keep repeating down the generations in records or lore, complicating the quest.

The records transcribed or microfilmed are gradually archived online, some free, some not. Santry gives detailed directions on how to organize one's notes, and how best to proceed online so as to get as much of a sense of the local area as possible, before ideally a visit. Civil registrations, church records, census, land and property, newspaper, police gazette, military, and probate documents all are mentioned and often illustrated. Deciphering Latin abbreviations in parish registers is challenging; the appendix provides help. From my experience and I assume hers, the state of the online uploads as to legibility does not improve at all on the physical microfilm in many cases, so be forewarned.

From Santry's book, I learned a few new tricks. Findmypast is a site I'd never seen, linked to the 1749 Diocese of Elphin census, valuable for Co. Roscommon information in my own case. Griffiths Valuations are a lot easier to read than when I needed them on microfilm, and the National Archives of Ireland now has some land valuation notebooks I spent hours paging through in person uploaded.

Connaught and Munster databases for landed estates are now online, as are some Irish and British newspapers (some in my search behind paywalls). Finally, headstones by the thousands in photos and transcriptions are now also on the web. Such tidbits collect rich knowledge in one handy guidebook.

Therefore, lists of genealogy centers, local history organizations, libraries and government offices are also appended, as firsthand encounters may have to be done when net-working only takes one so far. Both American and Irish databases are covered, as well as some British ones, which will please the many millions descended from mid-19c emigrants. The book's narrative concludes with a couple of case studies, showing from researchers how they successfully navigated their way through the data.

I'd add that for certain surnames, blogs or discussion groups or websites are often recommended, as you may find that others have preceded or paralleled your path. I found this out years after my own search of primary records seen in Irish record keeping offices, but at least that then verified my own findings--and that the "tree" on Ancestry-com had an error due to that mixing of common first names and surnames that may likely bedevil even the most diligent tracker, due to traditional naming patterns. I'd add a final caution that even at the parish or townland level, you may find repetition among different families, often related of course, sharing surnames that concentrate very locally. (Amazon US 5-18-17)

Mary Ginsberg's "Communist Posters": Book Review

cover of book
North Korea menaces again as a foe of the United States. Cuba waits as if eager for reconciliation. Regimes against which American expended much manpower and munitions fifty years ago now trade with their neighbors in Asia, the largest of which, China, is capitalist in fact if not theory. Headlines and Wiki-Leaks pepper the news and feeds with distrust of a sinister Russia, echoing the Cold War.

This range of reactions by the U.S. government and media to Communist nations makes this collection of posters from these and allied nations under red flags relevant. On the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mary Ginsberg edits and introduces the most comprehensive presentation in print of often vivid propaganda, that for a less screen-focused century, captured the eyes and the minds of hundreds of millions. They celebrated, endured, or hated the heydays of Fidel or Mao, Lenin and Stalin and the various apparatchiks who tried to implement their theories and schemes.

A representative example appears early on. Red Loudspeakers Are Sounding Through Every Home (1972), as Ginsberg observes, documents the use of images to instill obedience. In a Chinese village, slogans, songs and lectures emanate from speakers installed on the streets. Their indoctrination may have seemed inescapable. For such broadcasts cannot be shut off. Other means further the deification of the leader as well as his dictates. The home shown on the poster has only a framed portrait of The Chairman, surrounded by small banners with sayings and little red books. Outside, a family gathers.

Over 330 illustrations demonstrate the range and the scope beyond the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C., Korean, Mongolian, Eastern European, Vietnamese and Cuban chapters provide essays by scholars. These cross-reference the pictures, providing a narrated guided tour that alerts readers to the themes.

These depend heavily on Constructivism and photomontage. Art as function and promotion through photography combine to sell the peasants and workers on these products of the intellectuals. What they peddle are exhortations to produce more, fight harder and act braver. The verbosity of the caption can weigh down the impact of the 1937 image. Sergei Igumnov's red fist emerging from the rolled-up sleeve showing off a worker's clenched and muscular arm strangles a snake with swastika eyes. What this depicts is: "We'll Uproot Spies and Deviationists of the Trotsky-Bukharin Agents of Fascism." Given the relentless purges under the Man of Steel, such creations linger longer for their visual force rather than the ever-changing explanations linking the art to the enemy of the moment.

As dynasties bore down, the masses viewed ideals. Aleksei Lavrov's The People's Dreams Have Come True (1950) has a grandfather resembling Lenin. He clasps a Young Pioneer's shoulder. The old man's smile encourages the slightly wistful, perhaps hesitant, fantasies of the boy, looking up from his book, penned by "a critic of urban social conditions." Pravda sits on the table of their ship's cabin. Behind their sofa a reproduction of "the famous Repin painting Barge Haulers on the Volga" is a bit blurred, but "confirming how terrible things used to be." Outside, ships sail past factories that gleam.

The last Soviet poster blurs into patterns mirroring 1920s abstractions. Other lands drew on their own artistic legacies. Mongolian folk art and calligraphy enter many of its first efforts, while later ones mimic the Chinese Communist preference for red banners, gesticulating vanguards, rosy cheeks and marching masses. Polish aesthetics, as evocatively shown on film posters, also grace political ones.

Silhouettes, shadows, stark typefaces and surreal figures shunted aside the Soviet template. Czech and Hungarian designers likewise incorporated pop art and psychedelic patterns into silkscreen and montage takes on opera, a new television model or Allende's brief Chilean victory. Anti-Americanism also heightens for Western audiences a Chinese imitation of an anti-Vietnam war mural, with placards of English-language denunciations of the war machine. North Korea dutifully perpetuates this type.

The appeal of stylized "characters in primary colors, along with shrill slogans, dotted with exclamation marks" predates the reign of Kim Il Sung. But their "visual recognizability and readability" sustain themselves for two-thirds of a century due to the simple, even atrophied graphics. As Koen de Ceuster explains in this section, campaigns prove unrelenting under the Kims, and so the shelf life of a given poster is limited: "the message prevails over the package." He also asks a necessary question: "Where does art end and propaganda begin?" For the D.P.R.K., art theory combines ideological with artistic equality through a unified concept. Agitprop exhorts the Koreans to work diligently against an Uncle Sam whose competing tanks, bombers and missiles always loom.
What distinguishes Korean versions is a frequent inclusion of a mythical horse flying over smoking chimneys and rice paddies. Eyes also lead the way as they flare up and as fingers point the way on.

Vietnam takes French and Indochinese influences, hand-drawn lettering, indigenous themes and guerrilla poses from street art for some of its varied products. They stand out as more awkward and more original than the Soviet, Maoist or Korean contributions. They perpetuate the raw, eyewitness sensibility of not an imagined but a real struggle against an imperialist invader, or more than one.

Another rich array of approaches results in Cuban artifacts. International influences entered into the island's art long before 1959. Capitalizing on tourism and a worldwide market, its posters were sold as commercial items. Diminishing the Socialist Realism quotient, they increase the use of stencils, hand-cut and silkscreened. Disparate objects may juxtapose; so may "humour and visual wit." Not to mention Castro's 1977 proclamation: "Our enemy is imperialism, not abstract art." Contrasting the sophistication of the Cuban propaganda against the simplicity of Mongolian, for instance, reminds viewers and readers of the connections one Communist enclave may enjoy, as opposed to another.

One closes this collection wondering what the future holds for political posters. Capitalist systems appeal to the watcher of a screen far more than the passerby of a placard. Scholars in this current century may have to hope that our soon-outmoded digital technology records the catchphrases and memes generated by the political spectrum today as carefully as archivists have these bold posters. (Spectrum Culture 12/1/17 with slight changes) 432 pages 04-22-17 Reaktion Books