Friday, July 31, 2020

Yves Chiron's "Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy": Book Review

{Given my friend designed the cover, and first told me about the mystery man behind the scenes in Rome who's the subject of the book, I reviewed it: Reading Religion, July 25, 2020}

Annibale Bugnini
Archbishop Annibale Bugnini's method to "proceed discretely" (3) to advance his Vatican II reforms attests to his clever persistence and subtle scheming. The "new Mass" introduced fifty years ago owes much of its promotion to this Vincentian cleric. After Bugnini's success, “"conspiracy theories” (7) impugned his loyalty. The truth remains elusive, for his clerical collaborators refuse to release his correspondence. Therefore, drawing on interviews, archives, diaries, and memoirs of his confreres, French historian Yves Chiron in his twenty-sixth book, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, investigates the career and achievements of the past century’s leading liturgical innovator.

Dom Alcuin Reid introduces this book’s English-language edition, averring how Bugnini in Chiron's 2016 study "emerges as a remarkable organizer rather than as a theologian or liturgy expert" (11). Refusing hearsay, Chiron provides a sober account of Bugnini’s life’s work, limited to interpreting the documents at hand. This caution makes this biography trustworthy. It also results in a sober, cut-and-dried recital of facts.

From his novitiate in 1920 at the age of eighteen, Bugnini committed himself to the Liturgical Movement spearheaded by French and German Benedictines, Dominicans, and Jesuits. These pioneers had already invented, for at least a generation, experimental “paraliturgies” (25) aimed at increasing lay involvement and decreasing barriers to full entry by the congregation into the celebration of the Mass through a shift in prayers and songs to what they labeled a living language, the vernacular. Bugnini after his ordination composed a brochure touting such a service, where a lay lector would interpret and comment in Italian upon the Latin.

Starting in Rome in 1943, his bilingual Mass engaged the people with dialogue, as they chanted the responses, prayed aloud, and accompanied the priest's actions with their own gestures. Bugnini's self-published booklet of this version as "Our Mass," by its twelfth and final edition in 1962, had sold a million and a half copies.

Fittingly, by that year, Bugnini had embedded himself deep within the preparations for the ecumenical council announced by John XXIII. Bugnini’s eponymous “method” (82) to advance his liturgical reforms worked this way. First, he assigned specialists to meet separately to convene on restricted subjects. These specialists rarely had a chance to meet with their colleagues for a plenary vote on proposals. Second, he inserted vaguely worded passages into conciliar documents, to avoid censure or scrutiny.

After the Council could then be applied, free from papal censure, the reformers capitalized on their ambiguous phrasing and implied suggestions. This strategy worked; by the time Paul VI figured out how his trusted cleric within the Congregation of the Rite had tipped the scales in favor of the progressives, the Pope could not turn back the experiments which became the new normal in the 1969-–1970 vernacular Mass. Chiron acknowledges his subject's "perfect mix of know-how and communication skills" (109) which broadcast bold models. Concelebrated Masses, altars facing the congregants, and lay-led functions took precedence, followed by Communion in the hand and elimination of all Latin.

Chiron asserts that these features had been incrementally introduced through the 1960s, and that thus they are not as novel as detractors claim. This statement diminishes the ambitions of the reformers to sidestep the Council's insistence that Latin be preserved for the Canon as the foundation of the Mass. All the same, his judgment that by the end of the decade, the new Mass synthesized the updates already inserted by various bishops in certain dioceses or countries remains incontrovertible. A communal meal more than a sacrificial ceremony became the global standard, with every approved Mass entirely in the local language.

After shepherding further reforms in the breviary and other liturgies, Bugnini in his words had "been resigned" (137) suddenly in 1975. Pope Paul may, Bugnini alleges, have been influenced by "court intrigues" and rumors that he was a Freemason. This calumny persists. Translator John Pepino appends further documentation considering its effect on Bugnini a few years later as he denied the charge made in a letter to an American review of homiletics. Chiron sides with Bugnini given at least a reasonable doubt remains of his innocence.Yet Chiron admits he finds the evidence "inconclusive" (168). Until Bugnini's colleagues open his correspondence to public research, the case cannot be satisfactorily judged. Chiron gives Bugnini the benefit of his doubt.

Having no knowledge of Spanish, Bugnini refused the papal command to serve as nuncio in Uruguay. A year later, Bugnini found himself in Iran instead. He empathized with the burgeoning revolution against the beleaguered Shah; again, given the lack of documentation, the context of brief remarks Bugnini had written awaits the release of his letters. He continued writing books on the liturgy as well as his autobiography, which remains untranslated from Italian. He returned to Rome before his death in 1982. With that, Chiron's account stops too quickly, granting only a few paragraphs to his lasting impact after his daring implementation of reforms that have altered the Mass and liturgies ever since.

This brief book provides readers with a compendium of the documents and decisions undertaken over decades of liturgical innovation and experimentation. The audience may remain specialized, scholars of Church history and Catholic liturgy. Chiron eschews commentary or analysis of his subject. All the same, for English-language audiences, this gathers what is known at present from available sources.

Chiron leaves open the question of what impelled Bugnini to dismantle so much from so many centuries of Catholic heritage and accumulated stability. The book delivers the information, which may guide scholars into his proof-texts and the writings of those who worked with, or against, Bugnini.

For the time being, resigned to the embargo placed on full access to Bugnini's personal papers, Yves Chiron compiles what can be said to be known about this controversial prelate's mission to replace a venerable rite with a modern liturgy.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Waiting for the load

 'Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’', Lucio Fontana | Tate
As in how we Americans mispronounce God-ot. in our attempt to sound, well, more French, as that Beckett would have wanted us, uh, to, but wasn't he, Irish? So, you mean he didn't originally write in French? Something to do with the war, with difficulty, with patience?

This below via a site while loading popped up. It sure is a slow site. Today at least. On the other hand, it stopped raining months ago. This neither being France nor Ireland. So I wait.

Title: Loading...
Year: wait until it stops raining.
You are called for interview at ten past ten only to find yourself pulling a ticket from a machine that seems designed not for the efficient parcelling of your time, only to tease, to torment. Number one hundred and forty fucking six. The practical method would be to spend such time profitably: be prepared; take a book with you. You know its going to happen because everyday you have lived, you have learned more about the deferral of events. Wait until you're older; wait until the upturn; wait until it stops raining. Whether it's the fear of failure or sheer, stupid obediance that allays the logical and most human desire to lash out at such moments is a mystery to me, but for now I'll offer no alternative. Let time sharpen your anxiety and mould it into a palpable hatred whose very formation is the precipitate of release. Just wait.
Credit: "Earth Waiting" by Eric Gill. Whose Autobiography, the first book I bought online, I found and rescued as I cleared out the latest of at least three dozen boxes from the garage.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Joseph Bottum's "The Decline of the Novel": Book Review
First off, this author’s cousin Roddy was keyboardist for Faith No More and currently plays with the enduring indie-pop outfit Imperial Teen. Second, Joseph “Jody” Bottum hails from one of South Dakota’s leading political families, a long-lived line of legislators that goes back to 1840s Vermont. Neither factoid leaps out as germane to The Decline of the Novel’s literary critique examining classic long-form fiction’s cultural influence and modernist impacts. However, upon reflection, Professor Bottum’s background and milieu may subtly infuse this collection of essays.

As a leading voice of a neo-conservative silent minority teaching in the humanities, Bottum is determined to align the downhill slide of mainstream American Protestantism over the past six decades to the triumph of a fragmented pop culture and a loss of a common core of values. Which relates to Roddy’s first band’s name, and his relatives representing old-line Republicans.

Intriguingly, Joseph Bottum, who first lectured in medieval philosophy, then became a Catholic public intellectual embroiled in contrarian stances resulting in his ostracizing from culture wars. Also a poet, he now runs a think-tank at one of his native state’s flagship universities, to craft professional ethics for those in information technology. This eclectic experience may not directly enter The Decline. But it subtly enriches and supports his main thesis that we’ve lost our faith.

He explains this book’s title as it “reflects and confirms a genuine cultural crisis. This is not just the old crisis of the self, but a new crisis born of the culture’s increasing failure of intellectual nerve and terminal doubt about its own progress. We have to believe in a culture to employ that culture’s art: to be much entertained by it, and to be much instructed” by its novelistic creations.

While many still read books, genre-fictions, celebrity and political biographies or hobby and self-improvement bestsellers don’t meet Bottum’s standards for works that reach “the most profound expressions of psychological, sociological, and existential truths.” Even the remnant who prefer these classic exemplars “no longer have the ear of the general culture.”
Reading for escapism or “nostalgic indulgence” fails to recapture the fickle attention of those entranced by immersion in electronically-driven gaming, online fare, and, one would add, “prestige T.V.” binge-watching.

Parts of this study also feel on replay. The gist of what’s here compiled from previous published criticism and journalism concentrates on the Protestant foundation for the invention and elaboration of the individual as he or she struggles towards success in a middle-class society, energized by the rational promise of the Enlightenment, and separated from the Catholic collective to pursue one’s own moral and practical salvation within an increasingly urban setting.

This leads Bottum into fresh territory. He examines, for instance, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 epistolary epic of female resistance to male domination. Clarissa Harlowe “demands no real changes of heart in anyone else, and she seeks to modify the world only insofar as she needs the world to leave her alone.” Contrasting an admittedly tedious 1862 riposte to Daniel Defoe’s shipwrecked rugged proto-colonial colonist, the Reverend W.H. Amberdon’s The Catholic Crusoe “grasps the Puritan center of Robinson Crusoe and inverts it into a claim of Catholic superiority.” Although Bottum often expands his analysis of recognized titles, the academic bent of this book tends towards the arcane, justly or not overlooked by other scholars. The tone tends towards the dutiful recapitulation of plot points, quoted passages and passing glances at now-forgotten tales, but as the take on Clarissa reveals, he can turn a phrase when he wants.

Rooted in a sense of self, the British and Continental novel depended on its support among the Protestant society and the common-sense capitalism of its protagonists, progenitors and purchasers. Joseph Bottum, after two opening chapters which with some overlap set the scene for the success of the novel over less than the past three hundred years, focuses respectively on Walter Scott’s Waverley (with a look at Nikolai Gogol to enliven this scrutiny), Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and the Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. He charts the arc of the novel from its workaday connivers in Defoe, through Romantic and Victorian heydays, and into modernism towards what sputtered out of Wolfe’s “failure of nerve.”

When this collective confidence in the self-made striver, and the economic engine and moral apparatus represented by this dogged ambition. finally imploded around the middle of the 20th century across the Western world, so did Bottum’s chosen type of serious narrative. Today’s shelves feature characters divorced from their medieval ancestors, who presented themselves as “pawns in, or merely spectators to, a great supernatural battle.” Now, as his final chapter roams about the middlebrow chart-toppers of Neil Gaiman, Herman Wouk, J.K. Rowling and Charles Frazier, the professor admits that since the early ‘90s, there have been no big writers producing must-reads. The excitement of re-enchantment, he laments, has faded away.

As Bottum alludes to in an afterword, the contents of this slim volume have been reassembled from past pieces. Upon close examination, chapters do connect with one another, but this takes steady attention for the reader to discern. Without end-notes or evidence of how to track down the quotes from his original sources, whether primary or secondary, the utility of The Decline itself diminishes as a resource to lead readers to learn more from creators or critics.

Therefore, this study’s value carries a proviso. If a reader does not need to imitate the scholar, and remains content to peruse the pages of The Decline of the Novel, it’s guaranteed to point to a few finds that not even the most determined or desperate academic might have unearthed. But the rummaging in these secondhand shelves of modernity and its predecessors keeps one wondering. Bottum’s examination of fiction reaches no happy ending; instead, he leaves the reader asking along with him: what’s the purpose of art now? What is left for us to do with ourselves? (Spectrum Culture, 5/25/20)

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Kaitlin Solomine's "Empire of Glass": Book Review

Based on the author's mid-1990s stay with her Chinese host family, Kaitlin Solomine's debut novel adapts her experiences on a Fulbright scholarship. Solomine, in the guise of what father Baba and mother Li-Ming nickname Lao ("familiar") K, dramatizes that couple's history over the past half-century. Solomine strives to turn these tales about, so that the teller Li-Ming begins the narrative, but Baba about two-thirds of the way takes over--at least by way of his wife's manipulated perspective.

This pivotal strategy early on enters Empire of Glass. Lao K prefaces her translation of Li-Ming's novel of the same title with the editorial admission that "so much of what I'm telling you is already imagined, reconfigured so convex angles are made concave, mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting an uncertain, setting sun." That sun may stand for the pre-millennial, post-Mao plus-some China, which bulldozed and buried under skyscrapers and ring roads crushes whatever Beijing once boasted or lamented as its byways and hovels. From the start, Li-Ming's approach reflects Lao K-by way of Solomine's post-modern reluctance to claim the Chinese outlook as accessible to her own mindset.

Certainly this tamps down Empire of Glass firmly within our century's inculcated unease with any hint of "appropriation" or conjuring up of The Other or the Oriental. In one of many footnotes enabling her American voice to comment on the Chinese novel Solomine embeds within Lao K's English-language artifact, the predicament of transmission from one register and two lives into literary fact as fiction reifies itself. It's "snugly framed by the padded weight of a fattening diction."

The narrative spans Baba's childhood learning his father's trade of glass-grinding into lenses which, depending on the buyer, may gull or ease his sense of sight. Metaphors multiply, as Li-Ming's courtship with Baba, re-educated in a rural desolation, conveys her own commitment to channel the occluded and nimble sensibility of Han Shan, the legendary 9th century poet known to us as Cold Mountain. His Daoist-Buddhist leanings tilt him towards the mystic, but his insistent return to the quotidian allows no reader to remain in the clouds. Li-Ming incorporates Cold Mountain, so much that Baba seems secondary to her love for this enigmatic recluse who wrote his verse onto the rocks.

"We inherit the deaths created for us long before." Even as a teen, soon after the communist victory, Li-Ming looks back to Han Shan, and places her mortal span within whatever stoic wisdom those poems from the Tang dynasty sketch. Her outlook reverts back, despite her youth, to what hints as fate. Her future groom compares her to the swift, the bird which flies "endlessly from the nest, never stopping for years and landing only to breed." The resulting story-line spins out their family life.

Yet, filtered at the removes of Li-Ming creating in third-person the indirect voice for Baba, then Baba emerging in first person through her imagination, and then Lao K conveying the manuscript through English translation, further mingling embellishment into whatever the real-life hosts of Karine Solomine as a teenager from the coast of Maine told her around twenty years ago, well--so many layers muffle the action. Momentum dwindles. Dullness settles. This assumed lassitude may faithfully express what the novel nods to in letters as confessions or secrets during Mao's Cultural Revolution. This happens mostly off-stage, as the novel strives to capture, rather, the daily grind.

Yet it winds up drawing more attention, especially early on, to Solomine's effort to create fresh images. "In April, snow arrives: fallen catkin blossoms drifting to earth in a city overpopulated with poplars and willows, too many females of the species lending seeds, expectations unmet." Empire of Glass in a previous draft earned awards; this diligent and meticulously rendered style expresses the hothouse invention of the literary milieu within which small presses publish experimental fiction.

Whether this encourages or enervates a patient reader depends on delight or tolerance of this mandarin approach. It can lighten up. Li-Ming's "cheery-faced" older female friends Lao K describes as "drifting in and out of the apartment like ants, unsuccessfully, to transport a rotting piece of fruit." It may nod to poesy, as "on lazy Beijing afternoons with dust caught like a yawn between the sun's fingers." But as most of the narrative relies on Li-Ming rather than Lao K, these initial, artsy touches dwindle into a quotidian fidelity true to routine. Some strain for effect when Li-Ming takes over.

On a cold autumn night, "moons kissed mirrored reflections on frosted patches beneath gutters." This angles off a verse from Cold Mountain, but its trajectory skitters. Above the conscripted Baba as he stumbles through a muddled series of jumbled events on the wartime North Korean border, "a fading full moon struggled against dawn, its face patronizing and sullen." Li-Ming's in charge, but we hear the tone of Solomine through Lao K. Can the conceit of translation account for this doubling?

Ultimately, in the wake of Tiananmen Square, McDonalds stands as the go-to place to celebrate in Beijing during the stint of Lao K's stay. By the time the novel-within-a-novel concludes, it's Starbucks. Solomine chooses not to delve too deeply into Chinese complexity, even as naturally she strives to express the foreignness of the encounter she has had in fact and fiction. Characters from Chinese may or may not be hinted at or defined. Similarly, some romanized terms fail for a reader not acquainted with them to clarify through context. Not all mysteries of this East open to our West.

Solomine keeps at a studied distance despite Lao K's immersion in China. Solomine acknowledges in the role of Lao K her ineradicable status as an outsider, no matter how intimately she addresses Baba and Li-Ming in their mother tongue. Lao K admits in passing to being suicidal at the age of 16, and the daughter of a mother who succumbed to that choice. Grim determination to not turn away from fate echoes from Cold Mountain. This stoic stance takes over as the narrative progresses, until it's stubbornly if inevitably left hanging in the choking Beijing air. (PopMatters 11/3/17/ Edelweiss 11/9)

Friday, July 17, 2020

Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture": Book Review

The Big Picture ISBN 9781780746074 PDF epub | Sean Carroll ...
This book by a Caltech physicist continues his series of semi-popularizations of cutting-edge theory. The Big Picture may not reveal much more about "the meaning of life" than that we are meant to ask about it, but on the origins of life and the universe, it delivers a lot. It alternates between in-depth analysis of details and paraphrases of findings. Carroll writes for the "educated reader," but despite this being read also as a audio version, the complexity of the work (and some of its diagrams or illustrations) probably is best comprehended at least for a first time around by a text in front of you.

The chapters are grouped thematically, gradually shifting among the sub-titular topics. "We humans are blobs of organized mud, which through the impersonal workings of nature’s patterns have developed the capacity to contemplate and cherish and engage with the intimidating complexity of the world around us." Carroll begins, after an opening vignette with him stuck on the notorious 405 freeway in L.A., by situating life's meaning as he pursues it in perhaps a surprising admission by a scientist, but a welcome one. "Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless." Carroll channels this.

He explains that this approach "strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless." He continues: "The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it." This limits the human inquiry, however.

For he cautions about this creative quest as he reminds us of its inevitable barrier. "What we can’t do is demand that the universe scratch our explanatory itches." Still, one of the most innovative aspects of Carroll's endeavor is in his notion of chronology and duration. "Our progress through time is pushed from behind, not pulled from ahead." A sensible concept, but one I'd never heard of before. 

It's worthy of elaboration even in a summation here."There is conservation of momentum: the universe doesn’t need a mover; constant motion is natural and expected. It is tempting to hypothesize—cautiously, always with the prospect of changing our minds if it doesn’t work—that the universe doesn’t need to be created, caused, or even sustained. It can simply be. Then there is conservation of information. The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on its present state. It neither aims toward future goals nor relies on its previous history." This reminded me of the Tao, in that it does not merit any rational explanation other than that it exists. 

The core of his book is that "the critical ontological question" of "what is the world, really?" is that it's a "quantum wave function." For now, at least, given how theories keep evolving as we learn more.

As we know almost instinctively, so much we may rarely notice, time and the universe parallel each other. "There is not a moment in time where there is no universe, and another moment in time where there is; all moments in time are necessarily associated with an existing universe. The question is whether there can be a first such moment, an instant of time prior to which there were no other instants. That’s a question our intuitions just aren’t up to addressing." As you can see, this narrative does strain itself as far as our knowledge can take it. While parts of it bogged down, and while his discussion of evolution for me did not resonate with quite the same freshness as the parts quoted, it does compile a lot of information that those of us who rely on "physics for poets" accounts to make at least a bit of sense of all this data, The Big Picture is valuable; it steps back as well as looks closely. 

What it comes down to is that there's no grand meaning imposed on the universe from "beyond." Carroll concludes: "The universe is a set of quantum fields obeying equations that don’t even distinguish between past and future, much less embody any long-term goals." It keeps moving along. 

Ultimately, neither the cold reduction to those muddy blobs nor a warm embrace of transcendental guidance will do. "We are collections of vibrating quantum fields, held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and to others."

This balance reminds us of our short time within this space. "Three billion heartbeats. The clock is ticking." Here I found out that there are 10 to the 50th power atoms on earth, and 10 to the 100th years for the universe itself. I never knew either calculation. They awed me, and show how puny we are in the great span of existence. What may lie beyond even this universe as we barely know it? 
(Amazon US with slight additions 9/26/17)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"Burn down the mission"

Three-fourths of this mission, which was founded in 1771 and had been refurbished for its re-opening this week, after considerable investment, burned in a fire at 4:20 AM on Saturday the 11th.

The roof is gone and the interior charred; however, much of the furnishings were not installed yet after the site was fixed up. "The cause is under investigation" goes the statement in the media. Yes, it has been hot, as usual; unsure if this is by an "act of God." (Many of my formative years were spent in the next parish over....)

A neighboring mission at San Fernando up the "chain of the 21" founded a day's journey apart in the late 1700s and early 1800s in California by Franciscan friars, has been targeted after protests by "Indigenous activists" who called it a "concentration camp." A statue of the newly canonized saint, as posted by me a few weeks ago, had been destroyed similarly, downtown in Los Angeles at the site of the city's founding in 1771. The statue of Fr Serra at San Gabriel Mission a few years ago was removed from the street side (which is named for Junipero Serra) to the garden after someone tried to decapitate it with an electric saw, and who poured red paint on it. Similar tactics as which felled Serra's this past June. Apparently the statue at the SG Mission now has been placed in safekeeping.

Thinking of St Kateri Tekakwitha whose feast day was yesterday, and all the "lily of the Mohawks" suffered, for her dogged decision to side with her convert mother's faith. About the hardship her nation all endured, as the thoughtful film based on Brian Moore's novel Black Robe dramatizes, hearing out all sides. When I visited the site of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons mission in Midlake, Ontario, I noted how "evenhanded" (if unsurprisingly, still a change from how this material might have been framed in an American museum if in pre-"woke" times) the Canadian government's presentation was, as it showed wisely as a preview to us visiting the restored "mission" the complex predicament of three embattled factions there among the Wendat: those who'd accepted Christ, those who remained traditional believers, and those caught in the middle, as plagues came, in the wake of the French, and blame games proliferated.

A timely message. I only hope as a native myself of the region where Franciscans marched in the vanguard of the Spanish empire that sites and symbols of their presence will not be burned or erased in the name of "justice." (See a "progressive" piece in Religion Dispatches written just before destruction at S.G. Mission.) That parish had been preparing for a remodel to display Fr Serra's threatened statue in a context to address the curricular criticisms now standard in the coverage of the missionaries, which admittedly is not that I got in public school fourth-grade (that lesson we few "native Californians" fondly recall is making a model out of flour and water, sugarcubes and popsicle sticks, at least prior to today's kits, which take the fun out of choosing among 21 missions one's favorite inspiration. Not sure if this survives fiercely contested instruction nowadays, given controversies "racist colonialism" generates.)

I was surprised, and moved, by simple plots in dirt, almost popsicle-stick markers, where some Jesuits had been first buried. Contrasted with the Catholic Canadian Martyrs church-shrine down the road, the provincial museum had such unobtrusive signs of the resting places of the missionaries you might miss -- or step on-- them. Reflecting on my visit 12 summers ago, both tributes appear appropriate: the modest simplicity and multi-ethnic ethos of the "secular," and the shrine's legacy where Jesuits continue their apostolate, in the tradition of Ss. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions.

For all the contested attempts of Canada to do justice to First Nations communities and Catholic history, they educate visitors, one may argue or at least hear out, given our Church's complicity. Ontario conservative writer-artist (educated three years in a Catholic hostel for an Inuit boarding school where abuse occurred in the early 1960s) Michael D. O'Brien's novel A Cry of Stone on mid-20c artist Rose Wâbos tells this troubled tale, in his faithful, probing style.

P.S. The parish website: ""We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our Mission family during this devastating time. We are renewed in our 'Mission' to rebuild our historic Church and will very soon celebrate its restoration. If you would like to make a contribution, please go to our DONATE NOW page and designate your donation to the 'Fire Restoration Fund' or the 'Old Mission and Gardens' tab."

P.P.S. Blog title from this Elton John 1970 song title.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Jon Fine's "Your Band Sucks": Book Review

Your Band Sucks : Jon Fine : 9781494511494 I heard of but never heard Bitch Magnet, the indie band that made Fine a bit famous, but reading his narrative of a quarter-century trying to make a living out of or alongside the van-driving, $10 a day meal allowing, and sweaty ambiance of the clubs and dives where bands played, you come out feeling as if you've finished a long journey by his side.

For an Oberlin grad, he thankfully does not come across as doctrinaire in his outlook, although I wanted to find out how he resisted that campus' lefty spiel, given that most in his fraternity of scrappy and smart musicians and fans embrace its rhetoric. Anyhow, how he and two college friends started the band, its rapid (it seems to happen in very few pages) entry into college-rock late-1980s acclaim, and the almost as quick booting out of the band by his mates as he showed too much Jersey attitude, passes genially. He acknowledges his flaws, his youth, and he and his colleagues get fair treatment.

He segues into his string of subsequent line-ups, listing them all and all the members, attesting to their brief or nearly non-existent presence. His mood darkens. Of the first and most prominent, Vineland, he ruefully notes how they appeared on an Australian and a Spanish compilation. That's it. Such a low level of notice means that he must work and try to do tours on weekends, or on time off.

He shows how this feels, when one comes back from the van and sleeping on floors to have to get to the job right away. Later this separates him from his corporate media peers when he lands a good job in NYC, and he seethes (as often here, righteously, entertainingly, and appropriately given his nature) about the mockery and dismissal he gets when he confesses to the band name. But the friendships he recounts, the funny stories he and a selection of similar veterans from the scene share help the story move on, albeit with considerable detours and snafus common to he and his ilk. An unexpected feature which makes this less a memoir as it unfolds and more a tribute to a pre-Net social network that united lonely and introspective musical minority and those who put to stage and vinyl its legacy.

I was part of the scene of supporters of this movement, by my peers. So, this tale felt very familiar. Still, Fine and his quoted confreres do not give enough of a sense of what this music actually resembled, what it came across as beyond titles of tunes or paeans to guitars and drums, for an audience not as immersed or obsessed with what used to pass as indie-rock in a word-of-mouth era.

As it trundles on over the decades, the book does wander, and feels as if it should have concluded well before it does not--Fine makes room for garrulous if to me overly detailed (for those like me who may not have ever listened to his music) descriptions of the reunion of BM and like-minded ensembles who now return to middle-aged crowds looking just like him and his friends in the spotlight. Still, this conveys better the sensibility of those who tried to fight the major-label system then and now with loud, punchy, and intelligent tunes which offered, once, truly "alternative" sound.
(Amazon US 12/6/17)

Monday, July 6, 2020

Tressie McMillan Cottom "Lower Ed": Book Review


Having worked at two for-profits, then attaining her sociology doctorate writing on this cohort, Tressie McMillan Cottom carries the "credentials" needed for her examination of a sector comprising over 10% of recent college students. Expanding her dissertation, it is the first in-depth study beyond academia that I am aware of, that covers more than default rates on loans, corporate models, stockholders, or legal ramifications. (She addresses these). Dr. Cottom interviews over a hundred people within this market-funded industry. "These shareholder for-profit colleges are the institutions whose tuition rates appear to be pegged to maximum student loan limits, arguably to extract as much profit from students who can borrow the most because they have the least amount of assets and the fewest college choices." This is a factor that might be attributed to non-profit private colleges too, or nearly so, given perpetual tuition increases. Still, one aspect that Cottom elides is the actual cost of educating a student at a for-profit vs. a traditional institution. For-profits claim that state institutions receive taxes, private ones enjoy endowments, and both elicit alumni donations, unlike their own sector. 18% of their budgets go to "instruction" and 23% for recruitment. "The risk for changing jobs and moving up the professional ladder has shifted to individual workers across race, class, and gender. That risk makes credentials valuable only insofar as those credentials are easy to start, easy to fit into complex lives, and easy to pay for. For-profit colleges nail that trifecta for millions of people who are similarly vulnerable in this new economy of risk shift." She seems spot-on here, but professors merited more. "Visiting faculty" frequently work at for-profits and traditional institutions, at multiple locations. What's the impact? Cottom labels this product as "risky credentials." She overlooks results: how do employers, or graduate schools beyond the for-profit's own, regard such degrees? Are they respected? "Fundamentally, institutions that can turn inequality into profit even when we, citizens and persons, would agree that it is immoral for them to do so provide a far more interesting and powerful account than the impact of any single actor. This, I conclude, is the case with the troubling rise of Lower Ed." These ethics invite debate. Assuming nobody is rejected who can come up with a way to pay, and as tuition is linked to the maximum (usually as not grants but lucrative loans, boosting any provider's prospectus) amount the government (i.e. taxpayer) funds, is this immoral? Trade school lobbyists counter they serve marginalized millions.         The pressure to finance a certificate or degree means that already strapped and overwhelmed students comprise and invest in themselves within a compliant demographic. One they want to rise above. Students may add to their woes by taking on fees that may add up to as much as an elite school but which put them at a "cumulative disadvantage." Debt hobbles millions. “We are not an admissions office. We are a sales force.” As this testimony from an enrollment division's supervisor attests, potential and present students are customers. Their intellectual potential is almost never mentioned. As to increasingly all-online education; it can't be that more expensive to instruct a large class by remote media. If so, why not explore profit gain? What advantages vs. disadvantages result? Are all degrees equivalent in merit? Do any for-profits improve this model? Are quality control and rigor enforced?    "Cost savings were reserved for investors, never for students, as shareholder for-profit colleges kept tuition rates sufficiently high to extract maximum federal student aid dollars." Here’s the crux. Government financial aid wasn’t set up to benefit stockholders rather than needy folks.       "In the case of the new economy, the labor market ethos is clear: more, better, faster workers produced cheaply at little to no expense for companies and speculators. As the public, we once chose to let shareholder for-profit colleges promise to do just that. The evidence is in on that promise. For-profit colleges do not have employment or wage returns that justify their cost to either students or our public system of financial aid." Few voters realize how this sector took advantage, being a business and not a charity, true, of this production line. Ongoing enrollment and rapid matriculation generate metrics. If this clientele is not catered to by traditional schools, Cottom argues, for-profits will proliferate. Lower Ed appeared while the previous administration sought tougher oversight; said sector fought back in lobbying, and in soliciting students to overwhelm legislators with testimonials. Promotion of job placement rates and levels of income for graduates were examined. A year after her book was written, enforcement ebbed. But this past decade, growth dipped in this sector as traditional institutions diversify. One reliable market pursued is the military, for the financial aid students here receive is not counted under the limit (90%?) that the government caps as a total amount. A loophole used to advantage by many for-profits.      "He could count on easy access to financial aid refunds and an online class structure with an underground economy of coursework that could be bought or borrowed." This aside from a student who "works the system" deserved emphasis. Standardized curricula and textbook-generated exams create "learning opportunities" which savvy students exploit. This aspect is not likely scrutinized by overseers; it's easier to keep lessons basic, for hiring. Faculty can be placed quickly and courses roll out efficiently—mass production at work.      "One of the for-profit colleges’ great disruptions is to the role of faculty, who are rarely expected to be active researchers. Research in for-profit colleges is more likely to fall under ‘marketing’ as opposed to 'academics.”' Few institutions provide physical libraries or labs. Faculty may lack access to paywalled databases. Duties and teaching loads tend to exceed courseloads at traditional universities for "hired at-will" faculty. This sector favors professors who are also active in their fields and therefore non-tenured. Is this hiring a negative or a positive preference?         "How can a college that is honor-bound to extract excess tuition remediate the interlocking, systemic, entrenched, and inheritable conditions of poverty, near-poverty, and inequality?" Excellent question. For-profits may re-brand as education providers or corporate contractors. But moral debate continues. Defenders assert that those left out of traditional education need a leg up. Critics wonder why this assistance comes at a hefty price tag, and who foots this bill.      "Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige." After all, this ambitious audience responds to data-driven recruiters. A schoolteacher takes on debt that can reach hundreds of thousands for an online advanced degree. This risk of expense is trumped by the accelerated, incessant open enrollment, and the chance that such degrees will meet with the acceptance rates equivalent to selective schools. That student's gamble is why for-profits extend their offer to invite customers to the degree-gaming table. (Amazon US 9/20/17 in slightly different form--sorry about the paragraphing or lack of above in transition to this blog)

Friday, July 3, 2020

John M. Bowers' "Tolkien's Lost Chaucer" Book Review

 Cover for 

Tolkiens Lost Chaucer

While at least some who discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s works as young people go on to study medieval literature, very few have first approached Tolkien after having established their careers as experts in the British Middle Ages. Professor John M. Bowers, a seasoned scholar on the Gawain poet, William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, brings to his investigation of Tolkien’s “lost Chaucer” a variety of engaging strategies enabling those familiar with either writer to enjoy the other one.

Bowers confesses that he barely knew of hobbit fantasies when Bowers glimpsed Tolkien during his Rhodes Scholar stint at Oxford, shortly before the master’s death in 1973. Familiar, however, with Tolkien’s academic contributions, Bowers only caught on to the popular appeal of the author of The Lord of the Rings after his sister gave him the film trilogy as a boxed set at the start of this century. The previous century found Tolkien arguably more appreciated by millions, contrasted with those who had been assigned the opening of The Canterbury Tales in high school. Bowers made up mid-career for his delayed start. Having explored Middle Earth attentively and with deep appreciation, he provides a welcome, fresh foray into both medieval and modern lore.

With so much academic work devoted to Chaucer, and an increasing amount to Tolkien (both deep within and on the fringes of the academy), innovations elude many publishing on these writers. Bowers’ acumen with Middle English and Chaucer’s oeuvre enlivens his parallel adventure into the papers left behind by Tolkien from his work on the Oxford University Press Clarendon Chaucer edition. As a harried lecturer with a growing family to support, Tolkien struggled to balance his invention of Middle Earth and its burgeoning intricacies with his professional duties. He longed to expand his beloved imaginary horizons beyond the podium.

Finding that Tolkien may have often begged off duties to devote precious time to his fabulous fiction, Bowers turns to his former dissertation advisor, V.A. Kolve. He was one of the last in the undergraduate program to work for Tolkien as a research assistant, back in 1958. Kolve recalls his mentor’s confiding: “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.” The ties binding students to masters at Oxford meant only a chosen few could attend Tolkien’s tutorials and lectures, but these scholars spread the reputation of Tolkien through their own specialized monographs and articles, quoting Tolkien often on Beowulf or Old English.

This represents the attention paid to Tolkien the scholar, compared with the fabulist-on-the-side. Upending the common method, by which Tolkien enthusiasts tend to look to his medieval inspirations to track sources and analogies, Bowers comes from immersion in Chaucer back to his erstwhile scribe. In his annotated proofs and diligent notes for the Clarendon project, Bowers uncovers affinities galore. Out of this at first unprepossessing material in the Oxford archives, the “grey box” of sheets scribbled in Tolkien’s fastidious if eccentric handwriting remind Bowers of Gandalf poring over “the slashed, stabbed, and partly burned Book of Mazurbal.”

Bowers avers that Tolkien’s selling point, which under his sponsor George Gordon elevated Tolkien from his position at Leeds to a professorship at Oxford, was the fact that, if hired, the academic could labor on their stalled edition of Chaucer. However, 30 years’ of intermittent labor never was published. Tolkien abandoned it in 1951. Three years later, his trilogy appeared.

All the same, his skilled efforts at textual studies and etymological derivations inspired key episodes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bowers pulls out such small details as Tolkien’s service as a signaling officer in the Great War or his fear of being outed as a Catholic, too. Bowers shows how Tolkien’s life and legends interweave, and how his status at Oxford fared compared to his counterpart C.S. Lewis. This takes a bit of shine off the glory bestowed by admirers of the latter chronicler, but it necessarily proves that Tolkien faced severe obstacles, looming or subtle, that complicated his Chaucer contributions and diminished his learned output. These biographical surmises, backed by letters and lectures unpublished from the same archives, enrich what previous admirers have devoted to Tolkien’s impact. Bowers possesses balance; he avoids hagiography. Instead, he compares Tolkien’s career at times to that of Chaucer himself.

This clever set of affinities creates the most engaging part of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. How the Oxford don reacted to yew trees, mills and millers or “felled elms” in his childhood echoes in his Middle Earth world. Bowers, in one of many instances, demonstrates how his close reading of Tolkien’s archived manuscripts and notes strengthened Tolkien’s compulsion to pore most of his energy into a realm emerging that rivalled and perhaps surpassed the ambitious, unfinished plans of Chaucer for his great book of many pilgrims relating many stories. A coda takes Tolkien’s own unfinished project forward, through the editing of his son Christopher. While neither Chaucer nor Tolkien could complete their greatest works, they leave plenty behind for steady pioneers such as John Bowers to unearth, revealing that riches still await men who dig deep for gold.
Spectrum Culture 3/5/20

P.S. Delighted to verify in print, in this title I review, that my diss. advisor name-checked in this review (who far earlier advised similarly the author of this study) was one of JRRT's last "probationary B.Litt students" at Oxford in 1958. He'd arrive for tutoring at 11 AM and the professor poured gin out for them both from rather soiled glasses. So I'm two steps removed from the inspiration for my own medieval studies, as a boy 6000 miles away in dusty, smoggy SoCal, who read The Hobbit when I was nine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

David Mitchell's "Utopia Avenue": Book Review

 Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Eight novels into his career, David Mitchell's established himself. You can count on his fiction to take you into a multicultural space, a cultural clash, and (nearly always) a spiritual--or at least supernatural--encounter. Engagingly told by either first or third-person narrators, his plots unfurl to keep any reader turning the pages. Which can add up, given the heft of most of his tales speculating on the grey areas between this realm and other ones.

If you've come to Utopia Avenue fresh, I'd suggest a detour. You need to start with The Bone Clocks (2014), and maybe the spin-off novella from the following year, Slade House. (Both reviewed on PopMatters). These will prepare you to step back into Mitchell's oeuvre. His first book introduced his modus operandi. Ghostwritten (1999) lives up to its title. It shuffles through various lives in different places across many centuries. The characters merge subtly with one another. Tellingly, the substance of the novel adds up to nine lives. The manner of how their essences may be transmitted in turn floats into a vast Cloud Atlas. 

Probably Mitchell's best known effort to date, Cloud Atlas creates an ambitious narrative which follows similar themes as his debut. But in this 2004 effort, Mitchell amps up the energy and the invention over a wider range of prose styles and six-times-two extended set-pieces which draw one into: the mind of a nineteenth-century notary at sea, a poor musician's journal early in the next century, a whistle-blower's thriller, a dystopian robotic Asia, and a wittily sour publisher on the lam. These nestle into one another like Russian dolls, burrowing into the central tale in post-apocalyptic Hawai'i before emerging to repeat the cycle of the previous five sections in reverse, by resolving each interrupted story.

However, even then a reader will not be ready to appreciate fully the backdrop of Utopia Avenue unless he or she finishes first the sprawling (even by Mitchell's standards) 2010 historical saga set at the turn of the eighteenth-century in Nagasaki, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. These prerequisites will prove enjoyable, and none will feel like assigned homework to catch up on. Nevertheless, this short stack of tall tales will take a while, so those opening Utopia Avenue need to know they'll be expected to have kept pace with prolific Mitchell over two decades. This leaves out, all the same, his remaining two novels.

The frenetic number9dream (2001) conjures up a chaotic sense of modern Tokyo; Mitchell lived in Japan for many years. Its own nine chapters thread together an imitation of Haruki Murakami rather than Mitchell's genuine voice, although the practice he gets in eclectic structures and experimental settings prepares him for Cloud Atlas. Finally, there's one charming outlier, his semi-autobiographical reminiscences of a thirteen-year-old on a housing estate in the middle of Worcestershire. It's told straightforwardly, and movingly.

Black Swan Green (2006) evokes powerfully Thatcher's England of the Falklands War, the New Romantics, synth-pop, stuttering, and all things British and/or annoying circa 1982. The audiobook performance by Kirby Heyborne will reward; many of Mitchell's works transfer well to the spoken word, although I'd make sure one has already a firm grip on the printed version of Cloud Atlas, given its dialects, intricate references, and inventive terms.

Back to the future for Mitchell fits. His storylines unravel chronology. In fact, the eerie Horologists who try to bottle up human life-forces so as to distill the Oil of Souls thrive on defying linearity as they strive to apply their energies to a vampire-fueled immortality. If this sentence makes sense, then one can follow Utopia Avenue. But one of its main characters, Jasper de Zoet, discovers his lineage traces back to 1800 Nagasaki, and that unfinished business then accounts for the mess that destroys the settled life of another protagonist at the start of The Bone Clocks, which ticks off from 1984 through its cast of misfits into 2043.

So, slot in Utopia Avenue between The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks. In the spirit of Ghostwritten, characters face strange enemies. Connections appear subtly between these and more. For in Utopia Avenue as in all his works, Mitchell scatters "Easter Egg" appearances or allusions to his previous--and one presumes--future fiction. Characters and their works survive and echo as their stories already told reverberate softly.

It's difficult to convey the pleasures within Utopia Avenue to the uninitiated who enter David Mitchell's universe. Suffice to say that unless spoilers get revealed, only the gist of the work can be related. A few PopMatters faithful will know of the English folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention. Well, take Sandy Denny (who appears as do many musicians of the psychedelic era in cameos or small supporting roles), one of its talented vocalists. She's channeled into Elf Holloway, a keyboardist from the folk scene, and one of three singer-songwriters. Second, Dean Moss hails from Gravesend, on the Thames estuary where the owners of the local pub will reappear as The Bone Clocks begin ticking. This bassist hails from the working-class in London itself. The class-consciousness plays a role in establishing the tensions and the diversity that enriches the new ensemble. They're joined by jazz-trained drummer Griff from darkest Yorkshire, and Jacob himself, a sort of Richard Thompson scarecrow figure on amazing guitar. Similarities ensue with real bands such as Fairport.

Car crashes, tragic passings (Mitchell excels at death scenes, premature or final), bleary touring and international hassles, sexist pop-show hosts, and smarmy manipulators all scheme against the three men and one woman (this group battles leering come-ons and baffled reaction in times not as advanced yet as some from sixty-odd years on may assume).

Mitchell's done his homework. The mmersion into not only London but a trucker's stop where ruffled and velvet-clad foppish musicians recharge after being on the concert trail, the wonder and danger of San Francisco's allure as seen through the eyes of members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the dense terror and drive of Manhattan appear vividly as Utopia Avenue, the scrappy titular band, struggle up the charts and on blurred tours.

Laurel Canyon, Amsterdam, the Chelsea Hotel, and the less-heralded backwaters of Britain receive affectionate, insightful, and well-detailed depictions. Mitchell gets his rhythms right. Even a prison cell in Rome benefits from this writer's careful eye for all of the senses. Being born the start of 1969, he nonetheless benefits from his short distance from one who "really remembered the Sixties." He's old enough to have grown up with its musical legacy and cultural heritage. He's young enough to have been educated about the Aquarian Age's follies, its political naivete, and its bouts of impotence against endemic hate that trumps peace.

Woven into this revival of an age of expectation, Mitchell stitches a subtle critique of the impacts of the pot-heavy, lysergic-immersed, and heady music's ambitions on pop culture, moral choices, and even tripping itself. One watches the creation of verses; the novel is cleverly arranged to illustrate how each song on each album began its life--and Mitchell comes up with convincing lyrics too. The force of music as it emerges mysteriously or insistently in the mind of a capable (or baffled or stoned) composer gains clout as Mitchell expresses how notes stick on frets. The author examines deftly the ideals which force and beckon the four musicians and their circle to confront choices for good and evil. Amidst the slogans and chants, the violence (emotional and physical) exacted and inflicted around the band's predicament to stay true to their ethos makes them all mature into better people.

And that's the encouraging lesson of Utopia Avenue. The way to a better world, Mitchell quietly emphasizes, demands that responsibility not be shirked, and that cant or rhetoric fails to solve human loneliness or hereditary alienation. His composed, existential view may not please all, but his own Buddhist-inspired contemplation amidst the carnage and ecstasy of this romanticized era reminds us today of the caution needed when messages get blared.

"Music + Mind-Bending" at PopMatters 6/9/20 with hyperlinks to the cultural mentions. And a very trippy artwork that graces the review. Better than the galley (?) cover shown....