Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Why Kerouac Matters," by John Leland




"Moby-Dick"is such a tough climb that you can miss a lot of the scenery on the way up.

Like Mount Everest, with "Moby Dick" there's no denying the presence of greatness, but wrapping yourself around it is another question.

It is a symptom of how low the reading public has fallen in highwayscribery's estimation that the famed novel's solid reputation comes as something of a surprise.

Are people still reading this book?

Herman Melville's prose is dense and rich and hard work to absorb. That said, it would not be going out on a limb, given the classic's status, to say the effort is worth the while.

Hung from the author's whale tale are many meditations on the human (and animal!) condition and his prolific output and textured life inform them beautifully.

"Moby Dick" has so much to give, but one must wonder whether Melville could even find a publisher in today's environment.

Last year, this scribe entered his latest effort, "The Sidewalk Smokers Club," into the "Writer's Digest" book contest. That particular competition and publication seem rooted in the academic wing of today's American literary universe, their contents and judgments fueled by so many masters and mistresses of fine arts.

In any case, the book "scored" well without passing to the next round. The judge had problems with the "loss of momentum" that took place when the highway scribe's alter ego, Stephen Siciliano, intermittently and briefly, digressed from his yarn and extrapolated certain going's-on in the story to the larger universe surrounding.

That judge never read "Moby Dick."

In the epic, Melville's actual "story" might be told using one-fifth the pages he actually presses from his fevered mind: The narrator gets on a whaling boat for cash and adventure, but is unwittingly enlisted in Captain Ahab's mad quest to end the life of Moby Dick and avenge the white beast's severing of his leg.

Along the way, however, the reader is treated to voluminous information about the cetaceous species, "Cetaceous," being an expression the scribe did not know until attacking this tome.

Right whale, humpback whale, gray whale, and sperm whale - the particular star of "Moby Dick" -- all get their due. And not a perspective rendered from some distant boat deck mind you, but from the inside out, from mouth to blow-hole, to the tippy-tippy "fluke" (more cetaceous vocabulary).

And this is good, for books should inform us of things we thought we knew more about, especially in the case of the whale, which is Melville's point, as it is the largest living animal and a subject of remarkable strength, grace, and symbolism.

But such discourse, however edifying, does serve to break-up the narrative -- a lot.

And those who haven't worked much on a 19th Century commercial sailing vessel will find the preponderance of nautical terms daunting.

Spar, gunwhale, leeward, and aft, chocks, mizzen Donner and Blitzen, it's all rather hard to keep track of so that the uninitiated is tempted to "read through" the detailed renderings of seafaring equipment in an effort to get on with the story.

And that's a lot of skimming.

If our democracy grants everybody an opinion and permits an unknown writer to pass judgment upon a national treasure, highwayscribery would venture that "Moby Dick" is better in many of its parts than it is as a whole and integrated artistic work.

There...we said it.

Melville is muscular and poetic, scientific and rigorous, cultured and biblical in his writerly search for life's truths through the prism of an ocean adventure.

In highwayscribery's favorite passage, the monomaniacal Ahab talks with the severed head of a whale his crew hunted a day earlier:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which though ungarnished with beard, yet here and there look hoary with mosses, speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundation. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou has been where bell or diver never went; has slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sunk beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them..."

It is one of several stunning meditations on the sea's mysteries. Also a reminder of how much knowledge both above and below the sea's surface is beyond man's reach, and of the ever-present perils that dearth of information poses.

Melville's Pequod, boat and motley crew alike, are a dark vision, something out of Burning Man, a world-beat symphony 100 years before Bob Marley that accrues flavors as it traverses the earth's diverse quadrants, dark and desperate, aboriginal and Quaker, murderous and hungry and vulnerable, too.

Like many of the big books, Moby requires not so much a second reading as a scholarly commitment to its multi-layered method and madness, a love affair, a small piece of your life, for in crafting it, Melville clearly gave a piece of his own.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Moby Dick," by Herman Melville




"Moby-Dick"is such a tough climb that you can miss a lot of the scenery on the way up.

Like Mount Everest, with "Moby Dick" there's no denying the presence of greatness, but wrapping yourself around it is another question.

It is a symptom of how low the reading public has fallen in highwayscribery's estimation that the famed novel's solid reputation comes as something of a surprise.

Are people still reading this book?

Herman Melville's prose is dense and rich and hard work to absorb. That said, it would not be going out on a limb, given the classic's status, to say the effort is worth the while.

Hung from the author's whale tale are many meditations on the human (and animal!) condition and his prolific output and textured life inform them beautifully.

"Moby Dick" has so much to give, but one must wonder whether Melville could even find a publisher in today's environment.

Last year, this scribe entered his latest effort, "The Sidewalk Smokers Club," into the "Writer's Digest" book contest. That particular competition and publication seem rooted in the academic wing of today's American literary universe, their contents and judgments fueled by so many masters and mistresses of fine arts.

In any case, the book "scored" well without passing to the next round. The judge had problems with the "loss of momentum" that took place when the highway scribe's alter ego, Stephen Siciliano, intermittently and briefly, digressed from his yarn and extrapolated certain going's-on in the story to the larger universe surrounding.

That judge never read "Moby Dick."

In the epic, Melville's actual "story" might be told using one-fifth the pages he actually presses from his fevered mind: The narrator gets on a whaling boat for cash and adventure, but is unwittingly enlisted in Captain Ahab's mad quest to end the life of Moby Dick and avenge the white beast's severing of his leg.

Along the way, however, the reader is treated to voluminous information about the cetaceous species, "Cetaceous," being an expression the scribe did not know until attacking this tome.

Right whale, humpback whale, gray whale, and sperm whale - the particular star of "Moby Dick" -- all get their due. And not a perspective rendered from some distant boat deck mind you, but from the inside out, from mouth to blow-hole, to the tippy-tippy "fluke" (more cetaceous vocabulary).

And this is good, for books should inform us of things we thought we knew more about, especially in the case of the whale, which is Melville's point, as it is the largest living animal and a subject of remarkable strength, grace, and symbolism.

But such discourse, however edifying, does serve to break-up the narrative -- a lot.

And those who haven't worked much on a 19th Century commercial sailing vessel will find the preponderance of nautical terms daunting.

Spar, gunwhale, leeward, and aft, chocks, mizzen Donner and Blitzen, it's all rather hard to keep track of so that the uninitiated is tempted to "read through" the detailed renderings of seafaring equipment in an effort to get on with the story.

And that's a lot of skimming.

If our democracy grants everybody an opinion and permits an unknown writer to pass judgment upon a national treasure, highwayscribery would venture that "Moby Dick" is better in many of its parts than it is as a whole and integrated artistic work.

There...we said it.

Melville is muscular and poetic, scientific and rigorous, cultured and biblical in his writerly search for life's truths through the prism of an ocean adventure.

In highwayscribery's favorite passage, the monomaniacal Ahab talks with the severed head of a whale his crew hunted a day earlier:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which though ungarnished with beard, yet here and there look hoary with mosses, speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundation. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou has been where bell or diver never went; has slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sunk beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them..."

It is one of several stunning meditations on the sea's mysteries. Also a reminder of how much knowledge both above and below the sea's surface is beyond man's reach, and of the ever-present perils that dearth of information poses.

Melville's Pequod, boat and motley crew alike, are a dark vision, something out of Burning Man, a world-beat symphony 100 years before Bob Marley that accrues flavors as it traverses the earth's diverse quadrants, dark and desperate, aboriginal and Quaker, murderous and hungry and vulnerable, too.

Like many of the big books, Moby requires not so much a second reading as a scholarly commitment to its multi-layered method and madness, a love affair, a small piece of your life, for in crafting it, Melville clearly gave a piece of his own.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"A Man Without a Country," by Kurt Vonnegut


Had Kurt Vonnegut died in Nov. 2008 his literary goodbye,"A Man Without a Country" might have been brighter.

Maybe the sea change in American politics was already affecting Vonnegut when he passed on April 11, 2007, but this book, his last sigh, had been published in 2005.

That means it would have been written the year before, an annus horribilis, marked by the American peoples' unfortunate validation of George W. Bush's presidency.

So Vonnegut, an avowed socialist, was pretty soured on the United States. And that resulted in his swan song being a mixture of a trademark whimsy and heavy doses of dead seriousness.

For the book-loving, Vonnegut unpacked this chestnut:

Do you realize that all great literature -- "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "The Bible," and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," -- are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)

Maybe it's a relief if you've lived well and are on the way out, but if a good stretch of road is still in front of you, not so much.

In "Man Without..." the famed writer riffed often on the oil problem, our national addiction, and the increasingly desperate decisions being made by the country's leaders to placate that addiction.

Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet -- and the only one in the whole Milky Way -- with a century of transportation whoopee.

But, as can be seen from this quote's opening beats, oil addiction is but a symptom. It's the human race that rots.

Why was Vonnegut a man without a country? Here's a decent stretch, long in inches, but short in bandwidth, wherein he lays out his case in the writerly way:

Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
That's correct.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
That's correct.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
That's correct.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
That's correct.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment's notice, the safer humanity is and the better of the world will be that our grandchildren inherit.
That's correct.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
That's correct.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That's correct.
That's free enterprise.
And that's correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn't be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
That's correct.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
That's correct.
The free market will do that.
That's correct.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
That's correct.
I'm kidding.


Which reminds us of how good writers communicate deep concepts with simplicity and economy.

Vonnegut was dead-set against the war in Iraq. His chief grievance was the unprovoked nature of the military action and he drafted a historical parallel with the U.S. invasion of Mexico in the 19th Century.

More than a decade before his Gettysburg Address, back in 1848, when Lincoln was only a Congressman, he was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us. James Polk was the person Representative Lincoln had in mind when he said what he said. Abraham Lincoln said of Polk, his president, his armed forces' commander-in-chief:

Trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory - that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood - that serpent's eyes, that charms to destroy - he plunged into war.

Holy shit! And I thought I was a writer!


We told you there was whimsy melded into book's gloomy view.

One chapter revisits an old Vonnegut favorite about the simplicity of successful story structure, but then goes a step further wherein he demonstrates why "Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho," whose true virtue was that he told the truth in a world where the truth is in short supply.

A lifetime of literary creation and consumption led our subject to crown poet Carl Sandburg a personal favorite, and Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as a "flawless example of American genius like, 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."

He warns writers off using semi-colons, "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing." And then, after using one, remarks, "The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules."

"Man Without a Country" plugs Eugene Debs and plies the sad story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

This gentleman convinced his unbelieving fellow doctors that leaving the morgue after doing autopsies to perform surgery on live patients, without washing their hands first, was causing a lot of death.

It is a story of truth spurned and suicide and one of the reasons, along with Vonnegut's presence at the firebombing of Dresden, he lost hope in the human race.

Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too. I am a veteran of the Second World War and I have to say this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine.

My last words? "Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse."


Perhaps it was the responsibility of Vonnegut's editor to loyally assist in the assaying of a downer document. We expect these things from older people. Their pessimism completes the arc of our devolutionary intellectual development.

But we also expect wisdom from a life lived well and fully. So highwayscribery is going to step in and close this report with something that appeared at the beginning of the book and, for that reason, may have been lost to those who closed "A Man Without a Country,' in gloom.

It is advice with which highwayscribery agrees, often propounds to novice writers, and finds worthy of such a fine man and artist:

If you want to hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created to something.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," by David Wroblewski



To call "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"a tragedy is to give the thing away, but there is no path around it.

From the first pages of this long tale of an ill-fated Wisconsin family, writer David Wroblewski soaks his reader in a prose that reeks of foreboding and skillfully draws-out the deep vulnerability hidden beneath layers of illusion in all of us.

There is a strange prologue involving the death by poisoning of a dog in the back streets of an unnamed Korean city during the time of America’s military action in that country.

And poison is the story here, both literally and metaphorically. “Edgar Sawtelle” tells how a fateful act committed years before can affect so many people so many years after. It tells how one bad seed in a family can poison the well for all the rest.

Wroblewski’s large and first opus is set in mid-20th Century Wisconsin on a kennel started by a man who purchased a pretty parcel from an unlucky farmer and seemed to assume and bequeath that bad luck to his son and those of his immediate family.

It is a dog story, among many other kinds of story including family drama, road adventure, and small-town yarn writ large with life’s big questions. It is certainly more than the New York Times best-seller list summary, that imparts, “A mute takes refuge with three dogs in the Wisconsin woods after his father’s death,” which turns the neat trick of getting it all wrong while being right in the particular.

But that’s why Wroblewski wrote 562 pages and not a sentence and also why writers hate summaries.

Here is a detailed dissection of life on a kennel that, even in the 1950s, “placed” dogs with owners at a clip of $1,500 each. The book reveals the patient mind-grooming associated with the training of dogs and posits that an untrained dog is almost no dog at all, a furry potential unrealized. It goes inside the mind of the boy’s favorite, the tender Almondine, with a heart-wrenching authenticity. The novel unspools a debate surrounding the pairing of mates and mixing of bloodlines and the variety of goals behind these exercises. And it dramatizes the vanity of the untrained in such a delicate science and transfers the wild strain in one family’s genes to the breed of dogs that carries their name and genius.

“Edgar Sawtelle” is a portrait of mid-century, rural America that those who lived during or near either will recognize in the make and smell of cars, the brands of boxed sweets, the unregulated Fourth of July lakeside fireworks celebration, and Edgar’s “Zebco” fishing tackle.

And it is, of course, the “Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” born mute, but so hardy his struggle to communicate and evolve like other children is seemingly forgotten by his parents at no small expense.

Wroblewski’s writing is long on description and it is a tough decision to mention this characteristic critically, while simultaneously admitting to the strong sense of time and place his book imbues the reader with. His novel does not really get cooking until about 200 pages in, but after that really becomes a page-turner, which is a way of saying you have to work with “Edgar Sawtelle,” dealing both with the extended set-up and the nerve-wracking sense that something is going very wrong.

Which is to say it succeeds at engrossing, in taking a reader beyond the bucolic façade of a kennel on a country road, and dissolving that image to reveal the terrible mistakes people can make and the resulting damage.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is a force to be reckoned with on its own terms.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Studies on Love," by Jose Ortega y Gasset



The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) made a name for himself in the 1930s with Revolt of the Masses, a book which lamented the industrial era's effect on Western culture. It created, he said, a need for specialization which led to a stunted humanity characterized by mediocrity and the "median man' of which he observed: "This planet is condemned to the reign of the median man. As such, the important task is to elevate the median as much as possible."

Ortega abhorred the dehumanizing effects of science and its handmaiden, reason, upon the life of this world. Nonetheless, as editor and publisher of the El Sol newspaper, and as the leader of his own political party in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Ortega was a logical voice in an era when violent passions would ultimately prevail. While not nearly as seminal a work as Revolt, a collection of Ortega's essays edited from El Sol, and packaged as "Estudios Sobre El Amor" (Studies On Love)(1939), is certainly his most charming. In this collection, Ortega, a professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, takes reason and trains it upon that greatest of human mysteries: Love.

Here are the results
:

Ortega sets out, as a good philosopher, to define his concept and begins by debunking the equating of love with happiness. "Who doubts that the lover can receive joy from the beloved? But is it no less certain that love is at times sad as death, a sovereign and mortal torture?"

He quotes the letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her untrue seducer: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the desperation you have caused me and detest the tranquility in which I lived prior to knowing you."

Love's hypothetical happiness disproved with an example, Ortega bores into his subject. Love, he maintains, is incitement. "Through a pore opened by the arrow launched from an object of affection springs love, actively directing itself toward them...It flows from the lover toward the beloved -- from me to the other, in a centrifugal direction."

As an emanation toward the object, love is not unlike hate, the difference being that love flows toward its target positively, whereas hate proffers negativity. Both, however, generate heat produced in varying degrees. "All love," he notes, "passes through phases of diverse temperature and, subtly, the language of love talks of those relations which 'cool,' and the lover complains of the beloved's tepid responses, of their coldness."

The third aspect to love's definition must naturally, perhaps hopefully, take into account the point at which lover and beloved are united.

Perfect Projection

Ortega insists that love not only errs upon occasion but is essentially an error. "We fall in love when our imagination projects nonexistent perfection upon another person. One day, the fantasy evaporates and with it, love dies."

The idea, like so many around us, is born with the Greeks: Plato to be specific. Ortega points out that for Plato, all love resides in the desire to unite the person who loves to another being blessed with perfection, in the volition of our soul toward something excellent, better and superior. "Let the reader try generating a state of enchantment -- sexual enchantment -- in an object which provides not a single aspect of excellence, and see how impossible it becomes."

Sexual instinct, he points out, may preserve the species, but does not perfect it. Throw love into the sexual mix, however, and enthusiasm for that other being, for their body and soul in union indissoluble, and what you get is a gargantuan effort to improve the breed.

"With the erotic process barely initiated, the lover experiences a strange sense of urgency to dissolve their individuality into the other, and vice versa, to become absorbed by the beloved...This recalls the doctrine of the Saint Simonians, according to which, the true human individual is the loving couple."

Our world, Ortega says, is cluttered with innumerable objects whilst the field of our conscience is very limited. The details of this world engage in a kind of fight for our attention, which supplants one object with another, according to its importance. "Mania," consequently, is a condition of focus extended beyond the limits of normality. Ortega suggests that all the great thinkers have been maniacs. "When they asked Newton how he was able to discover his mechanical understanding of the universe, he responded, 'By thinking about it day and night.'"

Love, our philosopher says, works the same way, represents an anomalous focusing of attention upon another person. "It does not constitute enrichment of our mental life," he points out, "just the opposite. It grows rigid and fixed, prisoner to a single being. Plato called it Theia mania (divine mania). Nonetheless, the person enamored has the sense of life being much richer. In the reduction of their world, it seemingly grows more concentrated."

For a lover, then, the world ceases too exist, having been supplanted completely by the beloved.

Loves Fatal Machinery

Curiously, the evolution of enchantment lacks spirituality, depending as it does upon the paralyzing of our attention -- that which regulates mental activity -- leaving the lover dependent upon a series of automatic, mechanical processes. Love, Ortega reasons, is an imposition which mocks free will. The great heartbreakers know this, that once they've managed to affix someone's attention to them, total preoccupation is possible with a simple tightening and loosening of the string attached to their romantic prey.

The lover falls under a "spell," an "enchantment." These, he notes, are words which point to love's extraordinary character. We resort to religious terminology when trying to describe it.

"The curious sharing of lexicons between love and mysticism leads one to suspect common roots." For Ortega, mysticism is also a phenomenon of attention. In the mystic, "God permeates the soul to the point of becoming confused with it, or the inverse, with the soul becoming diluted in God. Such is the union the mystic aspires to. The ecstatic perceives said union as something definitive and perennial, just as the lover swears eternal love.

"Once initiated, the process of enchantment develops with an exasperating monotony," Ortega points out. "What I mean to say is that all those who fall in love do it the same way - the smart one and the dope, the younger and the elder, the bourgeois and the artist. This fact confirms love's mechanical character."

The only exception to this mechanistic rule is found in the question of precisely what attracts the attention of one person to another. Ortega does not shrink from the challenge.

Naked in Love

By demonstrating an interest in someone, we expose much of ourselves that is hidden. "In the election of his mate, the male reveals his essence, in the election of her man, a female does the same," notes the philosopher. "The type of humanity we prefer in one another being sketches the profile of our own soul. Love is an impetus that emerges from the subterranean reaches of our person, and in traveling to the surface dredges the algae and shells of our interior with it."

Ortega posits that not unfamiliar situation which pairs a gregarious woman of beauty with a man considered low and vulgar. The judgment is usually an optical illusion because of the distance involved. Love, Ortega asserts, is the business of minute detail and the fact is that, viewed from far away, authentic love and false comport themselves in a similar manner: "But let's say the affection is genuine," he asks. "What are we to think?" One of two things: Either the man is not quite so vulgar as we thought, or the woman not so select."

The great error, vigilant since Descartes and the Renaissance, is that which views human being as living by the dictates of conscience, "that small part of ourselves with which we see clearly and which operates according to our will." The greater volume of our being, he asserts, is neither free nor rational. "In vain does the woman who would be viewed as exquisite try to fool us. We have seen she loves Joe, and Joe is clumsy, indelicate; caring only for the perfection of his tie and the shine to his Rolls."

Ortega argues that a man likes most women that pass within his periphery, but this instinct rarely strikes at the depths of his person. When it does, when that aforementioned emanation springs forth and toward the other, that is love. "If it is an idiocy to say that love between man and woman contains no sexual element, it is a bigger stupidity to suggest that love is sexuality. The sexual instinct has an ample sampling of objects to satisfy it, but love is exclusivity, selection."

Beauty

Beauty is that which invites selection and Ortega tackles the concept with particular relish. "More than acts and words, it is best to focus on what appears to be less important: gesture and physiology. Because they are spontaneous, they permit the escape of profound personal secrets and do so with exactitude."

He says that society has its "official beauties," those whom people point to at parties and in the theater, as if public monuments, which in a sense they are. Ortega suggests that such women may pique a man's desire to possess, but rarely gain his love. Their esthetic beauty sets them apart as artistic objects and the distance prevents love.

"The indifferent find beauty in the grand lines of the face and in the figure -- in what we typically call beauty. For the enamored, they do not exist, the grand lines and the architecture of the person which beckon from afar, have been erased. For them, beauty is found in the scattered features, the color of the pupil, the curve at the corner of the beloved's lips, the tone of their voice."

Boys and Girls

Ortega believes that woman is more capable of this all-encompassing, almost mystic state of love. He argues that the feminine psyche is less concentric, more cohesive and more elastic, thus better lending itself to the singular pursuit, or attention, required for love. "The feminine soul tends to live by a single axis of attention and each phase of her life rests upon a single matter.

"The more masculine the spirituality, the more dislocated the soul, as if divided into separate compartments," says Ortega. "Accustomed to living upon a multiple base, and in a series of mental fields with only the most precarious connection, conquering the attention of one achieves nothing since the rest remain free and intact."

Ortega points out how the woman enamored is frequently exasperated by a sense that she never has the entirety of the man she loves before her. "She always finds him a little distracted, as if, in setting out for their rendezvous he has left, dispersed across the world, entire provinces of the soul."

For this reason, even the most sensitive of men is shamed by his inability to attain the perfection a woman is capable of lending to love.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"American Made," by Nick Taylor



Writerly passion and interest can even inform a dry subject like the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In "American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work" Nick Taylor takes what might be food for only the wonkiest among us and gives a fighting chance with those who merely like an interesting story.

Lists and data are inevitable in a book about a public works project and so we are often exposed to paragraphs detailing the 5,000 bridges built, 70,000 zillion miles of road paved, one million people vaccinated etc. etc.

Not that this is without merit. Conveying a story, Taylor must-needs wrestle with the second job of assembling an accurate historical document to support his conclusion that the ordinary folks of the WPA "proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation."

The literary calculus here entails providing a political context for the WPA narrative, a focus on some of the agency's more colorful exploits, and the depiction of a nation brought to its knees by government neglect, rather than cataloguing every single deed done.

By way of background, the WPA was the newly inaugurated Franklin Delano Roosevelt's effort to provide some of the Great Depression's many unemployed millions a job.

"American Made," enjoyed a special relevance over the past few months as the Obama administration dug deep into our pockets to finance projects that would both stimulate the economy and put idle hands to doing some long-overdue repairs all around the country.

New Deal comparison were inevitable and "The New York Times" recently reported Taylor's appearance at a Gotham conference focused on the virtues of the era.

The book makes clear that, politically, little in the United States has changed over the past 80 years or so.

In an all-too-familiar role, the Republican Party of those times choked on its own insistence all economic issues be sorted out by free market, while its subscribers and supporters belittled WPA workers as bums looking for a handout.

Last week the highway scribe saw a bumper stick in Republican north county San Diego that read: "I voted for a hero, not a handout."

Same as it ever was.

"American Made" makes clear that, when Roosevelt could squeeze money for WPA projects out of Congress, unemployment went down and economic prosperity rose. In subsequent years, when budget balancing took precedent, the whole enchilada tanked once again.

Taylor does a nice job of fleshing out the major personality behind the WPA, administrator Harry Hopkins, whose book, "Spending to Save," serves as a perfect textual response to present day budget hawks and Bible for deficit defenders such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

But it is the stories of the little people writ large by their efforts on WPA projects that gives the book its life.

These include the story of a famed international chef reduced to assuming the cooking duties in the work camp at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

Another tells of an Appalachian women driven to the WPA rolls and charged with delivering used books on horseback to back country folk suffering as much from mental malnutrition as physical.

The recounting of John Houseman and Orson Welles launching a voodoo-infused version of MacBeth in Harlem brings to life New York culture of the time, details left-wing infiltration in Gotham's WPA branch, and shows how Republicans and Democrats alike used it as a springboard for a rollback of New Dealism, and worse, McCarthyism.

Chapters recounting terrible natural disaster impacting a beleaguered nation are pregnant with commentary on the importance of never wasting human desire to thrive, be useful, and live with some dignity.

These chapters attest to the potential dividends yielded by investing in human capital and to the virtue of the democratic project when it is working best.

The author smoothly lays out transitions in the political environment while successfully linking them to changes within the WPA itself.

The New Deal and the times in which it unfolded were not static, but ever ebbing and flowing. Nick Taylor's book does a fine job of capturing the personalities, the issues that moved them, the tenor and pitch of the debate surrounding.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician," Gerald Meyer


Emerson said an institution is the shadow of a single man, a lesson Gerald Meyer learned during research on the history of the American Labor Party (ALP).

In his "Acknowledgements" to the book under consideration here, Meyer confesses, "In the process of accomplishing this formidable task, I fell in love with Vito Marcantonio. The ALP was an important institution, but Marcantonio loomed over it."

"Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954"represents the skillful and thorough response to a series of questions posed by Herbert Gutman, the sponsor of Meyer's proposed doctoral dissertation: "Who voted for him? Why did they vote for him? What was East Harlem like? What did people do for a living? Who owned the stores?"

Meyer's work succeeded two earlier efforts, "Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress," by Alan Schaffer and "Vito Marcantonio, The People's Politician," by Salvatore John LaGumina.

Schaffer's effort placed Marcantonio in the national firmament of the times, 1902 to 1952, and LaGumina added some anecdotal history and a slightly different angle than that of his predecessor.

But it is Meyer's book that places Marcantonio in the New York of his day and, specifically, the East Harlem neighborhood that produced him.

Here is Marcantonio diving off a truck into the street mob during a speech, arms flailing. There the Congressman confessing unconditional trust in his grandmother who attends rallies with an umbrella under her coat in the event of fisticuffs.

And here is the "retail" congressman delivering coal and Christmas baskets to troubled neighbors, a guy who empties his pockets to the hard luck cases that pock his district.

Meyer's work goes where the other two did not in regards to the Marcantonio Papers archived at the New York Public Library on 42 St. and Fifth Avenue.

In these 85 boxes can be found dusty, flaky records of "Marc's" public life and work, but more importantly, the voices of his constituency, which Meyer has culled for insightful passages from letters both handwritten and typed.

Yes, Meyer meticulously details the complicated nature of New York City's "fusion" politics and the skill with which Marcantonio navigated them to unique projection as a national leader of far left-wing forces.

But the author also renders the radical politician's story an organic whole.

Rather than the narrative of some anomalous oddity out of time, we have in this book a man fleshed out and brought to life by the environment that produced him and to which he gave so much form, through his leadership.

In his conclusion, Meyer laments Marcantonio's slow fade into anonymity and argues that, "his story deserves to be known, because it contradicts so many of the platitudes which pass for American history and therefore suggests new ways of thinking about the present."

"Radical Politician" takes the first, bold steps in this effort, loyally transcribing the voices of desperate constituents seeking assistance of every kind and often beyond the natural purview of the congressional representative.

Meyer began his project just in time to provide his work with an important layer of oral history extracted from residents of East Harlem, now mostly departed.

Through these voices we gain the story of progressive and communist movements during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and begin affixing them to real faces; faces worn with lines wrought by terrible struggles.

And through these same voices, we hear Marcantonio's, because they were one and the same.

Thanks to Meyer's rendering of the fighting congressman and his world, we realize that, beneath the Jazz Age's glamorous narration, people were being crushed by the inequities in American life.

We witness how the annihilation accelerated with the next decade's economic miseries so that these movements appear not so much as insidious viruses inexplicably invading the body politic, rather as natural responses to a clamor for redemption.

And through Marcantonio's story, we can see how the ensuing repression was not the result of some lightning-strike catharsis which brought Americans to their senses, but the product of a brutal rollback to darkness fueled by American capital's resurgence after the healthy profit-making venture that was World War II.

"Radical Politician" renders a multifaceted talent: a lawyer, political street fighter, parliamentarian, neighborhood Don, leftist commissar. A man who had affairs, yet was sainted by those who knew and were affected by his labors, a man who switched tacks to accommodate the shifting sands of mid-century politics, and committed enough mistakes to make him more human and beautiful than so many that populate our historical memory.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Mayor," by Ed Koch


New York. If you can make it there, you can't make it anywhere else.

"Mayor: An Autobiography"has a strange launching point given that New York City was looking at six more years of Ed Koch when it was published and that it came on the heels of his surprising defeat in the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Mario Cuomo.

That loss was only the latest in a series of events described in this autobiography, which must have alerted Koch to the unique limitations associated with his otherwise powerful position.

"Mayor" comes off as the author's stab at "cashing in" before his story was fully told, because it had turned out to be truncated in advance of its termination.

Edward I. Koch assumed office at the city's nadir, in the wake of a rescue plan to save New York from bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. And although his popularity followed the typical politician's arc from novelty to popularity to ignominy, his mayoralty is widely considered to have been a success.

Koch was reelected twice by adeptly turning his gruff, no-nonsense personal style into a certifiable brand for the city itself.

"Mayor" details the idiosyncratic nature of New York City -- our country's financial and cultural capital -- the way Gotham stands apart, stewing in its distinction and self-sustaining...er, um selfness.

To wit: As mayor of America's largest city, Koch could not be ignored on certain issues of national import.

One of the longest chapters in the book involves President Jimmy Carter's efforts at getting Koch to round up the Jewish vote for his 1980 reelection bid and the Mayor's incessant push-back for certain concessions on the administration's Israel policy.

Having gained those concessions, Koch hit the hustings for Carter who was trounced by Ronald Reagan anyway.

And so it goes. Koch was a big fish in a big pond with no estuary by which to escape it.

Another study in mayoral limitations is Koch's accounting of negotiations with the Transportation Workers Union and the strike through which he successfully shepherded the city.

The Mayor's quandary was that, although the strike was in his city, the entity negotiating with organized labor was the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a feud of New York's governor.

Lacking real policy power, Koch glibly recounts how he used his bully pulpit, his penchant for walking the streets of the ultimate street-walking city, and a sly understanding of how New York's overheated media operates, to pull off a successful negotiation, mostly en absentia, with the all-powerful unions in pre-Reagan America.

But his skills were particular to that magnificent and fascinating city. Beyond its boundaries, whether campaigning in Florida for Carter, or clumsily insulting suburban and rural New Yorkers during the gubernatorial primary, Koch's style did not go over well.

"I'm still Mayor," he said after losing to Cuomo.

Exactly.

highwayscribery can remember Koch inarticulately peddling "Mayor" on Saturday Night Live following its publication, the over-the-top delivery, his brash charm clashing with the Klieg lights before falling flat in both the studio and over the airwaves.

But "Mayor" can be good fun for our politics-crazed, cable news addicted legions. It takes you into that room of players and lofty titles it shows you how it goes down, what they say, and who sorts it out.

The book offers egos, grown-up Kindergartners, well-meaning citizens getting hammered for their efforts, radicals of an era gone by all playing the roulette wheel of American democracy.

Koch performs in an entertaining fashion throughout. Tough, uncompromising, holding course often in spite of his missteps, ready each day to start flailing anew.

Ralph Waldo Emerson warned the poet that, "Others shall do the great and resounding things also. Though shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the capital or the exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine; thou must pass for a fool and churl for a long season."

Although "the capital's" inhabitants leave their imprints on future lives and their names on public works, the fascinating revelation in reading "Mayor" is the anonymity into which the big shots of an earlier time fade.

Who, today, remembers New York Governor Hugh Carey (D), or Koch's sexiest supporter Bess Myerson? Carter honcho Hamilton Jordan died last year while Rep. Bella Abzug (D)and her big hats are buried artifacts.

The cast of characters arrayed throughout "Mayor" could have easily been given aliases because it is their actions, more than their identities, that lend the narrative its thrust.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"The Madonna of 115th Street," by Robert Corsi


Like the many penitents he renders, Robert Orsi sees all things in "The Madonna of 115th Street."

A scholar of things religious, and connoisseur of matters Italian-American, Orsi combines these two interests so that one defines and explains the other.

To the uninitiated, the Madonna of Mount Carmel is just a statue like countless others throughout Europe and the Americas that interprets the Virgin Mary in plaster relief.

But in Orsi's erudite hands La Madonna (and the faith she engenders) becomes an analytical tool that unlocks doors to discussion on Italian-American family life, the role of work, the trials of immigration, the history of colonization in the old country, and, of course, food.

His base of scholarly operations is the now-vanished Italian East Harlem, but those raised in the culture will recognize themselves, their families, and neighborhood networks in its residents.

The author did years of in-depth research, but found most of his truths on the streets of Little Italy. The resulting interviews may have informed the text, but don't make many actual appearances.

Much of "Madonna" is given over to Orsi's ornate reasoning, and even speculation, about the meanings of the religious icon, and how they can be discerned in the behaviors of mid-century Italian-Americans in urban New York.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody had to do it and his thoughts mostly ring true. Where they don't, the opportunity for debate and discussion naturally arise, and that is a second service the author rendered.

Don't give this book to your Aunt Rosina in Coney Island unless she's got a college degree and a sociological bent. "Madonna" is a scholarly text that can be dense as a zeppole with academic jargon or leavened as a sfogliatelle with deeply meditative conclusions.

But it is a delightful trove of considerations on the Italian-American and immigrant experience; a beautiful piece of history that might have otherwise been lost to those who care them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Ornament of the World," Rosa Maria Menocal



"The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain"asserts that the history of modern life passed through medieval Andalusia and does a good job of making the case.

The subtitle to Maria Rosa Menocal's engaging volume is "How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain," but that doesn't say the half of it.

Which is fine, because the subtitle that can do justice to this alternately sweeping and efficient book probably doesn't exist.

In fact, the featured period of tri-partite harmony is but a brief one in the book, shattered by the kinds of antagonisms that sustain our state of violent tension today.

In those days of European ignorance and atavism, Menocal writes that, "Arabic beckoned with its vigorous love of all the things men need to say and write and read that not only lie outside faith but may even contradict it -- from philosophy to erotic love poetry and a hundred other things in between."

Menocal explains how the prophet Muhammad would not perform miracles, given that the Quran, the book off God's revelations, was the true miracle.

Latent in the Arab's linguistic passion was a respect for the Christian and Hebrew reliance on scriptures.

Pagans subjected to the Arabic invasions covered in this book were required to convert, while the two "Peoples of the Book," were granted religious freedom under a covenant known as the dhimma.

Under the prescriptions of the visionary Abd al-Rahman, founder of Al-Andalus (Arab moniker for the region of southern Spain),"the Muslims did not remain a ruling people apart. Rather, their cultural openness and ethnic egalitarianism were vital parts of a general social and political ethos within which the dhimmi could and did thrive."

If it doesn't sound much like the Afghani Taliban you know only too well, that's because there are Muslims, and then there are Muslims.

The good ones were the Umayyad.

How they became the faction they did (descendants of Muhammad's brother-in-law's sister's mother or something) is not so important as the fact another faction, the Almoravids, did them in on behalf of an Islamic intepretation more in-line with that which mystifies today.

The authoress maps out the rising tide and recession of ambulant Islam, the countercharge of Christian warriors, the religiously confused alliances of enemies when battles of family succession and greed intervened to rent the otherwise clear lines of battle asunder.

And the point of these events, for Menocal, is how the cultures involved were affected and transformed.

"Ornament of the World" is mostly about an assortment of intellectuals, dreamers, poets, and philosophers who informed these transformations, mostly forgotten, but sometimes lionized down the years.

"Ornament" details the Jewish intellectual Hasdai's rise to the exalted position of foreign secretary in the Cordoban caliphate because he, "spoke and wrote with elegance and subtlety, and because the vizier possessed a profound knowledge of everything in Islamic Andalusia culture and politics that a caliph needed in his public transactions."

Much the same happened to a wealthy merchant of Malaga now known to history as Samuel in the taifa of Granada. Another star of Arabic letters, his appointment as The Nagid established him as leader to the city's Jews.

South and West of Granada, in the hamlet of Niebla, lived Ibn Hazm, a contemporary of the Nagid, and an exile from the Almoravid sacking of Cordoba's imperial city, Madinat al-Zahra.

Ibn Hazm remained dedicated his countless writings to the tolerant glories of Umayyad Cordoba, where he had thrived in younger days.

Considered alternately by scholars as embittered or sad, "He was, in any case, an astounding intellectual, his life a fitting tribute to and a noble and melancholy end point for the caliphate he never ceased to long for and lament, as if it had been a lost lover."

That caliphate fell to a malevolent force that, Menocal writes, "was often rooted in what they considered the Andalusians inappropriate relations with the Jews and Christians."

Which is not to single out Arabs as the sole possessors of intolerant habits.

Upon the Christian conquest of Granada, the famed Ferdinand and Isabella granted dhimma-like rights to their Muslim subjects. But they turned out to be paper promises.

Unfortunately for us, hundreds of years on, the results are still being reaped.

Menocal demonstrates the cultural contortions involved in this subjugation by dissecting Miguel de Cervantes' strange set-up to "Don Quixote" as the work of an Arab historian, found in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, and translated for him by a Christian Arab.

She turns something most of us shrug and pass over into a stark political statement on Cervantes' part, and necessarily alters one's consideration of El Quixote. It is worth the price of the book.

Cervantes' literary arrangement demonstrates how, in the end, the Catholic monarchs, "chose to go down the modern path, the one intolerant of contradiction. The watershed at hand was certainly the rise of a single-language and single-religion, a transformation that conventionally stand at the beginning of the modern period and leads quite directly to our own."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"The Mad Ones," Tom Folsom



"The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld"suffers from the limited trajectory of its subject.

In the same way Joey Gallo's life never really took off, neither does this book.

"The Mad Ones" is a guilty pleasure read for those who like a good Mob yarn. It is also a great portrait of the era in which its anti-hero leaves his bloodstained mark.

Here is a tale about a low-grade, psychotic guy who sallied forth into Greenwich Village just as the sixties were taking off and willingly let some of its rebellious patina rub off on him.

After getting introduced to the scene by his future wife, Jeffie, "Joey decided to make a go for it in the Village. He took up painting, like the abstract expressionists brawling at the Cedar Tavern, a few blocks from the pad. His portrait of Jeffie burst with animal energy, an uncanny likeness painted completely from memory during a brief stint at Rikers Island. Joey was clawing his way up from the bottom, unlike Jeffie's first husband, jazz icon Gerry Mulligan."

Which is all well and good, but, as it turns out, it's the "Rikers Island" reference that does a better part of the foreshadowing.

In his "My Last Sigh," the surrealist film director Luis Bunuel meditated upon the implications of Spain's Civil War and concluded that, "all the wealth and culture on the Falangist [right wing] side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture."

The point being (other than clumsy erudition) that Joey Gallo read Camus, was enthralled with Nietsche, but was, in the end, still a cheap punk.

The storyline, such as it is, follows the Gallo boys through mishap after mishap in their effort to reign supreme on the big Mafia family scene befuddling New York City at the time.

Gallo's bohemianism isn't really that pronounced. He's more of a classical night club and cocktail guy from the prior era. And we have to take the word of those whose testimony author Tom Folsom has gathered or researched as to the extent of his vaunted charisma.

And that's because he is a rotten person with a rotten pedigree, up from the juke-box industry, as it were:

"Joey was a little guy, listed by the NYPD as 5 feet 6 inches. Small, like the toughest guys in the B-pictures, Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, the steely henchman in the original gangster epic, 'Scarface.' In his teens, ruling the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street as King of the Cockroach Gang, Joey flipped a silver dollar, Raft's signature move. Joey wasn't going to be stealing copper piping from Brooklyn brownstones for the rest of his life. He was going to make it to the big town. Give big lunks the score.

"'I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drug Store,' said Joey, 'but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?'"

Colorful, sure, but rotten.

His attempt to shake down a "two-bit check casher" named Teddy Moss will horrify anybody who makes an honest living, feeds a family, and doesn't employ a personal bodyguard. It is rendered pathetic by the fact Gallo botches it and ends up in jail.

For "The Mad Ones," Folsom adopted a clipped, noir-ish style that makes for great fun, and does not limit his erudition or ability to transmit hard-earned information. But he also opted for a fragmented, back and forth manner of laying out the story, which confused this reader.

The author's gumshoe prose might have been better matched with a simple linear narrative or clearer delineation at the necessary points of digression.

At somewhere along this mushy timeline, Gallo gets it into his fevered head to take on the Colombo family, even though they have more men, bigger guns, and a legitimate claim to the "businesses" at stake.

And so Joey and his "Barbershop Quintet" of thugs hole-up with a lot of firearms and spaghetti at the President Street headquarters in Brooklyn to await a big shootout with the Colombo clan, or some clan made up of Colombos.

The stage is set, the police are on edge, trigger-fingers itching and....nothing happens.

They hang around eating. A few missions are aborted. The police run periodic and preemptive raids to keep them off-balance. Worse, the guys' wives start complaining about lack of money. The army which served as fodder for Jimmy Breslin's
"The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," grows fat waiting.

Meanwhile, Joey goes to jail for a few wasted years, reads a lot, befriends black revolutionaries, and dreams up a strategy for heroine in the streets of Harlem based upon the novel stuff he's been learning in The Big House.

He gets out and rejoins the boys who are short on strategy, resources, and street smarts. One of them, or maybe not, shoots Joe Colombo who goes into a coma. An old-style "gangland" war breaks out and few of the Gallo crew are murdered in exchange for a few of the other team's. Nobody is asking who killed first.

Joey, ever the man about town and artistic wannabee, charms certain of the Manhattan literati and entertainment types, but mostly Jerry Orbach who had just played Kid Sally in the movie version of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." You might remember Orbach from "Law & Order."

Anyway, "The Godfather" was being shot (okay, not the best choice of words) on the streets of New York as a gangster chic took hold in the culture and elevated Crazy Joey's status with Cafe Society.

Aspiring writers will sigh at learning that he had a book deal with a prominent publisher and was garnering invitations to speak on big media panels with people like Gore Vidal.

But they kept PULLING HIM BACK IN! So that whatever Gallo thought he could be and was building toward....doesn't happen.

Instead his dreams are snuffed out in a hail of gunfire over a very late-night repast at Umberto's in Little Italy on the lower East Side.

And there is your story with the old-time moral that crime doesn't pay (unless you're really good at it).

The opening quotation is from Jack Kerouac: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the one who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn, burn, burn."

But the Beat poet waxed about something different than what "The Mad Ones" covers. This petty gangster's name, in the end, was not "Mad," but "Crazy" Joey Gallo.

And he earned it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"The Gaudi Key," by Esteban Martin, Andreu Carranza



"The Gaudi Key"(La Clave Gaudi) possesses the grandiosity of its subject's architecture, but lacks his whimsy.

Sometimes you can concoct a literary triumph yet not tell a story so well. Such is the case with Esteban Martin and Andreu Carranza's novel.

"The Gaudi Key," takes Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," moves it to Barcelona, and then attempts to transform a potboiler into big literature. But the authors fail to match Brown's talent for penning the page-turner, and instead weigh their piece down with interesting, but unnecessary information.

Any story affirmatively linking Barcelona, its most famous architect, and the second coming of Jesus Christ is going to have a lot explaining to do, and the resulting expository writing generates a book of considerable heft (430 pages).

The set-up involves a vicious conflict between the diabolical Men of Mensula and the Knights of Moria; the latter being an ancient Catholic order of warrior friars with which Gaudi was inscribed.

The knights are engaged in an age-old quest of squiring a surviving rock sliver from Solomon's temple to its final resting place in the Gaudi-designed Sagrada Familia cathedral, as preparation for Christ's return to earth.

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. And if it doesn't sound complicated, it still is.

And although the authors successfully guide the narrative's baroque machinery to a successful conclusion, the exquisitely embroidered scheme ends up stepping all over a story that is not uninspired in its origins.

Detailing the history and competing philosophies of the Mensulan and Morian orders is tackled via long character dialogues best omitted or at least reduced to something more essential and dramatized through story action.

Parsing them is a slog and their presence is augmented by the presence of still more as these well-schooled scribes hold court on all manner of esoterica, Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism, 19th-Century anarcho-syndicalism, and the Shinto religion (to name a few).

"The Gaudi Key" never practices what it preaches. The famed architect's hallucinatory vision and transcendent approach to life and art are lost in a tome that is constantly over-reasoned and overwrought, robbing the marvelously chosen topics of all their inherent magic.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"I Am a Teamster," Terry Spencer Hesser



In recognition of Labor Day, highwayscribery presents this review of "I Am a Teamster: A Short, Fiery Story of Regina V. Polk, Her Hats, Her Pets, Sweet Love, and the Modern-Day Labor Movement."

If departed Teamster leader Regina Polk had been a book, a thorough read would have been required before any judgment was rendered.

Terry Spencer Hesser's newly released "I Am a Teamster" details the too-short life of a woman who forged striking personal contradictions into a hybrid hellion of unique force.

The union organizer's story puts the lie to Republican detractors who can't see "real Americans" in the country's progressive ranks.

It is a story with roots in a hardscrabble western existence begun in Prescott, Arizona. Her father was a farmer who roamed from spread to spread in search of that ever-elusive American dream.

The family ultimately settled in the Sierra Nevada town of Paradise, California where the credo was, "Less Government, More Responsibility, and -- with God's help -- a Better World."

But raising a child takes a village and, in the 1960s, the village was undergoing a transformation of the kind that permitted teenaged Regina to access the sexually-charged "Kinsey Report."

At her mother's urging, Polk applied to the rich girls' school of Mills College where she was caught up in the chaos that was nearby, 1960s Berkeley.

She was permanently affected by the crosscurrents of civil rights, feminism and anti-war activism that characterized the time and place.

Freed by cheap gas at the height of automobile era, the searching Polk wound up at University of Chicago where she enrolled in a masters program for labor relations, but it was her real job where she got the true schooling.

To pay bills she found work as a receptionist at the inappropriately named Red Star Inn. Hesser writes that Regina was a "knockout by anybody's standards," and enjoyed the concomitant privileges extended by management.

But the employer's treatment of lesser types -- dishwashers, busboys, waitresses and kitchen help -- stuck in Polk's politicized craw and she contacted Bob Simpson, organizing director of Teamsters Union Local 743.

In the book, Simpson recounts that Polk struck him, "as a hippie. The way she dressed and looked. She was for all kinds of rights. Worker rights. Civil rights. Women's lib."

Simpson, who had little interest in expending precious resources on organizing the Red Star, became one of many who learned that Regina Polk did not take "no" for an answer.

She set out to organize the restaurant's workers and, when management got wind of the effort, was fired. The union filed a grievance, the restaurant paid money to get rid of Polk, and Simpson hired her as a part-time organizer.

The rest, as they say, is herstory.

By 1975, American capital's move out of the manufacturing business was in full swing and the Teamsters' saw their primary source of dues-paying members evaporate. In search of greener pastures, union researchers identified a surging class of white, middle-class, moderately educated workers.

"To organize white-collar women," Hesser writes, "the Teamsters needed a different kind of organizer to lead them out of the mire of scandal and suspicion that surrounded them on a national level."

Enter Regina Polk.

She was a college-educated, floppy-hat-wearing fashion plate with a philosophical crush on Jimmy Hoffa. Polk possessed a cosmopolite's travel lust and a farm girl’s ear for country western. A serial savior of imperiled animals, she carried an ice pick for slashing tires in the old-time Teamster way.

A culinary epicurean, she walked into one of Southside Chicago's roughest neighborhoods so that her maid Johnnie Scott didn't go without a paycheck.

"I lived on Justine on the South Side," Scott remembers in the book. "At the time, it wasn't a suitable neighborhood. It was bad. And I remember lookin' out the window and here comes Regina walking by herself. Bringing me my paycheck. She wasn't afraid of nobody. 'Have a nice vacation,' she told me, 'it's better with pay.' That's the way she phrased it: It's better with pay.'"

The anecdote is indicative of Polk's approach to both organizing and contract enforcement, which focused on individuals. None of whom were too insignificant to benefit from her assistance.

"She defended ferociously her members when managers attempted to abuse them, believing that the union should do more than just guarantee a wage, that it should also see to it that its members were treated respectfully," Gary Mamlin, a University of Chicago shop steward, told the author.

In her under-appreciated "The Other Women's Movement," Dorothy Sue Cobble posited that in between the first wave of suffragette feminists, and the second-wave feminists spawned by the Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan five decades later, thrived a special breed of "labor feminists."

These women took root and cover in their unions during the 1930s when labor syndicates enjoyed a heyday in the United States.

Polk's religious dedication to union values, and fearless confrontations with the old boys in labor and management alike, suggest she was a unique mix of the latter two waves.

As such, she neither demeaned the value of domestic work nor avoided it.

"If she was coming home late or not at all," Scott remembered, "she would cook for Tom [her husband] a beautiful plate of lamb chops and peas and wrap his dishes before she left, leaving me instructions or telling him to eat it cold."

Classified by the famed political scientist C. Wright Mills as "weak insiders," unions typically groan under the weight of servicing the least fortunate with a dearth of resources.

And so, the Teamsters promptly put Polk to work helping organize clerical workers at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Chicago. She later reported to union bosses on the difficulty of getting "status-conscious" and "image conscious" women to join a "truck drivers union."

Nonetheless the Teamsters prevailed. The extent of Polk's contribution to the victory might be read in the 28-year old’s subsequent assignment to organize workers at the University of Chicago.

Faced with a recalcitrant university president who had successfully dislodged the union at Yale, Polk's campaign was conducted largely "underground" or secretively so as to protect those with the courage or need to join the Teamsters' drive.

The campaign prevailed, too.

"The university was stunned," writes Hesser. "It had failed to realize that over the previous twenty years the people who worked on campus were no longer faculty wives but bread-winners who needed the money. They were mothers, many of them single, whose paltry paychecks started looking worse and worse."

"I Am a Teamster," is no syrupy-sweet story about the virtues of organized labor. Hesser makes it clear that Polk had her detractors within the union.

"I think it was because she was so aggressive," said Simpson, "but I can remember specifically one guy saying to me, 'I didn't like her from fuckin' day one!' And that was exactly his words and this guy was a board member."

Regina also grew disillusioned with the union’s lackluster support of its members.

Nor is “I Am a Teamster,” the tale of perpetual triumph, because Polk's campaigns did not always prevail.

After one defeat, she came across her opposite numbers from a union-busting law firm at a local bar. One of the "bastards with briefcases," as she referred to such consultants, approached to share a conciliatory, post-battle drink. Instead, she took the one she was nursing and threw it in his face.

All of Polk’s fire was extinguished in a plane crash at the age of 32. Some years later, when her wrongful death suit was at trial, one of the jurors recognized Regina as the person who had donated the very clothes she was wearing.

Hesser's slim volume, 147-pages long, renders a large life with efficiency. The author commits the biographer’s forgivable sin of falling in love with her subject. She starts off unevenly, accumulating too many posthumous summations, inappropriate for a chapter on childhood, while applying enthusiastic adjectives to someone whose larger-than-life actions speak for themselves.

But as Polk's career takes form, so does the narrative, which is delivered in a no-frills reportorial form that leans properly on numerous interviews of people who were there at the time.

"I Am a Teamster," celebrates the difference one person, empowered and guided by the simple principal of solidarity, can have upon the lives of others through brute effort, consideration, compassion, and even joy.

One of her Teamster mentors, Ray Hamilton, eulogized Polk by saying, "She lived as she believed and felt that it was more important to actually help one person than to talk about saving the world."

Although she inspired fellow Teamsters, the union was never going to make a template of Polk from which a generation of like labor leaders could be modeled.

She was too unique and too individual. A real American if you will.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," Elmer Kelton


It's the rare western book that invites a Marxian analysis, but Elmer Kelton, who died recently, was the rare western writer.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit"takes place at the intersection of rugged American individualism and the collective efforts of the undercapitalized to improve their lot.

The book renders a cowboys' strike - a fascinating concept - that actually happened, on ranches in the Canadian River region of west Texas circa 1883.

By Kelton's lights, the strike occurred in the crucible of corporate encroachment upon the cattle industry that brought an end to the free range. Rationalization and greater efficiency in the beef business left the liberty loving cowboys with a beef of their own and they struck in response to it.

This novel is a beautifully paced, tightly constructed page-turner that manages to treat deeper afflictions in the American condition for those who want to see them, without boring those who just want a good western yarn.

Here's an exchange between the central protagonist, Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock and the Kansas City corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk, who notes that:

"If I invest my entire fortune in a bad venture and lose it, nobody guarantees to take care of me the rest of my life. When a man gets on one of those bad horses he knows the risks: he implies his willingness to accept that risk when he agrees to the job."

[Hitch] "He accepts the job because he's partial to eatin'.'
"The same reason I take a risk and invest capital."
"There a difference between a man's limbs and his money."

A political writer might take pages to explain this naturally occurring friction so skillfully dispatched in a few terse exchanges by Kelton.

What do the "big ranchers" want? New rules forbidding the use of a company horse for personal affairs or keeping one's own mount without management's consent; the expulsion of "tramps and idlers" from the cowboy camp’s traditional protective care; and the outlawing of a ranch hand’s, "owning cattle in their own brand less than two fences away from the ranch where they worked, which in the Panhandle's open range country effectively canceled out their right to own cattle anywhere."

Each of these, if you're not familiar with late 19th-Century western ranch life (and who is?), comes with a back story Kelton fills in easy as an Arkansas maiden in an Dodge City cathouse.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," treats the labor action with surprising sensitivity for a manuscript packaged as pulp fiction. Kelton had a deep comprehension of the strike psychology, of the ambiguity that plagues supporters and opponents alike.

He paints those too sure of themselves in a less flattering light than those with doubts. The pioneering, don't tread on me individuals opposing the strike are slaves to the American winner-take-all mentality and obsequious to those with more money simply because they have more money. They lack a dissident and skeptical spirit.

The strikers are scattershot in their efforts; too closely identified, and easily taken advantage of, by the cattle thieves and drifters littering the fast-closing frontier.

The author aptly develops the unspoken reasons behind labor actions that actually prop up the prosaic demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

And speaking of prosaic, Elmer Kelton has a fine ear for plain-spoken dialogue between down home folk while investing his narrator with an-all-too-familiar, but no less colorful klatch of colloquialisms that move his story along like bulls through a brier patch.

“The Day the Cowboys Quit,” alternately delivers on resolutions that leave a reader satisfied, without tying every loose end so that the story finishes in an uneven fashion that comes mighty close to looking like life beyond books.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda," by Roger Vadim


There is only one reason to not envy Roger Vadim and that is that he’s dead. Aside from that...

For filmophiles, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda offers intimate portraits of a trio of great mid-century actresses.

For Europhiles, it offers a panoramic view of “La Dolce Vita” on the Old Continent after World War II. A great time for those who survived the conflict in one piece.

A couple of years ago the scribe read "The Good, the Bad and the Dolce Vita: The Adventures of an Actor in Hollywood, Paris and Rome (Nation Books)" by blacklisted actor Mickey Knox. Although enjoyable, Knox was entering the universe in question by the back door and could not write worth a lick.

Vadim’s a different case altogether. His father was the son of a Russian diplomat chased from the mother country by Bolsheviks: “Like all children of Russian diplomats, he spoke French fluently. After graduating in political science, he took the civil service examination and passed with flying colors. Named consul at the age of twenty-eight, he married a French woman, Marie-Antoinette Ardilouze. His first post was the consulate in Alexandria, Egypt.”

You get the idea.

Those hip to European culture know the best way to rebel in life is to have an aristocratic background and that is what Vadim did, throwing his lot in with the long-hairs (of his day anyway), opting for a life in film, and developing a great reputation as seducer of (younger) ladies.

His first was Brigitte Bardot whom he met on a Parisian bus when she was just 15-years-old. He spent the next few years dodging her father “Pilou,” whom was under the impression his daughter was still a virgin, when Vadim had settled that question well before they married once Brigitte turned 18.

Vadim/Bardot made a unique team, he a writer of characters for her, she the muse who played them out before the cameras. Neither could have made it without the other and it is their tale which is most interesting of the three largely because neither is famous yet, and we get to see how things evolved for them professionally.

Bardot wanted to be a prima ballerina but ended up in film, it would seem, largely because of her lack of interest in it (aspiring actresses take heed).

And although Vadim’s novel approach to film making and storytelling were crucial to harnessing Bardot’s raw rebelliousness, her raw rebelliousness was crucial to his film making/storytelling.

She had a natural and casual attitude about the world around her, most unimpressed by status and blessed with a wicked tongue. Keira Knightley’s recent turn in “Pride and Prejudice” comes to mind.

Early on (page 50), Vadim is making the rounds of haute Paris with his sexy young charge/lover/business partner. One such stop is at a famous mansion on 72 rue de Varenne, where all manner of luminaries are gathered including a young senator from the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Again, you get the idea.

Here’s Vadim: “Among the guests was a woman whose amorous adventures had been the talk of Paris for more than thirty years. Simone Beiau, now a theater director, had been a great courtesan. Now over fifty, she had become subdued, but she remained notorious for her immoderate language. She decided to get a laugh by attacking Brigitte.

‘Are you a virgin?’ she asked her point-blank. She expected to upset the young girl and make her blush.

But without becoming flustered, Brigitte replied, ‘No, madam. Are you’?”

(And whatever happened to courtesans, anyway?)

His rendering of Bardot is that of an unstable girl desperately in love with the idea of love, but not so good at the real thing and certainly not monogamous (understandably difficult for her to achieve).

The pair’s big break came with Vadim penning and lensing (that’s Hollywood “Variety” talk for writing and directing) “And God Created Woman,” with Bardot as his lead, Julietta.

She appears naked, sort of, by today’s standards, but more than that comes across as a girl who enjoys sex; a posture most upsetting to the crumbling, but still deeply Catholic-bourgeois, order in France. So much so, the government tried to stop the film from screening [this is before YouTube kiddies]. The case went to court. Vadim and producer Raoul Levy prevailed thanks to their attorney - Francois Mitterand, future president of France.

You get the idea.

Here’s an exchange between Bardot and none other than Winston Churchill, who ran into each other, per chance, in a hotel during the shooting of “And God Created Woman”:

“‘When I was eight years old and heard you on the radio, you frightened me,' said Brigitte, ‘But now you seem rather cute, considering you’re a legend.’

‘Cute’ was not a word people normally used to describe Churchill to his face! The great orator remained speechless.

‘What are you doing in Nice?’ Brigitte asked, in order to fill the silence.

‘Painting,’ replied Churchill. ‘You are an actress, and I am a painter. We have art in common.’

‘My father bought one of your landscapes,’ said Brigitte.

‘I don’t sell my paintings.’

‘Well, then your friends do. The painting my father bought has a hill, a parasol pine in the foreground and the sea in the background. Do you remember it?’

‘And on the right a broom bush in flower?’

‘Yes. Do you like to paint?’

‘I love painting. But I shall never go down in history with Cézanne.’

‘You know, my films are not nearly as good as your paintings. And I never won a war.’

‘That is no great loss,’ Churchill concluded.”

A couple of days later, old Winny tried to get Brigitte to come by for dinner!

As hinted above, Bardot turns out to be more than a little unfaithful to Vadim, who moves on to marry a Danish women named Annette, whom he puts in a movie and loses to her desires for fame and fortune, film style.

Then he hooks up with Catherine Deneuve. By now Vadim is a famous MAN OF FILM and 17- year-old hotties with stardust in their eyes come his way regularly, so there’s less intrigue than with Bardot, a more ingenuous romance in the springtime of their loving.

He is thirty-two, at this point, and after a few comings and goings, sets up his seduction of C. “But age didn’t make a difference,” he wrote, “Neither did experience, for women know many things without needing to learn them.”

Now, that may not sound like overheated and steamy prose to you, but the scribe has vivid enough imagination to plug-in a young Catherine Deneuve – the one wearing the Chanel outfit in Polansky’s “Repulsion” – for things to get hot and steamy without any verbal assistance whatsoever.

Deneuve is beautiful, but she is stern, and cool and rather domestic for a flaming faux blonde and French siren. As such, Vadim’s continuing adventures as a race car driver for Ferrari, as a friend of eccentric aristocrats, and denizen of exciting Latin countries take over at this juncture in this autobiography.

After C. dumps Vadim, he moves on to an up-and-coming Jane Fonda, who enters at about age 17. Again, there are many reasons to envy and despise Roger Vadim, were he not gone from us.

Their idyllic life on a farm somewhere near Versailles is enough to depress any American middle-classer and one has to wonder why Fonda, Hollywood royalty, with a film or two under her belt, would want to give up this paradise to get half-naked, smooch with men she doesn’t know, and do press junkets for films.

The rendering of Fonda is one of a conflicted little girl trying many ways to grow up. The contrast between the two French women, hurtling at warp speed into sex and serious life, and the American girl, hung up on “finding herself,” is rather revealing.

Jane, casting about in the lap of luxury and under the entire world’s gaze, finds herself as an opponent to the Vietnam War, and it’s only a matter of time before Vadim moves onto his fifth wife and first non-actress.

It’s surprising Fonda found no room in her life for Vadim following her transformation. It was he who introduced her to another understanding of the United States beyond her own apple-pie version, and Vadim himself seemed to walk into historical situations by happenstance.

Just before the outbreak of the May ‘68 rebellion in Paris, he finds himself chosen by a dissident faction of the film industry’s workers and technicians union to lead them. He wins the election, the riots break out, and Vadim finds himself a front-and-center-protagonist in the dramatic events that follow.

A brilliant intellectual (is there another kind?), his thoughts on these moments and others are worth the read even if you’re in it just for the cheesecake.

When Fonda tells him she thinks, “The government will be overthrown,” he tells her, “I’m convinced of the contrary. The Communists have mobilized their troops and joined the students’ camp in order to take control of the situation and nip the movement in the bud. They can’t accept a revolution that outflanks them on the left. The Communist Party will not admit it, but it is the government’s potential ally.”

Which is what came to pass.

“Few people made the same political calculation as I did. Even the president of the Republic, General de Gaulle, believing his government had lost the battle, left Paris secretly by helicopter to get the support of the French occupation army in Germany.”

And why should he be humble, bumble?

Vadim’s life with Jane eventually jumped from France to Malibu, California where, despite their fading romance, he has a great time anyway hanging out with Jack Nicholson, or Andy Warhol, or Larry Hagman...

...but you get the idea.