Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks

Can you not be sure of what's going on and still like a book?

The packaging of "A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts" hints at something other than a collection of short stories.

But after a pleasurable once-through, highwayscribery is not exactly sure what binds these otherwise tasty tales together.

In the fifth and final piece the narrator dwells on what might represent a common thread/unifying principle to the work under scrutiny here.

"I was almost sixty years old, but I didn't understand anything. It all in the end seemed to have been a matter of purest chance. But for a succession of tiny pieces of good fortune, I might never have had a glimpse of Weepah Way [his upstate New York farm], or Anya King [the subject of this tale]. Yet I also new that if any of those bits of luck had fallen out in a different way and I had had another life, it would in some odd way have been the same - my heart existing, as Anya put it, by a different name.

Or not.

Let's see. The first story involves Geoffrey, whose "middle rank" may have been the determining factor in his internment at a Nazi concentration camp. The harrowing portrait of that experience, and the gentler one of the peculiar life in prep school England stand out.

The second story involves Billy, who lives in England during the second half of the 19th century. Poverty might have been the overriding factor to his existence, save for his personal moxy, which sets up the kind of Horatio Alger yarn gobbled up so readily by we Yanks.

Guess our Protestant work ethic came from somewhere.

Here, author Sebastian Faulk's recuperation or remembrance of the workhouse where parents sent children they could not afford to feed and clothe is strong coffee, and will make you feel lucky (if you haven't been in a workhouse yourself).

"Elena" takes place in 2029 and, with the exception of a few "scanners" and some commentary on the rundown nature of an industrial democracy - Italy - fails for the most part as future lit.

It does set up the kind of face-off conjured by Herman Hesse in "Narcissus and Goldmund." Elena is precise, rational and scientific. Bruno emotional and feeling. These two youths struggle to find a common ground that will accommodate their strong mutual attraction.

The fourth story, or "part" as the author proposes it, features Jeanne, an illiterate, rural lumpen proletarian. She lives with a petit bourgeois family in provincial France and Faulks does a nice job of helping us see the world through the eyes of a person whose life is burdened with quite so many disadvantages, eyes lacking the clarity of enlightenment.

The fifth part is the story of Anya as seen through the eyes a successful musician of the 1970s rock and roll scene. It's a lovely recall of those buzzy fuzzy times and a remembrance of how the people then "lived" music as much as they listened to it.

Anya herself is something of a siren, a unique talent, if damaged goods thanks to an unsteady childhood, accessible, but alone as any ship on sweeping sea.

Perhaps these are all lives in which environment is the ultimate arbiter of life direction.

Or not.

Maybe you can figure it out. To be sure, the writer's clean prose and even-handed story-telling make the challenge worth a shot.

"Black Flower" by Young-Ha Kim

In general, this story has been told before. In particular, author Young-Ha Kim had his reasons for retelling it in Black Flower

This is a tale of misbegotten folk who were sold a bill of goods about a rich land where they could elevate their lives, erase their present miseries, and live prosperously.

The author's interest here is in the plight of approximately 1,000 Koreans who fled their crumbling kingdom for Mexico in 1905.

After a harrowing three-month journey in which disease overtakes the boat, they are sold to various hacienda owners in the Yucatan Peninsula and bound to a four-year contract.

The group is dotted with aristocrats, thieves, farmers and anything else Korea was producing at the time. Kim (Young-Ha?) makes threads of certain passengers' stories in varying degrees of detail.

There's a young aristocratic women whose scent of deer roe drives the male passengers to distraction, the solitary teenage boy who falls in love with her, a common thief, a disgraced Catholic priest, the last eunuch to serve a Korean imperial court, a reticent shaman, and a slew of former soldiers.

Back-breaking toil for paltry wages spent at the company store, physical abuse, evisceration of their own beliefs by Catholic maniacs, and death for those who escape, are the unfortunate pilgrims' lot.

Young-Ha provides nice historical backdrops both to the simultaneous subjugation of their Korean homeland by Japan (so that they've no place to return to), and the Mexican revolution, which upends the henequen haciendas in which they work and absorbs them in its senseless cycles of murder.

Sent to differing haciendas, theirs is the progress of a mini-diaspora that ultimately extends from San Francisco to Guatemala. Few come out of their contracts with enough money to return home. Some open small shops in Mexican cities. Others marry their indigenous coworkers and begin melting into their new land.

Another band join Mayan revolutionaries in Guatemala and found the nation of New Korea in the tropical jungle. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well for them.

According to the back cover of "Black Flower," Young-Ha Kim is a popular and respected writer in South Korea. He'd heard the inklings of this story about a boatload of Koreans who disappeared into the Mexican landscape and took on the job of recuperating their memory through this narrative dramatization of their star-crossed plight.

"While I was writing," Kim explains in the epilogue, "I thought of myself as a sort of shaman. The desires of those who had left for a distant place and been completely forgotten came to me like letters in bottles cast into the sea, and I believed that the emigrants directed me to write their stories."

The translation is a straight-ahead, serviceable English stripped of literary device and much poetry. It does not lag, nor get confusing, and successfully imparts an interesting history lesson, a portrait of human cruelty, and cautionary tale for utopian seekers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Monipodio's House: A Consideration of Cervantes' Villain

Back in the early 1990s, highwayscribery lived in Spain where he'd gone to write his novel "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows."

When the book was finished and the money gone, the highway scribe moved to Seville from Malaga to start a newspaper with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón and Angel Delgado.

It was called "La Otra Orilla" and covered that part of Seville located on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. The district was made up of two barrios, Los Remedios and Triana.

The latter whimsically declared itself a republic independent of the bigger burg while claiming to be the cradle of flamenco and the bullfight arts alike.

There are other barrios in other Spanish cities making like claims. But that's not the point. If you're from Triana the truth there is that they started "los toros" and "el flamenco" in Triana. Case closed.

The barrio was nothing if not historic and many locations were posted with ceramic-tiled signs explaining a particularly noteworthy event that had occurred there, or a person who'd resided and made art in the space.

"La Otra Orilla" ran a series called "Triana by Plaque" (Triana por Placas) whereing a reporter would delve into the person or event highlighted in greater detail.

In the piece below highwayscribery, together with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón, set out to determine whether a location claiming to be the place where Miguel de Cervantes' "Rinconete and Cortadillo" was inspired, was in fact that place.

Specifically, the plaque (pictured here) claimed the Andalusian patio contained within served as headquarters for the den of thieves run by novela's the primary character, Monipodio.

We scribes turned to the actual text to determine the claim's veracity and have a little fun with literature in the process.

Monipodio's House

Obligated to Stay in Seville at the Service of Philip II, Cervantes Traveled to the Far Reaches of the Imagination

According to the plaque which concerns us this week, the house found at the corner of Betis and Troya served as redoubt for a brotherhood of thieves led by the infamous Monipodio of Miguel de Cervantes novela, "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

It is enough that a student of local cultural, such as our own staff writer Marco Severo, says that this is not the case for a brief investigation into the claim to be launched.

You'll see that this investigation did not permit us to reach a sure conclusion, but did invite an engaging comparison between the Triana and Seville of today with that of Don Quixote's creator.

Cervantes came to Seville against his wishes. His petition to King Phillip II for a post in the Indies having been rejected, the writer was sent to Seville with the charge of gathering provisions for "The Invincible Armada" that would suffer a famous route in the English Channel.

Requisitioning wheat and olive oil from an unwilling populace was apparently a disagreeable task. According to his biographer Professor Valverde, Cervantes was subject to such indignities as being thrown into wells and "other tiresome pranks."

In 1597, the bank where Cervantes kept his ducados went belly-up and he found himself, not for the first time, in jail. If his incarceration in Algeria did little to dim his passion for adventure, his majesty the king was no more successful in dampening his lust for life.

In jail, Cervantes did not travel to distant locations, rather to the boundaries of his own imagination. Perhaps it was in jail where he learned the peculiarities of Sevillan thievery so wonderfully detailed in the novela.

"Rinconete and Cortadillo" is written by an outsider with the understanding of a person who has lived their entire life in Seville. En these two lads, about whom we know, among other things, "that neither one or the other exceeded 16 years of age, both of good humor, but very raggedy, broken, and maltreated."

It is no surprise for anyone familiar with Seville that the boys' first lesson upon arrival in the Andalusian capital is that it is far from an open field. In fact, it is just the opposite. Even in the world of robbing and mugging there are customs and a tax, in this case the monopoly is Monopodio's (El monopólio de Monipodio).

Having just committed their first bit of pilfering, the pair are pinched by a youth under the command of the King of Thieves who recommends they go and "register" with Monipodio and if not, "that they avoid stealing without his blessing for otherwise it would cost them plenty."

Rincón and Cortado (whose names will later be refined by the very same Monipodio), decide to take the youth's advice and depart with him from Plaza de El Salvador toward a destination unidentified by characters and author alike.

Triana is not mentioned in the ensuing discussion, nor does the Guadalquivir River, which one must cross to get there, although Cervantes informs us that the walk lasted as long as the speech by Monipodio's pawn, Ganchuelo, "which was long."

The trip is one across the surface of the soul, eschewing descriptions of the actual landscape. Ganchuelo explains to them that he, too, is a thief, but "one who serves God and good people."

"It's news to me that there are thieves in the world to serve God and good people," responds Cortado and thus it would appear that in the 16th century, as much as today, those who come from beyond quickly learned the extent to which Seville is steeped in Catholic ways.

Finally, at Monipodio's retreat, Rincón and Cortado are left to wait "in a small brick courtyard, so white and scrubbed that it emitted the richest carmine scent. To one side was a bench three feet in height and the other a broken jar with a pitcher on top that was in no better condition. Elsewhere was some matting made of cat's tail and in the middle of it all, a flower pot with basil growing.

"The youths," Cervantes writes, "looked attentively at the treasures of the house as Monipodio came down. Marking his slow pace, Rincón dared to enter one of the lower apartments accessed from the courtyard and saw two fencing swords, two shields of cork hanging from four spikes, a giant chest with nothing covering it, and more Cat's tail mats laid about the floor. On the front wall was stuck an image of Our Lady, one of those low-grade reproductions. Lower still hung a wicker basket and encased in the wall was a basin. Rincón reasoned that the first was for charity and the second for holy water. And this was true.

It was Cervantes' intention through his first draft of "Don Quixote" to pen a simple novel during his stay in Seville. If "Quixote" is, in part, a parody of the wealthy society upon which artists of his time so desperately depended, it's not out of line to suggest we find a little bit of the same in "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

The epic tale about the Madman of La Mancha was dedicated to a Sevillan aristocrat in
an effort to curry favor, although it apparently did little to achieve the author's goal.

Rincón and Cortado find that the household of Monipodio is organized like that of a gentleman of the time, around a courtyard, mise en scéne and architectural symbol of the small aristocratic courts that marked the city.

In him they encounter a man who carries the contradictions of life itself.

Writes Cervantes, "The pair were in awe of the obedience and respect everyone in the house had for Monipodio, a man who was barbaric, rustic, and heartless."

Nonetheless, this Monipodio is capable of receiving guests "with much contentment and courtesy, because he was extremely well-bred."

And it is precisely with Monipodio that Triana possibly emerges for the first time in the story, because the man encompasses the same contradictions as the barrio that treasures both holy virgins and the flamenco ghost.

"And Escalanta, removing her clog, began to beat it like a tambourine. La Gananciosa took a palm broom laying about and began scratching it against the floor, making a sound that, although rough and grating, kept time with the clog. Monipodio broke a plate in two pieces which, placed between his fingers and clicked with grand dexterity, carried a counterpoint to the clog and broom."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Turn It Up!" by Ron Eckerman

Thirty-five years ago to the day of this review's posting, Lynyrd Skynyrd lost its leader and three other family members when the band's private plane crashed in a forest outside McComb, Miss.

Ron Eckerman, author of "Turn It Up!" was on that plane, but lived to tell this lively story of what he called, "an extraordinarily talented band of misfits that had managed to define Southern Rock."

This is an era of rock remembrances. Greg Allman and Keith Richard come to mind and one can expect there are more on tap as the hippy generation continues its look back on the old days.

"Roneckerman," as he says the band referred to him ("Roneckerman where's my per diem?"), provides here, not an overarching look at a lifetime, but a recounting of approximately three dizzying years with a legendary touring band.

His being pulled into their orbit had everything to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd's soaring prospects at the start of 1974 as did a 14-year old highwayscribery's jumping on the band's wagon.

Skynyrd was getting big, reaching beyond its southern base, and needed more help, which Ronekerman provided as road manager, in this case a grueling combination of on-the-fly accountant and babysitter to some very bad boys.

"Turn It Up!" (the title taken from a cue uttered by singer Ronnie Van Zant in the intro to "Sweet Home Alabama") is a calendar-like recall of an exhausting whirlwind of tours that took him on plane and bus rides to small gigs on the chitlin' circuit, and stadium shows at which weaker rock rivals were dispatched with a stunning three-guitar attack.

Ronekerman has to maintain receipts for expenses yet honor the boys' requests for cocaine money. He has to watch the players drink themselves into unconsciousness and violence, and then pay for the destruction they wreak.

There are drugs up and down this book and it looks far from attractive in hindsight. But if you were not of age in the early 1970s, it would be difficult to understand the druggy zeitgeist afoot in America at the time.

Narcotics were draped in a glamorous halo and there was no virtue in turning one's nose up at them for moral or health-rooted reasons.

The sixties were the time of cultural battle, and the seventies were when some gains from that battle were enjoyed by those of alternative stripe. Add to this the decade's penchant for excess and you get the Lynyrd Skynyrd lifestyle.

And, for highwayscribery's money, it was that lifestyle as unsupervised mad hippies that gave the band its allure, not the redneck brawling they so openly embraced and showcased.

There was a lot of social freedom to the decade and "Turn It Up!" captures the vibe beautifully.

When Skynyrd rolled into the Beacon Theater during the autumn of 1975, the scribe's mom approved not only his attendance, but that of his seven-year old brother. Dad drove us into the city, did the drop-off, and then went to find a drink in the Manhattan neighborhood.

A scandal by today's standards, yet we are all still here.

While out-of-control, the Skynyrds were also sensitive artists kind enough to insist their road employees be paid while the band was not touring.

The author knew the numbers and knew this brew of drug accounts, damage payouts, and rock 'n roll welfare meant the band, hugely popular, must stay on the road to stay afloat.

Roneckerman stayed with them.

His portrait of Van Zant, the band's leader, is the fullest and most complex. Ronnie is an almost grown-up antidote to the juvenile antics of his band brothers and the one who plots the players' course as a collective. Van Zant is the rooster who rules. The high school friend who gained respect the hard way, and continued to do so.

During one of the many blowouts between members documented here, guitarist Allen Collins asks the singer, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" and gets knocked out with a cross to the forehead in response.

Discussion over.

Van Zant could be a vicious drunk, but he is rendered here as highly intuitive, a student of human nature, and manipulator thereon, who took his motley crew to the top of rock.

Roneckerman provides a running account of how all this plays out in his personal life, a subtext that lends real context the story.

Although his first wife sounds like no bouquet of roses, the author's absence nine months out of the year are hardly defensible for a married man. When matrimony fails, he is granted another go at family life and recognizes the strain his career puts on home life.

This time he cares. Maturity begins to set-in as the band lines up for a definitive run at The Big Time by limiting abusive habits and focusing on the prize they've worked so hard to bring within reach.

Roneckerman tries to balance the ageless tension between that desire to roam and be free, and the longing for hearth and home.

He is getting neither rich or famous. He's what they call "below-the-line" on a Hollywood set, a behind the scenes guy. And though he's a happy warrior, it is hard to conclude that the job is something he enjoys.

What he does enjoy is the band and its night-in-night-out ability to shed the dysfunction backstage and blow their fans away. With significant road miles behind him, Roneckerman knows he is part of something special and sticks it out.

During this comet's ride, the band transitions from small venues, to opening act at larger venues, before finally headlining their own stadium shows.

There is no end to the author's claims that, as a warm-up act, Lynyrd Skynyrd was the most merciless in the game, guilty of upstaging the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Peter Frampton to name a few unfortunate headliners sharing the bill with them.

Is the author partial?

highwayscribery can weigh-in here as something other than a book reviewer, and more like a fan, in attesting to having witnessed the band blow the Doobie Brothers out of New York's Nassau Coliseum in 1977.

It was the habitual finale that had done the damage and sent half the arena home happy before the headlining Doobies even came on (the rest left after). The scribe heard one of their fans say that the closer was all Skynyrd had to recommend itself, but nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was armed with two inspired guitarist in Collins and Gary Rossington, along with a catalogue of finely arranged and crafted songs. The picture of shabby long-haired chaos --"dirtbags" (in the North) and "freaks" (in the South) -- their work was regularly lauded by the most respectable tribunals in rock as boogie that could be sophisticated and even elegant.

The band had complete credibility as composers and musicians and, on top of that, had "Freebird."

At the aforementioned Beacon show (covered in this book), we had never heard the piece and were quite impressed at the pandemonium of those drunk and stoned that broke out as it took off. To this day.

If drugs were big in the seventies, so was the electric guitar and there wasn't a rock 'n roller around who could resist the cutting assault launched by Collins in the band's masterpiece rave-up.

Again and again, throughout the road-tour-that-wouldn't-end, Roneckerman reports Skynyrd's ability to break down the most resistant audiences when taking off on the wings of "Freebird."

His proof is the band's trajectory, which could only be halted by that plane crash.

"Turn It Up!" follows a straight, never-deviating chronology through the period covered. There is but one nod to poetry here. It is found in the author's memory of the crash, which he breaks up into pieces and applies as chapter openers to sobering effect.

Roneckerman does not want you to ever forget that all the frantic brawling, drinking, road-going, politics, and marvelous music he's going on about are unfolding beneath a merciless and mighty hand of destiny.

The plane ran out of fuel. The band and crew knew for about fifteen minutes they were headed for a crash. Total silence reigns in Eckerman's account as all are prepared, heads down between legs.

One can only imagine what these young people, with so much zest for life, and so much to be hopeful about, were thinking during the slow, engineless descent through the twilight.

"Hopelessness," is what Eckerman remembers, "...a gut emotion that can rip your heart apart. If you've never felt it, it's difficult to explain. It's a primordial feeling, an instinct, and it pervades your being far past the 'fight or flight' syndrome that's taught in Psych 101. It's past panic, past any emotion I've ever felt. It's a feeling that can't or shouldn't be thought about, much less experienced. It will grab your mind and twist it until you're incapable of reasoning or thought."

Also lost in the crash were back-up singer Cassie Gaines and her brother, guitarist Steve. Roneckerman's account highlights how much fresh creativity the recent addition had brought to the band and is pat in his characterization of the ill-fated musician as a "genius."

"I think about them every day of my life," he writes, "and will be haunted by this unfortunate incident to my death."

Ron Eckerman can rest assured that "Turn It Up!" is  an insightful  and engaging account of life on the rock 'n roll road, a valuable remembrance of a great American band, and worthy tribute to those who haunt his memories still.

Friday, September 28, 2012

"The Man Who Sold The World," by Peter Doggett

Bring your iPod.

Peter Doggett's, "The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s,"takes a song-by-song approach in considering what it contends was a decade of groundbreaking, culture-shaping musical creation by its famous subject.

This work truly offers everything you ever wanted to know about David Bowie, but were afraid to ask.

Doggett is the possessor of much information that will be of interest to fans of the Thin Gray Duke, bytes of data that fill in spaces and explain the unexplained.

He knows the time-periods he's covering, especially late '60s London, with which he seems particularly fascinated. A great byproduct of his exhaustive presentation is the uncovering and remembering of seminal works now forgotten.

The author's essays are multi-pronged, filled with theories and suppositions and associations that may or may not be fact, but which make for good reading and represent an engaging valuation of the man, his times, and his music.

Ah, the music. In his effort to place it front and center, and perhaps to simplify his task via simple chronology, Doggett's structure follows the decade's thread, album-to-album, song-to-song.

Succeeding albums are introduced with an essay discussing Bowie's professional and personal place in the moment of their inception. Then he analyzes each song in detail, the key and any switches in same, the instruments of choice, who did the arrangement, Bowie's surreptitious turn on the sax, Mick Ronson's ukulele etc.

Finally, the album/chapter is closed with an analysis of the disc's commercial, personal, and cultural impact. Even if you know the songs, Doggett’s intense musical criticism will create a desire (need?) to hear them again.

So you need all the songs to truly enjoy this book. highwayscribery didn’t have them all and tended to feel like being outside a party he was not invited to. The biographer does not commit the crime of falling in love with his subject, in "The Man Who Sold The World."

Yes, when it comes to the big picture, Bowie gets his fair share of plaudits. Doggett closes the book noting:

“...and the wider world is still assimilating the bewildering twists and curves of his trajectory through that decade. So pervasive was the influence of Bowie’s seventies work, in fact, like the Beatles before him, that it has become part of the fabric of contemporary music, just has his unique sense of style, and the sexual playfulness at its heart, have helped to form our contemporary notions of fashion, art, and design.”

But to reach these heights in the Doggett‘s estimation, Bowie’s and his work are run through the author’s demanding critiques. This reviewer got the impression that only on a few tracks did Bowie ever achieve the sublime state attributed to him by the author, as the rest are subject to a critique so rigorous that some of the assessments are downright unflattering.

If you came to a Bowie album, say, “Ziggy Stardust,” in years after its consecration as an egg laid by a True Rock God, it may come as something of a surprise that his vocal on the titanic and bluesy “It An Easy” was all wrong, a blown call, in Doggett’s estimation. Or that “Hunky Dory” is an okay album reflecting an artist yet to be fully defined.

As for Bowie himself, it might be said the man is not quite so extraordinary as his art. We’ve read about this person before. The needy entertainer casting about for an identity to replace the missing organic one. The desperation, the self-involvement, the heartlessness when it came to colleagues.

It was all about Bowie, and so is this book.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Selvage" by Linda Gregerson

the words on paper make
     a sort of currency, which heaven,

against all odds, accepts.
     So Will, which is to say, May what

I purpose, please, this once, and what
     will happen coincide.

And who hasn‘t felt the urgency or desperation to ask that question?

"The Selvage," by Linda Gregerson is a mostly accessible collection of 18 poems rendered in a prosodic style. Certain of these confections are driven by an easy, if flavorful, flow of straight passages presented as verse and resulting in the slightest alterations to meanings.

Sure, it has been done, but this is a nice combination of elements.

Add to the convenience of an unobtrusive read the poet’s sweet descriptive gift, wide-ranging curiosity evidenced in subject choice, and the aptly placed piece of richer wordsmithery and you have an evocative, at times emotional experience in your hands.

It's a kind of prose with dollops of poetry where most needed.

Gregerson's poems puzzle, but not too much. And even where you never really wrap your mind around the whole garden, certain of the flowers growing within are no less satisfying.

highwayscribery admits to having only a vague notion of what is going on in the poem "Varenna," but still has room in the heart for:

Quaker-gray from taupe, until
     the blackwater satins unroll their

gorgeous lengths above a sharpening
     partition of lake-and-loam.

There's a music that is pleasing and it can be found throughout the work presented here.

That said, Gregerson's interest in antiquity has her wander where only those academic poets and their academic followers dare to. You won't need to know who Theseus was to understand "Theseus Forgetting," its lesson universal like so much scripted here.

But "Ariadne in Triumph" and "Dido Refuses to Speak" are less decipherable than some of the other poems and a guide in the back of the tome to the classic personalities employed here may suggest the author and her editors realized that some of this stuff is beyond the ken of the common cur. (guilty)

"The Selvage," is free of cliché. Its locations are not worn literary beacons like Paris, London and Prague, but off-the-grid and unknown places that add to our knowing.

The chosen topics are both ancient and contemporary.

There is an (positive) expression of Obama’s election and a poetic critique of the little girl in a red dress in Stephen Spielberg’s black-and-white “Schindler’s List. There is an appreciation for a dead dray horse a, recuperation of poet Isabella Whitney and more.

Fragments of the wide world shining throughout “The Selvage,” represent a lovely return on a minimal investment.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"La Gaviota" por Fernan Caballero

"La Gaviota" es una novela en cual la tierra pesa tanto como los personajes.

Es una novela "andalúza" desde las pies a la cabeza.

Las pies tomen lugar en Villamar, un pueblito Gaditano que perdurece en el olvido.

Su población esta hecho por unas cuantas personajes muy pintorescos y
que la autora Fernán Caballero -- nom de plum de la Alemana Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber -- quien pasó buen rato en las tierras moras de la península Iberica.
Llega a este lugar marinera un tal Stein; Aleman que ha venido a luchar en una guerra Española de la decada 1840. Malparado, los buenos y simples del pueblo le devuelven su salud.

Stein se queda en Villamar mientras la autora nos familiaríza con las maneras y charlas de la gente llana y andalúza de aquella epoca. Mientras tanto, Stein se enamora de una rapaza del sitio conocida por los vecinos como "La Gaviota" gracias a su carácter de arrogante y desairada.

Resulta ésta ser gran cantaora quien crece bajo la instrucción de Stein. Acaban casandose. Su madurez y el profundo cariño que Stein guarda para "La Gaviota" hace que se pasan buen y alégre rato en el campo.
Pero un aristócrata de Sevilla la escucha cantar y se enamora de la impertinente joven.

La cabeza de la historia se encuentra en la capital andalúza a donde el conde los lleva a Stein y su esposa. He aquí la novela se centra en las charlas que se desarollan en el salón de una condesa con sus tan-pintorescos-como-los-campesinos amigos de la alta sociedad hispalense.
En Sevilla la cantaora se enrede, como no, con un torero, cosa que la puede venir bien o mal, pero eso no se cuenta aquí.

"La Gaviota" es entrañable aunque lento a veces. La autora pasa much tiempo dejando sus personajes desplegar las ideas, dichos, y noticias de la epoca mientras la trama se desarolla con menos energía que la palabrarería empleado en los largos intercambios de ideas, noticias, insultas, cotilleo etc.

Tiene, o relata, Caballero un gran sentido de humor demostrado através de las bocas de sus tertuliantes.
Es decir que las piezas de "La Gaviota" valen mas que la enteridad pero, aun asi, merece la pena leerlo sobre todo para conocer las ideas y maneras de ser en tiempos y lugares lejanos pero no carecientes de interés.

De mérito especial son los tremendos retratos que hace Caballero de unas corridas de toros en tiempos cuando los caballos de los picadores se morían a rachas y la sangre y tortura excedían lo que se presencia en el espectaculo moderno.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Juliet in August," by Dianne Warren

Things do happen in places where things never happen.

If history unfolds in the metropolis, the circle of life - birth, growth, death, and birth again - is magnified in the province.

"Juliet in August (Cool Water)" follows a few denizens of a homonymous western Canadian town for approximately two days' time.

The characters play out different personal dramas (emphasize dramas) related to the more incremental stops along that circle of life: the confused adolescent, the indebted family farmer, the cafe proprietor and her fading charms, the balding bank officer, the pregnant teen.

The author, Dianne Warren, chooses to run these dramas along separate rails, essentially laying out a handful of stories, breaking them up, and then interspersing those parts.

You spend a little time with Lee Torgeson on his desert trek, you jump to Willard at the drive-in, and then to Shiloh in his new basement room.

These are working folks and westerns folks, and Warren's prose reflects their idioms. "Juliet in August" strikes a nice balance between showing and explaining, alternating lively, regionally tinged dialogue with concise introspection. Warren's ear for the language of long-term matrimony is certain.

It's a grim with that silver-lining-of-hope kind of story. The humanity of these small and anonymous people out in the desert of Saskatchewan renders them universal. We can relate. We dream of escape, too.

There is no big bang here, no classic denouement once events have transpired. Perhaps a vague peak toward the end that closes the narrative somewhat.

There is no neat and tidy resolution to some of the problems the characters confront, only the lessons they impart. They have only tomorrow to look forward to and the next phase in their own circumnavigation.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Living the Revolution," by Jennifer Guglielmo

Oh, the ever-changing face of America!

Who among us can even envision a northern New Jersey clutching tight to New York via the tendrils of the garment and other departed industries, pocked with recently arrived anarchists from places like Avellino?

Jennifer Guglielmo's "Living the Revolution," assembles the research and words necessary to conjure that distant and disappeared time.

Some of this reviewer's antecedent's hailed from Avellino and the revelation in Guglielmo's book goes a long way toward explaining his own anarcho-syndicalist tendencies.

And explanation is necessary, because the Italian-American milieu in which he grew up was far from revolutionary. Uncles and aunts in Brooklyn and Queens loathed John Lindsay in favor of a hack named Mario Procaccino. When a black family moved into the neighborhood, a call of alarm went out.

To be Italian-American in mid-century New York was to be conservative, closed-minded and to wont for a liberal, higher education (generally speaking).

"Living the Revolution," goes a long way toward explaining how that happened: Italian-Americans desperately clinging to their classification as "white" by federal authorities; their frantic efforts to establish "American-ness" while the U.S. made war on Mussolini's Italy; the devastating impact of the Palmer Raids on the anarchist culture that took root in the tri-state area among Italian immigrant women.

Later on, according to this book, Italian and Italian-American women became active in the the union movement, although their efforts to gain power were often thwarted and their contributions to the Ladies Garment Workers and other syndicates undervalued.

Guglielmo's book recuperates the ladies' names and actions, making great strides in combating the widely-held notion that they were somehow not militant. This appears to be the primary task she set out for herself in penning this text.

"Living the Revolution," sets the record straight. It's a work of historical scholarship and, from time-to-time, bogs down in minutiae, however necessary. Sometimes, the task at hand causes the author to wander far from the focus of her discussion and into the 19th-century uprisings in southern Italy or the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

In the end, it all ties together and Guglielmo's passion for the subject ultimately drives the narrative and should win over those who come to her story with a healthy curiosity.

"Living" is a feminist tract. It pulls from the rich filigree of events, that make up the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing policies, traditions and mores of patriarchy and white supremacy.
It dramatizes how these things weighed upon the activist women and illuminated the creativity they employed in combating them.

"Living the Revolution," not only rescues the names and profiles of some worthwhile people otherwise condemned to anonymity, it helps explain how we got where we are as a nation today, the good and the bad alike.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Diving Belles and Other Stories" by Lucy Wood

English magical realism?

Lucy Wood's "Diving Belles: And Other Stories" is replete with the surreal, the impossible, the unlikely, and the illusory.

As is often the case when artists or scientists delve into such subjects, it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is extraordinary, which is part of the fun here.

Other times it is quite clear that the extra-worldly souls in "Notes from the House of Spirits" are talking to you, telling the stories of its many inhabitants. Or that the two teenagers feeling out their relationship while on the moor are, in fact, frolicking in "The Giant's Boneyard."

These precious little oddities are not page-turners. Ms. Wood does not focus her energies on plotting. Rather she is a mistress of atmospheres. The moody seascapes of her native Cornwall effectively darken one's spirits, its towering cliffs leave the reader desolate.

She makes place palpable.

Things don't happen in these stories, so much as they solidify like pudding and slowly grind to a halt, as is the case with the woman in "Countless Stones" who slowly turns to rock over the course of its pages.

These are primarily stories of endings and tend towards subjects pushed to the margins by their failing bodies, expiring energy, folding under the weight of memories that outnumber those who don't live centuries and are not condemned to roaming the cosmos eternally.

"Diving Belles" is a series of impressionistic puzzles peppered with hints and come-ons that simultaneously alter a reader's mood and challenge them to assemble the evidence and craft a narrative where one is only slyly suggested.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Bastard Year," Richard Lee Zuras

Author Richard Lee Zuras either has a teenage son or a very good memory. The sum total of "The Bastard Year" seems to confirm the latter

In this novella, Zuras gives voice to Zain, a Northern Virginia product coming of age in 1980 as the nation stood on the cusp of a conservative turn that would mark it indelibly.

The Iran Hostage crisis, gas lines, Jimmy Carter's plateful of problems, Ronald Reagan and a CIA director by the name of George Bush are make appearances here, but only as backdrop to this story of a family's struggle to remain together, or, break apart.

It's hard to tell and it's supposed to be hard to tell.

The novella is turned out through Zain's voice, a teenager in habit and deed, but a soul aging more quickly with the multiplying troubles of his mother and father.

The author's got a great touch when it comes to the stupid things teens do, all the while understanding they're not trying to be stupid, or trying to be anything; that they don't have an answer to the parentally plaintiff

"What were you thinking?" because thought never entered into it.

Holden Caufield comes to mind, though what's different here in the instant case are the times, the circumstances, and the evolution in adolescent assertiveness.

Zuras bangs an offbeat drum. There are no build-ups and no moments when things are supposed to occur.

And while the drama and trouble confronting the characters in this story are low-level, the writer maintains an uncomfortable, fear-laced tension.

For example, Zain and father have an outing to the nation's capital, with dad pulling on a bottle of booze the whole time while The Son steals hot dogs from a vendor that he'd been given money for.

"We walked down past the government buildings to the edge of the Tidal Basin and sat on the grass under a cherry blossom. It had been months since they had bloomed, but you could still spot their petals decaying in the grass."

Having lived through the era, highwayscribery can attest to the accuracy of the 1970s reconstruction occurring between the covers of this thin tome. It has remarkable recall, an effective mix of extinct consumer products, political storms, musical references, and action once casual that is now impossible.

"I looked around for a place to go to the bathroom. All the House office buildings look like they were closed."

Who today would even take a stab at entering the Capital for such a purpose?

Throughout "The Bastard Year" you have a sense of an America gone by, an America where woods were interspersed with development and doctoring a driver's license so you could get into a bar, child's play.

The lives of the family in "The Bastard Year," remind us that we were freer once, if less informed about substance abuse, depression, and family dynamics.

Zuras' moody portrait is of the noncommercial type. Those who escape to book, those who have enough of reality from reality, or require something more sweeping, would do well to go elsewhere.

Those who don't flinch at the darkness may find the universal and the therapeutic in this well-crafted tale of survival, perseverance, and learning.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Vedette Does La Danza"

highwayscribery and his able collaborator, guitarist Omar Torrez, will do a performance of "Vedette Does La Danza" at the monthly downtown Los Angeles Artwalk April 12. It's at night, probably around 8 p.m. Omar's band will also play.

For those who don't know, "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows," is this blogger's first novel, and signature work. Omar Torrez is a singer, composer and master guitarist. He and highway scribe cooked up this "literary flamenco" or musical/spoken word presentation in 2006. It has been performed in Los Angeles, New York City and San Diego.

We hope to see you there.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Christ in Concrete" by Pietro di Donato

"Christ in Concrete" is both paean and prayer to the old immigrant Italian industrial worker.

Like the laborers it depicts, "Concrete" lurches towards moments of joy without ever breaking through the unrelenting misery that is very much author Pietro di Donato's message.

This is working class literature of the 1930s where the great unwashed are brought into finer relief, their desperate situations the fodder for heart-wrenching plot.

In vogue during its Depression heyday, this kind of literature, even done as well as it is here, faced structural barriers to mass acceptance later. The disadvantaged are always the disadvantaged and their most uplifting stories still register as grim.

In "Concrete," the tenement dwellers of New York's lower East Side are not necessarily unhappy. Di Donato portrays them as stout of heart, quick to aid their fellows, and adept at grabbing a rare laugh when presented with the chance.

But they are maimed or ground to dust and the novel's pessimistic conclusion is that the game is rigged against them poor WOPS. And it is. They are "Christ in Concrete," dependent on work that literally kills them.

There is not a lot of workerist rhetoric to this book. It is less Marx, more Biblical justice and Christian plea. Merely an adept portrayal of the construction worker's life in the great Gotham of skyscrapers and cold bitter bluster.

Stories of work itself.

Di Donato, a bricklayer by trade, mined prosaic music from the mundane task:

"He reached the trowel down into the mortar. Slice down toward him, edgewise twist in quick short circle and scoop up away from him. The trowel came up half-covered with mortar - but how heavy! He dropped it back into the tub and worked the trowel back and forth in the mortar just as he had seen the bricklayers do. The feel of flexible steel trowel in pliant warm plush soon-to-be-stone. The wet rub of mortar on tender skin, the fleshy sense of Job."

He explained its soul-deadening effects:

"These men were the hardness that bruise Paul many times. They were the bodies to whom he would joined in bondage to Job. Job would be a brick labyrinth that would suck him in deeper and deeper, and there would be no going back. Life would never be a dear music, a festival, a gift of Nature. Life would be the torque of Wall's battle that distorted straight limbs beneath weight in heat and rain and cold."

This is turn-of-the-20th century immigrant milieu. It is life in the tenement, its Italians, Swedes, Jews, and blacks heaped upon one another with their only commonality a severe lack of resources. "

Christ in Concrete" provides a global view that concentrates as much on the women and children at home as it does the men at the construction site.

In "Living the Revolution," an academic study of radical Italian women in the same New York "Concrete" mixes, Jennifer Guglielmo notes that southern Italian women responded to patriarchal dominance in society by "crafting their own cultural expression," including magic, sorcery, divination, or dancing the "tarantella."

These pre-feminist strategies are dramatized in storytelling by di Donato through the tarantella-dancing Annunziata, or when she and Paul visit "The Cripple," a tenement-bound medium to the netherworld.

Di Donato wrote the heck out of this story. The translation is a kind of direct transposing of the words as ordered in Italian which successfully marks the book with a distinctive prose style.

The now-departed author (1911-1992) committed one falsity in wrapping up his heartfelt condemnation of capital exploitation:

"No poet would be there to intone meter of soul's sentence to stone, no artist upon scaffold to paint the vinegary sweat of Christian in correspondence with red brick and gray mortar, no composer attuned to the screaming movement of Job and voiceless cry in overalls."

Not true, for with each additional word he wrote, Di Donato did a little more to erase the verity of that sentence.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" by Jeanette Winterson

It's no surprise that even when Jeanette Winterson is telling her own story, it reads as prime-cut literature.

This reviewer has only read one of the author's books, "The Passion," but it is a favorite for its balance of poetry and lilting plainspeak, for its fitting a world into a slim volume without it ever seeming crowded or busy.

"You play, you win. You play you lose. You play."

Argue with that.

In "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" Winterson recounts just how many times literature, the consumption and creation of it, saved her from mental depression, while sounding more relevant than self-involved.

Her secret?

Literature and the knowledge of its purposes and uses: "Personal stories,” she writes, “work for other people when those stories become both paradigm and parables. The intensity of a story...releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story."

Yes we do.

In the separation from her birth mother she sees a wound each accrues and helps herself and the reader by using the Grail Myth as analytical tool, the "Odyssey," and "Gulliver's Travels."

We’re talking about Jeanette Winterson, but we’re talking about books and other stuff, too. Her approach to time's unfolding and the best way to live it out is detailed through a poem by Marvell (with who we are unfamiliar), her blueprint for approaching society extracted from Gertrude Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas."

The arc of Winterson's tale runs from her adoption and subsequent rejection by her adoptive parents, through all the insecurity and drive the sadness engendered, and her return to face the ghosts of her past because they have backed her, a renowned and remunerated English lady of lit, into a corner.

She mines gold out of a dark and treacherous mire, and much the same goes for this piece, which, for all its lingering in the mind's forbidden corners, is mostly optimistic.

There are more than two chances in life, she writes, "many more - I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance."

Which is good news for most of us and break from a suffocating conventional wisdom.

Apart from this book's psychological meditations, Winterson is long-lived enough to recount for us a hidebound industrial northern England where beans and toast are a treat, the bathroom is out back, and your mother locks you in a the coal pit for punishment without going to jail.

For all the difficulties she associates with that time and place, and for all the shiver-inducing abuse of her adoptive mother -- “Mrs. Winterson” she dubs her -- the author is perfectly liberal in her nostalgia for a disappeared world, one that stood out from others and they from it, one less homogenized than our own and which is recorded here for our reading pleasure as well.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Luis Buñuel: The Red Years," by Gubern and Hammond"

Ah science! Could you not have revealed that Luis Buñuel was no 1930s Stalinist, but rather as he remembered, a whimsical surrealist who casually meandered into filmmaking history?

No, of course not.

Instead, "Luis Buñuel, "The Red Years," straightens out the timeline put forth in the Oscar-winning director's (Best Foreign Film) endearing autobiography, "My Last Sigh," dismissing anecdotes as impossible given the evidence, blowing holes in his very memory.

Which is kind of fun when one considers how "My Last Sigh," opens with a meditation on memory:

"You have to begin to lose your memory," says the director, "if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing."

Even with it, "The Red Years," implies, we may not be who we remember ourselves to be.

Authors Roman Gubern and Paul Hammond get excited when their investigation has marked a discrepancy between the story of his life, as Buñuel told it, and what some document they pulled out of the French Embassy or the checka files confirms to the contrary.

But they're not malicious about it, just doing their jobs, demythologizing the heck out of another romantic epoch.

The text begins as a typical filmography and this is because Buñuel's earliest years comprised his efforts as a surrealist and maker of films guided by the dictates of that artistic credo.

There is a detailing of the group's internal strife as it first rushed to embrace the French Communist Party, and then split when a goodly portion found the reds petty and obsessed with rules. It is an old story of factionalism over the finer points, personalism, resentment and political cannibalism that consumed the hopes of leftists the world over.

The High Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, broke in the name of intellectual independence. Buñuel, by contrast, joined the Spanish Communist Party and, well, enslaved himself, for a time at least, to the hard and cruel rules of Stalinism.

In "My Last Sigh," Buñuel portrays his time in '20s Hollywood as a kind of lark during which he disdained the big studio process and acted scandalously before being asked to leave.

But "The Red Years," proposes a more ambitious and careerist Buñuel picking up something of the industrial studio's techniques, because he returned to Madrid and became an all-purpose producer, set handyman, and anonymous director for Spain's first legitimate commercial enterprise, Filmófono.

In making that production house's few and popular folkloric melodramas (long tarried over here), Buñuel often pushed the director aside in order to meet his own strict deadlines and slim budgets.

The films made good money, and Buñuel kept his name out of the credits. He wanted to maintain his cachet as the "avant" creator of "Un Chien Andalou," and "L'Age D'or."

Upon the outset of the Spanish Civil War, the title "The Red Years," begins to impose itself and, while the book's latter third may clear up certain questions haunting Buñuel scholars, the turn towards a more turgid and technical read is undeniable.

Aligned with the ascendant communists in the war time Spanish Republic, the director enlisted in the espionage game while coordinating film propaganda from Paris.

The authors spend an inordinate amount of time disentangling oral and written accounts, receipts, records, letters etc., to determine the director's role in two propaganda films telling Republican Spain's story to the world, "España '36," and "España '37."

Why? Presumably because it's "The Red Years," and, once again, one can comprehend why Breton made his break, rather than get involved in this gray world of apparatchiks and quirky little dictators.

It is not without interest to see what Buñuel and his fellow travelers were thinking during tumultuous times that put the average European in harm's way.

Buñuel could have been killed at any time. The business of propaganda and serving as a conduit for money and documents in favor of the Republic was not so much a choice as an imposed duty.

Clearly, radical films purchased with the money of cosmopolitan French aristocrats were not the order of the day and so the actual Red years present thin pickings for filmophiles.

This is small-bore stuff that assumes prior reading on Eurocommunism and a deep interest in the director's political activities.

"Ugly to Start With," John David Cummings

We have before us, as the title "ugly to start with," might suggest, poetry of the ramshackle.

John Michael Cummings offers 13 slices from the life of a Harpers Ferry, West Virginia teen named Jason.

The West Virginia we have stereotyped into our national conscience is much in evidence in this collection of loosely linked short stories.

We get bits and pieces of Jason life, but not a narrative with arc, resolution, denouement, and all that stuff.

Cummings plays it a beat behind the bass in the events he chooses to depict. His view of the place is not built around milestones and national holidays.

For him the real action occurs in life's interstices, its waiting rooms, in the liminal world where the handful of responses we normally apply are useless.

If the people in these stories (this story?) are poor and quirky, their outlooks premodern, homes corroded and moldy, Cummings renders them, not so much lovingly, as in a straightforward fashion, nothing to be ashamed of and attention worthy.

It's grim. The kid lacks esteem, his brothers are idiots, he gets no love from his father and basically bounds about with other boys lacking the polish and discipline he does. His is an unforgiving universe and real joys are few and far between.

Jason is not an unfamiliar character in American literature: the teen weirdo who wants to be an artist and get the hell out of whatever small town it is they are living in.

His curiosity outstrips the ability of his surroundings to satisfy it, and he gets into things he knows he shouldn't, because there's nothing else to do and loserism is woven into the local fabric.

He is his own light in a dank world, carries hope through the moist and decadent land of mountain hollows the author so skillfully conveys.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Queen of America," by Luis Alberto Urrea

"She could not remember when she had last put her feet in free running water. She had not pulled a fruit off a tree or ridden a horse or prayed in a sacred spot. Were there sacred spots in New York? Wouldn't people just laugh at her if they found her talking to trees? Collecting seeds from plants with her old apron? Where was her apron? Huila's apron. Where was it?"

In the street, where a lazy, ne'er-do-well, drink-soppin', money-burning gringo dandy cowboy left it, that's where.

This clash between Yaqui mysticism and Anglo rationality is at the heart of Luis Alberto Urrea's "Queen of America."

The book is sequel to "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which this reviewer has not read, but would appear to have covered the true-to-life Saint Teresa of Cabora's days in Mexico, where she became the object of mass pilgrimages and inspiration for an ill-fated rebellion in Tomochic.

Having stoked the ire of The Porfiriato, a belle epoque Mexican dictatorship, Teresa, her father Tomas, and a loose tribe of characters Mexican, Indian and "yanqui" that follow the saint, take refuge north of the border.

A native naif, "Teresita" is still healing legions of believers in both the Mexican-American community and beyond. As the family moves from rural Arizona to El Paso, and back to Arizona, Teresa and her father, Don Tomas, struggle with their relationship.

Once a wealthy "hacendado" with cattle and an indigenous labor force, he resents Teresita's notoriety (importance?) for the exile and danger to which it has subjected him.

Don Tomas, his friends and acolytes such as Segundo and Don Lauro Aguirre, are men out to pasture with little to move them but liquor and a tepid revolutionary movement in their homeland. They are rendered here in buffa style, over-the-top, silly Mexican machos.

Teresa, pure of spirit, and held to a higher standard of conduct than your usual Indian girl, looks for a love to fill the hole her father's retreat as left in her life.

It doesn't work out too well, although we are treated to neither background or flashback for an explaining of why Guadalupe did what he did or what happened to him.

Urrea's a skilled writer, so it wasn't lack of it that may leave you dissatisfied. He's going in for whimsy, timelessness, and magic, but it can come off as unstructured and leave a reader feeling like they're floating in a bubble, directionless, things just happening to characters without us knowing why.

Yes, life is like that, but literature less so, because try as the latter might to reflect the former, they are inherently different.

When Teresita's bumpkin husband dubs her "Queen of America," he doesn't mean it nicely. He means that the commercialization of her life and powers - encouraged by him - have divested the saint of what Jack Kerouac would have called her "fellaheen" self, her spirit origin, her attachment to the earth beneath Manhattan's concrete, the buried Manahatta she ignores.

This process of deracination is promoted by more clownish characters, pin-striped American businessmen dealing in exploitation, thuggery, and bad manners.

They lodge Teresita in San Francisco and then St. Louis where she meets Geronimo and sees the World's Fair. Next is New York where she becomes an exotic to the Vanderbilts and others. Signposts of the time and places are served up to she and to us.

Because of how deeply engrained it is in the national psyche, it is unlikely Mexican literature will cease to remind itself, Mexicans, and those of us in el norte, about the ironic burden of coexistence with these "pinche" gringos; to need them yet loathe them, to eat their carrot, but feel their stick, etc. etc. etc.

And that familiar meme is a strong part of the message here: the identity-robbing realities of modernity, which are thrown into relief by a simple border crossing (northward).

Teresita goes home to complete a kind of universal circle and close a book that is a long road show, that loses in dramatic tension what it gains in ambient flavor.

This is an exile's journey through the late nineteenth century United States, with all that seeing it through a Mexican Indian's eyes might signify, a carnival show rolling before our eyes, some things related, foreseen or foreshadowed, others fragmented in the way scenes from a sojourn can be fragmented.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," by Chris Matthews

There are stories foretold and stories that have been told.

"Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero" falls into the latter category.

It's all here, the way the Kennedys built a political party within a political party, the vaunted "glamour" of the young couple, the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin airlift, the confrontation with southern governors over desegregation of the universities down there...

Hardballer Chris Matthews said on Bill Maher's show that he wrote the book largely because he felt time had softened and obscured Kennedy's legacy. He noted how little younger people know much about this president who fired the imagination of an emerging generation so long ago.

"Elusive Hero" is a cradle-to-grave affair in which Matthews puts Kennedy on the couch and draws connections between his adult and political life and that of the sickly boy who lacked attention and took solace in history books.

Although cradle-to-grave, it becomes clear to anyone whose age exceeds Kennedy's 46 years, that the book surveys a short life.

Reading his trajectory as a younger fellow, highwayscribery saw a giant. Now, with Matthews help, Kennedy is more a powerful life-force hounded by death and the dark throughout a fantastic and terrible life.

Matthews writes okay. It's a kind of Beltway journo-talk that exults in political "donnybrooks," back room deals, and campaign "hijinks" when referring to corruption and wrongdoing.

"Elusive Hero," states its estimation of the man in the title. But this is updated hagiography that confronts Kennedy's marital infidelities, his ruthlessness, and all the rest. It's more honest and critical than the encomiums produced by the generation most burned by his murder.

The author's best contribution is his willingness to go beyond the donnybrooks and hijinks and demonstrate how the Kennedys engineered takeovers, corralled delegates, strong-armed state governors and so forth.

He gives you an operative's view of how things are put into place at the grass roots. The plotting and planning, the marshalling of forces, and the final application of power are put into motion here by Bobby and

Jack, legitimate historical figures, regardless of where you stand politically.

Interest in this book should bifurcate along a fault line separating those who know about JFK and that "one brief, shining moment," and those for whom Camelot is just some old and outdate Broadway play.

The latter should give it a try.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," by Susana Fortes

Gerda Taro was a pearl with no oyster in which to enfold herself.

She's the one "Waiting for Robert Capa," a Hungarian photographer named Andre who she coddled, loved, and turned into an international artistic product.

Taro herself was one of those strong and independent women in a time when her gender was allowed no such prerogative and those who chose to exercise it were left on the vine to dry and die.

"Waiting for Robert Capa," is the story of their brief, youthful, and productive love affair. It is, in her case, a holocaust story because she is a displaced Polish Jew who does not survive the Nazis and Fascists of her time.

And it is mostly Gerda's story. That of a woman whom watching evoked, "an Angora cat hunt down a mouse with the street smarts of a stray," someone, author Susana Fortes tells us, who was "automatically loved. It's something you're born with, like the way you laugh as you tell a joke in a low voice."

The couple meet in Paris after being chased from their respective homelands. Fortes' strongest contribution may be her depiction of how suffocating and terrifying Fascism had become for the average person in the European street.

The portrayal suggests the couple were happier in a war zone, where they could be free, where utility outranked pedigree, and where they could confront the enemy earlier than most.

Fortes puts these characters into Spanish Civil War action at the places history knows they had been: the defense of Madrid, the refugees' flight from Malaga, the exiled government in Valencia, and the fateful battle of Brunete.

She peppers her text with the names of forgotten poets and International Brigadists in the style of Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska.

But mostly Fortes imagines the internal and emotional lives of her subjects, the lovers Gerda and Capa, although these inner personalities are not put into "play" very often. Rather the author tells us what they are thinking about themselves and one another, mixes said feelings with politics, Jewish identity, and their zest for life into an interesting, if low-volume literary affair.

Although the players in action took more work, and despite the fact "Waiting..." is situated in war time, the author favors the internal dialogues and, as such, this book is mostly a projected mapping of these two peoples' emotional souls.

This is a European romance of the old-fashioned kind that continues the ongoing effort to recuperate the memories of remarkable people forgotten, because they were losers in a chapter most critical to modern history.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"History of Pleasure Seeker," by Richard Mason

"History of a Pleasure Seeker" is a randy, raucous romp through belle epoque Europe.

It descends from a long line of young-man-seeks-fortune-in-the-big-city yarns by giants such as Balzac ("Pere Goriot") and Guy de Mauppassant ("Bel Ami").

What with cable networks morphing novels into television series, author Richard Mason may have a winner on his hand if he'll only go with snappier title, "Bourgeois Behaving Badly."

The scene in "History of...," mostly, is turn of the century Amsterdam. Our hero is the humble-born Piet Barol who is skilled most at enjoying life and given the rapier tool best suited to this pursuit: beauty.

Barol is vain and ambitious in calculating, but it must be in a way that we all are, because the reader wishes him well and prays for his escape from some of the scrapes he rather hungrily gets himself into.

He's installed as a tutor in a burgher's house on an affluent Amsterdam canal as a tutor.

The man's wife is hot and unloved, his daughters flowering and enigmatic in interesting ways. A puritan runs the house staff, a pervert the service crew.

highwayscribery will avoid mentioning the ways, crafty and not, Barol navigates these seas while still reaching better shores.

Mr. Mason does what they call in comedy, "blue." If homosexuality or hearing the name of that thing hanging between men's legs called by its street name offend you, let us recommend Jane Austen.

"History of a Pleasure Seeker" is an easy read, rendered in efficient prose, and blessed with curious insights about Old World ways.

Mason permits himself no artistic indulgences, working with a strong forward moving structure, few flashbacks, al palatable tableaux peppered with good visual and historical detail.

It is really an Old World book, pulled from Old World ways of writing literature, with the novelty found in the voices of past masters sort of blended or woven into it.

Here you'll find erotic drama, laced with humor, with strong accents of Austen, Georges Bataille, de Sade, and Henry James.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"Conversations with Nelson Algren"

Highlighting a mostly forgotten author, "Conversations with Nelson Algren"
is rich with themes relevant today, and a critique of American life a worthy of consideration.

Algren was a "tough guy" writer from Chicago's west side. He was jailed in Texas as a young man, enlisted in World War II, traveled to Asia on a merchant ship, maintained a long-time romance with the existentialist and feminist intellectual Simon de Beauvoir, to name just a few of the adventures which filled his life.

Much of his literature concerned itself with drug addiction in the mean streets, to shedding light on the realities of this particular sliver of the demimonde. To such themes did he stake his name and novels, among them "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "Walk on the Wild Side."

"I thought I'd make a dent," he tells his interrogator. "I didn't make the least dent, because there is no way of convincing or even making the slightest impression on the American middle class that there are people who have no alternative, that there are people who live in horror, that there are people whose lives are nightmares. This is not accepted. The world of the drug addict doesn't exist. The world of the criminal doesn't exist. The world of the murderer doesn't exist. Nothing that does not touch the person individually exists."

Two of Algren's novels were made into A-list movies, one starring Frank Sinatra. Otto Preminger produced one of them. Algren's is the quintessential Hollywood writer's story, the one where he gets ripped off, recounted in an angry, detailed narrative that makes "Conversations with..." worth the trip.

Not that he finds things much better in New York or Chicago: "I put up with the disdain. I accept that as part of the creative person's lot in the United States. You must live with the disdain. There's something criminal about being a writer, that is, if you're not a successful writer, that is if you're not a yes man."

He should see how things are today. Algren's own experience sounds like some contrived fantasy for television kids.

For example, his first time in New York, "I went right up to Vanguard Press and met James Henle. And he said, 'What'll you need to write a novel?' I said, 'I'd go back to the Southwest.' He said, 'What would you need to do that?' I said, 'I need thirty dollars a month."

And he got it, plus "ten dollars to get out of town."

Products of long ago, his conversations do double service as memoirs that explain mid-century America, starting with the Great Depression and heading into the early '60s.

He was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the '30s, starting out at $87 a month and rising to $125 over the life his job. A window on government's turn at fomenting fortune in the art world.

"The WPA? Yeah, it was very good. I believe that the first thing it was, it served to humanize people who had been partially dehumanized. There had been, I believe, in those years between 1929 and 1930, '31, when people who had been self-respecting, lost their self-respect by being out of work and then living by themselves began to feel the world was against them. To such people WPA provided a place where they began to communicate with people again."

If you do not find something like that interesting, you should bypass this book, which is sociological and political in nature, glazed with a Chicago-street patina.

Algren was friends with Richard Wright, had a tense encounter with James Baldwin, disliked Jack Kerouac's work, but liked John Clellon Holmes and, generally speaking, had enough to say about his times to generate a panoramic view of the same.

That panorama is on display in these interviews conducted by the also-forgotten H.E.F. Donohue.