Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Trotsky in New York, 1917"

“Fun” and “Trotsky” are not a natural pairing, but that's what you get with Kenneth Ackerman's historical reconstruction of the wily Bolshevik's time in The Big Apple.

In a scrupulously researched book, Ackerman reconstructs Leon Trotsky's 10-week stay in New York City and makes some far-reaching claims about the importance of the layover that, at least, invite discussion.

Basically thrown out of Europe, Trotsky hit New York in 1917. The historian provides some background on the rebel's life prior to getting on that transatlantic crossing and knows a little about what happened on board as well.

As the book's subtitle – “A Radical on the Eve of Revolution” – suggests, Trotsky arrived anonymous, but would leave with his name on everybody's lips as turmoil in Russia created the opening he and Vladimir Lenin had been anticipating for years.

Ackerman relishes his twin topics and brings “Trotsky's New York” to life visually, factually, sensually.

The noisy isle crowded with Yiddish-speaking, Russian Tsar-hating Jews, the elevated trains hammering out the urban machine soundtrack to industrial Manhattan, other flavors and phantoms are successfully summonsed in this engaging text.

The author traces Trotsky's steps: his rental in a middle-class section of the Bronx; his day job at a Russian-language left-wing rag (and debates therein); his interactions with socialists both American and foreign, his associates both old world and new.

Together, in New York and Trotsky, Ackerman ably helps himself to not one, but two great historical players so that, although we're dealing with footnoted, historical nonfiction, a lively and, yes, even fun, portrait of man and place in time emerges.

We might call it “Ragtime” for communists save for the fact Ackerman hews closer to an academic style than does E.L. Doctorow in his intentionally literary turn.

The portrait of Trotsky is that of a verbal and ideological bulldog, an insolent intellectual, a man convinced of his cause's correctness, intolerant of any divergence from his recipe for violent revolution.

The author does a bang-up job of resuscitating American socialist Morris Hillquit from the dustbin of history through the replay of his policy battle with Trotsky over how the American left would respond to the country's entry into World War I.

Hillquit prevailed... barely. Ackerman suggests that in his confrontations with the milder reformist and those of his ilk in New York, Trotsky mapped the future of American left-radicalism for decades to come.

That, and other claims the author makes regarding the impact of Trotsky's stay are plausible and provide fodder for debate and further scholarship.

The book sheds a novel light on the Russian Revolution, which looms quite so large given Trotsky's decisive role and Ackerman can't resist commenting on the too-big subject. Here he falls into a bit of rote anti-communism.

It's unavoidable that the horrors of Stalin, the gulags, show-trials, pogroms, etc., be raised, but there is no consideration of what good, if any, Trotsky's efforts generated so that Ackerman short-shrifts his own subject.

How history treats us! Hillquit, a decent human being and worldly character is forgotten, but the Trotsky produced here, who wrought nothing but heartache upon those he or his ideas touched, is the historical standout.

Without a counter-discussion, Trotsky comes across as a man of multiple talents, all of which were misapplied in the creation of a sanguinary communist dictatorship. But there were many who believed in the Soviet Union and still others who lament its passing. Their take on Trotsky is missing.

Which is to say, Ackerman should have stopped where his title does: in New York. The post-Gotham section is not inconsiderable and removes the reader from a curious epoch that is the book's strength.

Yes, following the trajectories of certain players, and Trotsky family members, in revolutionary Russia serves a purpose and provides the reader with satisfying – or mortifying – closure.

Still, the author would have lost nothing and gained a more cohesive “whole” by sticking with his attractive, almost stylized account and cutting Trotsky loose at the New York piers; letting him float off into a history left for books written and unwritten alike.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"Komantcia" by Harold Keith

Harold Keith's adventure novel-cum-social-study renders an arresting portrait of Comanche territory or what the rival Ute tribe called “Komantcia.”

Our guide through this wild land is Pedro Pavon, a world-class guitarist on tour in northern Mexico, captured by the warlike tribe after watching his mother be scalped.

This is a story of slavery, a slavery to which many settlers were subjected during the annexation of Indian lands by the European cultures.

Keith's well-researched narrative presents tribal cruelty and an unforgiving southwestern landscape as insurmountable obstacles to the protagonist's escape. If you were captured, you stay captured.

Pavon is subjected to the denigrating whims of his abusive master Whip Belt until his traits of Christian charity and physical courage spark a trade to one of the band's most important chiefs.

From here on Pavon begins a dance with his desire to get the heck out and another he feels for a Cheyenne named Willow Girl.

The Comanche launch Pedro onto a path toward themselves. His freedom to roam increases only with
a corresponding wane to his interest in escaping.

That's the set-up without spoiler.

“Komantcia” was first published in 1965 and appears to be out of print now.

Keith combined the true story of a captive Mexican boy's absorption into Comanche life with his own profound interest in the Tribe's ways.

He cites as primary sources Colonel Richard Irving Dodge's “The Plains of the Great West,” and “The Comanches, Lords of the South Plains,” by Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel.

The book's narrative arc and English usage are of a conventional kind, yet Keith infuses his enthusiasm – his own enchanting really – into this tale of a unique human race, this reconstruction and recording of a disappeared world.

While intended as “adventure writing for boys,” the story stands out for its excellent scholarship and is sophisticated enough for any adult curious about the the southwest, its mixed Spanish/Anglo/Indian heritage and natural beauty.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Cardboard Gods," by Josh Wilker

If Tarot cards can divine the future, Josh Wilker has learned to decipher the past through baseball cards.

The past this thoughtful author returns to in “Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards,” is primarily that of those free and chaotic 1970s during which he assembled his sainted collection.

Wilker's story is autobiographical and told through baseball cards pasted into the book. His childhood was spun beneath the umbrella of some rather 70s-like experimental parents – a mom, a dad, and the guy mom lived with – who moved out into the Vermont wilds in an attempt to “get back to the land.”

The other man, Tom, learns how to become a blacksmith and this is part of the family plan for generating income. It never occurs to them that nobody needs a blacksmith in 1970s Vermont.

The dad is mostly absent, though complicit in the living arrangement and an important source of income for the hippie pioneers.

It's not normal and it's not stable to the young boy and in his baseball cards does he find the structure and the kind of deities he needs to nourish his own growth, illusions and dreams.

As the years go on, his ability to read the cards for pasted-on uniforms and the desperate performances behind optimistically presented statistics becomes practically analytic and the cracks in the deities begin to appear, much the same time as the family's agricultural project starts going under.

The author leaves the family yarn time and again, tying the faces on certain cards to events the marked the madcap decade in which he comes of age. For example, a card of the famed White Sox team that played a game in shorts is used to conjure up the famous “Disco Sucks” rally that turned old Comiskey Park into a rock-n-roll riot.

It's all woven into a worthy whole: his personal path, the nation's course, and the fate of the cardboard gods render a fun, yet deep, remembrance of the time.

Wilker is member of Red Sox Nation who grew up with a particular fixation on Carl Yastrzemski. But the facts that he write so well and that more California Angels cards appear than any other team in his cool “objet d'art” are enough to forgive the transgression.

Maybe it's that the Angels players make the best fodder for the tragicomic, moving assessments Wilker does of the journeyman and the man too-soon-forgotten.

“Cardboard Gods” is fine book.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Loteria" by Mario Alberto Zambrano

You don't need a set of Loteria cards to tell you family influences are decisive and, in the worst cases, fatal.

Mario Alberto Zambrano's “Loteria” is a novel of dark family drama rooted in a father's alcoholism.

The family's violent unraveling is recounted by 11-year old Luz Castillo to a diary through which she speaks to God the Father.

She uses cards from the Mexican bingo game, Loteria, to help her work through the drama that is now past.

Luz is being held in a kind of juvenile detention center. Her presence there is fallout from something that has happened at home which will take her the whole novel to reveal.

The book itself is a kind of “object d'art” with representations from the game featured throughout. Even the backs of the cards are reproduced on the flip side of the book page.

Luz uses the Loteria to launch the different subjects she entertains in each chapter. At times the connections between the image on the card and her personal story are clear, others not so much, although second and third readings perhaps reveal a more detailed weaving.

“Loteria” is mostly episodic. The path to something truly terrible happening in Luz's family is forseeable and without many twists or turns. Many of the chapters represent no advance in the narrative, rather tarry to color it and add depth.

These chapters are laced with bits of Mexican and Mexican-American culture, the text peppered with Spanish of the south-of-the-border kind, foodstuffs and rituals that are not new to contemporary literature at this late date.

Luz's story is not all bad, she can reminisce about the interplay between nuclear and extended family members and these can be poignant given that the reader already knows something terrible involving death and detention has transpired.

“Loteria” may not move heaven and earth with the scale of its story, but it may move you with its curious proposition and poetic presentation.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Prayers for the Stolen," by Jennifer Clement

“Prayers for the Stolen” is a novel about innocence being violated with impunity, because it is innocence, and it is good, and it is weak.

If you are in the habit of shrugging off sanguinary stories of Mexican mass murder as the woes of people who probably got involved with things they should not have, Jennifer Clement's narrative will cure you of that habit.

“Prayers for the Stolen” depicts the lives of a dozen or so women, living on a hill in the jungles outside Acapulco, who are bereft of men and very vulnerable.

Says narrator Ladydi of the place where most of the yarn unwinds, “I thought of our angry piece of land that once held a real community, but was ruined by the criminal world of drug traffickers and the immigration to the United States. Our angry piece of land was a broken constellation and each little home was ash.”

The immigration is responsible for all the men leaving and never coming back, the drug traffickers are responsible for the “stealing” of pretty girls, without fathers to protect them, as merchandise in the sex trade.

That's the set up. Newborn baby girls are announced as boys, and little ladies are disguised as little men to throw off the drug lords' dragnets. When that no longer works, mothers strain to make the adolescent females ugly by blacking out their teeth and short-cropping their hair.

The girls and their mothers have dug deep holes on the mountainside. Their ears are attuned to the most distant rumbling of SUVs (the Narco's vehicle of choice), which triggers a run for the holes where the daughters will hide.

It's not much of a defense and the women are exposed to the most vicious kind of predators. Going any further along the narrative arc would be to drop spoilers, but it does not give too much away to say the story is also about the dissolution of traditional communities and the displacement of indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Says Ladydi of one acquaintance made along the way:

[Luna] was a small, dark brown Mayan Indian from Guatemala with straight black hair. I was a medium-sized, dark brown mix of Spanish and Aztec blood from Guerrero, Mexico, with frizzy, curly hair, which proved I also had some African slave blood. We were just two pages from the continent's history books. You could tear us out and roll us into a ball and throw us in the trash.”

Which is pretty much how their rights and plights are handled.

Clement keeps it simple, clean, yet colorful, and tells an engaging story that gives a human face to the femme fatalities in Mexico's war with its own dark soul and that of its neighbor to the North.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Victus," by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Martí Zuviría, the protagonist of “Victus,” has allowed the fates and furies to convince him of his own wickedness.

The nonagenarian military engineer's resume includes service on behalf of His Majesty Carlos III of Austria, the Confederate States of America, Prussia, the Turkish Empire, the Comanche, The Tsar of Russia, and the Creek, Oglala, and Ashanti Nations, to name a few.

“Victus,” nonetheless, engages his early years. First as a cadet at a French institute at Bazoches where military engineering is imbued with a strong dose of mysticism. Later, putting his theories into practice during an early 18th century European conflict.

There is something of Thackery's “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” to “Victus” (Lived).

For all of Zuviría's self-loathing, his profession has landed him in rough historical currents and he does little more than take up cudgel's on behalf of whatever side the waters have deposited him. In fact, during the war before us in “Victus,” he works for both.

That war is between an alliance of French and Spanish Bourbons hoping to install a Philip on the throne in Madrid and a “Grand Alliance” of England, the Dutch, and Catalonia, among others, to prevent this coronation and establish Austrian Archduke Karl as Spain's regent.

But Spaniards were cool to Karl (Carlos) and he returned to Vienna causing the English to pull out and the coalition to unravel, while leaving Catalonia exposed to Bourbon repression and control.

Victus” is about the siege of Barcelona and the massacre of its inhabitants at the hands of Bourbon troops led by one James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick. 

Author Albert Sánchez Piñol is a writer who employs the Catalan tongue. Whether or not his choosing to dramatize (romanticize?) the historical moment (1714) of Catalonia's absorption by Bourbon Spain has anything to do with the current push by those desiring independence from Spain to convene a referendum on the question, we cannot say.

Zuviría was apparently a rare talent of much use when it came to the business of digging trenches, establishing bastions, razing up ramparts and other things important to either mounting, or resisting, a siege.

Through him Piñol can introduce the reader to a gallery of significant, but largely forgotten historical figures. There is the Duke of Vauban, under whom Zuviría studied military engineering. The Duke of Berwick was apparently taken with the young man and they conducted an affair before and during the war. There is the hard-shelled, noble-hearted commander in charge of the Catalonian defense, Villaroel and the romantic “miquelet” guerrilla, Ballester, who carries the banner of the peasantry.

Zuviría's first-person accounting of the tragic events is told, or translated into, a nineteenth century novelistic voice, world weary, bawdy, slathered in black humor. History provided Piñol with the twists and turns to justify the narrator's beleaguered bitterness but at least at the outset of his long career, the young engineer's heart seemed to be in the right place.

Only the magnitude of the horror Barcelona endured could have knocked him off his axis.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Studio Saint-Ex" by Ania Szado

“Studio Saint-Ex” is about how talent alone is not enough to elevate those seeking fame, money, the bright lights and all that.

Mignonne Lachapelle is a young woman, not of humble means. She has an inheritance and the good will her father compiled serving the French ex-pat community of New York City in the 1930s and '40s.

Her desire is to be a fashion designer at the height of the World War II, when fabrics are being rationed and fashion is stalled, because life-and-death matters now occupy France, when France was fashion.

“Studio Saint-Ex” is told mostly by Mignonne, although a third person narration this reviewer could never figure out was delivering says of her:

“Fashion at its best was the most subtle and complicated of aphrodisiacs, and the girl had a witch's instinct for the nuances of desires.”

To Consuelo, the girl has fire in her, “The stubborness and strength of a bulldog in the  body of a whippet.”
Through contacts made at what used to be her late father's club, Mignonne falls in with the St. Exuperys. That's St. Exupery as in Antoine, the big, rugged, adventuring pilot who wrote “The Little Prince” and other internationally successful novels of the early 20th century.

His wife is a fiery, enigmatic sexpot by the name of Consuelo. When Mignonne comes upon the couple, the marriage is on the rocks.

Antoine is grounded in the U.S., unable to fly his planes in the effort to liberate France from the Nazis. He's blocked as a writer and experiencing a decline in his energies, but has been enchanted by a beautiful blonde boy on a trip to Montreal where the idea of “The Little Prince” is born.

Mignonne, for her part, is in a testy business partnership with the flinty Madame Vera Fiche, a former instructor at her fashion school who stole a design that subsequently proved to have legs. Threatening Fiche with exposure, Mignonne gets the partnership in a failing design studio.

Our ambitious young designer is charged with dredging up business and she targets Consuelo as a source of possible commissions and publicity. An ambiguous game between Mignonne and the St. Exuperys ensues. And what else could it have other than seduction, restraint, duplicity and a lot of debates regarding the virtue of one fabric over another? Debates about the need to meet the demands of the market versus the demands of one's genius.

Mignonne boldly plays her talent and her beauty before the worldly French glitterati, seeking fame as a designer and Antoine St. Exupery for a husband.

How will she play high society? How will it play her? Prizes are laid out on the table, up for grabs, as Mignonne paints a portrait of wartime New York and the passions and antagonisms of the French war refugees who have found in it an asylum.

"An Italian Wife," by Ann Hood

Ann Hood's melting pot-boiler "An Italian Wife" revisits the fast-assimilating arc of Italian immigrant families over decades, but makes the return trip worth the while.

The multi-generational family saga is not new to literature. Nor are literary works tracing the integration of Italian-Americans into New World life uncommon. Gay Talese's "Unto the Sons," comes to mind.

In, "An Italian Wife," Hood traces the lineage of an Italian woman who emigrates from Conca Campania to the United States and has a lot of children whose offspring coil roots into American soil.

This series of loosely bound vignettes is of mostly feminine perspective. There are stories about Josephine, her daughters, their daughters and then one more generation of daughters; from Josephine to her great-grandchildren.

The book could also be entitled, "Unto the Daughters," the feminine counter to Talese's patriarchal reconstruction.

The ladies here considered are linked by bloodline, but little else. Their disparate life trajectories in the U.S. as different as their homeland is from their mother country. The lack of bonding amongst the Rimaldi women is reflected in the fragmented narrative, not a weakness here, rather an honest literary reporting of what has transpired. The Rimaldi women did not cohere into one big family epic, rather a series of short and varied renderings.

There are scant threads making intermittent appearances, that pack punch and a reminder that "The Italian Wife," is a family saga.

Again, the story has been told. The clash between the old-country folk and their children born in America. The disdain for Nonna's sharp cheese smelling purse, the cool kid's embarrassment at a neighborhood filled with plastic Madonna's on every other lawn.

But Hood's book tells it anew and different very well. Her timeline runs from the 1870s to that terrifying and liberating decade, the 1970s, so that later editions of the Rimaldi clan are radical departures from anything those before them could have conjured.

The country is infamously adrift and its youth are enjoying, with reckless abandon, the behavioral turf carved out by their '60s forebears, with recreational drugs, casual sex and other horrors that ended American civilization, as predicted.

The last Rimaldis are wild kids and their Italian-ness is reduced to a matter of lifestyle choice. Some will identify with their past, others will drift into rootless cosmopolitanism.

These last will represent the death knell for the close-knit Italian-American community as it thrived for a century and a half on these shores, and a good place for Hood to close the circle on a process of forgetting and belonging, and make her story a true story.

"An Italian Wife" is evocative of many places, pleasures, remembrances and regrets universal to all. It is particular in its study of the loss of Italian roots by succeeding generations of immigrant families, and is engaging in its painful portrayal of the limitations placed upon women of a certain ethnicity and class.

It is a lovely book.

Monday, June 16, 2014

"The Orenda," by Joseph Boyden

Spoiler alerts are not always necessary when you're dealing with established history.

If you read a book about a diminished Indian tribe and vanished way of life, such as "The Orenda," you can expect things don't go well for the Native-American protagonist(s).

Joseph Boyden's harrowing account of the Hurons' demise is distinct to the extent it lays most of the blame at the doorstep of inter-tribal warfare.

Yes, 17th Century French missionaries are on hand, but at this stage of colonial development, too much on their haunches and concerned with fur trading to go in for Indian extermination.

They are business partners with the Huron and their military impact appears limited to the distribution of gunpowder on both sides of the Indian war, although they import diseases that kill more of the local populace than any army could hope to.

The book opens with the murder of some Iroquois by a Huron war party. The raid is conducted by one of three narrators in the story, Bird, a warrior avenging his own family's murder and he tells his story in conversations with his departed wife. After killing a young Iroquois girl's family before her eyes, he absconds with the child, bent on replacing his own lost daughter.

The little girl is known as Snow Falls, and she is a second teller of "The Orenda" by way of confessions to her murdered father. Bird's war party has gone beyond the typical affront to Iroquois pride, because Snow Falls possesses certain spiritual qualities as the "western door" of her people.

She is of exceptional value to them at first. Later, the spiral of violence her kidnapping triggered gains its own momentum and her existence with the Huron no longer matters to the infuriated Iroquois.

The third narrator is a French and Jesuit missionary named Christophe whose thoughts about the "sauvages," and bringing the light of Christ to their dark world, are rendered in dispatches to his superiors.

Christophe provides the perspective of Western culture.

When he tries to explain the European system of raising and eating sheep, "[The Huron] laugh at this, the idea that one might keep herds of friendly deer or elk that walk happily to their slaughter
whenever it's time for the human to eat more meat. Some ask openly if there aren't consequences of a life so easily lived. The question fascinates me."

This formula results in a lively telling, because the alternating accounts provide a variety of perspectives on the same event. The differences in the way a mystical Indian girl and a Catholic priest measure their mutual encounters is both amusing and revealing.

The understanding and mixed admiration Bird and Christophe hold for each other is echoed when it comes to culture. Each is repulsed by certain habits of their partners in convenience, but amazed and intrigued by others.

In doing this, "The Orenda" lays bear the motivations for collaboration and conflict between Indian tribes and the French colonials, demonstrates the short-term, commercial considerations that led to long-term strategic Huron defeats.

The sauvages may be attuned to the Earth and take behavioral pointers from birdsong, but they are not immune to the consumer virus.

Sky Man, a visitor from a nearby tribe, tells council as he points to a copper kettle, "Our trade with the Iron People has brought us oddities that have now become necessities. Our people just love this stuff. We can't get enough of it."

The author also probes the violent fissures in Native American life that precluded a concerted effort to defend an entire existence from the obviously encroaching European.

Author Boyden has no truck with claims of innocence by any party to the calamity under his microscope. Instead the different factions mirror each other's cruelties and drive home the point that torture transcends cultural boundaries.

When an Iroquois war party captures some Huron, or vice versa, the prisoners are aware that they are in for three days of "caressing," or torture, painstakingly detailed in a variety of scenes by the writer.

It's no beach read. In fact, if a single word had to be summonsed to describe this novel, "brutal" would be a strong candidate.

New France is a place where people short on luck living very short lives commit whatever action is necessary to survive another day and eat some very bad food.

It is no surprise Thomas Hobbes, a product of the same epoch, declared life, or the "state of nature" in which all these characters reside, to be "solitary, poor, nasty, short, and brutish."

"The Orenda" works as a war story, a tale of spiritual conflict, the reconstruction of a vanished life, and the recuperation of a people. It is complex storytelling that does not come across as complicated and successfully recalls a historical moment through literature.

"The Footloose American," by Brian Kevin

As an author back in 1963, Hunter S. Thompson enjoyed an advantage that Brian Kevin author of “The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America,” does not today.

That was the fact South America was an important part of President John F. Kennedy's foreign policy, whereas, ever since, the giant land continent to the south has fallen into something of a black hole.

When Thompson took off for a year of writing and life experience, he was after evidence that Kennedy was on the right path.

Launching into South America some 40 years later, Kevin has to come up with something matching that policy imperative.

What he came up with was the idea of shadowing Thompson's steps and doing a kind of compare and contrast project that often strays into a simple travelogue of his own ups and downs on the continent.

Alas, enough time has passed since Thompson's death that a brief explanation is necessary. He was the original purveyor of “Gonzo” journalism. It was a wild and wacky style that matched the time and his prime – the 1970s – in which he cast himself as a drug-addled, bald, hippy taking roundhouse swipes at the system and its flaws.

In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” Thompson delighted readers with manic and comic accounts of middle-American values and mores as seen through a prism distorted by LSD, peyote, speed, hard booze and anything else he could get his trembling hands on.

Thompson's writings about South America were not of the Gonzo type, rather straight accounts of what was going on with flickering hints of the emerging madman woven throughout.

It is Kevin's contention that a year on the southern continent helped bring out the Gonzo in Thompson's ensuing journalism.

Anyway, after reading “The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America,” (TFAFTHSTTASA) this reviewer can't help but think the largely Latin land mass might have benefited from a more Gonzo-like account by either of these two writers.

Given its low place on the totem pole of American foreign policy, it's no wonder the continent is largely “terra incognita” for most in the United States, and an entertaining, booze-swilling, drug-fueled romp might have done something to help Brian Kevin garner more attention for his effort.

Which is not to say TFAFTHSTTASA lacks merit or quality writing. It's brimming with both. Kevin not only writes well, he thinks well.

By way of example and contrast, Thompson wrote during the Cold War and his chronicle took a long, hard look at Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, which was designed to combat communist incursion through a combination of U.S.-financed good deeds and propaganda.

Whereas the Alliance and the Peace Corps were designed to combat negative impressions of the U.S. generated by Cuban information outfits, today's “Propaganda Affairs Section” of the State Department is stuck with the task, Kevin observes, of “fending off the American culture machine itself, the more pervasive and not always flattering elements of our society that manage to promote themselves whether we like it or not.”

The author endures an adventure like all adventures: ups and downs, hard lessons, and delightful surprises that he does not waste when turning his analytic eye and pen to transmitting intelligence about them.

We can only hope you care about his odyssey through Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil and think you should.

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Tijuana Straits," by Kem Nunn

Rolling the North American Free Trade Agreement, the resulting industrial pollution, surfing, a working-class California beach town, the vagaries and terrors of the U.S.- Mexico border into literature takes some doing, but “Tijuana Straits” does it well.

Kem Nunn's thriller depicts an obscure corner of the country and fashions a novel example of “Surf Noir,” never leaning too much on that one aspect, but mixing them all just right so that “Straits” is one story about a number of different things.

The story unfolds (unravels?) in the Tijuana River Valley lying between the southernmost city in California, Imperial Beach, and the neighboring Mexican city for which it is named.

“...the valley beyond her window, as a great repository of bones and dreams as one was likely to find, and above which a flock of shorebirds broke suddenly from beaches beyond her sight.”

It's about a washed-up waterman named Fahey whose legend was earned surfing Tijuana Straits under the tutelage of an elusive and sainted sensei, Hoddy Younger.

“Goat Canyon, Smuggler's Gulch, Spooner's Mesa...He showed him how to find these landmarks from the water and how to line them up with the old Tijuana lighthouse at the edge of the bullring so that he could wait for the waves in the spots from which he would be able to catch and ride them.”

Mired in grim mid-life, Fahey runs a floundering worm farm in Imperial Beach, of which he says, “This is the end of the line, the only beachtown in California no one wants, where the sewage meets the sea.”

Along with the toxic brew that flows via the Tijuana River into the valley, polluting the estuary and chasing surfers from the beach break, locals like Fahey are at the forefront of the human wave surging at the base of the high-tech walls built to keep them out of the U.S.

Still they come: “And so you would see them, scarecrows with frightened eyes loitering in the shadows of the fence, along the cement walls of the flood control channel, at the bottom of every gully, clear to Las Playa, where they huddled amid the reek of excrement in the shadow of the bullring at the edge of the old people's park, fingering rosaries and counting out their luck.”

Fahey lives with these darknesses seeping up from the south in his own way: “He did not ask to hear the man's story or to what end he might have come, then or at any other time, and would in fact go to his own grave without knowing it, for by his own measure the world was composed of sad stories and he saw no reason to learn another.”

Until he runs into Magdalena, an outcast of a different type, given over to saving the world, or some very small part of it. An orphan and product of convent life, for her, “The hereafter would be what it would be. The struggle itself was the act by which one gave meaning to the world.”

They collide on a dark windy beach at the border fence one evening and her perils become his, and the story is about how Fahey rebuilds himself in order to help she who has broken the terminal nature of his loneliness and decline.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Ruby" by Cynthia Bond

"Ruby" is a story about "the needle of lust that pierces the heart of small church towns," in this case, Liberty, Texas, which is located somewhere between Beaumont and Houston.

It's about other things, too, many other things that are more easily enjoyed in the reading than sorted out for review: Love unrequited, child abuse, the black/white schism in the American south, lesbianism, voodoo, lynching and the bondage to which human beings subject one another.

Ruby is a product of the rape of a black woman by a white man. She is blessed, or cursed, with a beauty worthy of attention and that attention marks her for an interaction with influential Christian locals who are given to the secret practice of something called "conjure."

Early in the story, Ephram Jennings joins the child Ruby, and her knockabout soul sister Maggie, for an adventure that lands them in the home of one Ma Tante, a kind of voodoo seer. It's a great scene, powerfully visualized, successfully conveying the type of experience that sears a child's memory.

Ma Tante is spiritually attuned enough to know that "haints" or lost souls tend to follow Ruby around.

"Child, they ride you like a chariot ride a horse. They feastin' on yo' soul." the seer says. "This child gots a powerful hex 'sur son esprit,' done by peoples who knows how. Make her flypaper for all manner of traveling haint. May already be too late..."

And the rest of the story unfolds so as to answer whether it is too late, or not. A positive outcome depends upon the success of 42-year old Ephram, a man who, as a child, saw his mother committed to the crazy house and his father lynched.

He has been raised under the overweening watch of his sister Celia, to the point where he refers to her as "Mama." It has not been much of a life for Ephram, whose sole singular experience was the trip to Ma Tante's shack where he spent time under Ruby's alluring sway.

Celia wears the black hat here, a looming presence enforcing a narrow and mean-spirited strain of Christianity, which makes the fact that she is actually right, easy to overlook. Ruby Bell IS possessed by haints, and harassed by a powerful "Dybou," a negative force out of Ma Tante's conjure world.

The structure involves Ephram trying to connect with Ruby when they are in their 40s, both essentially beaten by life, she especially so, abandoned, shunned by the sacred community, and three-quarter's crazed. The good Christian folks of Liberty, out to save them both, will not permit an easy coalescence.

The progress of Ephram's attempt to restore Ruby's health and awareness, is interspersed ,with chapters of back story, a story of child abuse and prostitution, a young black woman's stab at freedom in New York only to find the same dish served differently, of her return to a southern town still chafing under Jim Crow.

It is the story of a man who has never left Liberty because no path was ever opened up to places beyond it, never existed. Celia's coddling is the source of Ephram's weakness; good food and a warm bed in exchange for light house duties are the elements from which his particular velvet coffin is constructed.

"Ruby" is certainly a story about white cruelty to blacks, but not in the main. Save for a few incidents, the white world mostly hovers omnipresent, threatening, something to be avoided or to placate when cornered.

Rather, the novel is concerned with the African-American milieu, which its distinctive portraits of blacks, in Liberty and on Manhattan Island, make clear is hardly monolithic. "Ruby" renders a brutality unleashed between the closest of kin and neighbors. It is incestuous, envious, and finally, destructive to individual aspirations and confidence.

Author Cynthia Bond's concoction is strong coffee. She does not pull a single punch, decorating her tale of sexual torture, psychological abuse, deceit, ambiguity, false religion and pure evil with the sugary southern kitsch of buttermilk, honeysuckle, maple syrup, cornbread, fried pork chops, okra, and the Confederate States of an arresting, disjointed effect.

"Ruby knew that the White girls were always good girls, even when they were bad, but Negro girls started bad and could be anything after that."

Finally, if not obviously, "Ruby" is a story of black womanhood, of life without options, of slavery by other means and a struggle to keep something of one's self from being sold off to the lower bidder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Sea House" by Elisabeth Gifford

“The Sea House” is about the power of past events and forgotten people to influence lives in the present.

For her tale of interplay between what has happened and what will, author Elisabeth Gifford developed three voices.

There is the Reverend Ferguson, living in the late 19th century, who represents the English presence in Scotland while dramatizing the struggle to reconcile community mythologies with the cold, hard facts of science.

There is Moira, his servant at the parish, who stands for all things Gaelic and local to the piece.

Finally, there is Ruth, living in the 1990s. She has returned to the village of Scarista, where she and her husband are opening a bed-and-breakfast (The Sea House) even as she is pregnant with child. Orphaned too young by her mother's apparent suicide, Ruth has not made her peace with the world yet.

The setting is the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, an outpost facing the cold North Atlantic, off the northwest coast of Scotland.

All three characters are tied up with the local legend of the “Selkies” or mermaids.

Reverend Ferguson believes Selkies exist, existed at one time, or evolved into early generations of the home population. He is trying to prove this through the dictates of scientific investigation, that rare man of the cloth with one foot firmly planted in the empirical world – a Spinozan, reconciling faith and fact.

When Ferguson seeks help in his endeavors from a contact at the University of Edinburgh, he is deemed, “too ready to give credence to the fanciful tales of fairies and legends held by the aboriginal peoples of the Western Islands in their state of ignorance.”

Ruth, for her part, is haunted by the idea that her mother, who claimed mermaid ancestry, committed suicide because of an inbred desire to return to the water.

“How could she do it,” Ruth asks herself in a moment of introspection, “let herself slip away into the dark water? Couldn't she understand that when a mother takes her own life, she reaches out a hand to take her child with her? That cold, white hand reaching up from the water, willing me to slip away with her.”

Moira, as homegrown product, naturally claims Selky lineage.

In getting the Sea House up to snuff, the newcomers discover a small chest with a baby's skeleton inside. The infant's legs are fused together like a mermaids, a fact that unsettles all manner of things in Ruth's troubled soul and prompts a search for further information.

Ruth discovers that the uprooting of the original “crofters” on the islands in the prior century had forced a “complete break in the village's timeline.”

The unfortunate crofters practiced subsistence farming on the rough and rocky Scottish highlands and outer islands under the tutelage of English aristocrats who owned the parcels from which they squeezed a living.

None of this is discussed in the story. Gifford writes her big history small, personalizing it. It is enough the reader know that a good and harmless people were uprooted and that the part of the culture they represented was destroyed in the process.

Here, Moira provides a Gaelic-tinged account of her cousin Annie's life.

“She and her husband had thrown together a small house made from rocks taken from the shore, but the only bit of earth left for the new squatters was a boggy and raw land. The children's feet did sink into it, down at the end of their house where the cattle should be kept-- not that Annie had herself a cow. They never had time to let the floor harden before they must live in there, and no one had the heart or the strength to get up a ceilidh to dance the floor hard and pack down the earth in the old way. The bairns [children] were playing a jumping game to see how far they could sink down in the mud until Annie gave the boys a slap – something I had never seen her do before.”

Gifford's research is nicely embedded into the fabric of the story so that it does not seem like research at all. She writes well and evenly throughout, the highpoint being an evocative and haunting account of one village's demise in which Moira and the Reverend bear witness and play a part, respectively.

Ruth's persistence, or mere presence perhaps, coupled with the stubborn regeneration of myths that sustain a scattered and dislocated people's identity, drive the story from two different places in time, seemingly seeking each other out in spite of history's attempts to obscure the connection between them.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Strike for America," by Micah Uetricht

“Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity,” is as much about the fate of public education as it is a tract on the virtues and need for radical democratic unionism in the United States.

Micah Uetricht's account of a strike by Chicago teachers against the city school system and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close scores of schools as part of his reform is no even-handed monograph.

Before us is an unabashedly positive account of changes in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), over a few years, that led to the installation of an activist, left-wing leadership slate.

According to Uetricht, the CTU leadership had grown sclerotic and comfortable, a charge often associated with unions where officer turnover is limited to deaths in dotage.

After a false start with one reform slate, a group of activists within CTU formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), “rooted in an organic community-teacher coalition against school closures, a broad left politics, and an uncompromisingly combative and democratic unionism whose raison d'être was in a perceived need to end union capitulation to neoliberal education reform.”

(raison d'être? John L. Lewis, judge us not!)

From CORE's perspective, “The combination of public school closings and charter school expansion will likely erode the union's membership, redirect public money to privately run charters that lack basic mechanisms for public accountability, slash teachers' salaries and benefits, and cause massive disruption in the neighborhoods where the closures would take place.”

Uetricht's is an insider's account and one clearly affected by emotions associated with the American left coming out of the shadows for the strike in demonstration of its common and legitimate components. People pulling together and getting behind the needs of others can make you feel warm, fuzzy and less alone in an atomized and unkind culture.

Some labor watchers view the strike as a wash in terms of the contract reached and the fact Emanuel proceeded to close 49 public schools and open 63 new charters.

Nonetheless, the strike was a triumph as an organizing exercise and in its willingness to take action, even direct action, when confronting powerful adversaries. The CTU blueprint places the hoary old tool of the strike back in play when circumstances are right and proper tactics applied.

That said, radical democratic unionism as a source of vitality, both to organizing and bargaining, is not a new idea and, as an old one, has a spotty success rate.

It is still a less-practiced form of labor activism than the “business unionism” Uetricht readies for the dustbin. It has a tendency to turn a class of workers with bargaining unit representation into full-time  activists or politicians.

Not every rank-and-file is as well-suited to its demands as say, a group of educated, up-to-date, reading-prone teachers. It is more apt to take root when workers are shoved to the wall, the same place they were when the idea of a union got their goat in the first place, and which may be the subtext to this particular saga.

“Strike for America” does a very good job of laying out what the issues in the Chicago strike were, beyond wages, and into the communities served by the schools under attack. The author then ably connects those issues to what is happening in education nationally.

The Obama administration and Democrats do not come off well, and Uetricht asserts that unions need to reassess their long and fruitful relationship with the Donkey Party, given the impact certain of its enthusiastically forwarded policies are having on labor's ranks.

He writes, “From the very top of the national Democratic Party to the local level, the consensus is unabashedly in favor of transforming public education into a market commodity.”

“Strike for America,” is an interesting book for those monitoring the pace and particulars of change roiling American education, labor, and progressive politics, as well as their intersecting trajectories.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"All the Birds, Singing" by Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld is a poetess of the ugly.

Whether it's a cigarette with a still-lit butt being run under a faucet, a ewe getting her throat slit, or the little pink penis of her protagonist Jake's captor, Wyld employs her marvelous prose to drive bile from one's gut into the bottom of the throat.

There is a place for this in literature: the youth with jaundiced eye, the angry take on a world that has disappointed too early, and the newly minted among us can be particularly rabid about the letdown.

So prepare to be bit.

"All the Birds, Singing," is the story of a woman whose first steps along the path of life are the wrong ones. Very wrong. The device, employed across a number of issues affecting Jake's life, is to let on that something is amiss and keep the reader guessing until the end, which limits the breadth of review so as not to spoil the story.

In any case, the narrative will take you from Australia to England, though it may take time to sort out where you are at first, because the second device employed is the presentation of chapters with no relation to chronology, except for the stacking of issue-resolving revelations at the end of the yarn.

The publisher, Pantheon Books, is very excited about Wyld, "All the Birds Singing" and the advance reviews ("completely and utterly monumental") focus on the author's crisp and textured prose.

There is, floating about the Internet, a "Ten Things Writers Shouldn't Do" list crafted by American author Elmore Leonard, whose specialty was the noir/thriller mystery.

Among Leonard's scripting sins is the use of adverbs, avoiding anything but saying the subject "said" during bouts of dialogue, and eschewing long descriptions of weather, places or people that a reader can jump over without losing the narrative thread.

"I'll bet you never skip over dialogue," said Leonard, whose big idea was that novelists should avoid "self-conscious writing."

Wyld would probably disagree, because she breaks all of Leonard's rules.

And that's because there is good storytelling and there is good "writing" with carefully crafted crevices, rises, flatlands and, yes, adverbs. Wyld has chosen this type of scribery over the keep-em-turning-those-pages approach, which is fine, with all due respect to Mr. Leonard. Readers find joy in the revelry of language, too.

Jake has got scars nasty enough to send one of her johns (semi-spoiler) heading for the exits without paying what's owed and, by golly, you will wait good and long before the writer decides to let you in on how they got there.

"Dark," "guttural," "raw": Pick your descriptive for this rural rant that does not offer up a boulevard of broken dreams so much as a gallery of damaged souls; emotional runts who make an art of barely coping.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"The Telling Room" by Michael Paterniti

A year in Province and then some more... a lot more.

In the hands of a capable novelist, this story of a man's attempt to honor his father through the production of a local cheese and the friend that may or may not have betrayed him, might have been a better work than “The Telling Room.”

Michael Paterniti, a travel writer and freelance journalist, saw what he thought was a story, a cautionary tale, an echo of man's inhumanity to man, and took off in search of the truth. The problem with his venture seems to be that there was no truth, only ambiguity and a messy affair that didn't fit a journalistic template.

The author is frank about how often the book went cold on him, how many times he had to throw away a stack of papers and start all over again.

“The Telling Room,” is about many things, most of them having to do with Spain. At times it is quite interesting, and the opening salvos are certainly intriguing, but the author clearly got lost and ended up barely pulling out something serviceable that his publisher could accept for the advance paid.

“The Telling Room,” never truly coheres and never really gets anywhere but where we all get; a little older, a little fuzzier, and a little sadder. The writer spread himself thin trying to catch the essence of Castile and the wider expanse of Spain, but he could not weave this dream right.

“The Telling Room” is pocked throughout with footnotes parked in big spaces that often dwarf the writer's main text and take one off-track when they should have been worked into the story and enriched it, rather than served as distracting adjuncts.

Like countless writers before him, Paterniti is bewitched by Iberia and its people. He holds forth on what the ancient land and its wise, yet life-loving people, can teach us, but that did not prevent him from engaging the uniquely American predilection for prattling on endlessly about himself.

Whether it's the “Legend of El Cid,” the bullfight, the process of cheese making or Real Madrid soccer, the discussion always comes back to the author, his family, his thoughts and his personal progress. It shouldn't. It should be about Spain.

“The Telling Room,” represents a case of promise unrealized.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

“Ursúa” by William Ospina

Ursúa” abre las puertas del pasado sobre el mundo fantástico de colores y humanidad vencida que fue Sur America para los que llegaron de Europa y para quienes los recibieron.

Si el protagonista principal es el guerrero homónomo de pocos años y sangre de Aquitania, los indígenas de las tierras firme y caliente, o del istmu de Panama o de Mexico nunca ceden su lugar en el primer plano del Colombiano William Ospina.

De Ursúa el jamás identificado narrador nos cuenta: “Esas eran las aventuras con que soñaba: apartar los ramajes para descubrir un océano, ser el primero a las puertas de una ciudad incomprensible, destrenzar las serpientes enormes para llegar al tesoro escondido, ver los dragones o los gigantes de un mundo nuevo, someter pueblos feróces o dominar a los reyes del río del trueno.”

Viene con éstas inspiraciónes pero con el cargo oficial de imponer nuevas leyes del Imperio de Carlos V para proteger a los muy malparados indios.

El autor recupera, para los que no lo conocían, los jefes, los guerreros, princessas y peónes que sufrían la crueldad de unos hombres desalmados y ciegos por el oro. Cuenta las torturas y maltratos absorbidos por los indígenas.

Basta un ejémplo para dar idea del nivel de hostigamiento que sufrieron milliones de séres humanos reducidos a la esclavitud y la muerte: Cuando un capitán español es alcanzado por una flecha, el médico ordena que le trajen un indio y a éste se le abre el pecho con cuchillo, mientras esta consciente, para adivinar como remendar el conquistador herido, y luego dejarle morir desangrando.

Para Oramín, el assistente indigena de Ursúa: “Los poderosos enemigos habían llegado y ahora triunfaban; crueles dioses estaban con ellos; un bello mundo estaba declinando; una maldición indescifrable se cumplía contra estos reinos que gozaron por miles de soles y de lunas una felicidad irrepetible. No encontraba lugar para la esperanza. Podía ver que los invasores no estaban de paso, que habían venido para quedarse, y que en su mundo lejano quedaban todavía incontables guerreros esperando su turno para venir al incendio y a la rapiña, de modo que ya nadie podía, como Tusquesusa, y como los primeros testigos en las islas, alimentar la ilusión de que un dia se fueran.”

Poco tiene que prestar Ursúa al esfuerzo del la corte imperial para proteger los indios. “Ya empezaba a sentir en su propia conciencia la contradicción entre ser encargado de la justicia y ser un aspirante a las riquezas y los repartos de las Indias,” explica el narrador.

El nuevo mundo es un lugar de poca ley o justicia y Ursúa encuentra tierras donde los Españoles, en cuanto no andan desatando masácres sobre los muiscos o zapes, matan entre sí con mucho brío. Reinan aparte distintos conquistadores que, hasta entonces, mandaban un cuarto de las riquezas robadas de los tribus naturales al corte imperial para luego administrar las nuevas tierras a sus antojo.

Cuando el tío de Ursúa, Armendariz, manda un tal Robledo a relevar el conquistador Belalcázar de su cargo, éste lo toma como prisionero, lo despoja de sus bienes, y lo mata. Apelando al hombre fuerte del imperio en las Indias – La Gasca – Armendariz se entera de que no habra justicia para Robledo por que el emperador necesite el apoyo del cacíque renegado.

Pero Ursúa no viajo al nuevo mundo a matar ibericos y luego gana su renombre destripando a los nativos de la tierra invadida.

Por eso amaba tanto la guerra,” escribe Ospina, “porque sentía que en sus vórtices era posible ser brutal sin dejar de ser un caballero, y tal vez por eso lo tentaban más las guerras contra infieles, contra indios y esclavos, por que su dios lo autorizaba a toda crueldad mientras no estuviera atentando contra sus semejantes.”

Aprendemos que, contra Ursúa, el jefe Tayrona reunió pueblos que se unían “por el odio y miedo” y que, “Vinieron a su ejército los canoeros de Jate Teluaa, en las puertas del gran mar azul, la madre del oro, y hombres embijados, con lanzas talladas en fémures, que avanzaron desde Java Nakúmake, madre de los lechos de sal; y vinieron remeros de Lúdula, en el espejo inmóvil, la madre de los peces de muchos colores y formas, y de la desmbocadura del río Tucirina, en Java Katakaiwman, madre de todo lo que existe en el mundo; tropas empenachadas de plumas de Kwarewmun, la madre del barro, y guardianes del Ñui de Aracataca, que detienen co rezos a las fuerzas malignas, y mantienen con ofrendas el equilibrio.” 

Y así por todo el libro, el autor diestramente compaginando una lectura histórica con una prosa que embellece y hace más entrañable su recuperación detallada de pueblos desaparecidos.

Impresiona el esfuerzo, y la variedad de tacticas, hecho por los indígenas, tanto como la manera en que los españoles dominaron tanta tierra poblada con tan escasas tropas. Es una história de armas superiores.

Cuenta el narrador las dificultades que tienen los invasores en una contienda contra un guerrero con espada español hasta que viene alguién que le dispare desde atrás con su arcabuz, rompiendole la espalda y ¡Viva España!

Al final no triunfamos los humanos, al final sólo triunfa el relato, que nos recoge a todos y a todos nos levanta en su vuelo, para después brindarnos un pasto tan amargo, que recibimos como una limosna última la declinación y la muerte.”

Así concluye Ospina ésta divertida novela, con ese estilo entre lo fantástico y lo hiper-real, con esa voz mística que aplícan con tanta sensatez los escritores de su tierra.

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Wild Sea" by Serge Dedina

“Wild Sea” is a valuable read surfers of the southwest's wave, but also offers ideas for those engaged in coastal conservation anywhere in the world.

Author Serge Dedina brings to this brief and very personal work a lifetime on the waters of both Southern California and Baja California Mexico. He has surfed Imperial Beach (IB) since his childhood, worked as a lifeguard and slowly evolved into a coastal conservationist, co-founding the group “Wildcoast.”

The book documents campaigns the writer has been involved with, “to preserve the last wild coastline and marine wildlife of the Californias and to provide a look at the roots of the binational coastal culture of the Californias.”

By his own admission, Dedina is not aiming for a “neutral academic monograph on coastal management," rather a “passionate, unapologetic defense of our coastal heritage.”

A curation of pieces written at different times, the book selection and chronology nonetheless binds them together, starting with a lyrical piece about the first surfers to hit the Baja California coastline, before getting into the innards of environmental battles such as that to save Trestles beach on the border between San Diego and Orange counties.

These donnybrooks are not just about saving waves, they are about saving whales and lagoons and the micro-economies that live off the ocean and surrounding environment.

There are also cultural cul-de -sacs where SoCal punk, Tijuana punk, old school IB surfers, lucha libre wrestling, and the filing of “John From Cincinnati” are all somehow tied together.

More than anything though, Dedina's book is a manifesto of surfers' engagement with The Big Enchilada (as opposed to willful ignorance) in an effort at saving coastal resources important to them.

This is new ground, and the author hopes that the use of pop culture will do some of the heavy lifting in converting the apolitical into an army of the committed.

He writes: “Imagine if government was relevant to our lives, reached out to our kids, and allowed us to solve problems by surfing Black's or skating Washington Street with elected officials, instead of having to bang on smoke-filled backroom doors to speak with them. That would be very cool indeed.”

Dedina, whom as of this posting is running for mayor of Imperial Beach, can now put his ideas to the test and a scale worthy of their aspirations.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"In the Night of Time," by Miguel Muñoz Molina

A revolutionary guardsman deems Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of Antonio Muñoz Molina's "In the Night of Time," a gentleman with a union card."

Civil wars often divide countries. Spain's sliced Iberia into a series of mind states, intellectual positions and moral prerogatives that deposited a prismatic understanding of those traumatic events in history's hopper.

How you understand the conflict depends very much on who is telling the story, a devout Catholic or Falangist, a millenarian anarchist, a determined communist, a socialist intellectual with sympathies rooted in a class not their own.

Abel is a working class boy made good by studying hard in preparation, and marrying up to cement his drive for respectability.

His complacency, his thinly veiled boredom with bourgeois Spanish life, mark him as something other than the family he's married into, architectural brilliance and financial success notwithstanding.

As the country lurches toward civil war, circumstances in the family come to something of a boil as his socialist tendencies clash with their own Catholic and evolving fascistic allegiances.

The ebullient Republican milieu and the opening up of Spain in the 1930s, following years of dictatorship, led to outside influences and armies of curious visitors. One of these, Judith Biely, a student, revolutionizes his life, awakens the older man's sexuality and deepens his appreciation for Madrid, the city he grew up in yet has never truly seen.

About the time the affair comes to light in Abel's domestic life (not a spoiler) the civil war has broken out. They go together, this conflict at home and the larger one outside it, to the point where the same things that divide Abel's family, divide the country.

The story opens with the architect running from Spain and his family, floating through New York's Pennsylvania Station. Muñoz Molina's is a backward glance at Abel's family life, his professional milieu and colleagues, "the affair" and other relations with different strata of Spanish society.
Relations that define him.

Because he is shacking up with his lover when the fascist uprising launches, Abel ends up on the wrong side of the front from his family. Or, considering that they, good conservative Catholics, would not have been able to protect him from summary execution, on the right side of the new dividing line.

But his leftist sympathies are not enough to save him from being rousted up by an anarchist patrol and readied for the firing squad, only to be saved by an old friend of his father's.

Although a man of the left, the author's portrait of revolutionary Madrid has much in common with that rendered by right winger Agustin de Foxha in "Madrid: From Royal Court to Checka."

It's a dreary, unromantic and dangerous place where the violence comes from within and without alike. One of those places where death takes root so strongly that it no longer discriminates on the basis of guilt or ideology, but harvests what ever innocent stands in its way.

De Foxha's last-scene departure across the border into southern France is a welcome return to warm bourgeois normalcy, and Abel's arrival in New York's Hudson River valley is much the same.

The revolutionaries in control of Madrid are not the armed and noble yeoman of a certain strain of Spanish Civil War literature. Not for Abel, who has eaten from the tree of knowledge so that he sees things too well to act and lets fate pick his poison for him.

"They're intoxicated by words and anthems," he writes of the red and black hordes lording it over Madrid's streets, "as if they were breathing air too rich in oxygen and didn't know it. But perhaps it was he who was mistaken, his lack of fervor proof not of lucidity, but the mean-spirited hardening of age, favored by privilege and his fear of losing it."

Although they are ostensibly on his "side," the randomness and brutality of the violence the revolutionaries mete out is something the architect simply can not forgive and he grows disheartened with the political experiment in his homeland.

Being about Spain, the story can't help but be about the contrary demands of tradition and the yearnings of the individual heart.

So, sure, he feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but..."Only with [his lover] had he discovered and now regained what he'd never known could be so pleasurable, the habit of conversing, explaining himself to himself, confirming immediate affinities in what until then he'd thought of as solitary sensation and thoughts."

Judith Biely instructs him in that most American of indulgences, the self, while the country outside their lover's lair is enmeshed in an epic and all-inclusive struggle.

So "In the Night of Time," is about many things and as such, deals in ambiguity, ambivalence and irony.

Is Abel a coward to leave his family on the fascist side even though the marriage is shot and he is free? How can he make himself useful to the Republic when the "magnitude of the catastrophe" it faces is so evident, when it doesn't even want his support?

Muñoz Molina is a big prize guy in Spain, a prestige writer, who has earned the right to air out his thoughts. It is a long book and when Igacio Abel's children come up, they will come up for a good four pages minced with flashbacks, epiphanies and confession.

The publisher would have done well to furnish a few footnotes identifying certain of the historical figures Ignacio Abel engages as an architect on one of the nascent Republic's big projects, a new university city.

It helps to know his protector Juan Negrín would rise to the presidency, that Julian Besteiro was a socialist and president of the parliament under leftist coalitions, that Alejandro Lerroux was the long-time leader of the Radical Party.

Without some background, they are just names people are not likely to know much about, unless the Spanish Civil War is their "thing," which may in the end be where this book finds its audience

Even those readers may find the author has managed to add a degree of freshness to a topic they are already familiar with.

"The Voyage of the Rose City," by John Moynihan

This review aims to do John Moynihan the honor of considering “The Voyage of the Rose City” on its merits rather than dwell on the fact it is written by famous a U.S. Senator's son who left the world too soon.

“Rose City” refers to the merchant tanker ship the author took a character-building job on back in 1980. A well-heeled boy with a developed intellect and soft hands, he comes in for a good deal of disdain from the hard-bitten types that make up the Rose City's crew.

Moynihan's narrative drags when he gets into the nuts and bolts of industrial labor on a big tanker. Yes, he's diving for pearls those of us with regular lives are unfamiliar with, but the detail is too heavy. Of course, another seafaring text, “Moby Dick” is guilty of the same crime where facts about whales and the industry that harvests them are concerned. So there you have it.

He also frontloads his portraits of the crew so that you either have a great memory or have to mark the descriptions and return to them when a character surfaces with little more than a name clipped to his ear. But lots of great novelists have used that technique as well. So there you have it.

“Rose City” isn't so much a story as a literary documentary about life on a merchant vessel. The only narratives that exist are of the small bore type and focus on Moynihan's evolving relationship with individual crew members. These have mostly satisfying results as he slowly begins to blend in with those different than himself (becoming less different through the seafaring life), but they are not very deep.

A lot has happened since 1980 that both add and detract from the value of the text. Now, of course, it is a timepiece describing a bygone world. A book about work, which is rare these days, much as we are all saddled with the obligation.

As you read, the idea of the cell phone keeps popping into one's mind as these modern men endure the pain of separation from loved ones that today would have made their lives much easier.

The western literary canon offers many a diary of life at sea and Moynihan's is a worthy addition to that canon, for those who revel in adventure, and for those that dream of doing what this one writer did.

"Fevered (A hotter planet and our health)" by Linda Marsa

There are growing number of books being released about climate change and this one addresses its impacts on individual health and the public systems designed to address those impacts.

Guess what? They're insufficient. Author Linda Marsa has travelled far and wide in gathering information from places where climate change is already wreaking death and destruction, spurring desperate attempts at adaptation.

In line with recent reports (2013-14) suggesting the impacts of climate change may confront all of us sooner than expected, Marsa gathers up a string of evidence that will scare the wits out of you, that special American citizen who believes in causes, effects, and the evidence linking them.

The author's focus is on the need to build a strong public health infrastructure able to cope with the widespread effects of climate change. Marsa asserts that because many of the perils associated with global warming are generally predictable, it is possible to design or adapt buildings and communities to be more resilient.

Strategies for creating a nonpolluting, clean-energy future can also improve public health.

A chapter entitled “Fever Pitch” examines the relationship between rising temperatures and the persistent and greater diffusion of diseases beyond their typical geographical distribution. Essentially, shorter, warmer winters aren't killing these things off and they actually grow stronger when they survive.

“Fevered” looks at the way global warming impacts air quality. “Rising temperatures will make bad air even more dangerous,” writes Marsa, “cooking up a witches' brew of pollutants that will sear the delicate tissue lining the lungs and aggravate an astonishing array of other health issues ranging from heart disease, to lung cancer, to dementia.”

“The Hot Zone” portends the more frequent occurrence of death by heat wave, characterized here as large tragedies going under-reported, because the dead can't always be linked directly to the heat, even though they were killed by existing ailments the extreme conditions triggered.

Chicago, France, Russia, Philadelphia, all have recent and ghastly stories related here.

“Health Care on Life Support” dissects the collapse of public health infrastructure in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and what came after, which was more of the same.

Marsa reports, nonetheless, that The Crescent City became something of testing ground for federal policies aimed at “disaster-proofing” healthcare there.

For example, patient records are now kept electronically, and New Orleans is also part of a federally funded pilot program that stores this information in a central information exchange, efficiencies that might have saved lives in the hurricane's wake.

The chapter entitled, “Running on Empty,” covers the dangers of malnutrition, examining the case of actress Audrey Hepburn, who endured starvation as a Dutch citizen during World War II, before transitioning to the topic of agriculture's increasing difficulty in cultivating a hotter planet.

A lot of that difficulty comes down to water – here she looks at the situation in the American southwest where the Colorado River no longer reaches its natural delta, wrung dry by a growing population.

Circumstances in Australia, which is at the forefront of climate change impact, involve “catastrophes of biblical proportions; unleashed killer heat waves, agricultural collapse, bushfires of unimaginable ferocity and hastened species extinction.”

Drought has wiped out entire agricultural communities, and it is possible “vast portions” of the country's northern regions could be submerged by rising seas, rain storms and flooding

Because of its unique vulnerability, Australia has become a living laboratory for adaptation to a warmer world. Marsa makes a trip down there. The country's system of water consumption control offer a preview of what we'll be seeing everywhere someday, or sooner.

“Holding Back The Waters” returns to New Orleans, documents efforts at retooling water management and flood control systems in a sustainable way and reverses the environmental degradation that made Katrina worse than it needed to be.

Also covered are the problems in south Florida and the apparently borrowed time the city of Miami is living on, as sea level rises to threaten the lowing lying community and its freshwater supply sources.

It's not all darkness. There are strategies not only for adapting health care systems to a warmer world, but also for developing sustainable cities as a matter of public health. By way of example, Marsa sheds light on the Orange County Water Authority's pioneering to reuse wastewater for potable purposes.

New York, covered in a fulsome network of mass transit, and characterized by vertical lifestyles, is held up as an example of the good way to live, although the fact you need to be rich to reside there is not mentioned.

Writes Marsa: “Sylvan paradises like Vermont, where you don't have to wait until farmers' market day to buy locally grown, produce, may intuitively seem like places where sustainable living would be much easier than in urban areas. But the reality it quite different. Because the population is so spread out, Vermonters use nearly four times as much gasoline as New Yorkers, and six times as much as Manhattan residents. Ironically, on just about every other barometer, Green Mountain State residents turn out to be the resource hogs: They have larger carbon footprints, guzzle more water, dump more garbage, and consume quadruple the amount of electricity as the average New Yorker. In other words, the seductive allure of rural life is simply wrongheaded at a time when the world's population is surging toward eight billion and roughly 80 percent of Americans live in cities.”

“New York,” Marsa writes, “developed as a city before the advent of the automobile, so it is compact and dense. To become more like New York, the rest of us are going to have to undo the half century's worth of damage to our health and the social fabric of our lives that resulted when we became a car-centric society and suburban sprawl became a way of life.”

But New York may be just as car-centric as any city out there. Robert Caro's “The Power Broker” painfully documented the efforts of a man who never drove a car, Robert Moses, to bind the city up in ribbons of “parkway.”

One of the few people able to thwart him was Jane Jacobs, the urbanist who extolled the dense city neighborhood as a place of social health and economic vitality.

“Fevered” is progeny of Jacobs' own books. Her vision was of a sustainable city before that term became a byword for future survival. Marsa's work links the loss of high-density, transit-served urban villages with the sprawl that characterizes most development over the past half century.

Marsa's contribution is to take the ideas Jacobs propounded in her books beyond the concerns of neighborhoods and microeconomics and link them to the causes of climate change, and the health of the people in those neighborhoods hopefully driving those economies.

The author asserts that the universal and modern dependence on individual, motorized transportation is responsible for a series of direct health hazards ranging from lung disease and obesity, and indirect impacts such as global warming.

Marsa echoes Al Gore's call for a Marshal Plan to fight global warming in his “Earth in Balance” with her own call for a medical Marshall Plan that would recapture the spirit of cooperation that arose with WW II's outbreak.

“We must become that country again,” she pleads.

"The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac" by Kris D'Agostino

The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac (TSHFA) invites us into the world of that generation schooled in film studies and condemned to scour a barren workplace landscape for salvation.

The title is accurate, if a little more sizzling than the steak itself. The yarn unwinds in New York State's Hudson River valley, if not exactly in Sleepy Hollow, and portrays a family struggling to unite in a time of crisis.

TSHFA has the markings of a post-grad MFA work. Clean and clear structure and a precise prose relating a story of smallish dimensions.

Author Kris D'Agostino admits the work is at least partially autobiographical and that, like any good story, he's sprinkled a little stardust here, and added a fictional character with greater dramatic arc than anything at hand, there.

Sometimes those are good things and, in this case, the author writes very well. The story attempts to relate complex emotions and sentiments with a simplicity that is a hallmark of his prose. The other is his ability to select from what's going on in the vast world around for attention.

Which is to say that when D'Agostino pulls back his narrative for a moment of observation or reflection, the subject and delivery are worthy and good.

The main character is an educated boy whose inability to get out of the house and gain independence has somewhat arrested his development. Efforts at focusing on an extraction plan are distracted by his father's cancer and professional decline, his little sister's teen pregnancy, and an overdue mortgage.

The setting is a economically depressed rural-to-exurban world where a family looking for signs of hope is best advised to look inward instead of out. This is a slice of contemporary America well-rendered by somebody reporting from the frontlines.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"A Blanquito In El Barrio" by Gil Fagiani

"A Blanquito in El Barrio" is a parade of fringe urban characters tinged in tropical light (under soot), a borinquen carnival, sexy sometimes, baroque others, festive or nightmarish.

This collection of poems from 1966 through 1969 offers a view of Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem by a white guy (blanquito) from Connecticut, a survey of sixties New York and the drug scene that characterized it, as well as impressions of immigrant life, settled Nuyorica.

The clash of cultures spins sparks over most every page, as in “Reunion,” where an announcement in the doorway that “We are Catholics” contrasts starkly with the commission of adultery beyond its threshold.

The style in “Blanquito” is plainspoken, almost prosodic. There is little that is opaque or requiring contortions of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes this works in poetry, sometimes it doesn't. Here it does, the sparing, but forward-driving narrative possesses the preciousness of verse.

In “Fluteflirting,” the bond between music and sensuality coheres into erotica, without ever employing a hardcore vocabulary:

“He trills at the end of an arpeggio.
Her shoulders shake, nipples harden.

“He flutter-tongues high G.

Her legs tremble, eyes closed.”

The scene between dancer and flautist is literally choreographed through typography, the poet playing at puppeteer. The result is simple and on point, but open-ended rather than pat.


For all his clean lines, sometimes, like a musician who has kept with the beat too long, Fagiani breaks out in a redolent riff, as in “125th St.” where:

“...girls in straw hats wave at me
with mocha tans
and strawberry fingertips."

Music is very important to “Blanquito,” which generates its own and commemorates much of what was heard on El Barrio's streets in those times. It even comes with a discography, the names of bands and song titles themselves a kind of found art: “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango. “Boogaloo Blues,” Johnny Colón...

Not that Fagiani's is a candy-striped, timbale-splashed El Barrio. In “Blanquito,” The Spanish Harlem of the time is rendered in an earthy pallet, bruises and all, without repugnance or even detachment, rather with an intimation that what is ugly is also part of the beauty of the whole.

Fagiani is a founding member of the
Vito Marcantonio Forum and “A Blanquito in El Barrio” is dedicated to the unjustly forgotten East Harlem congressman.

Litany of San Vito.

San Vito of East Harlem                  Pray for us

San Vito bread of the poor               Pray for us
San Vito crucified by Wall Street    Pray for us
San Vito Martyr of McCarthyism    Pray for us

From the jail cell walls                    San Vito deliver us

From the backyard crap game         San Vito deliver us
From the loan shark's vig                San Vito deliver us
From the drunken stupor                 San Vito deliver us
From TB and asthma                       San Vito protect us
From the social worker's visit          San Vito protect us
From the immigration raids             San Vito protect us
From the landlord's greed                San Vito protect us”

Read on its own, the piece's rhythm links the people of El Barrio and their congressman, the kindness he showed them, his secular sanctification and their mutual victimization by the same unforgiving forces.

Seen as part of a larger canvas, the poem serves as a kind of reprise, linking Vito Marcantonio to characters come before in “Blanquito.

In “Cuchifrito,” the blanquito finds himself turned on by the salacious way a puertoriqueña he's casing slurps her greasy native treats.

“La Capitana” recounts a childhood social worker hauling her innocent charges to confront the bureaucrats who have cut their summer program funding.

“First Day in El Barrio” has an Italian cop born there, before it went Puerto Rican, mocking the blanquito and his crusading friends for being heavy on book learning and short on street smarts.

“when he began his barrio beat

he was young and idealistic too
and wanted to help people.
But in no time he learned
that except for a few residents
too scared to say a word
mostly he met backstabbers,
sneaks, junkies, welfare bums,
dope addicts and cutthroats.”

Dust Recuperated.

“La Loca,” depicts a straight-playing secretary and mother of three who gets her freak on by hitting some weed and dancing for multiple macho admirers at something called the Hunts Point Plaza.

And there are numerous junkies laying about the streets and alleys of Gil Fagiani's East Harlem, notable among them the “Fashionista” whose journey on junk takes him from dandy to dirtbag.

“Blanquito” dives into an unknown or, worse, ignored world, recuperates the lives of humans treated as something less than human. Without it, the junkies and petty thieves and desperate but honest ones who pass anonymously and without imprint on the collective memory, would be dust.

Much the same can be said for Marcantonio whose life's work was to improve their situation.

The book introduces us to the jail cell walls, the backyard crap game, to the druggy stupors so that, by the time San Vito makes his appearance, these are not single-shot sentences, but markers for full-blown characters.

The yarns in “Blanquito” are
woven from ecstatic party vibe, lowdown hangovers or overdoses, stories of people who try hard getting the same raw deal as those who don't do. There is fried food, swampy summers streets with the sewer smell rising up, the final goodbye to someone who had it coming, the whole flawed festival of urban immigrant life.

Binding the tales of misery together with a lighthearted filigree is the incessant push of the desperate, confused, or wronged characters to not just live, but to insist on joy. In amplifying their drive, Fagiani infuses his story-in-poems with that same joy.
Portrait of "San Vito" by Roman O'Cadiz