Profile for John L Murphy > Reviews

Browse

John L Murphy's Profile

Customer Reviews: 1943
Top Reviewer Ranking: 299
Helpful Votes: 10245




Community Features
Review Discussion Boards
Top Reviewers

Guidelines: Learn more about the ins and outs of Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
John L Murphy "Fionnchú" RSS Feed (Los Angeles)
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20
pixel
Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha (Penguin Classics)
Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha (Penguin Classics)
by Peggy McCracken
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.97
63 used & new from $6.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: a fitting medieval companion to the pair's 'In Search of the Christian Buddha", July 28, 2014
Canonized unwittingly as St. Josaphat, a corruption of "bodhisattva," the Buddha, condemned as an idol worshiped by his duped followers, had his story transmitted after long centuries within the hagiography translated to convert the Japanese in the 1600s. So runs one of many twists in the tale translated by Peggy McCracken and introduced by Donald S. Lopez as a 2014 Penguin Classic. Gui de Cambrai around 1220-25 adapted the story into French verse; McCracken renders it efficiently into modern English. Gui takes the core elements of the Buddha legend: the prediction that the prince will be a saint or a king; the ensuing protection by his father the king to keep him from the sights of the world, until a series of chariot rides reveal mortality, sickness, age, and death to the coddled lad; and temptations by seductive women who seek to dissuade the prince from his destiny and enlightenment as he vows to depart the palace for a life of asceticism, after having first fathered an heir in his turn.

What the medieval teller adds, Lopez in his perhaps too brief introduction and McCracken in her edition (which has surprisingly brief footnotes as compared with many Penguins) show, is an elaborate disputation between Greeks (ahistorically if entertainingly including Plato's brother and a nephew of Aristotle for good measure), Chaldeans, and pagans. They integrate many fine stories in succession cobbled together from ancient lore, and this transmission as with the larger storyline contains inherent interest for how this comes down to the early eleventh century in Old French. We get clever glimpses into the culture, as when perverse sex earns condemnation in a comparison to chess. Those engaging in "a shameful game" allow themselves "to be mated from the corner." The hectoring narrator goes on: "The clerics were first to adopt it, and they taught the game to knights. The deed is base--anyone who would leave the clearing for the woods is like a base peasant." (100-101) Finally, the teller shakes free of the vice he despises, and the story later elaborates into a set-piece about the Crusades, with the characters off to a holy war. Another addition is the use of the disputation between the body and the soul, a medieval trope, to fit neatly into the frame-tale's theme of renunciation for sacrifice, and the leaving of one's family to seek a higher path.

This tale was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. While a chronicler of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance, modern scholars in the 19th century, investigating the sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, or Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out the elaborate and entangled transmission gone haywire much later. Lopez, as a noted scholar of Buddhist reception in the West (see Prisoners of Shangri-La on Tibet and The Scientific Buddha for attempts to reconcile the historical Buddha with post-Darwinian science, both reviewed by me), is well-suited to convey these crossed messages. Joined by medievalist Peggy McCracken, the two seek to explain the origins of the tales told throughout the Middle Ages, as the Buddha's story was embedded into narratives and biographies which asserted often the superiority of non-Buddhist ideas. See my review of their In Search of the Christian Buddha (also reviewed July 28, 2014) for much more on these other tales, before and after Gui's own story. In the Penguin, if surprisingly short as to notes and editorial material, the tale nonetheless moves along rather smoothly, for a medieval one where digressions and details are welcomed by listeners, and it's good to have it in English at last.


In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint
In Search of the Christian Buddha: How an Asian Sage Became a Medieval Saint
by Donald S. Lopez
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.47
81 used & new from $6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: tangled transmissions, east to west and back again, July 28, 2014
Canonized unwittingly as St. Josaphat, a corruption of "bodhisattva," the Buddha, condemned as an idol worshipped by his duped followers, had his story transmitted after long centuries within the hagiography translated to convert the Japanese in the 1600s. So runs one of many twists in the tale translated by Peggy McCracken and introduced by Donald S. Lopez in a companion to this book, as a Penguin Classic. Gui de Cambrai around 1220-25 adapted the story into French verse; McCracken renders it efficiently into modern English. Gui takes the core elements of the Buddha legend: the prediction that the prince will be a saint or a king; the ensuing protection by his father the king to keep him from the sights of the world, until a series of chariot rides reveal mortality, sickness, age, and death to the coddled lad; and temptations by seductive women who seek to dissuade the prince from his destiny and enlightenment as he vows to depart the palace for a life of asceticism, after having first fathered an heir in his turn.

The tale of Barlaam and Josaphat (see my July 2014 review) was one of many which told the Buddha's story with nobody suspecting this until the 1600s. While a 1446 editor of Marco Polo's journey caught on to a resemblance, modern scholars in the 19th century, investigating the sources for the misunderstood origins of Shakyamuni, or Prince Siddhartha, finally figured out the elaborate and entangled transmission gone haywire much later. Lopez, as a noted scholar of Buddhist reception in the West (see Prisoners of Shangri-La on Tibet and The Scientific Buddha for attempts to reconcile the historical Buddha with post-Darwinian science; both reviewed by me), is well-suited to convey these crossed messages. Joined by medievalist Peggy McCracken, the two seek In Search of the Christian Buddha to explain the origins of the tales told throughout the Middle Ages, as the Buddha's story was embedded into narratives and biographies which asserted often the superiority of non-Buddhist ideas.

The basics: in Persia in the 8th c. a Muslim writer compiled Bilawhar and Budasaf. Armies of Islam had begun entering northwestern India, the first home of Buddhism. They spread the stories westward. Arabic preserved some of the core tale's triple elements mentioned above. A century later, the Muslims conquered the Christian kingdom in what is today Georgia. Refugee monks fled to Jerusalem and turned the Muslim story into a Christian one, the Balavariani. A Jewish translator four centuries on took the story from Arabic and sent it west again, via Muslims, into Moorish Spain, where it would turn The Prince and the Hermit via Hebrew and much later, German and Yiddish.

Greek and Latin stories, once attributed to John of Damascus in their beginnings, kept the idea that the prince learned about God from a hermit, Barlaam. This turned into stories as told in lives of saints, such as the very popular Latin Golden Legend or Legenda Aurea, by Jacobus de Voragine.

The authors err repeatedly on p. 139. While Franciscans are mendicants, they are not monks. Benedictines are not mendicants but they are monks. Additionally, the hagiographer of Ss. Barlaam and Josaphat and many others, Jacobus de Voragine (Jacobo de Varazze), was not a "monk belonging to the Benedictine preaching order" but a Dominican mendicant friar of the Order of Preachers. Another aside: the book relies on paraphrases of the main texts and one loses some idea of their various styles, lengths, and flavor. Textual excerpts might have helped key in readers as to their strengths or weaknesses, sensed more closely. The texts discussed float past rather than sink in.

Back to their own main narrative, part of the energy this sustains comes when the stories of saints get sent to Japan by those seeking to win them away from Buddha to Christ. The irony is dealt with lightly by Lopez and McCracken, but it cannot be denied. Condemning idolators, the story of Josaphat is used against those supposedly worshiping false gods such as Xaca, the name garbled from Shakayamuni.

Subsequent thinkers, clued in bit by bit to such garblings, sought to deploy them differently. For some in the early 19th century, the discovery of the historical roots of Buddhism in India led them to propagate a claim that it and Christianity were purer as world religions open to all whereas Judaism and Hinduism were grounded in tribal identities. The "Aryan" roots of Jesus who studied in the East were purported, and Buddhism could be seen here as an attempt to detach Christians from Hebrews.

Others enticed by folklore saw in the three stories repeated, or the tale of three caskets in it, used by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, or another tale of women named geese to a boy seeing them for the first time in Boccaccio's Decameron, reveal intriguing tidbits, elements of narrative dispersed. Still others saw in Buddhism a palliative to other faiths, for it lay in human and purer motives rather than superstitious, quasi-Catholic accretions; some sympathetic to Protestant reform or humanist progress sympathized therefore with attenuated evidence of the antiquity and durability of the Buddha's presence over so many different times and places. Finally. those who liked to sneer at the Church found plenty of ammunition in the ironic canonization of St. Josaphat by Buddhist persecutors. Lopez and McCracken aver some of this guilt underlies the fascination recent scholars have had in the eager reception of this tale's provenance and message. Even if the trace elements of the Buddha's coming of age story are faint by the time they are detected by recent critics, the telling way critical reception "seems to dissolve in the presence of the Buddha," a theme Lopez often analyzes, may account for if not excuse the appeal of a sage without priests, ritual, or of dogma.

As Lopez repeats a phrase from his "scientific Buddha" book in 2013: "The goal of the Buddhist path is not creation but extinction." (37) The authors here conclude that the aim of Buddhism is not perpetuation of narrative or allurements of story, but a rejection of the pleasures of palace and princes. "The goal is to finally stop dying." (222) Flawed by change and doom, this world is not transcended as in Christian or Muslim terms for future reward but by renunciation of family, goods and attachment to all that would impede separation from its glittering delights. The Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat sought to lure listeners away from the secular to the spiritual realm of the Church, and to ensure princes listening took care of pious hermits, but as Lopez and McCracken hint now and then, the tale also sought to keep alive the very system that Buddhism seeks to put to an end.


Beheading the Virgin Mary, and Other Stories (Scottish Literature Series)
Beheading the Virgin Mary, and Other Stories (Scottish Literature Series)
by Donal McLaughlin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.03
51 used & new from $5.91

4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: a Derry boy moves to Scotland, and follows other Irish Catholic emigrants, July 28, 2014
Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them." He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character, who in "Somewhere Down the Line" lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, given "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart", Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around the O'Donnell's home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo, but fewer in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained abuse uncovered sexually at home by a cruel father and in the parish at the hands of a cunning priest, a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his eighteenth year, 1979, his studies in Germany and German remind him of sinister echoes. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the mass rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner again reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around now, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendents abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.


Ouddy Stainless Steel Spiral Slicer - Best Julienne Spiral Cutter for Various Veggies such as Zucchini, Paderno & Carrots
Ouddy Stainless Steel Spiral Slicer - Best Julienne Spiral Cutter for Various Veggies such as Zucchini, Paderno & Carrots
Offered by Ouddy
Price: $34.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's certainly sharp...., July 27, 2014
My family tried this out and here's our report. The pros: good spiral slicing, as advertised. The difficulty? Cleaning it out. No instructions except what is on the box, and that advises a knife be used to scrape out the insides. For two of my family members, trying to help clean this out with their fingers led to cuts, so be careful. The inner blades are sharp, and no protection inside. I was asked to try this out and I wanted to give fair warning. While it does what it says, it tends to clog up easily when used for its purpose.


The Decameron: A New Translation (Norton Critical Editions)
The Decameron: A New Translation (Norton Critical Editions)
by Giovanni Boccaccio
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.20
153 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: 1977 Norton Critical Edition, July 25, 2014
The first baby steps in Italian prose, away from the mystical, the ascetic, the heavenly, the Papacy towards the sensuous, the sexual, the clever, and the bourgeoisie, were taken by Boccaccio in his hundred tales, Decameron. These lively (if sometimes awkward or hesitantly told) stories reveal everyday men--and many women, at last--keeping up appearances, fooling priests and potentates, and striving to express their fleshly, calculating, and grasping desires. Narrated by seven young ladies and three gentlemen fleeing Florence during the Black Plague of 1348, these clever schemers may succeed or fail, but their ambitions energize these tales. They promote the Renaissance humanist, eager to hear from his peers.

Twenty-one representative novelle were chosen for a 1977 Norton Critical Edition; the somewhat ironically surnamed Francisco De Sanctis sums up their appeal as human comedy: "The flesh entertains itself at the expense of the spirit." Considered in the triad if below Dante, we get the next two conversing, via the letters of Petrarch, who chides his old friend Boccaccio for recanting (I wonder if Chaucer knew this when he abandoned his frame-tale scheme for his Canterbury project?) and threatening in a state of guilt to burn his manuscripts. Colleagues tended in their biographical accounts to admire not these "new" tales so much as his more edifying ones, inspired by the classics.

Later, scholars weigh in. Seeing this was issued in 1977, I'd reckon as with other Norton Critical Editions (yes, this has a few footnotes if not many), that a revision with some newer scholarship might enhance its value. As to what's in this version, I sympathize intuitively with literary historian Ugo Foscolo, who advances the idea of Boccaccio separating his concerns from Church and urging the expression of the female, the mercantile, even the roguish voices, along with those of the elite and the clerics who had long dominated the conversation of who should act how, in fact as well as fable. Erich Auerbach follows with an excerpt from Mimesis analyzing stylistic variety, and Aldo Scaglione takes on nature and love as the concerns supplanting those of piety and renunciation. Wayne Booth explains how Boccaccio tries out both telling and showing as a narrator early in the evolution of a longer set of fictional tales.

Similarly, Tzvetan Todorov as to structure and Robert Clements as to collections illustrate the sorting process within stories and among them. Marga Cottino-Jones argues how patient Griselda's account uses the Christian figurative mode to elevate her status, and how despite however moderns react, for the audience of Boccaccio, such a presence resonated with Christ-like ideals of endurance and sacrifice. Ben Lawton defends Pasolini's 1971 film as true to some of the spirit of the source, even as it skips from a medieval time and place to a jarringly modern one, if but two-thirds of a bold triptych.

Translators Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, who later published a Signet edition of all hundred stories, conclude by pointing to the meaning of them all. Beyond the purported audience of "idle ladies," the impact of the Decameron reverberates in themes of love, intelligence, and fortune. Instead of God's will governing this universe, men and women seek to procure not heavenly but earthly fame.


HomeFlav Underwear Mini Laundry Bag Red
HomeFlav Underwear Mini Laundry Bag Red
Offered by HomeFlav
Price: $6.49
2 used & new from $6.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Maybe more for other items than laundry?, July 25, 2014
It is miniature, and this is important to note. It may not hold much in the way laundry to wash, but it can hold odds and ends such as cords, travel needs, snacks, or a few items of small clothing. It meets standards, and the red color helps it stand out in luggage.


The Braindead Megaphone
The Braindead Megaphone
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars For fans of his stories, (most of) these should satisfy, July 24, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
In the title essay, the Megaphone Guy struts in, sets up his amplified bray, and his listeners find themselves unable to carry on their conversations, forced as they are to adopt his expressions, giving way to his domination, without realizing his sway. More relevant than ever ten years on, in an age of click bait and Buzzfeed and Facebook “likes” pestering us alongside pop-ups and pundits.

Covering excess in Dubai, Saunders reflects amidst the predictable if dazzling glittery glitz how universal the Other remains, appealing by common human dignity and compassion to connect people no matter who or where. Under the snark, his essays at their best sustain the impact of his stories, where empathy mingles somehow with satire, and pop psychology send-ups deepen the poignant attempts of put-upon everyday people, corrupted by systems and co-opted by corporations, to maintain dignity against all capitalist odds. The profit motive reigns in Dubai; Saunders accepts in reporting for GQ his complicity, but he wonders what else he, gawking at Third World workers happy to toil in the desert, should or can do.

As for the media he represents, on the border near Laredo, he gently mocks his Minutemen companions, as an East Coast journalist. Accused of not being a properly neutral reporter, Saunders fires back: “We’re being neutral.” “By not making fun of you.” (152) While insistent on his liberal bona fides, Saunders here allows himself to hear out the often caricatured other side of the issue, and the border. He never gives in, but following his coverage, he begins to become more patient, and we share the tolerance for insights transcending sound bites or partisan treatment of hot-button issues

Beneath a smart-ass tone, Saunders keeps aware of the need for honesty. He wonders if we may be wired by one of two nodes neutrally. Some protect what they have, and crouch and hunker down to guard it. Others pop up, eager to share, open to the new. Perhaps, he reflects, our politics thus emerge.

This continues into an excellent introduction to Huck Finn. “Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies.” (203) Out of this conflict, Saunders maps the war within the American (and World) Psyche, ever contending. Apropos, he finds in Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme congenial fellow travelers.

What links these writers is a refusal to give into the narrative's comforts, and to allow uneasiness. As Saunders finds investigating a report of a boy meditating for seven years: “A human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear.” Visiting a Nepalese Buddhist shrine, wary of miracles, he still muses: “all of this began when one man walked into the woods, sat down, and tried to end his fear by doing something purely internal: working on his mind.” (216). Saunders diagnoses this as a possible remedy for our “ambient fear” of knowing that when we love, we realize “there must someday come a parting.”

While a few essays fall flat, feeling like sketches for stories better dramatized than satirized, and while his strength remains in fictionalizations of the predicaments he doodles in the lesser entries, overall this 2007 collection plays to the quirky elements that make his inventive tales so successful.


Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia
Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia
Price: $9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: how Czechs resisted or accommodated totalitarianism, July 24, 2014
Hailed as the first “cubistic” history of anywhere, this award-winning Polish compendium presents Mariusz Szczygiel’s 2006 attempt to make sense of his nation’s neighbor, the Czech lands that comprised, for most of the last century, half of Czechoslovakia. Cubist, for it refuses one perspective, or one steady perch from where to depict the angles of a land under pressure. Translated into ten languages, here is its English debut through Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ lively rendering. Snappy, moving, inquisitive, and ethical, this examination of how the Czech lands coped under fascism and especially communism, and capitalism before and after those totalitarian regimes, confronts Czech complicity.

Certainly, Szczygiel knows how his foray by way of visits, archives, and interviews reflects back on his own homeland. As an ethnic cousin, he hears resonances, and he relates attitudes Poles have foisted on what they have seen as a more feckless, or less responsible, Slavic nation bordering their own. He impressively manages, however, to make this content accessible beyond this region, so that a wider audience may learn from his diligence. Assembling in-depth profiles, which wind and turn on themselves as if fables, and interspersing wry vignettes, these vivid reports compel one’s attention.

He begins with the Baťashoe empire, which destroyed the traditional way of shoemaking by making it piecemeal work, combining Fordism with Orwellian surveillance and shrewd taskmasters to spur compliance among thousands of workers.
How this relentless enterprise fared under the Nazis spins off into subsequent chapters, for capitulation, chosen by most Czechs in order to survive, remains the leitmotif from which Szczygiel composes his intricately arranged scenes.

For example, amid dozens of densely detailed yet briskly told pages, suddenly we meet Ivana Zelníčkov. Born to a Baťa worker in this factory town in 1949, freshly renamed after the first Communist prime minister as “Gottwaldov”, the “American press will call her ‘the spiritual heiress of the genius of capitalism from Zlín who injected an Anglo-Saxon mentality into a Slav body”. Whatever that means. Szczygiel, in typical form, sprinkles such attributions from his journalistic predecessors throughout his chronicle. Sometimes he elaborates on them, sometimes he saunters on.

This sly structure keeps the reader off-guard. In the “liberation” of Gottwald as experienced by young Ivana and her schoolmates, the number of books destroyed was 27 million— about seven times the number of her comrades killed. The enthusiasm with which Czechs embraced their 1948 takeover, when their native Party numbered 40 percent before it wedged in and drove out the non-Communist coalition, surprised those devoted to Moscow. They begged their former rivals to vote against some Party measures, for show, but many who gave in to the new system gave in all the way. At least outwardly.

Such ambiguity sinks into this entire study. Censorship sunk in oddly, for “there was no list of names that couldn’t be written or mentioned aloud” as one informant tells the author. How did people know there was a ban? “Everyone had to sense intuitively whose name couldn’t be mentioned.” Indirection dominates.

Szczygiel opines: “As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.” Fifty years after Stalin was toppled from his riverside summit, “Prague’s monument to Stalin does exist.” People still cannot shake their fear that independence cannot endure.

After “normalization” dominated post-1968, about a tenth of all Czechs were removed from their jobs. Many had to work in menial Szczygiel knows well the parallels in Poland, so he affords fairly the chance for all who made whatever decision they chose to (or had no choice but to choose) in the twisted Czech party logic to justify their own actions, given the lack of alternatives beyond imprisonment, exile, or no income.

What about the title of this book? Evidently “Mostly True Stories” has sparked unease from certain Czech critics after its original publication. In the appendix to the new English translation, Szczygiel addresses the reaction to his choices of characters to exemplify Czech evasion and subversion. He emphasizes dissidents such as Kubišová, who faced rejection. He gives equal time to collaborators and compromisers, such as the perennial prizewinning singer and libertine Karol Gott, judged the equal to both “Presley and Pavorotti”. To explain the adulation given Gott by the pro-Soviet regime as well as the post-1989 nation, Szczygiel applies the national stereotype. The Good Soldier Švejk “is the philosopher of cunning acquiescence. And at the same time, the archetype of adaptation.”

This edition’s new afterword reveals that another Václav, President Kraus, wrote the forward for the perpetually priapic, still award-winning, Gott’s autobiography. One senses Szczygiel’s frustration that the new leaders and the old rascals continue to toast each other’s success. After the poignancy and despair of the Adamec chapter, Szczygiel adds the final word to this translation, if in typically less somber fashion.

Some Czechs thought titling this after Karol G. was unfair. “I started to explain at public events that Gottland could also be understood as God’s land, which is best typified by a quotation from the Czech poet Vladimír Holan: ‘I don’t know who does the Gods’ laundry/ I do know it’s we who drink the dirty water.’” He adds in characteristically sly style: “Strangely, I’ve noticed that this explanation reassures people who object to the title.” As he prefers Holan’s verse as this book’s motto, so I conclude this review by citing it as an appropriate coda to the English version of this spirited and provocative--if challenging at even baffling, given its mix of investigation and speculation-- report from half of what was Czechoslovakia.


The Atlas
The Atlas
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $11.84

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Introduces Vollmann's characters and characteristic themes, July 20, 2014
This review is from: The Atlas (Kindle Edition)
For newcomers, this provides an odds and ends analogy to a musician's compilation of b-sides, demos, cuts that did not fit an LP, or alternate takes on familiar songs. For instance, "The Butterfly Stories" appeared as a novel, but a section here repeats that same narrator's search for Vanna in Thailand. The scenes do not perhaps add a lot to what the novel depicted, so like a compilation not of greatest hits but of assorted miscellany the artist wants to share, this may please fans more than those meeting Vollmann for the first time. Yet, if a reader wants to learn about his signature concerns, whether trying to wrangle for liability with a rental car agent in Sarajevo after the author had been wounded and his two friends killed, rescuing a mosquito-ravaged woman from the side of a Canadian road, or elucidating a familiar theme of loneliness--an empty diner reflected in a spoon in one vignette as the protagonist sitting in a corner musters up the courage to ask out the waitress--this assortment surveys a sampling of insights.

This works best when it allows Vollmann to roam, as the title indicates, away from his Asian and San Franciscan haunts to those of a cold Toronto, or among the Inuit. A portion here called "The Rifles" reprises that novel's doomed Reepah, or places other books of his (to date at least, given his prolific output) have not wandered into, such as Mauritius, Switzerland, and among the Australian aborigines. As in his recent "Last Stories and Other Stories," we get Mexican magic realism infusing "The Hill of Gold." As with his Asian journeys, we get an elusive object of desire, followed in the surreal search for a coin with a hole by the mortal narrator entangled with "The Angel of Prisons."

A few sample passages express the prose at its peak. "In hitchhiking as in so many other departments, the surest way not to get something is to need it." Loneliness permeates so much of these stories. "As the mathematician C.H. Hinton wrote: '. . . we are accustomed to find in nature infinite series, and do not feel obliged to pass on a belief in the ultimate limits to which they seem to point." Yet Buddhism speaks to a few here who seek, and a longing for meaning impels quests. "Her life was like some cold wide shallow pond rushing straight at her with fan-shaped waves, the wind picking up now, not yet strong enough to throw more than foam in her face." Among the Inuit, destiny looms. "Living means leaving, going on trying not to hear the screams." That speaks for itself, as does the title "Disappointed by the Wind." In such terrain, bleakness compels Vollmann's characters to break the ice, to try to grasp some sense of surety and comfort, even if the melt "tasted like burned desolation."

I also liked the drug trip that reveals near Big Bend, CA a search for God which nonetheless finds that presence following the narrator like the sun behind one's back all day, never quite entering him. Instead, the "Traveller's Epitaph" here confesses "I fear death." That presence hovers over many of the figures here; unsafe sex with Thai prostitutes takes one character into a forbidding fate, while all over the sprawling centerpiece "The Atlas" with dozens of locales traversed, we find one of Vollmann's most erotic passages, a relative rarity, in his account of a narrator smitten by a married lover who will die of leukemia. The poignant emotion the author allows us to fully feel, for me, succeeds to display better the impacts Vollmann can deliver, freer from the restrictions of city streets. (P.S. I have reviewed these other works and most of Vollmann's as well, not long before this.)


[2 PACK] Silicone Grill Gloves - heatproof, waterproof, hygienic, non-slip, easy-to-clean - Extra Long (36cm) - Lifetime Warranty (Red)
[2 PACK] Silicone Grill Gloves - heatproof, waterproof, hygienic, non-slip, easy-to-clean - Extra Long (36cm) - Lifetime Warranty (Red)
Offered by The Friendly Swede
Price: $12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Handy in more than one way!, July 19, 2014
These remind me somehow of movie props for lungs, even if the color's vivid blood red. They fit over not only hands but up the wrists into the forearms, depending of course on your size. Earlier reviewers claimed these did not transfer heat. I found that they did not keep the heat of pans held totally at bay. Rather, you can still sense the heat.

This may on the other hand mean these gloves can alert you to any surface very hot, as a safety precaution. But as they don't isolate heat totally in my testing of them as I was asked, I need to state this.

I found no problems in washing them off and cleaning them. Admittedly they are quite large, but for protection of skin often otherwise exposed when cooking and barbecuing is undertaken, this added heft and bulk can provide precautionary defenses.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20