Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Reviewing the Review: August 10 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, August 10, 2008 05:19 pm

Today's New York Times Book Review is mild, competent and enjoyably readable. I don't know if it's the Book Review or me, but I just don't find I have much to say about it. This rarely happens.

I can't use the excuse that I have no time. It's 4:30 pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I just had time to watch three innings of a losing Mets game on TV, along with several Olympic swimming races from Beijing, and I've already read every article in today's issue. I just don't find myself with anything worthwhile to say about any individual piece, and I'd rather not fake it. Instead, I'd like to use this space to talk about Random House's decision to cancel the publication of a major novel (they'd paid author Sherry Jones a large advance) called The Jewel of Medina about the life of one of the prophet Mohammed's brides.

As many bloggers representing diverse points of view have remarked, this is a highly disappointing move, and what's most disappointing is the way Random House is handling the controversy:

Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

“In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel,” Perry said.

It's offensive that the book won't be published -- I don't believe the hearsay that it is unworthy of publication, since Random House paid a lot of money (reportedly $100,000) for it -- but it's even more offensive that Random House is resting their position on a blatant appeal to their own willful ignorance. Again:

"... the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well ... why didn't they ask some radical Muslims and find out? It's not like they'd have to send a rocket to the moon to find an opinionated Muslim, but you'd think so from the distant tones of this public statement.

This recourse to silence and blissful ignorance reflects a broad belief among pro-war Americans -- this belief is a pillar of both the George W. Bush worldview and the John McCain worldview, unfortunately -- that there is little value in communicating with "the enemy" about political or social issues. The gulf is so wide, apparently, that there's no point even trying to talk across it. In fact, open public discourse is the obvious answer that Random House missed.

Why didn't they invite a few prominent scholars representing various sectors of the worldwide Muslim community -- Shiites, Sunnis, liberals, conservatives, Arabs, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans -- to participate in an open discussion of whether or not Sherry Jones' book is offensive, and if so why? It's highly likely that the dialogue would result in a positive finding for the book, and the whole thing would add up to a great opportunity for pre-publication awareness. Am I asking too much that a publishing company -- a publishing company -- might resort to open public discourse, rather than cloaked corporate legalism -- to resolve what is essentially a literary and spiritual issue?

Random House is not an oil company or a beef processing concern or an aerospace conglomerate. Random House is supposed to be the most respected and prestigious major book publishing company in the world. Hah.

I don't usually generalize about large organizations, but the way Random House is handling this problem represents a new low in timid, insipid corporate publishing behavior. It's not too late for them to announce a new decision, and I hope they'll do so. Otherwise, we must conclude that Thomas Perry and the other executives responsible for this cowardly move simply have no business working in the honorable field of publishing, a proud craft for the intellectually courageous.

* * * * *

Okay, the Book Review. Sarah Churchwell hates the new novelisation of the JonBenet Ramsay murders by Joyce Carol Oates. Geoff Dyer hates the new book about running by Haruki Murakami, and he also hates running and he also hates Haruki Murakami. Stephen Burt kind of doesn't like Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry because the poems were obviously written for performance rather than print, but manages to eke out some praise for his colorful poetry nonetheless. Robert Olen "Pulitzer Prize Winner" Butler just keeps getting weirder and weirder, which isn't to say I'm not intrigued enough to check out Intercourse, 50 stories about historical figures or famous people having sex. Caryn James like the new Doris Lessing, I think.

And I promise to stay more on topic when next weekend's newspaper arrives.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

by Levi Asher on Monday, August 4, 2008 02:54 pm

As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.
-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University, 1978

Russian author, historian and political philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. As the full text of the Harvard address above demonstrates, he despised Russian communism, and despised the glib commercialized freedom of Western Europe and America no less. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he believed above all in human salvation through religious transcendence, though at times (as in this ill-received Harvard address) he seemed to relish the notion of an agonizing worldwide transformation more than any possibility of self-realization and peace that might follow such a change.

In this sense, he also resembles Dostoevsky (whose greatest work, like Solzhenitsyn's, followed a long period of painful imprisonment for crimes against the Russian state). Solzhenitsyn was best known for two works -- the simple and spare A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the more ambitious Gulag Archipelago, which introduced a tone of bitter satire (the Soviet prison bureaucracy is described mechanically as a "human sewage system") into the dissident's voice. Both books were so widely celebrated by anti-Soviet political thinkers that it's hard now to evaluate the author on strictly artistic grounds. He does not seem to measure up to Dostoevsky's psychological brilliance, nor to Chekhov's poignant sense of humanity. But his courageous devotion to truth and his confident authority as a political gadfly give him some standing alongside Russia's earlier literary greats.

It's interesting to look back at a 1974 New York Times review of the just-published Gulag Archipelago by Stephen F. Cohen:

"The Gulag Archipelago" is a non-fictional account from and about the other great holocaust of our century -- the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government, mostly during Stalin's rule from 1929 to 1953.

How quaint! There was a time in 1974 -- with our new friend Chairman Mao's genocidal crimes still largely unrecognized, with the citizens of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina still innocent of their futures -- when we thought the 20th Century would only rack up two holocausts.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn may or may not have had all the answers, but the celebrated former prisoner did seem to know the most important questions.

Jesus, Etc.

by Jamelah Earle on Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:55 pm

When I told Levi I was going to write about some memorable characters from literature, I thought I had several of them in mind. Because I've read a lot of books, and I mainly won't read a book if I don't enjoy at least one of the characters in some way, even if it is to appreciate how completely awful the character is. As I browsed my bookshelves earlier thinking about which characters I would include in my post, I kept noticing the usual suspects, suspects so usual that they don't even bear mentioning, and I figured there was really no point in writing a post about fictional characters that don't bear mentioning. So I looked some more, and found some things that are less usual, which I present to you now.

1. Joe Panther

The protagonist in two crime novels written by Andrew Masterson, The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther and The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther, the eponymous Joe Panther is a wickedly smart, wonderfully sarcastic, beer-drinking, drug-dealing investigator. And he's also... Jesus. You know that whole son of God thing with the dying on the cross and being raised from the dead on the third day? That's the one. Minus the ascending into Heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father forever and ever amen, that is. Yep, instead of that, he was inexplicably left to wander the planet and has been doing so for a couple of millennia, witnessing human folly and the uprising of organized religion and developing a bitterness toward his father. Both books are entertaining yarns, mixed with a fair bit of Christian history and theology (obviously in many ways turned on its ear) and despite the fact that their premise alone is enough to offend many people nearly to death, they make for enjoyable Saturday afternoon reads. Sort of modern-day noir with an angry, irreverent Jesus as the hard-boiled, world-weary private eye. I'm not sure that the books were ever published in the United States, and the tiny bit of research I've done suggests that they weren't (my copies were sent to me as gifts from a friend in Australia, which is the country the author hails from and where the novels are set). But when it comes to thinking about fictional characters in terms of memorability, it's pretty hard to beat Jesus, the crime-solving heroin dealer.

2. Margery Kempe

I read The Book of Margery Kempe a couple of years ago. It's still sitting on my shelf and I can see it as I type this. Or I could see it as I type this if I didn't have a voluminous feather boa hanging off of the edge of my closet door, obscuring my view. Damn feathers. Why must they be so fabulous? I don't know. What I do know is that when I'm looking at my books (sans feathers) and I notice Margery Kempe's autobiography, I always have the same reaction: I shake my head. Granted, I had to go back and read my initial assessment (linked above) to remember details of her story, but I remembered that she had a penchant for wailing uncontrollably all the time because she was just so overcome with her love of Jesus or because she wanted people to notice how overcome she was with her love of Jesus, or whatever. In any case, the thing that has stuck with me over the past two years, and will most likely continue to stick with me in the future is one tiny detail: that woman was nuts.

3. Rebecca deWinter

The title character of Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca dies before any of the novel's action takes place, and she never makes any supernatural appearances as a ghost or anything, but her presence is so fully defined in the novel that she inhabits every page, much like her memory haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. deWinter. She's the most powerful figure in the novel (though the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is easily the creepiest) and I think it's telling that the greatest character in the book isn't even really there.

4. Trout Fishing in America

Yes, I think Trout Fishing in America is a character in Richard Brautigan's novel of the same name, mainly because Trout Fishing in America explains things. And also is responsible for one of my favorite bits in all of American literature, or of all literature, period. Seriously --

The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:

There was nothing I could do. I couldn't change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.

"Excuse me," I said. "I thought you were a trout stream."

"I'm not," she said.

Sometimes I think about that and giggle. Good on you, Trout Fishing in America.

5. Laura Wingfield

Tennessee Williams is often so dramatic (fitting for plays, I suppose). And I love so much of his work and the steamy humid Southern boiling heat of it all, but in all of that, The Glass Menagerie is like a tiny gentle gasp. Sure, it's probably more obvious to pick Blanche duBois or Maggie the Cat, but it is Laura Wingfield that I remember the most strongly. The first thing I read by Tennessee Williams, I picked this play up when I was 14 and by the time I got through Tom's closing speech, I was crushed. I'd reacted emotionally to things I'd read before that point, but I'm not sure I'd ever been completely crushed by something yet. And Laura, the center of the play, hangs in my memory like a beautifully delicate translucent piece of glass. I'm feeling a little crushed now, actually, just thinking about it.

Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi Dies

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 6, 2008 11:26 pm

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, born as Mahesh Prasad Varma in Jabalpur, India more than 90 years ago, has died of natural causes in his home in Vlodrop, in the Netherlands. This unique individual built an astonishingly popular and enduring worldwide organization out of a simple Hindu practice: meditation.

Mahesh's innovation was to translate the Hindu religious rite of Yogic meditation into a minimal format that could easily fit into the busy lives of 20th Century humans around the world. Transcendental Meditation, which became the brand name for his particular approach, involved no spiritual mysticism, and was compatible with any religious or even non-religious viewpoint. Each person was given a "mantra", a secret word, which they would focus their minds upon for 20 minutes at a time, approximately twice a day. This practice became popular around the world in the 1960's, especially in late 1967 and early 1968 when the Beatles briefly declared themselves members of the Mahirishi's movement.

Whether following the "TM" technique or not, meditation has become a part of American culture, and Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi is largely to thank for this undeniably positive development. People meditate in many different ways, but Mahesh's organization is still highly active. The great film director David Lynch wrote a book two years ago called Catching the Big Fish that explains how the practice of TM has made his career possible. Here he talks about his first experience with the technique:

So in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don't meditate on he meaning of it, but it's a very specific sound-vibration-thought.

She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss.

According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, the Beatles had a more complex ongoing relationship with the Mahirishi's philosophy than is commonly known. John Lennon and George Harrison were the two who took it seriously, and according to Gould the song "Across the Universe" was originally written as a description of the experience of meditation:

Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

I am not a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation or any other specific approach, but I have been very influenced by this practice because I was introduced to it by my grandparents many years ago. My grandmother Jeannette Schwartz had attended one of the Mahirishi's introductions to meditation in the early 1970's, and became a lifelong convert. My grandfather Sidney enjoyed meditating too, and all of us grandchildren were given mantras and instructed to do our twenty minutes at a time together, twice a day, whenever we visited. I wrote some more about this when Grandma Jeannette died on Valentine's Day, 2002.

My grandparents never stopped meditating, and I have occasionally kept up the practice myself, though truly I'm a mediocre meditator at best. It seems to me that David Lynch or other enthusiastic followers of TM may alienate people with this "elevator drop pure bliss" stuff, since I've meditated a lot and find that it's usually nowhere near that exciting. Still, meditation does feel good, and it does help you expand the way you are thinking about the things in your life.

The Mahirishi has taken much criticism for his sometimes simplistic teachings, not to mention his often outrageous style. He giggles a lot and has been criticized for avoiding serious real-world politics and basking in luxury while the world suffers. He has generally worked as a peace activist, and as a sardonic, good-natured critic of Western materialism. Unlike other "modern mystics", there is nothing remotely cultish or megalomaniacal about the Mahirishi, or about his Transcendental Meditation movement.

It's too simple to be a cult. TM is all about this: 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. That's the whole thing. That's what the Mahirishi says you should do, and who thinks it's not worth a try?

Here are some other articles worth a look.

Reviewing the Review: January 13 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 13, 2008 08:48 pm

It's pretty much a sure thing, when a critic opens a book review by generously praising the author's past reputation, that the critic is setting up for a swing. And so begins legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen's cover article on Anthony Lewis's Freedom For the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendement in this weekend's New York Times Book Review. Apparently Rosen still gets a lump in his throat every time he reads Lewis's Gideon's Trumpet from 1989, but that's all the praise Rosen thinks Lewis needs, since he devotes much of today's review dismissing Lewis's ideas about free speech so that he can present his own thoughts on the subject.

The hijacked book review is an all-too-frequent fate when peer scholars evaluate each other's non-fiction work. Anthony Lewis earned the NYTBR's cover today by writing a book, and it seems to me that Jeffrey Rosen's job is to present Lewis's ideas for our appraisal, to elucidate them, to bring them to us on their own terms so that we can give them due consideration. But here instead Rosen quickly summarizes Lewis's view -- a "heroic" view of the American judiciary's role in championing the First Amendment right to free speech -- and then directs us towards a competing view in which the judiciary plays a more passive role and takes direction from, rather than gives direction to, popular opinion. It's clear that Rosen favors the second view, since he develops it with enthusiasm here. But the reader still wishes to see Anthony Lewis's ideas fleshed out in full, not shunted aside for a replacement. It's critical bait-and-switch.

Jeffrey Rosen also irritates with weary observations like this:

"... now that everyone with a modem is a potential journalist, we may see more cases in which individual bloggers or small publishers attack one another over what are essentially differences of factual nuance."

Everyone with a modem? Somebody's still living in the age of Seinfeld and Compuserve here. It's not that modems aren't still in use, but, like color television and power steering and iceboxes, we really don't get excited about them anymore.

Timothy Noah does better with his review of Jacob Heilbrunn's They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (which is of particular interest since NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus's alleged neoconservative persuasions have been a topic of recent discussion here and elsewhere). I give Noah points for expressing the right amount of outrage (if there can ever be enough outrage) about the mess neoconservativism helped get us into since Bush and Cheney rode into town, but I wish his article had more philosophical depth and less detail about what this or that nattering nabob said about this or that one in the National Review, or the National Interest, or the Nation, or the New Republic, or ... ultimately, who cares? For the record, I see nothing in this article that betrays a neoconservative agenda on Sam Tanenhaus's part, which is good since Sam Tanenhaus did not write the article.

(Speaking of Sam Tanenhaus, who is now some sort of ephemeral uber-Editor of the Book Review and the Week in Review op-ed section, today's Week in Review features a kickass Lorrie Moore article on Hillary Clinton and a rumination by Times public editor Clark Hoyt on the hiring of conservative former Dan Quayle acolyte William Kristol for the op-ed pages. It also features a dull article about art museum directors and rich people by NYTBR regular Rachel Donadio, which is good because maybe if she writes more there she'll write less here.)

Back at Book Review Shack, Charles Taylor seems to be skating on thin ice in his review of Sway, a novel by Zachary Lazar that takes place in the 1960s and features the Rolling Stones at Altamont and Bobby Beausoleil of the Charlie Manson family. Strangely, Taylor tells us repeatedly that this book's author does not trade in old cliches of the hippie era:

What he evokes is unlikely to please either those who condemn the decade as a body blow to decency and authority, or those who celebrate it as a trippy carnival of raised consciousness and experimentation. Lazar's is a book that has no time for preconceived ideas, that tells the reader exactly the things likely to disturb any cozy notions.

But this hardly rings true once Taylor explains that the entire novel revolves around the fateful Rolling Stones concert at Altamont (in which an audience member was stabbed to death, captured in the film Gimme Shelter) and a member of the Manson family, since I can't think of two more cliched and over-used symbols of the 1960s than Altamont and the Manson family. We may as well bring in JFK's assassination and the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Charles Taylor tells me this book is highly original, but he sure doesn't explain how.

Today's issue bounces back (which is more than the Indianapolis Colts just did) with a satisfying Leah Hager Cohen review of a new biography of Joseph Cornell by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, as well as a captivating summary of Bill Hayes' The Anatomist, which describes the creation of the classic text Gray's Anatomy, by D. T. Max (this is a book I'd like to read).

Jim Holt does a fine job taking care of John Allen Paulos's Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, but I have to say I'm getting really sick of all these books that trade in spongy, outdated philosophical "proofs" or "unproofs" or "anti-proofs". It's as if British Empiricism never happened (much less Existentialism or American Pragmatism). No competent philosopher tries to either prove or disprove the existence of God; it simply can't be done either way, and David Hume and Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich and Martin Buber and William James and many, many other philosophers have long ago shown us better ways to approach philosophical questions about religion and God. You don't solve the question of the existence of God the way you solve a Rubik's cube, but you wouldn't know if from all of these books that are getting churned out.

I enjoyed Alexandra Jacobs summary of Marie Phillips' mythological send-up Gods Behaving Badly, as well as Sophie Gee's thoughtful endpaper that asks whether cheesy pop adaptations like the recent film version of Beowulf do more good than harm. We think they might.

Finally, I hate to be flippant about a tragedy, but my bullshit detector went off when I read this line in Dwight Garner's "Inside the List" piece on Windows on the World Complete Wine Course author Kevin Zraly, who was master of the wine cellar at the doomed restaurant:

He would have been in 1 World Trade Center on the day it fell, he said, had he not stayed home because of his oldest son’s birthday.

Why would the master of the wine cellar be at his restaurant between 9 and 10 am on a Tuesday?

Reviewing the Review: January 6 2008

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 5, 2008 06:44 pm

You all know how I feel about "theme issues" of the New York Times Book Review: they disappoint many readers who wish for a reliable source of general literary edification each weekend. Today's theme issue is a bracing and ambitious one: "ISLAM", featuring a scary front cover illustration of a shadowy man fending off what appear to be pikes and branding irons armed with Arabic letters and symbols. Points for relevance and timing, but let's see if any writers earn points for fresh insight.

An initial breeze-through shows this to be possibly the most self-referential New York Times Book Review ever, since Ayaan Hirsi Ali shows up to review The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the Enlightenment by Lee Harris and is then discussed by Lorraine Adams in an essay called "Beyond the Burka", while Rashid Khalidi's review of Hassan Qazwini's American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America compares the book to one by Tariq Ramadan, who also shows up with his own essay on "Reading the Koran". This self-referentiality is not a problem, though it reveals how small the circle of Muslim intellectuals familiar to the New York Times and the Times readership is.

I'm disappointed by Tariq Ramadan's article, which seems to promise an introduction to the Koran for non-Arabic-speaking observers but instead amounts to an abstract and cautionary treatise on how to think about the book. It's well-written but unhelpful; I own two English translations of the Muslim holy book (one Penguin Classic and one attractive clothbound copy given to me by a stranger at a street fair) but I've never been able to read it with any sense of comprehension, and Ramadan's lofty words leave me feeling still excluded. He hints at his own sublime understanding of the book, but doesn't help the reader experience this understanding for his or her self.

An array of topical articles is strong on victimization -- Jeffrey Goldberg's review of Matthias Kuntzel's Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 is informative and heartfelt, as is Sarah Wildman's coverage of two memoirs by women who've been imprisoned in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat and My Life as a Traitor by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman. But several pieces are weak on originality and insight. "To his credit, Kelsay refuses to whitewash the role of religion in fostering the violence he discusses", writes Irshad Manji on John Kelsay's Arguing the Just War in Islam. I guess this must be the "no-spin" zone or something. In fact, there are numerous loud voices in USA who will declare that Islam is an essentially violent and imperialistic religion, and far fewer willing to reflect upon the fact that the patterns of Islamic intolerance are completely familiar in other religions and cultures, and that the real problem is a universal human one.

There are no terrible articles in today's Book Review, but few memorable ones either. William Dalyrimple's article on The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a 9th Century Persian epic, is strange; Dalyrimple appears to be an expert on Mughal culture, and refers repeatedly to Mughal or Indian interpretations of this epic. But this is not a Mughal story (though the Mughal emperor Akbar once commissioned a great book illustrating it); it is a Persian story, and the critic does not appear to have strayed far enough from his comfort zone to adequately represent the book on its own terms.

Several historical treatments (Jason Goodwin on Zachary Karabell's Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Coexistence, Eric Ormsby on David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe) are captivating enough. Max Rodenbeck's review of Hugh Kennedy's The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In) features this pull-quote:

The Muslim conquest created, for the first and only time, an empire based entirely on one faith.

This is patently false, since the Shia/Sunni schism coincided with the period of the Muslim conquest. If Shiite and Sunni Islam count as one faith, than so must Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christianity, and there have been several Christian empires. I also don't know why Rodenbeck doesn't consider Europe's Holy Roman Empire, Turkey's Ottoman Empire, or Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" to have been religiously monolithic.

There are some worthwhile moments in Tom Reiss's review of Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt:

In a proclamation distributed in Arabic, Napoleon declared that he was a defender of Islam, come to liberate the Egyptians from tyranny. He took advantage of the fact that most revolutionary French soldiers were deists or atheists to suggest that this meant they were in fact "muslims" - "with a small 'm'", as Cole points out -- because their rejection of the Trinity meant they had "submitted to one God".

But this appears to be an isolated high point for this weekend's publication. After finishing every article in this Book Review, I considered whether any of the critics seemed to have been surprised in any way by the books they reviewed, whether any of them appeared to have changed their own minds about any significant issues relating to Islam based on reading the books they have written about. The answer, unfortunately, is no. They each seem to have closed their books thinking the same things they thought when they opened them. I can think of no better way to explain why the NYTBR's "Islam" issue turns out to be a disappointment. This is a theme issue about a religion, but it fails to deliver much by way of revelation.

Reviewing the Review: May 13 2007

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 13, 2007 07:43 am

I'm pleasantly surprised to see a prominent full-page review for a new adult novel by S. E. Hinton, Some of Tim's Stories, in today's New York Times Book Review -- not because I spend a lot of time wishing for mature S. E. Hinton novels in the 21st Century, but just because this is a quirky (and generous) choice for the Book Review editors to make. Alas, critic Stephanie Zacharek's review is a dud. She writes about The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now much more than about the new novel in this review, and rhapsodizes at great length about the fact that teenagers openly smoked cigarettes in those famous young-adult novels, as if this indicates some past golden age of permissiveness in teenage literature. It's a shallow point. Personally, I loved The Outsiders because it had characters named Ponyboy and Sodapop, because these hoodlums were sensitive souls who recited Robert Frost's Nothing Gold Can Stay and read Margaret Mitchell, because the novel's structure (we discover at the end that Ponyboy is writing the narrative) gave me an early taste of metafiction. If this critic is so fascinated by cigarettes, I think she ought to go buy a pack and have a thrill.

There's another blast from the past -- and again, too much past and not enough blast -- when Katherine Dieckmann reviews KinFolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for my Melungeon Ancestors, Lisa Alther's non-fictional follow-up to her great Kin-Flicks (a 70's classic that I recently raved about). Dieckmann gripes about various flaws in the new work and fails to demonstrate a sense of why anybody might care about Lisa Alther in the first place. At best, this review serves as a notice to curious readers that the new book exists.

The issue gets better with a strong cover piece by Michael Kinsley on Christopher Hitchens' entry into the religion-bashing game, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Kinsley is a good choice to consider this book by his contemporary and peer, and I agree with Kinsley's decision to analyze Hitchens the way one would analyze a poker player, by pointing out his bluffs, tells and power plays. Kinsley considers Hitchens' entire career to be a masterful series of feints, which is not to say that Kinsley does not admire Hitchens for his slyness in attacking popular religion at just the point in his career when one would expect this contrary political thinker to declare himself a born-again Christian. As for the book itself, it appears to be a more substantial effort than the recent similar book by Richard Dawkins.

Christopher Hitchens hasn't much use for God, but the great Elizabethan poet John Donne saw it differently, and Thomas Mallon's approving summary of John Stubbs' new John Donne: The Reformed Soul is a brisk and informative read.

I'm underwhelmed by Terrence Rafferty's praise for Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which leaves me unstirred to read Chabon's book (which I've been contemplating but haven't yet managed to become captivated by) despite the critic's professed enthusiasm. I'm sure I'm being unfairly cynical here, but sometimes when I read a favorable review of a trendy book I suspect that the critic is just pretending to love it to avoid the hard work of debunking it. This is one of those times.

The usually impressive Liesl Schillinger comes up short with a review of Cathleen Schine's doggy-tale The New Yorkers, which Schillinger strains to depict as interesting. But "It's a dog thing: you wouldn't understand" is a tired gag, and when she compares this illustrated novel to a James Thurber/E. B. White satire and comes up with no better description of Thurber's drawing style than "intentionally sloppy yet resonant", I have to conclude that this is just an off-week for the critic.

I'm more pleased by Jess Row's intelligent analysis of Benjamin Markovits's Byron/Polidori fantasia Imposture, and I'm also satisfied by Jascha Hoffman's introduction to the apparently weird How I Became A Nun by Argentina's Cesar Aria.

There's a cameo appearance in today's Book Review by Walter Isaacson, who comes up with a good opening sentence in evaluating Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America:

The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana's maxim is condemned to repeat it.

And, sadly, a piece by David Grossman in the New York Times Magazine about the death of his son in last year's Israeli-Lebanese war puts it all in perspective. This essay, adapted from the keynote speech Grossman delivered at the recent PEN World Voices festival, is one for the ages, and I hope it will be well-anthologized.

Dancing With J. Alfred: An Interview With Aynsley Vandenbroucke

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 23, 2007 08:24 pm

I've just seen T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock performed before my eyes, complete with spilling reams of paper, booklights, hats, coffee cups and spoons and three human beings who danced and acted the poem out, section by section, in a studio in midtown Manhattan.

This is the work of The Movement Group, a very original dance troupe founded by a young woman named Aynsley Vandenbroucke. She conceived and choreographed this 50-minute work, which begins tensely as Dawn Springer, Djamila Moore and Kristen Warnick take tentative steps around a wide floor, muttering the poem's opening lines, "Let us go then, you and I." Typing paper appears as the first symbolic element, as the dancers box themselves in with stacks of blank pages and try fitfully to sleep, until one of them has a burst of inspiration and sends a jet of white papers flying into the air. But moods change again, and they sadly sweep the mess up, embarrassed. Two of the dancers engage in a hilarious dual-voiced pastiche while spinning coffee cups, and eventually the three dancers curl up like crabs, become old, turn into crashing waves and then into spinning mermaids, attempt to hug and touch each other, and finally find peace, falling asleep in three separate spots on the floor.

I am no expert in modern dance, but I found the experience dazzling. I got a chance to ask Aynsley Vandenbroucke a few questions about this work in an email interview this week:

Where did the idea come from? Have other choreographers done work like this?

Well, actually someone (Ariane Anthony) created a dance/theater piece based on "Prufrock" a few years ago. I didn't get to see it, but her work is really interesting. I was annoyed when I found out she was doing it, because I'd had this piece in mind for a few years. For a while, I thought I shouldn't go ahead and make mine because she'd just done one. But then this year, I realized I really needed to make it. And that it would be my own take and style anyways.

Another choreographer I can think of is Alexandra Beller. I think she did a piece related to Sartre's "No Exit". I can't think of other pieces in dance that are built around particular poems or existing works of writing, but I'm sure they exist.

Working on this piece also brought home strong similarities between the art forms of poetry and modern dance. I felt like they're both working with images and essences in a way that is very experiential and not necessarily linear. I think that way of working is the beauty of both forms and also what sometimes makes them hard for new audiences.

Can you tell me about your own personal encounter with T. S. Eliot's poem?

I first read the poem senior year in high school. We had to memorize and recite a few lines for the class. At the time, I thought the memorizing assignment was silly. But then the poem really stayed in my head... I would find myself repeating lines and thinking about it regularly. When I think back on it, it was a lovely poem to have people read as they're about to leave home and high school. It was a time when we were all asking questions, wondering what to do with our lives, how to find meaning.

The poem has always touched me deeply. Here is this man experiencing the nuances and concerns that I feel. They're not so wierd or unusual and they're not made pretty in a fake way. I've always been particularly pierced by the lines about "one turning her head should say, 'That is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all'." This human (and artistic) experience of trying to share what is inside, to be met.

When I first heard that your piece dramatized Eliot's poem with three women dancers, I was wondering what role gender would play. Of course, Eliot's poem is about a man who sees women as somewhat alien -- and yet in your poem it seems the women *are* T. S. Eliot (or, to be more precise, they are J. Alfred Prufrock). Was this gender switch part of the meaning of the work, for you, or was it an incidental choice?

My company is generally all women, just because that's the way it's worked out, not for any particular statement. I too was curious how we would deal with these beautiful young women being parts of Prufrock. At the same time, what I wanted to explore was human experiences that I think transcend gender. I've always related to Prufrock and I've always read his concerns as more universal, fundamental than being about a particular man relating, trying to relate to a woman. We had some interesting discussions in rehearsal about Eliot and his relationship with women. But again, I felt that what he is getting to in the poem is much bigger.

I understand that you are involved in Buddhism (as I am as well, and as T. S. Eliot was too). Do you see "Prufrock" as in any sense a Buddhist-themed work, a meditation upon "desire", and did this play a role in your conceptualizing of the dance?

Yes! For me "Prufrock" is deeply related to a Buddhist focus on awareness of life and death. If I am aware of the preciousness of my life and that it is going to end, I want to make sure I spend every minute of it taking advantage of being alive. Prufrock seems aware of time slipping away and yet he is not quite able to take charge of how he is going to spend it. I find myself constantly checking in during my every day life. Am I worrying about parting my hair? Am I worrying about eating a peach? Is this the way I want to spend my life? If I've only got a short amount of time, how do I want to spend it and what kinds of risks make it worth living?

I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We each have our own favorite poems in the world; this is mine. In fact, the only other poem I like nearly as much is Eliot's later, longer The Waste Land, which has much in common with Prufrock (both deal with the dread of sexual intimacy, both are "purgative" works infused with nearly pathological honesty, and both personify human beings as cities, and cities as human beings).

If Aynsley Vandenbroucke and her talented dancers ever decide to take on The Waste Land, I'll be there on opening night. Till then, try to catch this show while you can.

Jamelah Reads the Classics: St. Guglielma by Antonia Pulci

by Jamelah Earle on Thursday, July 6, 2006 05:00 pm

Most of the things I've been doing lately have involved not reading the classics, which I think has a lot in common with what many people do most of the time. Be that as it may, I am back, having just finished Antonia Pulci's one-act St. Guglielma, and I have a few remarks.

Antonia Pulci (whose work was translated by James Cook, the translator also responsible for this version of Petrarch and is available in a lovely volume: Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays) was a fifteenth-century Italian writer who, after the death of her husband, founded an Augustinian order and lived out the rest of her life in the convent. The type of plays Pulci authored -- sacre rappresentazioni -- are short plays about religious subjects, and in Pulci's case are largely hagiographical (read: about saints) and deal with women and their concerns in society. These plays are convent dramas and as such are meant to be performed by women for women. So, something like 15th-century Lifetime TV, then.

St. Guglielma follows the life of -- wait for it -- St. Guglielma, the daughter of the King of England who, despite a desire to live a life of pious chastity, is married to the King of Hungary. Once married, Guglielma convinces the king to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and take her with him, which he thinks is a swell idea in part, deciding to go on the pilgrimage but to leave Guglielma in Hungary to run the kingdom. Once the king is gone, his brother, who's pining for some hot Guglielma action, tries to seduce the queen but is shot down. Guglielma decides to keep it to herself so as not to cause an uproar at court, but this turns out to be a bad idea because as soon as the king returns the brother falsely accuses Guglielma of being a ho in her husband's absence. The king, kind, wise fellow that he is, has Guglielma imprisoned and sentenced to death, because, you know, why talk to your wife when you can just have her killed?


But Guglielma is saved when pity is taken upon her and the executioner sets her free and burns her clothes to make it look like she was killed. She's lost in the forest (or a wasteland, as the text calls it, so maybe not a forest after all) and it seems kind of Snow White-ish for a little while, but instead of finding the cottage of seven dwarves, she is met by Mary (mother of Jesus) who helps her, and later by two angels who also help her. She's given the gift of healing, and ends up at a convent where she sits at the gate, healing the sick. As luck would have it, the king's dastardly brother is stricken with leprosy, and the king takes him to this miraculous healer at the convent. She heals the brother, the king leaves his kingdom to the barons, and the three of them go to a little place in the aforementioned wasteland to live happily ever after. Because retiring to a wasteland is really the way to go.

So that's the story. It proves, unequivocally, that Guglielma was a lot nicer than I would've been in similar circumstances, since I probably would've let the brother die and then, if it were in my power to do so, put a pox on the king for having me needlessly sentenced to death. Of course, that's just one of the many reasons why I'll never be a candidate for canonization.

Anyway, as a piece of literature, St. Guglielma is a quick, entertaining read, largely due to the fact that its story is so dramatic. (Yes, a dramatic play. What a novel concept. Ahem.) If you've read any literature from this era (like, say, Boccaccio or Petrarch) then you'll know that in literary works, women were objects that were acted upon to further a plot (or in the case of Petrarch, write really creepy poetry), but weren't creatures with their own minds or wills or abilities. In this regard, Antonia Pulci's writing serves as a foil to the popular portrayal of female characters, despite the fact that in this day and age, living a life of religious piety and forgiving one's enemies might seem at worst backwards and at best quaint. So, kudos to you, Antonia Pulci for going against the grain (and being a good writer!). Indeed, kudos to you.

Philomene Long, Poet of Venice Beach

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 21, 2006 01:36 pm

I met Philomene Long last year at a poetry reading at Vox Pop in Brooklyn. I knew of her as a veteran of the Venice Beach, California beat poetry scene and as a filmmaker whose documentary The Beats: An Existential Comedy I once reviewed (favorably) at LitKicks. Onstage at Vox Pop, she had a healthy ferocity that reminded me of Anne Waldman, and a strong artistic/spiritual core that reminded me of Patti Smith.

I talked to her afterwards about the ongoing Los Angeles poetry community, about her memories of her close friend Charles Bukowski, and about her very cherished memories of her husband and fellow Venice Beach scenester/poet John Thomas (with whom she'd co-authored an affectionate portrait of their mutual friend, Bukowski in the Bathtub). I was already captivated by her confident poetic self-assurance, but I became especially fascinated after she revealed an unusual fact: before she became an enthusiastic fellow-traveller with the poets and hippies of Southern California, she had been a Catholic nun.

I had to know more about this, and the poet allowed me to initiate an email interview after she returned home to California. Meet Philomene Long:

Levi: You are the first poet I've ever met who's once been a nun. In fact, I think you are the first person I've ever met who's once been a nun. Can you tell me what drove you to make such dramatic life choices?

Philomene: Beatitude drove me. In Jack Kerouac's words: "It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to it ... Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of
personality and cruelty?"

I made most of my unique and dramatic life choices before age 8. The first (that I recall) was to sit still.

At age 4: "I will sit!" in a backyard with a woman I called "Miss Aunt Whistle" (because she whistled) and she saying to me: "Sit still, and a small gold bird will come." I chose to sit so still and for so long until I could see every blade of grass, to sit bone quiet, until finally disappearing into a luminousity. And a small gold bird did come.

At age 5: "I will never take my head off my mother's lap!" In church -- the sound of her gentle Irish tones saying, "God loves you. God loves you. God loves you" with her hand softly stroking the long strand of my hair. The smell of the pews, the incense. I never wanted to take my head off her lap. And, in some ways, I have not.

Then, at age 7: "I will become a Saint like you, St. Theresa. I WILL BECOME A NUN!". At age 8, finally after writing my first poem in memoriam to my deceased pet duck ("Remember the Day You Were Just Out of Luck" ), I became a poet.

Levi: What do nuns and poets have in common?

Philomene: They live as skinless ones. No insulation. Stripped. Utterly naked. Nuns live lives of dedicated poverty.

In fact the first vow all nuns take is the vow of poverty. The first "Beatitude" (for nuns as well as all Christians) is: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." John Thomas, my husband, said: "I have Philomene, a pen, a pad, shirt and pants." If you start wanting more, it fills you up, leading to a poverty of the heart and mind.

Buddhism is the religion of the Beats, but many of the Beat writers were Buddhists without leaving Catholicism. Keroauc said every night before he went to sleep he prayed to Buddha, Christ and Mary. Kenneth Rexroth was both Buddhist and Catholic, and was instrumental in bringing poetry and philosophy of the East to the West. Philip Lamantia returned to the Catholic church. I recall him saying his influence was St. Francis, the saint of poverty.

Levi: And how does Catholicism inform your life today?

Philomene: The church that burned John of Arc to the stake for dressing like a man is not the church that canonized her. The church that imprisoned St. John of the Cross on suspicion of heresy is not the one that made him a "Doctor of the Church."

As a child my life was informed by the "Little Way" of St. Theresa of Liseiux; as a young adult by the way of St. Francis of Assisi who stripped naked, and vowed poverty.

The Catholicism that informs my life today is: Pope John XXIII Catholicism; Thomas Merton Catholicism, Dorothy Day Catholicism, Catholic Workers Catholicism and Martin Sheen Catholicism; the murdered Jesuits of El Salvador Catholicism; the anonymous nuns all over the world at this very moment on their knees in prayer or bent over the dying in Calcutta; nuns comforting the mourning at Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City; the nun shot down to bleed out alone on the ground for protecting trees Catholicism; the Jesuits who went to Japan and became Zen masters; the anonymous author of the "Cloud of Unknowing" Catholicism.

Levi:As a Catholic, how do you think difficult issues like abortion rights, euthanasia etc. can be resolved in our country?

Philomene: Within Catholicism? Or generally? I firmly believe in separation between church and state. In no way should they overlap. It is the foundation of our country.

As for within Catholicism ... it's an enormously complex institution. Catholicism is not a one cell being, an amoebae, a planarian. It is a complex entity with -- although this seems contrary at first glance --a foundation of democracy. At the same time it exercises the divine right of kings.

Within the church there are many divisions. There are Catholics for Free Choice (e.g. pro-abortion rights), and there is the ARCC ("Association for the Rights of Cathoics in the Church") and the WOC (Women's Ordination Committee) -- as well as Opus Dei, a group that would return the church to medieval times, including the practice of flaggelation.

Personally, I do not speak for any institution. I support Catholics for Free Choice, ARCC, and WOC. As for the center, the Great Heart -- a phrase from Thomas Merton runs through my mind: 'The seemingly boundless source of sanctity within the Catholic Church."

I am a Zen Catholic. I cannot practice one without the other. Absolutely can not. I believe Kenneth Rexroth was like that. His was a Catholicism of great intellectual depth. For years he studied and wrote about Thomas Aquinas.

Here's something I personally find to be true: Buddhism is a religion for ordinary life, and Christianity is a religion for crises. In my daily life Zen is the predominant practice until I am in crisis. The instant that crisis hits ... Philomene in no longer sitting crosslegged in front of a statue of a serene Buddha. She is on her knees before her enormous wooden cross (one that opens up and contains all the ingredients to perfom the Last Rites).

Levi: What's your favorite poem you've ever written?

Philomene: "La Purissima" used to be my favorite poem because of how it came through me. Pure -- directly from the source to the page. After writing it, I changed only one word.

"La Purissima" means "The Pure" -- a Latin term used for Mary, the Mother of God. Although the poem is giving voice to a California Mission, it is also a self portrait of sorts:

La Purissima

I am not here
Bent, brittle
Weed among weeds
Not here
Palms fragrant with lavender
Hair meandering through
The pale grasses
I can no longer remember
I preferred all martyrdoms
To this dry, s ilent place
There were nights when I feared
My own blood. My eyes
Became wounds. They devoured
Me. And the flies. Ten thousand
Tangled devils. My palms scoured
Dry and thin as communion wafers.
There were nights when the hymns I sang
Became the bones of the Friar, the dust
Upon the graves of stillborn Indians
The winds of La Purisima
Through the pale grassed
I can no longer remember

My current favorite poem, and one I now live with, is: "Pieta In Los Angeles, Part 2". It's a meditation before a replica of Michaelangelo's Pieta.

For two years after my husband John Thomas's death, my greatest solace was to stand before a replica sculpture of the Pieta, which is down the hall from where John is entombed at Holy Cross Cemetery. I would look upon the Pieta until I became the Pieta.

Pieta in Los Angeles, Part 2

The marble corpus dangles
Precariously over the Mother's lap
Her right hand alone supports him
Fingers splayed, deep into his rib cage
Her knees apart
As one would balance an infant
Above him, her soft breasts
Seemingly turn marble into flesh

His hair thick with blood
Blood into stone
Lips parted in death
Hers pressed gently in speechless grief

The folds of her dress
Run through his fingers
It is almost as if he reaches for her
From his now mute anguish

Her back is straight, head slightly bent
A thin line across her forehead
In her face, a grieving so severe
It becomes serenity

Her left upturned palm
Opened to receive the world's sorrow
Is at once: a question and acceptance

I reach up
Place my tear-soaked tissue in that hand
In my mind I would climb into the lap
But no, not for me
Not that comfort yet
Must first become
That hand
That face
Rock of sorrow
Eternity in granite
Time and agony
In stone

Later I say that I must become that hand, that face.

Levi: How did you meet John Thomas?

Philomene: We met the morning I was born. This is fact.

John fell in love with me after attending a poetry reading on March 15 ("the ides of March"), 1983 at the "Come Back Inn" in Venice. John had said, "You certainly have not lost your youthful exuberance." And then "I don't agree with what you just said, but I appreciate how you said it." And laughed. At the beginning of the laugh he was not in love. At the end of that laugh he was in love.

We first kissed in the parking spot besides the old Venice jail.

I realized I was in love with John a few weeks later on April 6, 1983, while walking down the Venice Boardwalk with a dozen pink roses in my arms. People stopped what we were doing or saying and stared -- looking at me as if I were in love. I thought: "I must be in love."

We made love for the first time on Good Friday, 1983, at 3:00 pm. 19 years later John would die on Good Friday, 2002, at 3:00pm.

Levi: You and John were close friends with Charles Bukowski. Can you share something about him?

Philomene: Since a focus of your piece is religion, I'll share this, an excerpt from 8 hours of audio tapes of conversations recorded by John:

John Thomas: (Singing) "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so."

Charles Bukowski: I like spiritual songs when they're really well done.

JT: That's not spiritual.

CB: Yeah, I know.

JT: That's a little Sunday school hymn. (Singing) "Carry your Bible with you."

CB: I heard one on the radio driving on the way to the racetrack. Something like Jesus on the cross and it was beautiful. And they got his hands nailed to the cross and how beautiful it was. And I thought, "These words are good." These weren't the exact words, but I translated it that way and I said, "Jesus, this is good." How beautiful-- how they got those spikes in his hands and they're all singing. God! How beautiful.


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