Friday, March 24, 2017

"Fodor's Essential Prague": Book Review

Fodor's guides tend to be more traditional than their Rough Guide or Lonely Planet competitors. More like Frommer's, Fodor's offers a long-established line of guidebooks. This one for Prague and mainly Southern Bohemia does not provide the colorful diagrams and cross-section illustrations of landmarks as DK books do. You get fewer photos. The text is satisfactory in covering the must-sees.

That being said, the maps of, say, the Jewish Quarter of Prague are a bit perfunctory, if serviceable. Sites are promoted over pp. 25-80 in the capital. The rest of the guide, besides the appendices, leans south to Bohemian sites. The map of day trips from the capital city is a quick encouragement to venture forth from the usual warren of haunting or lovely streets, pubs, restaurants, shops galore, and the wonderful bridges over the Vltava.

It's compact enough to slip into a purse or backpack. It's also useful to jot down ideas in the notes space at the end, a helpful touch. There are no fold-out maps, but there's a highway one for the Czech Republic with main roads, and another in the back with the Prague Metro. All in all, a respectable purchase to consult to plan the visit you may make or to accompany the one you're on. Either way, get to Prague and out of it too. (Amazon US 3-24-17)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jay Garfield's "The Meaning of Life": Audiobook Review

Image result for meaning of life great courses
"More spontaneous, less calculating"
If you could sum up The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions in three words, what would they be?
Let things go

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions?
John Lame Deer from the Lakota tradition tells a story of "green frog skin" that relates to our commodity fetishism powerfully. His ancestors conjure up a scene at Custer's last stand which remains vivid and disturbing, This resonated with many thinkers throughout this series.

What does Professor Jay L. Garfield bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
He has a tendency to lisp or mumble, his New Yorker accent provides a professorial, intellectual ambiance, and his jokes fall as flat before the microphone as they may to his students. But he's a noted scholar in Eastern religions and philosophy. Hearing him enables those of us outside an Ivy League seminar to ponder many wise men (and women in the background, alas) from thousands of years. He likes what he teaches, and this comes across

If you could give The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions a new subtitle, what would it be?
Eastern as well as Western perspectives

Any additional comments?
Ultimately, impermanence and our miniscule place in space and time diminish our self-inflated egos. Rather than resisting our decline, we would do better to confront our death, so as to live a life bent more on helping others, easing their pain, and minimizing the harm we cause others. This course is not aimed at the divine so much as the human context. For that humanism, and the emphasis on lessening our heavy footprints upon the earth, it's worth it. (To Amazon Audible 8-16-16)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Herman Melville's "Redburn": Audiobook Review

"A leisurely if perplexing voyage "
What did you like best about Redburn? What did you like least?
I liked the hints of the themes Melville would elaborate in Moby Dick. The start was promising, if heavily "based on a true story" and I presume heavily autobiographical. The Famine emigrants in Liverpool and at sea gain some attention, perhaps notable in fiction of this mid-19th c. era. But I disliked the "Harry" diversion and the latter part of the story weakened the plot. It reminded me of how Huck Finn also falls apart after a strong start, a few decades later.

If you’ve listened to books by Herman Melville before, how does this one compare?
I have not heard any (yet).

What aspect of Kirby Heyborne’s performance would you have changed?
I liked Kirby Heyborne dramatizing David Mitchell's own "heavily autobiographical" coming-of-age Black Swan Green. So I purchased this on that strength. But Kirby H. mispronounces hillocks, shillelagh, Lothario, Hecate, indefatigable, and over and over tarpaulin, to name but a few words he surely should have known, or checked. My [three-star] rating reflects this shortcoming.

Was Redburn worth the listening time?
It unfolds more slowly than any other audiobook I can recall outside of, say, the dense Thomas Sowell treatise on Marxism. Not unpleasant, and I fell asleep (with the timer) many nights as I listened to segments. Melville does put you at sea with him vividly. Despite the clunky plot, this is mostly worthwhile. I assume it's not the highest-ranked among his canon.

Any additional comments?
It's a strain to hear the perorations to Carlo the Italian organ-grinder boy (yes, that's him) as well as the paeans to the "girlish figure" of the narrator's pal and bosom (?) buddy Harry. Their relationship and his backstory are occluded, but scholars now must have devoted feverish scrutiny to what Melville's alluding to. But the novel "goes south" and never returns. (Audible US 3-18-17)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Philip Freeman's "Celtic Mythology": Book Review

 Cover for 

Celtic Mythology
This professor of Classics and Celtic Studies, Harvard-trained, brings a compendium of interwoven tales, from sources translated from a wide variety of his predecessors. The contents cover the earliest deities, the Book of Invasions, the Wooing of Etain, tales from the Tain and the Ulster Cycle, and stories from the Irish otherworld. Then, a few on Finn the outlaw, before the Mabinogi are related in four stories, followed by three more Welsh stories and sagas. Finally, Christian saints Patrick, Brigid, and Brendan gain attention in this slim, but accessible collection.

A quick sample of the tone. Cu Chullain asks his charioteer: "Where on earth are we?" He replies: "'I have no idea, my lord.' He continues, "But I don't think we're in Ulster anymore." (125) Not Kansas either, but the everyday register of these stories makes them meaningful for us. Too often either scholarly versions are antiquated (if in public domain) or New Age-tinged florid reckonings divorced from academic rigor and narrative control. Professor Freeman stays grounded.

It's lightly annotated with introductions and endnotes, clarifying where the texts originated and variants in meaning here and there. But the learning's worn lightly, for this volume is aimed at the general reader. While Irish-published resources remain, and predecessors such as Oxford's translation by Sioned Davies of the Mabinogi and Penguin's anthology of Irish themes by Jeffrey Gantz, the updated version of Philip Freeman's colloquial versions is welcome. I'd have liked Breton, Scots, Manx, and Cornish topics to widen the Celtic scope, however. (Amazon US 2/16/17)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

David M. Emmons' "Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910": Book Review

Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910
"Beyond the pale" originated from the limits, the palisades that the Normans erected around their incursions encircling Dublin. Outside of that tamed territory, Hibernian natives lurked, uncivilized according to the conquerors' suppositions. David Emmons, historian at the University of Montana, adapts this title cleverly. For in the American expansion, the immigrant Irish were also seen by Protestant counterparts as inferior, and relegated to the margins socially and spatially. In the growing U.S., contrary to stereotype, some “two-boat” Irish Catholics settled for neither shanty nor tenement. 

Industry demanded cheap, expendable frontier labor. The mines and mills erected, often by Protestant capitalists, attracted desperate Irish. Outnumbered, they formed communities and institutions to secure themselves in hostile territory. Having studied this phenomenon in the Irish-dominated enclave of Butte, Emmons in this follow-up expands his focus to eight different concepts of "the West" in the American imagination and fact. He compares or contrasts Irish Catholic experiences with those of black slaves and Native Americans, broadening this 2011 book's relevance today. 

It rewards careful reading. It's accessible, with folk stories and testimonies drawn from archival research. Its hundred-page list of documentation attests to Emmons' scope and discipline. Attention to detail regarding his claims, therefore, is expected.

The local insistence on camaraderie given dangerous jobs and social prejudice meant many Irish newcomers rallied together in their camps and towns. Emmons suggests that in a land where the future meant to go West, the Irish for their own survival might have cut themselves off from joining this enormous juggernaut. Faced with anti-Catholic discrimination and anti-Irish sentiment, they found themselves beyond the pale again, gathered in their clans, defensive against an all-too-familiar aggressor. (Spectrum Culture for "Our Favorite Books Read in 2016" staff list 12/18/16; Amazon US 11/16/16)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Benjamin Black's "Even the Dead": Book Review

Even the Dead: A Quirke Novel
This seventh entry in the Quirke series set in mid-1950s Dublin satisfies. It circles back to elements of the first installment, Christine Falls, but it does not feel stale. You could begin here, but as only asides to the increasingly complex inner life and love affairs and family traumas the protagonist endures emerge, it's better to read Benjamin Black's evocations of the dreary city and the coroner's office in order. Again, we find David Sinclair at the latter, while Inspector Hackett accompanies Quirke on what he reasons is his desultory quest for justice, given his intense "absence of a past" felt.

This emerges at the climax. As before, whether as Black or John Banville, this writer prefers a slow pace. In these mysteries, much work is done by others, and although the three coincidences tallied by characters do defy probability, Dublin's a small place where many of its people cross paths, for dark purposes. Quirke, battered in a previous account (reminiscent of the aging Jack Taylor in Ken Bruen's equally fine Galway noir contributions to this genre), suffers a brain lesion and feels increasingly fuzzy-headed. His confidant Mal also faces weakness, and in a typically eloquent passage common to this writer's works, he makes a poignant analogy. Facing onset of mortality, Mal opens up to Quirke.

"It's like discovering that all along you've been walking on a tightrope, and suddenly the end of the rope is in sight. You want to get off, but you can't, and you can't stop or retrace your steps, you just have to go on, until you can't go any further. Simple as that." (142) The stoicism they share continues.

But as always, there lurks beneath the power and corruption of Church and State glimpses of comfort. "And still the day refused to end. At ten-thirty the sky was an inverted bowl of blue raised radiance, except in the west, where the sunset looked like a firefight at sea, a motionless Trafalgar. He stood at the open window of the flat, craning to see, up past the tall houses opposite, a single pale star suspended above the rooftops, a dagger of shimmering light. It was a long time since he had felt so calm, so untroubled. Serene: the word came to him unbidden. He felt serene." (68) Quirke has solace.

There's also bits of gallows humor, given the trade. "Amazing the number of people who drive into trees or stone walls by accident in the middle of the night, or fall into the Liffey with their pockets full of stones." (17) So Sinclair opines. He leavens the growing sorrow of his senior, Quirke the pathologist. He battles drink, the memories of abandonment and betrayal and guilt, and the drudgery of his tasks. He seeks romance, and even if "love" is but the term people use, he reasons, when they run out of other words to express their predicament or their yearnings, it may comfort him--for now. (Amazon US 12/2/16)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cradle Catholic

"I was educated in public + parochial schools in L.A. and was raised very Catholic. I was taught by and still know many devoted people, lay and clerical. I am no longer practicing, and the family I have married into and raised two sons in is not Catholic. I weigh the good the Church has done with the bad; I stand apart. BTW, 1/10th of Americans are ex-Catholic. If not for immigrants, the parishes would be empty indeed in many places. As w/ Ireland now." 
I posted this on a Facebook feed after a friend there, a native of Dublin now living about 30 miles east of me, reflected on raising his children non-Catholic. He and his wife were cradle Catholics.

Another friend, whom I admire for his principles hard-won and doggedly expressed against threats of violence to him and his family, assists his local St. Vincent de Paul charity in his Irish small city. He reasoned that in the absence of state assistance, the poor and the neglected earn their keep and their minding from volunteers such as himself. I accompanied him on his rounds, as two men are assigned to go together to avoid any disrepute. Although an articulate and vehement non-believer, his background, like nearly all the Irish friends I have, remains embedded in our tribe, our "romish" clan.

A week ago, I received an Ancestry DNA test to take. Lacking knowledge of my genetic history in the absence of contacts, my wife suggested I spring the $100 for this. It will match my autosomal DNA with any others in the pool at that site. Unfortunately, there's no one database. FamilyTreeDNA is a rival, with its own tests and participants. And then there's Google's 23+Me (although limited now on what it can share about health findings), and in Europe, MyHeritage. This can all add up to a few hundred dollars, and not counting the pricier Y-DNA paternal and mitochondrial offerings for deeper knowledge. Still, for those of us cut off or ignorant of the strains good or bad within us, it's progress.

When I got to the religious affiliation, I hesitated. Unlike Ireland and many nations, one's denomination is not asked by our census, and rarely have I ever had to tick any box for it on any document, I realize. I put "prefer not to answer," but after reading the reactions to the sad revelations revived about "the Tuam babies" scandal at the ironically christened Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, I am reconsidering. I leave certain details discreet, but suffice to say that this home rose in the vicinity of where my grandparents would have grown up, and that "by the grace of..." in my own family tree...So, that makes me wonder. Despite my own disaffiliation, by tribal ties, for probably 1600 years, my ancestral allegiance among my nameless forebears has been to this Church.

Therefore, for genealogists, my data may align better with narrowed parameters if I claim this identity. It may no longer be mine in action, but in my origins, however free of genetic influence, the patterns imprinted in my psyche, my quirks, and my outlook may gain some traces of trauma passed down, as has now been confirmed, by a harrowing series of unfortunate events, so to say, endured.

In conclusion, I leave this generalized for protection of my own story, and what I know or do not know of it remains mostly occluded by law, reticence, and time. But my search for origins, to dispel my own conception when I was brought up of my own "origin myth," persists as a strong factor in my own makeup, both of nature and nurture. And reflecting on the terminated stories of so many near my "home turf" I realize I will have to go back and change my affiliation, in testimony to this inheritance.

Friday, March 10, 2017

John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany": Audiobook Review

"The crack of the bat"
Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?
As the novel is so long, I found it more background than foreground for much of the duration. John Irving likes spinning a yarn, yet this could have been edited and streamlined.

Would you recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany to your friends? Why or why not?
Probably not. It's a considerable investment of time for a plot that while delving into character, does not keep a momentum that demands you stop listening. It does not bore, but it can drone. The lack of necessary action and much digression slows the pace down.

What does Joe Barrett bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
I liked his folksy touch. Not only for the New England setting, but for the sky-pilot awkwardness of the Rev. Dudley Wiggin and the rapid-fire snark of Major Rowe. I wished the novel had given Joe Barrett more of a range to work with, as he shows talent in this genre.

Did A Prayer for Owen Meany inspire you to do anything?
Not really. Perhaps reflect again on the folly of Vietnam. It did not convince me of the central moral lesson about Owen's intervention and his calling. But Irving sure tried.

Any additional comments?
The "strangulated falsetto" of Owen is demanding for the speaker and the listener. I admired technically Barrett's ability to switch in and out of it so adroitly. And it will stick with you! (Audible 11/2/16)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

George Saunders' "Lincoln in the Bardo": Audiobook Review

Lincoln in the Bardo Audiobook
"The American Book of the Dead"
If you could sum up Lincoln in the Bardo in three words, what would they be?
Disorienting. Deceptive. Daunting.

Who was your favorite character and why?
I liked the Reverend. While his role is less distinctive than the twinned main tellers, he takes longer to be noticed. But, halfway on, his appearance and the reason for it become evident. This displays nimbly Saunders' skill at delaying information until it's truly needed in fiction.

Have you listened to any of the narrators' other performances before? How does this one compare?
As so many narrate this (166), I can only refer to the main two tellers, Nick Offerman and David Sedaris. The hearty, but measured, turns of the former and the soft, sibilant delivery of the latter grace this collection of voices well, and they are particularly remarkable for their tone.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
Many, especially Ch. 37. The beauty of the language may sound cliched, but the manner in which Saunders conjures up the poignant and the perverse makes for quite the combination.

Any additional comments?
I'd read the novel first. Hearing this without some preparation may discourage the faint of heart explorer of one of the most complex narrations ever attempted by a major modern writer. Considering the dreck that wins awards and shoves aside works of merit like this on the shelves, the recent attention earned by George Saunders is an encouraging harbinger. (Audible US 3/6/17)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities": Audiobook Review

The Bonfire of the Vanities
"You turn into a cipher"
Would you listen to The Bonfire of the Vanities again? Why?
Probably not, but I liked Joe Barrett's reading. It enlivened a book I read when it came out, thirty years ago. But I don't need to visit this story a third time.

Would you recommend The Bonfire of the Vanities to your friends? Why or why not?
For a period piece, a morality tale pre-Internet and social media, it remains a valuable dramatization of the pressure of what the 'flak catchers' Tom Wolfe profiled endured two decades later in the Bronx. This time, it's the legal profession, not the (other) bureaucrats.

What does Joe Barrett bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
Having enjoyed his reading of John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," Barrett here can show off his range of voices and accents as he has many more characters to work with. While the "haw haw haws" on Wolfe's page still grate to the ear here, the verve and pathos Joe Barrett brings to the protagonist, Sherman McCoy, deepens the novel and message.

If you could rename The Bonfire of the Vanities, what would you call it?
"Pin the WASP to the wall"--a phrase used by Sherman's persecutors

Any additional comments?
Ch, 22, a descent from the Dickensian satire into Dantean depths, is harrowing and very well told. One of the longer chapters, but the book generally moves along well. Despite dinner party chat in real time, and those Tom Wolfe elaborations of sartorial and decorative detail. (Audible US 3/5/17)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene": Audiobook Review

Book Review: Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins | TechieTonics
"The immortal replicator"
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
Yes, if he or she had some patience for biology and some curiosity about genetics in detail. It rewards the careful listener, and while not a light read, it is accessible and stimulating.

What did you like best about this story?
The eleventh chapter on memes is exciting. Perhaps the best-known of the sections, although I am not sure Dawkins back in the mid-70s anticipated this via the Internet.

Which scene was your favorite?
I liked discussions, embryonic given their later expansion into The God Delusion, of snippets of how religious beliefs were found erroneous or risible. Agree or not, this is memorable.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The fact that we lack any grand purpose other than to serve as vehicles for the immortal replicator. While Schopenhauer was never cited, this force that drives us to reproduce despite the consequences and drain on our resources and time is a sobering perspective.

Any additional comments?
The alternation of Dawkins' genial donnish tones and his partner Leila Ward's spry delivery is a great way to keep readers alert. They serve to discuss the material, with its updates for this 2011 presentation, and to show what has and has not changed in the subject since 1976. 

(Audible 11/2/16.)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels": Audiobook Review

"Not the children's book you think"
Where does Gulliver's Travels: A Signature Performance by David Hyde Pierce rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
Near top tier. Excellent choice of narrator. David Hyde Pierce is perfectly cast and poised.

What did you like best about this story?
The upending of the first part is familiar: big meets small. Then small meets big. But the latter parts, where the mind is inflated into the arbiter of all, and then the body prolonged beyond endurance, speak better to Swift's legacy, for these issues remain relevant today.

Which scene was your favorite?
The last section with the inversion of horses as dominating humans is coruscating. It's cutting satire and it stings deeply. All the same, Jonathan Swift's compassion mixed with his disgust for human cruelty and animal dignity resonates, in ways we may me recognize more than three hundred years ago for his audience, at least those tuned into sentient creatures.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
I did snicker. While the Laputan third part was less interesting than I recall from high school (imagine this book being assigned in most places now, given its NSFW content and offending sensibilities couched in a courtly high style few perhaps can now appreciate), it held up despite this slow spot, for the novel from then on reaches its horrifying climaxes.

Any additional comments?
As above lauded, the pairing of Pierce and Swift is praised. The actor brings out the wit and the pain in the pages, and he renders the difficult registers of some of the high-flown rhetoric of which Swift's a master into entertaining adventure and instructive warnings of human follies. The messages of this often diminished (!) tale remain lively and surprisingly applicable, in life-extension and in animal rights as well as servitude and inequality, today. (Audible 11/7/16)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks: Audiobook Review

The Bone Clocks Audiobook | David Mitchell |
""I've seen the future, and it's hungry""
Would you consider the audio edition of The Bone Clocks to be better than the print version?
Yes, having read the novel first. The characters come alive and the prose sharpens. The plot is clearer to understand, too.

Who was your favorite character and why?
I liked Hugo Lamb. Not to spoil anything, but he bore a difficult role in the storyline. Harder to cheer him on, but his choices are understandable and add depth to the impact overall.

Which scene was your favorite?
Hard to pick, but the last chapter with the Irish encounters appealed. The accents were a nice change from the predominantly English ones and the setting deepens as it's set where the author has chosen to make his home, away from his own island.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The scenes between Hugo and Holly are very human. Despite their differences in class and outlook, their attraction softens the harsher edges of the story, and we need to see these characters in a vulnerable predicament. This also sets up some key themes later on.

Any additional comments?
This book is imperfect, but hearing it, after you read it, is recommended. David Mitchell is a great storyteller and the performances of all six readers keep you engaged. Not a book to be heard in the background. I listened to this late each night, and this enabled full attention...
(Audible 11/21/16)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces": Audiobook Review

 A Confederacy of Dunces Audiobook
""Oh my God!""

Where does A Confederacy of Dunces rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?
Up there more for the energy of the plot and the depth of characters and the skill of the telling than Barrett Whitener's performance. I grew to like it, but it has its challenges.

What did you like best about this story?
The twisted relationship with correspondent "The Minx", as well as the "Oh my God!" bursts regularly from our bloated protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly at every outrage he witnesses.

Which character – as performed by Barrett Whitener – was your favorite?
George, the prissy foil who turns confidante to Ignatius in a skillfully paced conversation that shows off the talent of John Kennedy Toole. Toole builds up both interlocutors so that the naivete of one and the conniving of the other get switched and jumbled as well as run parallel. JKT handles the tone of each of his lowlife participants deftly, from New Orleans.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Hotdogs and Pigtails

Any additional comments?
Burma Jones is not easy to convey "live"; Whitener began the novel sounding in the omniscient narrator's voice as far too neutral and robotic. The women are shown with varying degrees of success, and the registers of different N.O.L.A. dialects and timbres is no easy task to keep moving here. The plot does go into a lot of side stories, building slowly, but the value of "A Confederacy of Dunces" rests in the care JKT takes to portray each figure. (Audible US 2/16/17)