Monday, September 18, 2017

Richard Rhodes: 'Hell and Good Company' (2015)

Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).  

This is another well-written book about the endlessly absorbing Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Rhodes interweaves personal accounts (of nurses, doctors, artists, officers) with technical observations (types of equipment, processes, construction of air raid shelters) in a winning combination, because he also manages to keep the book fairly short.

"War is chaotic. People come and go. I decided to pin my narrative not to the people but to the chronology of the war itself, starting at the beginning and marching through to the end." (page xvii).

Lots of people make their way in and out of and then back into the narrative as the war moves along. Many have poignant arcs, such as that of Patience Darton and Robert Aaquist: "Love made a space for them, but love doesn't conquer all." (page 221).
There are tales of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, John Dos Passos, André Malraux, Joan Miró, and much about medical efforts and hospitals. Nearly one in five doctors in the anti-fascist International Brigades were women (page 187).

Rhodes favors the side of the Republic defending against the fascist and Nazi-backed Nationalists, and he shows greatest sympathy where it seems most appropriate. The Spanish people are given their due, but this is mostly a collective story told from the outside in, mostly through the words of international participants or semi-omnisciently.

I like the specificity of detail that Rhodes delves into from time to time. I've learned new things about the war. Not only about the heroism of the various medical corps, but more about the Germans sent by Hitler, too: "The Condor Legion deployed to Spain by ship . . . consisted initially of thirty-seven officers, 3,786 men, and ninety-two factory-new aircraft, including three squadrons of Junkers-52 bombers, three squadrons of Heinkel 51 biplane fighters, two squadrons of Heinkel 45 and Heinkel 70 reconnaissance bombers, and a seaplane squadron . . . Hitler also sent tank companies, antitank platoons, signals units, and submarines to bolster Franco's forces. Mussolini contributed not only planes, tanks, and submarines but also tens of thousands of infantry." (page 29).

One of the legacies of the Spanish Civil War is in the use of air power to bomb civilian targets en masse, with ruthless repetition -- a terrible legacy, indeed, especially when one side gains air supremacy against a virtually helpless enemy stuck on or under the ground. 

Today's Rune: Movement.  

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Sylvie Germain: 'Night of Amber' (1987, 2000)

Sylvie Germain, Night of Amber. Translated from the French by Christine Donougher. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2000; originally published as Nuit-d’ambre in 1987.

Here’s a dense and difficult novel that covers the orbit of a strange French family between the end of the Second World War and sometime well after the 1968 uprisings (right into the mid-1980s). If you took a heavy William Faulkner work and blended it with Catholic mysticism and liked the result, this might be for you. Several of the characters are tortured souls, and though there are others that are more delightful, it’s the damaged ones that Germain focuses on the most. Can they gain redemption? Grace? Salvation? Despite vile acts?

Here are some samples of things that drew my attention.

“Music and wind: two naked impulses that give rise to a wandering urge.” (page 81).

“But the time of war was not at all over. In fact it had never ceased. In its impatience and intemperance, the time of war had simply changed location. It liked to carry its fury elsewhere, always elsewhere, that is to say, more or less everywhere.” (page 96).

There’s a fair amount of consideration of the Guerre d'Algérie / Révolution algérienne (1954-1962) and its atrocities, including massacres in Algeria and a deadly police assault against peaceful protesters in Paris at the Pont St.-Michel on October 17, 1961. (The head of the National Police had been a pro-Nazi Vichy official during World War II and was later tried for war crimes dating to that time): «Nobody knows anything about that. No one knows or wants to know.» (page 131). «I saw that crowd marching quietly and peacefully. I saw how the police suddenly charged, encouraged motorists to drive straight into them.» (page 133).
In Paris, the main character (originally from the country) wonders around, observing «stations . . . vast waiting halls filled with movement . . . huge bazaars of people pacing up and down. He never tired of haunting them; he liked to identify the rogues among the crowd . . . There were also the race courses, markets, stadiums, airports, department stores, swimming pools. He had to go wherever it was crowded. He had to get lost in every throng, the better to detach himself from it, to rally himself in his proud, fierce solitude . . . » (page 141).

«Alphabet, keys, and nails: all these formed a strange whirl in Night-of-amber-Wind-of-fire’s eyes, and his gaze up the street and toward the square was that of a diver suddenly rising from the deep.» (page 155).

Back in the country : «The smell of freshly cut hay filled the air, pervading the land and the houses. Even pervading their bodies, a sweetish, heady smell, combining pepper and sugar.» (pages 242-243).
At the Strasbourg Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg), an American traveler quips: «You Catholics are a little nuts! Dormition . . . a pretty crazy word, really . . . »  (page 248).

«He was born of a wound. A war wound. That was a long time ago. But war wounds, like the wounds of love, never completely heal.» (page 269).

«This place, like every place in the world, was nowhere.» (page 281).

«Every place, be it empire or hamlet, is but a place of passage. But people passing through places are engaged in a constant relay, taking over and handing on.» (page 285).

«Every place is nowhere, but wherever [a person?] decides to settle acquires enormous power.» (page 300).

«A heart always to be deciphered, footsteps always to be enumerated.» (page 304).

Sylvie Germain (born January 8, 1954) worked for several years in Prague, where I'm intending to visit next year, so I'll pick up more of her books, particularly the ones set there.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Banana Yoshimoto: 'Kitchen' (1988, 1993)

Going though books discarded by the library, I've been sampling a variety of works that I otherwise may not have discovered anytime soon. One of them is Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus (New York: Grove Press, 1993; originally published in 1988), which includes "Moonlight Shadow."  These are quick reads that update, in a way, the superb social films of Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) and Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). 

Yoshimoto (born in 1964), like Ozu and Kurosawa, takes a close look at the fabric of a society under pressure. Though they are all three of them observing people through the scrim of Japanese culture, their tales have universal relevance. Changes -- whether brought about by the devastation of atomic disaster (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima), earthquake, flood, fire, occupation, technology, demographics, or Westernized economic systems -- have led to the disintegration of traditional structures. Family systems crumble or evolve, as does civil society. 

More recently, the United States has moved into similar territory, and so all of these Japanese artists can communicate to distraught Americans.
In Kitchen, Mikage, the lead character, has lost her parents and, most recently, her grandmother, and she has no siblings. She is taken in by Yuichi, a fellow who knew her grandmother, and by Yuichi's transgender mother, Eriko. Though Mikage never entirely shakes off her depression, she does take some satisfaction in cooking. However, this is played out in a low-key, non-Hollywood manner. There have been Asian, but not American, movie adaptations.

"Moonlight Shadow" is a very streamlined tale of loss and survival, also, revolving around dead and living characters. The latter are Satsuki (the main protagonist), Hiraji, and Urara. In this one, there are surreal elements (think Twin Peaks) involving a bell, a bridge, a dress and the "Weaver Festival Phenomenon."  

Banana Yoshimoto is now on my radar. Her artistic approach can be reflected back to the corresponding concerns of master filmmakers Ozu and Kurosawa, and forward into the unknown. 

Today's Rune: Signals. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Part the Second: Christine de Pizan's 'The Book of the City of Ladies' (1405 A.D.)

Christine de Pizan (1364-circa 1430), Le Livre de la Cité des Dames / The Book of the City of Ladies (1405 A.D.). 
London: Penguin Classics edition, 1999, translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant.

Having introduced Christine de Pizan and this particular book in the previous post, herein let's consider additional points made more than 600 years ago, yet still relevant.

"[T]here is no excuse for plain ignorance . . . Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behaviour is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it."  (page 17).

On alphabets, texts letters, documents, books and literacy: "Thanks to her [Carmentis], men [people] possess the art of encoding their thoughts and wishes into secret messages which they can send all over the world. They have the means to make their desires known and understood by others, and they have access to knowledge of past and present events as well as to some aspects of the future." (pages 70-71).  How cool is that? Written language is encoded messaging, for sure, something we tend to take for granted, or completely forget.  

And: on certain men's accusation that women bring rape upon themselves, and like it:  "It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though a woman may verbally rebuff a man, she won't in fact mind if he does force himself upon her. I can scarcely believe that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in this way." (page 147).

Next point: "one shouldn't refrain from cultivating things which are good and useful just because some idiots use them unwisely. Everybody should do their duty by acting well, no matter what happens." (page 190).

On intellectual curiosity: "'My friend, say what you like. The pupil who puts questions to his [or her] teacher in the spirit of enquiry shouldn't be reprimanded for touching on any subject whatever.'" (page 171). A sentiment that matches exactly the philosophy of Erik's Choice.

And just for something fun, there's a whole section in which Christine discusses a slew of Catholic saints (being Catholic herself). Some of these are quite imaginative and specific, such as her rendering of the "blessed Theodota:" 

"As she lay in prison, a son of the Devil came to try and seduce her but he immediately came to have a terrible nosebleed. He shouted out that there was a young man in the cell with her who had punched him in the face . . ." (page 231) -- a scene right out of Twin Peaks!

Many of Christine de Pizan's works have survived the centuries. At some point, we'll continue contemplating more of them. 

Today's Rune: Protection.  Top picture: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606 f. 6. Christine de Pizan. Épître d’Othéa. Paris, circa 1406. "The influence of Venus." Second picture from Wiki Commons.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Christine de Pizan: 'The Book of the City of Ladies' (1405 A.D.)

Christine de Pizan (1364-circa 1430), Le Livre de la Cité des Dames / The Book of the City of Ladies (1405 A.D.). In this energetic book first published more than 600 years ago, Christine de Pizan constructs a "City of Ladies" that protects and advocates for women in a man's world. It should be needless to say that such a book is still highly relevant, as well as a remarkable text in its own right.

If "active learning" is all the rage in 2017, Christine de Pizan already has it covered in 1405: "There's nothing like a whole range of different experiences and activities for expanding the mind of any rational creature." (Penguin Classics edition, 1999, translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant, page 57).

Christine argues that women (of all stations) can and should be educated: "learned individuals help others most by sharing their knowledge with them, no matter how much good judgment they might possess. This is because individuals' faculty of judgment only lasts as long as their lifetime: when they die, it does, too. On the other hand, learning which has been acquired endures . . . and they can teach their knowledge to others as well as pass it on in books for future generations to discover. Their learning does not therefore die with them. . ." (Brown-Grant, page 79). 
On the education of woman: "Therefore, it is not all men, especially not the most intelligent, who agree with the view that it is a bad idea to educate women. However, it's true that those who are not very clever come out with this opinion because they don't want women to know more than they do." (Brown-Grant, page 141).  
"So I'm baffled as to why men talk about the inconstancy and fickleness of women. How can men dare to open their mouths when they see that the conduct of those that govern them -- who are certainly not women! -- is marked by instability and hesitation, just like that of children, and that the resolutions and agreements they come up with in their counsels are rarely put into effect." (Brown-Grant, page 155).

". . . it isn't women who are responsible for all the endless crimes and atrocities that are committed in the world . . . To think that men dare say that all women should be virtuous or that those who aren't should be stoned!  I would ask them to take a good look at themselves and then let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Moreover, to what kind of behavior should they themselves aspire? I tell you, the day that all men attain perfection, women will follow their example." (Brown-Grant, page 170). 

More to come. It's the 21st century and we still need plenty of schooling.

Today's Rune: Possessions.  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

The story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its creator is movingly charted by Freida Lee Mock in her Academy Award winning documentary film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995), available in digital format. 

The scenes of veterans and vet families at the wall can't help but elicit sympathy and sadness; interviews with various vets involved in the creation of the memorial are also indicative of how deep the wounds left by the Vietnam War remain. Though there is much talk about healing, it's clear from viewing this film that for many involved, the wounds will never heal in this lifetime. Maya Lin's achievement is to have created a place where people can weep and release some of their grief, at least for a time.

Maya Lin (born October 5, 1959) was a Yale undergrad when she entered a 1980 competition to design the memorial, and almost miraculously, her radically brilliant but controversial design won. She was 21 years old at the time. At Yale, she had studied funereal architecture and wondered, as she says on film, "What is a memorial's purpose?" How has the world shifted since the great World War One memorials were designed and erected? How did they relate to their natural setting? In support of her very simple but powerful vision, she spent two months composing an essay explaining how it "focused on the individual losses" of war and steered away from the overtly political. It was to be neither a glorification of war and nation, nor a barbed condemnation of flawed policies. Still, some took it the latter way and fought ferociously to change the design from sunken, low and black to raised, above ground and white, with a giant U.S. flag at its apex. Some called it a "boomerang" design and read that as a critique of U.S. foreign policy. She imagined the concept as "taking a knife and cutting into the Earth," whereas one vet fumes on film that it is "a black scar" on all who served.

Maya Lin was attacked for being a woman, for being Chinese American (her parents, born in China, were professors at the University of Ohio in Athens, Ohio), and for being too young. But, after a pragmatic compromise was reached, her vision prevailed. The main monument area was constructed as she intended, and a more traditional "combat figures" statue was set to one side, with a large flag at the side entrance.

The result, unveiled in 1982, is stunning. It is worth the journey to Washington, DC to see and experience in person. It is very much a living memorial. People leave notes, photographs, letters, posies, dog tags, uniforms, teddy bears, and anything else you might imagine there every day.
The film follows Maya Lin's success after the Vietnam memorial, too. We see her Memphis civil rights memorial and her peace chapel at Juniata College.

Maya Lin also designed the Wave Field swales pictured above at the University of Michigan. She is very attuned to natural setting and context, and was a selection jurist for the World Trade Center Site Memorial competition. She owns and runs a studio in New York City and has a retreat in Colorado. I read somewhere that she loves the energies of Manhattan but also needs a remote place for more relaxed contemplation. Seems like the best of both worlds.

Near the end of the film, she raises the interesting question of whether there is a significant gender difference between what she calls the male eye and the female eye, and concludes, "we can only wait and see." Architecture, like engineering, has long been a male-dominated field, but as in most fields, women are making significant inroads over time, however slowly it seems.

Freida Lee Mock is to be commended for this fine documentary. She subsequently produced the excellent 1999 documentary Bird by Bird: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott.

[Note: This post was originally published on May 15, 2006.]

Today's Rune: Partnership.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Anna Politkovskaya: 'A Small Corner of HELL: Dispatches from CHECHNYA' (2003)

Anna Politkovskaya, A Small Corner of HELL: Dispatches from CHECHNYA, translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky, with an introduction by Georgi Derluguian. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Prerss, 2003).

I've carried this book around for more than a decade and finally took the plunge. I knew it was going to be grim, made grimmer by the fact that Anna Politkovskaya, the book's astute author who had borne persistent witness to the Chechnyan wars, was shot (four times) and killed in a Moscow elevator on Vladimir Putin's 54th birthday -- October 7, 2006.  

Because of Anna's work, and the work of others, the devastation wrought in Chechnya is known; as are its atrocities. In reading A Small Corner of Hell, in trying to promote it, I catch the glimpse of an understanding from Anna's words: "Our fate was to look for people who were similar to us in the world, who knew something about life that most people would never experience. Perhaps we would like to share this secret with them, but they didn't want to know and didn't care." (HELL, page 200).
The bottom line: A Small Corner of Hell looks at war mostly from the perspective of people trapped inside it, poor people, civilians, Chechnyans and Russians, ground down and pulverized in dire situations from which they cannot escape. 

This is journalism at its best, literature really, a mix of memoir, chronicle, dream and nightmare. Knowing now that the author of year 2003 will be gunned down in year 2006, too, adds another layer of immediacy and poignancy to each page. 

Putin treats journalists as "enemies of the people;" given this charge, it's not surprising that many have been killed inside Russia since he came to power in 2000. Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006) is one of more than thirty so eliminated. 

Hence also the chill from Donald Trump's adoration of Putin, and Trump's labeling of American journalists "the enemy of the people." See, for example, David Jackson, "Trump again calls media 'enemy of the people.'  USA Today, February 24, 2017. Link here.
Once you lose freedom of speech and the fair rule of law, you're in constant danger of death and destruction, without much recourse. 

Today's Rune: Harvest.