Saturday, November 27, 2004

Maxine Hong Kingston Posted by Hello
Now in paperback
The Fifth Book of Peace
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Vintage $14.95

Notice the quote on the front cover of this book's paperback edition? It's from the following review which appeared originally in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review.

by William Severini Kowinski

Maxine Hong Kingston's long-awaited new book combines fiction and memoir in a "tour de force"--or more appropriately, a "tour de paix"--- that's full of thought and feeling, with interweaving themes and literary layers to keep her Berkeley students busy, and wonderful reading for us all.

As far back as her late 1980s interview with Bill Moyers, Kingston talked about re-imagining the contents of ancient China's three Books of Peace, instructions on how to avoid war and induce tranquility, which according to legend were all deliberately burned by incoming emperors. She also planned to follow the further adventures of Wittman Ah Sing, protagonist of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey, during the Viet Nam war. She combined these intentions in 156 pages she spent two years writing, the beginning of a fourth Book of Peace.

But then in 1991 came the devastating fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills that destroyed her home and turned her manuscript to ashes: the fourth book of peace had suffered the fate of the first three. And so her new book, The Fifth Book of Peace, begins with a section called "Fire."She was returning from "the red ceremony," a family memorial for her recently deceased father, in which the living fend off the temptation to join the black and white world of the dead by wearing red; by displaying vibrance. Then she was walking in the ash-blackened and heat-scorched white landscape that had been her neighborhood, where the only color left was the red of flame.

Starting with a fiery disaster is a dramatic way to begin a book, and by documenting her sense impressions, thoughts, feelings and encounters with others in the fire zone, Kingston produces a mesmerizing description of an event creating its own fatal landscape, both stark and hallucinatory. But it is also a thematic initiation: before they get to peace, many have gone through fire.

The devastation is itself an object lesson. Kingston quotes an Oakland fire captain and Viet Nam vet who looked down from a helicopter on the melted phantoms of beloved neighborhoods and cautioned, "When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we're deciding to do." (He's quoted again, applying this observation to 9/11 in the book's epilogue.)

The next section, "Paper," is about the Books of Peace, and about books, writing, words and storytelling; paper is the human element. These sections are memoir as in "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," though more weighted to contemporary America. "Water" is the re-written remnant of the intended earlier book, a fiction following Wittman, his wife and young son to Hawaii where he hides from the Vietnam era draft.

If "Tripmaster Monkey" is discursive, hermetic and Whitmanesque in its frenetic energies, this tale is more descriptive, economical and open, imbued with the magic of discovery, of first times. In its depiction of young war resisters from within the military, it is both generous and accurate to the era. If asked for prose that reflects the realities of the Viet Nam 60s in America, I'd have no hesitation in recommending these pages. There's also memorable writing, like the description of two men walking: "The small soldier and the tall soldier walked the same way; they made their shoulders big, and moved shoulders and feet in rhythm, one side of the body at a step."

The last section, "Earth," is a reportorial and collaborative account of writing and meditation workshops Kingston held in the mid 90s with war veterans---mostly Viet Nam vets (including civilian women), but also World War II Americans and veterans of other armies and wars. Again she brings her considerable skills to describing the emotionally ragged process that leads to a series of dramatic and revelatory moments, including several of reconciliation and even peace.

The war veterans find their way back to community through honest saying and story. There are countless little jewels to admire glittering on the path throughout this book, such as a different ending for the woman warrior tale, and the true account of how Thich Nhat Hanh invented the Hugging Meditation.The relevance of all this to our current moment, as we revisit in Iraq the slowly unfolding horrors of quagmire, gives these journeys a particular resonance.

But the issues and emotions of war and peace are always with us, and this book does a service for all seasons. The author doesn't back off from uncomfortable observations, such as the vets' willingness to forgive Vietnamese enemies but not American war protestors. Liberation through self-expression turns out to be not enough; some shadow work is also indicated. But others must write more books of peace to follow this inspirational example. For now, we have this marvelous opus to talk story to us on all our roads to peace.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Max Ernst, Apres moi le Sommeil (1958), tribute to Paul Eluard Posted by Hello

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle
by Robert McNab
Yale University Press. 266 pages, $40.

In the fabled Paris of the 1920s, the poet Paul Eluard was a leader of the Surrealists. His wife was a woman of Russian extraction everyone called Gala. When the young artist Max Ernst arrived from Germany, he and Eluard became friends and collaborators on artistic projects (most of Eluard's books of poetry included art by Ernst.) Their friendship was deepened by the knowledge that they had faced each other anonymously across the battlefield in specific battles of the Great War they both detested. But then Gala and Max Ernst became entangled in a sexual affair, and for awhile the three shared the same house, while Gala shared and was shared by the two men.

If this sounds like the plot of Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," right down to the historical period, it almost is. Truffaut's film is based on an autobiographical novel by Henre-Pierre Roche, whose own triangle was separated from this triangle by one degree: they all had friends in common, notably the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp.

But then apparently agitated by the prospect of losing Gala as well as other aspects of his life, Paul Eluard suddenly disappeared from Paris, launching himself on a journey that would take him to Saigon, where Ernst and Gala would meet him. After their reunion, Ernst was the odd man out as Eluard and Gala left together to give their marriage a final try. It didn't work. Gala left both men behind, and soon began her most famous and tumultuous relationship with Salvador Dali, which ended with them both at advanced age, hitting each other with walking sticks in public. Both men married other women, and through years of active friendship and periods of estrangement, they remained deeply loyal. When Ernst was imprisoned in a French concentration camp at the start of World War II, Eluard's influence got him out. When Eluard died, Ernst produced one of his most luminous paintings as a memorial.

Though this story winds through it, this book centers on that voyage to what was then Indochina and its subsequent influence, particularly on Ernst's art. It required detective work by author Robert McNab, a documentary filmmaker, for until now little was known about this journey, and art historians hadn't examined Ernst's art with it in mind.

So while McNab's description of the triangle is pretty clinical and attenuated (in particular Gala's attraction remains a mystery, except that it apparently had a lot to do with sexual performance), the heart of this book is in carefully linking a number of Max Ernst's artworks to the particulars of these voyages.

McNab insists on the historical context of this travel, in a particular and brief period when long sea voyages on huge steamships were accessible in a way we're now used to, but were different in ways we are not. The differences were in the time they took, and the few ships involved at the beginning of what would be the tourist age. This resulted in long, isolated periods in the open sea with no other contact.

The most impressive sight at the end of this voyage was Angkor Wat, the ruins of a lost city discovered in the ever-encroaching jungle. McNab describes how a trip there would go at the time, and what visitors would see. It was still a remote site, but reachable by ship or a two-day drive by car. There was one hotel, where visitors were advised to sleep through the intense heat of midday, and approach the ruins at six p.m. Though the jungle was still an imposing presence, a winding road had been built so visitors could see major sites with relative ease and speed.

According to McNab, Eluard left Indochina with new political fervor, having seen the oppressions of the French colonial regime. Though Ernst agreed politically, he was more haunted by the images of powerful and implacable nature, overwhelming human pretensions. In the lush and unfamiliar plants and animals as well as the exotic, ornate temples decaying in fierce and dazzling light, he saw surrealism come alive, and it stimulated both his outer and inner eye.

McNab's careful analysis is accompanied by dazzling reproductions of some of Ernst's most haunting works. Ernst produced a lot of varied art in his long lifetime, so most surveys can show a small portion, but these certainly deserve the extended treatment they receive here. Several paintings are reproduced opposite photographs of scenes that might have inspired them. So more despite the story of the triangle than because of it, this is a very satisfying book. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, too. I suspect it is so carefully researched and written that it will become a standard work for scholars, as well as a resource and a pleasure for students and other readers.

Besides artists and scholars, the readership for this book I suspect is comprised of people like me, who are fascinated with the arts and artists of this period and these places: western Europe and particularly Paris for the first thirty or so years of the twentieth century. Attracted by the giant romantic figures of Picasso in art and Joyce in literature perhaps, or the presence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, we hungrily turn our attention to each of the many others like Ernst and Eluard whose major accomplishments and fascinating stories continue the revelations and discoveries in this incredibly rich and seemingly inexhaustible milieu.

My own interest, begun in college and even more intense in my early 20s on account of the mixture of art and political activism in the period, was suddenly made more personal by two more or less simultaneous discoveries. In one or another of the books I devoured in my old and barely maintained apartment in the unfashionable east side of Cambridge, I saw reference to a woman artist, said to be the only American and only woman artist in the Paris surrealist group. She was Dorothea Tanning, born and bred in Galesburg, Illinois, the quintessential middle American rural Midwestern town where I had gone to college.

A painter and writer still alive and working in New York (she had a poem in a recent New Yorker), Tanning married Max Ernst and shared the rest of his very productive career. Her beautifully written autobiographical books link those common Galesburg streets to this surrealistic life that included so many famous people whose accomplishments (well beyond the 1930s) formed the imaginative environment of our time. Plus I like her painting a great deal, and in her book Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (Norton), she offers a necessary corrective to this period, from the point of view of a woman and a wife whose own work was considered subsidiary.

The hint of an even more evocative connection came from another book, which mentioned the Italian Futurists and their representative in Paris, the painter Gino Severini. Severini is my mother's family name, and I soon learned from my grandmother that there is a good chance I am related by blood (though perhaps distantly) to a man who was at the center of everything happening in Paris during these decades. I learned about his associations from various fragmentary sources, until Severini's own autobiographical works were translated into English and published as Gino Severini: The Life of a Painter in 1986 by Princeton University Press. (Gino Severini died in 1966, the same year as Ignazio Severini, my grandfather.)

These closer degrees of separation added an unexpected texture, a different kind of grounding, to my interest, and helped keep it alive, even as my relationship to the art shifted---deepening here, becoming less involving there. I wonder how many others who are fascinated with this era have discovered something in their lives that connects them to it. A book that explores the relationship of life to art in the lives of artists reminds us that such complex interpenetrations and expressions of inner and outer life are also at work (and at play) in what attracts readers to read about them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

No, it's not Egyptian or Mayan. This ancient magical cat effigy was found in southern Florida. From 'Hero, Hawk and Open Hand" Posted by Hello
HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South
edited by Richard F. Townsend. Yale University Press, in Association with the Art Institute of Chicago. 288 pages, 9x12. cloth $60, paper $34.95.

The sheer number of gorgeous images in this book is breathtaking. But for many readers I suspect the most astonishing image might be a fairly simple one on page 17: a rendering of a orderly semicircle of structures facing a river, it is a city in Louisiana----in 1500 B.C. This book reveals Native American civilizations rivaling what we know of the Maya and Inca, but in the heartland of North America.

In the south and Midwest a series of sophisticated cultures left behind artifacts and even structures that we are just now beginning to study and understand. For example, the Hopewell site in Ohio, where "the most dramatic" sacred structures were "geometric in form and combined circular, oval, square, octagonal, or other elements in compositions covering hundreds of acres."

The artistry of the artifacts presented here is amazing, and this book has a generous selection of large, excellent photographs. But the prose is equally good: intelligent but intelligible, often with an interesting narrative. Even the occasional semiotic language is used as vocabulary rather than jargon. (In addition to editor Townsend, there are essays by 18 other scholars.)

Not only does this book explore so much about these next-to-unknown cultures, but it provides an exemplary context of explaining a worldview shared by many Native cultures and peoples. So it is a terrific introduction to Native cultures of the past and the present, and why these cultures are particularly important to explore now.

Although this is a scholarly presentation based on a traveling art exhibit, it is pretty graceful about integrating contemporary Native views and information. It's only in recent years that scholars have taken the testimony of contemporary Native Americans about their own culture as seriously as they take their own theories about old artifacts that survived.

For all of these reasons I count this book as instantly one of my most treasured.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer
by Peter Turchi
Trinity University Press 242 pages, $24.95.

During the 2004 election, the TV networks featured their maps of America: the few blue states surrounding the wide field of red states. But afterwards there were other versions flooding the Internet. Weighted according to population, the blue states swelled and curved around the shrunken center of red. Maps of color-coded counties showed a panorama of red cut with shards of blue. But coding according to precinct and proportioned by population produced thin stripes and swirls of red and blue across the map.

One website put side by side a map of the blue and red states, and a map of the free and slave states: a close match. And in my email I found a map of North America that linked the blue states with "our neighbor to the north" to produce the new nation of the United States of Canada, edging and topping a broad red plain dubbed Jesusland.

Maps tell stories, which is more or less the starting point for Peter Turchi's meditations on the manifold relationship of maps and mapmaking with books and writing. Turchi teaches writing and he knows the literature that tends to interest writers. But non-writers can profit by his ruminations as well, especially readers looking for ways to consider revered authors who work in less conventionally naturalistic forms.

In a way, this book confounds the Gregory Bateson dictim that the map is not the territory. In this case, the map is quite a journey. For example, Turchi notes that in Arctic Dreams, a book by Barry Lopez, there is a map of the Alaska coast drawn by a Native American fisherman. "The product of years of mental mapmaking, the map shows the coast as seen from above---that is, it offers a view the fisherman had never seen---yet the map is extraordinarily accurate." The map is a mental construct, based on experience of the senses. This suggests what the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, noted about reading the great Argentine writer, Jose Luis Borges: that while much of 20th century writing attempts to express the chaotic flow of existence, Borges represents another tendency (which Calvino would himself explore) of imposing a mental order---"a rigorous geometry"--- on that chaos. This leads Turchi to a consideration of Borges, Nabokov, and the games of Risk, Monopoly and chess, ending this relatively brief section with an analysis of Roadrunner cartoons.

Besides the fine and lively prose, there are wonderful maps and other well-chosen illustrations. Physically this is an unusually handsome book, with comfortably thick and well-bound pages, and an attractive typeface and layout. It even feels good and well-balanced in the hand. These are not minor virtues, especially when combined with this text. For this is a book to savor, to explore, to hold and to keep.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Man of Steel, Men of Tomorrow Posted by Hello
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book
By Gerard Jones
Basic Books, 320 pages, $26.

Gerald Jones, himself a sometimes comic book and superhero screenwriter, describes the real origins of Superman and other superheroes in the gritty urban streets of the 1930s. In this mostly chronological narrative, we follow high school collaborators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman and the superheroes who reemerged in recent years to dominate the box office.

Jones also profiles Bob Kane of Batman fame (portrayed as a less than admirable figure) and Stan Lee, impresario of the Marvel superheroes, like Spider-Man and the Hulk.

But this is not a gee-whiz comic book portrayal, or a series of personality profiles. This is rich cultural history brought to life. By following these characters, readers will learn as much about Prohibition and the Depression, and what it was like for immigrants scrapping to make it in the teeming cities. Perhaps among the surprises is the involvement of gangsters in the success of the crime-fighting superheroes.

Jones shows how the superheroes established the comic book in American culture, as a kind of combination of several genres: the daily newspaper comic strips (so popular and important in immigrant life---as well as a way that they learned English), and the similarly popular crime and science fiction pulp magazines.

This book's publicity calls it "A real-life Kavalier and Clay." I read it just after reading that Michael Chabon novel, and though this non-fiction book is mostly about a different era, it also tells an engrossing story very well. I was also impressed by the author's care in telling what is known, what is generally believed but doesn't quite check out, and what is still speculation.