Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Armed with a Broken Heart

Singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston doesn't exactly flood the market with releases of new material, and Neon Repairman, just out, is only his second CD of new songs since 2001. Like many of his peers among major-label refugees (or even minor-label refugees), he's more or less on his own these days; this CD was issued by Singing Magnet Records, which I suspect means that he put it out himself.

There are pluses and minuses to going it alone, but at this point in the evolution of the pop music industry a lot of talented people don't have much choice. Happily, this is a fine CD, one that can comfortably be set beside records like Can You Fly and This Perfect World that Freedy made in the 1990s when it was still possible for someone like him to get promotion and airplay. Freedy continues to tour and I hope at least a few people get a chance to hear this one.

As melodic and jaunty as Freedy's songwriting is, I doubt he's ever been accused of sugarcoating things, and this record is no exception. In addition to drug dealers, waitresses, and damaged war veterans, his characters run the gamut from the ordinary lovelorn to the borderline creepy. The gentlest song on Neon Repairman is sung in the character of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and even that one looks back to "that hole in the ground we lived in during the war." Not that Freedy has cornered the market on dark material, but there are few songwriters who can combine romanticism, down-and-out grit, and human sympathy quite this successfully. Plus he just flat-out knows how to compose a pop song.

Neon Repairman is available from CD Baby (which has audio samples), and presumably at Freedy's gigs. You could do worse.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Odd, off, oft, old.

The artist and printmaker Annie Bissett has discovered this wonderful bit of found poetry, which she has posted on her Tumblr blog. Adapted from Thomas Dilworth's A New Guide to the English Tongue, an oft-reprinted 18th-century schoolbook, it reproduces part of a table of "Words of Three Letters, viz. One Vowel and two Consonants."

Although it may not be immediately apparent, there is a logical order to the table. It is alphabetized first by last letter, then by central vowel, and finally by first letter. The first word in the table (which actually begins at the bottom of the unshown preceding page) is Dab, and it is followed by Web. Bib fib nib rib. and so on until it reaches Box sox. It then begins again with words that don't fit the consonant-vowel-consonant spelling pattern: The. Who. Cry dry fly etc. (although Two., in the second paragraph, would seem to belong further down). The words in parentheses appear to be ones whose vowel is pronounced differently from those of the rest of their respective groups. The book uses the old-style ſ for initial s.

But knowing how the table is constructed is much less fun than simply reading it (especially aloud), enjoying the music of English speech sounds, and reflecting on the strangeness of human language. It may remind us that these everyday words, the essential building blocks of English, are, in the end, just arbitrary signs, ones that would mean nothing, or perhaps different things, to someone who knew nothing of the language.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring list

I've been too busy of late to write anything substantial but not, happily, too busy to read. These three books have very little in common other than the fact that they were published either this year or last, and that I liked them enough to buy a copy. I've reached a point where adding to my library isn't always advisable, if only in terms of shelf space, and so I've been trying to rely on the public library system for run-of-the-mill reading matter (electronic books not being to my taste). These books are exceptions.

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk is a beautifully written book about training a goshawk named Mabel, about coping with grief, and also about the writer T. H. White, who is best known for his Arthurian fiction but who also composed an account of his own ill-fated attempt to raise a similar hawk. Macdonald's book has been a surprise bestseller both in her native UK, where it was released last year by Jonathan Cape, and now in the US, where it is published by Grove Press, and it has won several awards. For once, all the attention is amply justified; Macdonald is a fine writer, able to deftly capture both her hawk's flights around the English countryside and her own emotional turmoil. Inevitably, there is a movie deal, but although H is for Hawk might make a fine film, nothing, I suspect, can substitute for the pleasures and integrity of Macdonald's prose.

Terhi Ekebom's Logbook, on the other hand, has almost no prose at all. It's a tiny illustrated chapbook published in Latvia (though what text there is is in English). Grief is also the subject here, although the details are as mysterious as the atmosphere. Two women — it's hard to say if they are adolescents or adults — inhabit a house in the middle of the sea where they tend to a bedridden male figure who is menaced by an expanding darkness. Their only temporary defense against its spread are the light-releasing spheres of a marine plant that float up to the surface. Logbook is available from kuš! komiksi for $6 including postage worldwide.

Finally, for some time I've been following Tom Miller's excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan, which is dedicated to the architecture and histories of Manhattan buildings and monuments, but I've had to admit to some frustration because there was simply too much of interest there to comfortably digest online. Fortunately, a selection of entries has been published in a reader-friendly and nicely illustrated compact format by Universe (Rizzoli) in the US and Pimpernel Press in the UK. Though the book includes a few internationally renowned buildings (the Flatiron Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral), most of the structures it covers, like the Village's Pepperpot Inn and the melancholy General Slocum Memorial Fountain, are easily overlooked, and Miller's enthusiastic dedication to their stories is admirable. Let's hope there will be sequels to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

More Japanese Gothic

Satori Ediciones in Spain has published its second collection of translations into Spanish of the Japanese writer Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939), following in the wake of El santo del monte Koya, which I discussed here last year.

As with the previous volume, all of the stories (there are four) are fantastic in manner and draw on the long tradition of Japanese supernatural literature and lore. The title story is available in English (as "Of A Dragon in the Deep") but the edition is difficult to obtain and I haven't seen it; the longest of the tales, "El fantasma que esconde las cejas" (The Ghost Who Hid Her Eyebrows) has been translated by Charles Shirō Inouye and can be found in a volume entitled In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyōka, published by the University of Hawai'i Press. As far as I know the other two tales are not available in English.

Kyoka was a fascinating but sometimes difficult writer, who made of use of what Charles Inouye calls "an eccentric, highly convoluted narrative method that precluded his participation in the more mainstream attempt to accomplish an objective description of an exterior world and a psychologically depicted realm of an interior one." "His narratives," Inouye continues, "neither maintain a consistently stable and omniscient point of view nor do they present time as a steady flow of logically connected events that are contained in the past." Writing at a time when many of his contemporaries were embracing the conventions of the Western realistic and psychological novel, Kyoka held to his own way.

Two of the stories in Sobre el dragón del abismo describe the encounters of children with a unpredictable but not necessarily hostile supernatural world; the third, "La historia de los tres ciegos" (The Story of the three Blind People) is classic horror tale of the perils that lie in wait for those who trangress. The last narrative, "El fantasma que esconde las cejas," is a ghost story so many-layered (and impossible to summarize here) that Inouye includes a diagram in his edition to help visualize its intricately nested levels.

I've now read this final story twice in English and twice in Spanish, gaining insight into it with each reading, but I wouldn't pretend to have mastered it. Because of the richness of cultural allusions in Kyoka's tales, as well as the inherent difficulties of translating from Japanese into a European language, it's interesting to compare the two translations, Spanish and English. Since I know no Japanese, I naturally can't comment on their relative accuracy, but while they're generally complementary (and mutually clarifying) there are numerous passages that show fairly radical differences in interpretation. Below is just one sample passage; what follows is 1) Alejandro Morales Rama's Spanish-language text; 2) my rough English translation of the Spanish into English; and finally 3) Inouye's version:
1) Las montañas y el cielo estaban tan nítidos que parecía que los estuviese viendo a través de una capa de hielo. Los brillantes rayos del sol hacían que las agujas de los pinos y los árboles secos resplandecieran. Al mismo tiempo se veía volando una figura de un blanco cegador y en las profundides de la montána, donde el oso vive alejado de los hombres, la nieve se había tornado en una ventisca punzante como agujas.

2) The mountains and the sky were so clear that it seemed as if one were seeing them through a covering of ice. The brilliant rays of the sun made the needles of the pines and the dry trees shine. At the same time, a figure of blinding white was seen flying, and in the depths of the mountain, where the bear lives apart from men, the snow had turned into a blizzard as sharp as needles.

3) The mountains and sky became clear as ice. While the sun sparkled brilliantly in the pines and other wintering trees, something white began to fall from the sky. In the deep mountains, where bears stood on their rear legs like human beings, the snow came down like needles.
Inouye's "wintering trees" is a nice touch, but I don't much like "rear legs" (rather than "hind"). What's interesting, though, is the very different ways in which the reference to the bear or bears is understood. Whatever the truth of its accuracy, Rama's donde el oso vive alejado de los hombres (where the bear lives apart from men) is a beautiful lyrical touch, suggesting a fundamental if estranged kinship between the two species. Reading the two translations side-by-side provides an unstable but rewarding reading of an intricate masterwork of modern Japanese literature.

Notes for a commonplace book (13)

Charles Shirō Inouye:

"The fixed point of view of the realistic painter finds its analogue in the omniscient perspective of the authoritative author. More than merely a scribbler, the modern novelist tells true stories from a privileged point of view, and from a similarly fixed point in time (usually the present as explained by the past). An author’s claims to truthfulness rest largely on such a consistent, objective point of view, as if that view were an integral, ordering part of the reproducible world that flows from it. Its very stability generates robustness as a true and principled source of truth; and its generality produces realism’s utility as a nondistorting understanding of reality that allows us to describe the world as similarly recognizable and understandable to everyone…

"Such a perspectival system includes both the objectively true exterior (realism) and the subjectively true interior (psychology) because everything, including the invisible realm, must be accounted for… In the modern period, history becomes the acceptable and plausible truth, while fiction, with its ability to delve impossibly into the emotions and thoughts of people, becomes the acceptable and plausible lie (or the imagined that is nevertheless true).

"In other words, realistic truth makes fiction necessary… Fiction derives compellingly from a central contradiction of modernity … that only by surrendering oneself to a rational and atomizing system does one gain individual identity and the ability to think and act for (and by) oneself. Paradoxically, in order to be an individuated member of such a society, we must assume a point of view that everyone shares; thus, the fundamental irony implied in the notion of subjectivity, where the subject is supposedly both a follower (a loyal subject) and an acting agent (someone with subjectivity or the will to act independently) and where the status of subjectivity is, on the one hand, praised as being emotionally true and, on the other, degraded as a lack of (objective) truth. The modern novel attempts to make sense of this paradox — this surrendering as empowerment — by raising the possibility of a true subjectivity, that is, fiction, within a larger context of objective truth."

From an essay on Izumi Kyōka's "A Quiet Obsession," from In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyōka, University of Hawai'i Press.

The cure

This may be my favorite photograph ever: via Bibliodyssey (Tumblr), an image from a Sotheby's auction lot of glass negatives by Samuel Bourne, Nicholas & Co., P. Klier, and others, grouped as "Photographs of Darjeeling, Madras, and Burma." Click through the image for the full effect.

I have no doubt that were this image to be enlarged and mandatorily posted on the walls of every kindergarten classroom, the salutary effects on future generations would be immeasurable.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Re-envisioning Japan

This merits a look: Re-envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th-Century Visual and Material Culture, a new "interactive archive and research project" created by Joanne Bernardi, associate professor at the University of Rochester, is now online. From a quick glance it looks like there's plenty of good stuff there, including a section devoted to the Japan Tourist Library, about which I've blogged previously. Lots of postcards too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


"One day we walked out, a little party of three, to Albano, fourteen miles distant; possessed by a great desire to go there by the ancient Appian way, long since ruined and overgrown. We started at half-past seven in the morning, and within an hour or so were out upon the open Campagna. For twelve miles we went climbing on, over an unbroken succession of mounds, and heaps, and hills, of ruin. Tombs and temples, overthrown and prostrate; small fragments of columns, friezes, pediments; great blocks of granite and marble; mouldering arches, grass-grown and decayed; ruin enough to build a spacious city from; lay strewn about us. Sometimes, loose walls, built up from these fragments by the shepherds, came across our path; sometimes, a ditch between two mounds of broken stones, obstructed our progress; sometimes, the fragments themselves, rolling from beneath our feet, made it a toilsome matter to advance; but it was always ruin. Now, we tracked a piece of the old road, above the ground; now traced it, underneath a grassy covering, as if that were its grave; but all the way was ruin. In the distance, ruined aqueducts went stalking on their giant course along the plain; and every breath of wind that swept towards us, stirred early flowers and grasses, springing up, spontaneously, on miles of ruin. The unseen larks above us, who alone disturbed the awful silence, had their nests in ruin; and the fierce herdsmen, clad in sheepskins, who now and then scowled out upon us from their sleeping nooks, were housed in ruin. The aspect of the desolate Campagna in one direction, where it was most level, reminded me of an American prairie; but what is the solitude of a region where men have never dwelt, to that of a Desert, where a mighty race have left their footprints in the earth from which they have vanished; where the resting-places of their Dead, have fallen like their Dead; and the broken hour-glass of Time is but a heap of idle dust! Returning, by the road, at sunset! and looking, from the distance, on the course we had taken in the morning, I almost feel (as I had felt when I first saw it, at that hour) as if the sun would never rise again, but looked its last, that night, upon a ruined world."

Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy
Image above: Rodolfo Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Land of the Free

Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

When Charles Dickens made his first visit to the United States in 1842, he found much to admire as well as much to deplore. Foremost among the latter (in addition to the widespread practice of tobacco chewing and spitting, which disgusted him) was the institution of slavery, which he condemned vehemently and categorically, devoting an entire chapter of American Notes for General Circulation to the topic. Much of that chapter consists of a list of runaway slave advertisements like the one quoted above, notices that were made all the more harrowing by the fact that the ardent defenders of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness who placed them made careful note of the brandings, ear-clippings, and other mutilations that could serve to identify their escaped "property." Dickens invented nothing here; the advertisements were copied, almost verbatim (and without attribution), from a volume entitled American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, compiled by Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké, which scrupulously recorded the sources of the advertisements. Thanks to Weld and the Grimkés, and to The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project, we know that the epitome of Southern chivalry responsible for this particular notice was one Micajah Ricks of Nash County, North Carolina, and that the advertisement appeared in the North Carolina Standard on July 18, 1838.

In recent weeks the legislatures of at least two states (Oklahoma and Georgia) have passed measures opposing the curriculum of the Advanced Placement course in U. S. History, on the grounds that it offers, in the words of one critic of the course, "a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters." Perhaps those lawmakers need to dust off their Dickens?