Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

R.I.P., Thomas Cahill

October 30, 2022

Ah, sure, an’ in what class of a donnybrook would ye be without us so?

The scholar and scribe Thomas Cahill has gone west. He was 82.

Cahill is perhaps best known for his book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.” (You’re welcome, by the way.)

It was to be the kickoff to a seven-part series about critical moments in Western European civilization, according to The New York Times; he wrote six before his death Oct. 18 in Manhattan.

In his introduction, Cahill argues:

“And yet … Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance or Enlightenment — in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture — had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature — everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed.”

Without “the Mission of the Irish Monks,” he continues, “the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one — a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”

By the end of “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Cahill seems to wonder whether the worlds of then and now are really all that different.

He writes:

“As we, the people of the First World, the Romans of the twentieth century, look out across our Earth, we see some signs for hope, many more for despair. …

“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics — or better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human is an equal child of God, and that God will provide.

“The twenty-first century, prophesized (André-Georges) Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved — forget about our civilization, which, as (St.) Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind” — if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

Double dumbstruck

September 11, 2022

Gassing up for the long commute.

“This heat’s not good for the brain. Turns out nothing much is good for the brain in the 2020s. TV rots it, the Internet turns it to jelly, the miserable climate bakes it, 90 percent of what we call ‘work’ is deliberately designed to actually erase the human brain; this has been proven. Podcasts: Now there’s a guaranteed way to reverse years of book-learning and social skills. There’s online gambling, TikTok … and then Queen Elizabeth II passed away and it was like a Bat-Signal in the sky to make everybody go extra double-dumb. … Only in Ireland did they seem to sort of be enjoying it all.” — Ken Layne, “Like a Hurricane,” Desert Oracle Radio

You said a mouthful, brother.

The news has been so relentlessly grotesque that I found myself double-dumbstruck, which is to say rendered speechless by astonishment while simultaneously catching a puck in the gob from a wildly flailing eejit.

The prospect of commenting on any of our ongoing Dumpster fires felt like pissing into the drinking water in Jackson, Mississippi — an enhancement, to be sure, but not a solution any sane person would swallow.

So I kept it zipped. Averted my eyes. Instead I watched the hummingbirds mobbing our feeders; the little buzzbombs will be leaving us shortly. Played with Miss Mia Sopaipilla, who remains extraordinarily kittenish for a 15-year-old cat. Rode the bike(s) — 130 miles last week, 140 this week.

With “Better Call Saul” in the rear view we branched out a bit in our evening TV-watching. I can recommend “Letterkenny,” (absurdly funny Canadians); “This Fool” (snarky South Central working-class vatos); “Belfast” (The Troubles through a child’s eyes); and “The Sandman,” derived, like “Watchmen,” from a high-gloss DC comic of which I had been ignorant.

• Honorable mention: “Funny Pages,” a bent coming-of-age story about a teenage cartoonist who gets an up-close-and-personal look at the subterranean bits of “underground comics.” Could be straight out of “Zap,” “Bijou,” or pretty much any other comic you read back when weed was still illegal. And yes, Your Humble Narrator recognized more than a few unsavory aspects of himself in this film.

What about literature, you ask? Check out a couple road-trippers on the ragged edge: the cabbie Lou in Lee Durkee’s “The Last Taxi Driver,” and the shaggy mercenary Will Bear in Dan Chaon’s “Sleepwalk.”

• Honorable mentions: “Night of the Living Rez” by Morgan Talty (his first book; dark tales of a Native community in Maine) and “Homesickness” by Colin Barrett (his second; darkly funny tales of the Irish at home and abroad).

If none of these diversions from the daily disaster does the trick for you, find a hummingbird to watch or a cat to play with.

R.I.P., Barbara Ehrenreich

September 2, 2022

She took what they were giving ’cause she was working for a living.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist, activist, and author who never lost touch with her working-class roots, has clocked out. She was 81.

Her New York Times obit draws from the introduction to “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” in which she recounts wondering with a magazine editor how the unskilled survive on the wages paid them and then blurting out something that she “had many opportunities to regret: ‘Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism — you know, go out there and try it for themselves.'”

Which is exactly what Ehrenreich did, of course, working and living as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing-home aide, and Walmart “associate,” among other things. Then she came back and told us all about it.

And though she would be writing it up, she wasn’t phoning it in:

People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.

She was not, and is not, alone. And in her Evaluation at the end of the book, Ehrenreich proposed that those of us who live in comfort while others barely scrape by should feel not just guilt, but shame.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.

What a gift was Ehrenreich’s life. Peace unto her, her family, friends, and readers.

Microdozing

July 12, 2022

“Like, wow. Like, bow wow.”

It could’ve been an acid flashback, or maybe a contact high.

But after getting pretty deeply into “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan, I started to have some truly bizarre dreams, especially in the morning, just before officially waking up.

My favorite so far: I was the new guy at some newspaper and an artsy bunch was trying to arrange coverage for some event. I was asking who, what, when, where, and why, and also whether the artsy bunch might be able to provide, like, y’know, some art, an’ shit, when an old hand snickered and nodded toward the photo department.

“I beg your pardon,” I told the artsy bunch. “I’m new here, and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes until I find out how big their feet are.”