Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Peking Man

The best writing sends you down random rabbit holes toward other great writing. Such was the case with a 1940 play by Cao Yu entitled Peking Man, which I first read about almost a year ago in Sergio Pitol's The Magician of Vienna, translated by George Henson. In all, Pitol writes less than a page about Cao:
I also saw the dramas of Cao Yu, celebrated since the 30s, with the reputation of a mischievous child, a perennial nonconformist, and I saw one of his plays, Thunderstorm ...  set totally in China, not in the nineteenth but the twentieth century, and not in a hamlet but rather in an urban setting. On one occasion, I don't recall who invited me, perhaps a devotee of the theater, or an Italian translator who was spending periods of time in Peking, to see another work by Cao Yu, Peking Man, which was produced in a modest hall of the conservatory of dramatic art (65). 
Pitol calls it "the best of all the plays I was able to see" during his stay in China. His final assessment of Peking Man: "the most intense, the most modest, and the most poignant" (66).

Well, that was enough for me to want to read it.

I studied theater/drama as an undergraduate and continued to act while in graduate school for the MA. Something else I studied as an undergrad was Russian literature, which, of course, consisted of a unit on the plays of Anton Chekhov. I've been a fan of Chekhov since then, and I try to catch as many productions of his work as I can still to this day. For the past several months I've also been a Contributing Theater Writer for a local online performing arts journal, so not only is theater something I was already interested in, but Pitol's recommendation meant that my education would've been in vain if I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to find a copy. Thankfully, my library owns Leslie Nai-Kwai Lo's 1986 translation.

Cao reminds me of Chekhov: the intimacy of the unsaid, the family, and its fortune, collapsing in on itself as the world becomes smaller, more narrow, until even the illusions of love are abandoned. More remarkable is that Cao wrote this play during the Japanese occupation with not the slightest mention of those events. Instead, there are piercing details about the sky, the weather, the passing of the seasons and the clouds overhead, the posture of a caged pigeon, and the sound of a noodle vendor pushing his one-wheeled cart down the nearby alleys.

The patriarch's coffin, lacquered layer by layer over the past fifteen years, had the same force, the same impact, the same cogency, as the whale in Moby-Dick. And like that whale, it shatters everything in its path.

I know reading scripts isn't for everyone, but I highly recommend trying to catch a performance of this play, in whatever language you can understand, if an opportunity presents itself, particularly if you're a fan of Chekhov or Ibsen. And as always, everyone should read Pitol.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

For this Memorial Day, instead of visiting the grave of my Uncle Frank, who was killed in Vietnam three days before his twentieth birthday, or of my grandfather, whose body was still expelling shrapnel from WWII on his deathbed in 2006, I visited Great-Great-Grandpa Arnold’s grave.

Hiram Arnold (Great-Great-Grandfather)
Hiram Arnold came to Texas from Ohio in his early twenties. When he was 23 he married Thirza Birchfield. After losing their first child, twins were born in 1861: Jefferson Davis Arnold and John Baylor Arnold.

(If you're not familiar with Confederate leaders or the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America; John Baylor was a US Indian agent, publisher and editor, politician, a senior officer of the Confederate States Army (CSA), and all-around piece of human garbage keen on murder and genocide. Thankfully, we don't have many more lackluster namesakes in our family.)

When I was researching this branch of my family I found someone online who had speculated that Hiram must have been a die-hard Confederate since he named his sons after Davis and Baylor. That assumption is simplistic at best. It’s not as if he owned a plantation and slaves.

It’s far more likely that Hiram, because of his well-documented poverty, had been working alongside slaves in the cotton fields of Texas. It’s also likely he fought against family members and childhood friends who served in the Union from his home state of Ohio, where his parents and siblings are buried. I think poverty and being a newly-arrived settler in the South are sorely under-analyzed dimensions in understanding the race ideology of the Confederacy.

The following year, in 1862, Hiram enlisted in the CSA. He served in Company I, 30th Texas Cavalry for about two years, then served with Company A, 29th Texas Cavalry until the end of the War. He fought in the Battle of Mansfield and the Battle of Pleasant Hill, both in Louisiana, under Major General John G. Walker's command. His company surrendered at Galveston in June of 1865 at the close of the War.

In 1881, when he was 45, my Great-Grandma Thirza Garrett, née Arnold, was born. My family used to visit her at the old folks home on weekends after we moved back to east Texas. She always had one of those giant, thick two-pound peppermint sticks that us kids could chip off pieces of. She died when I was 6. Hers is the first funeral I remember.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned about her father Hiram. I’m still amazed that I knew someone whose father fought in the Civil War, albeit on the losing side.

In January 1911, at the age of 73, Hiram applied for and was granted a Confederate Pension. On his application, he listed a handful of blacksmith tools in a country shop as his only assets. As attested by the county judge, he lived in his shop and did his own cooking, "with no property other than his tools." He died of stomach cancer in 1917 at the age of 80.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Babushka's Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps is an eloquent travel memoir that also manages to do the heavy lifting required by great historical writing. Though German-born and typically Ireland-based, author Marcel Krueger is currently carrying out the duties of writer-in-residence in Olsztyn, Poland. You can follow his blog in German and in English.

Published by I.B. Tauris in 2018, Babushka's Journey is a welcome addition to the better known histories of trauma of the twentieth century, filling a niche that most World War II and Gulag narratives barely mention: the fate of East Prussian women during the final days of the war.

Krueger beautifully narrates both the story of his grandmother Cilly and her rural childhood that was interrupted when the Soviet army advanced into the region in January 1945 as well as of his own present-day attempt to trace her journey east, through Poland and on to Yekaterinburg, where she worked in various POW labor camps in the region until October 1949.

He brings fresh insight into what it meant to be a German POW in Stalin's Soviet Union by not only conducting archival research and interviewing primary sources but also through recreating the diet that his grandmother would have eaten in the camps and the physiological toll such a diet will take on the human body. He captures both the bleak winter of 1945 and the stifling summer heat of Eastern Europe during his own travels.

Babushka's Journey raises the standard of historical research and how that research can serve as the basis to a compelling and memorable narrative.


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Thursday, May 16, 2019

In Memory of Little Beasts

I'm devastated, and I've been bawling my eyes out for days now. I went to bed Friday evening sure that my little family was safe and well, only to lose my little boy in the night. He wasn't ill. Despite being deaf, he was probably the fittest cat I've ever known. But he died early Saturday morning, just weeks shy from his eighth birthday/anniversary, and now my home is filled with tears where a little white deaf cat once lived.

I'm angry that the remaining four to eight years I fully expected to have with him were taken from me. I'm angry that he died in distress with no warning. And that I was unable to do anything to help. I loved him with all my heart, and yet I still know I didn't deserve the love he offered me.

Rest in peace, my fearless Stupid Baby. I'll never forget you.

Bosko P. Carmichael, June 29, 2011 - May 11, 2019

Bosko's Tumblr can be found at https://iambosko.tumblr.com/, if you want to see almost eight years of cat photos.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Lifeless Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' Lou Reed: A Life is perhaps the worst nonfiction rock-and-roll book I've read, and I've read Marianne Faithfull's (though much more likely, David Dalton's) Faithfull: An Autobiography. Despite being a longtime reader and subscriber in high school and college, I've never really been much of a fan of the Rolling Stone school of rock journalism. Lou Reed disappoints in all the familiar ways.

Instead of ever getting close enough or real enough with its subject, DeCurtis frustratingly sticks to Lou Reed the image. So much of the writing deals only with the image that the person, the artist, comes across as one dimensional, lifeless, and not very interesting at all. Not so much “a life,” as the subtitle boasts, after all.

One chapter on childhood, which is never a good sign, that is little more than listing the schools he attended and the friends he spent time with. Another chapter on college. Then the predictable and boring organization of one chapter per album, per project. And in these chapters, so much of the writing concerns the laziest deployment of hermeneutics and the least interesting literature reviews, in which he cites other (mostly Rolling Stone) critics.

One would imagine that someone with a PhD in literature could do more than conflate every reference to a father in Reed’s lyrics to Reed’s specific father as if Reed would or could ever simply transcribe his family history in order to make an album. After making such uncritical claims, DeCurtis then goes on to assert that “Reed’s poetic license” affords him the ability to use and define words as he sees fit. This weird, naive back and forth when it comes to interpreting song lyrics drove me fucking crazy, particularly since so little of it offered any real insight into Reed's actual writing process.

Another of DeCurtis' hermeneutic hangups is his spending so much space on surface analysis of album covers. None of this ever gets at anything behind the surly attitude and ambivalent image of  Lou Reed.

And these criticisms aren't even about the book's greatest flaw, which is the chapter titled "This Gender Business"—the most transphobic, and by extension, homophobic and transmisogynistic writing in what purports to be serious journalism by a serious press I've ever read. I get that language and acceptance of transgenderism has dramatically changed since the 1970s, and that the horrible quotes from the press (including Rolling Stone, of course) might be necessary in order to properly contextualize Reed and Rachel's relationship, but DeCurtis was still referring to that relationship as “the sexual underworld” in 2017. (He refers to Reed's subsequent relationship with a cisgender woman as a “new heteronormative love.") Interviewing others (Erin Clermont, who comes across as a total cunt, for example) to speculate about the details of Reed and Rachel's sex life is tacky at best. Though I suspect that I'll be pissed off about this book for years to come, I haven't yet mentioned its most damning failing: Rachel is referred to as a "transsexual [sic] male [sic]." It seems that the publisher Little Brown does not employ editors or basic fact checkers even though several were specifically named in the Acknowledgments. For fuck's sake!

The best biographies get close to the people they're about, so much so that you can begin to see the world through their eyes. This book never goes beyond how the image of Lou Reed appeared to the writer himself. Fans of Lou Reed the person: don't waste your time. It reads as if written by a narc.

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You can read my Eulogy for Lou Reed here.