i sought out and first read COMANDANTE: HUGO CHAVEZ'S VENEZUELA (PENGUIN, 2013) by GUARDIAN journalist RORY CARROLL shortly after learning i would be teaching in VENEZUELA while still a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in ALBANIA. it was an intriguing historical moment because by the time i arrived in august of 2013, former president HUGO CHAVEZ had only been dead for a least 6 months. over the next two years i bore witness to a country in sharp economic decline.
more like free fall.
i lived in MATURIN in the east where most of the oil fields are. as an oil brat that grew up in NIGERIA an KUWAIT, i have some familiarity with the sometimes complicated nature of AMERICAN industry in foreign countries. CHAVEZ of course famously nationalized their oil industry and largely banished most oil companies from their reserves. this was seen domestically as a powerful move but crippled their prospects longterm as outside advice regarding technical expertise was now abandoned. when the price of oil dipped during my tenure out there, the effects were quick and painful and VENEZUELA has yet to rebound. in fact they are still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is largely the result of such shortsighted policies.
but how did he come to rule? the book presents CHAVEZ as a figure whose power was seen in his braggadocious, confident demeanor, his military background and especially the fact that he was the very physical embodiment of the underclass of VENEZUELAN society, having originated in the rural LLANOS region. VENZUELA, much like the rest of SOUTH AMERICA, has a population that has its origins in EUROPEAN, NATIVE and AFRICAN bloodlines. this being the result of SPANISH conquest in the new world (PORTUGUESE with obvious respect to BRASIL). cultural, religious and linguistic traditions of the continent are profoundly influenced by centuries of EUROPEAN colonization, so unfortunately one carryover is preference for all things EUROPEAN. the experience of watching television in VENEZUELA is where you would be hard pressed to identify people of non-EUROPEAN descent shown in beauty pageants, soap operas, game shows or even news broadcasts. like many others in the region (COLOMBIA, BRASIL, etc.), the media is effectively white-washed. much like BARACK OBAMA (although diametrically dissimilar in terms of their politics), the power of CHAVEZ is in part inseparable from his being the physical embodiment of the unprivileged and underrepresented classes in society.
reading this book i became aware of the narrative of his rise to power, which includes his imprisonment, election, attempted coup and reinstatement. i also grew to be aware of how he structured his public persona and cult of personality that still survives today. in essence he hitched his own to that of a tailored fiction surrounding that of SIMON BOLIVAR, by promoting one he promoted the other. CHAVEZ also create a new layer of bureaucracy between himself and powerful regional governors, whom he could scold and fire at will on his own television show ALO PRESIDENTE ("HELLO, MR. PRESIDENT"). in many ways he was like TRUMP before TRUMP. in essence this added layer of bureaucracy (more democracy!) allowed him to secure a buffer from any and all political fallout that resulted from his disastrous policies.
luckily, i made friends that allowed me to stay in CARACAS and visit many of the landmarks mentioned in this book. in this sense it was infinitely helpful in giving me an understanding of the political climate and recent history i was now entering. where i thought it lacked was in how uncritical CARROLL presents the regime at times. maybe that is an unfair critique, but after living there and witnessing the toll bore on the people of VENEZUELA (whom i found generous, vivacious, energetic, resourceful, selfless and beautiful) in the wake of his death makes me most likely not the most objective observer in that respect.
when my father was in middle school he was tasked with completing a book report. my grandmother suggested THE GOOD EARTH (JOHN DAY COMPANY, 1931) by PEARL S. BUCK. a short time after submitting his paper, the nun who taught his class made a startling announcement to the class, "somebody in this room has read a damned book." all the children looked around at each other. my dad's name was called and he explained that it was his mother's suggestion. in true catholic school fashion they werent hearing any of it.
makes me wonder how people dont see the combination of the words "catholic" and "school" together as both oxymoronic. but that is a discussion for another time.
the reason the church had a problem with THE GOOD EARTH was its depiction of concubines and extramarital relations which was a part of traditional CHINESE culture, especially with regards to those men who were succesful in gaining economic and political power. and the root of said power was the earth.
when i read this book the first time years ago i was taken by its presentation of rural agrarian life in pre-revolution CHINA and how it was the women that who provided the uncelebrated labor and silent toil of the land that undergirded all claims to ascendent regional influence. it was them that provided value. the book showed how they were used as a resource, much like the land itself. in fact, it is the work of a woman, O-LAN, that provides the resources for the master of her house to purchase a concubine, LOTUS FLOWER. to western sensibilities it is highly reprehensible but this was commonplace in traditional CHINESE life.
the book also presents an idea of femininity that is problematic. O-LAN is considered undesirable due to her rough features and unbound feet, which contrasts directly with LOTUS FLOWER's delicate features and bound feet. to be feminine is to be submissive and vulnerable in this context. it is interesting that they are both trapped, just at opposite ends of a rigid structure of oppression.
reminds me of my time in ALBANIA when you would see these gorgeous women from the villages surrounding major cities making their way into the city center via public transportation. i learned during my time there that these women were undesirable because of a key feature: their hands. because they worked the fields and did manual labor their hands had developed callouses and the skin in their hands was rough, evidence of their hard work. every single time this was pointed out to me by an ALBANIAN colleague i would tell that they were insane. but that was the culture. men grew long nails on their pinky finger to signal the fact that they did not do manual labor as a status symbol.
reminds me of THE GOOD EARTH in the sense that those who provide actual value by harnessing a connection to the earth, are in turn less valued themselves. having a sense of distance from the land is in this model a desired outcome, a false claim of a supposed supremacy over nature.
that is not just the world of traditional CHINESE agrarian life, that is our modern world today. considering this book makes me thing of where our value really lies as a society. is it defined by our relationship with nature or our separation from such?
just a thought.
BOOK REVIEW | "LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF A RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN" BY YVON CHOUINARD
so im taking a course at the moment on SUPPLY CHAIN management and recently there was a focus in the text about how corporations have a decision matrix that includes shareholders, specifically the wider societal and environmental impact of their operations. LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN (PENGUIN, 2005) written by PATAGONIA founder YVON CHOUNINARD basically calls bullshit on that whole notion. he makes his position very clear that corporations were originally created and continually maintained to limit the liability of their actions on a finite global ecosystem. by definition their objective and reason for being is to create efficiencies within the SUPPLY CHAIN, PRODUCTION and DISTRIBUTION of products and maximize profit. full stop.
anything else is just marketing and corporate propaganda.
which brings me to this interesting book about the history, philosophy and multi-pronged environmental efforts of the privately-owned benefit corporation PATAGONIA, INC and its multi-pronged in-house subsidiaries that produce everything from food, clothing to even surf boards. a cynic could argue that this book is a clever piece of propaganda aimed at convincing customers of the moral superiority of the PATAGONIA brand and its environmental efforts, which could justify the relatively high price of their products. for the record when i was a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in the bitterly cold northern mountainous region of ALBANIA bordering KOSOVO, i brought with me both shell jacket and a micro-puff jacket by the company that kept me warm. so if i have a bias, there it is. thats all i own by them and i still have both years later.
but as company propaganda goes, this book is really less a hagiography of the founder and his company and more a manual about how to go about innovating a business in a way that makes business sense. to me that is the core of this book and its intent. if anything, CHOUNINARD is attempting to proselytize future entrepreneur's to consider the real cost of their company and consider how to make them more environmentally sustainable. the example provided repeatedly throughout this book (which comprehensively goes over everything from their company philosophy on PRODUCT DESIGN and PRODUCTION to DISTRIBUTION, MARKETING, HUMAN RESOURCING and MANAGEMENT among other topics) is the risky switch the company made to organic content in the mid 1990s. sourcing this material was more costly to the company and required more intensive labor on behalf of the farmers, but those initial costs proved profitable long term and exerted less strain on the environment (turns out not using all those industrial chemicals and pesticides makes the soil more healthy and more productive, who knew?). CHOUNINARD claims that the cost of innovating his SUPPLY CHAIN in the short term was immense but was a sound business decision long term, even if the consumer 1) didn't notice the switch and 2) according to marketing research didn't care.
my takeaway from this book is that there is a hidden cost to SUPPLY CHAIN decisions that most companies, especially corporations working at scale, dont consider in part because they are not forced to. their goal is to be profitable. everything else is a externality. unfortunately this cycle of production and mindless consumerism as a means of insuring perpetual economic growth is a fantasy.
worse yet it is suicide.
CHOUNINARD doesnt claim to have all the answers. his company pollutes and creates waste, but the culture he created is fighting the good fight from the inside. it is attempting to setup the infrastructure to reduce waste by sourcing materials responsibly, seeking better work environments (including on-site child care), creating empowering specialized programs for workers of foreign mills and factories and instituting policies such as allowing customers to return long-worn products for repair. the list goes on.
probably most celebrated is their 1% FOR THE PLANET commitment whereby they pledged 1% of total sales to preservation and restoration of the environment. this is done through contributions to small local advocacy groups, not institutionalized groups and foundations which large overhead. they have committed nearly $90 million over the course of the company's history.
even if you are a cynic, that type of putting your money where your mouth is makes you take notice and they are encouraging others to make a stand and joing the effort. so in essence this book is not CHOUNINARD celebrating his efforts, it is him providing context and concrete strategies for his competitors to do the same. which is innately honorable. so kudos for him
i just dont think corporate AMERICA is going to change. ever. the efforts and contents of this book is outside their mindset. outside their interest. we are a planet of finite resources and they will suck it dry like the vampires they are. we are all doomed.
for all its posturing, METAL is a pretty conservative genre. i remember going to OZZFEST more than 20 years ago in 1999 and first witnessing not just live METAL bands, but the crowds they drew. im not gonna lie, it was all pretty intimidating as a teenager. there was this bullshit macho culture that informed nearly every aspect of the concert experience from how the bands reacted with the crowd and the crowd to one another. to date my least favorite aspect of METAL in general is the whole misogynist "show us your tits" culture that thankfully is starting to die out. i remember when walking around the venue how uninviting this event must have felt towards 1) women 2) gay men and 3) all rational humans.
obviously the almighty ROB HALFORD of BRITISH NWOBHM legends JUDAS PRIEST is the most famous homosexual in METAL history (that we know of). his memoir CONFESS (HACHETTE, 2020) is his recounting of his journey from the ENGLISH BLACK COUNTRY to becoming the preeminent METAL GOD that he has been for more than five decades. arguably only BLACK SABBATH and METALLICA have been as institutionally well-regarded and celebrated in METAL as JUDAS PRIEST. which makes his coming out as a HOMOSEXUAL that much more courageous, especially given the widespread conservatism elements within the METAL community.
that journey is described in detail and centers around HALFORD feeling entrapped by his SEXUALITY for a good portion of his adult life. for me it is that sense of repression, claustrophobia and inability to fully express oneself for fear of retribution, both against oneself and those he cares about (i.e. family and his band), that serves as the crux of this memoir and makes it very unique. what is interesting is how once he outed himself during an MTV interview, his family and fans (for the most part) all stood by and accepted him. JUDAS PRIEST had known for years and were always a steadfast in their support of one another. perhaps my initial reservations about the METAL community back in 1999 were wrong, maybe not.
another aspect i really appreciated about this memoir was HALFORD's personal touch as a wrier, routinely utilizing BRUMMIE dialect and turns-of-phrase which gave the language a decidedly BLACK COUNTRY flavor. it is obvious 1) that he wrote this memoir and 2) his pride in his background as someone from the WEST MIDLANDS in ENGLAND, much like predecessors in BLACK SABBATH. oftentimes when artists utilize ghost writers the writing takes on a more formal tone that often doesn't gel with the public persona of the artist. the fact that HALFORD unapologetically gushes about decidedly un-METAL subjects like CILLA BLACK, MADONNA, QUEEN ELIZABETH II or even LADY GAGA makes this book feel all the more personal, which i enjoyed. the only downside to such was that certain episodes in his life were brought up and then summarily passed over quickly, as if there was a checklist of events to get through.
i understand that as a gay man, HALFORD wanted to stay away from wading too deep in cliches such as the misery and depth of pain associated with the gay community during the 1980s when conservative governments lead by RONALD REAGAN and MARGARET THATCHER largely ignored the AIDS epidemic. this topic of self-hatred brought on by an unempathetic culture surrounding LGBTQIA issues has been fodder for plays, films and tv shows for decades now. i also understand he didn't want to delve into politics, consistently mentioning that he wasnt political by nature. unfortunately his identity as a gay man made him political and not by choice. for me that was a missed opportunity. i would have loved to learn his feelings about such but i understand and respect his decision not to delve into that topic.
all in all this was a very enjoyable memoir from a singular artist with a unique background that hopefully moving forward will become less so. one can only hope that the METAL community, like all aspects of society, progresses towards a more inclusive and empathetic ideal. one where people dont care about one's ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and so on.
honestly, when i hear ROB HALFORD sing, i just think of how brutal JUDAS PRIEST are and how badass they sound, like freight train of unadulterated METAL. in JUDAS PRIEST i hear the twin guitar onslaughts of SLAYER, LAMB OF GOD and early METALLICA as well as the gymnastic vocals of DEVIN TOWNSEND and PERRY FARRELL. his sexuality never really comes into view, although now undoubtedly i'll never hear "JAWBREAKER" the same way again. cant believe i didnt see that one in retrospect, ive definitely got another thing coming.
photo by nacrowe
LOVE IN VAIN: ROBERT JOHNSON 1911-1938 (FABER & FABER, 2016) is lovingly constructed graphic novel depicting the basic narrative of doomed legendary DELTA BLUES artist ROBERT JOHNSON from the perspective of the DEVIL.
in terms of narrative there seems to be a heavy focus on the sheer physicality of the era, especially with evocative visual depictions of the thankless task of laboring in the cotton fields and carousing in the juke joints. you get a sense of how far outside of society JOHNSON was for pursuing a career in music that was unsanctioned by the BLACK BAPTIST CHURCH. you also get a feel for how all modes of escapism, whether they were musical, sexual or chemical in nature, where all just diversions from the harsh draconian reality that was being an AFRICAN AMERICAN in the JIM CROW, post-reconstruction deep south.
as with all types of narrative telling, choices are made regarding the subject that reflect more on the author/artist than the subject perhaps. this is true in the case of LOVE IN VAIN which was created by R. CRUMB acolyte MEZZO and finds interest in the extremity of the subject matter. in my mind, what i find more interesting about JOHNSON and his art are the ways that his upbringing and background informed his art. how they contextualized his lyrics. how those lyrics and that sound connected with generations of artists.
the devil at the crossroads gimmick is overblown in my opinion. it also is highly misrepresented as conversing with god in order to gain insight or wisdom is a hallmark of the WEST AFRICAN storytelling and oral history tradition than anything else. what gets perpetuated in well-meaning texts like this is the idea of a man who deserved to die for his talent, which is bullshit. the man was poisoned by a jilted husband of woman he was pursuing. shit happens. he messed with the wrong guy and due to his status as a societal outside, JOHNSON was left for dead without a doctor. his death was inevitable or a sign of anything.
i was a little let down that the narrator was the devil, even if he questioned the motives of several characters in the process (which is a bit of a head-scratcher when the lord of darkness finds you a bit duplicitous). seemed exploring WEST AFRICAN culture of HOODOO beliefs would have been more interesting, but hey the pictures are amazing.
for all the earned notoriety of its infamous film adaptation, CHUCK PALAHNIUK's novel FIGHT CLUB (WW NORTON, 1996) compellingly deconstructs MASCULINITY in a pre-internet consumer culture society. its an interesting thing that this narrative (and this author) gets a bad rap for glamorizing bro culture, because in my mind this novel and of all its savage pugilism (and the MASOCHISM that follows suit) is a primal scream against the confines of masculinity that is defined by how much money you can produce and how much bullshit you can consume. underground boxing and secret societies (and DOMESTIC TERRORISM) are almost team building exercises in this novel for a masculine identity devoid of an essence separate from commerce.
given the rise of the national TRUMP cult and the craven behavior of REPUBLICAN leaders beholden to a fiendishly loyal MAGA crowd, who themselves are, by and large, uneducated white men effectively rendered impotent in today's economy, the echoes of the themes presented in this book arguably more salient now then they ever were before.
so fighting in this novel is not really about fighting. my understanding is that it is paradoxically about connection. it is about establishing a sense of agency, control over your surroundings. even the physical damage taken in these brawls is a choice, an outcome decided by the individual alone. not a corporation or manipulative marketing or even an editorial board. fighting in this sense is used as a means of establishing one's INTRINSIC VALUE in a consumer culture that dismisses such. IMMANUEL KANT introduced the world to the idea of the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE, in which leaders have a moral obligation to recognize the INTRINSIC VALUE of their subjects and not treat them as a means to an end. obviously the plot of this book (which i wont recount as it is common knowledge at this point given the film) is a NIHILISTIC fantasy about a reaction to the our new corporate overlords in a pre-internet world.
its interesting to think how 1) close our current world is to that presented here and 2) how further along we are in terms of the current SURVEILLANCE CAPITALIST state that has enabled our ability to be individually manipulated at scale beyond what PALAHNIUK could have imagined back during the 1990s.
MASCULINITY here is badly, damaged and rendered impotent. it makes sense that MASOCHISM and SELF-DESTRUCTION serve as a pathetic response that ironically asserts the agency of the individual. nothing bro about that.
no doubt there was a healthy bit of mischief involved when NBA coaching legend PHIL JACKSON (or the publisher) decided to entitle his book regarding leadership philosophy ELEVEN RINGS: THE SOUL OF SUCCESS (PENGUIN, 2014). its funny because ironically the championship hardware was never the point of his process, more just the fortunate outcome of a successful realigning of egos within his massively talented set of rosters over the years.
and i think that point is missed in the greater discussion of JACKSON. sure, he had transcendent stars like MICHAEL JORDAN and KOBE BRYANT along with supreme talents such as SCOTTIE PIPPEN, SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, DENNIS RODMAN, PAU GASOL and others. but BASKETBALL is a team sport and the focus of this book is how JACKSON went about creating a team that played like a cohesive tribe and not an assemblage of players. his unique gift was the ability to model and communicate an authentic sense of compassion and empathy upon his players, who in turn doted such on their fellow teammates. this provided a foundational mindset that helped establish in both CHICAGO and LOS ANGELES dynasties built upon a shared sense of common purpose and interdependence.
raised in a strict pentecostal household in NORTH DAKOTA by two parents who were fervent ministers, JACKSON shed the religiosity aspects of his upbringing but not the curiosity to explore alternative spiritual practices, rituals and ideas including that of BUDDHIST and NATIVE AMERICAN traditions. this would prove instrumental in his leadership approach.
the culture around the NBA is pretty good analogue for AMERICAN culture in general in that there is an intense, out-of-proportion celebration of the individual with lip-service allocated to more essential notions of group collaboration or teamwork. you can see this in the insatiable appetite for gossip and clickbait within our digital culture and a total utter dearth of basic understanding of notions of civic duty and responsibility. maybe it is a generational thing, but the emphasis in the NBA, much like in the broader culture since the 1980s has been squarely on me as opposed to we. i would argue that this focus on group dynamics seems very in keeping with the mission of his parents, albeit to secular ends.
his method is less about the techniques and more about the mindset he was trying to engender in his players. that mindset was transforming them into a selfless, ego-less whole who used the fluidity of the TRIANGLE OFFENSE to suss out weaknesses in the their opponents defense and exploit it as a single entity. he was attempting to get them to play as a single unit, not a collection of players seeking to increase their stats (and thus future paydays). it is an approach that is antithetical to the marketing and popular influence of the NBA. JORDAN is celebrated for his individual achievements and records, as seen in his ubiquitous endorsement deals, movies, apparel, documentaries that still hold a firm grip on the AMERICAN psyche nearly two decades later, but his real achievement was one of self-sacrifice to the team concept. not just him, all his teammates tirelessly focused on improving weaknesses in their team identity at the expense of satiating those of the sycophants (agents, fans, partners, family, etc) that no doubt had their ear at the time. the fact that JORDAN recognized the structural benefit of self-sacrifice and playing with intention not ego is a testament to his greatness as a competitor, ironically.
by submitting the wants of their individual egos to the collective needs of the team, the CHICAGO BULLS as well as the LAKERS succeeded in winning multiple titles under JACKSON. this success, again, is not the focus of the book. instead the very BUDDHIST notion of being present and controlling your thoughts and actions now in this moment is the key to success. winning is just an outcome, but being able to appreciate the fluidity of life and not being caught up in the disappointments of the past or anticipatory anxiety about the future frees one to be present and be truly awake and able to tackle problems as they arise in the present. and BASKETBALL is nothing but a set of problems arising that need to be settled within a group construct. a group synchronized with a sense of intention to adapt effectively as a cohesive unit. compelling stuff.
what is also interesting is how this book ends. JACKSON accepts a job with the NEW YORK KNICKS as president of BASKETBALL operations with the goal of transforming the culture along the precepts outlined in this book. of course with hindsight this endeavor was destined to be a failure as owner JAMES DOLAN has no appetite for a cultural shift and his entire operation is the very embodiment of futility, nepotism and everything that is wrong with AMERICAN culture and capitalism writ large. but it was worth a shot. if anyone could pull it off it was JACKSON.
CLIMATE CRISIS AND THE GLOBAL GREEN NEW DEAL (VERSO, 2020) finds noted progressive economist ROBERT POLLIN of UMASS AMHERST and legendary linguist and originator of modern cognitive science NOAM CHOMSKY of MIT tackling the complex and heady question of pursuing how to go about pressing for an international agreement regarding the ongoing CLIMATE CRISIS.
the essential problem is that inherently capitalist objectives are not aligned with the survival of the environment and its life systems. capitalism is about generating profit and providing value to their shareholders. end stop.
in the UNITED STATES the entire political structure, including both parties, adhere to a religion of NEOLIBERALISM that advocates unadulterated faith in the markets and the flawed idea that markets should replace government as the rule setter of economic activity. this is beyond problematic as the markets are not unbiased agents. all problems, or externalities in business parlance, that result formtheir flawed profit-seeking logic will be dealt, as believed by NEOLIBERALS, with the gusto, ingenuity and innovation. the concern now is that a market correction is not on the radar for most companies, who have a profit incentive to downplay and promote a culture of CLIMATE DENIALISM. it gets worse.
this culture is most obviously seen in the REPUBLICAN PARTY post-NEWT GINGRICH who have advocated for obstructionist policies regarding policies that would limit the economies ability to continue exploiting nature unabated and diminishing life in the process. it may sound like an alarmist fever dream, but consensus regarding CLIMATE SCIENCE by the scientific community is nearly unanimous. even among right-wing political parties worldwide, the REPUBLICAN PARTY is an outlier, with their domestic policies largely being shaped by private energy interests like the KOCH BROTHERS since their infiltration in the 1980s. the power of this constituency is bearing fruit currently and is the reason for AMERICAN intransigence in global attempts at addressing this issue.
in the UNITED STATES there is this concept that until recently has not been challenged of the enduring moral superiority of CAPITALISM over other systems, forgetting entirely that our economy has been driven over the course of our history by SLAVERY, COAL and OIL. all three are ethically problematic and have set into motion what is likely to be a world environment degraded and desecrated for future inhabitants. and the base reason for such is the profit principle.
it all seems so sad and pathetic really.
this book is rather wonky and a bit dense. it very much feels like reading a lecture chaired by two knowledge academics who are not dumbing down the conversation. this is very much how the book is structured, with moderator C.J. POLYCHRONIOU asking questions and each taking turns expounding on such. for me this book helps solidify my knowledge of current efforts to combat the CLIMATE CRISIS through advocating new power structures through renewed commitments to organized labor and other grassroots advocacy organizations worldwide aimed at being a voice for sanity in this discussion, which is essentially being sidelined by AMERICAN objectives, both political and economic. for the sake of the world these groups need to flourish and gain influence for further negotiations. otherwise the prognosis is toxic.
much like THE SIXTH EXTINCTION (review linked HERE) by ELIZABETH KOLBERT, this conversation regarding the CLIMATE CRISIS and human attempts at addressing such are dizzyingly complex and soul crushingly depressing given its scale. but it is a necessary conversation worth having.
this calamity just feels inevitable. to me personally at least.
great book that presents a discussion that i by no means did justice to. this is a book most definitely worth reading.
as the de facto face of BUDDHISM in the west's modern imagination, it is quite remarkable how little is known about TENZIN GYATSO himself (i.e. HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA) as well as the religious institution he represents, not to mention the history of his home country of TIBET, from which he has been in exiled from in INDIA since 1959. BRITISH author and former newspaper journalist ALEXANDER NORMAN makes a significant contribution with his recent biography THE DALAI LAMA: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE (HMH BOOKS, 2020) to address these three gaps in the current popular understanding of this seemingly ubiquitous yet mercurial global public figure.
i just want to say first off that the breadth and depth of this book was really compelling. it is quite the accomplishment to relay the complex and oftentimes esoteric of TIBETAN BUDDHISM in a manner that makes sense to a layperson, never-mind connecting such religious understandings in framework that gives context and clarity to the spiritual underpinnings that affected his political decisions in the temporal realm.
given that TIBET was relatively isolated given its geography, yet ironically ideally located along the SILK ROAD trading routes that connected EURASIA, there developed an evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM that was relatively cloistered from outside influence. for centuries this was of little concern, but TENZIN GYATSO's previous incarnation in THUBEN GYATSO, the THIRTEEN DALAI LAMA, who correctly surmised that modern industrialization of surrounding nations posed an existential threat to the continuation of their government for which he led. in may ways this was the circumstance that marked the era of HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA with the rise of COMMUNIST CHINA. NORMAN eloquently explains that:
"here was a man who, faced with almost unbearable responsibility from a young age and forced to confront a world for which he had been completely unprepared, nevertheless remained faithful to the spiritual tradition in which he had been raised."
dealing with the CHINESE invasion and subsequent eradication of all signs of TIBETAN culture within its borders was his greatest political challenge, from which he largely failed. it also transformed the TIBETAN identity in the process. previous divisions regarding differing schools and sects within TIBETAN BUDDHISM where largely consolidated under his leadership in exile in INDIA, where he is still currently living. the transmission and scholarly analysis of TIBETAN culture and the attendant BUDDHIST DOCTRINES of TIBETAN BUDDHISM is a priority now for further generations. as is the promotion of democracy, for which he stepped down and relinquished all claims to political leadership in 2011.
HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA is one of those few religious leaders that seems fully engaged with the outside world, fully willing to integrated a complex ethics system within a modern framework centered around modern scientific principles. As NORMAN explains, "the Dalai Lama is fully committed to introducing the natural sciences not only into the ordinary school curriculum but into the monastic curriculum as well." this is a revolution in their way of life, but in his estimation, as well as that of his predecessor, it is long overdue.
the value of this book is that it really gives a full scope to his achievements and follies, in other words for s man that is routined praised and even deified in the press (of which he actually is given that he is a manifestation of the BODHISATTVA of compassion, AVALOKITESVARA), NORMAN presents him as a humble servant, living a mendicant existence promoting compassion and empathy to a global audience.
NORMAN writes with clarity and eloquence and this book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, even when it dealt with the complex minutiae of TIBETAN BUDDHIST doctrine. i recommend it to anyone interested in modern ASIAN history or the evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM. there is so much to talk about with this book that I could press on and attempt to address, but bottom line: this is a must-read.
i only saw LOU REED perform once. it was at IRVING PLAZA and he was a guest of CAMP FREDDY, which was essentially a PERRY FARRELL-less JANE'S ADDICTION that did cover songs with the actual musicians that wrote them. he performed "VENUS IN FURS" and "THE BLUE MASK." what i remember most was his lack of interaction with the small audience, deadpan cadence and quirky syllabic stresses that seemed to avoid the original melody. it was as if he wasn't prisoner to his own song.
and to me that is the essence of the guy, he was an original that wasn't concerned with anyone's judgement or expectations except his own. and it is that intransigent temperament that is displayed throughout the narrative of his life and career in ANTHONY DECURTIS' excellent biography LOU REED: A LIFE (LITTLE BROWN & CO, 2017).
REED is portrayed as a hyper-literate contrarian and cultural iconoclast. it is this proclivity for both knowledge and rebellion that leads him to innovate and expand, first with THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and later his solo career, the breadth and tone of the lyrical content we now take for granted within modern music. his work has influence every major movement afterwards, including PUNK, INDIE ROCK, HIP HOP, INDUSTRIAL MUSIC, GLAM ROCK, ALTERNATIVE ROCK and beyond. it is also this stubborn, crusty, misanthropic worldview that limited the success of his career in purely financial-terms, unable to take advantage of waves, fearing being pigeon-holed. his life was completely on his terms for better or worse.
this idea of his erudite yet exceedingly aggressive personality DECURTIS presents an interesting frame by which to refocus our understanding of the LOU REED the artist and his relationship to LOU REED the man. on one hand it enabled him to be a distant observer, as many of his songs are presentations of extreme events and people (with some poetic license) presented plainly without resorting to any sense of bias or sentimentality. he is seen as VIRGIL giving us a tour of hell to our collective DANTE. he isn't passing judgement, just making us aware of the true nature of our surroundings. in doing such he expanded the landscape and lexicon of the medium of modern music. his contribution is largely literary in nature, presenting his audience with a world filled with drugs, sex and quote unquote deviant behavior of all stripes sans judgement.
reading this book you really got a sense of the toll the man took spiritually, physically, emotionally and psychically throughout his life. there is an unsettling thread of violence and abusive behavior throughout his life, both physical and emotional in nature especially with regard to past partners. in many ways he was a bit of a vampire in how he used and discarded people he found no use for anymore, despite their previous intimacy. this is especially true of his more virulent behavior in the 1970s when he was at his drugged-out peak. you get the sense that his later years were more about coming to terms with such baggage.
it is hard summing up REED because he is very much still with us in the attitudes and approaches of uncompromising artists. he is an archetype at this point. i think where DECURTIS really triumphs in this book is the detail from which brought out how fragile, insecure and bitterly human LOU REED actually was. and how such vulnerability and openness to the true span of human experience (consciousness, sexuality, identity, etc.) was the source of his strength.
great book i would recommend to anyone interested in art, music or literature.
note: this book is also a great source to learn about REED's relationships to past inspirations, mentors and collaborators such as DELMORE SCHWARTZ, ANDY WARHOL, HUBERT SELBY JR, JOHN RECHY, JOHN CALE, DAVID BOWIE, MICK RONSON, BOB EZRIN, ROBERT QUINE, JOHN ZORN, ROBERT WILSON and VACLEV HAVEL among many others.
BOOK REVIEW | "THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: THE KLU KLUX KLAN OF THE 1920s AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION" BY LINDA GORDON
this book is concerned with the resurgence of the KLU KLUX KLAN in the 1920s, not to be confused with the original iteration which itself was a response to the emancipation of slaves by order of then-president ABRAHAM LINCOLN. that organization petered out in influence during the RECONSTRUCTION period after successfully economically and legally limiting the new rights afforded the newly freed black slaves in the AMERICAN SOUTH.
what i would consider the most shocking insight of NYU history professor LINDA GORDON's book THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: THE KLU KLUX KLAN OF THE 1920s AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (LIVERIGHT, 2018) is how mainstream this second iteration proved to be at the time. during that period a plurality of AMERICANS seemingly shared or sympathized with their extreme nativist, right-wing populist dogma that promoted an anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan and anti-scientific belief system, not to mention the explicit call for the subjugation and ouster of JEWS and CATHOLICS.
its hard to believe but the KLU KLUX KLAN did not stand out in the least. they were very much consider just another male social club like your average local ELKS, LIONS or ROTARY club. they even made a point when entering a new area to seek out FREEMASONS to join their ranks. apparently this even included future president HARRY S TRUMAN who "joined when he though it was 'just' a patriotic group." in terms of its political sway in the 1920s, the KLAN had in its ranks two SUPREME COURT justices (HUGO BLACK and EDWARD DOUGLASS WHITE), "eleven of the thirteen men elected to the US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES" in INDIANA as well as "the majority of TEXAS and COLORADO congressmen." They also helped flex their political muscle by "electing governors in INDIANA, OKLAHOMA, OREGON, COLORADO and TEXAS."
reading this book is very much like witnessing an OBAMA-era TEA PARTY convention or a present-day TRUMP rally. indeed that is probably the point. echos of SARAH PALIN populist assertions of promoting "real AMERICANS" can be seen in the KLAN's promotion of what they deemed to be "100% AMERICANS" (i.e. white PROTESTANTS). the amount of nativist and racist MISINFORMATION, PROPAGANDA spewed at the time initially had a hard time being countered due in part to the sympathies of the public at the time, as well as BRANDOLINI'S LAW which is basically that "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order or magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it." its a scenario that is even more relevant today than at any point in the past due to the sophistication of modern online communication and networking technologies.
ultimately internal corruption and hypocrisy destroyed the organization, which rose again in another iteration during the civil rights movement a generation later, but that is besides the point. the compelling nature of this book is the fact that our real national legacy is one of exclusion and violence. the culprits are numerous and plentiful make up a wide swath of AMERICAN religious, political and business leadership. for example, collusion by local "ministers struggling to keep their churches in repair, rarely refused to cooperate" with the KLAN as they offered funds and congregates. it is this type of corrosive and transactional dealmaking that insidiously made the KLAN part of the landscape of the period. their later economic boycotting of JEWISH and CATHOLIC stores and the building of political machines pushing for reduced immigration from non "NORDIC" countries (successfully i may add) worked because of how well they implanted themselves into AMERICAN daily life, especially in the MIDWEST, PLAINS and SOUTHWEST.
long story short, the methods and rhetoric used to ingratiate themselves with a sympathizing public in both tone and tenor is remarkably similar to that of the currently outgoing TRUMP ADMINISTRATION. maybe most startling of all is how much such doesnt shock me in the least. TRUMP is a truly horrendous person who like the KLU KLUX KLAN made visible an undercurrent of RACIST and NATIVIST attitudes and opinions that has always colored our political discourse from inception.
this book is pretty depressing but reveals quite a bit i didnt know about how mainstream and explicitly public HATE has been in our politics, even ironically outside of the KLU KLUX KLAN itself. such an environment only made their racist belief structures insidious by degree, which is beyond distressing. makes me pause to consider of what else we have shoved under the carpet, even today in a soon-to-be post-TRUMP AMERICA.
TOUCHING FROM A DISTANCE: IAN CURTIS & JOY DIVISION (FABER & FABER, 1995) by DEBORAH CURTIS is a unique memoir in that it tackles an uncommon subject in the world of music biographies: wives and family. maybe it is because the ethos of ROCK N ROLL is prone to promote a juvenile escapist fantasy that by design does not include more adult themes like responsibility, maturity and accountability. but whats interest is that partners like DEBORAH CURTIS, widow of IAN CURTIS (frontman of MANCUNIAN POST-PUNKS legends JOY DIVISION), provide the support and sacrifice, both emotional and financial, to make such artistic fantasies a reality.
IAN CURTIS and the music of JOY DIVISION have resonated in the generations since their demise. IAN's suicide and his battles with epilepsy have colored his legacy with an aura of mystique and intrigue similar to that of KURT COBAIN, AMY WINEHOUSE, JIM MORRISON, JANIS JOPLIN, JIMI HENDRIX and the list goes on. it is a testament to her own sense of inner strength and personal conviction that DEBORAH does not placate to such vulgar myth-making when describing her relationship with her late husband.
instead what we get is a portrait of an uneven, volatile artist who to some extent was a coward, as he cruelly inflicted pain on those who loved him most as he was impotent to affect change on the real source of his problems outside the family circle. it should be said first that IAN and DEBORAH married very young, as they were both teenagers. as such they both entered a world of domesticity neither was ready for, especially IAN. this was apparent in his exceedingly controlling and manipulative behavior towards his wife. this included controlling with whom she could speak to (including male coworkers or former school friends), what she could wear, and denying her the ability to finish school. in essence he controlled her ability to be independent. IAN is also revealed to be a political conservative who made proclamations to friends that it was her duty as a wife to vote the same. apparently also he held racist views towards ASIANS and in particular recent immigrants from INDIAN subcontinent.
as for IAN himself, he was more of a social opportunist and his behavior in keeping with typical chauvinism of the period, as DEBORAH describes he "lived his life by a conflicting code that changed depending on who was there at the time and what he could gain from it." there is a particularly heartbreaking detail provided of when DEBORAH was visibly pregnant thusly shunned and dismissed by IAN and the crew at a show. apparently she wasn't worth their time despite the fact that it as her efforts that originally helped financially sustain the band early on. how quickly they forget. another telling but equally sad detail was the fact that IAN would keep a picture of his dog CANDY in his wallet, yet kept no such mementos of his wife or infant daughter. he was proud of the dog despite the fact that he did nothing to maintain its upkeep to the point that DEBORAH had to give it away due to lack of money for food.
i want to make clear that the tone of this biography is even and unemotional. this is not a tell-all book attempting to settle old scores, even with regards to IAN's BELGIAN mistress. where this memoir excels is in its ability to provide a more well-rounded portrait of a gifted yet supremely trouble artist. she gives credit and deep thanks to the band and crew who provided support and protection on the road to IAN during his epileptic episodes.
ultimately IAN's reasons for his self-destruction were entirely his own. he was a control freak who had no choice but to cede control of his body to seizures. he was conflicted about fame and was the least capable member to guard against those that sought to exploit him. he fantasized and fetishized death from a young age. it was his choice alone.
i found this book to be quite courageous, especially given the cult around IAN CURTIS that has perpetuated after his death to this day. this is her truth.
i should also mention that this book served as the basis for the excellent ANTON CORBIJN biopic CONTROL (BECKER FILMS, 2007) filmed and released a decade after this memoir's publication.
long before i taught in YOKOHAMA, i read THOUSAND CRANES (VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL, 1952) by YASUNARI KAWABATA sophomore year of high school. this was a post WORLD WAR II novel that deals with a culturally-sanctioned form of masculinity that is based on oppression and how one comes o terms within a new context with shifting power dynamics.
central to this book is the significance surrounding the rituals and choreography of the traditional JAPANESE tea ceremony. the delicate, controlled movements assigned to these performative proceedings and are a meditation unto themselves, elevating the presentation of what are consumables into a transcendent art form. this performance informs the viewer about the transient nature of experience and the transcendent sensual pleasures that are to be gained by focusing our attentions to the ever passing moment.
when i moved to JAPAN, it was KAWABATA's description of these tea ceremonies that provoked my interest in investigating other traditional pastimes like gardening and kabuki. the through-line with all of these activities is this BUDDHIST concept of SUNYATA, the nothingness of identity (anatman) and the basic concept that "all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature" (svabhava). MAHAYANA BUDDHISM asserts that our experience of ourselves and that of our surroundings are devoid of meaning, but that we should engage with such fully nonetheless. it is a very ineriguinging topic and something that comes up time and time again in my travels in ASIA when objects of seemingly insurmountable detail are produced as means of meditation. it is this concept that drives TIBETAN BUDDHIST monks to create impossibly ornate MANDALAS, only to be destroyed upon completion. life is impermanent and ever evolving and we are merely a transient moment in that evolution. the atoms in our body will eventually disperse and reorganize into other combinations, just as they did before our conception. our consciousness likewise is an emerging phenomena which will eventually dissipate and recede.
THOUSAND CRANES utilizes the tea ceremony as a means of describing the breakdown of JAPANESE masculinity and the social order underlaying it in a postwar period that was highly transformational. the degradation of this ceremony over time mirrors that of its subjects in the narrative. it is interesting metaphor, especially since the transient nature of experience is baked into it. will this sense of toxic masculinity pervade?
hard to tell. i wonder what KAWABATA would have made of modern KAWAII culture in JAPAN and the extent to which the following generations held firmly and passionately to quixotic notions of a youth culture that promised freedom from responsibility and control. seems the polar opposite of the tea ceremony which embodies and transmogrifies all the embedded cultural weight of generations into a ritual movement, a slight turn of the wrist as one delicately pours tea into a vessel.
this was an interesting one.
THE HEPATITIS BATHTUB AND OTHER STORIES (DA CAPO, 2016) by NOFX with JEFF ALULIS seems at heart to be a distant PUNK ROCK cousin of the similarly structured and similarly debauched legendary MOTLEY CRUE memoir THE DIRT (reviewed HERE). both spend the majority of their ink going on a bout drug addiction and various inventive forms of self abuse that saw a wake of emotional turmoil and human destruction in their wake.
call me a prude but tales of degradation, violence and selfish behavior in the extreme bores me. to me it just screams as a cry for attention and deep need for outside validation. in other words its very un-PUNK ROCK.
NOFX are the children of the LOS ANGELES HARDCORE scene in the 1980s when more aggressive bands from the SOUTH BAY and ORANGE COUNTY got involved and upped the violence quotient considerably. before that moment it was more of an inclusive art scene with eclectic musical approaches and a crowd that reflected such. NOFX is emblematic of a shift to a more streamlined, aggressive, less socially conscious brand of PUNK ROCK that decidedly had more to do with WHITE MALE AGGRESSION than the prior ethos of individuality, self-responsibility and empowering your community.
for me what made this book interesting were the times that NOFX shifted away from the sophomoric frat house routine they are renowned for and put their collective backbone into some type of cause. NOFX singer / main songwriter / bassist FAT MIKE put his name and independent record label FAT WRECK CHORDS as the muscle behind the PUNKVOTER website in order to get his fans out voting, specifically with the aim of getting GEORGE W. BUSH out of office. obviously it didn't work but that is the point, it marks FAT MIKE and the band as having an interesting in speaking truth to power and encouraging civic engagement and self-empowerment. in other words i'd argue the definition of PUNK ROCK.
another strain throughout FAT MIKE's narrative is his growing confidence to let his passion for fetishism and S&M to be expressed in his music more openly, not guarded behind the knowing wink of a joke. although originally introduced to us in the first few pages as a means of titillation and shock value, what transpires over the course of the story is how such for him is a means of identity with a correlating community supporting such endeavors. in a way, its as normal as a country club or a knitting circle, it is just another means at deriving a community and in a strange sense this book offers an insider's look at the appeal and benefits of such a non-mainstream community.
lastly i want to mention that for me the most compelling of the several individual narratives that made up each chapter (again, in similar fashion to THE DIRT), was that of NOFX drummer ERIK "SMELLY" SANDIN and his relationship with drugs. i feel that out of all the members, his story was the most depraved. the damage he did to himself and his surrounding community was insanely hardcore and fueled entirely by an intense sense of self-loathing rooted in a troubled childhood. the narcotics and the "friends" he picked up thereafter were just symptomatic of that need to belong. it sounds so simple, but his journey was one of discovery one's own self-worth, even through the haze of drug addiction. and he was a legendary degenerate junkie for that matter. COURTNEY LOVE referred to him as the worst junkie she'd ever seen due in part to his lack of ability to control his symptoms, puking and passing out with no regard for his surroundings. the idea that he can come out of that arguably present himself as one of the more responsible members of the band is a testament to his efforts.
i do want to also commend guitarist ERIC MELVIN for sharing his experience of being social abused as a child. its beyond courageous and should be celebrated as such. hopefully it will result in other victims feeling like there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
that being said, as a fan of NOFX, my only gripe with this book is about how little of this book dealt with the actual music. as a band that has highly referential lyrics to specific people and places, there were only a few nuggets thrown out there to clarify such. maybe that was a conscious decision but in my mind it was an unfortunate one. most of the material in this book is beyond cliche, especially with regard to ROCK AND ROLL memoirs in general.
if debauched behavior by ROCK AND ROLL bands is what you are voyeuristically seeking to learn about then THE DIRT is the way to go. if you are interested in learning about the 1980s HARDCORE scene or the 90s POP PUNK explosion there are several other books more insightful than this one.
i wasn't disappointed, just underwhelmed with this book. i think if the tone was a little more somber at points, as well as axing that ridiculous cover, the utter depravity and bleakness of its content would be a bit easier to swallow. instead i am left with being sure how they feel about their band history, which is confusing as a fan.
seek this book out only if you are a committed fan of the group. otherwise there are arguably better books on the subject of LOS ANGELES HARDCORE scene and its transitions to the 90s and beyond.
HENRY ROLLINS GET IN THE VAN (review linked HERE), KEITH MORRIS' MY DAMAGE (review linked HERE) BAD RELIGION's DO WHAT YOU WANT (review linked HERE) and JON DOE's UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN (review linked HERE) all immediately come to mind. LEXICON DEVIL, AMERICAN HARDCORE, WE GOT THE NEUTRON BOMB and WE'RE NOT HERE TO ENTERTAIN are good options as well.
there is an interiority to SABRINA (DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2018) by NICK DRNASO that i really appreciated. the idea that in an increasingly digital world where all of human experience is reduced down to images, sounds, words and videos emanating from a screen, that all of reality is really what we choose it to be. in essence our senses have been hijacked and our ability to trust our perceptions has been compromised.
SABRINA presents narrative surrounding the abduction and murder of a CHICAGO woman and how such gets played out online when the video of such goes viral. illustrated efficiently yet plainly with muted colors and faces with seemingly no emotion, this graphic novel ingeniously utilizes language as the locus of tension and action. language here serves to deliver these plainly depicted figures into a surreal psychodrama. in essence digital media has the transformative ability to make us all question our sense of identity and our relationship to each other. with relatives, friends and significant others thrown in the mix in the public square that is the internet, disinformation and false narratives are proposed and take hold in the collective consciousness, some forwarded by unsympathetic actors with personal agendas and others by professional journalists. it is all the same racket an loved ones of the deceased are merely products to be analyzed, investigated and questioned with contempt.
their humanity is compromised at the behest of public intrigue.
this book is less about a murder victim and more about the collateral damage that has befallen the families of tragedies such as SANDY HOOK who have been the target of disinformation campaigns by the likes of ALEX JONES and other nefarious conmen leeching off the body politic with their conspiracy theories under a false flag of patriotic fervor and the limits of free speech and personal freedom. funny how concepts such as civic duty, personal responsibility or even human decency enters the picture with these bloodsuckers. but they are just a symptom of our collective appetite for tragedy from which we all vicariously experience at a distance. we are all vampires feeding off each other.
SABRINA even depicts the extended circle of the victim engaging in this sort of behavior, checking out conspiratorial blogs and websites, listening to right wing news in an effort to make sense or draw order from the nihilistic notion that there is no meaning or lesson to draw from such a senseless act of violence. and for me that tension is the crux of this narrative and where DRNASO succeeds wildly in this subdued yet immensely affecting graphic novel. that very need to define what is undefinable rather than look truth in the face and realize that there is no greater intent or purpose for human suffering. anything else is a fabrication conceived out of existential pain. conspiracy theories, hope, religion are all symptoms of this nihilistic worldview. maybe the proliferation of information via the internet has only gotten us closer to that realization or distracted us from it with a renewed sense of creative abandon.
interesting book worth checking out.
as i've mentioned before at length, i used to live in KUWAIT, ALBANIA and NIGERIA. i have been to EGYPT, JORDAN and PALESTINE. i also attended a NEW ENGLAND boarding school that taught COMPARATIVE RELIGION as a core subject. so i have had some exposure to the precepts and culture surrounding ISLAM and the MUSLIM world in general.
but i knew i did not have a basic understanding of the history of the religion and its evolution over time, like i have gained over the years regarding CHRISTIANITY and BUDDHISM. i knew it was a gap in my knowledge.
NO GOD BUT GOD: THE ORIGINS, EVOLUTION AND FUTURE OF ISLAM (RANDOM HOUSE, 2005) by AMERICAN-IRANIAN religious scholar REZA ASLAN is thorough introduction to the often misunderstood history of ISLAM. originally published in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks, his book can be interpreted as an attempt at defining for a western audience what the faith is actually about.
for that matter the book provides a captivating summation of the life of the prophet, with asides taken during relevant moments in the narrative to both foreshadow later chapters as well as outline how interpretations have shifted over time. i am not a scholar on the subject so i wont go into detail, but what struck me was how revolutionary and progressive the original community in MEDINA was relative to my experience living in KUWAIT, which was a very culturally and socially conservative community. that distance is the story of the book, how the SOCIAL EGALITARIANISM of the original UMMAH (MUSLIM community) in MEDINA has shifted based on later innovations and scaffolding that were constructed by later community leaders seeking their own agenda. its a story that has more than a few parallels in the development of CHRISTIANITY.
after the description of the life of the prophet is complete, the next section dealt with the SUNNI, SHI'ITE and SUFI sects developed and diverged from each other with their own corresponding rituals, institutions and belief structures. again, i was aware that they existed but the history and the development of their rituals i was utterly naive about. in particular i was aware of the SUFI rituals found in parts of ALBANIA, specifically the southern city of BERAT, but was unaware of how these rituals were meant as a means of dissolving the ego to commune with God. in particular learning about the mysticism and experiential bent of the SUFI sect really opened my eyes to the diversity of thought and interpretation within the larger community.
attending a year of high school in KUWAIT the idea of religion seemed even like an even more draconian ideal than what i witnessed in CATHOLIC SCHOOL growing up in CALIFORNIA. there were in-country news reports of HONOR KILLINGS and the general abuse and exploitation of nameless workers from countries like NEPAL, INDONESIA, SRI LANKA, BANGLADESH and INDIA. it was beyond depressing to watch and experience and it is still something i grapple with. i always assumed that the political structure there was hopelessly corrupt and morally bankrupt and never associated such with the religion. greed is a god we can all agree on and the UNITED STATES is no stranger to such. our hands are not clean either. this book further reinforced that opinion.
the later chapters deal with how the MUSLIM community has dealt with COLONIALISM and modernity to date. its a complicated issue that ASLAN covers very efficiently and thoroughly and which i cannot due justice succinctly. what i can say is that the concept of nation states and the DAR-AL-ISLAM (community of believers) do not co-align perfectly to traditional precepts of MUSLIM identity. to which group does one's loyalty supersede: their religion or country? modernity has only further put into focus core issues regarding who defines and controls the faith. is it the scholars or the population that define what constitutes ISLAM? due to the democratization of the internet, this is still an evolving and highly dynamic issue. ASLAN argues that due to such transformative communication technology, we are very much living in the midst of a reformation right now. the traditional guardrails and institutions are being displaced by more tech savvy upstarts re-contextualizing and reinterpreting the QUARAN for a new generation. whether such moves forward or is caught up in back-currents with a counterreformation is to be determined.
and for me that is the big takeaway of NO GOD BUT GOD, that ISLAM is a dynamic faith with a diverse population of believers that are still in pursuit of a more perfect expression of that ideal MEDINA community fourteen hundred years ago. it is an ongoing dynamic and nothing about it is simple, which counters the western depiction of such that is unabashedly through the prism of colonialism.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book and will likely reference it for a long time coming. i am almost certain i will read this posting at a future moment and realize how much understanding i have gained in the meantime. i will be processing this information no doubt for some time coming.
much like listening to one of his classic songs from the 1960s heyday of CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, JOHN FOGERTY's memoir FORTUNATE SON (LITTLE BROWN AND COMPANY, 2015) has an authentic hand-made, earnest and straightforward fell to it that belies an attention to craft despite its relative unadorned, plainspoken nature. sometimes with legacy artists you wonder who their audience is given that they are reliving, and us through their words, their salad days. some are attempting to recast their career in a new critical light (cough, cough, PETE TOWNSEND) while others are explaining their life experiences and shedding light on those that paved the way (KEITH RICHARDS and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's memoirs are great examples of such). i would put this memoir in the later category, the music of FOGERTY is and integral part of the greater musical narrative of AMERICAN CULTURE and his greatness as a preeminent songwriter precedes itself.
and i wanted to get that legacy out of the way early in this entry. my biggest takeaway about FOGERTY from this book outside of a clearer appreciation for his suffering caused by being exploited by one of the most famously lopsided deals in music industry history, as well as the repeated betrayal of his bandmates (including his older brother TOM); outside of those things what comes across is his passion for the folk traditions of AMERICAN CULTURE. maybe that comes from growing up poor in a crowded divorced household in the NORTHERN CALIFORNIA nowheresville of EL CERRITO where images of DAVY CROCKETT and the old WILD WEST of the 1800s spurred an imagination prone to escapism. it may have come from film and TV serials and songs his mother would sing to him in early childhood or family lakeside trips when his parents were still together. for whatever reason that APPALACHIAN musical tradition (COUNTRY, HILLBILLY and FOLK MUSIC) had a profound influence on the themes and texture of the songs he wrote and performed in CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL and beyond. it goes without saying also that the cross-pollination of such with the BLUES that brought on GOSPEL-influenced DOO WOP and R&B and later early ROCKABILLY and ROCK N ROLL all found its way in the melting pot within his wild imagination.
the fact that he became part of that great tradition for him is one of the great joys of his career. an example of such is related when he speaks about the common misinterpretation of "there's a bad moon on the rise" line in the song "BAD MOON RISING" which has been repeatedly misidentified as "there's a bathroom on the right." he states that because it is so commonly heard that way for so many years that in concert at least half the time he uses the bathroom line. he's in on it and gets it and celebrates it. i found that beyond charming.
and for me this memoir is really about that passion for AMERICAN MUSICAL TRADITIONS. unfortunately the vehicle he used to gain notoriety had a TRAGIC HERO-esque flaw, he was surrounded by unscrupulous opportunists at his record label as well as within his own band. FOGERTY states matter-of-factly that the worst thing that ever happened to CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL was THE BEATLES, since everyone in the band thought could be in THE FAB FOUR.
there is this longstanding fantasy amongst audiences that bands are democracies. that each contribute to the total success of the bands creative output. this is the exception, not the rule. FOGERTY was CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL. he wrote the songs, largely oversaw the production of their records, even managed them. it was his singular focus, drive and creative ambition that made them a success. this created a dynamic where the others became jealous of his stature and reputation. and that was the downfall of the band and it had long-lasting consequences on FOGERTY in terms of his relationships, sobriety, and mental/physical well being. it took him years to get out of that ever expanding spiral of shit that seemed to consume and drag him under. the fact that his bandmates, long after their breakup, seemed willing to sell their soul to the record company that exploited them all just compounded the tragedy here. it was literally FOGERTY against them all.
i appreciate that FOGERTY wrote his memoir after he came to terms with record label and former bandmates. and by that i dont mean legally, but just in terms of their hold on his spiritual real estate. such was instead pushed aside by the efforts and unbridled love and loyalty of his second wife JULIE. it would almost sound corny to hear of their love story (with FOGERTY crying during an early date watching CINDERELLA with his wive's child from a previous marraige) if you didn't understand the level of loneliness and psychic detachment this man suffered. its all instead very touching.
i thought this was a very affecting memoir and really played the balance of well of focusing on the depth of his suffering while also showcasing the efforts of those who embraced him unconditionally and ultimately brought him around to see himself of being worthy of such love. i highly recommend this memoir to anyone interested in CLASSIC ROCK or 20th CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE in general.
also you really get a sense of the IAGO-lke depts of greed and inhumane depravity that is SAUL ZAENTZ and his immoral colluders at FANTASY RECORDS. may they be reviled evermore.
BOOK REVIEW | "COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURT" BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
our world is one that is obsessed with outcomes. profits. awards. medals. statistics. you understand.
legendary former UCLA basketball coach JOHN WOODEN had his share. he coached a record 10 NCAA championship teams (7 of which were in a row). for some perspective, the nearest rival to that record (MIKE KRZYZEWSKI of DUKE UNIVERSITY) has only has 5. WOODEN as a college player was a three time ALL-AMERICAN and later played professionally in the NBL (a predecessor to the modern NBA) some well that he was the first inductee into the NAISMITH BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME as both a player and a coach.
to this day he is routine heralded as the greatest coach in modern western sports. end stop.
but those accomplishments are not where his success lies, as lovingly argued by his former player, NBA legend KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR in his recent book COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURTE (GRAND CENTRAL, 2017) written several years after WOODEN's passing in 2010. for KAREEM, the success of his coach was in his ability to model an almost antiquated sense of morality, compassion and dignity through his actions and interactions with others.
that is not to say that this went without some friction, as KAREEM's playing days at UCLA were in the back half of the tumultuous 1960s, when the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT was in full swing. WOODEN was 37 years KAREEM's senior and was born and grew up a HOOSIER in southern INDIANA, intriguingly at the same time of the INDIANA variant of the KLU KLUX KLAN emerged. luckily his parents raised him to not buy into their racist views but that was part of the cultural milieu he was raised in. KAREEM mentions several times how this generational and cultural divide rendered WOODEN a bit naive regarding the realities of being BLACK in AMERICA. when confronted with such, it crushed and deeply wounded his sense of optimism in his fellow man. but it is to WOODEN's credit, as well as KAREEM's, that they had patience enough for each other to learn from one another and ultimately support each other as lifelong friends.
for me the essence of WOODEN's philosophy regarding team sports, as well as life in general, is the aim of "adapting to each circumstance to achieve the desired outcome - doing good." the game is an afterthought, instead the work and effort you put in and the relationships you develop are of sole value in this equation. and that example was his true impact on his players, not the winning streaks or banners in the rafters.
its a deeply personally and almost spiritual example to set. that of doing good. the KAREEM/WOODEN relationship transcends generational, racial and even religious lines, which is beyond interesting to learn about. i can only imagine what it was like for KAREEM to leave his native NYC a national sports figure as a teenager, especially during that period in AMERICAN history, and needing to lose himself in basketball. in finding a purpose in sports.
it seems that WOODEN allowed him to get outside of himself, find a deeper focus that was not entirely achievement based in nature. it was about developing an identity that was internally strengthened and self-affirmed rather than the result of transitory exterior praise. coach would tell him the futility of seeking outside validation since "if you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it's going to adversely affect the things over which you have control." there is no being better than others, there is only trying your best. and that has value.
later in life KAREEM found that "the process of trying my hardest was joyful [and] what happened afterward to the work, whether triumph or disaster, didnt matter as much." to me this type of philosophy would seem almost cliche and antiquated except for who is saying it. you would be hard pressed to find two individuals that have achieved more on the court than these two, and for them those successes are a distant concern to their own development as compassionate, open and helpful individuals. and all of this would ring hollow if WOODEN didn't walk this walk. even to those he argued and even got angry at in pressure moments, which KAREEM only recounts happening once. after cooling off he considered what was said by a player that called him out the night before in a flight of insubordinate passion, and he realized his player had a point. at the team breakfast he let everyone know to jaws dropped that he thought about what was said and agreed, and further appreciated having said player on his team. it was that type of accountability and self-discipline to self-assess and not let his passions overtake him that won over his players.
KAREEM states upon reflection of his relationship that his playing days "Coach was laying the foundation for lifelong lessons that I interpreted as merely practical information on how to become a better basketball player." this is telling because he wasn't pedantic or overbearing with his lessons. he was instead patient and led by example. as KAREEM sagely writes, it is important to "focus less on following the words and more on being the words."
i love this book not just because it is BASKETBALL, which since childhood has long been my RELIGION, but also just literary aspects of the book. WOODEN was a former ENGLISH teacher, so the fact that he apparently regularly tossed around verses from ROMANTIC POETS during intense practices makes my heart quiver. i also particularly enjoyed KAREEM's metaphor about JAZZ being a broader metaphor for basketball, something WOODEN agreed with when he asserted that "certainly doing anything well requires that first individuals master the fundamentals, then learn to react as a group without thinking about it." the idea that there is sense of play that comes out of preparation and a sense of loosing oneself in a group of individuals seems like as good a recipe as any for success in life.
i am not one for feeling positive about circumstances or mankind in general, especially given the political, economic, environmental, and especially racial problems our country has been dealing with in the past few years. but the idea that a friendship was born out of this odd couple at an equally fraught period in our history does give me pause. and secretly even a little optimistic.
i am continually amazed by how little i know about the history of my country. and i took and excelled in my AP US HISTORY class in high school. ask me about the native population in the UNITED STATES and i am clueless.
thus i was particularly motivated to read S.C. GWYNNE's intense EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: QUANAH PARKER AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE COMANCHES, THE MOST POWERFUL INDIAN TRIBE IN AMERICAN HISTORY (SCRIBNER, 2011), which as its title suggests explores the trajectory of the COMANCHES, but also serves as a reminder of our own sordid involvement in the tragedy that was the wholesale destruction of the PLAIN INDIANS in the late 19th century.
i want to say at the beginning that the sheer scope of this book is quite an achievement. the central narrative is that of a family, the PARKER CLAN, whose experiences over three generations serve brilliantly as a metaphor for the emerging friction and destructive convergence of two peoples, two cultures and two economies that would not and could not sustain itself. one had to give. by the time of their waining power in the 1870s, GWYNNE states that "the once glorious Comanches were really nothing more than a tiny population of overmatched and outgunned aboriginals who happened to occupy an absurdly large chunk of the nation's midsection." previously they served as an indomitable force along the plains that reached north to NEBRASKA and down well into MEXICO, which basically bisected the UNITED STATES. their presence stopped the onward advance of SPAIN, FRANCE, MEXICO, THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS and later the UNITED STATES to the extent that both tribes and regional governments sought to buffer their enemies into COMANCHERIA and face certain doom. the COMANCHES were a decentralized, militaristic people who dominated and terrorized the region, INDIAN and EUROPEAN alike.
the brutality and sheer carnage that they brought on their enemies is beyond description. the closest i've thing come across regarding the inventive means of torture of which they contrived and implemented was POL POT in CAMBODIA with his school-based facilities. such was the norm along the plains against rival tribes and encroaching settlers alike. the emerging pioneer populations effectively displaced the tribe, killing the buffalo herds they followed and effectively dismantled their society over time.
this book follows that trajectory, but the fact that they were such an impenetrable force of nature for nearly 200 years is incredible, or as GWYNNE puts it: "that they were able to do so in an era of steam engines, transcontinental railroads, nation-spanning telegraph lines, and armies capable of greater destruction than the world had ever witnessed, was inconceivable."
one of the greater gifts rendered in this book is a GWYNNE's ability to showcase both sides with empathy. you really get a sense of how both sides initially misconstrued the threat of their adversary. the figure of QUANAH PARKER, the last major COMANCHE war chief, whose mother CYNTHIA ANN PARKER was a captive of the aforementioned PARKER CLAN of influential TEXAS pioneers and later prominent statesman. CYNTHIA ANN was captured at twelve and effectively was raised a COMANCHE. when recaptured later in life she wanted desperately to go back to the plains. she died socially isolated and heartbroken at the loss of her family. her son was a brilliant and fearless war chief but ultimately was no match for a war machine headed by the brilliant RANALD S. MCKENZIE who adopted COMANCHE tactics in the field and had superior weapons and munitions as well as a never-ending supply train.
it was no match.
QUANAH ultimately died on his parcel of land in a reservation in OKLAHOMA, but made a go at living according to the ways of his captors. that he was able to do so successfully, looking out for the interests of his people (even when they were ignorant of these centralized bureaucratic systems themselves) while retaining a certain dignity is heartening to consider. you get the sense that in one lifetime he felt the full swing of history drop on his broad shoulders. he never stood a chance, which is largely the story of so many of his native brethren across the continent.
'progress' is a word people tend to throw around quite a bit, even today. it is utilized to justify past decisions and even manipulate future ambitions. for me this book is a comprehensive look at the cost of said progress.
i dont know the solution or right answer to this quandary. for me, that is what makes this such a compelling story. how much richer would our story be if these societies were still intact? is that even impossible or was this genocide and land-grab an inevitability?
this is a great book that corrects historical fabrications taught over the past few generations in TEXAS and is worthy of investigation by anyone interested in AMERICAN HISTORY.
its interesting to consider that all FORTUNE 500 companies began once as a startup. even a monolithic, globally dominant, seemingly omnipresent, iconic brand such as NIKE. as of 2020 the company is conservatively estimated to be worth $32 BILLION, but at one point it germinated as a "crazy idea" by STANFORD BUSINESS grad and former UNIVERSITY OF OREGON letterman long-distance runner PHIL KNIGHT. SHOE DOG (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2016) is his memoir and explains the uneven trajectory of NIKE from its inception to its public IPO in 1980.
at STANFORD a young KNIGHT developed a business plan for a self-described crazy idea of his that saw an opening for JAPAN to dominate the global footwear industry much as it had done with consumer electronics. this was due to heavy government subsidies that gave them an unmatched advantage in the global marketplace. KNIGHT thought that if he could become a stateside distributor for a major JAPANESE player than he could take on ADIDAS' dominance as the premier shoemaker. on a lark he went to JAPAN, having never traveled abroad and convinced ONITSUKA to let his "company" BLUE RIBBON SPORTS serve as a distributor. the name was made up on the spot during his meeting with them in KOBE.
long story short, KNIGHT and his assembled team of misfits did very well selling them stateside and built up their market over more than half a decade. this despite maxing out creditors and leveraging everything over and over again to promote growth. it was a slow rise with potentially deficits around the corner always set to sink the fledgling company.
at some point they had a suspicion and later learned that they were about to be cut out and replaced as ONITSUKA's distributor. the NIKE line of football cleats they initially made were meant as a hedging bet against losing ONITSUKA. the name NIKE, the SWOOSH and other legendary corporate iconography where made on the fly out of necessity in short order with no time to rethink such. that alone is quite stunning given how much image and the promotion of such thereof is synonymous with the brand. KNIGHT throughout the book consistently complains about advertising and doesnt see a need for it. again, just a staggeringly insightful comment given their famous brand identity and long-established mass market appeal promoted by one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time (its a real pity he doesnt get into how "JUST DO IT" came about, was looking forward to learning about that).
after lawsuits with various entities NIKE goes public and the next corporate phase begins. it is during that phase we have all the well known athlete tie-ins (MICHAEL JORDAN, TIGER WOODS, SERENA WILLIAMS, CRISTIANO RONALDO, KOBE BRYANT, MIA HAMM, ANDRE AGASSI, LEBRON JAMES, NEYMAR, SIMONE BILES, CARL LEWIS, KEVIN DURANT, JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, etc.) with the exception of running legend STEVE PREFONTAINE who was very much a part of the initial and identity of of the nascent company in its early development.
what i took from this memoir is the amount of continual sacrifice it takes to establish a viable company in a competitive field from scratch. learning about the early history of NIKE almost felt like the reading of a gambling addict, someone who routinely bet the house and survived. the perseverance and focus of KNIGHT is quite remarkable. i also learned that a brand identity can be far removed from the company itself, as few people in the early staff were able to run. in fact the major players, aside from KNIGHT, included the morbidly obese, chain smokers and even a paraplegic. what they shared was a vision and a faith in their leadership, a faith in KNIGHT that at times he did not share himself but willed himself through.
obviously there is the issue of outsourcing production to ASIA, specifically JAPAN then TAIWAN and later CHINA, which has dogged their corporate image over the years. KNIGHT does address such but through the lens of how the company has raised factory conditions from their previous levels of cleanliness and overall sanitariness. its a hard sell that i wasnt totally convinced of, partly having myself been to places like CAMBODIA where AMERICA companies employ textile factories that have subhuman working conditions. that argument falls on jaded ears im sorry to say.
my thought is that such is the limit of MARKET CAPITALISM, which beholds itself to the stockholder and the god of profit, not our better angels. despite how well intentioned his pronouncements of his familiarity with the precepts of BUDDHISM are throughout this memoir, it is as if he forget the basic tenet of RIGHT OCCUPATION. the idea being that it is a moral imperative to conduct work that does not cause others to suffer. just saying.
like i said before, this book is not the story of MICHAEL JORDAN or other famous endorsees of NIKE, it is about the early struggle of the company to survive. arguably that is a more interesting phase in the trajectory of its life as a firm. KNIGHT Is a gifted writer with many well-constructed running analogies for business concepts that i will remember and carry forward. if learning about what makes a company work and prosper and survive financial, political and competitive obstacles to flourish than this is a great book to consider. if you are interested in the history and evolution of footwear specifically, than this is probably not the book for you. the fact that they are selling shoes is largely inconsequential in the narrative presented outside of KNIGHT's appreciation for RUNNING and the similarities regarding the task-obsessed mentality of both an athlete and a business owner.
i thought it was a compelling story and look forward to seeing the film as it was recently optioned with participation from KNIGHT himself. should be an interesting biopic.