Monday, April 19, 2021

BOOK BRIEF: The Colors of a Region’s History

Colours of the North: Reġjun Tramuntana, Malta’s Northern Region by Natalino Fenech. Reġjun Tramuntana, 2020. 216 pages.

 What do an archivist, baker, banner sewer, beekeeper, blacksmith, boxer, carpenter, cheesemaker, chicken farmer, cobbler, conservationist, engraver, fish-trap weaver, goldsmith, strawberry harvester, military historian, painter, potter, sacristan, sculptor, and vintner have in common? They and many other artisans, clerics, and diplomats serve as central characters in Natalino Fenech’s remarkable Colours of the North, a tribute to twelve towns that populate the northern main island of Malta. Those towns, each with a dedicated chapter, are Mdina, Dingli, Għargħur, Mellieħa, Mġarr, Mosta, Naxxar, Pembroke, Rabat, St. Paul’s Bay, Swieqi, and Mtarfa.

    Fenech, deeply aware of the enormous changes these charming towns have experienced in his lifetime, aims to preserve disappearing aspects of Maltese culture for posterity. He succeeds prodigiously by introducing each chapter with fascinating detail about the region’s unique history, folklore, and commerce, and by asking the right questions of his interview subjects, steering clear of reducing them to sentimental caricatures. He skillfully balances their nostalgic introspection with their generally positive and realistic outlook on the island’s present and future. Each interviewee offers a particular perspective that complements Fenech’s well-researched narrative. Indeed, all of them serve as witnesses to the century past and present, bridging contemporary Maltese values with their descendants’ cultural mores.

Readers can enjoy the book in any of the three ways Fenech has weaved throughout the chapters. First, the narrative section unveils distinctive topographical, agricultural, and architectural features of the towns, going back centuries wherever historical context best explains their current situation. Next, the eyewitnesses to Maltese history establish a down-home flavor so singularly regional in content yet universal in spirit. Finally, the radiant 160-plus full-color photos scattered throughout the book, more than three-fourths taken by the author, constitute a standalone photo essay full of satisfying surprises. Those pictures can be enjoyed two ways: as an appetizing prelude to the rich storytelling contained around them, or as a review of the abundant information that was read, as this book will surely be picked up many times after a first reading.

Fenech brings all his powers to bear as an imaginative writer, journalist, historian, geologist, ethnographer, ornithologist, interviewer, documentarian, environmentalist, professor, and photographer extraordinaire. His first book, Fatal Flight: The Maltese Obsession with Killing Birds (1992) showed his commitment to striking a national balance between the Maltese pastime of bird hunting and preserving wildlife. His Richard Ellis: The Photography Collection, Volume 1 – Valletta and Floriana (2007) illustrated his appreciation of an artist’s profound contribution to Maltese photojournalism, and it earned Fenech his first Malta National Book Award. A Complete Guide to Birds of Malta (2010) is Fenech’s beautifully illustrated encyclopedic compendium of all birds that are permanent residents of the island or resting on their perennial journey to three continents. It won him his second Malta National Book Award and affirmed his reputation as the John Audubon of Malta. His range in Colours of the North exudes not only his passions but his insightful vantage points, making his latest work a veritable page-turner.

As a bonus, an introductory chapter by Ray Cachia Zammit and Jane Caruana covers the Victoria Lines, Malta’s seven-mile Great Wall built as fortifications from encroachers by the British when Malta was a crown colony.

Having visited Malta 9 times over 55 years, I have seen much change in the island. Fenech reminds us that some small Maltese wonders have not and others that soon will, leaving one with a sense of gratitude that he has documented them all. Even lifelong residents of Malta will find numerous pleasures in Colours of the North.



Monday, April 12, 2021

Surprising Sentences, Part 11: Lincoln at Gettysburg

Abraham Lincoln's legendary 268-word, 10-sentence Gettysburg Address is best remembered for its 30-word opening sentence ("Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."), and for its 82-word closing sentence ("It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.") So famous is Lincoln's speech that it is etched verbatim at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and that Gary Willis dedicated to it an entire book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade AmericaYet I am most surprised by this 21-word sentence, slightly more than midway through the speech:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Of course, we have long remembered what Lincoln said on November 19, 1863 at the site of a Pennsylvania battlefield that has since become a National Cemetery. We also know that many of the 51,000 soldiers who died in that three-day bloodbath likely killed before they were killed. So what is so surprising about saying the world can never forget what the Union and Confederate dead did on that hallowed ground? An examination of this brother-against-brother four-year war in which an estimated million men gave their lives would open a window of understanding. Beholding the sheer humility of the sixteenth United States president two-and-a-half years into his term over only half a divided country he was elected to serve would also explain the sentence that precedes this surprising one: "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." 

Indeed, the American spirit of the Civil War, in all its glory, shame, and courage, 31 months in duration at the time of the Gettysburg Address, is embedded in this two-minute speech.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Surprising Sentences, Part 10: Frederick Douglass on the Character of Slavery

In Chapter  8 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass writes this sentence on page 47:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother.

By this point in the book, Douglass has described in graphic detail slave sales, family separations, whippings, and murder, as well as their routine deprivation of education, clothing, and food. What could possibly be worse than these? Over the next two pages, he injects into the story of what happened to his grandmother a stunning mix of cold journalism, historical perspective, heartrending exposition, profuse literary allusion, and a hopeless plea for divine intervention. Rather than summarize the woman's fate here, which would do an in justice to this American masterpiece, I urge you to read the book, whose tragic narration and life-affirming power have intensified 176 years after its publication, and upon my second reading of it, a half-century after the first. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Surprising Sentences, Part 9: Frederick Douglass on "Good" Overseers

In the seminal Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass writes these two sentences on page 12:

He whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it. He was called by the slaves a good overseer.

Douglass is referring to a slave overseer who succeeded a particularly savage one on his plantation. The ironic contradiction of describing a "good overseer" as taking no pleasure but still engaging in whipping follows a gut-wrenching description of how this overseer's predecessor felt extreme enjoyment in swearing and sweating as his whip tore through the flesh of slaves, all the more aggressively as their cries grew louder and more of the same precisely where their blood most flowed. The power of these sentences is in the false sense of relief they give the audience after reading pages of barbaric, inhuman treatment.

Picking up this book decades after reading it as a college student remains an extraordinarily jarring sensory experience as expressed by an eyewitness in the plainest language possible.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Surprising Sentences, Part 8: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare

A third-way through Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? and midway through a chapter titled "Cervantes and Shakespeare," Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom transitions from the Spaniard to the Englishman with this sentence: 

Nothing explains Shakespeare, or can explain him away.

On its surface, this sentence, semantically imaginative as it is, seems hardly surprising coming from Bloom, who a decade earlier in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, argued for placing Shakespeare in the center of the Canon. Indeed, critics familiar with the other writers and works that enter Bloom's lofty literary congregation would likely agree with his assessment. Yet this sentence surprises for three reasons:

1. Its brevity. The eight-word sentence is not typical of Bloom, who usually peppers his narratives with lengthy compound-complex constructions. 

2. Its absoluteness. As hyperbolic as Bloom may appear to those who have heard his flamboyant rhetoric, he is generally careful not to employ absolutes like nothing, but here his exuberance over Shakespeare's brilliance gets the best of him.

3. Its placement. Bloom begins his Shakespearean discussion with a statement that preempts discussion, realizing his readers know he is about to try explaining the Bard, if not explain him away.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Surprising Sentences, Part 7: Marc Antony on Caesar and His Assassins

Today, March 15, is the Ides of March, the date a soothsayer omnisciently and ominously warns the Roman dictator about in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In honor of Marc Antony's fabled and remarkably persuasive speech on the steps of the Roman Forum before "friends, Romans, countrymen," I'd like to look at three of his surprising sentences. In all but three sentences of Antony's 1,100-word speech, interrupted several times by his passionate audience's outbursts, he directly addresses them about Caesar, his assassins Brutus and Cassius, himself, or themselves. Antony brilliantly builds a case to transform his listeners from a self-righteous crowd praising Caesar's death to a vengeful mob seeking retribution for his unjust murder, and those three surprising sentences of uncertain intention and destination elevate Antony's entire speech to transcendent doctrine.

1. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. This sentence comes immediately after Antony's famous appeasement, "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." On the surface, we can believe that Antony is directly addressing the people assembled before him. Yet the pronouncement seems more targeted toward Fate while subtly positioning those gathered to feel a sense of guilt for their rush to judgment. 

2. O judgmentthou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason. Antony speaks these words nearly two minutes later, as he has mounted his line of reasoning to win Roman souls in avenging Caesar's death. But who is he speaking to? He utters this sentence after challenging his audience, "What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?" He cannot be too direct in his accusation for fear of throwing down the gauntlet too soon against volatile, potential allies. Perhaps he spits out these well-planned words to appear like a mournful child who just lost his friend. While making this incantation abundantly clear to his audience, he wants to make it appear like an emotional, irresponsible outburst, as he follows it with "Bear with me, my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me."

3. Judge, O you Gods, how dearly Caesar loved him! Another four minutes later, Antony claims that an unsuspecting Caesar was killed by a man he loved, a man he trusted and respected. He pretends this statement to be an ephemeral plea to the gods, the ultimate, omnipotent audience. With this suggestion, Antony makes the execution of his friendand a friend of all Romanseven more heinous, arousing the populace's sense of trust and justice. He now has his frenzied audience in the palm of his hands.

Ambiguity, both lexical (word meaning) and syntactical (word order), plays a large role in surprising an audience, but so does context. These three sentences from Julius Caesar surprise us because, quite literally, we are not sure where the speaker is coming from.

Monday, March 08, 2021

A Special Golden Anniversary

On this day fifty years ago, Monday, March 8, 1971, I was a 17-year-old high school senior. When I came home from school, my father asked me, "How would you like to see the fight tonight?" Immediately, I felt blood rushing through my body. This was new emotional territory. Dad was uncharacteristically talking to me like a friend, not as if I were a nuisance, hindrance, or burden.  

After regaining my sensibilities, I understood the situation. Dad was referring to the boxing match billed as The Fight of the Century, a battle of undefeated heavyweight titans, the challenger Muhammad Ali against the champion Joe Frazier. Ali was 29, a dancer and jabber in the ring with a record of 31 wins, 25 by knockout, and no losses. In 1967, after Ali famously changed his name from Cassius Clay and defended his title nine times in three years, he faced the injustices of having his heavyweight championship revoked, his license to box in every US state denied, and his US passport stripped, effectively eliminating any chance of his making a living through boxing. He now found himself as a 6-5 betting underdog for the first time since 1964, when he was an 8-1 underdog and captured the championship as a 22-year-old fast-talking, abrasive, egotistical, against Sonny Liston. Frazier was 27 with a record of 26 wins, 23 by knockout. Like Ali, he was an Olympic gold medalist but he did not renounce his achievement, winning the hearts of the establishment. He earned the heavyweight title three years earlier and successfully defended his crown six times. His bob-and-weave style and powerful punching made him seem invincible in the boxing world until Ali's return. 

So much hype surrounded this fight, primarily due to Ali's remarkable promotional skills and growing reputation as a cultural folk hero and antiwar activist. In the weeks leading up to the bout, the boxers appeared in one television commercial after another. The print and electronic news media featured daily stories about the upcoming event. Each man was guaranteed an unprecedented $2.5 million, and the match would attract a full house of 20,000-plus at Madison Square Garden in New York City as well as 30 million closed-circuit viewers worldwide.

I knew Dad well enough to realize his invitation was not a treat. I was earning an average of $50 per week as a part-time janitor at White Castle, so the ticket price of $20 to see the fight live on screen was steep. But the viewing opportunity seemed like a worthwhile investment for an idealistic, inspired teenager. 

In 1971, I believed that Dad and I could not have been more different. He was an immigrant from Malta with less than an elementary school formal education. He survived the World War II Axis bombings on the island. After the war, he became a police officer in his one-cop village hometown of Mgarr, population 2,000. By 21 he married, by 22 he became a father, by 26 he moved to America, and by 27 he had a wife and three children to support with limited English proficiency as an unskilled laborer. His first job was as a porter, and he eventually became a butcher. He often told us how much he loved America because of the opportunities it gave his children. I was a longhaired pacifist ready to graduate from high school and enter the City University of New York system, worried about the prospects of being drafted into the Army to fight in the Vietnam War. I was growing up in the midst of a cultural revolution in which people were openly questioning their government's right to conduct an apparently unwinnable war 9,000 miles away where millions of innocent people were being slaughtered. I did not dare challenge my father about his beliefs. I understood them to be valid for him, yet my experience sent me in an entirely different direction.

Our stakes for attending the fight were different too. Dad was a chronic sports gambler, so I figured he had money on the outcome. He enjoyed the sport, having arrived in the US during the boxing golden age when Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, and Sugar Ray Robinson were champions of their own weight class in their heyday. I saw the match as a chance for Ali to avenge the injustices heaped upon him over the past five years. I was not alone in thinking this way. In fact, one could likely tell the politics of a person just by knowing who they were rooting for, the radical Ali or the traditionalist Frazier. 

Dad and I had rarely gone anywhere together since the mid-1960s, when he would occasionally get my brother and me bleacher seats for games at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. That was a lifetime ago for a teenager, and now we were headed for the Loew's American Theater in Parkchester, the Bronx, to see the fight. That night I felt like a man, like Dad's brother. The atmosphere in the movie house was electric, divided in half by opposing loyalists. Dad, a 46-year-old working class man, and I, his rebellious son, were rooting for the same person, smiling when Ali's trembling hand held a note predicting Frazier would fall in the sixth round, holding our breath throughout the difficult fight, heartbroken when Ali hit the canvas in the fifteenth and final round, disappointed when he lost the fight in a unanimous decision, and embarrassed for him when he did not crawl on his knees across the ring to Frazier and say, "You are the greatest," as he said he promised he would if he lost.   

Everything changed since March 8, 1971, half a century ago. The winner Frazier would lose his title to the behemoth George Foreman less than two years later, and Ali would reclaim the title from the same man, who seemed so indomitable, less than two years after he had become champion. The Parkchester movie theater is gone. My Bronx high school changed its name from Saint Helena's to Monsignor Scanlan. Dad is gone 24 years. Since I became a father myself 39 years ago, I have seen how much like my father I really am. And how the Fight of the Century still binds us.