Friday, April 6, 2012

Megan Hall, Fourth Child

Megan Hall's Fourth Child is a deeply intimate collection without being showily confessional or maudlin. And this is its great strength.

There is a quiet power to many of the poems, though few measure up to the punch carried in the second poem in the collection, "Gunshot", which actually led me to set the book down and say, out loud, "Wow... wow." The reader is led by Hall through a recapitulation of shootings from recent films into the depths of a personal tragedy which lingers, for the reader as it does for the poet, throughout the collection. That connection -- between film and life -- is stark and telling; not overdone, not overwrought.

The second to the last poem in the collection, "Wanting" -- though not without faults (there is something almost pedestrian about the sentiment closing the first stanza in this age of self-empowerment; and the closing clause leaves me either baffled or unsatisfied, I'm not yet sure which) -- offers up a real gem:
Wanting puts your heart out on a string,
trawling for the thing that's wanting you.
Those are lines that ache as much as they reveal. Which is precisely what the best of the poems in this collection manage to do.

More about Megan Hall is available on her Poetry International page, including links to additional reviews of Fourth Child; there is also a review of Fourth Child by Grace Kim on the LitNet site.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Melissa Butler, Removing

Two days into my reading for National Poetry Month -- only two days in, I should emphasize -- but I worry I am becoming a bit of a curmudgeon. Why? Because I have yet to be swept away.

That's putting an awful burden on these poets, I know.

Melissa Butler's collection, Removing, comes close but never quite carries me over. There are poems where I've scrawled notes to myself, "does it work?" (and in the case of a poem like, "Cited", with each of the 16 words in the one line footnoted, I feel, "not quite" -- though I do wish I could have heard it read as a duet), whereas others most certainly do:

(Remember): The familiar
gathers itself slowly
and then you are there, in a life edged
by dinner time, a garbage truck
and the neighbor
who walks her dog.
"What gathers slowly" (32-3)

Liberally sprinkled throughout this brief collection (22 pieces and one extended cycle; very much a chapbook) are prose poems. Truth be told, I've never been a great fan of prose poems. Butler comes closest to making them work for me, though it would take a much closer reading on my part (and perhaps a discussion with the poet herself) to puzzle through to a satisfactory answer as to why prose, why here, why in these instances.

She hits her stride, I think, in the closing cycle, "Hadeda geographies", six four-stanza poems with a structure and coherence that allow for and build towards something much more than a pithy insight or a dropped pearl of wisdom. And that, it seems on reflection, is the real strength of Butler's work, and what holds promise for her future work: she's not after the sunburst but instead looks to build and weave quietly. While this may mean that in some instances the reader will sweep through a poem like a little noticed spider's web, Butler will (one trusts) spin another. Which may very well be her most perfect one yet, pulling us up, just short, in wonder.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Francis B Nyamnjoh, Predicaments

I learned a lesson some time ago: never read the introduction to a novel or book of verse prior to reading the book itself. I had one too many books ruined for me by awful introductions.

Whether that's stood me in good stead or bad is an open question; though on the whole I think it's greatly benefited the pleasure I've taken in my reading.

In the case of Francis B Nyamnjoh's, Predicaments, however, I am left to wonder. It is in the brief foreword -- by Emmanuel Fru Doh -- and the introduction -- by Nyamnjoh himself -- that the reader learns that we have at hand Nyamnjoh's "juvenilia"; twenty-five years old and he "would rewrite them today" (ix).

I wish he had.

Despite Doh's (seemingly tepid) endorsement and Nyamnjoh's wish for us to "find at least one poem in this collection that titillates or tantalizes... or more" (ix) this is a mostly undistinguished volume, memorable more for repeated clumsy and labored grammatical reorderings to turn a line-ending rhyme, the affectation of "Oh!"s, and PRAISE IN ALL CAPS than for... well, for the poetry itself.

There are intriguing glimmers of what might have been. "The Whitemen of God" offers up an angry recapitulation of the missionary endeavor, of how "We were taught to hear the bible of a god we knew by proxy" and how "We rejected our cultures and ourselves". But because there is little poetic tension to the piece the ambiguity of the closing line -- "We were forced to forgive, forced to go to heaven" -- lacks any particular punch. It's intriguing (on reflection) but ultimately unsatisfying as it stands.

The strongest poem, by far, is "To the Leader". While it too suffers odd grammatical structures -- "The world won't have you to blame / When the baton on must pass"... really? "on must pass"? why? -- it also has the most evocative lines in the collection:
Let people in you an enigma see,
Not a noodle to be rolled and fingered
This is marvelous. And powerful. And unfortunately noteworthy for how much it stands out.

Had I read the foreword and introduction in advance perhaps I would have been a bit more forgiving in my initial approach. But I doubt seriously it would have made the poetry any better for it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rae Armantrout, Versed

I don't get it.

I mean... I don't pretend to understand most / a lot / much of contemporary verse, American or otherwise, but... I try. And while understanding might often keep me at arm's length I can usually find considerable appreciation and pleasure -- even if only in moments.

Rae Armantrout's Pulitzer Prize (2010) winning collection, Versed, left me more perplexed than anything else. I tracked down the Pulitzer citation to try to get a handle on the whys and wherefores of the award and am left with (it's brief):
"...a book striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading."
Yeah. No. At least, not for me. There is poetry that acts this way for me, that explodes and pulls me up short. That's remembered. This isn't such a collection; this isn't that poetry. Rather, the whole -- poem to poem or string them all together as a single verse (it really doesn't seem to matter since there is little coherence or unity within any particular poem) -- reads more like dis-jointed, drifting, floating not-quite haiku; almost-aphorisms piled one on top of another with a title on top.

Or, to borrow from a now forgotten other context, just so many "captions without photographs" and all referencing quite different photographs. The Pulitzer Committee obviously felt differently but Armantrout, in this collection at least, can't quite pull it off.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hitting the reset button...

Well, it all seems to have gotten to be a little much for me -- this whole reading and then writing thing. Even the little slips of nothing that I would, though in later days only sporadically (at best!!), scratch out.

So I'm hitting the reset button.

The stacks and stacks of read volumes that were waiting to be "reviewed" here? All shuffled off to the basement. Prospects for future reviews? Bright. Bright indeed!! I just couldn't stare at those piles of books with post-it noted thoughts papering them, waiting, just waiting.

And it seems, thus, that I'm reading again. And that's the best thing of all.

So there will be reviews to come -- many, I trust -- though there won't be reviews of many of the marvelous, wondrous, horrible, and in many ways important books read of late:
((All highly recommended, by the way!!))

Which is not to say that there isn't a backlog I will be working through, though those will mostly be in service of my love (and appreciation: celebratory & critical) of African poetry.

But more than anything I'm looking forward. A self-imagined blue screen of death has led me to ctrl-alt-delete my way to a new day and a fresh re-engagement with the stacks and stacks of as yet unread books. Good days ahead.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Charles Bukowski, Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955-1973

I'm sure I've written before that I get these "moments" when what I want to read is a little Bukowski. To be honest, it's not just any Bukowski, but that full-throated, whoring, drinking, loud-mouthed, unapologetic sonofabitch classical music aficionado that Bukowski fans... love? Much like the women he writes about love him. Right?


I suppose.

Such was the case recently. And so I indulged (but using coupons and gift cards). What's so interesting about Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame is that the bastard voice I was reading for doesn't really make an appearance until very late in the second section (though he stays around for most of the third).

It's interesting (though not particularly enjoyable to me) because that first section is made up of selections from -- if I'm doing the math right -- when he first started writing poetry (in his 30s). And it shows. They are poems of the very much "poetically"-aware (and... "fumbling" isn't quite the right word, but in all craft we struggle as we develop, and it often shows in what we offer as our work).

They aren't bad, they're just... young (even though Bukowski wasn't particularly at the time).

But with this realization in hand, it becomes something of an education for the reader to see and hear the poetry morph. Of course, as Bukowski notes in his own introduction to the collection, there's a rather yawning and noteworthy gap in collection (1969-1972), though it is noteworthy perhaps more in retrospect: these years seem to be the ones where Bukowski found that oh so distinctive voice of his. But that's okay, because here we've got the luck that found him (and made him one of the "good" poets) and some "warm asses".

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 20.2 (March 2010)

Usually I gobble these up within days of arriving. It's something I can read quickly, in those little eruptions of time when I feel unmoved and unstressed by... well, anything else. And there is usually pleasure in it. Little pleasures, but at least a smile.

Perhaps it was the long delay between arrival and reading. Perhaps I'm just growing weary: cynicism snuffing out wonder. But I can feel the arch-profundity of the self-consciously compressed lines a bit too acutely throughout this issue.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Charles Bukowski, The People Look Like Flowers At Last

There's a certain campy punch to much of Bukowski that I really enjoy. I don't think it's necessarily intended, but's how I find myself reading it often; and many times it's why I pick up Bukowski.

This was such a time.

And The People Look Like Flowers At Last didn't disappoint.

There was an oddly reflective, surrealistically-tinged opening that worried me at first, but the collection settles in to the consciously rough-hewn edge that I so enjoy when I'm looking for a self-referential, half-winking escape. It means I read slower -- to draw out the time I can indulge -- and I'm sad to go.

Not so sorry to be leaving him; maybe, instead, the silly possibilities Bukowski is such a master at conjuring.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jeffrey Brown, Sulk, Issue 2: Deadly Awesome

I enjoy Jeffrey Brown's work. And these "issues" of Sulk that he produces are fun little distractions. I picked up issue  two despite the fact that it's about mixed martial arts, something I have no taste for or interest in.

For me this is nothing more than a light entertainment, a diversion. Or potentially so. It never quite lives up to it's description: "Jeffrey Brown explores the world of mixed martial arts and the nature of violence in this tribute to no-holds-barred cage fighting!" Well, I don't see the exploration of the nature of violence in it (despite one or two telling flashbacks); mostly we read interior monologues of the fighters puzzling through their strategies. In the breathless commentary of the announcers and the drama evoked by the use of large, heavy fonts and "Krak" and "Slam", it certainly does live up to the enthusiasm implicit in the exclamation point, though!

And that just seems a little silly to me. But to each his own; just not mine, this time.

Until the end. The very last frame. Where the victor muses, "I think I may have lost my taste for this." Amen, brother!

One side-note: there's one frame early on in the fight where the older, smaller, weaker, but cagier fighter -- Haruki Rasasaku -- who otherwise throughout the panels is very much his own man, looks an awful lot like Jeffrey Brown. In profile. Hmmm...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Robert Berold, All the Days

It took me a while to warm to Robert Berold's All My Days. More than a while, in fact. Well, actually, it took something of a gap between readings.

All My Days is a slim book, as most collections are. And I like to read these things, if I can, in one single push. It gives me, it seems, a better sense of the poet, of the rhythm, of the style and voice. If the poetry is done well, I'm caught up, almost trance-like, and carried through. Done poorly, I slog it out and don't have to come back.

I didn't make it all the way through Berold's book in one go. Not because it was badly done. I'm sure something came up: such as morning, and having to get my son fed, dressed, and off to school. But I do remember being somewhat underwhelmed when I closed it up that first time.

And on a post-it note stuck to the front I scrawled, in my tight, small-cap hand: "a penchant for description by listing -- 'setting the scene'" followed by a drawn line and the rather under-enthusiastic, even wary "and then there are the thicker, chunkier, prose pieces..." (yes, ellipsis and all).

I never did warm to the latter, and it's not as if the early poems don't strike a resonant line here and there. Berold's poem, "Beloved", opens with "Love burnt both of us. / Now rain falls in this scorched place. / I lean into your gravity" (26).

But it's later in the collection that things started clicking for me. "Night shift Hangzhou" doesn't quite make it as a whole -- the second stanza works a little too hard at mimicking the scene Berold is trying to describe -- but the first three lines crackle: "Down, down, below zero, and the wind biting, / I am almost falling asleep on my feet. I imagine / summer in South Africa, sizzling with electric fences" (44). The lines break just right on the page and in the reading; the opposites oddly, and effectively, echoing one another. Those three lines are masterfully done.

"Proposal" is cute (but in a playful, not saccharin, sense) and familiar; and "To myself at 20" (55) might very well be one of the better poems I've read, opening:
I think of myself in Ingrid's bedroom,
under that poster of Bonnie and Clyde
with dark rings under my eyes,
while her mother wept continuously
and her brother muttered threats.
He manages to capture the bravado, fear, and utter cluelessness of youth. And that still sort of stings.

All My Days has been reviewed elsewhere by Kobus Moolman and Vonani Bila, in both cases glowingly and in enviable depth.

This is the fourth collection of Berold's -- and I'll be reading all four (bought in South Africa last October). In reverse. So a bit of me was expecting... whiz bang? I wanted to love it. Some I do. I should probably re-read the whole. When I go back to look at all four together, I will.

This time in one sitting.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Philip Roth, The Humbling

What a thoroughly, frighteningly unhappy book.

Or is it just me?

Perhaps, with The Humbling, I've read too much Philip Roth. Or not enough of his early works. Something.

Maybe I'm becoming too much of a moralist -- the death-rattle of the critic -- but it all seemed rather sordid. But even worse, as far as the novel (as a form) is concerned: rushed and unmoored.

Which is, of course, a large part of the story of The Humbling but... it doesn't feel artfully done. And while some of the worst of it all touched my lizard brain and excited a boiling discomfort, I suspect that it has little to do with Roth's skill or this little novel's artistry.

And maybe it's just me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gail Dendy, People Crossing

I had the pleasure of meeting Gail Dendy during my trip to South Africa last year. Right at the tail end of the trip, quite literally (and lamentedly, as she was a delight and the conversation over lunch a real pleasure): when we finished eating she put me on a shuttle for the airport.

People Crossing is Dendy's second collection, and is probably a stronger than the usual sophomore effort. There is a great deal of sensuousness (in the scandalous sense of that word) about many of these poems; and while not all of it works, much of it does.

In "Spider-watch" (in which Dendy evokes the rather over-worked image of the black widow spider) we read the incredibly evocative:
She's endless,
tonight, all give


The stitching is complete.
One of them is satisfied.
And in "Fragment" (in its entirety):
It has to be passionate,
I know his clung kiss, sharp
as a bloodburst.
While the most titillating might very well be the closing lines of "Exposed":
To them
I was all
night lover –
a spool
of yearning.
Unravel me
Oh my!!

But Dendy is far from "merely" a sensuous poet. The denouement of "Assault" is... well, frightfully powerful: you know what's coming, the turn is not particularly artful (nor is it artless), but it's still sickening and lands like a punch.

She is a relatively prolific poet but there is little of her poetry accessible and available here in the United States. I foolishly left South Africa with this volume only. There are a few short biographical pieces (here and here) as well as some brief interviews (here and here). For those with a taste for... well... poetry, I've managed to find the following poems of Dendy's online:
I do look forward to continuing our discussion and, hopefully, getting my hands on another volume or two of her work before the next trip back to the RSA.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip including An Explanation of the Afterlife

I just don't get it I guess...

Dino Buzzati's Poem Strip is... well... a paean to school boy fantasies? A mushy graphic amalgam of the detritus of 1960s psychedelic (soon to be arena) rock music? A whole lot of tit and ass?

It's all of those things. And apparently it's avant garde and "a dark and alluring investigation into mysteries of love, lust, sex, and death" (if the back of the book is to be believed). Kinda missed that whole dark and alluring part. It all seems so very self-indulgent and disconcertingly sterile (and there's no reason why a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth needs to feel sterile, as anyone who has seen Black Orpheus can attest).

Some of the drawings are quite striking -- you can see a selection here -- but as a whole, it fails.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War

The war reading continues... unending... forever?

And I'm worn out.

But I can also say that Dexter Filkins' The Forever War is an amazing book. A stunner. A sometimes viscerally shaking book; rattling but never confusing. The numerous laudatory reviews are spot on, and the awards are well-earned.

There is little I can add other than to encourage you to read this book. I'd demand you do so if I could.

Filkins is no expert and he doesn't pretend as much. Nor does he cop an attitude of faux naivete. Instead we follow along with a working journalist trying to understand what the hell is going on: curious, weary, numb, both foolish and foolhardy, sometimes laugh out loud funny. In both Afghanistan (to open the book, the shorter of the two parts) and Iraq (a war that has now largely dropped off our collective radar, with the exception of the occasional "boom!").

We are in the moment; these are snapshots, almost. Sometimes no real narrative structure other than the mere fact of Filkins telling a story, presenting a scene. Just war. Grinding through a landscape and people. No discernible beginning, no ultimate end. Forever.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wilbur Smith, Gold Mine

I feel a little... not dirty, but... I dunno. I simply don't seem to be a reader of action/adventure -- odd for a boy who cut his teeth on science fiction and fantasy growing up. I've been trying my hand at it lately, reading those works centered in Africa (that's my excuse, my justification: literary policing).

Gold Mine is my second Wilbur Smith book. Sigh...

Even after just two -- and this is not surprising (considering both the genre and the fundamentals of basic storytelling) -- I can see the pattern: talented, skilled, and strapping man (my, is he strapping), but somewhat down at the heels, not enjoying the vast privilege of those around him, not fully; put in a seemingly impossible situation, manipulated and given no real choice, but it's make or break; some shrieking harpy of a female attachment; a beautiful other woman to whom he might or could or once was attached; and a lurking, often soft (yet steely) villain.

And all hell breaks loose.

Set in the South African goldmines of the 1960s (and first published in 1970), Gold Mine plays to the stereotypes of the time, albeit not the very worst racist characterizations of the apartheid regime. Give it that. And it's hard to know where the characterizations are "race"-based and where "simply" gender-based. Still, to read of the "bantus" time and again is both annoying and mildly offensive.

There is much in this that is both.

Yes, I will probably read another, at some point, maybe, just to see if the patterns hold. But, oddly, I don't know if I'll really enjoy it. And I have wanted to enjoy these. Really...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

John Waller, The Dancing Plague

I was profoundly disappointed in The Dancing Plague, though to be fair that probably has as much to do with my own sky high expectations for it as with the work itself.


You see, every once in awhile I get this heady urge to read something of the Middle Ages. Not historical fiction, but history, biography, something to give me a little taste, a little hint of what life might have been like. Across the classes -- high-born and low.

And Waller's book seemed to hold the promise of a delightful romp.

It's not poorly written. And he's gone absolutely batty with the endnotes (which are truly at the end of the book, 32 pages worth of them). Which, I suppose, should have told me something.

My main problem The Dancing Plague is that so little is actually known of the events in question: which is the outbreak of a mass compulsion to dance in the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg.

Now, I'm savvy, I've studied some history, I've done some historical research, I know we need to be wary of making assertions, and supposing too much, of fictionalizing our history, but Waller's style and approach to all of this is to qualify just about everything with "might" and "we can suppose" and similar constructions...

...but then to plunge undaunted into great detail as to the smells and sounds and feelings, even thoughts and movements, of bodies (individuals) and bodies (groups). It is maddeningly distracting at one level to continually read these qualifications, and at another level it simply makes no sense. If we can't suppose, let's not.

But that would have made for a much less salable book. To people like me. Who want to get a sense of the stuff, the smells, the sounds, the feelings, even the thoughts and the movements of the times.

Dance puppet, dance! I read the back of the book and did just that. Fool.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 20.1 (September 2009)

Down to 2 issues a year, unfortunately (but understandably).

Still available for $5/issue from:
Phyllis Walsh, Editor
Harbour Village
5600 Mockingbird Lane, Apt D103
Greendale, WI 53129
Worth it on the whole, if only because it's such an interesting little magazine (and I do mean little) of very short verse. A curiosity, perhaps, but a fun one. A bit earnest this time around (perhaps of late? characterizing the last few issues? earnestness does tire me so). Robert Deluty, who placed one of the stronger poems in the last issue, typifies what tends to curdle my insides:
husband and wife
with matching pacemakers:
Oof. That's on page 39. On page 47, though, he also gives us:
mid-colloquim... [sic]
watching the department chair
balance her check book
The strongest -- cheekiest? -- poem of this issue, to my thinking, is David G. Lanoue's (27):
she's barefoot and topless
in the fountain...
and bronze
But really, what is it with all the ellipses?

Get a subscription, read it, reread what pleases, put it on a shelf somewhere for someone else to discover one day, and wait half a year for your next ten minutes of pleasure.

Sammy Oke Akombi, Beware the Drives

Beware the Drives is one of the poetry collections I was able to pick up at this year's African Literature Association conference, held in Burlington, Vermont. Exciting for me as it heralds the emergence of what is to me a new publishing house in Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group (distributed in the US & Europe by the marvelous African Books Collective).

The book is well-edited and produced, and for all those reasons, a delight.

The poetry much less-so.

There are some strong lines, but they stand out for their rarity. Perhaps the strongest of the entire collection are the closing lines of "A Poet's Epitaph": "You too, poet or no poet, sure shall find peace / In doing, pieces, for yourself and mankind" (1).

The opening poem.

I am more than willing to grant Akombi that, "Always there's something to be understood / That hasn't been understood" (from "Poetry" (21)), but on the whole the collection reads more like an old commonplace book than a vibrant new poetry collection; a collection of aphorisms, and rather obvious ones at that, lacking the song and punch of poetry.
When children, innocent and clean
As they always have been
Die in storms and quakes --
Earthwuakes, techno-quakes, hunger-quakes
And then gun and bomb quakes
One can't help but question,
Is that why they were born?
"Victims" (5)

It is lines like these that are, to my mind (and ear), simply inexplicable as poetry. There is real potential in "hunger-quake" -- it could soar -- but... "Socio-politico-ideologico-quakes"??
To me it's yet unknown
Where to place my napkin at meal
Which hand for the fork,
Which for the knife and which for the spoon,
And here comes the chopstick.
"Globalisation" (37)

It's a suggestive trope, and the wonderful start to a set piece. And perhaps by this point in the collection I had wearied, but it's not quite working as poetry. Not yet.

Simon Armitage, Kid

Armitage seemed like a "hot item" when I picked up this collection, Kid, at one of our local Half Price Books for... a dollar.

Yup. A buck. You'd think they'd wring a little more blood from the stone of the next big thing, wouldn't you?!?

But there it was, and Armitage -- who isn't so new -- seemed to be popping up into my consciousness with some regularity. Readings in Stevens Point (??) sponsored by public radio, recent books popping out on the shelves of Barnes & Noble... Who knows why for sure. But there he was. Again. And for a dollar? I'll bite. And buy.

And was so disappointed. Not sure if I just hadn't built up any momentum with the collection. But I read in widely separated fits and starts (and wasn't moved to engage with anything more). I labored. And I stalled. About halfway through. Prepared myself to push through the last half and read, after two weeks? Three? This...
The book, this page, this harebell laid to rest
between these sheets, these leaves, if pressed still bleeds
a watercolour of the way we were.

Those years: the fuss of such and such a day,
that disagreement and its final word,
your inventory of names and dates and times,
my infantries of tall, dark handsome lies.

A decade on, now we astound ourselves;
still two, still twinned but doubled now with love
and for a single night apart, alone,
how sure we are, each of the other half.

This harebell holds its own. Let's give it now
in air, with light, the chance to fade, to fold.
Here, take it from my hand. Now, let it go.
"In Our Tenth Year" (46)

Nothing quite rises to it, though "Great Sporting Moments: The Treble" comes close, and the opening couplet is a delight: "The rich! I love them. Trust them to suppose / the gift of tennis is deep in their bones" (55).

The BBC has a wonderful poetry site (the fact that they have their Poetry Season is wonder enough) which has quite a nice write-up on Armitage -- and him reading his poem "Gawain" (which those of us on this side of the pond are not allowed to listen to apparently). Too bad; might have drawn me into another collection of his. Might still, but...

Alec Russell, Bring Me My Machine Gun

Subtitled, "The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma", Russell's Bring Me My Machine Gun is an excellent account of, largely, the South Africa political landscape since the demise of state-sanctioned apartheid and the election of Mandela.

The subtitle is a bit more portentous than the actual work itself. More than anything Russell is detailing the political machinations of the African National Congress (ANC), and what that party-internal gamesmanship has meant for South Africa since 1990.

It's not a pretty picture.

But politics, anywhere, is messy. And as Russell points out -- time and again -- the ANC (and most importantly, some of its key officials; though not as often as would be hoped, its low-level, in-the-trenches workers, those who both have their pulse on the communities and could make an effective, if localized, difference in the lives of South African) has been able to manage what was, in truth, an almost unmanageable legacy.

It's an enlightening book, for sure, and frankly one of the more unsettling ones I've read lately, in a very understated way. Russell's style and approach is -- fitting, considering his background as, among other things, the Johannesburg bureau chief of the Financial Times -- reportorial... Is that right? He often frames his presentation of events and personalities as "On the one hand... but on the other..." An appropriate nod to the complexity of circumstances, for sure, but also slightly maddening.

Which is, perhaps, the point...