Monday, December 31, 2007

Adam Roberts, The Wonga Coup

I got more and more depressed as I read Adam Roberts' The Wonga Coup. The idea that 75 armed men -- regardless of how well-armed -- could overthrow a government (in this case, Equatorial Guinea) would have been laughable if not for the fact that, well... If they had been a little more discreet and maybe had a bit of luck, they could have done it.

But perhaps depressing is a bit too strong.

Disappointing. I was increasingly disappointed the further I got into the book.

I don't read this sort of book for the swashbuckling adventure of it all. I've gotten a little past that. But Roberts never really figured out what sort of book he wanted to write. It's no wonder that the film rights have been picked up, it has all the elements of a "classic" 1970s mercenary in black Africa flick.

But Roberts, to his credit, also wants to build a case, a dossier. So "revealed for the first time ever" are various facts, testimony, etc.

Oh, how I wish he had actually provided this information. The narrative cries out for appendices (maybe we could actually see some of these documents he touts, read some of the emails he paraphrases, etc), practically begs for citations (or maybe that was me; I mean, how many unsourced 2 paragraph quotations can we swallow?), and is in dire need of a more deft editorial hand.

And here's the rub for me. As you push through the book you start hearing the same lines, the same little snippets of dialogue, the same scenes replayed. Wait? Didn't I just... Yes, you did. Jump back and forth, the same descriptors, the same... It's like he didn't quite know how to write a straight line chronicle, beginning to end, let alone finishing it up.

A bit of an odd criticism to level at a working journalist, but perhaps the sheer length was too much. At times it feels like it; it certainly reads like it.

Not an unpleasant read. Certainly not a difficult read (though keeping up with the cast of characters as Roberts jumps all about became a bit of an exercise in futility and one that I eventually just let go) -- but one that will, I would be willing to bet, be better told on screen.

At least Hollywood often doesn't even bother to try to keep to the facts...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Not nearly as witty or labyrinthine as I've come to expect of Bryson (see his A Short History of Nearly Everything if you doubt his abilities or wonder what his style, well-honed, can do) it also doesn't come as much of a surprise, considering the scholastic-industrial complex that has been built -- and maintained -- around the Bard.

After all, barring the discovery of the manuscripts (gasp!), a 7th authenticated signature, or another copy of the First Folio, what is there left for the amateur to uncover? What connection could possibly be drawn that hasn't already been the subject of 2 dissertations and 3 self-published crackpots?

Not much.

So in Shakespeare: The World as Stage the main task Bryson sets for himself is to burnish the standing of Shakespeare as... well... Shakespeare. A difficult task, as he repeatedly points out, since so little is known of Shakespeare's life in the first place. Many qualifications, disabusing of false notions (before settling on the "reasonable" assumptions), an acceptance of uncertainty, and a final settling of accounts with the anti-Stratfordians.

There are, of course, little bits and pieces that are delightful. My favorite, by far, is the use of "foul papers" for rough drafts. That's a keeper, like hoelweg.

And it is a pleasant enough diversion. But a little less than I had... expected? Or perhaps hoped for.

The volume is one in the "Eminent Lives" series of Harper Collins -- which is itself a rip-off of the excellent "Penguin Lives" series. What I want to know is why neither of these publishers can seem to put together webpages devoted to these series (instead of just shilling us off to the "sales annex")?!?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

I am not a big fan of short stories. I prefer to dive in and be swept away -- a remnant of some sprawling romanticism? an unshakable Victorian sense of what comprises a grand narrative? -- perhaps for neither of these reasons, but short story collections more often than not gather dust. Or, when I do read them, too often it is as a chore, something to slog through (too many collections of marginal stories in graduate school?).

I certainly can't object to them on length alone: I am constantly seeking out shorter books so that I might be able to finish them. Relatively easily.

So what is it?

I'm not sure. But The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake easily buck that prejudice. They are astounding evocations of poor, hard, violent lives, lived out by poor, hard, struggling men and women. I made the mistake of reading the two Afterwords in my volume and feel like none of the words I could use to describe the stories would be my own.

I did start to think of Tom Franklin's Poachers while reading Pancake. Pancake's stories are quieter, more humane (though nonetheless hard, true, and cutting for it).

Read them. Pick up a copy and read them.

It doesn't hurt that Pancake came to my alma mater to write. Of course, he also killed himself here.

So read the stories. They're all we've got.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ronald Wallace, The Uses of Adversity

I first encountered Ronald Wallace's poetry at an English Department faculty gathering back in the fall of 2006. It had a bite and a humorous edge -- perhaps because it was more tightly selected and directed, perhaps from the way Wallace reads -- than the bulk of what's in The Uses of Adversity.

Which is not to say that the poetry is bad. Not in the least. But it is not what I remembered. Or perhaps not what I made it to be in my memory. And it was those memories that prompted me to pull this collection down from the display at the local Borders.

Maybe that and the fact that every time I read it out to myself, the title prompts me to think about -- and start singing -- KT Tunstall's "The Beauty of Uncertainty".

Wallace is playing, primarily, with form in these poems. Or rather, he has bound his memory with a loose sonnet form -- an Italian octave and sestet throughout the collection. Rhyme is only occasional and I did not take the time to read enough of the verse out loud to get a strong sense of commonalities of meter.

The collection is dominated by memories and, inasmuch as the gaze is a long one, by aging, though Wallace himself is a vigorous poet. These poems aren't burdened by the memories encapsulated, yet neither do they set sail. Perhaps it is not the years but the form that limits?

They read, to me, as a poet telling stories, quite contently, as he looks out his back door.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty

This is the collection of Maira Kalman's columns by the same name from the New York Times -- running for a year (since ceased) -- gathered up in a single volume.

It's an interesting little collection of art and... well, art. And narration (not so much captioning)? Which is... well, poetry? Memoir? Art?

Not sure which.

Kalman, who also illustrated Strunk & White's Elements of Style, has a video on her website called the elements of style movie (you'll need quicktime to play it), which goes a long way to showing you what The Principles of Uncertainty is all about -- which is a little of everything ("How can I tell you everything that is in my heart. Impossible to begin. Enough. No. Begin.") and nothing ("How can I tell you everything that is in my heart. Impossible to begin. Enough. No. Begin.").

See what I did there? Didn't say shit about what the book is all about.

I liked it.

But it's Christmas, my son wants to race cars, and we should probably take a walk before it gets dark.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

A long silence, perhaps mistaken for slagging effort or the allowance of creeping ignorance was, instead, the wages of working through the latest tome of Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa.

True to it's titling, the focus is on the white presence in what is now South Africa -- and the countries of Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Botswana -- from the mid nineteenth century to the aftermath of the Boer War, with the narrative generally emphasizing the "Great Men" in shaping the development of the Union. It is, not surprisingly, almost universally men -- though interestingly, Olive Schreiner is a recurring figure which sparked memories of reading her Trooper Peter Halket as a photocopied packet for a class early in my graduate career, and being quite struck by the power of the book, much moreso than her Story of an African Farm; the other woman to recur in the latter pages is Princess Catherine Radziwill, as Cecil Rhodes's late-life spook... er... biographer -- or alternately, "stalker", as the Wikipedia entry not incorrectly asserts.

Meredith has been amazingly prolific in recent years: in addition to Diamonds, Gold, and War, he has revised and republished an earlier work on Zimbabwe as Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe (read) and published the sprawling and well-received The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (not read, but on the pile).

Janet Maslin in the Times considers Meredith's writing to be more "perfunctory" than in The Fate of Africa -- I'm not entirely sure what she means by that. Regardless -- and despite the fact that I wish there were more than merely perfunctory coverage of the non-white role in the shaping of the southern African states (but I suppose that is wishing for something that the book never purports to be -- and this particular "lack" is reflective of the way that these communities were essentially treated, both rhetorically and in law and practice) -- Meredith provides a compelling picture of the way in which we stumble, bumble, bulldoze, cajole, bribe, war, and otherwise cobble together countries.

Yup, we just sort of throw these things together...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry 191.3 (December 2007)

Another month, another Poetry. Highlight of this issue was, again, a prose piece: Clive James's witheringly appreciative dismantling of Ezra Pound's Cantos. And yet... and yet...

David Orr's "The Train" sprung something loose in me, not a poem -- certainly not as it is -- but an idea at least. What to do with:
Those little flashes of... nothing, of insignificance -- standing on the platform in New Brunswick; reading in the bathroom in Waikiki while my son doesn't sleep in his bed -- that make up my memories.
And though presented in an article on Italian poetry (that accompanied a selection), there was this little gem, by Patrizia Cavalli:
If you were
to knock now on my door
and if you took your glasses off
and I took off mine which are just like yours
and if you then entered into my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not alike
and said to me: "My love,
what has happened?" -- it would be
a successful bit of theater.
My god...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Uche Nduka, Eel on Reef

I finished Uche Nduka's Eel on Reef yesterday morning and have been wondering what to make of it since. Well, truth be told, I was wondering what the hell to make of it just a few poems in.

I know that I'll be writing a more detailed review for the African Poetry Review (USA) shortly. But in the meantime...

Oh goodness!

I purposely avoided reading Kwame Dawes's introduction hoping to come to Nduka's poetry fresh. But instead, in my darker moments, I read it as just so many words chewed up and spit out on the page. Dawes is a much more generous reader, yet even he at times "felt as if the poet was working too hard to confuse me and I resented that" (11).

Resentment is too strong a word for my own feelings. Baffled? Not just by the "what" but the "why" of the collection (which, I might add, is beautifully put together and very attractively laid out). Dawes is a fan of the imagism, encouraging the reader to surrender and "write" the poetry fresh; rush through and linger. He sees reward where I only felt a degree of weariness.

There were glimmers that struck, an eroticism that almost rolled at times. But for the most part I was left to duck my head and push through.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

George Sarrinikolaou, Facing Athens: Encounters With the Modern City

I am in deep, profound need of a light, funny book to read. Yes, I can chalk up much of that need to the seemingly endless tail chasing I've been doing lately, but Sarrinikolaou's Facing Athens is also due some share of the blame.

It is an almost unremittingly bleak read. Perhaps too much to assess it as "dark," it is not exactly melancholic either -- for though Sarrinikolaou closes out the book with a paragraph that casts the preceding in such a light, the idea of "melancholy" in remembrance suggests a certain degree of nostalgia, which is not something that Sarrinikolaou can muster.

It is... a cynical read of everything? Not snarky. It is not a chronicle of the Americanized exile returning with the knowing eye, regurgitating his own irony onto the city. No, not that. There is just... why go to Athens? Why did he go back to Athens?

Never having been to Athens, it is a hard thing to understand given the portrait of the city that Sarrinikolaou presents.

But it is also a perspective that he seems to carry regardless of his vantage point, or place:
"Because I was born to working-class parents and have lived only in cities, the problems implicit in the landscape -- poverty, poor urban planning, sheer ugliness -- have always claimed my attention. But as I held my baby, these problems acquired an urgency that had me fantasizing about a way out of Brooklyn."
From "The View From His Window" in the New York Times, 18 June 2006.
A hell of a burden to bear, surely. And one we all seem to carry about at times (regardless of what meets our eye on gazing out the window). But I was, sad to say, a bit relieved to put his down.

The fact that it became mine in the first place, of course, speaks both to the way I read and the way he writes. For what it's worth.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Mark Doty, School of the Arts

School of the Arts is the first work by Mark Doty that I've read, though not the first I've picked up. He is one of those contemporary poets who is lurking around my scanty awareness of American poetry as someone to be read and yet... Until now, hadn't been.

Not sure exactly why I picked up this volume, at this time. In Borders. Had a coupon to burn. Thought I wanted to treat myself to a poetry collection. And I found myself home with School of the Arts.

I've never really known how to write -- especially in brief -- about poetry. A tricky business considering the field I've chosen and where so much of my energy goes (when it goes). But to speak in generalities about such compressed language?

Let's not.

One of the striking things about this collection, or rather about my reading of this collection, was how in the process of reading I felt the urge to write. Not write in the moment, but to remember a scene, a setting, a feeling that Doty evoked and revisit it myself. In a line or stanza or, god forbid, an entire verse.

It reminded me of all that was before me and the poetic possibilities of... well, everything. Seen, broken off, reworked, re-created -- and renewed.

It was abundantly clear, as well, that Doty was working on this volume at the same time that he must have been working on (or at least preparing the way for) his most recent memoir, Dog Years.

The lines that jumped out at me?
"what's less graceful / than transport?"
From "The Vault - 4. Hood"
Seems to be sort of loading the dice -- wonderfully so, when you think about it: "transport" really is such a leaden term. Clever, clever. And very much the art of poetry.

Although I might take issue with the assertion itself.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a fun little book. If I ever acquire any family members of a playfully literary (and/or critical) bent, Bayard's book will surely show up as a gift for some occasion or another.

As all the reviews I have read are quick to point out -- within the opening lines -- this is not a "how to" on passing yourself off at cocktail parties populated by academics, whether intimidating or just merely pretentious. It is, instead, a deftly spun exploration of how we talk about books.

His tongue is frequently and deeply in his cheek, but where, exactly? And in the midst of a chuckle -- or appropriately self-conscious bit of jargon (see "masks the countergesture") -- is a telling turn that casts... what? This whole project? The efforts that underlie this project? In a very different light.

Or perhaps I am simply enamored of Bayard for providing me the necessary cover for having forgotten all those books I've read -- and all those books on my shelves (and that I continue to buy) that I might never read.

At least not in the "traditional" sense.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Chris Abani, Song for Night

I am a huge fan of Chris Abani.

But Song for Night left me cold.

I am not sure if it was because I could never quite get over the conceit Abani sets up which makes the narrative possible (in the first person by an Igbo speaker whose vocal chords have been slashed); the disconnect between the language of the narrator, My Luck, and his purported age; or the slowly emerging sense as I pushed to the close of the book that I was reading something by Ben Okri.

And I have never much cared for Okri.

Abani's Graceland was a wonder -- rich, entertaining, evocative. Becoming Abigail made me ache. In my chest, and in my eyes. His poetry I find fascinating. And I am looking forward to The Virgin of Flames. But...

I was, for the first time, disappointed by one of Abani's books. His lyrical mode simply broke down instead of drawing me in. Abani's language, the great strength of his earlier books, simply doesn't fit the story or the "speaker" here.

Perhaps it was a failure of my own imagination in the reading; perhaps I had Iweala and Kourouma and lord knows who or what else too much in mind.

I am sure I will one day reread Song and perhaps it will sing something, or somehow, differently to me then.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poetry 191.2 (November 2007)

I always look forward to receiving my copy of Poetry. Sometimes they pile up and are read through in a great rush (though the September 2002 issue still sits on my shelf unread). But I more often than not dip in soon after its arrival in the mail.

These days I find myself more drawn to the prose than the verse (an ongoing "controversy" among the readers if past Letters columns are to be believed). Oh, this is so unpoetical, but the reviewers and commentators often have so much more snap than the poets.


I found this month's happiness in David Biespiel's "Former Dogs".

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gipi, Notes for a War Story

No, I didn't blow off work to read all day -- though that would have been nice. Young Stalin was finished last night, Notes was started last night and finished before work this morning.

Notes for a War Story is a graphic novel -- a genre that I've really taken to in the last few years. Gipi's artwork reminds me of Ben Katchor, whose work I love. But this volume is dark and in tone reminds me more of Nikolai Maslov's Siberia (jesus, it's those damn Soviets again!!) than anything Katchor has produced.

Notes is relatively simple and painfully worldly -- unlike Katchor's rather delightful (if often melancholic & strangely both pedestrian and surreal) flights through the not quite familiar urban landscape. It is also quietly effective and affecting, and those last few panels of Giuliano (and the photographers) watching the nameless amnestied militiamen stepping off the train will stay with me for long while.

You can read a 10 page excerpt on the publisher's website (:01 First Second Books).

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin

I read a review of Young Stalin somewhere -- maybe the Times, maybe I just saw it in the bookstore -- mentioned that it seemed like a very interesting book, and it turned up in my hands as a gift from Melissa. One of those lovely, thoughtful gestures.

There is not, though, anything lovely about Stalin's life chronicled here. While Montefiore has been criticized for romanticizing Stalin -- and there is certainly some truth to that, a result of Montefiore's style more than anything else it seems to me -- there is just something so grindingly horrific about this early life that the supposed glamor feels washed out by the brutality and callousness (in the full sense of the word) of the man and the world he lived in.

And Montefiore spares no detail. I thought Norman Sherry on Graham Greene was exhaustive.

Not sure what to make of this wave of interest in things Soviet. Sitting on my shelf not yet finished is Jochen Hellbeck's Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin. Perhaps a hang-over from the adolescent years of sheer cussedness, directed at my classmates and the world (sadly, I'm one of Ronald Reagan's babies). Or maybe it's because my grandfather, a major in the Estonian Army, died in a Siberian work/prison camp.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Charles Bukowski, The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain

I'm a relatively recent convert to the Church of Chinaski. Back when I first came to Madison and would cruise the used and independent bookstores (notably the old Avol's) I would see shelf upon shelf of the Black Sparrow Press editions of Bukowski. Just knew, looking at them, the placement, the prominence, the sheer bulk of it all, that there was something "hip" about him.

Is that why I avoided him? Did I avoid him?

Yeah, probably. Not proud of that, but there it is.

But some time ago I dipped in and... well... Bukowski is like candy for me know. Collection after collection (if I'm lucky I pick 'em up cheap). Just pop one in and polish it off. A nod and a wink behind the rough and tumble pose. There's got to be, right? Bukowski teeters on the edge of being the Danny Bonaduce of American poetry -- and without the slap and tickle he'd tip over.

Or maybe Danny's struggling to live out an adolescent reading of Bukowski "unloading the goods"?

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain is one of the more recent posthumous collections to come out. They are bound to run out of material, at some point, no? Read in bits and pieces over the last few days, I ran through the poems like I pop Smarties -- in great big gulps, and in fits and starts. Collection to collection he writes about the same things but I'm never bored. Oh, no...

And maybe in that, and the knowing smile he occasionally casts at the reader, is the delight.

And it's in poems like "I have this new room" -- "my disorder was never chosen, it just arrived and then it / stayed" -- where there isn't a wink of any sort, just raw feeling deftly twisted into poetic form that is the very stuff of the poet. And something more than sugary delight.

No wonder "they are after me".

Coincidentally, Jim Harrison reviews the very latest collection -- The Pleasures of the Damned, Poems, 1951-1993 -- in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review.