Tuesday, December 30, 2008

John van de Ruit, Spud

John van de Ruit's Spud feels like something of a throwback. It's the story -- in the form of a diary -- of a 14 year old boy's first year at boarding school in South Africa. It's not particularly brutal, but hardly wistful or overly-romanticized. It's just fun. Familiar -- even to those like myself who never went to boarding school (though perhaps I did just enough summer camps away to connect) -- without being cringe-inducing or uncomfortable.

There is the requisite death (without dwelling on it or maudlin drama; these are 14 year old boys, after all, not 50 year old men channelling 14 year old boys), a grand drama (the school is staging a production of "Oliver"), lots of farting, barfing (not so much connected to the...), drinking (the majority being done by the adults), madness, and sex, sex, sex. Or rather talk about sex. The sex that is had, if it is actually had, happens off-stage.

Like much of the life of a 14 year old boy.

Good fun, on the whole.

Though now, I suppose, I really ought to turn my attention back to "serious" South African literature. And we all know what that means (though someday I do wish someone would explain to me why): buggery. Lots and lots of buggery...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Edmund White, Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel

Rimbaud was something of a shit. Much more of a shit in his early years than the latter (such as they were -- dying at 37) but something of a shit through and through.

At least, such would Edmund White's Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel lead us to believe. And I have no reason to doubt. The double life, of course, refers to Rimbaud's (very) early attention to poetry (or rather, the "poetic" life & poetry -- the latter marking a sea-change in French verse; the former marked by his acting the part of a mammoth shit) and his subsequent turn away from poetry and, after fits and starts and plenty of dead-ends, refashioning himself as a trader in the Horn of Africa primarily.

I do wish there were more on those last years. White covers them but spends the bulk of this slim volume on those early years, as a poet, as a shit, as master of the poet Verlaine (no cuddly love muffin himself, I might add), and as terror and brute towards just about all others (as well -- for he was a terror and brute to Verlaine).

The book itself is put out by Atlas & Company, which has seemed to come out of nowhere to start publishing beautiful little books that, if nothing more, look fantastic. There were a few typos in this volume which I'm sure one of the editors read and thought, dear god!! I wish they weren't there. But they are.

Next up, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. Not immediately, but soon enough. I'm just rather happy to be free of Rimbaud.

Did I mention he was something of a shit?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Graham Greene, The Third Man & The Fallen Idol

It's been awhile since I've read any Graham Greene. A long while. And the Greene I've read in the last 10 years has been Norman Sherry's massive biography, Gloria Emerson Loving Graham Greene, and... oh, there was a slight little volume of his Kurtzian trip up the Congo.

I picked up the bundling of two of his novellas -- The Third Man & The Fallen Idol -- for a dollar and set it aside for the trip home. Disappointing? No. But they are no The Power and the Glory. Nor am I the same -- boy? man? -- that read Power and The Comedians and Our Man in Havana and... I kind of miss that boy. Not wholly, but for the way things sang in me.

And it's rather odd, let me tell you, to be reading Graham Greene and thinking about Joan Didion. The narrative trope of Greene's "The Third Man" -- the reconstruction of events from notes, testimony, personal recollection, files -- reminds me so much of Didion's novels. Don't ask me which ones, I'm not home with my library. Not Play It As It Lays but maybe The Last Thing He Wanted? Democracy? A Book of Common Prayer?

I love Didion. I loved Greene. I love my memory of Greene (which is vague and dreamy and wrapped up with crossing myself in European cathedrals).

Because now, of course, different things sing. Which is why I keep reading. And which is why I'm looking forward to finishing up Sherry and reading Greene's selected letters. And why, one day, I am sure I'll reread The Power and the Glory and ache and wonder why. Again. It's just, now, I'm not expecting an answer.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Charles Bukowski, Come On In! New Poems

Unlike the last Bukowski I read, Come On In! did take hold of me. Not for the usual reasons, though (such as they are).

This is the first collection where Bukowski was showing his age. Showing his age and, at times, almost a maudlin side. And an increasingly self-deprecating humor and playfulness. The latter being, to me, and my passing familiarity with his work, the most striking.
unconcerned with
petty argument
we have floated free...
giant macho soaring

"gender benders" (247)

It just rings and sings and laughs unlike anything else of Bukowski's that I can remember.

The end of the collection collapses into ruminations on aging, marking -- and accepting -- as old and dying everything that once simply was, and perhaps was run hard. The poems "old poem", "older", "everything hurts", "husk", "cancer", and the collection closing "mind and heart" -- among so many others -- present an almost gentle man, so at odds with the image evoked in the mythology and so much of his poetry.

It's intriguing. A little startling too. And part of me wants my tough guy back.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Philip Roth, Indignation

My, my... I'm a bit of a late convert to Philip Roth, only discovering his works (that means actually reading them) in the last few years.

He's a hell of a writer.

His characters are pretty much bastards. And Marcus Messner, the protagonist of Indignation, is really no different. But who among us -- and I guess by "us" I mean the once modestly gifted late-teenage/early-twenties male -- isn't or wasn't a bastard at some point, an arrogant, self-satisfied know-it-all with a chip on his shoulder? His sheer pig-headedness and egoism (in the more clinical sense of the word?) is discomfiting and quite off-putting.

But in some sense I suppose it's what I admire most about Roth: his willingness to stick with these nasty folks, to play out the worst (and the banally callous), to see not redemption at the end but life (and death) and the very real messiness of it all -- even when it leads to the laughable but ultimately grotesque "Great White Panty Raid of Winesburg College."

The narrative is a little more gimmicky than most; the story a rather odd throwback (mirroring the setting). Does it work? I think so. Maybe. I'm kind of... ambivalent about it (which is also the sense I get from the Gates and Kakutani reviews in The New York Times -- I do think it could make a helluva film). But I've been ambivalent about most of the Roth I've read. And I continue to pick him up and... well, I guess I'll continue to pick at and worry that inner bastard through Roth; at a somewhat safe distance.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jane Mayer, The Dark Side


Or maybe it's more properly, "Ugh!"

At last, though, I'm finished reading Jane Mayer's, The Dark Side. And I say that not because it was a bad book -- not at all -- but rather because it is such a good book. So thoroughly and unremittingly effective in what it sets out to do: detail how we, the United States, has become a state that uses torture.

That's it.

That's bad enough. For me. And difficult enough to wrap my head around -- and impossible to accept in any real terms. That's my failing.

There is a point in the book that Mayer discusses the sense in which on paper many of the techniques described -- stress positions, extremes of hot and cold, sensory deprivation (or overload), humiliation, etc -- don't seem like much, don't seem to rise to the level of torture individually. And yet the cumulative effect, stacking one such practice on top of another, can brutalize.

And it dawned on me then why this was proving so hard for me to read: Mayer never stops. It's one case after another, one brutalization following the last, in all its gory detail of pulverized flesh and furtive masturbation and hooded beatings and... Despite reservations within the government and military, despite court rulings, the apparatus keeps pushing on, removing players, revisiting and revising legal rulings so that our agents can continue. At some point I just wanted her to stop. To spare me the details.

She never does. Because there's been no end to it. Still.



Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 19.1 (September 2008)

Almost without fail, I tear into a Hummingbird when it arrives.

Okay, perhaps that's an unfortunate choice of words. A little gruesome that, and perhaps a little too... active? passionate? frenetic? a description of my relationship with the journal. It's much more like I curl up and read through. Usually once but sometimes twice (perhaps at some remove).

It's a quiet, sometimes far too earnest, but always pleasant time. The best issues have a few short pieces that strike just the right chord -- with me, with the season. with... something.

Art Stein's "The Poet" is just such a piece:
to plagiarise
have not
gone well

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Charles Bukowski, Dangling in the Tournefortia

Bukowski or Chiasson? Chiasson or Bukowski? Dangling in the Tournefortia or Natural History?

I went with the safe pick. The known. What felt easy, for the last weekend of summer. Bukowski.

Perhaps known too well. I won't say that I was bored by Dangling, but... There was nothing gripping here. Nothing new. Of course, it could be argued that there's little "new" in Bukowski as we step from collection to collection -- I'm willing to own that as much as the fact that it might have been... well... just me that failed in the reading. Wrong time. Bored with the prospect of heading off to the track, hammering away at the typer, hammering away at my liver and my lungs.

First published in 1981, it sits roughly in the middle of his living production (the sheer volume of posthumous collections makes his oeuvre exceptionally top-heavy; the Tupac of the poetry world). So maybe he was tired. Maybe he was bored.

Or maybe it's all just a crap-shoot and we can't analyze these things too much. I'll stop trying. And I know I'll read more Bukowski. When he does grab me, he's an awful lot of fun...

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ceridwen Dovey, Blood Kin

I'm not sure what to make of Blood Kin. Or rather, I'm not sure what I make of Dovey's novel.

No doubt it is, in no small part, because I have a hankering after a strong sense of place. And Blood Kin exists in that netherworld reminiscent of Coetzee's work (to whom she has been compared -- it's rather an obvious parallel to draw, not the least because of her own personal geography; Coetzee also provides a blurb for the jacket). No blame in that.

And the novel works. A bit fantastic; more broadly fantastic than Coetzee's work, which to my thinking is so effective because it takes that ethereal No-Place and grounds it so thoroughly and starkly in one individual. Dovey's work weaves together six narrators. It works. For the most part.

Part of my quest for place is rooted in the fact of it being summer -- and my hankering after our own, my own, American South -- and my continuing search for a sense of South Africa (draw your own conclusions). I wouldn't say I expected it in Dovey, but I had half a mind looking for hints of it.

Ah, but it's a new day, and I'm getting old; I should yield more freely to the gifts of the young.

I will be interested to read what comes next. I suppose a short story in The New Yorker is inevitable -- following in the footsteps of other arguably African Next Big Things (Adichie and Akpan come immediately to mind).

In the meantime, you can read a review of Blood Kin in the New York Times, listen to an interview on NPR, peruse her website, and view some video of her on YouTube -- on her book, on power, and on beauty; as well as a reading or two.

The cover, by the way, is about as striking a cover as I've seen in a long while. It just looks good on the shelf.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Eric Hobsbawm, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

Hobsbawm's On Empire is a rather pedestrian presentation of the tottering, unstable American empire; an "empire" deserving of the quotes, unlike any that has gone before (because it exists in a world unlike any that has gone before). In very simplistic terms, then, it seems to me that the history Hobsbawm presents -- more often than not in glancing comparisons to the past British empire -- is of limited use for anything other than setting off how the times are so very different.

Ah, but what is history "for" after all... Lordy, it's too early.

In setting off the times and the American "empire" from others that have gone before he succeeds rather well. There are, too, touchstones that Hobsbawm returns to time and again that bear keeping in mind: that inter-state wars have largely fallen by the wayside, that armed conflict tends to be on a smaller scale, yet its impacts on civilian populations has magnified; that there is no territorial underpinning to the American "empire," it being instead largely a matter of force projection than territorial coherence, or even incoherence (and thus, any pax Americana is necessarily an attempt to impose or keep the peace without, whereas in the past -- for instance, pax Britannia -- it has referred to a peace the within the empire, albeit a peace that has been aided by peace without).

But not surprisingly for a book of collected addresses, it doesn't quite hold together. Nor, I suppose, should it be assumed that it will. Too bad, on the whole; though not a bad read. It has left me with a few things to think about... if no great insights.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Charles Bukowski, Bone Palace Ballet

Back to one of the old stand-bys. Bukowski.

I find it impossible to "date" his work -- early? late? somewhere in-between? It all seems in-between: between worlds, times, memories, moments. And that's probably the great draw. In fact, I'm sure of it. Feed the inner-rebel, the angry young man, and yet maintain a bit of the dilettante sensibility: sleep with whores and go home to Mahler; get drunk and fight and go home to the typer and hammer out a bit on Dostoyevsky.

But there's something a little different about Bone Palace Ballet. Not on the whole. But he writes of his daughter and far more of his wife than I can remember in previous books. ("In previous books" only in the order of my reading -- "in other books".) And of his age -- though there is less surrender than simply the fact in it.

And he does have perhaps the most unblinking assessment of wannabe writers I have read anywhere:
"the weak"

are always proclaiming that
they are now going to concentrate
on their work, which is usually
painting or writing,
it is known, of course, that they have
talent, they simply haven't... well...
And on he goes. Oh my... ouch. Truly. True. For some? For most? For many? For me?

For me? No. I hope. Still. Ouch.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Calvin Trillin, Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist

I've always really enjoyed Trillin's work. While I haven't read any of his food books (for which he is widely... known? published?), I developed a taste for his memoirs and reportage (of which the most recent that I've seen is "The Color of Blood" and "Capital Fellows" -- in issues of The New Yorker from the past months) and thoroughly enjoyed his novel, Tepper Isn't Going Out.

I never was one for his "Deadline Poet" schtick, and I don't think it's just because of my own pretensions as a poet. I don't, for that matter, think my pretensions have much to do with it. It just... Well, I didn't think his "doggerel" (his word; I'd probably use, in my pretension, "light verse") was all that funny.

But I was at a poetry reading with a friend, was looking for something light, saw Trillin's Deadline Poet sitting by the elbow of the arm that held the hand which held my head as I half paid attention and half reflected on the pretensions of these other poets, and thought: what the hell, I like his stories.

Ugh. Nothing.

It's not just the (Trillin-tagged) gray, bland quality of the Bush I years (around which most of the book and Trillin's doggerel revolves) but there's just nothing to it all. The core -- the verse -- never much appealed to me but I suppose I expected or hoped the stories around it all to redeem. John Sununu? C. Boyden Gray? Early Clinton (Bill)?

I don't know, maybe I've become too earnest. But it left me cold. At least it's finished. And on we go.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Yasmina Reza, Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy

It's been far too long. And I have felt the lack. Not of reading -- I have managed to keep up with that, though not nearly as much as I would have liked (and I have certainly been feeling out of sorts for it, for the lack of concentrated, focused time, pushing through) -- but rather of finishing. Of staying with one book and reading through.

Maybe even being compelled to push through with that singular focus.

A number of books started and slowly hacking away at. For me, no way to read. But there it is for the moment.

But I did finish one yesterday. Bought as a treat, with a coupon, from Borders, on the first evening of my sister and niece's visit here to Madison: Yasmina Reza's Dawn, Dusk or Night.

I first read Reza when her play Art made its splash. Then stumbled across her Adam Haberberg. While I enjoyed Haberberg (though if I am remembering correctly, "enjoy" isn't quite the appropriate word...) I loved Art. Never seen the latter performed, much to my chagrin.

Dawn, Dusk or Night was on my wish list because of Reza, because of what I'd read of its style and quality of reportage, and because I have a soft spot in my heart (and perhaps my head too) for France.

It is an intriguing work -- and disturbing. It is not at all a flattering portrait of Sarkozy. It is not, for that matter, a straight-forward portrait. "Evocative" is a descriptor that has, I am sure, been used far too frequently. But Reza dances around this man; her prose approaches, grabs, captures, paints around, and dances away.

And Sarkozy ends up looking like almost every other politician you've ever read of. Or imagined.

Yet nonetheless he is given what is, to me, the most affecting line in the entire book, and not one you'd expect in a portrait of an electoral campaign:
"When you start qualifying love, it stops being love." (138)


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers

I stumbled across The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers last weekend while browsing the "graphic novel" (comics?) shelves in Borders. Part of the draw, I suppose, was the memory of some Satyajit Ray films I saw last fall. And enjoyed.

The story of Barn Owl -- such as there is (since there's really not just one story) -- is interesting enough, and a bit of a history lesson, such as it is. I enjoyed it certainly.

The drawing is a bit pedestrian. Pleasant, but not spectacular or particularly innovative. Banerjee does, though, employ an interesting technique in places: a photograph as background with a drawn character placed in the scene. To rather striking effect.

Banerjee's website is a bit of a disappointment but I will keep an eye out for other works by him.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tod Wodicka, All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

I seem to have found my way to reading stories of old men at the end of their lives, stories written by younger men (some much younger if Wodicka's book jacket photo is any indication) cutting right to the bone.

Or maybe it's just what I imagine to be the bone.

Cutting nonetheless.

Another excellent book, All Shall be Well... Perhaps not as deeply, profoundly affecting as Out Stealing Horses but only, perhaps only because it is far more of a rollic at times, especially early in the book, than Stealing ever is (or tries to be). It's a bit shaking, in fact, how much fun the early chapters are, to be followed with the very moving and very difficult mid-section, when the narrator, Burt Hecker, an old man with a disfigured nose and broken family life, looks back.

It is so interesting, but the brief reviews I've read make it seem so bloodless (talk of Burt as a medieval re-enactor, folk musicians, his family lawyer, etc & et al) -- all of which are there, are a part, and a substantial part, but written out in a review sapped of all their power and play. And yet I make my way to the New York Times review of the book, one of the longer reviews, and I disagree: "the artless, wordy and underarticulated writing that makes “All Shall Be Well” such a Black Death of a chore to read"?

Really?!? Not for me.

But maybe I just have an artless, wordy, underarticulated soul...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Good lord, I have seen the future -- and certainly if my reaction is any measure, at least substantial echoes of the present -- and it is in Trond Sander, the narrator of Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.

It's still so fresh and, because of the power of it -- the understated power of it (is this a Scandinavian trait? I'm sure there are plenty who might ascribe it thus) -- raw... But that doesn't really do it proper justice. I actually started this book a week ago? Two? But have delayed, time and again for the past 4 or 5 days (I pick up the newspaper, I turn on the television, I fall asleep reading The New Yorker -- almost anything but pick up the book), in part because I don't think I want it to end, in part because it rubs up against so much.

Not unpleasantly. But achingly. Quietly. Like an anticipated fever.

It has won prizes and gotten laudatory reviews elsewhere -- including in the New York Times -- that can speak to the specifics far better than I. Not only is it surprisingly emotionally powerful; the characters -- lightly sketched -- are amazingly vivid; and the story -- or rather the telling of the story -- is ingeniously and masterfully structured.

And I can only hope that Trond is right, echoing his father at the close of the book, that "we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt."

Boy, oh boy, have I made some lousy decisions; but some good and proper ones too. Kiss.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers

There is nothing shocking in Fred Kaplan's Daydream Believers. Nothing that will make you slap your head and exclaim "Now I understand!" (though I did want to slap my head any number of times and exclaim "You must be kidding me!!").

But it is a lucid, engaging, and to my mind fairly well-balanced review of how we got into the mess we're in.

And by "mess we're in" I do not mean -- nor does Kaplan mean -- just Iraq.

Rather, Kaplan stretches back, back, back to Truman (though only briefly) and works his way up, exploring how various ideas, both grand and not so grand, concerning how the United States could and should approach the world and global security challenges were put into practice through the years. And resulted in an over-stretched and under-resourced military, a foreign policy that has left us more isolated than we need to be, and money pouring into projects that have little bearing on the threats this country does face.

It's a smooth read, avoiding much of the repetition that comes with books born out of stories written for other outlets (which Kaplan notes though is quick to point out that this is not a collection of previously written pieces), filled with lots of detail that I was not aware of (and names of "obscure" figures -- and names that recur and made me thing, "huh?" until I realized that it didn't really matter whether I remembered just exactly what everybody did at every step of the way), and tying together neatly, and not at all as a patchwork, the various players in the current drama.

It is astounding how all of the pieces fit together (and how all of the players owe and are owed by the others); and it is almost laughable, at points, how so many of the folks Kaplan discusses have just sort of stumbled through their work and into positions of greater and greater responsibility (which they were unprepared for and/or sometimes just willfully ignorant of with regard to the impact they could and would have).

Almost laughable, if it weren't so deadly serious.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

JM Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

JM Coetzee is one of those "can't miss" authors for me. Or has been. Until now. Even books I haven't really known what to make of going into them, or worried I'd be utterly bored -- such as Elizabeth Costello or The Master of Petersburg or The Lives of Animals -- have, in the end, in the reading, gripped, shaped, shaken, excited, or just left me thinking. Deep.

Until Diary of a Bad Year that is.

Maybe it's the gimmicky split level narrative. Maybe... Oh, hell, I don't know. It's gotten plenty of laudatory reviews: from Book Forum, the New York Times and elsewhere (including a rather more thorough reflection in Slate).

So take their word for it. Not mine. Coetzee's always worth reading (and apparently worth discussing, formally, as the Penguin Reading Guide illustrates). Just don't read this one first. You'll miss all the real good stuff.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 18.2 (March 2008)

Ah yes, another Hummingbird arrived earlier today. Fitting considering the time of year. Though not quite; not at these latitudes.

Always such a pleasure to flip through it though this time around nothing outstanding. Nothing distinguishing. Other than the little magazine's return from the dead.

So still, as ever, pleased with it's arrival and happy to have spent the time with it. Something akin to eating a roll of Smarties.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dean Young, Skid

I had a hankering for a bit of surrealism. Albeit at some remove from the banal but occasionally... surreal is too dramatic a term for those moments in life... "surprising"?... And connected, where I could connect. Unlike the Simic I had read many years ago that just seemed like so much word play (and not very fun at that). So...

Start again.

I had a hankering for a bit of surrealism and found it in Dean Young's Skid.

I wasn't swept away by the collection, but I never am -- with either verse or prose -- when I enter into it expecting anything, let alone to be carried on. And somehow, for some reason -- seduced by the cover blurbs perhaps, by something I read online of his other collections -- I was expecting the world. Instead I found little crystals.
When young, fall in and out of love like a window
that is open and only about a foot off the ground.
Occasionally land in lilacs
or roses if you must
but remember, the roses
have been landed in many times.

"Whale Watch" (40)
There was my famous use of humor
that Jordan said was the avoidance of emotion.

"Even Funnier Looking Now" (81)
But isn't that all we can hope to find, are lucky to find? Crystals that speak to us in the moment?

What a good horse he is...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Christopher Hope, My Mother's Lovers

Back to South Africa.

I've really enjoyed the books of Christopher Hope's that I've read. I haven't read a lot of them -- the most egregious gap being the seminal, A Separate Development -- but I've always been engaged and entertained. And they've compelled me to think. Less about the book (which I am too busy enjoying) than about the world around me, and the world he evokes.

My Mother's Lovers is no different. It is an acerbic, pointed portrayal not just of the "new" South Africa but of the role, place, and imagination of whites in Africa more generally. I was, for the most part, thinking as much as I was enjoying -- and loving both. Through a long stretch of the book, at least.

Somewhere about the middle of the book, though, it starts to teeter on a May-December romance which never quite breaks to the banal but threatens to. And the ending is almost Coetzeean in its easy acceptance (among the characters) of the reality of what, on the surface at least, is an almost absurd swapping out of identities.

I probably should, and have erased a number of sweeping characterizations about the book being "well worth the read" because such are trite and not really all that instructive. Tastes differ, after all; and I am sure -- to read the back cover blurbs is enough to confirm this -- that others will engage this book in a very different way than I did. But this is a book that I could fairly easily work up a conference paper around (or, at least with it and the issues raised at the paper's center), and be happy doing so: rereading and mulling it all over, that is.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tony Hoagland, Hard Rain

Tony Hoagland has to be one of the smartest, unabashed poets working in the English language today. I haven't loved everything he's written, but then that would just be weird.

Hard Rain is a great, short piece of work -- a chapbook of delight.

If I were a better poet -- hell, if I were a poet -- I could have written and dedicated "Visitation" to my past love ("I kneel and weep a little there") while "Dialectical Materialism" is the closest thing to an ode to globalization (that works) that I've read.

Talk about a crazy range; despite "how difficult it is // to be both skillful and sincere". Hoagland succeeds, I'm convinced, because he leavens both with skepticism and clear-eyed self-awareness, tapping his and our own doubts about what it is that makes up our poetry and our lives, writ both large and small.

Shorter, indeed, but more consistent (easier to do? but surely only just...) than What Narcissism Means to Me -- the first I read of Hoagland and the collection that drew me into his verse -- I have a feeling I will return to Hard Rain over the coming years. Happily, not regretfully, so.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Donald Revell, The Art of Attention: The Poet's Eye

As much as it pains me to write this, The Art of Attention was a misery.

It has been awhile since I really felt like I had to slog through a book, but this was surely one. Perhaps this is mere pretense on my part -- not recognizing how often artists (and everyone) does this, day to day -- but it's almost unseemly how Revell uses his own poetry in the latter half of the book to illustrate his points.

Whatever they might happen to be. And I'm not sure what they are.

As best I can tell, Revell holds to the mystical notion that poetry springs from... mystery. Or rather: Mystery. I wouldn't disagree, but it's hard to get a whole book out of such. Hence, perhaps, his reliance on self-consumption... and regurgitation.

It's like listening to a particularly earnest and ecstatic executive chef (and an insufferably self-focused one at that) -- say, for Applebees -- wax "lyrical" and obtusely over the marvel of souffles.

To Revell's credit, he does not trumpet himself as master -- it is not nearly so gross as that -- but there is an unsettling egotism to the entire book.

All that said, there are some interesting bits: reminding the reader of Wallace Stevens' admonition that "being there together is enough" and Revell's own assertion that "Composition is taxidermy." And there's this little gem of an exercise:
"Sometimes I like to ask my students to translate one of their own poems into a nonexistent language of their own invention." (71)
That strikes a masterful note. Noteworthy, unfortunately, for how it stands out among the clanging, tiresome rest.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America

Quick, quick as it's time for me to fly. Or actually drive. But this last little bit I've been engaged reading about Amerigo Vespucci. Judicious, engaging, balanced (if rather critical of Vespucci, Columbus, and the lot of the early European explorers of the "New World"), Amerigo succeeds in sketching the man, from limited sources (very limited sources), and the world he lived, worked, explored (to some extent), and puffed himself up in.

Vespucci, it turns out, was sort of a shit. But as Fernández-Armesto points out, most of "them" were. The book, however, isn't.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tenaya Darlington, Madame Deluxe

My god, almost two weeks since I finished anything of substance?!? Maybe that's why I'm feeling so funky. That's funky in a bad way, not in the Madame Deluxe way.

But the read itself was enjoyable... enough? No, that's damning by faint praise. Not everything worked (as you would expect) but I suppose, for me, that the "failures" -- those passages and pieces that don't quite connect -- are more glaring in poetry than in prose. Certainly than in novels, where the scope and expanse of the narrative (and the sheer weight of the words) tends to sweep through and over the infelicities. In the very engaging works, at least.

But even the most engaging poetry collection isn't enough to swamp the failures. Which is not to say that there are failures in Tenaya Darlington's Madame Deluxe -- certainly none that have stuck with me.

These are poems with an edge and a spice mildly reminiscent of perhaps the greatest (to my mind) book-length poem of all time: Suzy Zeus Gets Organized. A bit more holistically playful than Suzy Zeus, and certainly more poetically, formally "inventive" (Darlington is at play with the words and forms deployed -- and they are "deployed", quite consciously, or so the collection reads).

Her "The Student Asks the Poet Basho: What is Victoria's Secret?" is one of the great examples of the above. It could have become too cloying, too clever, and far too obvious. It's none of those.

And it is all very much worth the time it takes to read.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Félix Fénéon, Novels in Three Lines

Novels in Three Lines is a fascinating, evocative, and somewhat disturbing collection of newspaper filler written in 1906 by Félix Fénéon. A sample (at random):
"During a pleasure outing in an ill-famed neighborhood of Toulon, Brigadier Hory, of the 3rd Colonial, was stabbed to death." (13)

"Twirling a lasso and yahooing, Kieffer, of Montreuil, committed thrice in two years, galloped away. He vanished. He went on to hang himself." (56)

"Too bad! Mentré of Longwy, who revealed to us he was the winner of the 250,000 francs in the tuberculosis lottery, seems to have been hoaxed."(107)
Well, the last wasn't wholly at random. I scanned the pages trying to find one that did not involve yet another accident (crushed thorax), suicide, or murder.

It is a brutish, violent world that comes across in these "novels" -- but perhaps only proper as Fénéon is compelled to come right to the denoument, the world tied up as it is among and before the three lines.

I did tire of them at times, having to put the book down and rest. Get some space. It was... just too much unhappiness and death, at the hands of others and oneself. But a fascinating way to see a frantic, mad, and bloody world, not unlike our own.
"What?! Children perched on his wall?! With eight rounds M. Olive, property owner in Toulon, forced them to scramble down all bloodied." (60)
Damn, Toulon was rough!

Poetry 191.4 (January 2008)

I'm now traveling about a month behind in Poetry -- the arrival of the February 2008 edition reminding me to dip into the prior month's that was sitting on my end table.

The poetry itself was engaging but not exceptional this month, nothing struck me as wonderful or notably awful. Though, for that matter, I'm not sure that there has ever been a poem in Poetry that has compelled me to buy a collection.

The prose, the reviews, that's another matter. Though here, this month, I have to say I was disappointed. There has been an edge to the prose of late, of the past year? more? It's hard to tell at this point. But a smart -- it's been criticized as "snarky" -- wit about many of the reviews. This month's were weak. Mackowski's dismissal of Atwood (and celebration of Jamie) perplexed me -- I'm no partisan of Atwood's but I couldn't understand the argument from the examples provided. And Mlinko on Pinsky and Kinzie was a dismal conflation of the worst of the emotive and academic impulses in literary criticism.

Bring back the snarky, please!!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nadine Gordimer, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories

I keep reminding myself that Nobel Prizes are awarded for past work, not the promise of work to be done.

Nadine Gordimer's latest collection, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, has left me perplexed, disappointed, but I hope not wholly put off her writings.

I first read Gordimer late in my graduate career: on my preliminary exams I explicated one of her short stories for... what? Two hours? Three? And thoroughly enjoyed it. There was depth and nuance that was easily accessible yet not at all superficial.

I should really go back through my files and see if I can find out what that story was.

And then there were her later novels: notably The House Gun and The Pickup, both of which I found to be engaging studies and stories of the "new" South Africa.

But here, in her latest, I struggled early to find anything that I could connect with, a storyline that I could buy into, that felt... that felt like some little piece of home. Instead I stumbled through a memoir of a tapeworm (and a not very engaging one at that -- tapeworm, that is), a memory of a dream of Anthony Sampson, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said. I mean, really...

I haven't read Gordimer widely enough to know reliably whether these are merely exercises she is using to explore new narrative territory for her, or perhaps just struggling to find her way to a topic that moves her -- and while the stories themselves sometimes read a little rough (there were more than a few times I had to reread passages before I could make sense of who or what she was writing of), her style has survived largely intact.

Unlike many collections, this one does strengthen the deeper one pushes into it, as Gordimer begins to imagine and more fully immerse herself, as an artist, in the lives of those who are more distant from her. And while the "Alternative Endings" that close the book are the sort that churn my stomach, each of the three dealing with marital infidelity, they are also among the strongest pieces in the book.

And while I wouldn't want to read an entire collection of such, they were welcome... comfort? No, not comfort; but in looking out and beyond, the dreamworld or the intestinal track, Gordimer connects.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine

I am a relatively recent reader of books on current events, any more sustained attention really having come into play over the last three to five years. And that's been driven in no small part by our rather grotesque engagement in Iraq and my desire to try to understand what the hell has happened and where we're heading.

But I'm not a (wholly) narrow interest reader, which is why books like Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court do grab my attention. And why I let that attention (and my grubby little paws) then grab the books.

Well, that and the titled "promise" to pull back the curtain on the wizard...

A book of secrets this is not, however.

I certainly know more having finished the book. And it is both a relatively quick and rather enjoyable primer on the modern Court (though not one that is likely to please the strict constructionists of the world who ask for rigor and footnotes and dispassionate reporting and/or analysis). Dispassionate this is not. Toobin both feels strongly about the Court (and the Justices who once did and currently do sit on the Court) and is willing to channel the strong feelings (be they real, supposed, teased out, or perhaps wholly imagined?) of the Justices themselves.

And to my mind he does a more than credible job in presenting the import both of the cases that have been brought before the Court and the opinions rendered (both majority and in dissent).

It presents a Court that I feel myself to have imagined -- though the close-up portraits of the Justices (many of them rather unflattering) and Toobin's fleshing out of the machinations on the Court (and between the Court and the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Executive) only hinted at in mainstream reporting both titillate and, to my mind at least, inform.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Charles Bukowski, The Pleasures of the Damned

Bukowski is still a treat. What does that say about me?

I am not an acolyte. I neither aspire to write the poetry of Bukowski nor to live the life of his poems. My one substantive, if passing, brush with Los Angeles was years and years ago when I took two days to walk the length of Sunset Boulevard from Union Station to the Pacific Coast Highway before hopping on a plane to New Zealand.

But he is getting harder to read, maybe because I am seeing less of the wink and the nod and more of what seems to be the very real struggle and difficulty and hardness in the life portrayed.

This struggle and pain -- raw but also masked by no small bit of bluster -- is set off in The Pleasures of the Damned by the oddly (and uncharacteristically) surreal pieces, and those others -- equally rare and uncharacteristic -- that betray a real tenderness and vulnerability.

What does that say about Bukowski?

I think that he tried.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Marguerite Abouet & Clément Oubrerie, Aya

Aya is the first "African" graphic novel I've come across. At least as an actual, physical specimen. It's a collaboration of an Ivoirean writer (Marguerite Abouet) and French illustrator (Clément Oubrerie) and put out by Drawn & Quarterly.

It's beautifully put together, the illustrations are straight-forward but evocative (and I do enjoy the way that Oubrerie uses washes of color to set the visual tone for the panels), and the story itself couldn't be more simple. I'm not sure that I would refer to it as a "comedy" or even self-consciously "humorous" as various blurbs and reviews have noted. Not that it's humorless -- not by a long shot.

But it is more gentle than anything else: the story, the characterizations, even the illustrations -- there is a softness to this short work that is very appealing.

I seem to rely on the gentle these days.

You can read the opening pages here (pdf). Do so.

Monday, January 7, 2008

David Leavitt, Florence, A Delicate Case

Another long delay between books and... well, inevitably, I feel out of sorts for it. Not plowing through any particularly lengthy tome -- though I am currently working through a few different books and collections in bits and pieces -- but instead I'm settling back into life at home, after another (glorious) reading vacation in Virginia.

To keep to the road show theme, I just finished David Leavitt's rather tepid Florence, A Delicate Case. This too is part of a larger series -- Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City -- and while not a waste of time it was, at best, well... tepid.

Or rather my reaction was such.

It is a very personal and yet at the same time rather distant accounting of primarily the foreign -- that is English -- presence in Florence. Name-dropping (of names that prove I am not nearly as literate as I should be in the British diaspora of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), extended quotations, and quite a bit of "inside baseball" talk as far as the social machinations of the expatriate community -- and how this was all portrayed in various literary works (of mostly middling quality) -- make up the volume.

Now Leavitt acknowledges as much towards the close of this slight book, but awareness (laudable) does not make the book any more enjoyable. I will, to be sure, move on to the other volumes in the series (have already read and thoroughly enjoyed Edmund White's stroll through Paris) but am not particularly inclined to delve into anything else of Leavitt's.