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.