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...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog From Hell

Perhaps I should have found something a little more... celebratory (perhaps?) coming off my time in Stalingrad. Still, there was a striking -- if fleeting (and slightly perverse) -- nod to the Eastern Front:
this time has finished me.

I feel like the German troops
whipped by snow and the communists
walking bent
with newspapers stuffed into
worn boots.

my plight is just as terrible.
maybe more so.

victory was so close
victory was there.

as she stood before my mirror [...]
"the retreat" (198)

Love is a Dog From Hell gives us a much more... carnal Bukowski than I... remember? expected? Cock and balls, cunt and masturbation, watching schoolgirls, blowjobs, and wanking off as he sits in his car. It's most unrelenting in the first section -- "one more creature / dizzy with love" -- but is pulled throughout.

It reads too like a Bukowski discovering his fame -- not in wonder, or with youthful exuberance, nor with weariness or delight. His fame (and notoriety) is the subject of much of his poetry, but here there is a sense of discovery, as if it's something new worth exploring.

It doesn't feel as if he's wearied of it yet.

What we get is mostly Bukowski. Not Hank or Chinaski -- though a few of these creep in late in the collection (as does a Salomski in "Twins") -- which in itself is rather striking. And there is the stark push pull that characterizes so much of his work (and which, probably, makes it and him such a draw -- lending a thoughtful credibility [or is it patina?] -- aside from the cheap thrill of hanging out at the track, in the dive bar, and with drunks and whores even at such a remove):
sometimes you make a mistake, taking
the wrong poem
more often I make the mistake, writing
"for Al—" (90)
people need me. I fill
them. if they can't see me
for a while they get desperate, they get
"Chopin Bukowski" (101)

I think we all hope for something of the latter, and realize the former is much more likely our fate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943


I was drawn to Beevor's history of the World War II siege of Stalingrad by the glowing reviews I'd read of his forthcoming history of the D-Day invasions.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 is an amazing, jaw-dropping, and horrific history of one of the turning points of the war in Europe. The chronicle of brutality -- of the Nazi push into the Soviet Union, the Soviet push back west, the siege itself, the encirclement of German armies -- is both shocking and all too familiar.

The only word to describe the conflict, over-used though it might be, is meat-grinder. Soldiers and civilians both were simply chewed up (at many points during the siege, quite literally, by vermin and their own bodies and sometimes by their fellows) in the battles, by the hunt for "traitors" and "revanchists", by the awful conditions, by lack of food and gear. Beevor chronicles the fate of individual soldiers (and thus the great mass of soldiers) and officers well and in detail, while also detailing both the political and strategic machinations that shaped the battles and the concomitant horrors.

Occasionally the sheer scope of unit names and numbers that Beevor casts about becomes a bit overwhelming, but the narrative he's built is so strong and compelling that any confusion is temporary (and perhaps in some very small, abstract way conjures a hint of the battlefield itself).

On the whole, though, words fail me. This is an important book. We need to be reminded, viscerally, of the horrors we commit against one another. And Beevor has given us, perhaps, one of the fullest portraits of such horrors of the none too distant past. The truly disturbing thing for me is the realization that thrust into just such a meat-grinder I would turn the crank as vigorously as the next. Not for Motherland, or Fatherland, or any ideology or affection for a leader, but rather, like most of the meat fed through the machine, in a desperate effort to survive.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Edward Miguel, Africa's Turn?

This is the second Boston Review book read. In a row. Miguel's Africa's Turn? summarizes fairly standard thinking on the "African" economic situation (mirrored in a recent New York Times article, "Just When Africa's Luck Was Changing"). Thankfully, Miguel and the various contributors -- and the book itself is made up of an extended introduction by Miguel followed by 9 brief essays by contributors and wrapped up by Miguel -- recognize that you can't really talk about "Africa" as if it was a singularity.

As least we've come this far.

Here is, perhaps, the most representative passage from the book (at the close of Miguel's introductory essay):
It is still too early to know if Africa's time is now. In the meantime, international efforts to reduce Western farm subsidies, use foreign aid as insurance against conflict risk in the most vulnerable countries, end the wars in Darfur and Congo, and promote agricultural adaptation to climate change are concrete steps that may help solidify Africa's nascent transformation. (46)
The take away? "Africa" may be poised to take off. Or it may not. It depends.

Well, no shit.

What will probably happen is that some countries will exceed expectations -- their own and those of outsiders. Others will surprise most and collapse. But the vast majority will push on, taking incremental steps forward and suffering the occasional setback.

And the vast majority of folks will celebrate and suffer and love and work and fight and do their thing as they've done.

This wasn't, by any stretch, a bad book. But I do wonder now why I bothered...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Malla Nunn, A Beautiful Place to Die

Not really one for the mystery/thriller genre -- not from any determined prejudice (hey, my mom's a big mystery reader), but... just never lit me up (similar to never having been taken by horror films is the way I look at it) -- but this one caught my eye and has an African connection, so...

A Beautiful Place to Die reads like it's begging to be filmed. Which isn't surprising considering the author, Malla Nunn, is a filmmaker. Set in early 1950s South Africa (Nunn was born in Swaziland; now lives in Australia -- boy, how often am I going to be typing that about "South African" works in the coming years) the book is a hothouse of "vice" (a misegynistic nightmare for the early Apartheid state), corruption, deception, sex, violence.

You know, standard stuff.

Great fun? Not hardly. For my taste there's far too much violence enacted by cardboard cut-out characters. Nunn does not, to her credit, evoke standard stereotypes (except in having her characters rely on stereotypes -- which seems right, though maybe that in itself is working from rather stereotypical assumptions of early apartheid era South Africa?). But... It's not right to say there's a predictability to the narrative arc (she does mix things up), although... There's a certain uniformity to the mixing?


The ending is much too neat considering the bloody mess it's born out of, with the post-apartheid lessons learned explicitly tagged in the penultimate paragraph of the book. The closing paragraph is reserved for setting the emotional stage for the sequel.

But an interesting book -- though better at the start, before Emmanuel Cooper is locked in the hothouse of Jacob's Rest. Damning with faint praise?


Back to the wars of central Africa...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kofi Anyidoho, PraiseSong for TheLand

It pains me to write this, but I was unimpressed by Anyidoho's PraiseSong for TheLand.

Perhaps it is the reading from the page that is lacking. But they feel... unoriginal. There's little spark, few memorable lines or images that haven't been presented more forcefully, movingly, elsewhere (and in some instances, by Anyidoho himself).

To get an idea of the true power -- the potential -- of Anyidoho's poetry, fast forward to the 57th minute of University of Iowa's International Writing Program's "Africa Night" reading (12 September 2002).

Too many of the poems in PraiseSong turn on imagery that is all too familiar, worn: not comfortable so much as predictable. And Anyidoho's seeming fetishization of capitalization (Winds, Witness, Thunder, Solitude, Orphan Child, and on and on) distracts in print -- perhaps more than it should (and perhaps that's more my fault than that of the poet) -- but not (obviously) in the readings on the accompanying cd. And here is the collections most noteworthy and spectacular (and redeeming) aspect: the inclusion of a compact disc of Anyidoho reading (and singing, with others) the collection.

It is this -- the readings, Anyidoho's voice and performance of the verse -- that make this a collection worth having. And worth returning to. I'm not sure how, on a second and third listen, I'll feel about the imagery and evocation of common themes and background. Perhaps just weary rather than seduced. But there is a passion in the audio, heard, and felt, that is absent in print -- and a passion I am willing to return to, and perhaps be redeemed by, if there is redemption to be had.

Thomas E Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

Part of my "war reading" and, as with my first foray (on Clausewitz), this was rather slow going. To start (though it might also have been exacerbated by the ridiculous number of typos that seem to have escaped the copy/editing process -- really just shocking to see so many in a book of this stature released by a major press).

Unsurprisingly, Clausewitz makes an appearance (or three) here: in the epigraph that opens the book -- "Surprise and initiative...are infinitely more important and effective in strategy than in tactics" -- and twice more as something of a valediction (once the new strategy -- the surge, and the concomitant nurturing of the "Sunni Awakening" and much else -- has been set as the way out of the morass).

I still have not read Ricks' previous volume on Iraq, Fiasco (it is on the pile -- and has been since it's release), but considering the current state of things -- the apparent tactical success of "the surge" and the fact that the economy and Afghanistan have largely overtaken news of Iraq -- I thought it important to try to understand what was happening. And why.

And The Gamble does that admirably. Whether this journalistic first draft of history holds up on each and every point is unlikely, and the early portions are unstintingly depressing, but on the whole it reads as... I can't say it's a "balanced" presentation. I'm not sure there are two sides to the story. But Ricks doesn't seem hell-bent on caricaturing anyone. One of the critiques I heard when the book first came out and Ricks was popping up on talk shows and news magazines to discuss the book was that it read as an "admiring" portrayal: of Petraeus, yes, but also of (the evolution of) General Ray Odierno. And it does. It is.

Ricks was also quick to point out in all those interviews that the tactical, on-the-ground success of "the surge" was not being matched by political progress in Iraq, which the quelling of violence and the military's re-orientation to population protection was supposed to allow (and serve as the "benchmark" for measuring the ultimate success of the strategy).
No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends, it appears today we may be only halfway through it. That is, the quiet consensus emerging among many people who have served in Iraq is that we likely will have American soldiers engaged in combat in Iraq until at least 2015... (325)
The long war indeed. This comes at the end. And though this rather bleak assessment does not stand alone, I do wish there had been a more thorough discussion of how the success of the strategy fits with the purported political goals and aspirations that were set when the surge was proposed and first implemented.

It is more than a little dispiriting to read of how rudderless the administration (and military, for that matter) seemed to be as Iraq spiraled out of control. Not surprising, but distressing. Equally disturbing is reading of how much influence think tanks & retired generals seemed to exercise in the entire process -- not because they were invited in (one could only wish!!) but rather because, in many instances, there was a gap into which they could push themselves. And push they did.

It's not incorrect to wonder if an analogous gap -- between security and political reconciliation -- isn't currently open and widening in Iraq. And that is a cause for great concern, because there's no telling what or who will push their way in.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tanure Ojaide, The Tale of the Harmattan

The Tale of the Harmattan is the first collection of Ojaide's that I've read in some time. I picked it up at last year's African Literature Association conference.

I have been, at best, ambivalent about Ojaide's poetry, at least from my encounters with his earlier works (as published). But I have always really enjoyed his readings, his performances, and the cover of this one was so appealing that I picked it up (and he quite graciously inscribed it to me as well).

I am not sure I would have picked up on the pose that the back cover blurb presents -- "Tanure Ojaide adopts the persona of a homeboy griot returning from travels" -- though perhaps I ought to have connected the poet with the cyclic return of the harmattan. No never-mind.

There are striking lines and some very evocative, almost heartbreaking passages:
At the wobbling Kaiama Bridge that holds the Delta
together, I see a procession of oil-soaked water spirits
wailing their way out. No boats of fishermen plying
the waterways; no regatta and no swimmers in sight.

"At the Kaiama Bridge" (34)
It is a little disconcerting to read what amounts to a paean "For the Egbesu Boys" though perhaps not surprising considering the horrors wrought on the Niger Delta and its people.

It is to the Delta that Ojaide returns, time and again. There is little abject nostalgia (Ojaide is far too adept a thinker, let alone poet, for that); and though not every verse works -- the call and response of "Dialogue" (43-4) just never snaps, for instance -- and there are pages where the relentless and sometimes far too repetitive imagery and cadence of corruption and abstracted oppression threaten to swamp all else, the collection as a whole holds up the promise of the cover: a minimalist, striking, stripped down poetic portrayal of a largely denuded landscape.

Harmattan is a strong collection, and one that will bring me back more readily to Ojaide's extensive offerings ( though I do wish his website were up-to-date and the links all functioning as they ought).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gabeba Baderoon, The Dream in the Next Body

I first encountered Gabeba Baderoon at the 2008 African Literature Association Conference in Macomb, Illinois of all places. She was completely new to me: as a poet, a critic, a commentator. But she captivated at a roundtable I attended and I picked up what was on offer at a reading later that night: The Dream in the Next Body.

I wasn't disappointed. She's a skilled poet and, for the record, a marvelous reader. Her voice blends wonderfully with her verse, and it's hard not to hear her reading to you as you read her lines.

It's a strong collection, but uneven. Let me quote one poem in it's entirety:
To come to this country,
my body must assemble itself

into photographs and signatures.
Among them they will search of me.

I must leave behind all uncertainties.
I cannot myself be a question.
"I Cannot Myself" (23)

Those first three lines, I think, are masterful. There's a distancing Baderoon creates with the use of "my body" that is telling. And yet abandoned in the denouement. It feels too... pat? too neat? Or just that she hasn't bridged that distance? It just breaks down at the turn.

If there is a weakness to the collection as a whole it's that -- taken in one sitting -- the poetry eventually comes to feel like so many set-pieces. There are no punchlines, these aren't gags, and she's not trying out various dramatic effects. But in aggregate I felt like I had just wandered among museum boxes or walked through a hall of dioramas. They were lovely. And evocative. But there was also something consciously-constructed and distant about them.

I do look forward to reading more of her work; and, with luck, hearing her read live again. There is a way in through her voice, perhaps, that I was missing on the page.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem 19.2 (March 2009)

The arrival of a new issue of Hummingbird is always welcome. It went from 4 issues a year to 2 issues a year some time ago, so it's less frequent. And it's always been brief (fittingly). A quick read.

And, as all such collections are bound to be, hit or miss.

The last few issues have really been seasonally focused, so this issue sees a lot of pieces focused on Spring (which is still many months away for us here... unfortunately). Not exclusively, by any means though.

Perhaps the best summary of what I feel to be the ethos of magazine itself is Robert Deluty's (untitled) verse:
in her wheelchair
whipping three grandchildren
at croquet
For those bibliographers reading that's on page 3.

For me, the most striking lines belong to Marjorie Buettner: "There was a time when / you could not stop touching me / for all the world" (18).

Um... yeah... well...

It's a sweet local production, and worth supporting. $5 an issue, $10 for a 2 issue yearly subscription ($15 overseas). Payment for accepted submissions is a copy of the issue in which the poem/s appear. Here's the contact information:
Phyllis Walsh, Editor
Harbour Village
5600 Mockingbird Lane, Apt D103
Greendale, WI 53129

Hew Strachan, Clausewitz's On War: A Biography

This is a volume in yet another of those "little" series that I enjoy so much: this time, it's Grove/Atlantic with the Books That Changed the World (why Grove/Atlantic doesn't have a page devoted to this series on its website is beyond me). I really enjoyed the first book in this series that I read: Janet Browne's Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography.

Um, yeah... well I understand that the above doesn't bode well for the book at hand.

I imagined Strachan's take on Clausewitz's On War to be a quick opening gambit in a war reading series: on America's current involvements and the ongoing war in the Congo. Ah, but as these things go, I too got bogged down, and the rapid, enlightening push to a theoretical grounding turned into a long, hard slog through a litany of troubles.

Which is not to say that it was necessarily a wasted effort. There are points Strachan makes about Clausewitz's understanding of war that jump out at you and, certainly in current circumstances, give pause. I stop, mark the page, close the book, and just think about it for awhile, trying to wrap my head around the ideas: "Strategy was what gave fighting significance; it exploited success on the battlefield and it created the conditions for the next battle, while victory itself was gained through combat and therefore was a matter of tactics" (107) and "At the heart of Clausewitz's mature appreciation of war's nature was its reciprocity" (142) among others.


At the heart of Strachan's brief consideration is the recognition that Clausewitz "was not consistent in what he said" (191). On War was a work in progress that Clausewitz revisited, rewrote, and edited over years and years, and was nowhere near completion on his death. Strachan seems intent on cataloging in great detail (referencing book and chapter number -- paragraph number where appropriate) all such inconsistencies. Not in an effort to belittle the book. Not at all. Strachan has a great appreciation for the work and its continued relevance. But Strachan's own book is one that is written by someone with almost too intimate a knowledge of the original. It is almost a talmudic reading of Clausewitz -- which certainly has its place but hardly makes for an engaging general introduction for a lay reader.

Such is war. Though I would have wished for a less strenuous opening gambit. As remote and theoretically focused as I had imagined it would be, I had hoped for something also a bit more enlightening, engaging and, yes, a bit easier, knowing the long, hard, bloody slog there is ahead.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Threepenny Review 116 (Winter 2009)

I have been getting The Threepenny Review for some time now. It arrives, I take a quick peek, I think I really ought to start it now, I put it on one of the piles of magazines...

And there it sits.

As this last issue sat. For a bit. But on a pile that was closer. A pile of more current magazines and articles. One that turned over more rapidly than most. And since for the last two or three weeks a bad back has compelled me to walk instead of running to the office, I had that much more time to read.

Finished though it was in the sweet, warm confines of home, the bulk was read and enjoyed on the road. A mish-mash of articles, fiction, and poetry, it was uniformly strong and engaging. By far, to my thinking, the most intriguing was Gideon Lewis-Kraus's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" (not, sadly not, available on the Threepenny website): detailing his encounter with the performance Call Cutta in a Box. Lewis-Kraus's own experience, his own performance in the written piece, is at once understated (almost transparent) and yet, as perhaps it's meant to be, transformative.

For as gripping as that piece was, my interest rarely waned in the others. A closing story by Mary Gaitskill (who I had never read before), a piece on the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who I don't believe I had ever heard of before), a dismantling of Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight -- all engaging and all, almost without fail, setting off little flurries of thought, often bringing me up short to scribble notes of my own, as I trundled back and forth between the office and home over the course of this last week.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Grégoire Bouillier, Report on Myself

What an interesting little book Bouillier's Report on Myself is. And I use "interesting" well aware of the possible double edged nature of this particular descriptor. Caroline Weber, writing in the New York Times, enjoyed it. As did most of the reviews aggregated at The Complete Review (which in its own review enjoyed it far less).

Bouillier, and I can't help but note this, chronicles a rather hard childhood, which seems to run counter to the opening line of the book, "I had a happy childhood." Or perhaps it's because Bouillier presents something far different from a chronological memoir. Instead, he opens chapters firmly in the past, with the six, seven, eight year old self and drifts and meanders along through second great loves and their dissolution, or his brother's disappearance, or...

So maybe I don't have a proper picture of his childhood, muddled as it is with loss and hurt of later years. Or maybe it's Bouillier who lacks perspective.

Structurally -- schematically -- I am quite enamored of the book. He makes the jumping about work for the most part (though, perhaps intentionally, I found myself rather lost and at sea as he he embarks on his own Odyssey -- striking a rather heavy-handed and labored pose as Ulysses in the late-middle stages of the book).

It's also quite something to read that "For eighty-five hundred francs a month, my job was to compose, in fewer than sixty characters, news items about children killing each other as they got out of school, husbands cutting their wives' throats, mothers smothering their babies, not to mention suicides" (117). Ah, the more things change...

Funny how even ones own reading circles back on itself. In little ways.

Do I risk a final judgment? I trust I do a better job with my son than Bouillier's folks did with him. It can't be that hard now, can it? Ah, but will Owen have as much material to work with or the drive to work it in the manner and to the extent Bouillier does? Ah, well, that's a risk I'm far more willing to take.

The book, the book? Not as strong as his later work, The Mystery Guest (which actually appeared in translation first), but, slight as it is, worth a visit.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Toyin Adewale, 25 New Nigerian Poets

Anthologies of multiple poets are always spotty affairs. Toyin Adewale's 25 Nigerian Poets is no different.

Interestingly, it includes two rather unremarkable poems by Helon Habila -- "Birds in the Graveyard" and "After the Obsession" (the latter starts strong but becomes mired in cliche when he explicitly conjures the obsession) -- three years before he "burst" onto the scene with his novel, Waiting for an Angel.

The strongest poem in the book is probably Remi Raji's "Cyclone", which opens:
Nightmare flickers
In our twice – thrice-beaten
eyes, no more meaning
in the gram, no gram
in the grammar of lives
my pain goes
like a stubborn present
our pain
Is a stubborn
Adewale hopes that this collection is "enjoyed as an appetizer" (v) and yet there is little joy in these poems, midwived, as she says to open the "Introduction" to the collection, by "[t]he stimuli of suffering, the pain of the motherland, the desperate passion of a people who have found their collective national heritage pillaged by thieving generals" (iii). One does wish there was just a bit more art to them, though.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Philip Ardagh, The Not-So-Very-Nice Goings-On at Victoria Lodge

I was drawn to this little bit of nonsense -- The Not-So-Very-Nice Goings-On at Victoria Lodge -- sitting on the clearance cart at Half Price Books (a moderately interesting mostly illustrated book for $2? of course I'll buy it) because the author (whose name I recognized) is one that my son, Owen, is reading (okay, okay: and that we are reading too, together, as he drifts off to sleep at night).

Gun-toting (never seen) aunts and sisters, plotting servants, and "an over-stuffed robin, packed full of dynamite" (31) make for a pleasant enough diversion. It's not a children's book, at least not in the same way that Ardagh's Eddie Dickens and Awful End books are. The illustrations -- not by the author but copped instead from The Girl's Own Paper (0f 1891-1892) -- are a delight, if you go for that sort of stuff.

And I do.

I suppose I'll leave this out so that one day Owie stumbles across it. He probably won't know what to make of it all. Which is sort of the point. Sort of like the very stuff of our lives: cut and paste and cobbled together to create a mostly absurd story to tell our friends, families, and ourselves.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation

fill in the blank...


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader is a little slip of a book, but a delight at that. And though perhaps not to everyone's taste, I can't imagine any devoted reader not taking a great deal of quiet, easy pleasure from it.
As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed, and passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. "All right, old girl?"

"Of course. I'm reading."

"Again?" And off he went, shaking his head. (13)
It is witty and smart without being precious, and he seems to light into just about everyone with equal, quiet glee; though perhaps the monarchy (in the person of the "real" Queen, the flesh and blood Elizabeth II) comes in for it more than others. It's hard to know, for She is rather a happy warrior, if a lonely and initially unwitting one at that. I'd stand with her.

And that's all to Bennett's favor.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jonathan Brent, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia

I seem to have something of a literary fetish for Stalin. Odd coming from someone whose grandfather died in the gulag?

Young Stalin, Koba the Dread, Revolution on my Mind... Maybe it's just totalitarianism. Maybe there's something in me. Maybe there's something I imagine might be in Stalin to explain... what? Why we're so cruel? How it is that after millions dead we still act the way we do, in ways both small and large?

Not quite memoir, nor history, Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives is a pleasing mix of both, with a strong dose of current events thrown in; perhaps to justify the "Discovering the New Russia" subtitle. I'm not sure there is any substantially new ground turned over in the work, but Brent is a good writer with some interesting stories and an eye for entertaining and telling detail (though he does, occasionally, overwork the latter).

The most telling detail, for me, is the story Brent repeats at least twice and which he closes the book with (a struggle with trying to understand what's happening in Russia; why the figure of Stalin, as a revered figure, persists; why anti-Semitism has exploded... again): Stalin chastising his son for taking advantage of his name -- "Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, not even me!"

If I ever really understood that, could feel that, I would be dead to everything. But to try to understand that? Look around you: we have to try.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Paul Madonna, All Over Coffee

Paul Madonna's All Over Coffee is a marvelous book. It is a collection of strips from a daily and Sunday comic series that Madonna did for the San Francisco Chronicle. The text is minimal, poetic often (without being pretentiously so, though there's a slip here and there), and the drawings are just beautiful.

As I was thumbing the book in the bookstore I was immediately reminded of the work of Ben Katchor, who Madonna notes briefly as an influence in his Afterword (more on that later). And I love Katchor.

But whereas Katchor is, perhaps, playfully surreal, Madonna is astonishingly focused and detailed and yet at the same time stripped down. There are no people in his work which makes it at one and the same time both entirely your own and oddly unreal. The text accompanying each picture is evocative and more like a snippet of conversation overheard among... well, almost ghosts. I think this is part of what gives the pieces their haunting, ethereal beauty.

Madonna also includes a rather extensive Afterword, where he goes into great depth of the hows, whys, and wherefores of the strip. Interesting, all of it. And he is a good writer on the whole. Yet there seems something... obsessive isn't the word. Unnecessary? Clearly (though rather perplexingly to me) the strip was controversial -- perhaps for its minimalism? -- and the Afterword reads not so much as an apologia (which would be insufferable) but rather as an effort to explain. In great detail. So that you have the opportunity to understand. Everything.

Wholly unnecessary. Though clearly Madonna felt compelled. Well good on him. No worries. But you? You go ahead and enjoy the strips -- they're marvellous.