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.