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.