We Were Eight Years In Power collects eight pieces that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic, one from each year of the Obama presidency, and provides new introductions that give each of them a context from the time of Trump. This hindsight narrative also deals with Coates’ journey as both a writer and public pundit/intellectual; and, even though the latter has given him a wider audience—and access to the president’s ear—it often means he’s cast in the impossible role of spokesperson for his race, a burden no writer wants.
The title is from 1895, from Thomas Miller, a black congressman from South Carolina, and refers to good black governance that was quashed by Jim Crow. In essence, the book is an attempt to examine the Obama presidency in the context of America’s racial history. Coates’ historical research is compelling and upsetting, confirming not only one’s worst thoughts about slavery itself, but also detailing the ways that racial prejudice and hatred have shifted and evolved to accommodate changing times. There are two essays that are, I think, indispensable: “The Case for Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. Well researched, both measured and angry, they are significant additions to American letters. It’s work like this that earns his comparisons to Baldwin.
Coates looks at Obama pretty much within the confines of American politics—it’s not his business to analyze America’s situation globally, he’s more concerned with where Obama fits into America itself. He writes of Obama’s upbringing, the black boy in a white family, and of his belief in the idea of America and the values of Lincoln. Beliefs, it must be said, that led him to underestimate the possibility of a Trump presidency.
Obama lost points when he talked about Trayvon Martin, “he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black.” Coates is very articulate on the subject of black rage. And he’s absolutely necessary on the way that white America constantly excuses itself or gets excused. He has little use for those people who blame economics and not racism on the success of Trump. A racist is now in the White House; this book, subtitled “An American Tragedy,” is a potent analysis of the country that put him there.
* It Takes A Village
A thirteen year old girl disappears without a trace somewhere amongst the hills and reservoirs surrounding an unnamed village in England’s Peak District. Although we yearn to know what befell her—a crime? an accident?—Reservoir 13, despite its very formal plotting and structure, is the opposite of a mystery; it’s pacing is almost leisurely. Jon McGregor examines the impact of her disappearance in the context of the minutiae of village life over time—the teenagers who hung out with her, their parents, various families, shopkeepers, the folks at the pub. The book is composed of thirteen chapters, one for each of the dozen and one years that follow the vanishing, and each contains thirteen long paragraphs, corresponding to the months of the year, with an extra for the Christmas/New Year holiday, the time of the disappearance. A few sentences in each year for each person outline their lives over time; woven in with their stories are seasonal details—the annual holidays, the pantomime, the cricket match, council meetings, plantings, harvests, the yearly cycles of sheep farming, weather, as well as glimpses of the natural world of foxes, badgers, insects and birds. The various narratives—who’s sleeping with who, who’s in financial or marital difficulty, who’s in trouble with the law—give us a vivid sense of familiar, ordinary everyday life, but they also create an accumulating sense of menace. Are any of these people responsible for that girl’s disappearance? Will we ever know? McGregor tells us what they’re feeling and thinking, but, in the end, we may feel no closer to them than we de to the foxes; the novel gives us a bird’s eye view. It reads, at times, like an almanack. The whole effect is like a piece of minimal music—there’s a sameness to it, yet the repetitions are compelling and, at times, profound.
* Days Without End
The picture on the dust jacket of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is an Albert Bierstadt painting from 1860, and it’s exactly the right image for this novel about two young men in America in the decades before and after the Civil War. A Hudson River School painter, Bierstadt loved light and he loved the immense, beautiful vistas of a verdant America; in many ways, he saw the world through eyes similar to that of the narrator of Barry’s book, Thomas McNulty, an Irish lad from Sligo, who moves from one breathtaking landscape (Missouri, Wyoming, Tennessee) to another. Thomas does not travel alone; at the age of 17 he meets and falls in love with another boy, the handsome John Cole. They will never part. Their first job is in a bar, posing as women and dancing with love sick men. Then they do a stint in the army and the Indian Wars, then the Civil War, and then try to settle down in a most unconventional family. Their love is matter of fact and it’s deep as a well, the world they move through, and the book they inhabit, is profoundly violent—lynchings, massacres, horrific hand to hand combat. This is among the most brutal books I’ve known; it's also one of the most tender. What makes it all work is the stunning voice that Barry has given Thomas: lyrical, poetic, grounded in everyday dirt and poverty, yet wise, open, generous—I believed every word of it. When Thomas speaks of his love for John Cole, it could stop your heart. On one level, Days Without End could seem a picaresque series of adventures, but it’s both too lovely and too horrific to be simply that. Bierstadt’s painting is such a perfect illustration, yet another, and seemingly opposite one, would serve as well: the landscape that lingers in the mind when the book is done is as haunted as one of Sally Mann’s photographs of Civil War Battlefields.This is a very, very fine piece of work.
In 1969 Ursula K. Le Guin published the fourth novel in her Hainish Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, set on the icy planet Gethen. Le Guin is always a pleasure to read; she’s so smart, so inventive, and her prose is very fine; what’s remarkable about the world of this book is that in addition to being simply a terrific piece of storytelling and adventure, it’s an extraordinary exploration of gender. The Gethenians are ambisexual; once a month they are in oestrus and, depending upon the individuals and the circumstances, can become either male or female. Even though the sexual politics of the book may be dated (“he” is the pronoun used for everyone and same sex relationships aren’t a factor), the book doesn’t feel like an archaic artifact; it was as exciting rereading it now as it was when I first discovered it in the early 1970s. Le Guin is a generous writer, her worlds are far from the all white norm that was sci-fi back then; in addition to their androgynous nature, Gethenians are brown skinned, and the lone Earthling on the planet is a black man. The last section of the book, a perilous journey across mountain and glacier, is vividly described and emotionally dramatic. It’s just a great, intelligent yarn, a wonderful place to get lost in the dead of winter.
* All Alone in the Big City x 2
Olivia Laing moved to New York from England for love; when she was dumped, she worked her way through depression and loneliness by obsessively studying the work of a handful of American artists. Not only did she spend time with their work, she also spent time in museum and gallery archives reading journals and letters in an attempt to get as close as possible to the intersection of biography and art making. She was drawn to an eclectic bunch: Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas, and David Wojnarowicz. Unhappy (sometimes violent) childhoods abound, as does the AIDS crisis. Although The Lonely City is, in many ways, a memoir, Laing’s story takes a backseat to the lives and work of others; her loneliness opens doorways to a bigger world. She’s very good on the desperate isolation of the contemporary world where people are constantly connected by machines and devices. We’re in the hands of a compassionate and articulate guide, and a wonderful art critic. She very fittingly ends with Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit, a piece that speaks so simply and so eloquently to a great many things (AIDS, race, mortality, impermanence, friendship, loss, the nature of art); Laing's book is, in many ways, it’s verbal equivalent.
Another kind of aloneness in New York is the subject of The Guardians by Sarah Manguso, an elegy for her friend, composer Harris Wulfson, who threw himself in front of a train when he was 34. Manguso was one of his best friends; her book is more about her own loss than about his life, and contains a series of meditations on his psychosis. What we most come to understand about him was his role as her compassionate buddy; what’s absent is a strong sense of Wulfson as an artist, a musician who was also a software engineer. She writes about purposefully going late to hear a piece of his because she “knew it would sound meaningless to my ear. I hadn’t gone beyond calculus, and Harris lived in a place where math was erotic.” He set a poem of hers (“Hell”) to music, but she doesn’t attempt to describe what it was like to listen to it. Wulfson's musical life gets the backseat, which is a bit unnerving.
* Globalization’s Seer?
The son of a Polish activist who was exiled by the Tsar, Konrad Korzeniowski left Poland first for France and then for the sea, ultimately transforming himself from sailor to writer, and from Pole to British citizen. Joseph Conrad wrote when steam was replacing sail in the world of commerce; he saw more of the globe than just about any writer of his time. Five decades after his death, Chinua Achebe famously called him a racist; in the forty years since people have wrestled with his reputation. Maya Jasanoff, the Harvard professor whose previous book was about the United Empire Loyalists, has just published The Dawn Watch, a biography that claims him as the first great writer of globalization. She makes her case with a handful of his books (The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo), analyzing them through such lenses as terrorism and imperialism. (Her family background makes her a compelling reader of Conrad: her paternal grandparents were born in Poland; her mother, in India.) It’s a fairly breezy and informative read, well researched and personal; in addition to her time in academia and archives, she travelled by cargo ship from Hong Kong to England, and by boat down the Congo. It would be hard to find a better contemporary introduction to the man’s work; while being very aware of his faults (Achebe wasn’t wrong), she does makes us look at it with new eyes.
Apart from taking another look at Heart of Darkness a dozen years ago, I haven’t spent time with Conrad since a summer in my late twenties when I read a half dozen of the novels one after another; Jasanoff makes me long to revisit some of them.
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
James C. Scott examines the period in human history when hunter-gathers became state dwellers and has much to say about how that transition was anything but cut and dry. It took thousands and thousands of years and the demarcations were nothing if not fluid. What comes as a surprise to most of us is the superiority myth of civilization; we were better off before elites took over the grain supply and started running things. Healthier, less stressed, more leisure time, longer lived—why did we ever start living behind city state walls and working for the one percent? Scott maintains that the walls were built as much to keep us in as to keep the hoards out. And he has more than a few generous things to say about those barbarians. The Neolithic revolution, that is, ‘civilization’, he writes, “represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life.” His is a smart, thoughtful book, a part of the Yale University Press Agrarian Studies Series.
The Genius of Birds
Jennifer Ackerman’s enthusiasm for birds is a pretty fabulous thing, and her latest book documents countless experiments and theories from around the world that delve into on the magnificence of the descendants of dinosaurs. From the problem solving abilities of crows, to the aesthetic artistry of bower birds, the memories of jays and hummingbirds, aural perceptions of landscapes, evolutionary relationships between speech and birdsong—she goes from one stunning item to another, making us look at the world anew. It’s a glorious read.
It’s also a sobering companion to Scott’s Grain book and his idea that civilization “represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world.” When she writes about the remarkable mapping abilities of pigeons and the fact that the bird’s hippocampus may increase with use, she also tells us about research showing that our use of GPS, that is, our growing reliance on technology rather than natural navigational abilities, results in the opposite of increase to the human hippocampus. The further we get from the natural world, the less sense we make of it. Every book written about nature these days is a cautionary tale. As we make one amazing discovery after another about the genius of birds, we are reshaping the planet into a place that eradicates one species after another.
* The Ghost Orchard
It’s no surprise that Helen Humphreys packs a surprising amount of history and knowledge into her slim history of the apple; concision and clarity are her forte. (And her research is very fine.) The Ghost Orchard is first and foremost a memorial to a friend by way of a journey that begins with a particular kind of apple. The fall that Joanne Page was dying, Humphreys found the tree beside an abandoned cabin and fell it love with the taste of its apples; it would be the tree’s last fruit—the tough winter that followed destroyed it. She began to research the White Winter Pearmain, embarking on a history of the apple in North America. It’s a quirky and illuminating journey, the story of First Nations orchards, of Ann Jessop, a Quaker who brought apple scions from England and became known as Annie Appleseed (she predated Johnny by half a century), of the artists, many of them women, who painted apples for the US Department of Agriculture, of the trees of Robert Frost; and all of these are emotionally tied to the story of her deep friendship with poet Joanne Page. The book is a small, beautiful object, with glossy plates from those USDA painters; a gem.
* Sibling Rivalry
Sister Brother, Gertrude and Leo Stein is a very even handed look at two people who were called, behind their backs, the Stein frères. Brenda Wineapple tracks these two incredibly different, difficult, privileged siblings from their childhoods in California, through their university careers in science and medicine and on to Paris, 27, Rue de Fleurus, Matisse, Picasso and beyond. Both were obsessive: Leo with mastication, fasts, feet, and his theories of art, and Gertrude with her own genius; both were indispensable to the story of modernism. At one point in time, the siblings were so close that there were rumours of incest; it all went to pieces not long after Alice B. Toklas arrived, which was around the same time that Leo found the love of his life as well, Nina Auzias, known as “Nina of Montparnasse”, a singer and sometimes woman of the streets. The Steins story is also the story of what can only be called The Set, folks like Mabel Dodge, the Cone Sisters, and Bernhard Berenson, who moved back and forth between their lives in America and Europe. At times it feels like everybody who was anybody turns up (Bertrand Russell, William James, John Reed, Carl Van Vechten), and, of course, the artists—Matisse, Marsden Hartley, et al. With a few merciful exceptions, people are often not at their best in this world. Some are extremely catty; here’s Mary Berenson in 1910, “Miss Stein came, fat beyond the limits of imagination & brought an awful Jewess, dressed in a window curtain, with her hair hiding her forehead & even her eyebrows. She was called Taklas.” (At least she got her name wrong.)
Then, after being dependant upon each other for half their lives, Leo and Gertrude did not see or speak to one another for their last three decades. When she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she erased effectively him from the story of her life. She became a lion of modernism, while he struggled for years before finally finishing Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose. Gertrude’s life with Alice is well known (even though people tend to forget such details as their support of Henri Pétain, who Stein compared to Washington); the part of this story that was new to me was Leo and Nina’s. He was an impossible pain (well, really, they both were), but she adored him and, two years and a month after he died, she turned on the gas and followed him.
* Pearl, A New Verse Translation by Simon Armitage
From the very first line, “Perle plesaunte to Prynces paye,” this poem, which dates from the late 14th century, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever known, as lovely and moving as Bach. In its 101 stanzas a man tells us he’s lost a pearl, and that this gem was his daughter who died in childhood. He dreams of her; she appears on the far shore of an uncrossable river, grown and adorned in pearls, a bride of the Lamb of god. Their dialogue is the heart of the poem. When he tries to cross the water and join her in paradise, he awakes, still bereft but calmed by her words. It’s a great poem of grief and consolation. Simon Armitage has done a very good translation. The rhyme scheme (ababababbcbc) is lost, but he gives us inner and half rhymes; his lines are less compact, but he has a fine ear and the poem reads well. With the original on the facing pages, one can work through the Old English and realize its glories.
Bot he on rode that blody dyed, / But may Christ who died on the cruel cross
Delfully thurgh hondez thryght, / horribly pierced through His pale hands,
Gyve the to passe, when thou arte tryed / set you free in that final trial
By innocens & not by ryghte. / if not by right then by innocence.
* Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In near You by Charles Taylor
What a joy it is to read a book about the movies by someone who not only can write, but who has a lot to say that’s worth listening to. Charles Taylor is the increasingly rare kind of movie critic who is more than a fan; he reads, goes to galleries, and has a strong social and political eye. In his first book, he looks at a great decade of American cinema, not through the acknowledged classics of Coppola, Scorcese, Altman and all, but through B movies like Prime Cut, Hard Times, Winter Kills. Here are terrific essays on the magnificent Pam Grier, on Bill Cosby and Robert Culp back when they were young and cool, on directors like Walter Hill, Irvin Kershner, and Michael Ritchie. Taylor is very good on the way movies reflect their political moment; he’s witty, hardboiled, a wonderful companion. In its own modest way, this is a pretty thoughtful history of America from Nixon to Reagan.
* Joan Didion
Because I’d watched Joan Didion, The Center Will Not Hold, the documentary Griffin Dunne made about his aunt, I wanted to go back and take a look at the first book of hers I read. Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been with me since I bought it nearly fifty years ago (Jesus!); I loved it then and I’ve dipped into it over the years, but mostly, I realized, to look at a sentence (“Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls…”), or a paragraph (the wry opening of I Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Mind) that I loved. I hadn’t read the Haight Ashbury title piece in a very long while. She takes a journalist’s detachment to an odd place; she’s certainly there, she’s observing and she wants us to know that she’s in the room, but she’s not exactly present. She’s so very cool, it’s as if her body lacked corporeality, as if she were, physically, someone who smokes but does not sweat. I realized that what I loved about that book more than anything else were those beautifully structured sentences.
I’m one of the few people on earth who wasn’t big on The Year of Magical Thinking; god knows the woman was slammed by misfortune and grief, but she wrote about it as if she had discovered it, as if the death of a loved one had never happened to anyone before. “This will happen to you” she wrote as if she were a soothsayer. I wished that I loved revisiting this first book more; but, oh, those sentences! She's certainly not someone to abandon. I’ve ordered Political Fictions from the library.
* Tunc tua res agitur paries cum proximus ardet
Richard, the protagonist of Go, Went, Gone, is a retired Classics professor, a widower, resident of Berlin (specifically of the former East Berlin), who becomes involved in the lives of a handful of African refugees, all men, who are trying to work their way through a hellish political and bureaucratic maze in order to find work and make some kind of sense of the nightmare that has descended upon their lives. Richard slowly becomes entangled, first intellectually and then emotionally. In order to make sense of their stories, and of the worlds they come from that are unknown to him, he asks them questions and then examines their answers through lenses that he does know: Classics, Western literature, history. This is the third novel by Jenny Erpenbeck that I’ve read, and she excites and fulfils me in ways that few other writers have done. She’s compassionate and political with never an ounce of sentiment; she has a deep interest in history that is both illuminating and investigative, and she experiments with form. This novel is also a primer on what refugees face if they manage to survive war, famine, genocide and god knows what else before surviving drowning in the Mediterranean. We come to know these displaced, unhappy men who are given the status of characters in epic poetry and myth. And we come to know Richard’s world of privilege and academia. There’s obviously been a tremendous amount of research and interviewing (the refugees’ narrative is based on the OPlatz Movement; the book begins just as the protest encampment at the Oranienplatz plaza has been cleared) and Erpenbeck does the remarkable thing of making her research into something dramatic, poetic and profound. You never think “Oh, I’ll just skip through this analysis of how the third Dublin agreement works,” because we’re with her protagonist as he’s working his way through it all. Susan Bernofsky is (again) her translator, and the prose is clear and clean: wonderful writing. The book is an attack on Western policies towards the crisis but it never reads like a polemic. In one magical passage, the stories of the men he’s met make Richard think of the Brothers Grimm, of princes and brothers setting off to combat enchantments and dragons, to earn their inheritance: “Not so long ago, Richard thinks, this story of going abroad to find one’s fortune was a German one.”
* The Last Word, Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy
Julia Cooper was only 19 when her mother died and she has been looking at how we give (and don’t give) voice to loss for the dozen years since; her book looks at a host of things, from Roland Barthe’s Mourning Diary to Cher’s eulogy for Sonny, from Steel Magnolias to Joan Didion, and it’s a pretty engaging read. She’s angry, witty at times, and has a keen bullshit detector. A smart little (just over 100 pages) read, The Last Word is part of Coach House’s Exploded Views series.
The world of I Am A Truck is contemporary Acadia as it might have been imagined by Eudora Welty: wacky and over the top at times, but as firmly rooted in rural New Brunswick as “The Wide Net” was in Mississippi. The Lapointes are about to celebrate their twentieth anniversary when hubby Réjean goes missing, leaving poor Agathe to fend for herself. Nearly all that happens along the way is surprising, as Michelle Winters flips back and forth in time, charting the couples lives before and after Réjean’s empty truck turns up on the highway. It’s a zippy read, with a cast of eccentrics. When told that he needs to find himself a hobby, Réjean doesn’t take up fishing or collecting or reading, he decides to make a hobby of sitting in his truck and pretending to do violence to imaginary men who have designs on his wife. Winters is also a visual artist, and even though the book is slight, it has more weight than the paintings, which tend to whimsy; she avoids it here. It’s in English, most of the dialogue is in Acadian French, and the whole thing is lively and generous; reading it made me pretty happy.
* Here and Gone
James Baldwin was 44 when he published Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone; he’d been writing for the theatre for a few years, and the novel’s narrator, Leo Proudhammer, is a famous black actor given to such phrases as, “My eminence hurt me sometimes.” Because Baldwin is so significant and so bright, one yearns to embrace him totally—maybe especially now, when the ugly backlash to a black presidency is in full malignant flower. The loves of Leo’s life are a white actress, a Kentucky blue blood named Brenda, a younger man, hip and radical, often referred to as Black Christopher, and Leo’s brother Caleb, who is adored and then rejected when Caleb finds Jesus. The book spans four or so decades of Leo’s life, and consists of a series of long scenes linked by pages of “and then I did” narrative storytelling. Some of the scenes are spellbinding, others are not. (The Harlem childhood sections are the strongest.) So much of the writing here doesn’t ring true; despite his own history, the backstage stuff feels like it was written by someone whose knowledge of the theatre came from the movies. The characters are mostly two dimensional, flat, and the guessing game as to who is based on who (Is that director supposed to be Elia Kazan? Is that restaurant Sylvia’s?) isn’t a lot of fun. The book’s strength is its anger, which is full and raging and insightful. What keeps one reading is the extent to which Baldwin will not let white America off the hook; it’s the melodrama and awkward structure that frustrates. He’s so insightful about America and so damn smart, one wants to keep rooting for the book even as it disappoints. It’s frustrating, like one of those later minor Tennessee Williams plays. But just when I’m ready to give up, I’ll come across something like, “I was discovering what some American blacks must discover: that the people who destroyed my history had also destroyed their own.” He understood America better than just about anybody.
September, October 2017
* Precios perle wythouten spot
Having fallen way behind in the book department, I was determined to make a dent in the pile before leaving NS for the city. The Simon Armitage translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was sitting near the top; I picked it up last night and just couldn’t stop reading. Hadn’t looked at the poem in years, probably not since an undergrad term paper called something like “The Christian Use of Non Christian Elements in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” What I loved most about the poem when I first encountered it—and loved even more about its sister, Pearl, was the language. I had a prof who insisted we read the work aloud and corrected our pronounciation. How fabulous those words felt. There are the glorious archaic ones, there's the alliteration, the ABAB rhyme that ends each stanza. And the great opening scene and then the hunts at the Green Knight’s estate, which are so vivid and violent, juxtaposed to the attempted seduction of Gawain in the bedchamber. Alas, my Middle English is all but gone, and Armitage provides a true service. He honours the form of the original (alliteration abounds), yet the work feels fresh and alive. A joy of a thing.
* Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
On the stage, Antigone has long been politically versatile, illuminating oppressive regimes from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa; in Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire, based on the play, the lives of the children of a jihadist become enmeshed with those of the Home Secretary and his son, and a personal familial story becomes a global one. A resonant, unassuming title, unadorned prose, and brevity are hallmarks of Shamsie’s seventh novel. She writes very well about what it is to be young, frustrated and idealistic, and she has a profound understanding of what it is to be both Pakistani and British, to belong and not belong. The old bones of the Sophocles play are strong and clear under this new flesh, but Home Fire is very much its own self: profound and compelling, a politically astute and deeply moving look at the present moment. It’s just a tremendous piece of work.
* A Murder and a Memoir
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was a law student opposed to the death penalty until she encountered Ricky Langley, a pedophile who had murdered a six year old boy and hidden the body in his closet. What his case opened up in her were the wounds of her own abuse at the hands of her grandfather. Because of what happened to her (and her sister) and because of the way her parents handled it (very badly), she could not look at Ricky’s case objectively. The Fact of a Body is an investigation into her reaction, a telling of the stories of two very different families, Ricky’s and her own. She’s constructed it very well, drawing parallels, moving expertly back and forth from one to the other, looking at various ways each might illuminate the other. She’s taken what can be called creative-nonfictional liberties—dressing Ricky’s mother in the clothes of her own grandmother, for example—which she acknowledges, even though, at times, she’s doing the literary equivalent of leading the witness. Her own story is poignant and tough, moving through what is now fairly familiar memoir terrain (self abuse, anorexia, acting out, etc.) but she’s not given to self pity; she puts herself under the same microscope she uses for the adults in her family. It’s her obsession with Ricky’s story that carries the book, and she digs deeply into the life of a boy from a family entrenched in poverty and tragedy, a kid who tried to figure himself out, who tried to get professional help, but who couldn’t stop himself from being a monster. Marzano-Lesnevich is so desperate to understand him, as well as to examine her grandfather’s legacy through him, that she gives us a richly detailed account from all sides: the innocent boy who becomes a killer. His story has fairness, weight and horror. When the mother of the murdered boy comes to meet him in prison, when she says that she’ll help him avoid the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich understands how desperate and deep their story goes.
* Molly McCully Brown, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Molly McCully Brown is subject to seizures. The premise behind this very young writer’s first book (she lookslike a teenager in her publicity photo) is that if she had been born a few decades earlier, she would have been stuck in what used to be called a mental hospital and sterilized. And so the work is personal without being confessional. The poems are very good, the book well organized—we see into the minds of imagined patients and staff in the mid 1930s, at the height of the eugenics movement. It’s a really promising debut.
* Jeffers Lennox, Homeland and Empires, Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763
There are lots of reasons why the first volume of the U of T’s Studies in Atlantic History series is as compelling as it is, and one of them is that Jeffers Lennox builds large sections of his book around the analysis and investigation of a century’s worth of maps (more than forty are illustrated), showing how they had as much to do with propaganda as they did with cartography, and were often as reliable as Fox News. The mapmakers had agendas, and Lennox puts them in the context of the shifting fortunes of the major players. He illuminates the difference between the “imperial fiction” (that is, what the European powers projected as their territory) and the situation on the ground, where, quite often, a power like England had little real control outside the walls of her forts. Another reason to love the book is that the Mi’Kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki peoples are not background colour in the ongoing French English disputes, battles, treaties et al, but major players. Lennox examines the creation of the city of Halifax and its devastating effect on the futures of Acadians and Mi’Kmaq; given the current climate, with angry conflicts and debates focused on the significance of such public symbols as the Edward Cornwallis statue, his work could not be more timely.
A Man of Letters, The Selected Dramaturgical Correspondence of Urjo Kareda, edited by Jessica Riley
*When he was artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, Urjo Kareda famously read and responded to all unsolicited manuscripts, which meant that in addition to discovering the occasional new voice, he read an enormous amount of stuff that ranged from the alright, to the not so good and dull, to the mean and wretched. Urjo was a complicated man, very smart, very funny, with great theatrical instincts for plays that were text based. Like everyone else, he was biased and had his shortcomings, but he loved writers and actors and the process of making theatre. He loved the emotion of theatre, the opera of it. He often had a weakness for the sentimental. If he cared for you and your work, he was generous to a fault. My relationship with him was complicated. We met through an unsolicited script, and were very close for a few years. He was the first person to champion my writing. Then we had an ugly falling out as messy as a divorce; after a couple of years, because we were so fond of each other and each other’s work, we reconnected. But the connection could never be as close as it had been; our friendship was replaced with a working relationship. Mending fences made me happy, but it wasn’t as much fun as the old days.
All of which is to say that I come to this 550 page doorstop of his letters with a fair amount of personal baggage. The format of Riley’s book is simple; here are hundreds of letters to various writers of those unsolicited play scripts, as well as quite a few to playwrights he loved working with—Joan MacLeod, Judith Thompson, Morris Panych, etc. (There is also the sole dramaturgical letter I got from him; for the most part, we met in his office, and because we talked about the work, there was no paper trail.) In many cases, Jessica Riley has sought out playwrights’ responses to the letters they received years ago and appended them. They fall pretty well into two camps: the ones who say that Urjo was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the ones who have no use for him and his opinions of their work.
I wish that Man of Letters didn’t make me as sad as it does. I owe him my life in the theatre. Urjo was from a generation that wanted to create a body of Canadian work where none had existed before. He was the Star’s theatre critic in those barren days before the arrival of James Reaney, David French, David Freeman, Michel Tremblay and the rest, and his job meant that he spent way too much time reviewing things like Liberace on tour at the O’Keefe Centre. He told me more than once about his excitement when new Canadian work began to surface. He was determined to foster playwrights and give Canadian theatre a larger voice. He was a passionate man on a passionate quest. And so, when he got the Tarragon job, he daily worked his way through the slush pile and responded to one and all. A Man of Letters is the record of all that time and effort.
He’s blunt—“the melodramatic action and violence at the end seemed contrived” he writes to one playwright and, “I am sorry not to be more encouraging” to another. When he’s had enough, when he’s fed up, he can be unkind, “Juvenile jerk off fantasies,” he writes to the author of something called Death Whore, a writer who’d been sending him plays for years. (He end this letter with, “I don’t think that continuing this relationship is good either for your development or mine.”) He’s effusive with his favourites—“I am this play’s slave from this moment on,” he tells Judith Thompson when he reads early scenes from I Am Yours. It's lovely when his tenderness comes through, because he was, in many ways, quite a tender man. And, because he was also a producer of plays in a small theatre with a tight budget, he often mentions money when he questions cast sizes, set changes, etc. (In my first play, I had a character arrive in the last scene with a new hairdo and his dramaturgical response was, "Do you have any idea how much a good wig costs?") But most of the time, he gets to the point, sums up what he sees are the script’s problems in a couple of sentences, and thanks the writer “for your interest in Tarragon.” There are some writers who keep coming back for more, play after play, clearly not because they value his comments so much as they want a production. There are others who want a relationship with him and want that feedback; for them he was Mr. Generous.
What’s missing here, and I really miss it because it was one of the things I loved so much about him, is his wit. In my early days at the Tarragon, I remember how much we laughed. So often this feels like reading business letters, which is, pretty much, what so many of them are; he was running the theatre to which nearly every playwright, as well as every wannabe playwright in the country was sending their unsolicited scripts. And oh, god, reading page after page of his responses to these things can make one despair. When you’re young, you think it’s unfair that artistic directors don’t read everyone’s plays—it’s like an affront to your brilliance; when you get older, you understand why hardly anyone does it. (There are far, far too many Death Whores.) Here, for hundreds of pages, is the record of Urjo sitting in his desk, day after day, year in, year out, on a mad and often mundane quest for work that excited him. Back then, it seemed that we had all the time in the world, but the time was so limited. How many writers, how many plays did he discover in that slush pile? Urjo died on Boxing Day, a month before he would turn 58. There was so much more for him to do.
Amos Oz, Judas
* In the late 1950s, in Jerusalem, a student abandons his studies and is hired by a middle aged widow to look after her infirm father-in-law. The student, whose thesis was on Jewish views of Jesus, has been obsessed with the role of Judas throughout history; Judas, he claims, was the first and only true Christian. He and the old man talk about this, and about the student’s growing affections for the widow, a wry, smart, cynic who wants to be emotionally close to no one. The student amuses her in his childishness, his neediness. We learn that her husband was an Israeli soldier brutally murdered by the Palestinians, and that her father was an intellectual with many Arab friends, a Zionist who did not believe in the creation of Israel; he argued with David Ben-Gurion, was subsequently labelled a traitor, and forgotten by history. Oz has written a coming of age novel—the student’s and the country’s as well—and a profoundly compelling study of who and what defines a traitor. Judas an old man’s book about a young man’s situation, and an Israeli’s book about flaws at the core of his country’s nationhood. It's a book of wisdom. The translation is by Nicholas de Lange.
Classics New & Old
* It’s a great feeling to be reading something and knowing that one wants to return to it, that it has deeper pleasures than the ones you’re finding first time through. About halfway into Sara Tilley’s Duke I was torn between wanting to slow down and really spend time with it and the need to tear through, drawn in and caught up as I was by the sweep of it all; I wanted to be taking a course in it. Duke is, principally, a book about William Marmaduke Tilley, who leaves Elliston, Newfoundland early in the 20th century and ends up living for a very few rough, unhappy years in the Alaskan bush with his taciturn brother Bob. His voice is the engine that drives the narrative, and it’s a dark wonder, poetic and raw, filled with promise, guilt and grief. Duke’s life is controlled and ruined by his father, a man with the wrath and command of an Old Testament patriarch, and it’s their relationship more than any other that drives the book. As befits a family history (her own), Sara Tilley does not give us chronological order, but takes us through the past in the way that we discover it in life. It’s a challenge and a joy, a heartbreaking, thrilling piece of work.
* I’ll be turning 66 on Djuana Barnes’ 125th birthday, and so it seems an appropriate time to revisit the woman who once said, “I am not a lesbian; I just loved Thelma”. Barnes had no ordinary life: born into a troubled, polygamous family on Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River, molested at 16 by a neighbour (or by her father—stories vary), she escaped to become an accomplished journalist and a wonderful illustrator, joined the Provincetown Players, and started hobnobbing with artists, first in Greenwich Village then in Paris. It was there, in 1921, that she met Thelma Wood from St. Louis, a visual artist, sexually magnetic, and six feet tall. Their tempestuous affair is the grit in the oyster that spawned her only novel. In Nightwood, Thelma becomes Robin Vote, one of those attractive, dangerous figures that seem so much a part of bohemian life; doomed, often drunk, charismatic Robin enters the lives of Baron Felix Volkbein, Nora Flood, and Jenny Petherbridge first to captivate and then to ruin them. That’s what plot there is, and much of it is told as if it were a backstage story to the main event. (For great stretches in this slim work the four characters seem little more than ideas of characters.) The main event, the voice of the novel, is Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a fake doctor (Felix is also a fake baron), sometime abortionist, transvestite, thief, drinking companion, and windbag; his rambling monologues are the bulk of the book. Felix and Nora come to him, distraught, to obsess about their obsessions with Robin, and he holds forth in overwrought, baroque prose that’s as frustrating as it is brilliant. Barnes writes sentences with subordinate clauses that can make one giddy (just read the very first one, describing the birth of Felix). It’s a crazy classic of modernism, and some sections—Jenny attacking Robin in a carriage, Nora arriving in O’Connor’s squalid room and finding him in drag, in bed, like Red Riding Hood’s wolf—have stayed with me for forty years. But going back to the book was often a slog; perhaps it’s a book for the young, when one is more likely to fall prey to messy, glamorous people who leave a wake of destruction (as well as to dialogue like, "Make birds' nests with your teeth" and, "To think of the acorn it is necessary to become the tree. And the tree of night is the hardest tree to mount, the dourest tree to scale, the most difficult of branch, the most febrile to the touch, and sweats a resin and drips a pitch against the palm that computation has not gambled."). Barnes ended up back in Greenwich Village, supported by Peggy Guggenheim, working for years on The Antiphon, a verse play about a nightmare family that ends with the daughter beating her mother to death with a bell. She died six days after she turned 90.
* High Pink, Tex-Mex Fairy Tales by Franco Mondini-Ruiz is memoir by anecdote: a succession of camp, sometimes witty stories paired with sculptural collages involving china figurine tchotchkes and liquor glasses. Mondini-Ruiz tells of his childhood, his move to New York, bars and pick-ups—a Tex-Mex version of what Holly Woodlawn referred to as A Low Life in High Heels. In my favourite, young Franco is driving around the neighbourhood with his yard sale fanatic of a mother; when she spies something she wants in a pile of stuff on a lawn, she embarrasses him by asking a girl from his school how much she wants for it. “The mirror is not for sale, Mrs. Mondini,” the girl says, “Our house just burned down.”
* Dean Jobb has done a fine job researching the life of Leo Koretz, a Chicago Ponzi schemer from the 1920s who swindled family, friends, and assorted one-percenters out of millions with get rich quick scams involving nonexistent rice farms in Arkansas and gold fields in Panama. Empire of Deception gives us the post War madness of the 1920s, the corruption of Prohibition America, with side trips involving the worlds of Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page, Leopold and Loeb, Al Capone. What was remarkable about Koretz is that he kept things going for as long as he did; when all his hype started to fall apart, he hid out in rural Nova Scotia—enter Thomas Raddall and Zane Grey!—and threw money around like water. He lived like Gatsby but, despite his relentless womanizing, comes across as Zelig, inconsequential, faint, more outline than flesh. A diabetic, he ended his disgrace by gorging on chocolates. The character who lingers is his poor wife Mae, duped and broken by his scams, she supported herself by selling fuel oil.
* The narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle has a remarkably thrilling voice. Although Merricat Blackwood comes across as preadolescent and possessing a kind of innocence, she’s eighteen and as dangerous as the Amanita phalloides, one of the deadly mushrooms whose lethal properties she grimy recites to creep out an unwanted dinner guest. Jackson gives us the world of narrow minded small town America through Merricat' eyes, and the view is pretty compelling. She's like someone who cuts herself to release pent up tensions and emotions—when things begin to overwhelm, her pressure release involves wounding the house where she lives with her loving agoraphobic sister and invalid gaga uncle, she smashes the mirrors, nails books to trees, reaches for the poison. And because Jackson has given her voice such clarity, her violence and insanity come across as calm, almost rational. Well, as rational as that lottery of Jackson’s that took place in a very similar, familiar, disturbing small town.
* Denis Johnson writes with such skillful economy—just about every sentence in the novella Train Dreams is a thing of spare beauty. It’s the story of the hardscrabble life of Robert Grainier, a man of uncertain parentage who works in the woods, works for the railroad, does odd jobs, builds a cabin, loves and then loses his family, living a life that spans two thirds of the twentieth century. The dreams it inhabits contain more than trains: deadly forest fires, carnivals, drunken old coots, dogs, wolves—it’s an epic of the American West scaled down to the size of fable. On his rare excursions to church, he weeps. "Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered." There’s greatness in here, and there’s also a self conscious awareness of greatness that feels, at times, like writing that owes as much to creative writing academia as it does to life.
The Green Road
* Another dysfunctional Irish family reunion from Anne Enright. The first half of the book is very compelling, a series of linked short stories, one for each of the four offspring of Rosaleen Madigan—her two sons (one gay in America during the AIDS crisis, the other an aid worker in Mali) and two daughters (an alcoholic actress with postpartum depression, and a housewife having a cancer scare). The format works very well; all four live in very separate and diverse worlds. What they share, apart from their roots in the West of Ireland, is their complicated relationships to their complicated mother. The second half is a Christmas reunion bringing with it the predictable drunkenness, unhappiness, resentments etc. Then Rosaleen goes AWOL (I thought of Hagar Shipley), precipitating a series of tidy and untidy repercussions. Enright’s prose is so very good and the characters are wonderfully drawn (the AIDS section is bang on, as is the daughter’s trek through a supermarket buying the Christmas groceries, and a half dozen other sequences); it’s that family reunion that takes the fizzle out of the piece—it feels predictable in the way that plays about family can seem predictable. In Sunday Bloody Sunday, forty-some years ago, there was party in which a drunken woman started to undress; the moment she did, a weary voice piped up, “Here come those tired old tits again.” It was clear she did this at every party where she’d had one too many, and that she had one too many at every party. It’s how I feel sometimes about the device of the family reunion (which is not to say I haven’t dragged out those same tired old tits myself).
There is a lovely, very funny detail to the Christmas night search—the AA is called in because everyone else in the countryside will be too drunk to drive out and look for the old girl.
* The BBC’s Arts and Ideas recently aired a very fine panel discussion called Doing Time/Confinement (link) involving Erwin James and Terry Waite; James did twenty years for murder and Waite was held hostage for four years in Lebanon. What was compelling was to hear what these very different men had in common, to listen to their discussions on, say, what being in solitary does to one’s perception of time. Both talked movingly about the difficulties of life afterwards, of adjusting, post confinement. Listening to the podcast coincided with reading Invisible Men, Flores A. Forbes’ second book subtitled “A Contemporary Slave Narrative in the Era of Mass Incarceration.” Forbes’ first book, Will You Die With Me? was a memoir that read like a novel; it dealt with his years with the Black Panthers and his subsequent arrest. Invisible Men, which describes his time in Soledad as well as his trajectory afterwards, is as much a manual for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated black men as it is a memoir. It’s a necessary book—and this is especially clear in comparison with both James and Waite—because black men in America are subject to a system that incarcerates them at six time the rate of whites. It’s a no nonsense text, written with a strong sense of history and purpose, and contains such felicities as Forbes’ affection and regard for The Count of Monte Cristo.
War, and its Aftermath
* Elias Khoury was born in 1948, the year that is at the heart of Gate of the Sun, his novel of the loss of Palestinian homeland and exile. The book exudes a powerful sense of land lost, of villages destroyed, and is dense with people and stories that have the resonance of myth. Khoury, born Lebanese and Christian, spent time in refugee camps gathering material, and he has found a structure that gives the myriad of voices their due. Decades after the creation of Israel, Yunes, a Palestinian resistance fighter is in a coma in a makeshift, near abandoned hospital; his spiritual son, Khalil, a doctor who is not exactly a doctor, refuses to abandon him, believing that the telling of these stories can save the man’s life. Jumping from tale to tale, village to village, family to family, Khalil narrates an epic. Khoury gives us a treasure trove of personal details that are at the heart of history; the book is a lament, but it’s packed with life. The stories are of massacres and love affairs, of trickery and bravery; they’re appalling and funny and heartbreaking. It's a big, fat, great book. Humphrey Davies has translated Bab al-Shams from the Arabic.
* Omar El Akkad was born in Egypt, worked as a journalist with the Globe and Mail, and now lives in Oregon; American War is his first novel, a dystopian take on the USA at the end of this century. The world order has been reversed: America is in turmoil, and the Middle East is now a functioning democratic state. Climate change has altered the map (all that remains of Florida are a few islands, one of which contains a nightmare prison). And there has been a second civil war—the South has seceded again, in large part in anger that fossil fuels have been banned. The central character is Sarat Chestnut, from Louisiana, who ends up living in a refugee camp in the Free Southern State. What the book does is show what a reversal of fortunes might look like: the powerful Middle East meddling in America’s affairs, a domestic massacre on home turf. It’s the story of how an average American kid becomes radicalized: the southern patriot as Isis-style terrorist. What it really neglects is race, as if that were, somehow, simply no longer an issue.
Love, and its Aftermath
* As fond as I was of Outline, I like Rachel Cusk’s Transit even more. Is it because she’s on home turf instead of adrift in Greece? Is it because she is much more in focus here as a character than she was in her previous book? “I am a camera with its shutter open,” wrote Isherwood, and Cusk is that as well, but she is the opposite of the rest of the statement; she is not “quite passive, recording, not thinking.” She is an active listener; and the stories and opinions of the people who talk to her are, once again, her plot. Over the short time span of the book she buys a flat (below which live the neighbours from—and in—Hell), hires a crew to renovate it (shipping her sons off to stay with their father till the chaos subsides), goes to a literary event, runs into an old beau, meets friends, has her hair dyed, and ends up at a dinner party you’ll be very happy to have missed. “’I like that you ask these questions,’” a woman at that dinner tells her, “’But I don’t understand why you want to know.’” We do, and we want to know as well. Cusk’s prose and her observations are very, very fine. All of her conversations centre on the difficulty of relationships—with partners, with parents, with children—and the accumulation of unhappy stories lead to a very early morning following that dinner party; dawn is a rising light “barely distinguishable from darkness” and Cusk begins to feel “change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like the plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces.” Transit is a slim, contemporary Middlemarch, and it’s a page turner as well.
* You can’t judge a book by its cover, but the first sentence can sometimes provide a few handy clues. Forty-five years ago, James Purdy published a book that begins, “Millicent De Frayne, who was young in 1913, the sole possessor of an immense oil fortune, languished of an incurable ailment, her wilful, hopeless love for Elijah Thrush, the ‘mime, poet, painter of art nouveau,’ who, after ruining the lives of countless men and women, was finally himself in love, ‘incorrectly, if not indecently,’ with his great-grandson.” The narrator of I Am Elijah Thrush is Albert Peggs, black, gay, formerly from Alabama, and about as far removed from what was going on in black America in 1972 as Millicent and Elijah are from the world itself. Millicent is a fag hag dragon, at least a century old, who gets her energy by consuming the semen of boys under twenty; Elijah is some weird mix of Gustav von Aschenbach and Lindsay Kemp who somehow has the power to drive men and women wild. Peggs is controlled by both, and he habitually gives his body to a golden eagle that feasts on him, Promethean-like. People keep finding themselves falling out of their clothes; they shower each other with kisses. And, although the book is about the varieties of unrequited love, it is also very much about loathing and betrayal. The whole thing is barking mad camp, and clocks in under 150 pages, just around the time when you realize that that the whole thing really should be funnier.
* Annie Baker’s play John was very old fashioned in many ways (three acts, two intermissions, a hyper-naturalistic B&B set) but it was so eccentrically structured and (slooow) paced, and so attuned to the rhythm of its actors (I was lucky enough to see Jonathan Goad’s Company Theatre production with two of the greatest actors I know, Nancy Beatty and Nora McLellan) that I wondered how Baker’s work would read. Would the deep pleasures of her work be apparent on the page? (John seemed geared to Beatty’s divine skill set.) I’ve just read The Flick, and the answer would be, Yes. In spades. Her Pulitzer winner takes place in an old revue cinema, the players, the cleaners and projectionist. Baker’s dramatic rhythms are as pokey here as they are in John: the guys sweep, or sit; the projectionist threads 35 mm film. Not much happens and all if it is profound. Like John, it’s sad and hopeful and funny. She is the antithesis of David Mamet, and I’d like to get my hands on everything she’s written.
* In last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Wyatt Mason had a piece on Emmanuel Carrére (Telling the Truth) that led me directly to the library and Carrére’s 1999 The Adversary (translated by Linda Coverdale), a very slim book about the banality of evil, French suburban dad division. Dr. Jean-Claude Romand presented himself to the world modestly, living with his wife and two kids near the Swiss border, heading out every Monday to the World Health Organization in Geneva, calling his parents every evening. He talked about his research work with WHO but didn’t brag about it, he went off to the occasional medical conference, he kindly invested money for his parents and his in-laws in Swiss banks; he was, to all who knew him, a loving father, a good son, a kind if somewhat dull man. And then, early in 1993, his house burned and he was the only family member to survive the blaze. Within days what became apparent was that not only had he set the fire, he had done so after beating his wife to death, shooting his children, driving to his parents’ house and killing them (and their dog), then trying to kill his mistress, and finally coming back to the scene of the first crimes. He watched television for a few hours then started the fire. What else was soon discovered was that he had never been a doctor, had never worked for WHO, had never really worked at all, but had spent 18 years pretending to and supported his lies by squandering his family’s and friends’ money. Rather than be caught in his lies, he killed the people who had trusted him most. Carrére’s true crime model may have been Capote’s In Cold Blood (“a masterpiece,” he calls it, but also uses the words “morally hideous”), but in Adversary he’s exploring his own morality as well as Romand’s. The book is disturbing, but it isn't sensationalist, and it isn’t the story of a monster that reveals something profoundly terrible about contemporary society (See One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway below, in the August 2015 section). However, it does have lots to say about deceit, faith and self delusion, not only Romand’s, but those around him. It’s a gripping read, and mercifully short; Romand is given not a page more than is warranted.
* War and Turpentine is Stefan Hertmans’ biography/novel based on his grandfather Urbain Matien’s notebooks. The translator (from the Dutch) is David McKay. Matien, a painter, was the son of a lowly painter of church frescoes, and the story of a relatively poor family involved in the arts is very compelling. The deep, dark centre of the book is Matien’s first person account of his time at the front, and it’s unlike any novel I’ve read on the First World War. He has a painter's eye; the details are idiosyncratic and nightmarish. (There's the description of an eerie moonlit night when the grasses surrounding him were crawling with thousands of eels—"an opaline army in the vast silence of the night"—slithering past.) Hertmans had the old man’s notebooks for a couple of decades before even reading them, and if ever there was a case of waiting until the time was right to take on a project, this is it. It feels as the writing were a process of discovery for him and the result is a revelation for us.
* A decade ago, Darren Greer published a little book of essays, Strange Ghosts, that reads like a memoir. He writes of his family life in a Nova Scotia village, his gayness, his kicking a drug addiction, his discovery of art, his travels to Europe and Asia, and his voice is unpretentious and warm, his confessional revelations are generous to family, friends and lovers. Very few fiction writers in this country seem to be interested in contemporary art and hardly any of them write about what it means to them; Greer does. Strange Ghosts makes you like the writer more the more you read.
A Friend of Thomas Hobbes
* Despite being a prolific letter writer, groundbreaking biographer, archaeologist and antiquarian, John Aubrey did not keep a diary, and so historian and critic Ruth Scurr has done the job for him, using his own words. John Aubrey, My Own Life is very compelling scholarship and a wonderful read. Aubrey lived from the reign of Charles I, through the Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration, dying at age 71 just five years shy of the end of the era of William of Orange; his first hand accounts of the tumults of those decades are as entertaining as they are insightful. He writes on everything from the Protestant-Catholic conflict to the great fire of London and attacks on his friend Thomas Hobbes. He loved Stonehenge and Avebury, and was one of the first people to appreciate the antiquity of the sites (in his day most people thought they were Saxon, he knew they were much older). He was perpetually in debt, and perpetually willing to sacrifice everything for scholarship. He loved manuscripts and books more than just about anything. He was not so lucky with love itself; his disastrous relationship with Joan Sumner (who sued him) is delicious reading. He’s very much a man of his time— obsessed with astrology, the one book he published in his life contained such things as a recipe for curing thrush that involved sticking the head of a frog “into the child’s mouth until it is dead.” Scurr’s book is remarkable in that we come to know and care for her subject in an intimate way, in a way that a more traditional biography would have denied us.
* Emmanuel Carrère writes books that are a fusion of fiction, non fiction and memoir; in The Kingdom (translated by John Lambert), he looks at his conversion and subsequent loss of faith, and he does this through an investigation of the founding of the Christian faith itself. How, he wants to know, did a handful of men, followers of an obscure man in an obscure place, zealots who did not get along with each other, most of them, how did they manage to propel Christianity into the forefront of world religions? The book contains biographies of Paul, Luke, and Josephus, exegesis of the New Testament, and a fair amount of Biblical scholarship—it is the opposite of dry. Carrère shamelessly and wonderfully moves from, say, Rogier van der Weyden’s Mary to masturbating porn stars. He continually writes about events in the first century in a contemporary context. “It would be provocative, but not wrong,” he writes, “to say that Pilate treated the Jews the way Ariel Sharon treated the Palestinian of the territories.” Or, “If, half a millennium later, Muhammad hadn’t formed his idea of Jesus on the basis of what remained of their sects, you could say that all trace of them would have been lost in the sand.” He’s smart, well educated, well off, and well full of himself; and his book is one of the most exciting things I’ve read about Christianity. The Christian faith and the life of Christ interest me primarily as subject matter for artists I love, for Bach or Van Eyck or Dante or Flannery O’Connor or Mahalia Jackson; nothing I’ve read before has made me want to take another look at Paul’s letters or Acts. This book did.
* Being neither Tibetan Buddhist nor Roman Catholic, I don’t know what parallels there may be between the Bardo and Purgatory as indeterminate states inhabited by the dead, but Lincoln in the Bardo is a far classier title than Lincoln in Purgatory (which would have echoes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). George Saunders’ novel is woven around the death of eleven year old Willie Lincoln and the story that his heartbroken father would visit the tomb in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, open the boy’ casket, and hold his dead son. Set early in the Civil War, the book is narrated by spirits, but there are also chapters of collaged quotes from books, letters and diaries, both real and fictional. The dead are a lively bunch, unaware (with one very notable exception) that they are dead; they talk and bicker and narrate; a lot of the prose is quite beautiful, and the imagery lush and eerie. Saunders has a singular voice, and it’s an entertaining and compelling read.
America’s mythologizing of the 16th president will no doubt continue for as long as there’s a republic, and here he’s depicted as someone whose grief is so large that it can alter even the afterlife. Abraham Lincoln has become the moral centre at the heart of America’s vision of itself, and, although his greatness is indisputable, it’s arguable that his successor Andrew Johnson was just as significant a force in forging the DNA of the American Experiment. If there were more ink exploring his dark soul, and the aftereffects of Reconstruction (which is still seen though the eyes of the likes of Margaret Mitchell) maybe the 45th president would not seem such an anomaly.
Eight Arms to Hold You
* Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness is a long title for a very short (200 pgs. plus notes) book, and it almost conveys the scope of Peter Godfrey-Smith's writing. The book is an evolutionary history of humans and cephalopods, a study of octopus and cuttlefish behaviour, with side trips on aging, longevity, the ecology of oceans, and the origins of the nervous system and the mind. The octopus has an intelligence unlike anything else in its evolutionary past. We came along very different paths—how did the mind develop twice? And given that they live such very short lives—scarcely more than two years—how is their level of intelligence possible? Godfrey-Smith describes this smart, playful, solitary creature as the closest things we know to an alien intelligence. He writes well, and opens up worlds to us. His studies of an octopus community are fascinating and his description of the death of a cuttlefish is very moving. Popular science writing doesn’t get much better.
* Mary Ruefle is a poet who gives me the greatest of pleasures. Her language is lovely, her connections are a delight, her reason is like no one else’s reason. The titular piece in My Private Property begins, “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” Reading a sentence like that, I know I’m in good hands; I’m ready to let her take me by my hand and lead me wherever she wants. The journeys are wacky and educational and possessed of and extremely magnificent yet simple logical. Her writing is intimate without being confessional; her wit is dry. She gives me the world to look at in new ways, and I am so much the better for it.
* Nocturne is Helen Humphrey’s memoir of her brother Martin’s life and death. Like most of her work, it’s brief, simply written and as honest as the day is long. It’s written to him, a letter to the dead, and the second person works very well for her. It brings her brother, and her feelings for him, very close and intimate. There’s a strong sense of how much the siblings meant to each other, how much his music meant to him (Martin was a pianist), and there are wonderful evocations of the young lives together. A book to put on the shelf with Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.
* Last Folio, Textures of Jewish Life in Slovenia by Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova is the catalogue for a show currently on at the excellent Art Galley of Hamilton. At the heart of the book and the show are photographs that Dojc took of a Jewish school that had been abandoned and closed since the Nazis took its students to camps in 1942. The books, collapsing from age and mildew, still line the shelves—they make one think of Anselm Kiefer. But Dojc’s work is more personal, intimate (on one of he shelves, he found a book that had belonged to his grandfather). With essays about the history of Jews in Slovenia and a series of portraits of survivors. The images are beautiful, the texts are excellent; a very moving document.
Poetry and Prose
* Patrick Phillips is an American poet, originally from Georgia, whose third book, Elegy For A Broken Machine, contains poems that are plainspoken and moving, many of them related to the loss of his father, others, to other deaths—a suicide, a childhood friend, the relative of a neighbour. It’s spare, quiet work, and it’s lovely. He’s very good on the ordinariness of death, on the everyday. He’s new to me, and I know of him because of his first book of prose, Blood at the Root. This is the history of the county in northern Georgia, Forsyth, where Phillips grew up; it has the horrible distinction of being the county that drove out its black inhabitants in 1912. Phillips gives us the story of that terror as well as the original racial purge that drove the Cherokees from these same lands. There are lynchings in this book so nightmarish they can scarcely be believed, stories of mobs and night riders and what can only be called a murderous blood lust driven by self righteous hatred and fear. There are bizarre combinations of bragging and denial on the part of the perpetrators, people who see themselves as simple, honest, god fearing country people but who believe that it is their god given right to attack a black man in a pubic place and bash him to death simply because he is there. The greatest crimes that the black families in Forsyth committed was to believe that they had a right to live on land that they legally owned. Beatings, gunshots and dynamite drove every single one of them across the county line. When all the blacks were gone, some of the good citizens of Forsyth ripped the gravestones from black graveyards and used them to pave their walks. Philips gives us all this in his plainspoken poet’s voice—no hyperbole is necessary.
* Poet Lucia Perillo died last October, at not quite sixty. She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly thirty years before, and its devastating effects were a focus of her work. A one time forest ranger whose life was defined by physical activity, she became someone who had to overcome enormous difficulties simply to go out into her yard and look at birds. What’s amazing about her work is not simply the keenness of her observations, but how much she is a glorious companion: grumpy, smart, self deprecating, funny, and passionately involved with living. I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing is a slim book of essays mostly about her relationship with nature; it’s a joy. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths is her sixth book of poetry. It begins with “The Second Slaughter,” which opens with Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse “behind his chariot like the cans that trail/a bride and groom” and moves through his attempts to console himself with animal sacrifice on to the violence of the Iraq war; she was accused of inhumanity because it was not the deaths of men that first affected her but the suffering of innocent nature. (You can hear her read it here.) Her poem “Hokkaido” ends with one of the truest lines ever about the blind optimism of youth: “Once I was so full of juice and certain of its unending.” She's a great antidote to hypocrisy.
Art, God & Us
* Joseph Leo Koerner, who teaches art history at Harvard, had a BBC 4 series on the Northern Renaissance a decade ago (you can find it on youTube). His latest book, Bosch and Bruegel, From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, is the result of twenty years of research, and it’s a very intelligent and well researched look at two major painters from that period and the near century of time that their working lives encompassed. His analysis of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthy Delights” is the clearest, most erudite writing I’ve encountered on that great, crazy work, and it’s the cornerstone of his thesis that Bosch’s art is rooted in enmity, and that Bruegel moves from that loathing of fallen Adam and his race into a depiction of the messy lives of ordinary people—the evolution of genre painting. There’s much to learn about subjects as various as the iconographic role of the Magi (the first Gentiles), or the parable being illustrated by the man taking a shit in a corner of “The Magpie and the Gallows”, or the commissioning and subsequent provenance of many of the paintings discussed. Koerner is very good on conveying how the art world worked back then and the significant role that both these artists played in its development. (I did not know that there are more than 125 versions of Bruegel’s “Winter Landscape with Bird Trap”, most of them painted in his son’s workshop.) While the book is lavishly illustrated, and there are lots of reproductions of details, unfortunately too many of the images are frustratingly small. Most of these paintings are densely populated, and we need to be able to enter them. But that’s a quibble; it’s a full, rich read.
Moving through Time
* I was sorting through bookshelves, making a pile of things never read or probably never to be read again when I came across Peter Ho Davies’ collection of stories, The Ugliest House in the World. It’s been twenty years since I read it, and I remember it fondly; the scope of the stories was impressive; he seemed to be able to write about any thing and any place. Why hadn’t I read more? I put it back on the shelf, walked across the street to the library and withdrew last year’s The Fortunes, a novel in four sections that deals with the Chinese experience in America. The first three are anchored in historical characters: Ah Ling, who was manservant to railway tycoon Charles Crocker, film star Anna May Wong, and Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit, 1982, by a father and step-son, unhappy autoworkers who thought Chin was Japanese and blamed Japan for the decline in the American auto industry. The fourth section deals with an American couple (white wife, mixed race husband) who are in China to adopt. These four stories form one grand picture that examines the burden of family and the inevitability of racism, told in episodes of belonging and not belonging,. Each generation is marked by a different version of that American dream of prosperity, each meets with the opposite of acceptance, and yet this is not a hopeless book. Davies’ prose is unaffected and witty; the book has charm. The links between the four stories are clear and not overstated; in the final section, the husband’s late night conversation with a hooker, and his trip with his wife to the orphanage are deft and moving.
* Beginning at the beginning, with H. G. Wells’ remarkable machine, James Gleick’s Time Travel guides us through a fairly exhaustive history. There are lots of literary bases to be covered (Borges, Proust, Le Guin, Bradbury, Azimov etc.) and no only does Gleick cover them, he seems to have read ever sci-fi pulp magazine story ever to deal with this most romantic and impossible mode of journeying. Then there’s the movies, the philosophers, the scientists. It seems impossible that the concept of something so familiar is fairly recent; Wells published his Time Machine in 1895. Gleick’s book is fun to hang out with on a rainy day when you don’t feel like going anywhere.
* Cy Twombly and Sally Mann, both Virginians, were close friends, and when he came home to Lexington they appear to have given each other great other pleasure. (One of my very favourite things in her memoir is a joke they shared about a local lady and her roses.) His studio was a building she’d grown up with—an office for, first, a gas company and then an optometrist—and she started photographing it when she went to visit him. The images are unassuming, casual—walls, shadows, paint drips—but, now that he's died, they’re poignant and delicate. His workspace is the opposite of glamorous (I’ve lived in apartments with that same linoleum) and there’s something wonderfully ordinary about most of the images in Remembered Light. One could imagine her talking to him while she takes many of them, as if the images were part of a conversation. The closed venetian blinds, the white walls—everything conveys the powerful heat of summer, inside and out. The few photographs from his home that are here convey that same humidity, but the objects are ornate (a mantle shelf, a sideboard) or camp (a glittery hat, a sign that reads, “Street girls bringing in sailors must pay for room in advance”). His absence is more present than his presence. I saw the show in New York, but like it more as a book than in a gallery on Park Avenue; the images, of course, aren’t as fine, but it’s a warmer experience, and that feels right.
* In Coventry and The Evening Chorus, Helen Humphreys explores the England of her parents and grandparents generations; both books deal with war, with the ways that very ordinary lives are thrown off course, with how that wrenching plays out over time. She’s very much concerned with war’s effects on marriage. Most of Coventry takes place on the November night in 1940 when bombs nearly obliterate that city; Harriet, a WWI widow, is our witness to a series of horrors and heroics. Evening Chorus focuses on an RAF officer in a POW camp and the consequences that has on the futures of his wife and sister. Humphreys’ prose is without any unnecessary embellishment; she makes a virtue of simplicity and clarity. There’s a David Lean/Brief Encounter quality to both books, but without the stiff upper lip. Humphreys isn’t afraid of violence; Harriet’s journey through Coventry is gut wrenching, Bosch like at times, and the sudden acts of viciousness in Evening Chorus are shocking. Decency is often her subject in these two books, and it’s her method as well.
* This week, China’s state run press declared Donald Trump to be “like a child in his ignorance of foreign policy,” and, while we may agree with that analysis, it’s one thing to hear it from someone like Samantha Bee and another thing to hear it from the People’s Republic. What will happen if the next president starts poking at a power as enormous as China as if it were a business to outsmart and not a nation with a recent history of economic growth and enormous internal violence? The president elect doesn’t seem to have a clue.
It’s been more than 25 years since Jung Chang published The Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, a book that was an eye opener for many in the West about the horrors of the aftermath of the revolution. Madeleine Thien’s multi-award winning novel covers much of the same historical territory, telling the stories of three generations of musicians who fall in love with Western music (most especially Bach, and the Goldberg Variations) and then are violently sidetracked first by the Revolution itself, then the Cultural Revolution, and finally by the hope and despair of Tiananmen Square. Initially, some of Thien’s transitions between periods may seem a bit clunky, but once Do Not Say We Have Nothing gets going, it really cooks; it’s a very satisfying saga that speaks to, among other things, the role that the arts can play in fostering resilience during a political nightmare. Dust off your Goldbergs.
* Anyone who thinks that Donald Trump is a political anomaly should take a look at American Revolutions, A Continental History, 1750-1804, Alan Taylor’s clear eyed history of the origins of the USA. So pervasive is its patriotic self-mythologizing that even those of us who are not Americans were raised on concepts like the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and the noble righteousness of the Sons of Liberty. When I was a kid in New Brunswick, a province that was created by the arrival of the Loyalists, I was fed a diet of traitorous, wicked Loyalists on TV and at the movies; Walt Disney provided entertainments like Ben and Me, a cartoon in which a poor church mouse helps Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. It turns out that Amos the mouse was just as accurate as a lot of the highfalutin hogwash (the “Make America Great Again” propaganda of its day) that passed for truth. Taylor puts British Imperialism and American expansion in context. Slavery has so long been smoothed over, as if it were an anomaly and not a crucial piece of the young nation’s economic and cultural DNA; Taylor makes it clear that the self evident truth that “all men are created equal” referred only to those who were white. Washington and Adams denounced the British for treating them like slaves—“We won’t be their negroes,” said Adams—but very few of those sacred fathers believed that blacks or natives had any rights at all. Taylor shows us slave owning patriots who often behaved like thugs, tarring and feathering their neighbours and dragging them through the streets while their homes were ransacked, or worse: “For hanging Loyalists after quick, mock trials, Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia turned his name into a verb.” Patrick Henry denounced slavery as "repugnant to humanity" but kept his slaves because of "the general inconvenience of living without them." Thomas Paine was a hard drinking tax collector in Britain two years before he was in Philadelphia and railing against taxes. "Hard drinking" and "drunken" are frequently used in the descriptions of the men who would later be canonized. Elegantly written, with a very useful chronology and more than sixty pages of notes. Indispensable.
Those Tea Party louts are very much a part of A Revolution in Color, The World of John Singleton Copley. The painter, who grew up in Boston, began his career with portraits of the colony's elite, then with ones of such revolutionaries as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams; he ended up in London painting the children of George III. Part Loyalist, part exile, he was very much influenced by Benjamin West and by West’s “The Death of Wolfe.” In England he executed a series of history paintings some of them great—“Watson and the Shark”—some of them lousy—“The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar” (which is considerably more overblown than its windy title). It’s a very unique life, and Jane Kamensky has written a biography that not only deepens our understanding of the revolutionary world that Alan Taylor writes about, but also gives us a fascinating look at the art world in 18th century England and America. She writes with eloquence and knowledge about pigments, light, commissions, critics—she's a historian with a very fine eye and a keen wit. Copley wasn't the most likeable of men, to put it mildly, he was self serving, often petty and ungenerous, yet Kamensky isn't cruel and her fascination for his life and times is infectious.
A trio of plays in New York
* I was very taken with Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet when I read it last year, and was looking forward to seeing his award winning The Humans. Would I have been as disappointed if I had simply read it and not seen the Broadway production? I’m not sure. I’m always impressed with writers who tackle plays set in real time, and this play did that with very little creakiness, moving people around smartly, giving the playwright a chance to have various confrontations and revelations take place with little contrivance. It has a big, beautiful two storey set and a talented cast and an audience so very much out for a good time that it reacted like a laugh track. The effect of the whole thing was something akin to a big live sitcom with character based jokes and wisecracks; halfway through, I wanted to rip out every joke I have in the play I’m working on. When we got to the end, to the rotten centre at the core of the American family onstage, it was difficult to be deeply affected, to be moved. It was as if, at the end of a gritty episode of The Golden Girls we were expected to react as if we had been watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
* Quite a bit more contrived was Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love which sets out to eviscerate not just a family but a generation (mine), with three scenes spread out over more than a quarter century and, again, more jokes than depth. It felt that the play was applauding itself on its own cleverness.
Both plays were wonderful vehicles for actors, and reasonably well tooled dramaturgical machines, but both seemed to illustrate the effect that an unholy marriage of academia and situation comedy has had on the theatre. When they’re done, you think, “That wasn’t bad. Do you feel like a beer?”
* I’d heard of Samuel D. Hunter because of his play The Whale, with an actor in a 600 lb fat suit. That felt gimmicky to me and, after reading it, I worry that it still does. It’s published along with A Bright New Boise, which deals with similar themes but is not so gimmicky. Hunter is from Idaho, where both of these plays are set, and he's obsessed with an exploration of faith in the lives if his characters. He writes about people who believe without question, or who want to believe but can’t and try desperately, or who have no use for faith whatsoever. I read this collection because I saw his new play, The Harvest, which is about six young people (from Idaho) who are preparing to go to the Middle East to convert Muslims. There isn’t an ounce of condescension in it, and the production, directed by Davis McCallum, simply couldn’t be much better. Any criticism I have would be a quibble. It’s set in a church basement and every detail on every surface of that set felt as accurate as the lives of the people onstage. It grabbed me by the throat and by the heart and simply didn’t let go. It was what I want theatre to be—emotional, entertaining, profoundly moving. It made me think, and it made me care, and when it was over, I couldn’t shake it.
A Familiar Voice
* After six months away from Toronto, it was a great treat to have the first book I read when I returned be set in Parkdale, and have the characters be periodically walking by my front door, meeting in the church steps just across the way on Cowan Street, moving through parts of the world I move through every day of my life here. My neighbourhood is at the centre of The Hidden Keys, André Alexis’ third book to be published in his Quincunx, as are adventure stories, knightly crooks, drug addicts and their dealers, puzzles, race and class. It’s so very much a Toronto book, set during Rob Ford’s mayoralty, yet this is also a literary dream of Toronto where characters have names as ripe as those in James Purdy: Willow Azarian, Alexander von Würfel, Trancred Palmieri. A familiar dog makes an appearance. It’s beautifully plotted, filled with Alexis’ very particular kind of wit (no one I know in my life makes me laugh any harder) and moving. I started to read it on the night of the American election; by the time 10:30 came around and the Trump situation was looking worse than grim, I turned off the results and picked up the book. The long night was bound to be sleepless, now it could contain pleasure and even a measure of hope.
* Nathan Hill’s first novel is a piece of ambitious and generous storytelling, moving through three generations and four decades. In 1988, a woman walks out on her young son, and when she resurfaces more than two decades later, the son starts piecing together the events of her life (and his own). Was she a suburban mom or a sixties radical? Is he a writer with writer’s block, or no writer at all? Hill is very funny on politics and the media, his take on two very different generations of student unrest is really a treat, and his plotting is satisfying, if a bit too clever and neat. I was ready for a big fat read and I couldn’t put the book down. It’s Franzen territory, but it isn’t hateful—he doesn’t have contempt for his characters. The large cast may be two dimensional but they are well fleshed out, and the book has real satirical bite. At its best, it wears its ambitions lightly.
*If you’re keen on knowing about the history of cenotaphs, or when people started compiling lists of the war dead, or when cemeteries started to eclipse church graveyards and why, or what happened to Tom Paine’s corpse, or the relationship of cemeteries to capitalism, or when cremation became popular, or how and why the corpse of poor James Legg was crucified so that a couple of members of the Royal Academy could decide whether paintings by the Great Masters were accurate or not, or how funerals evolved, or how cemeteries are related to dormitories, then Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead is the book for you. It’s a hefty 700 pages (150 of them notes), with nary a short paragraph in sight, but the prose is clean and Laqueur writes with erudition and wit. It’s just a tremendous book. But how strange is the world. Less than a week after finishing the final section on the history of cremation, of how "Ashes came to be treated as if they were bodies," I was in New York, at the Met, getting ready for the final act of Rossini’s William Tell, when a Texan named Kaiser scattered a few of his friend’s dusty remains in the orchestra pit, bringing the entire thing to a halt., and sending well over 3000 people home early and more than a little pissed. A considerably larger bit of work from the dead than planned.
* Between 1967 and 1970 there were a handful of literary writers who were changing the face of American fiction by writing books that were marinated in sex. Updike’s Couples, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge are the three that get linked together as emblematic of that time, but Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm dates from the same period, and so does James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. His is the most elegantly written of the bunch, the one that makes the reader think about Scott Fitzgerald. The story of a young American man’s obsession with a “common” French girl, and the unreliable narrator’s obsession with them both is composed of clean, beautiful prose, much of it describing their trysts in various hotel rooms as they travel about in a 1952 Delage. Its story of young doomed love is probably the American literary equivalent of the French New Wave. And it had more sex than Fanny Hill.
*In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead fuses the runaway slave narrative with Gulliver’s Travels and comes up with a thrilling adventure story that’s also a meditation on race in America. When Cora escapes from a Georgia cotton plantation, her story moves into the fantastical—the getaway railroad operates like a rural subway, just as every kid imagined it might when first hearing about it. Every state Cora comes to is as unique as Swift’s Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and the rest, and each one is an exploration of America’s race relationships over time. It may not be naturalism, but Whitehead anchors it so firmly in the violence and horror of slavery that every moment is believable. It's not a long book, but it's a big one that does justice to the weight of its subject. He makes the familiar immediate in new, breathtaking ways. Cora is a character to stand with Toni Morrison’s Sethe; once you start reading, you cant put her story down.
* The Little Red Chairs is named for the Sarajevo Red Line, Haris Pašović’s 2012 installation/event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the siege: 11,541 red chairs were set out in rows on the main street to commemorate the dead. Edna O’Brien’s novel is built like a fairy tale: a mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish town, people fall under his spell—most tragically, the unhappily married Fidelma McBride—and as the horrors of his Balkan past become known, the stories of the destroyed and displaced are spun out. It’s a short book, but it contains an epic, a 1001 Nights with Fidelma not as storyteller but as witness. Nearly every story in this book is personal and tragic, one person's loss: together, they reveal something global, immense. O’Brien begins with a quote from Gilgamesh and she ends with Shakespeare’s Dream; structurally, she breaks every rule in the creative writing class handbook; the book is episodic, it runs off on tangents, jumps in and out of minor characters narratives and dreams—it's messy. So is the world, and so is the story that O'Brien wants to tell us about the world. It's a harrowing, generous heartbreaker of a book and a great one.
* There is no more articulate document about the personal repercussions of the Qaddafi regime than the memoir that Hisham Matar has written about the loss of his father. The Return begins with his departure to Libya after Qaddafi’s fall, and it details the two previous decades when he tried to discover where Jaballa Matar was imprisoned, if he was living or dead. It’s a book filled with controlled anger—the sections in which he has dealings with Qaddafi’s son Saif el-Islam (friend of Tony Blair, guest of the Royal family) are written with a cool precision that belies the head-banging frustrations he must have been feeling (both then and now)—but it’s also brimming with warmth and love for his extended family. Matar comes from a background of privilege, but he also came from one with a strong moral centre. Some scenes—his younger brother’s flight from would be assassins, his phone call with a revolutionary who was liberating political prisoners after the 2011 fall of Tripoli—are the stuff of thrillers, but the book is a lucid account of exile, and a remarkable meditation on decency.
* The fictitious Nova Scotia town of Advocate in Darren Greer’s new novel is nowhere near the actual Advocate Harbour; he positions it in the vicinity of Antigonish, somehow near Trenton, but it bears a closer resemblance to a town on the other side of the province, on the south shore, in a similar local to his previous Just Beneath My Skin. That book dealt with folks on the wrong side of the tracks, this one, with the upper crust. Jacob, a gay man who works with AIDS patients in Toronto, is called home to the large family house where his mother and aunt live with their mother, a doctor’s widow, because the old lady is about to die. Advocate deals with two parallel death watches: the unhappy grandmother’s, and, twenty years before, her son’s, the boy’s Uncle David, who came home and died of AIDS in the early days of the crisis. Jacob, the narrator, was a boy who came to know his uncle only as the man was dying, and, at the heart of the book is his grandmother’s, and the town of Advocate’s, narrow mindedness, homophobia and fear of the disease, which run parallel to Jacob’s coming of age. In essence, what Greer is attempting is To Kill A Mockingbird with AIDS instead of race as its engine.
The young Jacob’s story is clear and moving as the town turns on him and his family; his friends aren’t allowed to play with him, he’s banned from the library and from school. The details of his uncle’s decline and death are exactly right, and anyone who lived through the early years of the crisis recognize the horror of those deaths and the cruelties that came from ignorance and fear. The depiction of that terrible time is spot on, and giving it to us from the perspective of a child is a very smart choice. Greer does tend to overplay his hand—the narrow minded folks are members of the town elites (an old priest, the mayor, etc.), while the good, broad minded people represent a rainbow coalition: black, gay, first nations, and poor. But, like Harper Lee’s book, you can’t put it down. It has real anger and a big heart and it’s a great read.
* Calvin Trillin found himself in hot water this year when a bit of light verse making fun of foodies and their obsession with the latest trends ("Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?") was attacked for being racist and unfeeling. It was also attacked because it was light verse, as if, by dashing off the amusing rhyming doggerel he’s been writing for years as the Deadline Poet, he were claiming to be Louise Gluck. In the end it was probably a fairly minor eruption, but enough of one to reinforce the position of old farts like me that too many people on Twitter have too much time on their hands. (Why do so many of us waste so much time stabbing the wrong people in the back?)
Trillin's new book, Jackson 1964, brings together fifty years of New Yorker pieces he’s written about race, and most of it is as fresh as today’s news. The book is filled with remarkable people, some of them, like Dr. King, well known to us, others, like South Carolina’s Victoria DeLee, we may be meeting for the first time. (The latter is a wonderful example of a journalist’s modesty: he takes a back seat and lets this extraordinary woman speak out for herself.) His 2008 piece about a shooting in a Long Island front yard reads like a concise history of race in America, personalized by its players, ordinary people caught up in a tragedy as deep asThe Oresteia. Here is proof that fine journalism doesn’t date. What’s heartbreaking is that so much of the matter of these dispatches, the prejudice and racial divides in America, has not dated in ways that we hoped and prayed that it would. (Witness the charming Governor LePage of Maine's recent foray into race relations here.) Trillin’s dry wit is in these pieces, as is his curiosity, his keen eye, and fine prose.
* When I bought the Bantam paperback of Eustace Chisholm and the Works for 95 cents back in 1968, it wasn’t because I knew of James Purdy or his novel, but because there was a doe eyed, naked boy hunk on the cover, looking like a well groomed hippie version of Troy Donahue, and a blurb more prominent than the title claiming it as, “THE SENSATIONAL NOVEL OF PERVERSE LOVE.” Homosexuality was being debated in Parliament at the time and, even when it was decriminalized in 1969, I would still be underage and illegal for four more years. Purdy thrilled, repelled and confused me, and I went on to read a lot of him throughout my twenties. I haven’t looked at Eustace Chisholm for fifty years; in my memory it was a story of unrequited love and disembowelment. What I'd forgotten is what an entertainment it is.
It’s set in Chicago during the Depression, and it owes a lot to Purdy’s relationship with painter Gertrude Abercrombie and her bohemian crowd, which included artists and musicians, both black and white. (Her pal Dizzy Gillespie played at one of her weddings.) The bisexual Ace Chisholm, would be poet, full time observer, witnesses the gay crowd surrounding the oversexed painter Maureen O’Dell, who Purdy clearly derived from Abercrombie; chief among the people Ace observes is the beautiful boy hunk Amos Ratcliffe, who comes to Chicago after having an affair with his own mother, and who desperately loves his landlord Daniel Haws. Haws will, tragically, not admit his own love for Amos, but nightly sleepwalks into the boy's bedroom. Purdy’s writing can be very funny (even camp), but also harrowing. Amos accompanies O’Dell to a black abortionist, one Beaufort Vance, and the chapter is both of those things as well as oddly poetic (““The amnion,” Amos muttered, horror-stricken, remembering at the same time that the word meant little lamb in Greek.”) It’s no wonder I didn’t know what to make of Purdy when I was a teenager; lots of people still don’t know what to make of him. His reputation divides between those who revere him as great and those who believe him meritless. Looking back at Eustace Chisholm after all this time makes me want to revisit other Purdys (Narrow Rooms, Malcolm, Cabot Wright Begins) I haven't looked at in decades. He's remains freakishly original, and if the sensibility that drives this novel makes me think of anyone else, it's Pedro Almodovar.
* The Outlander is a picaresque adventure set in the wild west of Alberta early in the 20th century. The story of a fugitive widow pursued by her late husband’s twin brothers, it’s smart and funny, set in an unwashed world populated by the larger than life (a giant, a dwarf, a boxing preacher), and it moves like a shot. Gil Adamson’s book is a great yarn, wonderfully written, a series of riffs on fact (the Frank Slide, the life of William Moreland) and on the Western genre that owes more to the world of movies and TV than to the old west itself.
*The Cruel World: Maggie Nelson and Julian Barnes
~ Sometime during the fall of 1969, my first year in university, I was in the library stacks, in the film section; I took a now forgotten book from the shelf, opened it and saw a picture of the young Antonin Artaud in Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. The physical sensation that overtook me could not have been more overwhelming if I had just walked into my first gay bar. Within the hour I had a handful of books by and about him checked out, then, back in the Fine Arts Building, I opened one of them, and there, heartbreakingly, was Artaud, just fifteen years later, ravaged, toothless and mad.
Within the hour, my horny, naive gay self had experienced its own personal theatre of cruelty first hand.
Artaud is prominent in Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, as is Francis Bacon; she keeps returning to them while she ranges through diverse artists and writers, from Marina Abramović to Kara Walker, Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath, Mary Gaitskill de Sade, and a host of others. She’s both opinionated—she dismisses Neil LaBute as “fatally sophomoric…weak-minded”—and wide open. She principled and ethical—moral, even—while being deeply and openly curious about work that is violent, upsetting, taboo. As our Virgil through these sometimes treacherous minefields, she can’t be beaten: the field of Cultural Studies does not usually provide guides this warm, this much fun. Her work gives her pleasure and she gives it to us as well. Even when she’s describing work that would drive me crazy, she makes it vivid, important. I can’t get enough of her.
~Although Shostakovich is not a composer I listen to the way I listen to Schubert or Bach (which is to say constantly), his work matters greatly to me, especially the chamber music, especially the quartets, which I tend to binge out on once or twice a year. The first time I went to London, through the good graces of the friend of a friend of a friend, I spent a week of afternoons at the Coliseum watching David Pountney direct Josephine Barstow in Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, an experience that profoundly satisfied my love of theatre, music and process. That production was very much influenced by Stalin’s famously influencing an earlier production of it, in 1936, which did not end the composer’s life (as he feared at the time), but made the remaining thirty-nine years of it a torture. In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes looks at Shostakovich’s life in three sections—a “triad”—beginning with the aftermath of Stalin’s disapproval of Lady MacBeth, when the composer waited every night for the police to come, then jumping to his 1948 trip to New York, where, to his eternal shame, he denounced Stravinsky, then to 1960 when he was backed into a corner and compelled to join the Party. This is not the story of a hero, and Shostakovich muses in the final section:
“Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you had only to be brave for a moment—when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime.”
Barnes inhabits his fictional composer to such an extent that the book is the story of only one character; all the others—wives, children, politicians, musicians—are sketched and returned to, repeated musical phrases. He’s writing about an artist’s relationship to his work and to his historical moment, and also to the idea that the artist aspires to something beyond the world itself. It’s a slim book, dark and graceful, as deep and as moving as one of the Shostakovich quartets.
*Lionel Shriver's Dystopia
Last week we went to see April and the Extraordinary World, an animated film based on a graphic novel, set in a steam powered 20th century. The first half hour or so, which set up the rules of this world without electricity, was lots of fun, but once the movie got under way, we were stuck with stock characters acting out a pretty predictable plot in very familiar ways. It’s often the case at the speculative: the pitch may be exotic, but the storyline is a stale as last week’s bread.
The same cannot be said of The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel about economic collapse in the U.S, of A. There’s no doubt that she’s done her research, and the first quarter of the book, which begins in 2029, is heavy with talk about money and debt and international finance. It’s not quite like reading Thomas Piketty, but you have to slow down and work through it; all three generations of the very rich Mandible family talk nothing but economics. At times the details of 2029 may amuse the writer more than her readers, but once things start to fall apart, Shriver’s plot really kicks in and the book is smart, mean, and a lot of upsetting fun. to read.
She’s a wonderful satirist and if some of her characters tend to be of the stock variety (there are a good many boobies and fools), she uses them all to good purpose. I first encountered her on BBC radio arts magazine programs; she has a terrific speaking voice (she sounds a bit like Jamie Lee Curtis), and is always worth listening to even when her opinions make me crazy. Her powers of observation are sharp, and her politics are of the Libertarian variety (the closest she can come to not a Utopia but a saner world is one with limited government interference and everyone paying a flat 10 percent tax). There’s a large cast of Mandibles, but central to the book’s appeal is the relationship between young Willing and his aunt Nollie, a brainy kid and a crazy novelist who, like Shriver, has spent most of her writing life abroad. It’s Willing who adapts most quickly to the terrible truths of economic breakdown and who, in one chilling, beautifully conceived scene, crosses a terrible moral line so that his family can eat. When he informs his family that they need to get a gun, his mother is horrified. “What on earth would we need a gun for?” she asks him.
“To protect us,” Willing said, “from people like me.”
It’s just a great read.
*Us and Them
In many ways I’m the ideal reader for And After The Fire: Lauren Belfer’s novel about the discovery of a “lost” Bach cantata, one with an anti-Semitic text straight out of Martin Luther (“Burn their synagogues…We are at fault for not striking them dead…”). I love Bach, especially the passions and cantatas, I’m a sucker for history, for genealogy, and I’m drawn to morally messy, uncomfortable subjects. It’s a great idea for a novel.
Belfer’s knowledge is evident, as is her love of the music; it probably doesn’t hurt that her husband is Bach scholar Michael Marissen, author of Bach and God. When I heard him speak a few years ago at a Bach festival, he spoke of Jewish musicians who carried copies of the St Matthew Passion with them to their deaths at Auschwitz. In many ways, that story has been expanded into the plot for this book—Belfer even gives it to one of her present day characters as a specific part of family history. She gives us nearly two centuries of Jews—musicians and patrons of the arts—who have preserved this imaginary cantata because it was composed by a genius, all the while keeping it secret and hidden because of it’s content. Her novel charts a particular history of anti-Semitism from the 18th century through the Holocaust; yet it doesn’t have the depth of that musicians’ story, which has the strength of myth and fable; instead we have melodrama, a very enjoyable beach book. She makes her political points, but the book doesn’t really wrestle with the potential greatness of its subject.
There’s very troubling stuff in Bach, especially in the St John Passion; it has its roots in the doctrines of his faith, and it’s not good enough to say, “oh, it was different then, things have changed, we’re more enlightened now,” because equally and even more troubling stuff surrounds us daily. The narrow minded interpretations of doctrine, the Us against Them rigidity of one group against another—these things are as dangerous now as they ever have been in human history. They are, sadly, a part of what defines us as human. How does one deal with greatness in art and narrow minded tribalism? Bach sure wasn’t alone; there was Wagner, who can’t be discussed without references to his anti-Semitism, but there were also people like Edward Degas, whose miserable reaction to the Dreyfus affair should be more widely acknowledged. And the subject is terrifyingly larger than the Holocaust. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a great film that practically contains a complete grammar for the future of the cinema; it’s also a profoundly racist movie, as racist as America’s slavery roots. It's an important and great subject, and one wants so much more than what the very well meaning, and very readable, And After the Fire can deliver.
* Gary L. Saunders has degrees in Forestry and Fine Arts; he’s also a very fine writer. My Life With Trees isn’t quite a memoir, even though it’s both personal and personable. It’s arranged according to the trees that grow in the Atlantic provinces (first the Conifers, then the Broadleafs and Mixedwood), and is packed with stories and information about each species—where they grow, how they grow, what we’ve used them for historically, what threatens them, etc. His style is anecdotal and warm; reading him makes you wish he were coming over for dinner— it may even make you wish you owned a woodlot. This is an odd hybrid of reference and wonder book, and is a joy on all levels.
* We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. One of the great things about The New Yorker is that it has traditionally given journalists the opportunity to work on long pieces that require lots of time (and money) to research and complete. Gourevitch’s first piece about Rwanda appeared in the magazine at the end of 1995; his book was published three years later. It’s taken me more than twenty years to finally look at the whole project in one go, and it’s a truly great piece of journalism. At the book’s core are an extraordinary assortment of people—Tutsis, Hutus, politicians, aid workers, professionals, labourers, families—who knew the genocide and speak about it and its aftermath: the specificity of their stories is one of its great strengths. It’s as compelling a read as good fiction, and it speaks to our current world in the way great history writing should. By now, the details of the initial genocide are fairly well known, but the role played by the international community in the years following, perhaps not so much. Francois Mitterrand’s “In such countries genocide is not too important” is a phrase to reckon with at any time; these days it has a truly horrible resonance given the recent Isis attacks. When Gourevitch wonders “why we in the West have so little respect for other people’s wars,” we are all implicated. He makes the unimaginable imaginable and very human.
May & June 2016
*There are at least a dozen books with the title The Devil You Know listed on Amazon, most of them genre books of one kind or another, and Elizabeth De Mariaffi’s is the literary thriller set in Toronto at the time of Paul Bernardo’s arrest. Evie, a young journalist assigned to that story, starts digging around to find out what she can about the abduction and murder of a childhood friend years before. The narrative voice is strong and appealing, and the time and place are beautifully detailed, but once we arrive at familiar tropes of the genre (cub reporter foolishly sneaking into dangerous and suspicious houses) things get formulaic and less distinctive.
*They Marched Into Sunlight by Washington Post editor David Maraniss is a very rich, very detailed portrait of the Vietnam years in America. By focusing on a few days in October 1967, and looking at two events—a catastrophic ambush in Vietnam and an anti-war protest in at the University of Wisconsin—Maraniss gives us compelling stories of young Americans on both sides of a national tragedy, as well as objective examinations of the motives of politicians, military leaders, academics and policemen. It’s a hefty book with a huge cast, well researched (nearly 200 people were interviewed), and clearly written. It’s about as fair and well balanced as this sort of thing can be; there are remarkable people on all sides, as well as fools and pricks. A very fine piece of historical journalism.
*The events in the lives of the inhabitants of Niska, a fictional first nations village near the shores of Hudson Bay, are as urgent and contemporary as those of current day Attawapiskat, yet Joan Clark published The Victory of Geraldine Gull nearly thirty years ago. The generosity of her novel comes from its mixture of compassion and grit, a mighty sense of justice (and injustice), and a beautifully drawn cast of characters. The reader cares very deeply for them, and for the writer as well. Geraldine Gull herself—angry, bawdy, defiant, funny—is powerful and powerfully conceived; her story is tragic and triumphant at once. In addition to her many literary gifts, Joan Clark’s curiosity for the world has made her an extraordinarily empathetic writer, and her book is a remarkable piece of observation.
* The greatness of some great writers sometimes baffles me. I look back on Don DeLillo’s Libra with fondness, was impressed with both White Noise and Mao II when I read them in the early 90s, and I loved the baseball game excerpt from Underworld that was in Harpers back in ‘91. But any plays of his that I’ve read seem intended for an audience I wouldn’t want to part of, and the later novels have a wearisome coldness. His latest, Zero K, is about cryogenic freezing and the attendant themes of medical ethics, death, transcendence, etc. etc. It’s set in a world of natural and manmade disasters—Now as a dystopia fuelled by terrorism—and it’s seems a fair example of what movies have done to the novel. Large sections of the book are set in the Convergence, a “remote and secret compound” (to quote the book flap), where people with shaved heads wear white garments, the staff are called escorts (no sexual pun intended), and the frozen (un)dead are displayed in pods; it resembles nothing so much as a foreign film art house version of one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s remote and secret compounds. As with those huge 007 locations tucked away inside volcanoes, I wondered who laboured to build it? Who runs it day to day? Where do they get their staff? Who fixes the plumbing? Because the only people who could possibly afford these cryogenic facilities are the filthy rich (Jeff, the narrator of Zero K is the son of the billionaire behind the Convergence), we are in a rarefied world that caters to the one percent, and, quite frankly, I am more interested in the invisible plumber and his life. Especially since Jeff has such a spare and flat inner life. He seems as much interior decoration as human. There is a brief centre section narrated by one of the frozen (“I almost know some things. I think I am going to know things but then it does not happen.”) which is less than the sum of its parts. Would the ending—an epiphany involving the sunset and a mentally challenged boy’s “cries of wonder” on witnessing it—be taken as seriously if the two hundred and seventy some pages preceding it were not so spare and humourless?
*Belonging and Not
Garth Greenwell is a fine writer; his sentences are meticulously constructed and his observations sharp and beautifully presented. The central relationship in his first novel What Belongs to You—between an American teacher in Bulgaria, and Mitko, a hustler he meets in a public toilet—is complicated and very moving. The first section was originally published as a short novella, and it’s the best thing in the book. The central section is a single extended paragraph detailing the narrator’s gay childhood in the South and his father cruel rejection of him; it’s very much the sort of writing that gets five gold stars in a graduate writing program. From that forty page paragraph to the use of letters (R., K., etc.) for all the characters who aren’t Mitko or who aren’t referred to by their roles (doctor, mother, etc), it’s very self consciously literary. Things get back on track in the third section, which is filled with dazzling observations but which is most compelling when the narrator is stuck dealing with a smelly, drunken, sick hustler who has no time for anything remotely highfalutin.
* Me Me Me
Two very different memoirs, both written by writers with very troubled relationships with their very troubled fathers, reveal very different ways of dealing with one’s life as subject matter.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall continues his epic memoir/novel My Struggle which could also be titled Witness My Shame. In this (the fifth) book he’s in his early twenties, and beginning his writing life. He gets drunk a lot, often getting violent when he does and sometimes cheating on the women he loves; he works at a radio station, works with the mentally challenged (who frighten him), re-recounts the demise of his pathetic, angry father (whose death was a significant portion of the first book), and keeps bashing his head against a brick wall as he tries and tries unsuccessfully to write. He disappoints just about everyone he cares about, most significantly, himself. He weeps constantly.
Camilla Gibb’s This is Happy takes us through her father’s craziness (at one point he’s homeless, living in an abandoned building), the disintegration of her family, her brother’s drug addiction, her field work in Africa, her depressions, marriage, pregnancy, and then, after getting dumped by her wife, her ultimate salvation by baby, nanny, friends and family. The first half of her book is the most detailed and the most interesting—I wish the Ethiopia section had a much larger share of the book—as she moves through her marriage and its end, the chapters get shorter and more perfunctory.
She gives us the facts and then the bare bones, while Knausgaard picks at every scab he can remember until it festers. She wants to tell us a story that’s about redemption, to get herself out of the pit that her father dug for the family. Knausgaard is constantly digging his own pits and meticulously detailing each and every one. He burns every bridge he come to while Gibb plays it safe. Who can blame her? One of the most significant players in her book—her ex—is still a part of her daughter’s life; Gibb has lost so much already that she’s writing in order to salvage and build. Knausgaard continues to go for broke, writing and writing about every mundane shameful detail. The most telling difference for me is that he writes constantly about the hell of writing in a way that makes it extraordinarily vivid and painful. Gibb’s books are written offstage, and don’t occupy the same space as the rest of her life. One ends up rooting for her, hoping that she makes it; with Knausgaard, one looks forward to the continuing shame of book six.
* Nights at the Theatre, Plays from the Library
Chris Abraham’s recent production of Chinamerica at Toronto’s Canadian Stage had decent performances (Laura Condlln was outstanding), and a revolve with projections that facilitated seamlessly executed, beautifully choreographed transitions between god knows how many globe skipping locations, but none of that helped me to engage with a script that was fairly thin going. I wasn’t the only person who thought about British hit plays (Lucy Kirkwood’s arrived in Toronto with prestigious awards), lauded in London, that leave North Americans baffled. God knows one wants to be invested in a play that tackles Chinese and American politics, but this wasn’t the play to do it. The characters weren’t all that substantial (the chief American one, a photojournalist, was a bundle of old movie clichés), and even though some of the ideas were smart and compelling, the overall effect was the sort of evening that makes you think not about politics but about the limitations of writing for the theatre.
So I’ve been thinking about plays crossing borders, and plays dealing with issues (political and otherwise), and I’ve been reading a few non Canadian things that are fairly recent.
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced got the Pulitzer a couple of years ago. One of those alcohol-fuelled-evenings-that-go-to-hell plays, you can trace it’s lineage back through things like Gods of Carnage to 1962 when Martha and George first had a go at Nick and Honey. Akhtar’s later play, The Who and the What, deals with a South Asian Muslim family in Atlanta: two sisters, their father, and a convert to Islam whom dad has contacted online (he pretends to be his older daughter—he’s looking for a mate for her—and his matchmaking is played for laughs). The scenes are like an issue driven sitcom, and while one wants to support and be engaged with a play that sets out to deal with Islam in America, it feels forced, too much like a play that’s written to explain Islam to a non-Islamic audience. In Disgraced, a Muslim, a Jew, a WASP and an African American get together for dinner—The Who and the What doesn’t have the same four-guys-go-into-a-bar kind of dramaturgy, but it does have familiar types: the scheming sister and the honest one, the dark, irascible, cutie pie of a father, and the sweet, supporting white boy next door. It deals with weighty issues but it’s fairly predictable and has no weight.
Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet is another family play, this one involves Lebanese Maronites (and ex-Maronites) in small town Pennsylvania; they have the luck of Job, one disaster following another and another. It’s kind of a mess—big scenes are written as if the play were a film cutting back and forth from characters in one part of a room to those in another—but it’s a very funny cartoon of a thing that made me think of Christopher Durang in his heyday. It’s raucous and promises nothing except a lively evening for talented actors to have a go at pleasing the crowd. It didn’t make me despair for the theatre.
Back to Great Britain for Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa, which is written in the form of two interwoven monologues by an Italian man, a former fisherman, who now fishes migrants corpses from the Mediterranean, and a cynical mixed race woman in Leeds who does the miserable work of collecting money from people who don’t have it. It’s an angry play about big things —refuges, migration, evil capitalism, corrupt bureaucracy, etc.—and one wants to applaud its politics, its grittiness, and the playwright’s youth, but it becomes fairly melodramatic and doesn’t hold together as a play. Linked (or semi-linked) monologues in juxtaposition continue to baffle me as a theatrical device. One of the things I want from theatre is people interacting with an audience and with each other; this format doesn’t deliver the former as deeply as a one person show, and as for the latter, it’s nonexistent, except in some metaphoric, sentimental way that has nothing to do with human beings actually connecting with each other. The play ends on a note of hope, and this (cynical me) makes it the kind of play that makes you want to write a cheque in aid of a good cause, which is, I guess, laudable. But it isn’t a play that makes you excited about the future of theatre.
Both American plays feel like they were written by people who will end up writing for film and television, not theatre. Lampedusa feels like it come from someone who will abandon theatre for politics.
But, to return to Canadian Stage, a couple of years ago it produced London Road a verbatim theatre piece about a street in Ipswich where hookers had been murdered by a serial killer. Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s piece was sung in a kind choral recitative that must have been insanely difficult to learn, and the play was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. It made me excited about theatre in a way that nothing else had in ages. It dealt with an incredibly bleak subject, yet the form was so theatrical and exciting that it was beyond thrilling. This last week, in addition to Chimerica, I’ve been to the theatre three times: a high power travelling David Hare play, a badly directed Iranian one, and an oddball one person show from a man who takes flipbook portraits of strangers. The Hare was technically impressive and unmoving, the less said about the Iranian the better, and the one man show (Portraits in Motion) was delightful even though it was not a play and barely an evening in the theatre. The flipbook show made me feel good about people, and about what’s possible in communicating with an audience. Going to the theatre is such a crapshoot. It rarely pays off, but when it does, you can forgive it everything.
I still think about what it was like sitting in the theatre and watching London Road.
* My Name is Lucy Barton is a brief and generous book about the difficulty of family. Lucy grew up dirt poor in rural Illinois with taciturn parents (which is putting it mildly), and was the only family member to get away; she fell in love with books, got an education, and applied herself. Most of the book spins out from the hospital room in New York where Lucy, now a young mother, is recovering from the complications of surgery; her mother, who she has not seen in years, arrives from Illinois, parks herself in a chair, and they talk about and around stories of family and community. Elizabeth Strout develops their problematic relationship with great delicacy.
This family’s world was one where any demonstration of affection was unknown, and Lucy is someone whose glass appears to be half empty, until, after a litany of failed marriages, unfulfilled, unhappy, bitter lives, one realises that it is fairly full. Elizabeth Strout sets small acts of kindness against years of misunderstanding, misery and intolerance, and if she doesn’t quite manage to make her central character’s, “All life amazes me” ring true, she does make one want to believe it. Strout is writing about the necessity for generosity.
* I’m on a bit of a Brenda Wineapple kick; she’s damn hard to resist: a historian who is great on politics, on both popular and literary culture, and who writes with a profound understanding of race. Ecstatic Nation focuses on a huge subject (America before during and after the Civil War), contains a multitude of characters, and demonstrates how wrong people are when they look at the current political mess and say things have never been this bad before. They certainly have, and Wineapple shows us how. She uses two funerals as bookends, John Quincy Adams in 1848 and Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1877. Adams had worked to abolish slavery; Forrest had been responsible for, among other things, the massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864 where black soldiers were reportedly burned alive, nailed to walls, and shot after they surrendered. 20,000 people turned out to mourn Forrest, and the three mile long procession was a symbol of the failures of Reconstruction and the corruption of government. Wineapple is very savvy with her huge cast: President Andrew Johnson is revealed as one of the worst things that ever happened to Black America, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud are granted the dignity they were denied in life, and P.T. Barnum keeps cropping up, like an enormous bad penny. And there’s Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, Victoria Woodhull and Free Love, Herman Melville, Emerson and Whitman. This is a rowdy, heartbreaking book, scrupulous in its research and detail, and alive on every page. She’s just the best.
* James E. Westheider’s The African American Experience in Vietnam is a slim and very handy reference guide, with a decent overview of the history of blacks in the US armed forces (from 1792 on), and enough facts and figures to make the case that, although the military had for a time been the best place in the country for blacks to make a decent income and avoid racism, the war changed all that.
* The two essays in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany’s 1999 book about the demise of the old 42nd Street and the arrival of corporate Disney, are as different as two pieces on the same subject can possibly be. The first (Blue) is the warmest account possible of a couple of decades worth of encounters (conversational and sexual) with hustlers, street people, and porn theatre regulars. This elegant elegy for a world of small businesses, cross class encounters, blow jobs, and street life cannot be praised enough; it’s beautifully conceived, and written with deep affection and conviction. The second essay (Red) is the political, theoretical twin of the first, and, although Delany makes his points very well (of the positive benefits of contacts and the negative ones of networking), it’s more of a slog (as theory always is) and much less of a joy. Still, together, they form a compete and fairly wonderful, crazy whole.
* The typical George Saunders character is deep in debt, has a desperate job with no future or security, is angry a great deal of the time, looked upon as a loser by nearly everyone at work and at home (while believing himself to be stuck in a universe of even greater losers), and is obsessed with his enormous sense of entitlement. Inhabiting a world of decaying futuristic theme parks, watching television shows with names like How My Child Died Violently, most of these people are textbook cases of the unexamined life, and their dreams are both grandiose and puny. The narrator of Pastoralia works as a caveman in a low end, high tech historical Disneyesque-world; his life consists of skinning and roasting goats while on public display, reading threatening or despairing faxes from the outside world, and wishing he didn’t have to cover for the cavewoman in his unit who is so beyond playing by the rules that she screws up constantly. Saunders is such a fine writer, with very keen eyes and ears; and, although he’s an observant and funny satirist, it’s often difficult to laugh. This has always been the case, but reading him now, during Donald Trump’s celebrity presidential campaign, with those rallies populated by the desperate and angry demanding their entitlement, laughter feels not only mean but, well, just too sad for words. How can satire trump Trump's, "I love the poorly educated"? Saunders always gives it a run for the money; he seems more necessary than ever.
* Maggie Nelson’s mother’s sister was murdered before Nelson was born, and Jane (part memoir, part poem, part investigation), is an attempt to illuminate the unknowable as she searches for her aunt. The ordinariness of Jane’s diary excerpts give us a life cut short, and add to a heartbreaking story, a collection of loose ends. Her encounters with her aunt’s boyfriend — and her family’s unawareness of him — are significant and poignant.
* How long has it been since I last read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist? The dusty Viking Compass Book I took down from the shelf originally cost me $1.45.
What’s great going back to it is that wonderful language, of course, and rediscovering Joyce’s development of Stephen Dedalus from baby tuckoo to the young man who commits to silence exile cunning. All of that Catholic angst and guilt is as fresh as ever, but what I loved more than anything was revisiting that great Christmas dinner, with Dante defending the priests who ruined Parnell and Mr Casey sobbing, “My dead king!” It has everything that I love most about Joyce: his wit, his language, his tortured feelings for family and Ireland, his cruelty and his compassion.
* Birds flicker and glide throughout Troy Jollimore’s Syllabus of Errors: Pliny’s nightingale, a misplaced cardinal, an oriole on a clothesline, as well as ducks in the Halifax Public Gardens, chickadees that sing a song unique to Martha’s Vineyard, and the corpses of Vatican songbirds slaughtered by Pope Urban VIII. Jollimore has a great deal to say about the natural world and about the splendours and difficulties of living in it; he’s good on love and on that pain that one causes others. Reading these poems is—simply put—a pure and a great pleasure; I love what he says and how he says it. And I say this despite a significant, long poem that takes as its starting point what has always seemed to me to be one of the most overrated movies of all time (Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that lush and beautiful object inhabited by the unbelievably stunned), and works from the assumption that it is a great work. If only it contained even half the depth that Jollimore gives it.
* Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea was the Jane Eyre story from the point of view of the mad woman in the attic; The Meursault Investigation is Camus’ The Stranger from the vantage point of the murdered Arab’s brother. Kamel Daoud has described his book as a dialogue with Camus’ and that’s a pretty accurate description. It’s less a novel than a series of meditative monologues that the brother, Harun, delivers in bar, treating Camus’ text as both novel and historical document. The prose is beautiful, and the post colonial tropes are rich and moving. Camus’s Arab was nameless; Harun's brother is called Musa, a name not so much created as restored.
* As much encyclopaedia as novel, and as much novel as writer’s Bible, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is as crazy a book as its Captain Ahab. It’s been years since I read it first, and it has been great to spend time with it again. The prose is often wildly highfalutin (a kind of nineteenth century Shakespearean) and the sections on whales and whaling can take us away from the plot for hours at a stretch, yet it’s all of a glorious piece. Melville's prose makes the interior of the whale as majestic and awesome and knowable as Chartres; I know of very little else that has the power and excitement of “The Grand Armada” chapter, or is as deep and troubled as “The Whiteness of the Whale.” And there’s Ishmael and Queegueg in bed, poor Pip’s loss of sanity in the sea, the Parsee’s reappearance from the deep, the heartbreak of the Rachel's captain—an endless series of thrillingly conceived and written events. The book contains oceans. Because I know that my eyes could glaze over during all that whale lore, I supplemented the reading with Frank Muller’s old talking book and let him read it to me when I walked back and forth from the ferry docks to my studio on Toronto Islands. There was no finer thing to do in the dead of winter.
* The Argonauts’ title comes from Barthes’ idea of the Argo being so changed and repaired during its long voyage that, at journey’s end, little of the original vessel remains; yet it is still and always is the Argo. The Argonauts here are writer Maggie Nelson and her partner Harry Dodge; both their bodies undergo extraordinary renewals during the course of this brief memoir: Dodge transgenders and Nelson becomes pregnant and delivers a son. I’d never read Nelson before and was expecting a memoir of the Sheila Heti school, but this is very much something else. She’s very candid, very smart, and she’s writing to sort things out, to make sense and understanding of herself and the world she inhabits. It’s a generous book, the opposite of sensational. She’s terrific on the queer scene, on gender politics, and her observations on the art scene and critical theory make me want to read everything else she’s got. The book skips along, moving logically, but unpredictably from one thing to the next, with nary a false step, with one exception: the juxtaposition of Dodge’s mother’s death and their son’s birth (she cuts back and forth) feels like a point being forced, although both sections are wonderfully and movingly written. It’s the sort of book that made me constantly call out to my partner while I was reading, “And this! Listen to this!”
* “That sounds like the end of a story, or the beginning , when really it was just a part of the years that were to come.” The lack of artifice, the plainspoken-ness of that sentence is central to Lucia Berlin’s selected stories. They are mostly autobiographical, span the years of her life (1936-2004) and are set in the places she lived, from Alaska to Santiago, and in New Mexico, California and Colorado. Her family—sister, parents and four sons—appear and reappear in similar guises, and the accumulation of detail and history has the depth of a great novel. Miraculously, her troubled family and troubled life did not defeat her. She had scoliosis, wore a back brace, made terrible self destructive choices, and had an unloving, unhappy mother, who, like her daughter, drank. Alcohol is a constant factor here, and Berlin knew its grimmest reaches: public drunkenness, jail, detox, the DTs, job loss, lying to her kids; yet there isn’t an ounce of self pity anywhere, and A Manual for Cleaning Women is matter of fact, funny, unspeakably honest, and unputdownable. She’s a writer with a spring to her step. The more than forty stories here pretty much all tell one story—the fictional life of Lucia Berlin; I could have read forty more.
* There’s rarely time to even glance at The Poetry Foundation’s daily emails, but it’s worth subscribing (click here to give it a whirl) because every once in awhile a poem or a poet will come by and really grab me. Poem of the Day was where I became aware of Kathleen Jamie, and her 2007 collection Waterlight led me to her essays and nature writing. Sightlines was published three years ago and, for the most part, the essays deal with subjects northern: whaling, gannets, the outermost islands of the Outer Hebrides. In most of these pieces she’s away from her husband and kids spending time with experts (scientists, bird watchers, archaeologists and the like), and what develops is a crash course in wherever she might be: St. Kilda, the Bergan Natural History Museum, a pathology lab. She’s the definition of curious, and, of course, she sees the world with a poet’s eye; the poet’s words she uses are beautiful and plainspoken. (On icebergs: "..organic is just what they're not. Their shapes and forms are without purpose, adapted to no end. They are huge and utterly meaningless." ) The pleasure of reading merges with the delivery of insight and information. (On the absurdity of whaling: "From the whaling grounds east of Greenland, the ships pushed farther and farther west as they killed and killed the whales. The first lighthouses — mere gleams in the dark — were built partly, ironically, to protect the lucrative whaling fleet, and were themselves fuelled by whale oil.") She makes the natural world more familiar and more mysterious. I’m crazy over her.
* Adam Mars-Jones covers a fair amount of territory in Kid Gloves, A Voyage Round My Father—family relationships, class, his father’s Welshness, his father’s notable court cases (involving the disparate likes of Ian Fleming, Myra Hindley and Gilbert O’Sullivan), coming out, Prince Charles’ cure for homosexuality, old boyfriends, the AIDS crisis, dementia—and he covers it all in one continuous telling, with no chapters, no headings, no sections, not even a space break or an asterisk; paragraph after paragraph moves from one subject to the next, always circling around the relationship of Adam to Sir William, gay son to homophobic high court judge dad. The book feels less a continuous voyage than a series of tangents. Some elements are very evocative of a time, some are amusing; he pokes fun at his father, but he’s as ruthless with himself as he is of most others. Many of the bits are much more satisfying than the whole, although some of them—his father’s handling of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s court case—do go on. When he writes about the AIDS crisis the details are personal and terrible, but they’re also familiar, known. Would it all seem less unremarkable to someone from his world and class? Beautifully packaged: the cover image is a plate from the Mars-Jones family china.
*If you’re looking for examples to illustrate the nightmare of blind ideology fused to ruthless ambition, there are more than can be stomached in Black Flags: The Rise of Isis by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, and they reside on all sides of the conflicts. Dick Cheney’s catastrophic, shortsighted attempt to link Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden created the climate for a particular kind of thug to flourish, and the most horrific flourisher was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian criminal whose fanatical zeal became the primary founding block of ISIS.
Many of us in the West get our information on the quagmire of the Middle East from a combination of newspapers, television, the web, magazine articles, and the odd book. It’s easy to give up trying to keep up: there are countless players with shifting alliances, misleading information from politicians on all sides, a confusion of places, dates, and horrors. Most of the time the facts are so grim and disheartening that it’s tempting to not even want to know. How can videos of beheadings and unspeakable violence serve as recruitment posters for scores of dissatisfied youth? Warrick’s book reads like a thriller and ties together a lot of the loose ends left dangling from years of conflicting and disparate sources; he gives us a remarkably clear history Zarqawi’s rise and fall, and the subsequent rise of his successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even though the events that he’s chronicling can make you want to scream with rage, you can’t put the book down. And there are stories of remarkable people behaving with courage and intelligence; Jordan’s King Abdullah is portrayed as a political animal both clear sighted and compassionate. As a very readable primer of a grim political movement, Black Flags is indispensable, heartbreaking.
* It’s too bad that Mark Kukis had no access to either John Walker Lindh or his family while he was working on “My Heart Became Attached” (Lindh is the California kid who fell in love with Islam and ended up fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan before and during 9/11). Although Kukis talked to many of his teachers and comrades in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, there’s a fairly sizeable hole in the first half of this 2003 book; Lindh comes across as an unhappy, self righteous teenager, but there’s little that helps us understand why his faith means so much—he’s a priggish cypher. There’s also a vagueness in the writing in the early parts: descriptions of places feel too much like set dressing and are missing a strong connection to the troubled kid who is experiencing foreignness and finding it more appealing than home and family. The book becomes vivid and alive during a horrifying battle and imprisonment involving the Northern Aliance, and we begin to feel something for the terrors he survived.
* Jim Grimsley can be the most confounding of writers. His autobiographical first novel, Winter Birds—the childhood of a hemophiliac boy in a dirt poor Southern family—still haunts me after twenty years, and I do not know of any gay man who has read his Dream Boy and not said, “I love this book.” But then he wrote a sequel for Winter Birds—Comfort and Joy—that felt unnecessary and slightly false. His 2005 novella Forgiveness was a poison pen letter to the greedy post Enron America and was about as hateful as a hateful book can be; it played to none of his considerable strengths.
His recent memoir, How I Shed My Skin, takes us back to the rural poverty of his first book and peels back the feelings and confusion of a gay white boy in the first integrated classrooms of North Carolina. It’s a very great subject and Grimsley is as honest as he can be; the book is full of surprises and gives us a powerful sense of what it was like to be thrown into that social experiment. He's almost taken aback by his admiration for the black girls in his class who quote James Brown and take no abuse or guff—they confound him; he’s just a kid and torn between what he’s known and assumed all his life and what he begins to feel. His status as a sissy and a hemophiliac sets him apart, and it’s his gayness that ultimately helps him through the minefield of bigotry. He’s determined to be as fair as he can be to all sides; even so, he writes, “Somewhere in my memory, beneath all I’ve learned and experienced, there is still the little bigot I was meant to be.” There are things in this book that are shocking and heartbreaking at once: the story of the dull, sour, disabled boy whose mother delivers him daily to the the classroom, one morning, with a crudely lettered sign on his wheelchair that spits out, “I Hate Niggers”. What in hell do you do with something like that when you’re twelve years old? Grimsley gives us insights into the meanness and rancour attending desegregation: a superb piece of work.
* I’m blessed with the excellent Toronto Public Library system, which has allowed me to spend a few weeks with the work of photographer Sally Mann by re-renewing her books Immediate Family, The Flesh and the Spirit, What Remains, and Deep South. Those early family photographs of her children—self assured, often naked as jaybirds, comfortable in the converging worlds of nature and play—are beautiful, evocative and unsettling in ways both intended and not. It’s impossible to not see what made conservatives go crazy (“she’s exploiting her kids!”) at the same time as being deeply moved by the beauty of an image like The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude. We know we’re watching very privileged kids being posed in a beautiful landscape (rural Virginia) by their demanding mother; but we’re also being given an insight into a very unsentimental view of the long mornings and afternoons of childhood, a world of sticky popsicles, pouts, dressing-up, dog scratches and nosebleeds . And it’s amazing to compare those images with the later large, intense close-ups of those same kids as young adults, made mysterious and strange by the long exposures on glass negatives.
Mann credits her doctor father’s interest in death with her own obsession of it as a subject, most directly in her photographs of decaying corpses at the Body Farm in Tennessee; there’s an odd comfort in seeing those images at such a remove from their usual role in horror movies—they are, after all, Us, not Them. Her civil war battlefield photographs are unpopulated, but in their combination of murkiness and clarity—the imperfections and marks on the glass plates surfaces becoming a part of the texture of field, trees and sky—the human eye is everywhere. They appear like 19th century photographs of an Old Testament landscape: the air sometimes filled with dots or marks that read as ash or tiny meteors falling like rain. The darkness upon the land in a photograph of Antietam gives it the weight of the last image seen by the dying, the landscape of that battlefield caught at the moment of death.
* Troy Jollimore is originally a Nova Scotia boy (Liverpool) who now lives in the U.S., a poet teaching philosophy at California State. I heard him read a couple of summers ago and immediately grabbed Tom Thomson In Purgatory, which contains a series of lively and moving sonnets; I liked his second book, At Lake Scugog, even more. His poetry is smart, and it has wit. “I don’t want to lick my wounds,” he writes, “when it’s yours I want to lick.”
“Loyalty to something larger than oneself…makes one’s own life larger,” writes Jollimore in On Loyalty, his book in the ongoing Routledge series Thinking In Action. I was reading the chapter on tribalism and violence, where he was writing on dehumanization and the dangers of loyalty, when I put the book down to go online and look up a Randall Jarrell poem he referenced. But the first thing I encountered when I opened the laptop was an early report on the San Bernardino massacre; this, short weeks after the Paris massacres. When I went back to the book, the next thing I read was a quote from Rabbi Yaacov Perrin’s eulogy at Baruch Goldstein’s funeral, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”
Dehumanization all around.
Another of Jollimore’s references is to Carol Reed’s The Third Man: Joseph Cotton’s character feels a loyalty to his old friend Harry Lime, played by a baby faced Orson Welles—a loyalty that’s shattered when he discovers that Lime is selling bad penicillin on the black market. The drugs for profit story makes one think of another baby-faced drug entrepreneur, the bad boy of Turing Pharmaceuticals, quoted in the New York Times last week as “dismissing critics of the Daraprim price increase, saying his biggest duty is to his investors.” As Jollimore concludes, “The ties between loyalty and morality are simply not that close.” That's putting it mildly.
(And, the day after posting the above, the Bad Boy of Turing is under arrest; the investor to whom he had the greatest loyalty turns out to have been his own self.)
* The Year of Lear, Shakespeare in 1606 is an incredibly satisfying piece of writing that examines the work and world of the greatest Elizabethan playwright shortly after the Tudor queen’s death, three years into the reign of James I, when London was ravaged by the Plague, and the Gunpowder Plot made anti-Catholic sentiments soar. James Shapiro looks at the trio of plays that came out of that year (King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra) in the context of Shakespeare’s historical and contemporary sources. Not only does he succeed in making both plays and history more vivid, he makes Jacobean England extremely present. We look back appalled by the way that the state dealt with the Guy Fawkes plotters—public executions in which the men were tortured and butchered as stages of the killing process—but the paranoia and religious hatred that gave permission to that horror are as familiar and contemporary as Donald Trump. By close examination of Shakespeare’s reaction to the events of his time, Shapiro makes the plays even more relevant to the events of our own.
* Patrick Modiano’s 2005 memoir has just been translated by Mark Polizzotti, and it’s so brief you could read it through twice in an evening. Beginning with his birth in 1945 and ending with the publication of his first book in 1968, Pedigree feels, at times, like notes for a memoir, shards—names of people, addresses, schools attended and run away from, books read, a confusion of statistics and impressions that accumulate as his parents, together and separately, shunt him from pillar to post. A loveless pair, actress and conman, they survived the Occupation and continued to live the hardscrabble, barely aboveboard existence that got them through it. When he was sixteen, he was seen by a doctor who “was shocked by my weakened state. She asked, “Don’t you have parents?”” Their selfish disregard and his increasing bitterness are what holds this inventory of a young life together; yet it contains not an ounce of sentimentality. After writing about the loss of his kid brother in 1957, he writes, “Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.” It’s remarkable—a first person narrative that feels more observed than felt. In the end, when he realizes that he is independent enough to finally be free of them, one understands the extent to which the young Modiano could not even call his life his own.
* In The Gathering, a large Irish family gathers to mourn the death of their son and brother Liam, a suicide, and there are the expected squabbles, drink fueled encounters, bitterness, revelations. What is unexpected is the voice of Anne Enright’s narrator, Liam’s sister Veronica—angry, funny, fucked up, selfish, cruel—a woman who says of cats that they, “only jump into your lap to check if you are cold enough, yet, to eat.” She should know. Her unhappiness has set her so apart that it’s a shock when she actually responds to someone with warmth. Her revelations—childhood sexual abuse—are no surprise to us; but the revelation that comes to her at the wake when she encounters an unknown child, is.