*Grief x 2
1. Kate, the young woman at the heart of The Heavens shuttles back and forth, via her dreams, between early 21st century New York, where she is falling in love with Ben, and Elizabethan England where she is Emelia, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. At the beginning of Sandra Newman’s book, the American president is not only a woman, she’s Asian and a Green; but as Kate keeps waking and returning from her Tudor dreams, her present becomes darker and more violent and her presidents degenerate as well, from Chen to Gore and then to Bush, and the world becomes darker, more violent and dangerous. Kate comes to realize that her actions in the past are influencing events in the future and determines to do things that will save the world. (A plot device that had me thinking of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, but without the pretentiousness and faith.) The grief that infuses this novel comes from a very personal place (author Sandra Newman lost her ex husband and best friend while she was writing), and there is something grandly romantic in the idea that one’s own loss is so great that it can have a butterfly effect on civilization. When she’s in the past, she discovers that Shakespeare dream travelled as well, and raising his stature in the 21st century is one of the effects of her journeying. (He’s relatively unknown in the world of President Chen at the book’s start.) Would the world be a better place if Shakespeare had been a near forgotten minor poet? Is Kate a time traveller or is she crazy?
The dystopian present is the strongest part of The Heavens; it’s not that the Elizabethan sections are bad, but there’s a plethora of “thines” and “thous” and people riding “ahorse”—every time a floor is mentioned, so are the rushes covering it—it feels so self consciously, well, Elizabethan. But the despair that Kate feels when she awakens to the fresh horrible details of America in Hell feels as familiar as our daily miseries looking at the news and seeing the latest nightmares from Trump, Putin, Brexit, big Oil, and on and on into the night. Most days, when we look at the news, it’s easy to feel like we’re losing our minds.
2. The characters in Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted live in a very brainy, racially diverse, high end America, a world where people are Rhodes Scholars, MacArthur fellows or on their way to a Nobel; they fly about the world giving lectures, they have Tara Walkers hanging in their houses. Helen, the narrator, teaches at MIT, and is a single mom and brilliant quantum physicist who also writes best selling popular science books. (She’s lightly modelled on Lisa Randall who Freudenberger profiled in the New Yorker a couple of years ago.) Helen has lost her old friend Charlotte (Charlie), a brilliant black screenwriter, and comes to know the widower, a surfer who is the closest thing in this book to someone from the working class. (He and his brother own a successful business, so he isn’t exactly struggling.) Money is not an issue for anyone in this book; they live in a rarified world where the rich are intelligent and successful in their chosen fields. The current political scene is mentioned exactly once, in a paragraph, and not all that specifically, considering that the current federal administration is not exactly friendly to scientists and a fair amount of scientific research is being threatened with cuts. Not to mention the effects of the rise of racism on their colour blind world. Or that, in a bit of plotting that changes the direction of her life, Charlie was hit upon by an older professor who was a much tonier creep than is President Grab’m by the Pussy. Helen’s world is well-heeled and well mannered. What interests Nell Freudenberger is having a logically driven woman of science come up against death and the idea that something exists beyond it. She’s done her research and there’s lots in here about lasers, black holes and LIOD (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory); she’s also done tons of work on Helen and Charlie’s backstory and student days. It’s all very well plotted and worked out, with a mild frisson of the supernatural, yet genuine grief feels as absent from Lost and Wanted as do the poor. It all goes down so easily: a nice book, well brought up.
At this point in my life, I’m dragging along my own griefs while I read, so maybe I expected and wanted too much from both novels? This month I gave a eulogy for one of my oldest and dearest friends. Do I find both The Heavens and Lost and Wanted unsatisfactory and thin because they can’t hold a candle to my own loss?
*Psalms and Tyrants
Lux by Elizabeth Cook is an admirable book, beautifully written, and comprised of three sections; the first two (Ark and Prophet) telling the story of King David, chiefly the events centring on his passion for Bathsheba and its fallout, and the third, (Poet). of Thomas Wyatt’s travails in the court of Henry VIII before and after the king’s passion for Ann Boleyn. David’s guilt for his selfish passion (he had Bathsheba’s husband killed) led to penitence and the writing of Psalms; immoral Henry suffers no such pangs (he’s very Trumpian). The first and last sections are the strongest; the second, with David holed up in a cave following the birth of Bathsheba’s son, treads water a bit. You can see what Cook’s getting at, but it feels padded. She’s looking at the misuse of power, at selfishness and lust, and then at the redemptive possibilities in poetry. She really knows how to write a beautiful sentence and she has a finely tuned poet’s ear; she’s also clearly obsessed with the characters of both David and Wyatt. Some of her choices are odd to me; for example, she includes all of the pre-David Ark of the Covenant business involving the Philistines and their haemorrhoids (one of the Old Testaments great, crazy passages), but does not deal at all with the Absalom story. It’s a curious book that doesn’t quite come together but is extraordinary when it does. The balance feels wonky—in terms of what she’s going for, one part David and two parts Wyatt might seem a more logical structure. But perhaps that seems so to me simply because I’m more familiar with the David story and, even though she does very fine work enlarging parts of it, I wanted more of the Tudors. The Prologue, in which a young Bathsheba witnesses a woman stoned to death for adultery, is powerful and grim, the crowd as familiar as the mob in Shirley Jackson’s Lottery.
Cook did send me back to The David Story, Robert Alter’s translation of the two Books of Samuel, and it was wonderful to read it again. I can’t praise Alter enough, his prose is clear, his notes are thorough, and it’s so apparent when reading him that the story of the first Hebrew kings is, along with Gilgamesh and Homer, one of our great primal texts. What isn’t in this story? There’s young David the fairy tale giant slayer, the madness of King Saul, David’s love of Jonathan, incest, rape, revenge and David’s great lament at the death of the son who betrayed him. Alter’s translation work is a glorious thing and has given me great joy.
Elizabeth Cook also had me dipping back into The Poets’ Book of Psalms, edited by Laurance Wilder, with translations by Wyatt, along with Milton, Herbert, Sidney and a raft of others. More joy.
*Melville, His World and Work
Andrew Delbanco is equal parts historian and critic, so his biography of Herman Melville gives you a pretty extensive sense of both the man’s life and his writing in the context of 19th century America. His career began at a time when Americans would rather read British writers than their own, and U.S. publishers preferred non-Americans because they didn’t have to pay them royalties. (Apart from copyright laws, it was much the situation that Canadian writers were in a century later.) One of the things that makes Melville so compelling a subject is his inability to fit in; his early South Sea adventure novels were successful, but then, starting with his great crazy whale of a book, he was the odd man out for the rest of his career, from the financially disastrous Pierre (Delbanco draws a convincing line from it to Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge), and Clarel, his epic 150 canto poem on faith and doubt in the Holy Land (reviled in it’s day, and now compared to Eliot’s Wasteland), to the final handful of brilliant stories, Bartleby, Benito Cereno and Billy Budd. What sustains a writer when the work is ridiculed, domestic life is less than ideal, and there’s constant financial stress? Add to that the suicide of one son and the death of another. Delbanco answers the question with a great deal of knowledge and compassion. I came to this book after hearing him interviewed about his latest, The War Before the War, about fugitive slaves; he talked of Melville as being the one great writer of his generation who understood race in America. The sequence near the beginning of Moby Dick, with Ishmael and Queequeg sharing a bed (“You had almost thought I had been his wife”) is an extraordinary moment in American letters; it was the first reason I fell for his work when I was an undergrad. Melville, in passages like this, had the ability to write about race and sexuality as if from another century.
*T. J. Clark
Just over a dozen years ago, I spotted The Sight of Death on the new acquisitions section at a university library. I didn’t know T. J. Clark—being a sucker for death, it was the title I went for—and, because it was an analysis of two landscapes by Poussin (never a painter I’d been drawn to in any particular way) I almost left it on the shelf. Thank god I didn’t; it’s one of the best pieces of art writing I know. The two Poussins were hanging in the same gallery for a limited amount of time, and Clark’s book was about his daily encounters with them, and how his experience evolved over time. He wrote a lot about the shifting qualities of light and what that revealed. Clark not only changed my take on Poussin, I discovered one of the few writers who really gets at what it is to spend time with a work of art. The combination of his intellectual rigour and his very savvy analytical eye makes him the ideal viewer. Because his new book is constructed from previously published essays, it isn’t the same kind of sustained thrill, but it’s really insightful, smart writing and I couldn’t put it down. Despite the presence of a Giotto angel on the cover, Heaven on Earth, Painting and the Life to Come, isn’t a book about Christian art; it’s Clark’s Marxist take on a series of painters he loves: Giotto, Breugel, Poussin (of course), Veronese, and Picasso. He not only makes you appreciate certain works for the first time, he also makes the familiar vivid in new ways. Reading him changes the way I look, and that’s an extraordinary thing.
*Time Song, Searching for Doggerland
Tens of thousands of years ago, what is now the bottom of the North Sea was a countryside that stretched from the current British coast to the Netherlands; recently named Doggerland, after Dogger Bank (which, in turn, was named after the Dutch vessels that fished there for cod), it exists as a kind of prehistoric Atlantis. Julia Blackburn’s obsession with it comes from proximity (she lives on its edge), and loss—her late husband was Dutch, and she sees the the space between their shores as a place of longing and yearning. She’s a rummager, a beachcomber, and as a part of her research she hooks up with others who walk the coasts and fens or drag the sea looking for artifacts of a lost land—mammoth bones, human remains. Her curiosity is what drives the book, and it’s never not interesting as she talks to experts and amateurs, attempting to map out a vanished world and the people who lived on it. The Time Songs of the title are a series of numbered poems (there are eighteen), each accompanied by an elegant, vaguely calligraphic drawing by Enrique Brinkmann. These are the least satisfactory aspects of the book: the poems are perfunctory, more like lists and summaries of her research than true poetry, and the scale of the image reproductions robs the drawings of much of their beauty. Still, they give the book a shape, and the material in the bulk of the text—that combination of science and memoir—is pretty irresistible. There’s also a series of chronological maps, starting c. 18,000 BP, that work beautifully at conveying the geographical evolution of Doggerland. Blackburn is capable of wonder—in many ways, it’s really what she’s after, but she’s also a cranky old woman who misses people and longs for what can be no more; I liked spending time with both aspects of her. She has that marvellous desire for information about time that comes with age, that comes when one’s own time is clearly finite.
*William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow
This is a lovely thing, an old man’s version of the coming of age novel; it’s as if, at the age of 65 or so, a character like Carson McCuller’s Frankie were to look back at the end of her adolescence with the perspective of time. The story is a simple tragedy: a man falls in love with his friends wife and this leads to a killing. When he was a boy, the narrator was friendly with the son of the murderer; his book is an elegy and an apology to that boy from decades later. It’s an achingly fine little book.
* Schumann, The Faces and The Masks by Judith Chernaik
At the start of this year, at the same time that I lost the closest of friends, I kept coming across Robert Schumann on the web. In an interview on Zsolt Bognár’s Living the Classical Life Caroline Olrmanns talked passionately about discovering and recording his Ghost Variations, then a baritone I love, Christian Gerhaher, released Frage, an album of his songs. The music is so beautiful, so moving, it seemed exactly the right thing to be listening to at such a sad time. I knew next to nothing about the man’s life, save his love for Clara and his insanity, so when I saw notices for Judith Chernaik’s new biography the time seemed right to correct that. Cherniak has written four novels, a book on Shelley’s lyrics, and is the woman responsible for putting poetry on London’s Underground. Her biography is a well researched, clear and uncluttered telling of his story, and her accompanying analyses of his music is very fine. Spending a couple of weeks with the book and with YouTube (where most of his pieces are available, many of the piano pieces with scores) was like taking a course in both Clara and Robert. There’s lots of musical things I didn’t know of—“Paradise and the Peri”, for example, a secular oratorio hugely popular when it was written and largely forgotten now—and there’s the crazy heartbreak of the couples’ relationship with Clara’s father, who opposed their marriage so vehemently that they had to take him to court. Cherniak makes the development of the music an integral part of narrative.
* Dark Woods, poems
Very few poets are decent playwrights; Richard Sanger is one of them and so I’m always keen on keeping up with his work. There’s a lot that I love in this new collection, and nothing more than the title poem, which works as a kind of gloss on Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a modern retelling with skidoo instead of little horse, as well as being a very tender love poem to his young son. Toronto figures in these poems, as well as the landscape of the Group of Seven; Sanger is a lovely guide to both.
* Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
My joys reading last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner were often intermittent, but whenever they came they were intense. It’s not so much a novel as a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of a hundred and some pieces, many less than half a page, others as long as a hefty short story, all related to themes of travel—geographic and interior. The worlds that Flight inhabits are those of the human body and the great globe itself; it’s the kind of book that can be pleasurable moment to moment but, if you really want to get the full force of what Olga Tokarczuk has constructed, you know you’re going to have to read it a couple more times to understand the poetic logic that binds its fragments. Few novels have spent more time exploring the human anatomy. A narrator provides a kind of unity as she threads her way through the book and travels about the world, many of the short sections are compelling, insightful or witty, but it’s the longer narrative pieces, with characters whose journeys are often fuelled by the need to escape, that haul you in and really linger. I could pick a dozen examples, but in one of them, near the end of the book, an aging classics professor and his younger wife are on an Aegean cruise; we experience the day to day—his failing health, her care giving—through her eyes but then, when he suffers a stroke, the book’s two landscapes of world and body come together in a passage of such depth and beauty, the like of which I probably won’t encounter any time soon. It simply took my breath away, and there was nothing to do but read it over and over again. In sections like this, Tokarczuk’s curiosity cabinet becomes a book of treasures. The translation is by Jennifer Croft.
* n + 1, Issue 33, Winter 2019
The essays are the best things in the Winter 2019 issue, and there’s lots of them. Sparked by the Kavanaugh hearings, Elizabeth Schambelan has a good piece on nice boys and rape, called Everybody Knows; Base Culture, by Lyle Jeremy Rubin, is on his war tour in Afghanistan; and there are two very personal pieces: Christina Nichol’s Conversations with Bongjun about South Korea; and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Homeschool. Also George Balustein has an insightful review of John McCain’s The Restless Wave and his military and political career. Plus a dozen movie reviews from A. S. Hamrah, who is smart, perceptivel, and annoying. Well worth the 16 bucks.
I can’t imagine Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina working as well as it does in any other form; there’s a vagueness in the characters that wouldn’t suit a conventional novel, and there’s too much stasis for a film. The formal arrangement of panels, the flatness and minimalism of it all feels exactly right. It’s such a smart way to tell this story.
Not long after the book begins, the title character mysteriously disappears, an event that leads to tabloid headlines and leaves behind her sister and boyfriend who are trying to cope with their loss. The boyfriend goes to another town, retreating into a room in the house of a friend whose wife and daughter have left him; that friend, who works for the airforce, becomes central to the book. The plot is a loose series of incidents involving these three as Sabrina’s fate is revealed and they are exposed to the reactions of social media. Suddenly they find themselves in Alex Jones’ land of paranoia, with threatening emails arriving from the anonymous void.
Drnaso’s soft muted palette and the lack of emotion in his images seems the ideal way to give us this version of America at this moment—spare rooms inhabited by characters with faces drawn as simply as possible, with helmet hair and dots for eyes. We don’t become close to these people, we observe them in their cartoon panels like mice in a maze. It’s a sensational piece of work and even though it filled me with dread, I loved reading it.
*Life at the End of Life
After I’d sent her a copy of my first novel, my elderly mother phoned to let me know that, “I don’t think much of your dedication.” “Oh,” I said, “Why?” This was not the reaction I expected; I’d dedicated it to her, and to my older brother and his wife. “People will think you don’t love your other brother,” she said. I explained that I was using the dedication to thank them for sending a bit of money my way during the writing, but she wasn’t having it. “You left out your little brother,” she said, as if I had committed a sin against the entire family. “But the first book I ever published was dedicated to him!” There was a pause, and then, “What book?” “You remember,” I said, “It was a play…” And then, as I was about to say the title, “Oh,” she said, “That.”
That that was one of the most dismissive words I ever heard her utter, and even though I knew that she was simply being a mother bear defending her youngest cub, it was cruel; like a raft of other things she said and did during the last years of her life, it made me crazy. Now that she’s nearly two decades gone, most of that frustration has been mercifully replaced by memories of her wit, her kindness, her generosity and warmth. One’s parents can as difficult as they are complicated, and aging only makes them more so. The end of life is no picnic.
All Things Consoled is Elizabeth Hay’s account of the end of her parent’s lives, and one of its sure effects will be to make its readers think about incidents in their relationships to their own aging kin. Beginning with the decision to leave their house and move to a seniors residence in Ottawa, Hay narrates her parents’ story as they decline and their bodies and minds fail them. Her father was school principal with a mean temper; her mother, a painter who could be a maddeningly frugal homemaker. Although her father’s cruelty and thoughtlessness were a constant throughout their entire time together, Hay never turns this into a Poor Me account; she digs into what made the man tick in the way that a good novelist digs into a character. As a result, her memoir reads as satisfyingly as a novel; it’s generous and loving at the same time that it bristles with frustration and anger. She captures the heartbreaking everyday drama of impending death—mundane, unfair, as funny at times as it is harrowing. When packing up for that final move, her father, a reader, picked only the books that mattered to him; not a single one of hers was among them. In his mind, it would have been dishonest to bring hers along—she should know the truth. Her honesty in writing this can, at times, be as uncomfortable as his; she doesn’t stint on her own resentment. Her parents met the end under the best possible circumstances—that is, being able to afford to live in an excellent facility with caring family members nearby—yet their ends contained elements both lonely and grim. The truth is that all old people fall apart and die; no one is spared, and it’s no wonder most of us don’t want to think about where and how we’ll end up. But the strongest impression Elizabeth Hay leaves is one of resilience on everyone’s part; All Things Consoled is an unstinting and loving piece of work.
* Isabel Wilkerson’s Great Book
Starting at the end of the Great War and continuing on for half a century, African Americans left the South for new lives in northern and western cities. Isabel Wilkerson’s history of their great migration is at once immense and intimate, a triumph of both research and storytelling. It is also triumph of structure; The Warmth of Other Suns is one beautifully built book. Wilkerson hangs her narrative on the histories of three migrants, a sharecropper from Mississippi who went with her husband to Chicago in the 30s, a fruit picker from Florida who fled to Harlem in the 40s and ended up working for the railroad, moving back and forth from north to south throughout his life, and a surgeon who left Louisiana for California in the 50s. She tells their stories concurrently, so that she can compare their departures, their journeys and arrivals, the receptions they received, and the successes and failures of new lives; as a result, we have a very solid picture of the evolution of the migration from one decade to the next. In addition to doing the extensive historical research (newspapers, scholarly and literary works) Wilkerson interviewed well over a thousand people, and it shows—she’s clear eyed but this is history driven by a passion to get to the heart of people she has come to know. By the time we get to the end of the book, we not only have a deeper understanding of the cruel bigotry that forced people to leave, a complex history of race relations in America throughout the 20th century, a stronger grasp on the effects of the migration on American cities and of the Civil Rights movement on America itself, but we also have the emotional satisfaction of knowing Wilkerson’s three subjects in the way that a reader knows characters in a fine novel. It’s an incredibly honest piece of work, a necessary fount of knowledge, and just a joy to read.
* Machine Without Horses
One look at a photograph of the renowned Scottish fly tyer Megan Boyd and you’ll know why Helen Humphreys wanted to write about her. Her hair slicked slicked back, and wearing a man’s jacket and tie, she bends over a worktable covered with rainbows of feathers and thread; she’s a compelling eccentric—a woman living alone in a rough cottage who made flies of such excellence that high end salmon fishers like Prince Charles beat a path to her door. She was single, had a plain, warm face, and she loved to dance and play bridge. Her flies were world famous but she never fished a day in her life. When Charles had his mother award her the British Empire Medal, she said she couldn’t come to claim it because there was no one available to look after her dog. She kept so much to herself that she’s enigmatic, perhaps unknowable, someone living quite apart from the people around her.
The first half of Machine Without Horses is a memoir in a series of short chapters about what a novel on Megan Boyd might be. Humphreys had recently lost her brother, her father and a best friend, and she wants to use Boyd’s story as a way to write her way out of grief. The strongest sections detail her relationship with a recently widowed man who teaches her to tie flies. There’s also a seres of events involving the tragic disappearance of a fellow dog walker.
The second half of the book is a novella in which Megan becomes the character Ruth, and we read a fictional version of her life, which, oddly enough, is fairly conventional in a very British way, more Brief Encounter than, say, Temple Grandin.
*The Witch Elm
Tana French’s narrator Toby is unreliable because, after being beaten badly by burglars, he suffers a head injury, and can’t exactly remember parts of the story he is narrating. The body of an old classmate has been found in a hole in a tree on the family property: is it suicide? is someone in his family guilty of murder? is he? At 500 pages, a lot of time goes by before we discover the answers. Because of raves in the NY Times—by Stephen King and Janet Maslin—as well as the enthusiasms of editor Pamela Paul (an excellent interviewer of authors)—and also because the book promised to be an examination of luck and privilege—I was keen on going along for the ride. At a certain point—mostly because I no longer believed the my-memory-may-be-false device—the structure began to feel more and more like a contrivance, the characters became less promising and more stock, and the breezy ride became a bit of a plod. It’s not badly written, the dialogue is pretty good (and she can sustain very talky scenes for pages and pages), but it gets thinner, not deeper, the longer it extends.
*Brian Dillon and the familial essay
When Irish essayist Brian Dillon was sixteen, his mother—after suffering long and painfully from an autoimmune disease, scleroderma—died; five years later, his father dropped dead while walking home from Mass. These two events are at the heart of Dillon’s work. In the Dark Room, A Journey in Memory, is a memoir of essays arranged in sections (House, Things, Photographs, Bodies, Places) that calls to mind the form of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (Objects, Food, Rooms) and is an examination of his parent’s lives, their faith, and the world in which their unhappy family dwelt. It’s an unconventional autobiography, and there are times reading it when I felt as if the form of it was not simply his way of dealing with the material, but also a structure that was keeping him moored to sanity. It was as if the scope of his family’s grief would overwhelm him if he didn’t deal with it formally. In Essayism, his book of thirty or so short essays about essays (On origins, On lists, On consolation, On style etc.), he writes very personally about writers who matter to him, from Robert Burton to Virginia Woolf to T. J.Clark, and about how and why this particular form means so much; yet many of these, as well, lead him back to his family and loss. I wouldn’t call his writing rarefied, exactly, it has none of the pretence that term suggests. Next up is his book on hypochondriacs.
Jack Robinson is the pen name for Charles Boyle, publisher of CB Editions, which last year published Robinson, his slim, post Brexit novel/essay about the detrimental effects of Robinson Crusoe’s lone manliness on the psyche of the UK. It is, in part, a round up of more Crusoe writings than you knew existed—among them, works by Muriel Spark, J. M. Coetzee, Michel Tournier, Elizabeth Bishop, Céline, and Kafka. The book is a small, elegantly designed, minimal object that is also, at times, the memoir of man who grew up reading Defoe, Rider Haggard, John Buchan and the like. Jack Robinson looks at Defoe’s Robinson—alone, Protestant, self sufficient, racist—as a contribution to what’s worst about his countrymen, who, like Crusoe, build walls when they see the footprint of a foreigner. Defoe’s book made a “role model of a character whose author, by isolating him from human society, could not have placed him in a more unnatural, artificial environment.” And so, says Robinson, here we Brits are, thinking we’ll be just fine on our own without the EU. Quirky, smart, engaging—it’s the book equivalent of a Chris Marker movie.
Robinson’s first book, Recessional, is available here, at the CB editions website, gratis.
*Lion Cross Point, Masatsugu Ono
A ten year old boy is spending the summer in the fishing village on Kyushu in Southern Japan that his mother grew up in, hated, and left. There, Takeru is befriended and cared for, but he was so traumatized by life with his nightmare mother and violent partner in Tokyo, as well as by the fate of his handicapped brother, that he lives apart from his new life, his mind shifting constantly from the squalor of the city to the generosity of the villagers. Because Masatsugu Ono gives us the story from Takeru’s point of view, we piece things together, trying to solve a puzzle that includes neglect, abuse, and extraordinary acts of kindnesses. Apart from some clunky bits of dialogue, (lots of wannas and yas and in’ for ings that, in context don’t quite ring true), Angus Turvill’s translation is clear, the book is spare and mysterious, a ghost story.
*The Politics of Fiction
It’s easy to believe that Deborah Eisenberg writes but one short story a year—there isn’t so much as a random comma to be found anywhere in the seven stories from the 1990s in All Around Atlantis; her sentences are things of polished beauty. Like Alice Munro, she’s a born short story writer—you can’t imagine either of them needing to write a novel. Much of her work here is focused on disparity—the poor girl at a boarding school, the American tourist in Central America, etc.—and there’s something almost but not quite clinical in her political take on their situations. Although she’s a very smart cookie and a great observer—her dialogue is terrific—we know her characters from a distance, and not from within their skins.
*The Bitter End
Six volumes and god knows how many hundred of thousands of words translated from the Norwegian later, we have now, literally, come to the end, specifically to The End, the final book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (translated by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett). It’s a concrete block of a book, clocking in at nearly 1200 pages, 450 of them being an essay that centres on that other My Struggle, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. At times, Book 6 is the reader’s struggle as well. That essay, The Name and the Number, can be a bit of a slog. There’s a lot in it that’s dense, like, say, the very long analysis of Paul Celan’s “The Straitening” (also translated as “Stretto”), and a lot that feels like an endless report on Knausgaard’s background research for the essay, and what at times feels like an endless examination of the ways that both dictators and writers use pronouns (I—we—you); but, but, there are literally hundreds of pages of essay that are really fascinating, as with his obsession with young Hitler. This whole insane endeavour, that is Karl Ove’s struggle, began with the death of his father who, like Hitler’s, was a bully feared by his son. What caused these two young men with artistic pretensions to head off in such different directions? The Name and the Number was, at times, infuriating, but worth plowing through.
Volume six is really a book about the repercussions of the whole project; while he is writing it, the earlier volumes are being published and wreaking havoc on his family and his world: his father’s brother is enraged and threatening to sue, journalists pursue and harass him, and, in the book’s most upsetting passages, his wife has a mental breakdown and is hospitalized. (They were still together at the end of this volume, but half a decade after My Struggle came out in Norway the marriage was over.) What is deeply interesting and deeply troubling about the book is the writer’s relentless self analysis as well as his analysis of his young family. One reads it thinking, what will his kids think when they grow up and read this thing? It’s a book about the morality of its own existence, a book that exposes not only the writer’s own self, but also his versions of the people surrounding him. You do wonder how he can expose the people he loves to such scrutiny; it’s one thing for him to lay bare all his own petty weaknesses and faults; it’s another to publish his observations of the weaknesses and limits of others. The final sections involving his wife are tough to read because his use of her illness is harrowing.
I have loved reading this crazy, massive thing, even this final, often infuriating instalment, which is the one where his chickens have come home to roost. And I don’t mean in terms of his artistic vision so much as of the affect is has had on the people in his world. There were times when I could not help but think of Elizabeth Bishop, of one of the most important things of hers that I know, her reaction to her great friend Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, his book long poem containing excerpts from very personal letters written by Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife. He had sent Bishop the manuscript for The Dolphin, and she was upset that Lowell had not only quoted from the letters, he’d changed the quotes for his own purposes. “It’s hell to write this,” she wrote him, “so please do first believe that I think Dolphin is magnificent poetry. It is also honest poetry—almost.” She went on to detail her misgivings, asking, “Aren’t you violating a trust?” Her letter from March 21, 1972 is something writers should pin above their desks. When she wrote of the profound hurt that publishing his book would cause, she urged him not to do it and she was a friend who didn’t mince words: “art just isn’t worth that much,” she said. Lowell, of course, did not follow her advice; he published the book, and got the Pulitzer.
Olivia Laing’s first novel is a metafictional autobiography the begins when she flies into London from New York on May 13, 2017 and ends five months and a scant 135 pages later on September 23 when she boards a plane to return. Crudo is a kind of comedy of manners involving successful artist/writer/bohemians in a hyped up news cycle. In its five brief sections, Laing goes to galleries and readings, shops, eats and drinks a lot, marries an older man, and obsesses about Trump, Brexit and everything else that’s in the angst ridden air. The dates and events throughout all coincide with real events in her life the summer that she married poet Ian Patterson, who is not named in the book. Laing, for that matter, is not named either; she does not write her story in the first person, she writes it in third person as Kathy Acker. (Her much quoted opening line is a treat: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married.”) Given the fact that Acker and her books have never been high on my to do list, Laing’s book isn’t as frustrating as I feared. This is very much of the moment, a book for and from the Twittersphere, well written (as one would expect from Laing), observant, witty, trenchant, and reading it just depressed the hell out of me. Is that because she so accurately captures the creepy, hyper, despair of the present moment of Trump? Is it because I’m an old fart who feels akin to the Pauline Kael who wrote, more than half a century ago, of “Come Dressed As The Sick Soul of Europe Parties”? Crudo is confessional and edgy, yet not so much as Laing’s previous works of non-fiction, although there we were allowed to enjoy her company; it goes from event to event in the way Trump goes from Tweet to Tweet; all of its dramatic urgency is of the moment, it doesn’t have the drive of a novel. But it does have its texting finger very much on the keyboard the zeitgeist.
*Who We Are and How We Got Here
Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.
Now that it’s possible to extract and study DNA from our most remote ancestors, an entirely new picture of human evolution is emerging, and one of the most fascinating aspects of all this is the mapping of our movements around the world thousands of years ago. We are a species that migrates over great distances and long periods of time. Even though David Reich is not a great prose stylist, and some of the technical bits of his book can be rough going for the novice, this is a really compelling and wonderful read. Reich at the forefront of this research and he conveys real excitement about it. It is amazing, say, to look at who shares ancestry with Neanderthals, or to trace the movement of peoples from Taiwan as they moved south into Oceania. He’s pretty convincing in making a case that the study of ancient DNA in tandem with archeology can really give us a much deeper understanding of the past than we thought was possible. Not everyone shares his views, however; Indigenous North Americans for excellent reasons, are very wary. Reich is also aware of the pitfalls of genetic research (i.e. Nazis, i.e. racism) and spends time at the end of the book explaining why his research is on the side of the angels. (This has not stopped the Alt Right from misinterpreting him, nor has it stopped some on the Left from making a case against genetic research.) Reich gives a lecture that’s a Cole’s Notes version of the book here.
*“Well, screwface, I must close.”
The Selected Letters of Pauline Kael & Robert Duncan, Parts I & II, 1945-1946
These two very thin chapbooks from the Lost & Found CUNY Poetics Document Initiative series are edited by Bradley Lubin and contain a scant handful of correspondence from the mid 1940s between poet and critic to be. It’s a sliver of a thing, a snapshot of two twenty-five years olds, friends at the start of their creative lives. Kael is eking out a living in New York, seeing a lot of movies, reading everything from Gide to Henry Adams, going to leftie political meetings, and working on a play. Duncan had already published “The Homosexual in Society” in Politics, and was sending his poetry out and working on a book. They’d met at Berkley less than ten years before and are so damn young and so keen to write, read and experience life. They banter back and forth, recommend things to each other. Kael goes wild for Herman Melville’s Pierre and can’t find enough people to talk to about it; she attends concerts, raves about Wanda Landowska, writes of sending Samuel Barber critical notes, and frets over the title of her play in progress. Duncan writes about James Joyce and mails her long winded replies which are greatly about his love affair with language. He also sends her his work, and she replies with detailed notes. She often sounds the smartass (“Well, screwface, I must close”), a wise broad who is wary of academics in the way that Joan Blondell was wary of swells.
Kael would spend another twenty-five years living hand to mouth; before she was thirty, she would become a single mom, and would scratch out a living supporting both her daughter and her writing, until, nearly fifty, she finally got a Guggenheim, published I Lost It At The Movies, which lead, via her review of Bonnie and Clyde, to the New Yorker. It’s wonderful to see her here, young, feisty, wise and opinionated, a part of what her gay poet pal referred to as “that lettrous mountain of friendship.”
*Keep a diary, and one day it will keep you.
Satirist Craig Brown had the brilliant idea to look in every diary he could lay his hands on that contained references to HRH Princess Margaret Rose. “She felt most at home in the company of the camp, the cultured, and the waspish,” he writes. “It was to be her misfortune that such a high proportion of them kept diaries.” Brown anchors Ma’am Darling, 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret in these countless diary details, as well as in photographs, newspaper items, and books previously written, both the sycophantic (William Shawcross’ biography of the Queen Mum) and the ghoulish (My Life with Princess Margaret by David John Payne, her former footman, who sneaks through her things when he’s alone in her rooms). A pattern emerges from this treasure trove of entires: people wanted to be near her because she was Princess Margaret and, because she was such an snobbish monster, they all ran home after every encounter and jotted down every unpleasant, bitchy, mean, appalling thing she said or did. God knows they had lots of material. Brown also includes a few speculative pieces—what ifs. What if she had married Peter Townsend? What if Picasso (who was obsessed with her) had successfully wooed her? What if she had been born before her sister and become the Queen? The princess was willful and spoiled, her behaviour outrageous; she kept people waiting, she ruined other people’s dinners, she was the sort of demanding and horrible guest who stubbed out her cigarettes in people’s food. She was a caricature of a royal snob, a character in a farce, in short, a nightmare. Because a good half of Brown’s 99 glimpses contain zingers, what he has accomplished is probably one of the funniest biographies ever written, and a crushing indictment of the upper classes and celebrity culture. We get her affairs and lovers, her snubs, her hauteur, along with the horrible marriage (Lord Snowden left her notes that simply read “I hate you”), her second fiddle to the Queen status (Her Majesty launched liners, the princess launched Girl Guide huts), the constant intake of whiskey and cigarettes, the colossal unhappiness of the woman, the joke that her life became. She was elaborately mean to Liz Taylor (who was not alone), she insulted the disabled, she sang in public and made a fool of herself. She was immensely selfish. The one glimpse Brown gives us of Margaret as a mother comes at Christie’s, after her death, when her two children auction off seemingly everything she possessed. They apparently wanted none of it.
A very worthy fictional companion to Craig Brown’s diaristic princess is HRH’s appearance in Some Hope, the third of Edward St. Aubyn’s autobiographical Patrick Melrose Novels. The dinner party at which she wreaks havoc is, quite simply, one of the most jaw droppingly hysterical things I've ever read.
*The Ruins of Babel: Deep Field
After his aging father lost first his hearing and then his words, Philip Gross began this series of poems about their changing relationship to each other and, ultimately, to language itself. John Gross, who once could speak five languages, is reduced to babble, and his son the poet summons images of both dark sea and deep sky—the words and thoughts his father cannot convey are as mysterious and vast as the distances between stars, as unknowable and what’s unseen beneath the sea’s surface. “There has to be a country,” he writes, “in which what you have for speech/is language.” At the centre of Deep Field is a twenty part suite, Vocables, about wordless speech: the baby’s first vocalizing, the singer’s scatting, the unspeakable name of God. Again and again Gross returns to the idea that what his father thinks or feels can no longer be known. It’s intelligent poetry, less emotional than one might expect given the terrain, a meditation on language and silence.
*The Looming Tower and What Followed
I was addicted to Caliphate, this spring’s NY Times podcast series by Rukmini Callimachi (accessible here); a gripping piece of journalism, it provides a steady gaze into the workings of the Islamic State through, among other things, a remarkable series of interviews with a young man in Toronto, and Callimachi’s obsessive search for ISIS documents in the rubble of places like Mosul. Most of us in the West had no idea that the militants were such bureaucrats, as determined to make the State run efficiently as the were to ruthlessly destroy any opposition. (Comparisons of how they governed Iraq as compared to how America did after the invasion are sobering: Rumsfeld et al did not make the trains run on time.) Given the extreme violence of what she’s investigating, Callimachi is a balanced journalist, not looking at ISIS members as evil inhuman Others, but determined to understand what makes them tick. Her interviews with that Jihadist could tear you apart; he was a kid who became radicalized and found himself in over his head and witness to atrocities; he was also an unreliable narrator and participant in those atrocities, a butcher. Callimachi is balanced, but she’s no bleeding heart. Caliphate was illuminating and harrowing.
I’m an irregular listener to the Longform Podcast, but I tuned in to her interview this summer (here); when speaking of her working methods, she spoke very highly of Lawrence Wright’s rigour. He’s another journalist I admire, mostly for his pieces in the New Yorker on, among other things, Texas, Scientology and the Middle East; but I’d never read one of his books. Her praise for his 2007 Pulitzer winner on the lead up to 9/11 made me seek it out; which is why, on this year’s anniversary of the attacks, I was reading The Looming Tower, Wright’s investigation into the rise of Al-Qaeda and the years leading up to that terrible morning that changed all of our lives in ways that keep getting worse. It’s such a solid piece of reporting, so well researched and balanced, that it’s an indispensable history. Wright has remarkable clarity, leading us through lives of dozens of players—Saudis, Afghanis, Americans—with insight and precision. He traces the the aftereffects of colonialism, the anger and disenfranchisement on the Arabian Peninsula from the days before oil created untold wealth for so very few, up through the rise of Israel, the wars in the Middle East, and the threats of Judaism, Christianity and modernism to a medieval, traditional belief system. We come to understand not only the various factions and splits within Muslim extremism, but the fatal jealousies and infighting within the FBI and the CIA that left America so vulnerable. The book has its large, dominating characters—Bin Laden, Zamahiri, John O’Neil, Prince Turki—but it also has a deep awareness not just of the secondary players but of the thousands of citizens caught in a nightmare. It’s great journalism and, given the bleakness of its story and the aftereffects, there is hope in knowing that Lawrence Wright’s passion for knowledge is shared by writers like Rukmini Callimachi.
About thirty years ago, my friend Joan and I went to see Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square. At the end, we agreed that it was disappointing, and we wish we’d liked it more. Then she said, “But I really like the woman who wrote this play.” She didn’t say this because she knew Tina Howe, she said it because she believed in what the writer was getting at.
I’ve thought about that remark over the years when watching or reading work that disappoints; a lot of the time, I’m not as generous as my friend, but there is work that one wants to like, wants to root for. All this is by way of trying to get a handle on Washington Black, Esi Edugyan’s third novel. The narrator, George Washington Black, aka Wash, is born a slave on a plantation in Barbados; he escapes in a hot air balloon with his owner’s brother, and has further adventures in the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England and Morocco. Wash is extremely bright, has a talent for drawing, and more or less invents the aquarium. It’s a very old fashioned yarn—the story has no fewer coincidences than a Dickens’ novel—and is not a bad read. (Her dialogue can be weak, but many of her descriptive passages are lovely. ) Parts of the plantation section are strong and feel rooted in something true and dark. But, after that balloon ride, I scarcely believed a word of it; nothing felt as if it had been truly lived. The novel is set between 1830 and 1836, the research is all there, but so much of it just feels off. Here, by way of example, is one extremely picky item, close to my home. In the Nova Scotia section, Wash is somewhere near the Bedford Basin and he goes to a “coloured grill house” and orders a “stew” called hodgepodge. Now hodgepodge is a traditional Nova Scotia dish; it’s eaten in summer when vegetables are fresh, because it’s all about freshness. It consists of new potatoes, beans and peas with, perhaps, little new carrots. The vegetables are boiled, drained, buttered, sometimes dusted with flour, and then cream is stirred in until everything is coated. It is not stew; calling it a stew is like calling potato salad a stew. It’s also not something that would be found in the 1830s near Bedford Basin, because its a Lunenburg County dish, German in origin, and Bedford Basin is not in Lunenburg County and was not settled by Germans. Hodgepodge would be the last thing to be found in a “coloured grill house,” if such a thing could be found at all in that time and place. Now, there is, apparently, something British containing mutton called hotchpotch that is a stew, but it has nothing to do with Nova Scotia. I realize that I’m being a nitpicky pisspot here, but using a piece of regional research like hodgepodge needs to ring true in order to bring us closer to the world of the book, and the purpose of its story. Like much else in the novel, it’s off kilter and adds a layer of implausibility. The story of Washington Black feels like its comes not from any true source but second or third hand; too many of his observations did not feel as if they came from him but from his creator. I wanted to care about him and about what Edugyan was getting at, but, in the end, I just couldn’t believe his voice.
*The Only Story, Julian Barnes
What if one’s first love, a love fuelled by impetuousness and immaturity, turned out to be the greatest, the only one? Julian Barnes begins The Only Story with his narrator Paul meeting Susan MacLeod while playing tennis. He’s nineteen, she’s twice his age and married, with two grown daughters. He falls in love, they begin an affair. The first third of the book moves with reasonable predictability through the first phase of this May-December romance: her husband’s anger, his parents’ dismay, Paul’s young man’s cockiness. We don’t expect a happy outcome, but we do expect a coming of age story with hard lessons learned. But when Barnes moves into the book’s second section, and Paul’s narration shifts to second person, we move to a deep and dark place as the couple set up house and Susan becomes the most significant person he will ever encounter. The shift from “I” and “me” to “you” is fairly extraordinary: Paul’s cockiness is gone, there’s a searching quality, an attempt to figure things out, but there’s a dishonesty within him as well. Not in the way he tells his story—he’s trying hard to get at the truth—so much as the way he has lived it. (He’s not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an unreliable human being.) The couple’s relationship has changed the course of their lives, and not in ways that they, or the reader, anticipated. The third and final section is primarily in third person, as Paul moves into old age, and the narration acquires further perspective on its subjects. Paul lives apart from the people he works with, the women he meets; is it love that has made him such a loner? Barne’s primary subject is love, but he’s also writing about time, and the ways that the two are wrapped up in each other. It’s an old man’s book and as sad as it is intelligently imagined and well written.
I stumbled on a blurb for an upcoming novel, Marilla of Green Gables, a prequel to the Anne books, in which it is revealed that in her youth “plucky and ambitious” Marilla Cuthbert raised funds for a Sisters of Charity orphanage in Nova Scotia that was a part of the Underground Railroad. Wellsir, Marilla Cuthbert, Papist benefactress and abolitionist—she who was barely tolerant of the local French. Now, our Anne has, in some of her many incarnations, often entered an ersatz historical world resembling that of, say, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and Maud herself was fairly guilty of making nice, shoving heaping spoonfuls of sugar down all too willing throats, but what would she make of a 19th century P. E. Island where Presbyterians are in league with Papists nuns for a good liberal cause? This does not have the aura of a book that delves deeply into the politics, religious, sexual or otherwise, of rural Prince Edward Island, and just the thought that it even exists has made me even more grateful for the book at hand, Linda Spalding’s A Reckoning.
Spalding has found, in her family history, a rich story in a rich period. A Purchase centred on her great-great-great grandfather Daniel Dickinson, a Quaker who became a slave owner; A Reckoning deals with his children and grandchildren in the mid 1850s when they lose everything and have to vacate West Virginia for Kansas. On the one hand, it’s a well researched literary historical novel with dangerous river crossings, sinking riverboats, peril and heartbreak; more importantly, it looks at that moment in America history when manumission meant economic disaster for slaveowners, and freedom for their former human property was complicated and fraught with danger. She deals with a very messy subject in a very direct way.
“There there,” is a calming phrase, as in “There there now,” accompanied by a soothing hand. It’s also a Radiohead song (“we are accidents waiting to happen”), and, famously, it’s Gertrude Stein’s line about returning to her old home in Oakland and finding it gone, “There is no there there.” As the title of the first novel by Tommy Orange, There There refers to aspects of all of these; the book deals with loss and violence, but it also serves as a benediction. Although it’s not a long novel, it’s jampacked with people and stories. What it most reminded me of was Robert Altman’s Nashville, both have huge casts of characters careening towards a huge public event. Orange’s fractured narrative juggles well over a dozen lives, bopping from one to the next—some in first person, some second, others third—as they all move towards a big powwow in Oakland. Like Altman’s movie it’s fun and entertaining and it packs a wallop. Orange, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho, has centuries of despair and wrong to fuel his writing; but he’s also driven by a deep affection for Native American lives. Kids, single moms, social workers, folks who are lost, others who have found themselves—he crams an enormous world into his story, and it’s a joy to get to know it. There There is an angry book, and a generous one, as well.
*Gérald Leblanc, Moncton Mantra
Gérard Leblanc, who was just six years older than me, was a fairly close neighbour when we were young—we grew up less than a half hour drive from each other in small town New Brunswick. But even though we were both gay and would both become writers, the distance between us was huge. He was Acadian, I was Anglo, and there were very few places where what was important in our lives would truly intersect. I went to school in Moncton from grade eight onwards, where, with a few very significant and merciful exceptions, I had a mediocre assortment of uninspiring teachers, ranging from a Christian closet case who read tracts to us about the historical accuracy of Adam and Eve, to a guidance councillor who advised not to take Biology because it was not an accredited subject in many universities (she feared the theory of evolution). Moncton was, for me, a Baptist wasteland devoid of culture and hope, a place from which to escape. For Leblanc, it was the opposite, a cultural Mecca for young hip Acadians who were discovering themselves and trying to reconfigure their place in the world.
Moncton Mantra is his autobiographical novel (novella actually; it’s very brief) about a writer coming of age in the city. His narrator moves to Moncton from Buctouche in the early Seventies, the same time that I hoped I was finally free of the place. I know every neighbourhood and corner he writes about—every proper noun is as familiar as the back of my hand—and his excitement on walking down that city’s streets is palpable; but it’s so far removed from my own experience on those very same streets that the place he loves is as foreign to me as science fiction. For me, Moncton became, like Cavafy’s city, a place to fear, a kind of curse I was terrified I couldn’t escape. What Leblanc found there that I never did was a society of others; in that same city, I felt like the other. He captures so well the self centredness of youth (something we did share), an impatience with the status quo, and a love of partying, pop music, and long drunken arguments about philosophy and politics. It’s a wonderful book about being ecstatically alive in the moment. And he saw Acadia as a part of something larger than itself; his Acadia had room for the likes of Thelonius Monk, Richard Brautigan and Marilyn Monroe. How I envy him the generosity he saw in a city where I saw so little. The translation is by Jo-Anne Elder.
June/ July 2018
*Patrick Modiano: Young Twice
The two Patrick Modianos published by New York Review Books a couple of years ago are fine new translations of books written a quarter century apart: Young Once (1981, translated by Damion Searls), and In the Cafe of Lost Youth (2007, Chris Clarke). Both are set in a noirish Paris of the forties and fifties and concern a post war generation coming of age in a world of shady men making shady deals in nighttime garages and bars. In both books, Modiano continues to write about his post Second World War version of what, two decades earlier, Gertrude Stein had named the Lost Generation: young people trying to discover themselves and find their footings and in a damaged world. In terms of style, the books are quite different: Young Once is a third person narrative of a couple in their thirties looking back on their younger selves; in Cafe of Lost Youth, a series of narrators tell of various encounters and episodes in the life of Louki, a lost girl moving seemingly aimlessly through life. What both share is a melancholy, a tawdry glamour that makes one think of them as literary extensions of the black and white Paris of La Nouvelle Vague. My best friend says that, more than any other writer, Modiano has made him understand why some writers are praised for what they leave out; and here, again, Modiano understates, and we are moved by the subtlest of shifts and revelations.
*Sharp by Michelle Dean
In Sharp, Michelle Dean provides a pretty breezy ride through the careers of ten writers, all of them complicated, intelligent, talented—in short, sharp—women. Starting with Dorothy Parker, she moves chronologically through the twentieth century forming a loose narrative with Parker’s story leading to Rebecca West’s, then from West to Hannah Arendt and on to Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm. Dean admires one and all, to slightly varying degrees, and is reasonably fair to each—no mean feat given that there are many instances here of writers who were often not exactly fair to each other. There are relationships and friendships I was aware of (McCarthy and Arendt), personal attacks I knew all too well (Adler on Kael, McCarthy vs. Hellman) and some things I didn’t know, like the fact that, before her New Yorker days, Kael had asked Sontag for help getting into print. Much of this has long been familiar ground because most of these women were so important to me when I was young; they were crucial reading. It’s good to be reminded of things like Ephron’s old Esquire pieces, which were so smart and laugh out loud funny (as compared to the romcoms that followed), and read like reports from the front lines of the feminist movement. Adler’s attack on Kael is so well documented and there’s little that’s new here on that subject. (No one ever mentions that Kael felt it was, in many ways, an inside hatchet job; no one at the New Yorker said a commiserating word to her about it, which hurt as much or more as the piece itself.) There’s work I wish Dean had referenced—there’s no mention, for example, of Parker’s short monologues (The Waltz, Cousin Larry) which are, for my money, the best things she wrote, bitter, hilarious and heartbreaking. (There’s a marvellous Shirley Booth recording of four of these that captures them perfectly; you can sample it here.) Dean’s narrative connections are interesting at times in terms of who met who, where and when, or who worked for which publications; but then, at times, there are connections that feel forced. What she doesn’t do is cut to the chase, which most of these women were really good at doing, and was one of the reasons they were such fabulous reading. Kael said once about Manny Farber words to the effect that even when he was attacking work that she loved he made it more vivid. That passion is what I loved about her work, and Ephron’s, and Didion’s, too. It’s why I rooted for Mary McCarthy when she stuck it to Lillian Hellman (“I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but’.”). In the end, Dean’s a fan’s book, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s less illuminating than an old fan like me might want.
Does being a great artist excuse one from being a prick? Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant one woman show masquerading as stand-up comedy, excoriates Picasso and firmly says No. Eyes Wide Open, Phoebe Hoban’s brief biography of Lucian Freud is maybe not so sure. Freud was an unfaithful partner, a womanizer who demanded his wives and lovers use no protection, and, subsequently, was the father of at least fourteen kids. He was also a compulsive gambler who talked about the thrill of losing everything, and was keen on hanging out with British aristocracy—the we-love-to-dine-with-and-loath-Princess Margaret set—and was, at times, in debt to people as creepy as the Krays. He had feuds, and went through periods of estrangement from family and friends. He was monumentally petty. When asked why he painted, he said, “It is what I like doing best and I am completely selfish.” Being a prick didn’t make him a liar.
Hoban’s book is more like an extended essay than a full biography, and has few illustrations, so it helps to have the internet handy so you can reference the work she’s discussing. She has an excellent eye, and does a fine job of examining the evolution of his artwork. The book raises more questions than it answers about the man. His painting, his drawing, his print work—these things can be great, have have a lot to say about paint and flesh, about being human and being mortal. The fact that painted he his daughters naked isn’t shocking to me, but the meanness of his behaviour can be. It is compelling to hear his children speak so movingly about their time with him.
I had a conversation years ago with someone about an artist we knew who lived with his wife, his daughter and his boyfriend. “How can that work?” I asked, “How can they make that menage workable?”
“Because they all believe he’s a genius."
* Shadow Maker
Packing up to leave Toronto after living there since the late seventies seemed the perfect time to finally read Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Gwendolyn MacEwan, a writer whose world was close to mine geographically and culturally. We knew some of the same people, lived in the same neighbourhoods, and both believed, naively, that it was possible to make a living in this country by writing. Shadow Maker is very much a Toronto book, and takes place in that exciting time before developers were running the show, when Canadians were exploring and discovering their voices, and there was a national interest in the very idea of Canadians writing and publishing books. Back then, when the CBC was committed to promoting more than pop music, there were arts correspondents across the country, and if one listened to producer Anne Gibson’s Stereo Morning, there was the sense that things were happening in all cultural fields all over the place. MacEwan was very much a product of that heady time.
Because Sullivan is writing about a world she’s very much a part of, she’s generous and forgiving; her book is at its best when she’s making discoveries about this woman she knew and liked. And MacEwan herself was so damn interesting; the daughter of a crazy demanding mother and a sweet, drunken dad, she was brilliant, and driven. She studied music, she craved languages—when she was a teenager she walked into a cheder and asked to be taught Hebrew; she also studied French, Arabic and Greek. She translated. She wanted to know so much, she saw herself as a part of a poetic legacy that went back to the dawn of writing. She wore embroidered shirts, rimmed her eyes with kohl, had affairs, lovers, marriages; there was a terrible, mercifully brief, alcohol filled marriage to Milton Acorn, possessive, nasty and old enough to be her father. She was prolific, she was charming, and, because she was a successful poet in Canada, she was often desperately poor. Ultimately, she was was her beloved father’s daughter, and given to suicidal binge drinking. When she died at 46, she had published more than two dozen books.
One of the last shows I saw when I was taking a break from packing was, by happy happenstance, Barbara Klunder’s Tattoos for Gwendolyn MacEwan at the David Kaye Gallery. The embroidery pieces were magical, and so satisfying to see beauty begat beauty.
The debut novel Asymmetry arrives with a ton of hype. It hasn’t hurt Lisa Halliday that she’s worked as an editor or that her husband is an editor, or that she had a youthful fling with an aging Philip Roth. It also doesn’t hurt that she can really write. The novel is in three sections; in the first, Folly, a young woman, an editor, has an affair with a famous writer who’s old enough to be her grandfather; in the second, Madness (which is in first person), an Iraqi American is detained in Heathrow while trying to get to his brother in Kurdistan. And in the (brief) third section, the famous writer, now a Nobel, is on Desert Island Discs, which is where we discover what links the disparate first two sections. Halliday is a graceful writer, with wit and smarts. This is a book about being a writer, about writing, that is also very much about the present moment. The second section, with its accounts of bombings, war, and kidnapping, can be harrowing—the story of the death of a boy, told in a dozen or so lines, tears you apart—and the male voice telling it feels completely accurate. Equally convincing is her writing on age; she’s an excellent observer. (You know that Roth wasn’t just chasing a young skirt.) The Desert Island Discs section provides a deft coda, almost too deft, in fact, it has a whiff of gimmickry. In the end, Asymmetry has less weight than one might have imagined while reading that Madness section. It’s not a tragedy, but it has real depth; it’s wonderfully light on it’s feet.
* Nice, Nicer, Nicest
I thought of Mammy Yokum while I was reading American Niceness, A Cultural History by Carrie Tirado Bramen; Li’l Abner’s ma famously declared that “Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.” She also could bash someone into the next county with what was often called her “Goodnight Irene” punch.
It was the aftermath of 9/11 that got Bramen started on her book; she wanted to examine the origins of the question, “Why do they hate us?” She begins pretty much at the beginning, with the Pilgrims and First Nations, and moves on through slavery, 19th century America’s versions of Jesus and womanhood, and then American imperialism in the Philippines. It’s not a massive book—300 pages plus notes—but she has done massive research and covers an enormous amount of ground. There’s so much in here that I didn’t know. I think of Washington Irving in terms of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow and was unaware of his writings on the treatment of American Indians. And who knew that some slaveowners were so desperate to believe in the concept of owning happy darkies that they whipped their slaves as punishment for not smiling enough? Or that the nice, kind Jesus who replace the furious God of Calvin was in many ways an American invention? And I’m embarrassed at how little I knew about the aftermath of the Spanish American War, and the ways in which US politicians and armed forces treated the people of the Philippines. What Americans called the Battle of Bud Dajo in 1906 was in fact a massacre by the army of nearly a thousand Muslims, mostly women and children. Like many academic books, this one bogs down in places, but then Bramen will be on to some new thing—“Jesus as a Hysterical Woman” or the origins of Aunt Jemima or the Pullman Strike or Ida B. Wells’ removal from a first class ladies railway car—and the whole thing catches you up again. It’s a really significant and compelling piece of work.
* A Couple of Trips To Echo Spring
When Tennessee Williams was at his best, he had such wit and such a great ear that he could make over the top poetry sound like the most natural way to speak. He possessed a puckishness, camp and wicked, giggling and cackling at everything from Blanche’s “No, Tarantula was the name of it! I stayed at a hotel called the Tarantula Arms!” to “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he nicknames a liquor cabinet for a Kentucky bourbon and in so doing makes his character’s drunkenness mythic. Olivia Laing’s book on writers and drinking takes its title from the latter; when Big Daddy asks his son where he’s going, Brick, whose heading across the room with an empty glass, says, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.”
Laing comes to drunkenness and literature out a need to understand her own family (her mother’s lover was a terror when she was drunk), and out of a deep love for the writers she’s chosen. They’re all American, and all men; in addition to Williams, she looks at Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cheever, Berryman and Carver. The book has a lovely, memoir construction: a trip by train, plane and car, from New York to the South (Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans, Key West) then the Midwest (Chicago and St. Paul) and finally Washington State, as she visits the writers’ old haunts and drinking holes, giving us both biography and autobiography, investigating the role that booze and addiction have played in the work. It’s a book about demons and the difficulty of getting away from them, and it made me want to revisit books I haven’t read for years (Cheever’s short stories, Tender is the Night) and fill in the gaps by finally picking up ones I haven’t read (Falconer, Dream Songs).
By coincidence, when I was reading Laing’s book, the Old Vic’s production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof arrived at the local movie theatre. The production was a major disappointment in so many ways—one was always aware that director Benedict Andrews was putting his stamp on things, and, all too often, in ways that were as obvious as they were dumb. The women were especially badly served; Big Mama and Sister Woman were dressed like clowns (Bob Mackie’s costumes for Carol Burnett’s comedy sketches were more believable and much less cruel). Lisa Palfrey’s Big Mama had the pitch and vocal rhythms of Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, while Sienna Miller’s southern accent sounded actorish and false. (She's gorgeous to look at, but her Maggie the Cat was all nag and no soul.) What did work, and what made you remember what a great play this is, was the second act, that Echo Spring trip with Brick and his father; the director just let Jack O’Connell and Colm Meaney dig into the text and they were very fine. It’s a great play about many things—family, lust, self loathing—and, of course, about why people drink. Benedict Andrews diminishes it; Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring gives it its due.
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 few decent writers could really want.
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. There is a fair amount of soul searching and introspection, but this is, primarily, a book for white readers.
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.
* There’s a lovely scene towards the end of Max Porter’s first book when Dad, a widower who’s writing a book about Ted Hughes, picks up a Sylvia Plath scholar at a symposium; “I haven’t had sex with many women,” Dad tells us, “and I only got good at it with my wife, doing things my wife liked.” Things do not go quite as hoped, but they don’t go too terribly either; the couple are decent with each other. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is similarly even handed. The other voices in it are the single voice of Dad’s two motherless Boys, and the trickster Crow that joins father and sons during their mourning and months of recovery. The book is a very slim (114 pages) riff on grief that relies a bit too much on Hughes’s Crow; it has wit and inventiveness, but there is never a moment when the sorrow of death feels terrifying or insurmountable. Crow may be stinky and scruffy, his talk hinting at violence ("I priced open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth"), but he remains a literary devices, much more charmer than a wild dark thing in the house that’s akin to grief.
* In her wonderfully written Hawthorne, A Life, Brenda Wineapple gives us illuminating biographical takes on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction, but she really shines when she deals with politics and history. (It’s no surprise that she followed this book, and one on Emily Dickinson, with Ecstatic Nation, an examination of America during the Civil War and Reconstruction.) Unlike most of his New England peers, Hawthorne was not an abolitionist, and Wineapple is very good in her examination of the complicated rancor surrounding slavery and emancipation. She’s also insightful on political graft and appointments, domestic relations, and the literature of the period. Hawthorne was very close to President Franklin Pierce (she agrees with Emerson who called him “either the worst or the weakest” ever elected), and she writes movingly about their friendship while delving into the ways that they were very much on the wrong side of history. There isn’t a square inch of whitewash to be found. And what a remarkable cast of characters coming and going through this life! Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, the Alcotts, Thoreau—we see them through Hawthorne's eyes and hers as well. Wineapple is a constant presence throughout the book, a smart and savvy companion. I didn’t pick this up with the intention of going back to Scarlet Letter or Seven Gables, but she’s convinced me to seek out “Chiefly On War Matters”, his 1862 piece for The Altantic link, and to return to her work as well.
* Early on clear mornings at this time of year, when I step out into the yard, I look high up in the southern sky over Orion’s shoulder for the Pleiades, a star cluster of extraordinary beauty that I can never quite bring into focus. I know how many there are, but they are impossible to count, they appear to shift; as soon as I think I have clearly fixed my eyes on one, another seems to replace it. There is something so poignant about the act of gazing at them, of seeing them and not seeing them at the same time.
The novellas in Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences (translated by Mark Polizzotti) share the sadness and curiosity that pervades his work. Rather than plot, the narrators of Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin give us investigations and lists. It’s impossible to get a clear fix on the characters: the mothers who go on tour and leave their children in the care of disreputable women; the men who drive flashy cars; a seemingly happy couple who go out dancing and something happens—can we ever know what?—that makes the husband destroy them both; and the lost kid brothers, the arrests, the girlfriends who drift away, and the fathers who turn up periodically and then never return. The lists—of names, of addresses, of forgotten garages—are impossible attempts to document and understand the broken world that all these people inhabit, a Paris of street corners where people once met, apartments haunted by former occupants no one remembers. Modiano's narrators fill page after page of precise detail, yet their world, still trapped in shadows cast by the Occupation, is a city adrift, indistinct and shimmering.
* Richard McQuire designs, among other things, New Yorker covers, sound sculptures, and toys; he writes comics and children’s books; he animated a section of the horror cartoon Peur(s) du noir; and, as a musician for Liquid Liquid, his bass line on Cavern was sampled on Grandmaster Melle Mel’s White Lines (Don’t Do It). His is a résumé of grooviness. His graphic novel Here is the story of the space occupied by the corner of a living room over hundreds of thousands of years; the eye of illustrator are fixed in the same vantage point: across from him, the corner of the room is the seam between the left and right hand pages of the book. There are illustrations of the house being built in 1907, and there are double page drawings of this small corner of the world during the eons before and after that, as forests and waters of Biblical scope come and go. Benjamin Franklin (in 1775) is engaged in a political family argument in another house just across the way (a house that we see burning in 1783), a dinosaur walks by in 80,000,000 BCE, but, mostly, from the time the house is built, we see generations of children and adults talking, dancing, and arguing through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in a living room with changing wallpaper patterns and shifting styles and arrangements of furniture. There are people in Halloween costumes (1931, 1975, 1990), and tour guides of the future (2213). It’s a great concept, and the sense of time is fun; but, after a while, the dozens and dozens of spare living room drawings have the 2D flatness of cartoons and their palate is muted, even dull (the most exciting drawings are the looser styled ones of the natural world; they're fantastic). From a radio on the fireplace mantel in 1968 come the lyrics of Leiber and Stoller’s Is That All There Is?, and, in the end, Here begs the same question; what is there here that takes us beyond that initial great concept? Can a concept be satisfying? Can it be all?
* I’ve been following Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic for a time (LINK), and was very glad to get my hands on Between the World and Me, a short book on the subject of what it is to be black and living in America, written in the form of a letter to his fifteen year old son. Coates deals in a very blunt way with material that is violent, difficult, enraging; he writes of the history of slavery, of the dangers of the police. (“Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”) The rage he feels that is fueled by this history and these facts is delivered in a tone that is the opposite of a polemic, tempered as it is by his love for his son. The prose is beautiful; it’s a poet’s book. His voice is a rare and wonderful thing: he gives us this material without the glaze of magical hope. It’s a practical book, not an inspirational one. In his National Book Award speech (LINK), he spoke very eloquently about Prince Jones, his university friend who was killed by the police. The sections of the book dealing with Jones and his mother are very moving. And there’s an extraordinary account of being eleven years old, in Baltimore, in front of a 7-Eleven when a kid pulls out a gun.
He writes about Paris with great affection, because, as an American black, he found a freedom there he cannot have in the land of his birth. Since writing this book, he has moved there, and one looks forward to his how that affection will play out. Although he does refer to Algerians and Roma who live on the underside of French society, he doesn’t deal with racism outside the confines of America; and, at this point in history, as a tragic and terrifying refuge crisis envelopes the world, Americans are not alone in puny, self-righteous, xenophobic selfishness. We're all culpable.
* Nick Payne’s award winning, critically acclaimed Constellations, a two hander about a love affair, consists of a series of brief scenes with each scenic transition referred to as “a change in universe.” How this plays out is that Payne gives us the idea of a scene (say, how Marianne and Roland—physicist and beekeeper—meet) and then moves through a series of variations on that idea in scenes that often contradict each other. It happened this way, no that way, no, rather a combination of this and that, no…etc. The point is that there is no one version of their story and the play’s critical fans talk of string theory, quantum physics, and so on. The play is charming, and gives two actors very engaging parts to play; it is, presumably, a lovely, funny, bittersweet evening of theatre. On the page it feels like a series of sketches, a slight thing, and the variations (what, exactly is the nature of Marianne’s illness or condition or disease?) may give us a sense of sundry possibilities, but, but the overall effect is a play that wants to have its cake and eat it, too.
* Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens (along with a smidgeon of Jules Verne) are the literary forebears of The Waterworks, E. L. Doctorow’s novel of 1871 New York. Through his narrator, one Mr McIivaine, a newspaperman searching for a missing freelancer (only to realize that he is onto a much larger story of extraordinarily diabolical disappearances), Doctorow gives us a great yarn that is also a deeply felt attack on corruption. Boss Tweed barely appears, but the ruthlessness of his power is the core of rot that permeates every level of Manhattan society; street urchins are kidnapped and forgotten, sinister mansions and businesses abound, and horse drawn omnibuses mysteriously transport the wealthy undead through the city.The mad scientist tropes are creepy and smart. It’s a slim book, richly peopled, with a page-turning plot that operates like a series of theatrical curtains opening to reveal scene after scene of dark architectural splendors and moral decay. The style is just right —there are more ellipses per page than in any book I can think of; the antebellum city is fully formed, alive and breathing—nothing feels like research: we believe that McIlvaine lives in and knows this world.
* This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz’s short story collection, forms a loosely structured bildungsroman of the partly autobiographical Yunior, born, like Díaz, in the Dominican Republic, raised in New Jersey, and educated at Rutgers. Yunior has little use for his father, barely relates to his mother, loses his brother to cancer, and goes through women like a selfish prick. Nearly all the stories are told from his point of view, either in first or second person, but one of the strongest, Otravida, Otravez has a female narrator. The book is half way through before we are given a deep sense of Yunior’s childhood (the story is Invierno) and that’s when the book as a whole really starts to cook. Individually, the stories are very fine—the writing is jazzy, dirty, funny, and a treat a read; collectively, the effect is fairly amazing: the epiphany of a horndog.
* Half way into Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, I wondered why he was writing a novel and not a short story. Eilis Lacey’s journey from small town Ireland to a job in Bartocci’s department store in Brooklyn, and night classes in bookkeeping, has charm, and great skill. The book is filled with new versions of very familiar characters—the wise old Irish priest, the tough girls with hearts of gold, the sweet, dull boyfriend (who comes complete with charming loudmouth kid brother)—they all have their appeal. And Tóibín is good on the working lives of women in the 1950s (he deals very well with such things as the first wave of black customers at Bartocci’s). Yet it all felt so slight and so decent. But when his mild mannered heroine's crisis arrived in the last quarter of the book, all of his patient groundwork made sense and Eilis’ slim story about home and homesickness and immigration became a bigger story than her own, and moving.
* Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, gives us the story of an extraordinary political leader, from his birth in Nebraska, his days as a petty criminal, through his prison conversion to Islam (and subsequent obsessive devotion to the Messenger, Elijah Mummahad), his fairly loveless marriage, his travels in Africa and the Middle East, his FBI surveillance records, and his relationships with figures as varied as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Nazi party founder George Lincoln Rockwell. Historian Manning Marable traces Malcolm’s constantly evolving politics, from a belief in segregation that was so strong he opposed Dr. King and attempted to work with the Klan, to a broader, more inclusive version of Islam that was diametrically opposed to the Nation of Islam. It’s telling that a good deal more than half of this substantial book deals with the last three years of his life: his clashes with the Messenger, the betrayals, his growing sense of Pan-Africanism, and, finally, his assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in front of his wife and children. The book is a testament to the rigours of research and the limits of biography; we understand what this man meant to many, but an understanding of what made him tick depends entirely upon who is attempting the understanding. Not even five hundred well researched pages can give us what five minutes of YouTube footage of the man himself can give. He was smart and committed, and possessed a fiery heart and a golden tongue. Manning gives us the facts, but for a stronger sense of the man and why he matters so profoundly, one can do no better than go back to the eulogy delivered by his friend Ozzie Davis:
* Mayors Gone Bad by Philip Slayton (lawyer, president of PEN Canada) opens and closes with an essay on the absurd, impossible and unworkable nature of municipal government, and the lack of power that accompanies the mayor’s chain of office. In between, the bulk of the book is an illustrative romp through mayoral follies and crimes from Nova Scotia to Vancouver and then outside the country, in which Slayton illustrates his thesis with a collection of thugs, jackasses and the well meaning. The writing is breezy, the book is very entertaining, and Slayton makes a very good case for the necessity for a New Deal for cities. He outlines a series of mayoral categories (glory seekers, idealists, etc.) to a Quebec journalist who suggests another category – psychopaths. Rob Ford is here, in a thankfully minor role, Hazel McCallion is brought to task for her lack of vision, and the likes of Gerald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt are eviscerated for their corruption. The most charming of the bunch is Jon Gnarr, occasional cross dresser, lover of punk music, and relatively successful mayor of Reykjavik who said that “Being a mayor is like being a member of a book club that only discusses grammar.” Fun and smart.
* Back in the mid-Sixties, the CBC had a drama series called The Serial that ran for a couple of seasons and consisted of adaptations of some well known Canadian fiction (by the likes of Thomas B. Costain, Thomas Raddall, and Morley Callaghan) as well as the beginnings of what would become three influential series: Wojeck, Quentin Durgens MP, and Caribou Country. The Serial was where my adolescent self first encountered Edward McCourt’s Fasting Friar, about the events surrounding a university professor publishing a trashy novel called The Proud and the Passionate.
McCourt was an Ireland born (1907) Prairie boy, a Rhodes scholar, who taught at UCC, UNB, and Queens before ending up at the University of Saskatchewan; he wrote a half dozen novels, a few of books of non-fiction (travel and biography), died forty some years ago, and is now pretty well forgotten. Two of his books (Music at the Close and The Wooden Sword) were issued in the New Canadian Library series and can still turn up in used book stores; not a single one of his novels is on an open shelf in the Toronto Public Library system.
Fasting Friar (also released at The Ettinger Affair) is a fairly amusing account of faculty life on a small campus in the early Sixties; the characters are broadly drawn, but university politics are skewered, the plot skips along, and everyone drinks enormous quantities of liquor. John Donne scholar Walter Ackroyd realizes he has to defend Paul Ettinger and his trashy The Proud and the Passionate even though he believes the man is a phony and the book stinks; things get complicated when he discovers that Ettinger is sleeping with his students and Ackroyd himself starts sleeping with Ettinger’s wife. The novel is a lot of fun, but towards the end it takes a bad deus ex machina turn at a literary conference and easy plot solutions ensue. The depiction of the religious morality and hypocrisy of the university’s board of governors, as well as the chairman’s intention to run the place like a corporation, haven’t dated, but many of McCourt’s more serious, literary goals have. It is strange to finally read the novel after all these years; it much wittier than I’d imagined and less risqué—at fourteen, what I was most interested in was the idea of a sexy academic writing a dirty book.
(McCourt probably took Ettinger’s so-very-Fifties trashy book title from The Pride and the Passion, Stanley Kramer’s 1957 dumb Napoleonic epic with Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, and Frank Sinatra, as a Spanish peasant leader; the title is still hanging around in The Passionate and the Proud, by romance writer Vanessa Royall, who is, in reality former academic Michael T. Hinkemeyer.)
* Lila is the most approachable of Marilynne Robinson’s trio of linked novels; it ends with the birth of the son of Reverend John Ames and his young bride, Lila—the boy to whom the first, epistolary novel Gilead was addressed. Lila’s story—which really kicks in about two thirds into the book—has emotional links to stories in Faulkner and Steinbeck, and to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It’s beautiful prose, intelligent and, of course, marinated in Calvin. Lila’s relationship with Doll, the woman who abducted her from a life of neglect, is astonishing; their hardscrabble journey and its aftereffects are vivid and moving. Even though they were works I admired, I didn’t always feel that I was good enough to read the first two books, there’s something highfalutin in all that history and doctrine that can stick in my craw; but the world of poverty and the emotional depths in Lila’s story are a writer’s extraordinary gift.
* Susan Barker is British, of mixed parentage (her mother is of Chinese descent), and she lived in Beijing while she was working on The Incarnations, her third novel. The present day of the book is in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, the story of a taxi driver in a loveless marriage dealing with his powerful, absent father and with the man he fell in love with when he was institutionalized for depression. What propels the action is a mysterious third character who reveals Driver Wang’s apparently ancient back story; letters from this unknown source start appearing in his cab, and each of them is a narrative detailing the writer’s relationship to Wang through a series of past lives, beginning thirteen hundred years before in the Tang Dynsasty and moving through Mongol invasions, corruption and evil in the Forbidden City, the evils of Mao’s regime, and so on. Most of these stories involve same sex attraction, all of them involve betrayal and violence; the accumulative effect is a history of China as a series of violent betrayals. There’s not a little of David Mitchell’s influence in all of this and, despite good writing, excellent storytelling, and (one assumes) excellent scholarship and historical research, at a certain point the chronology of stories slows down the narrative, and a law of diminishing returns sets in. The whodunit source of the letters may be well plotted, but it tells us little about The Incarnations larger themes of history, violence and betrayal. The various manifestations of Driver Wang and the letter writer remain fragmented, the past lives become too discursive, and the book begins to fade even as we read it. The effect is more Cloud Atlas, the movie than it is Cloud Atlas, the book.
* Hold Still, a memoir with photographs, by Sally Mann, gave me more pure pleasure than just about anything I’ve read in ages. She knows how to tell a story, set up a punch line, deliver down home descriptions like, “he had the benign, lazy look of somebody who’d gotten into a sizeable mess of nookie the night before.” She’s also able to describe her mother rising from her dressing table as, “powdered, lavender scented, as cool and white as Lot’s wife.” This is a combination of family memoir, love song for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and investigation into the natures of art and mortality. She also writes personally and eloquently about race, on how “a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private.” There are hilarious and moving stories about her old friend Cy Twombly, about being attacked by the right for her naked family photos, about her murderous in-laws, about a police manhunt in her back yard – Mann has been living a rich, full life and (luckily for us) she has a writer’s chops.
* On the first page of His Whole Life a young boy asks his parents “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” and for the rest of Elizabeth Hay’s novel, Jim, his Canadian mother, his American father, and their family and friends reveal and witness a series of very ordinary, and deeply hurtful worst things. The book is about the damage that families inflict upon themselves, and Hay sets Jim’s coming of age between the lead up to the Quebec referendum and the death of Trudeau, exploring the hurt at the heart of a national family. It’s an Ontario Anglophone’s view of Canada and our relationship to the states (New York City), and reading it makes one think on how different that is from, say, the relationship between New Brunswick and Maine, or Vancouver and Seattle. Its specificity is one of it’s strengths. A generous writer who has always been eloquent on the messiness of family life, Hay’s deep love for the wilderness permeates everything.
* Åsne Seierstad was covering Breivik's trial for Newsweek when she realized that she had to write One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. But how does one write about a man who has committed acts of great brutality as a means of igniting a political firestorm of xenophobic hatred without contributing to the public platform he craves and desires? How can one take the reader through the story his life without a trace of salaciousness? Writing Breivik's story - and wanting to read it - are both causes for moral dilemma and soul searching. What is at the heart of our desire to know the details of such atrocities?
One of Us is categorized by its publisher as both “True Crime" and "History” - Seierstad has succeeded in making the history classification the more significant of the two. She has written a book that serves as a very moving memorial to the seventy-seven people Breivik killed on July 11, 2011 – many of them teenagers shot at point blank range at a youth camp on the tiny island of Utøya. This is, I believe, a great piece of reporting, as balanced and compassionate as possible, a deeply felt examination of Norwegian society, its complacencies, its generosities, its failures, and its internal political conflicts; it is also a terrifying look at what can happen when personal anger and frustration are wedded to a furious ideological rage at society and government. By its end, we have come to know Breivik as intimately as one can know anyone through a piece of reportage: he is always human, never a cartoon, never a monster, and in that lies the book’s great power and its horror. Seierstad also tells the stories of the lives of the dead; as the details accumulate, we come to know many of them, and their loss is not just palpable, it is unbearable.
Simon Saebo, fifteen years old, beloved by his friends, a gifted leader and believer in the cause of the national Labour Congress, has his life before him; everything we know about him points to an exciting and hopeful future. "All that summer," writes Seierstad, "Simon had gone off to the churchyard in the mornings to his work as odd-job man. The very last thing he did before he went to Utøya was to cut the grass on top of what would be his own grave.” A book containing more heartbreak has not been written.
* Another horrific court case became a writer's inspiration. Poet Sue Goyette was so affected by the death of a child from Hull, Massachusetts that she wrote a long poem of sixty-one numbered stanzas, using testimonies from the girl’s parents' murder trial as a point of departure. The hopelessly inept couple, the irresponsible doctor who prescribed clonidine and Depakote to a two year old, the lawyer, the judge, the jury, poverty itself, and the ghost of the girl are all characters in this strange brew of story telling verse - the book has a logic that's as magically skewered as Alice in Wonderland’s - it’s plain yet bursting with figures of speech. The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl maintains the white hot excitement of Goyette’s obsession with the material right through to the entrance of the bear that provides a final note of grace.
* Dante scholar Robert Pogue Harrison’s mixture of ten dollar words, philosophy, classicism and literary analysis may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’ve been crazy over his books ever since I read his remarkable The Dominion of the Dead, which dealt with how we live with the dead, and examined the powerful place that they occupy in our lives. His previous book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, was an examination of forests in literature (from Gilgamesh on) and western thought. Juvenesence, A Cultural History of Our Age, his latest, looks at age and youth in an analysis of the question, “How old are we?” His reference points are diverse and expansive, from Poe, Wordsworth, Larkin, Beckett, and Pound’s translation of “The River Merchants Wife: A Letter,” to the American Constitution, Hannah Arendt, Oedipus, and Giambattista Vico, to whom he is devoted and who inhabits as major a position in his work as Dante. Like the rest of his books, Juvenesence is slim, but it is packed with insight, ideas, and terrific literary analysis. Harrison’s writing can be dense (get out your dictionaries), but is always clear; there’s no academic jargon to clutter things up. He also hosts a radio show from Stanford, Entitled Opinions (archived HERE).
* There are moving and significant photographs, drawings and prints in Niniskamijinaqik/Ancestral Images: The Mi’Kmaq in Art and Photography; it’s a welcome companion to author Ruth Holmes Whitehead’s 1991 compilation of texts by and about the Mi’Kmaq, The Old Man Told Us. The most extraordinary are 19th and early 20th century photographic portraits, most of them of elders in traditional dress, possessing enormous dignity. Whitehead’s annotations are often brief biographical sketches that give us a context for the subjects and provenance of the images. We learn of people like Marie-Antoinette Thomas, who lived into her nineties and whose grandfather trapped mink in what is now downtown Halifax; her eyes are in shadow, but she looks into the lens with great authority and holds our gaze a hundred years after her death. It’s a beautiful book. If only it were not so slim, if only there were more and more images, and stories of images, of a people who have, despite being among the first to deal with European invaders, remarkably survived.
* Pop history doesn’t get to be much smarter or more fun than it does in Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Who knew that the DC Comics babe superhero was the brainchild of William Marston, polygamist, pro-feminist and inventor of the lie detector, a man who spent a great deal of his life not telling the truth about a great many things? Who knew that Margaret Sanger’s niece would be involved, and bondage, and Family Circle magazine? Well researched, as befits a Harvard history professor, and wonderfully written, as befits Lepore’s other job on The New Yorker staff, it’s a significant and serious addition to the history of feminism in 20th century America. And the perfect summer read.
* Michael Crummey’s Sweetland begins, slyly, with an amusing curmudgeon; when asked about Facebook, Moses Sweetland says “Now Arsebook, that’s something I’d sign up for.” The title refers to both the man and the tiny Newfoundland island where he is the last hold out in a provincial compensation package that would see the outport abandoned. The book never loses its deft, light touch, even as it widens and deepens into something that is equal parts elegy and Robinson Crusoe adventure. There is a profound sadness at the core of both man and place, and Crummey very calmly takes his willing readers into something akin to hopelessness; but the book, like its namesake, has great heart.
* The Birthday Lunch. Lily McNab’s demise on her birthday is unexpected, sudden and violent, but in Joan Clark’s generous hands it’s ordinary, almost commonplace, with details of the sort that nearly all of us will come to know all too well: confusion, upset, familial carryings on, homilies, and the protocals of obituaries, funeral homes, loss. This is not a young person’s view of a death in the family. Despite its subject, it’s a sunny book – set during one July week in Sussex N.B, a town that, for just about every New Brunswick Anglophone, evokes dairies and ice cream. Lily’s son and daughter come home to be with their father Hal, as does his estranged brother; the other family member is Lily's complicated sister Laverne, who once left a teaching job in Middle Musquidoboit after her own version of an incident at the Tarantula Arms. Nearly all of them are part fool – as are the Sussex townsfolk we meet; Clark enjoys their foibles and, as we get to know them, so do we. The ordinariness of this world is a comfort; death, here, is as common as kitchen tables, and the story's present tense keeps that July week in 1981 immediate and fresh. It’s not until the very last page that Clark all so skillfully reveals how even the most ordinary death is unique, its impact, devastating. Nothing and no one will ever be the same.
* Sheila Heti writes about Sheila Heti; Ben Lerner, Ben Lerner; and Knausgaard, Knausgaard; in their books, their lives and their fiction become one and the same. In Adult Onset, Ann Marie MacDonald creates a character, Mary Rose MacKinnon (initials, M.R. nickname, Mister) whose life is so similar to her own – lesbian mom writer married to lesbian mom theatre director, living in Toronto and struggling with her third book (this one) – that readers who know even a little about her will spend time thinking about what is and isn’t autobiography. Mister’s wife Hilary, is she MacDonald’s real life theatre director partner? Are these her kids? Is this her Annex neighbourhood, her Cape Breton Lebanese mother? There’s a peekaboo quality to this that gets in the way of the book’s real strengths, which have little to do with the autobiographical novel and more to do with not just the fears and terrors of parenting, and the profound disappointments and wounds that only family can inflict, but also with an examination of anger itself. When MacDonald writes about domestic chaos, Mister’s battles with her two year old, or tearful late night phone calls to her wife who is off directing in Calgary, Adult Onset made me think about Marian Engel and what I love so much in her fiction: acknowledgement of the importance of the everyday messiness of life. And when Hilary senses what is lurking behind her wife's everything-is-ok mask, and says to Mister, “Why do you need an enemy?” the book felt like it was moving into exciting, new and dangerous territory. This is the leanest of MacDonald's novels; I wish it were leaner still. Do we need all the childhood back stories, the excerpts from the book she’s writing, the Toronto travelogues? I simply want Mary Rose, the smart, good looking, successful woman who uses her cleverness and her wit to deflect us from seeing someone who is seething and trying like hell to understand why.
* The troubled men and women in Evie Wyld’s first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, inherit a world of traumatic and post traumatic stress which they, in turn, pass on to their young. In eastern Australia and Viet Nam, moving through landscapes both parched and overripe with danger, their bodies and emotions are torn, burnt, bruised, with wounds “big and red as peeled plums.” Frank has abused Lucy, she has left him, and he has retreated to the shack on the ocean where, in the past, his family has attempted to find whatever sanity they could. The narrative shifts back and forth between Frank and his conscripted father, between now and then – two hearts of darkness moving ever closer together. Wyld has lots to say about the consequences of war, about domestic violence, about the resilience of children as well as what traumatizes them; her voice is both tough and lovely. When Lucy finally tracks Frank down, Wyld provides the strange, heartbreaking detail: “A strand of hair caught in the corner of her mouth and how appalling it was that he would not be the one who was allowed to free it.” And how great it is to be with a writer so young while she wrestles with something so old, so deep, so dark.
* Eve Joseph, who worked in palliative care for a couple of decades, has constructed In The Slender Margin with a poet’s logic. In addition to being a memoir of that part of her working life, it is the story of her older brother’s death, a lexicon of mortality, and a series of anecdotal meditations on how human beings have dealt with the End. It’s smart, solid writing and what makes it so appealing is her warmth, her wit ,and particular quirkiness of her investigations. Her mother was British, her first husband, Salish; her direct connections to a variety of cultural worlds make her an invaluable guide. The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying is the subtitle, and, although death may be the darkest, heaviest subject that humans encounter, Joseph’s skills as a poet give the book a lightness and eloquence in the midst of deep sadness. She succeeds in making her subject less intimidating, more known.
* 10:04, Ben Lerner’s metafiction about the writing of 10:04, Ben Lerner’s metafiction, is brilliant and annoying, with both wonderful writing and enough self absorption to make the reader's mind wander. Why should those of us who aren’t thirty-something Brooklyn hipsters eking out a living on fat publishers advances, Guggenheims, and Fulbrights care about the concerns of thirty-something Brooklyn hipsters eking out a living on fat publishers advances, Guggenheims, and Fulbrights? Well, there is great stuff in here about monetary windfalls, Walt Whitman’s feelings for dying boys, and residencies in Marfa. Lerner is the real thing; he can write and he can write about writing. He’s smart and funny and a good companion. But there are also Sebald style photos that give us little, and lots of connections between things like Back to the Future (his fav movie) and Jules Bastien–Lepage’s St Joan (his fav painting) that are clever and, well, clever. God knows, most of us are guilty of smarty-pants sins like the latter, and because Lerner presents himself as such a flawed, likeable guy, 10:04 doesn’t have the LOOK AT ME ME ME quality of some of his meta pals; but when all is said and done, the last line is read, and the cover is closed, I’m still waiting (and wanting) to read the book.
* The Education of Henry Adams. The grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Henry Adams meditates on America, her place in the world, and the lessons of the eighteen, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the lens of his own life, rendered in third person. As an autobiography, it’s eccentric, overburdened with names, yet lacking in personal details (his marriage to Marian “Clover” Hooper and her suicide get not so much as a footnote), and the product of a life of privilege. And yet, how much it does tell us about who we are and where we live. Adams’ sentence constructions are of extraordinary beauty; and the voice of the book – cutting, witty, intelligent, filled with self mockery – is one of its many glories; history and politics aside, it alone is enough reason to justify the Education’s position as one the most remarkable books of the twentieth century. Adams moves through seven decades of politics, travel and inquiry to deal with subjects as diverse as the role of England in the American Civil War, the assassinations of Lincoln and McKinley, the festival at Bayreuth, America’s adoption of the gold standard, the St. Louis Exposition, the invention of the dynamo, the dangers of progress. It's an odd book, and a great one,
* Just Beneath My Skin by Darren Greer. In a backwater NS town where the entire population appears to be waiting for cheque day, a young father and his son narrate alternating versions of their last significant twenty-four hour encounter. The community is vividly sketched with minimal description: the despair and pettiness feel very real. The specifics of this defeated world are the book’s strongest elements: the boys from the reserve drinking and smoking pot behind the Masonic Hall, a dangerous small town hood’s anger at someone he believes has broken free from it all. The story of a young mother who jumps into the well with her child during a forest fire has the lovely fusion of family legend and fairy tale. The juxtaposition of the narrators, the way they echo and reverberate, and the book’s inevitable trajectory towards tragedy have the effect of making one long for bigger surprises from a writer who knows this world so well.
* The Art of Racing in the Rain. An old dog on the eve of his death tells the inspirational story of life with his racing car driver master, the most decent of fellows, who suffers more misfortunes (evil in-laws, cancer, a custody battle, accusations of molestation) than Little Nell. Enzo the dog has educated himself by watching television (a neat trick that few humans have yet managed) which is one of the reasons why this feels as much like a movie pitch as it does a book. Garth Stein has certainly produced a bestseller. You’d think that the Stephen Hawking talking doggie courtroom scene might turn wee Nell herself into Dorothy Parker's Tonstant Weader fwowing up, but this tearjerker is much beloved and the film is the works. Cut to: online speculations, wish lists and debates about why such-and-such a favourite actor is the best person in the whole celebrity world to play the voice of Wise Old Hound. Cut to: an earlier cinematic version of Poochie's day in court: Link
* For those of us who have been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle the way that some kids eat candy, volume four, Dancing in the Dark, is finally in English, once again translated by Don Bartlett. Knausgaard is literally in the dark in this book: a student teacher, age eighteen, he's stuck for the winter in Hafjord, a Norwegian fishing village above the arctic circle. This book is about the time in his life when he starts to write – first pop music reviews, then short stories and a novel – and when he is also constantly hammered, horny, desperate to lose his virginity and obsessed with the premature ejaculations that thwart and plague him. No one will ever accuse Knausgaard of trying to prettify his life. When he writes about this stuff, he never does so from the distance of time and wisdom: he (and we) are there, in the middle of a young man’s life while he behaves horribly; Karl Ove is self-centered, callous, insecure and full of himself. As in the first three books, his desperate, mean, alcoholic father casts a long dark shadow over all. The book is an endless sequence of drunken nights, smashed bottles, destroyed property, loud rock, vomit and lust. We come to know the narrow confines of both the Hafjord community and Knausgaard’s personal teenage world; but this doesn't mean that Dancing in the Dark isn't exhilarating and a joy to read. It's a pretty glorious 550 page spree.
* While rummaging through a second hand store in the town where I grew up, I found an old copy of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. I’d read it in the attic of our old house, one summer when I was thirteen or fourteen, and thought that finding it at this time and in this place was, perhaps, significant; I took it back to the motel. The story had become vague over the decades (I didn’t see the movie); I remembered a profound friendship in a New England boys school, the two friends jumping from a tree into a river, and an accident that proved deadly, but little else. (I knew that somehow or other Gore Vidal had become implicated in the plot – he and Knowles had both gone to the institution that was the basis for Devon School, and he was the basis for a boy in the book.)
Reading it again, I did remember what my adolescent self had loved, namely, what I’d read into the friendship between the introverted, bookish narrator, Gene, and the extroverted, dashing athletic Phineas. This would have been before Trudeau removed the State from the bedrooms of the nation, that is to say, it was a time when this particular bookish adolescent was trying to come to terms with the facts that he was both gay and a potential criminal. So I longed for a relationship like the one these two had, and envied lucky Gene for having snagged a smart, rich, good looking jock. But Gene’s behavior – his increasing cruelties – I’m not so sure how they registered in my thirteen year old brain. Gene behaves very badly; he causes the accident that ends Phineas’ athletic career, and he treats a secondary character named Leper – who leaves the school to join the armed forces and then cracks up - with enormous cruelty. And although it’s a coming of age book with lessons to be learned, and unpleasant self realizations to be made, the book itself seems nearly as cruel to poor Leper as does Gene. Before his death, Phineas forgives Gene (“I believe you. It’s okay because I understand and I believe you. You’ve already shown me and I believe you.”) and that takes away much of the sting. The prose is awkward in places, and, at the end, the book may be haunted by loss, but not but culpability or guilt. It’s terribly neat and tidy, some of the big passages feel slightly bogus, as if they had been written to be analyzed by a grade ten class:
“I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.”
* Connie Gault. A Beauty. In the 1930s dustbowl of rural Saskatchewan, Elena Huhtala, beautiful, eighteen, starving, abandoned, takes off from a dance with a young stranger in his Lincoln; she travels through a series of small, dusty towns, where her presence certainly makes itself known, ultimately arriving at a town that will, in time, disappear from the map. The book repeats her journey over decades and gives us portraits of the small town lives of people desperate to get out who are either on the run or unable to move.
“She remembered walking through the cemetery beside Hattua Church, on her way back to her car. Tears had sprung up in her eyes for no reason. The headstones swam, the entire graveyard shimmered, broken into bits. It was because they were all dead, all those once-upon-a time people; it would make anyone cry.”
Gault is a big hearted writer who places her people in a dark world that’s as magical and filled with possibilities and dangers as something out of Eudora Welty.
* The Walking Whales by Hans Thewissen: a history of the evolution of whales from a raccoon sized mammal living on the edge of a vanished sea in what is now Pakistan and India more than forty million years ago, as well as the narrative of Thewissen’s search to discover that history, and how his research and digs have been affected by post 9/11 politics. This is pretty splendid stuff and, although we laymen have to slow down to take in the sections on the progress of teeth and ear structures as Artiodactyla becomes Cetacea, his smooth, clean prose makes it as clear as possible. He writes wonderfully of his field trips and digs, and of such uncomfortable encounters as those with the Japanese Institute for Cetacean Research, where work is totally compromised by the violent whaling industry, or with Dr. Friedlinde Obergfell, ninety years old, racist, eccentric and mad as a character from Dickens, living in her compound in the Himalayas and selfishly guarding a pile of indispensable fossils. He also deals very eloquently with the Creationists ("And God created great whales") who have long used the from land to ocean scenario, with its absence of physical evidence as proof that evolution is misguided and wrong. Thewissen has found the fossil proof, he has charted that journey of millions of years from land to oceans. His intelligence and commitment to his research are everywhere apparent, as are his skills as a storyteller and an unassuming moral decency. All this and dozens of maps, charts and illustrations.
* The characters in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation are the dozen or so occupants of a house on Lake Scharmützel, 75 km from Berlin, over the span of several generations; among them, the Jews who are forced from it, the architect, who once worked for Albert Speer, a writer who cannot prevent the encroachment of new neighbours who have more political clout, and a young Russian soldier who spends a profoundly horrifying night. As with The End of Days, this book deals both with deep periods of time and acutely specific moments in the lives of the characters. Their stories are intercut with passages about the gardener who looks after the property - his sections give us the minutia of his work as well as the botany and geography of the place. The prose is matter of fact, at times repetitious (there are short passages that read like refrains), and elegant. The violence of the Third Reich is poetic in its starkness. It’s a very tiny book – about 150 pages – that packs in an enormous amount of history (from before the days of the Weimar Republic to after the fall of the Berlin wall), and, while it is generous and full, it manages to be vary spare. Some sections, like the one that describes the fate of Doris, the young granddaughter of the Jewish cloth manufacturer, are both terrifying and very delicate. Erpenbeck’s books are threaded with greatness.
* André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs is an animal fable of substance and deep emotion. Hermes and Apollo (in a setup that’s like a raucous parody of God and Satan's get together in the prologue to Job) strike a wager based on what would happen if animals were granted human intelligence. Will it make them more or less happy than people? Fifteen dogs initially caged in a vet clinic at the corner of King West and Shaw Street play out the ramifications of the bet with their newly granted gifts; escaping into the wilds of Toronto, they find themselves inhabiting an intellectual and emotional space between their former world and ours, where each will wrestle with its individual fate. The prose is lovely, the humour is sly, the violence is matter of fact and familiar to anyone who has ever been frustrated by the feral behaviour of the family pet. Alexis’ writing is like no one else’s in this country, and this – the most Torontonian of his fictions – will likely have the most universal appeal. A moving story and great joy.
* In the mid 1960s, a detective with amnesia tries to discover who he is and what happened to him during the Occupation. An early work of Patrick Modiano’s, with a central character who is invisible to himself and also to us, the narrator of Missing Person follows one lead after another, meeting and discovering a series of strange and disparate people – piano players, shady Russians, would-be South American diplomats, former collaborators - who may have known him in his former life. Disappearance and what is forgotten are Modiano’s great subjects, and this novel, which owes a great deal to film noir, is yet another variation within his body of work.
* Simon Stephens, Plays 3. More plays from the British playwright who says of his work that it "seems to me to circle around a search" for optimism, On the Shore of the Wide World: nine months in the lives of three generations of a family during the time that the youngest of them is killed in an accident. Harper Regan: a woman takes a detour from her life for three days of encounters with family and strangers that gives her world a permanent shake. Punk Rock deals with private school hormones, menace and violence. It is great to read the work of a playwright who has been given the opportunity to write about the subjects that matter to him. The work is gritty, scary, always invigorating, and, often, weirdly optimistic
* An Untamed State. Because Roxane Gay said of Joyce Carol Oate’s The Sacrifice that “this novel’s biggest failing is its utter disregard for nuance,” it was surprising to feel similarly about her own highly praised first novel.
* Loitering. To say that Charles D’Ambrosio’s essays are all steeped in his kid brother’s suicide may give you a sense of where he’s coming from, and how he might approach subjects as varied as life in a Russian orphanage, the Makah whale hunt, the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau, or thoughts on writers J. D. Salinger and Richard Brautigan, but it doesn’t begin to indicate the strength and beauty of his prose, or the substantial moral centre imbedded in the heart of what drives him to write. He’s angry and funny and erudite, a gruff and generous companion, who writes that “what really distinguishes us from apes is not the opposable thumb but the ability to hold in mind opposing ideas, a distinction that we should probably try to preserve.” Which he does. I loved this book.
* A virus wipes out most of the world’s population in a matter of days and civilization all but vanishes. Station Eleven moves back and forth throughout a couple of decades of pre and post epidemic history, following the stories a half dozen or so loosely linked people, most of whom were connected to an actor who dropped dead playing Lear on the night before the apocalypse. Emily St. John Mandel’s connections are well plotted and worked out, and they all add up to a great read that's packed with plot, movies stars, former paparazzo, a crazy prophet, and a troupe of travelling players - it’s lots of fun. Certainly a lot more fun than The Road; it’s much less portentous, and certainly no slighter.
* Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race begins with a paean to the often maligned genealogist, and ends with what DNA can tell us about our individual selves and our place in history. In between she presents a narrative of stories and studiesfrom various fields – economics, history, genetics, psychology, etc. – that illustrate how we search our origins as peoples and as families, and what profound revelations those searches have revealed. No book is more eloquent on the human need to understand where and how we are situated within both our family trees and deep history. It’s great journalism and a wonderful read; the material that Kenneally has assembled is so interesting that reading her book is like going through a chest of treasures.
* The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck is a revelation. It’s a series of variations on the story of one life, and it’s an amazing read. In the first of its five short books, a baby dies of fever in the early days of the 20th century and her family falls apart; her goy father deserts his Jewish wife and goes to America. Then, in an interlude, Erpenbeck ponders what would have happened if the child’s mother used snow to quell her daughter’s fever. Book Two follows that living child’s family as her parents move to Vienna together, a second daughter is born, and the elder daughter, at the end of an unhappy adolescence, dies a second time. There are three more books, each with a different death for that same daughter and a different history for her family; in the end, her life tells us about many lives during both wars, about life under the Nazis, about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. What is amazing about the book is how it makes the case that the tiniest thing – putting snow on a feverish child – can affect the lives of many, can even alter history. But it’s not a gimmick, it’s a means of examining the individual as a part of something huge and deep. The translation, by Susan Bernofsky, is of great beauty.
* Outline. Rachel Cusk’s novelist narrator travels from London to Athens to teach a creative writing course, sometimes talking, but mostly listening, to strangers, old friends, students, colleagues. The book’s ten chapters are a series of personal narratives as she recounts what they tell her about family, lovers, children, unhappiness, loss: a collection of autobiographical stories revealing peoples' needs to explain or confess, while rarely needing to question or understand their listener. Her listening becomes an act of understanding who and where she is in her own life, in her own self. In a wonderfully spare sequence, her son phones from England because he is lost, and she slowly guides him back to the street where he can find his school. The writing is very fine, the observations deep and sharp, the intelligence at the heart of the book is more than significant. As the narratives unwind and collect , Outline becomes a 21st century Canterbury Tales.
* Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession by Ian Bostridge is a beautifully designed object and, for those of us who love Schubert, a wonderful one. Tenor Bostridge deals with each song in the Winterreise cycle musically, historically, and/or emotionally. Poet Wilhelm Muller is given his due. There are reproductions of Caspar David Friedrich, biographical info on Schubert’s peers – and all sorts of tidbits both necessary and arcane. Who knew that Schubert was reading James Fennimore Cooper on his deathbed, or that the creation of the postman synchronized the clocks of the world? Bostridge loves the work, that's clear, and he makes the case that its place in the canon is as secure as that of King Lear and Purgatorio and Proust. The writing is sharp, smart and fun.
* Age of Minority, 3 solo plays by Jason Tannahill reveals a very talented, young writer who is keen to position himself in the path of the zeitgeist. He talked to American deserter Skyler James and wrote a TYA play about her experience as a dyke in the army (Get Yourself Home Skyler James); he wrote a live stream one man show for the internet about a gay kid who puts his Rihanna routines on YouTube (rihannhboi95) and suffers dire consequences; and he went to Germany to write and produce Peter Fletcher: 59 Minutes, about the 18 year old who was famously shot in 1962 when trying to cross the Berlin Wall - the play occupies the hour he lay bleeding to death before helpless bystanders. But Tannahill’s shrewdest positioning so far may have been as the director who resurrected Sheila Heti’s famously “unstageable” play for a New York run that was bankrolled in part by McSweeny’s.
According to Flavorwire, “’I think I learn less every time it is performed,’ Sheila Heti confessed after the second night of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at The Kitchen in New York. ’It’s a terrible play,’ she murmured.”
She does not murmur alone.
* I’m From Bouctouche, Me by Donald J. Savoie is a lovely memoir from a boy from dirt poor Kent County, N.B. who moved from rural poverty into high class education - Oxford - and then on into the worlds of academia and Canadian public policy. This is probably the most accessible and articulate book available in English about what it meant to be an Acadian during the Louis Robichaud years. A warm and honest piece of work.
* Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon, like his Dora Bruder, is about a young girl who goes missing during the Occupation. Unlike that later book, it’s less an attempt to investigate historical fact and more a set of variations on the theme of disappearance itself. What sets the story in motion is the suicide of that girl decades afterwards; it’s a delicate, mysterious book about despair. “Circumstances and settings are of no importance,” he writes, “One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears. But in the end it returns in force, and she couldn’t shake it off. Nor could I.”
* In a moment of drunken snideness, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote says of the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird, “I frankly don’t see what all the fuss is about.” More than half a century after it first appeared, one might feel the same way about Breakfast at Tiffany’s - and that goes for the novella as much as it does for the Blake Edwards’ movie that turned it into a straight love story. Capote’s Holly Golightly owes much to Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, and the New York she inhabits owes much to Damon Runyan. The book feels manufactured, and way too eager to please. This is, of course, blasphemy – the book is as universally accepted as a slim masterpiece, a confection that's as iconic as Audrey Hepburn’s black dress. If only it came close to fulfilling the promise of its marvelous title.
* Citizen, An American Lyric, is Claudia Rankine’s collection of prose poem essays on what it is to be a black citizen in America. She writes from the world of academia of the toll of dealing every day with indignities, unkindnesses, harsh words, indifference, and the constant threat of the police. She is very eloquent on Serena Williams, and the white world’s perception of a tennis player who is not one of theirs. The book reads as a gloss on Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
* Severed, A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. Francis Larson’s book explores the countless ways in which our culture has been involved and obsessed with cutting off each other’s heads. From ISIS to the guillotine, and on to saintly relics, med schools, war trophies, cryonicists, and a 19th century obsession in the West with collecting them for study and decoration. One Joseph Barnard Davis of Shelton in Staffordshire had 1700 of them packed away in his house. Anyone who thinks that headhunting is the domain of jungle tribes should take a gander at the photograph of Natalie Nickerson of Phoenix AZ, gazing fondle at the enemy skull her Navy boyfriend sent her as a souvenir from the Pacific in WWII. Oliver Cromwell’s head is here, as is Joseph Haydn’s. Keeper of the Heads was a full time job in London for over three centuries. A quick read, and a pretty interesting one.
* Patrick Modiano's, Dora Bruder begins with a 1941 ad for a missing Jewish schoolgirl; the few photographs and scraps of information that Modiano gleans about fifteen year old Doris Bruder more than half a century later illuminate what can and can’t be known about the personal and familial losses of Occupied France. Part memoir, part history, part meditation on loss and memory, it’s a plain and deeply profound text. A handful of excerpts from the “hundreds and hundreds of letters addressed to the Prefect of Police of the day, and to which he never replied” occupy but two pages of this slim book, and are as moving as Kathleen Ferrier singing Bach.
* Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time shares with Emma Donoghue’s The Room an off-kilter young narrator (this one has symptoms of autism) whose voice is compelling enough to pull us through an I-couldn’t-put-it-down narrative, even when it is called upon to say things it wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say, things that need to be said for plot and narrative purposes. In lesser hands, both narrators would be gimmicks. Haddon’s fifteen year old Christopher Boone is a math genius who can’t bear to be touched, has a photographic memory, and is subject to screaming fits; he also has the uncanny ability to write a narrative that makes all of this easy for us to understand. It’s very charming and has a real grittiness, as well as a cartoon villain (Mom's boyfriend) and a great deal of heart. (SImon Stephen's adaptation for the stage makes smart choices, and delivers up an accurate version of the book.)
* Della M. M. Stanley’s thirty year old Louis Robichaud: A Decade of Power is still a useful guide to tracking the policies of Robichaud’s Liberals during their reign in 1960s New Brunswick. Robichaud was no saintly premier, but he believed in social justice and his Equal Opportunity Programme – which attempted to spread government monies more evenly throughout the province – was a great and noble attempt to wrestle my home province into the 20th century. It’s still shocking to read the quotes from his opponent Charlie Van Horn, who tried to demonize him by saying things like, “these half breeds shouldn’t drink liquor.” Robichaud was one of the very rare politicians who stood up to K.C. Irving. He was the youngest of premiers – 35 when elected and 45 when his career in provincial politics was over. When I was a teenager, I adored him.
* More Simon Stephens, his Plays: 2. What’s so strong and appealing in his work here is a real attempt to analyse how political and social events impact on our lives. He also has a great understanding of how poverty and growing up with little sense of possibility can grind you down. Some of these plays feel like portraits of a very particular time: One Minute is a reaction to the Milly Dowler murder, Pornography is a non-linear response in dramatic portraits to the 2005 London bombings, and culminates in 52 statements about the 52 fatalities. Country Music, like his earlier Port, gives us a large timespan of a life fucked up by bad choices as we watch Jamie from ages 18 to 39 move in and out of the prison system. It’s a heartbreaker. Motortown is a indictment on what war can do to someone who participates in the carnage and then survives; it’s terrifying. Sea Wall is a half hour or so monologue about sudden grief; unlike the others, it isn’t as tied to events of contemporary Britain. Stephens has the kind of career that, tragically, doesn’t seem possible in Canadian theatre.
* When I was an adolescent, my parents and I would argue the pros and cons of the effect that K.C. Irving and his various empires (lumber, fuel, newspapers, etc.) were having on New Brunswick. I can remember one fairly heated argument with my mother praising K.C.’s philanthropy in terms of what he had “given back” to his hometown of Bouctouche; I countered with something along the lines of given his immense wealth it was the equivalent of her giving me a box of matches. She was his staunch defender because “he’s a real N.B. booster.” When she read that he moved to Bermuda so he could skip out on Canadian taxes, she felt betrayed and began to change her tune. Jacques Poitras’ Irving vs Irving deals with K.C.’s empires, and how they continue to play out through his sons and grandsons, by concentrating on their media empire. Because the Irvings own just about every bit of newspaper in the province, many things – like, say, the deals and concessions that various (mostly Liberal)provincial governments have given them – go unreported. This is a very fair book about the elder Irving’s failed attempt to impose unity on his sons, about monopolies, about greasing the wheels of local politics.
* A juxtaposition of two institutions founded within ten years of each other: Geoffrey James photography book Inside Kingston Penitentiary: 1835 – 2013, and Frederick Wiseman’s documentary National Gallery. Among the very many fascinating people in Wiseman’s film is a docent who tells a group of black students that what needs to be said is that the National’s initial collection was made possible through the money John Julius Angerstein made from slavery. Money is everywhere in this movie. So is a deep love of painting. It's a compelling look at the internal workings the place.
When you go through James’ photographs of the interior of the Kingston Pen, what’s clear is that what makes this institution possible is poverty. The photographs of cells with their terrible graffiti - attempts to humanize spaces that were designed to dehumanize - are heart breaking. In the accompanying text, James writes that some inmates “had no idea that KP was on Lake Ontario.” Looking at this book and thinking about the increasingly cruel, punitive face of our criminal system makes one despair. The photographs are mostly of the institution – a small percentage contain people. A half dozen are of a ceremony on Aboriginal ground: the sitting men bent slightly forwards, knees apart, their forearms on their legs, are, despite their involvement in the ceremony, alone and separate from each other. It's a very fine and necessary book, serving as both historical document and essay on criminal justice.
There’s an art appreciation class in National Gallery in which the participants sit around a square of tables while the instructor walks them through the composition of a Pissarro painting. It takes a few moments to realize that the members in the class are blind; the friends and partners sitting beside each of them help them trace their fingers through the night time world of Pissarro’s Paris. It’s very tender and moving, and reveals what money can make possible.
* “No one young knows the name of anything.” Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is a tiny (you can read it all in one go) book about a marriage in trouble. It needs be said that it’s also very much about a white, middle class New York marriage in trouble. Offill can write (she teaches writing at Queens and Columbia; her heroine teaches writing as well); the prose is spare, witty, some of the smarty pants variety, some going deeper than that. The book’s spare little tangents shoot off into a dozen different directions, both dazzling and forced. She’s very, very good on the frustrations of parenting. The husband having an affair business is less interesting, but that’s because the philandering husband/bitter wife scenario is less interesting to me. (Although there is a terrific screamfest meltdown on a midtown street corner where, “The wife notices that her foot hurts from kicking the newspaper machine.”) The narrative voice begins in the first person, switches to third, then returns to first. It doesn’t read as a gimmick, but neither does it read as the kind of rigorous investigation into pronouns that you get from a writer like Rebecca Brown. Offill’s book, however, does have a wonderful last line.
* Louise Gluck, Faithful and Virtuous Night. Each of her slim volumes is a story loosely told by theme and variation; reading the poems in sequence has the satisfaction of a novella crossed with a series of linked essays. She’s not a poet to feel warm and fuzzy about: she’s fiercely smart; her emotions are always under observation. I began reading her because West Virginia’s poet laureate Irene McKinney, (who was a poet to feel very warmly about), told me to read The Wild Iris because she thought it was the most exciting collection published in America in years. Not a single volume since has disappointed. Faithful and Virtuous Night – the title is a pun on Arthurian legends – is about aging (“that time of life/people prefer to allude to in others/but not in themselves”) and death. The voices are her own, and that of a boy who lost his parents early in life. Gluck’s own mother died fairly recently at 101, and “A Summer Garden” in this book contains the previously published “Nocturne” that begins: “Mother died last night, Mother who never dies.” Like Iris and Meadowlands and Averno and all the rest, her sparseness here draws one back again and again, each time there is more and more to discover, in both the poetry and ourselves.
* With Grist, Linda Little has written a slim book that has the heft of a rich, Victorian novel. Set in Nova Scotia, in Pictou County, in the last and first quarters of the 19th and 20th centuries, the bulk of the book is the first person narrative of Penelope McCabe, a schoolteacher and “great horse of a girl” (in her father’s words), who marries a miller named Ewan MacLaughlin. Their hardscrabble marriage proves to be a mix of pious Scots Presbyterianism, hard work, betrayal, rage and sacrifice. Mrs. MacLaughlin makes it clear from the beginning that her husband, “was not a kind man”; by giving us Ewan’s story in two sections of third person narration, Little gives compelling voice to the sources of his cruelty. We understand the opposing halves of this unhappy marriage.
There’s hardly a page that doesn’t feel authentic in terms of time and place – Little knows her people; she knows where they lived and how they worked. (She worked for a time at the Balmoral Grist Mill, which is now a museum.) The novel has strong sense of women’s domestic lives, and of the sexual politics of the time. Linda Little has her 21st century reasons for telling this story, but the book itself is completely grounded in it’s own period. It's intelligent and moving. And it's a great read.
* Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is an incredibly eccentric and intelligent book. It evolves from grief memoir (her father died suddenly, leaving her bereft) into the diary of her relationship with a goshawk named Mabel; and its contents keep expanding to include a history of falconry, a biographical essay on T. H. White, and meditations on the connections between animals and humans, wilderness and civilization, nature and history, and a dozen other linked tangents. Her language is glorious. Mabel’s talons are “armoured pianist’s fingers.” When a breeder takes a bird from a box: “She came out like a Victorian melodrama: a sort of madwoman in the attack. She was smokier and darker and much, much bigger, and instead of twittering, she wailed: great awful gouts of sound like a thing in pain, and the sound was unbearable.” Macdonald writes honestly about the necessary journey through the fucked up selfishness of grief; she writes eloquently about the conversation of death between a hawk and its prey. A terrific piece of work.
* Simon Stephens' Plays 1. (Bluebird, Christmas, Herons, Port) All four of these plays could be subtitled “Damaged Goods” - nearly everyone in them suffers from a traumatic misery in their past. For most, it comes from a childhood of economic and emotional deprivation. (Each of the four contains a poor kid named Billy). But there’s real wit here, and it isn’t the kind that’s pasted on; it comes straight out of the grit of their lives. Bluebird, about a cab driver and a string of has fares, is like a series of riffs on the sequence in Taxi Driver where Scorcese goes on to DeNiro about his unfaithful wife. Christmas is a version of the guys-in-a-bar play. Herons is a heartbreaker: afourteen year old kid (named Billy) is trying to deal with a drunk mother, a failure of a father, and a pack of violent peers who are up against a worse lot in life than his. It's also the most interestingly structured of the four: each scene dissolves into it's succesor. Port gives us thirteen years in the life of Rachael Keats, and she makes one mistake after another. These are Stephen's earliest plays, the work of a writer in his twenties, with all the promise and pitfalls that entails.
* Kirsten Thomson’s Someone Else. The scenes are spare and raw, most of them ending with dramatic cliffhangers that propel us deeper into the emotional mess of the characters’ lives. This is a bitterly funny look at a family in crisis and the world that’s falling apart around it. It’s dark, the people are cruel, and we care about them all. In the end, Thomson, like Anne Frank, seemingly wants us to believe that, despite everything, “people are really good at heart.” If anyone can convince us, she's the one to do it.
* The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. The bulk of this novel is unlike anything else I know. A Christian preacher is compelled to leave his wife behind when he missions to a race so alien that he cannot even comprehend their physiognomies. (Their language is incomprehensible; the believers have renamed themselves as digits: Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five...) While Peter opens himself to an obsessive involvement with this strange new world, Bea struggles to understand what is happening to their old one as it fast becomes stranger itself - an ecological and political nightmare. Faber’s book is about the strengths and limitations of love and faith; whole stretches of it are an extraordinary fusion of adventure story and meditation. The communications, and the failed attempts at communication, between the worlds of this book are heartbreaking, thrilling to read, and acquainted with grief.
* Honour by Elif Shafak. She’s a smart, passionate writer who loves both character and plot, and is a great champion of cosmopolitanism. The Turkish version of this book was named for its central character, Iskender – Alexander, in English – and her English publisher felt that would sound like historical fiction, so the book was renamed for the honour killing that is central to its plot. (Her Italian publisher rejected the title because honour there implied Mafioso; it was named The House of the Four Winds after the Kurdish village where Iskander’s mother and her twin sister were born.) The stories of those twins, their parents, and of three siblings from the next generation, move back and forth between that village and London, from the 1940s to the 1990s, and are compelling and satisfying. The book’s faults come from Shafak's generosity to both characters and readers; it’s pleasures come from the same rich well.
* Four plays by Nicolas Billon. He has a great ear, and his characters in Fault Lines have the gift of gab. These plays - Greenland, Iceland, and Faroe Islands - are built of abutting monologues, and Greenland - the strongest of the three - has a real narrative. They appear to deal with issues – real estate and greed, the environment, immigration, etc. – but the issues, like the characters, stick close to the surface. He gives us their voices, but doesn't inhabit them, we only know them from the outside. Butcher is more of a play-play with four scenes and four characters interacting with each other over the course of one long middle of the night Christmas morning. Its subjects are war crimes, justice and revenge, and the published text comes with the pedigree of a forward by Louise Arbour (who doesn’t actually mention the script, however). It’s the sort of play that would once have had a tag line that ran something like, “But after the arrival of a mysterious woman, no one and nothing are quite what they seem…” No doubt it’s a nail biter onstage – people are tied to chairs and tortured – but it doesn’t give us much about war crimes or revenge that we didn’t already know. We watch these people but we are not them; we are not implicated. When the plot twists start revealing themselves, it feels like a jacked up version of one of those old Mission Impossible episodes where Barbara Bain and Martin Landau tricked an evil Nazi into cooking his own goose.
* It's America at war here this week. The Invisible Front, by Yochi Dreazen is subtitled," Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War," and concerns the American military's appalling record of dealing with troops with PTSD. A compelling narrative packed with stats both enlightening and depressing, (including some surprising ones from the Viet Nam era on the number of officers who were killed by the men under them). Given the Nov. 25th Auditor general's report, "cannon fodder" isn't a charge we can smugly level at the folks south of the border.
* And Phil Klay's Redeployment, a story collection that comes directly from the Iraq war. The material is bleak - although one story, "Money as a Weapons System" is pee your pants funny - but what comes through in every story is how necessary the act of writing has been, how committed the writer is to his characters and their lives, and how very good these stories are. I didn't agree with Klay's review of Dave Eggar's, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, but can certainly see where he's coming from. Everything in this book feels honest; there's not a trace of artifice. To have this many first person narrative stories, each with such a solid, singular voice, is pretty astounding.