A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.
This isn't widely remembered today, but for about fifteen years Patti Smith was nearly as reclusive as J. D. Salinger. First she helped invent punk rock and released four superb albums in the 1970s, then she disappeared to marry fellow musician Fred "Sonic" Smith and live quietly as a mother and wife on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Michigan. She magically reappeared and resumed her transformative performance art in the mid-90s after her husband's sudden death, and now can be spotted happily walking around the vicinity of McDougal Street and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, as natural as if she'd never left.
All of which is to say that there are many reasons why it would have been hard to believe several years ago that a memoir by Patti Smith would ever appear on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. One reason is that it's still hard to believe that Patti would ever write a memoir; another is is that, until fairly recently, the New York Times Book Review was rather too stodgy to have put her on the cover if she had. And when did the NYTBR stop being so stodgy? I've met editor Sam Tanenhaus, who has built his career upon "stodgy". This cannot have been his idea, so one of his deputies must get the credit.
Patti's memoir is called Just Kids and it's about her early years in the Warholesque New York City/St. Marks Place scene with her BFF Robert Mapplethorpe. Of course I'll read the book, and I don't really need to consult Tom Carson's mostly positive review to know there's a 99% chance I'll love it. Maybe someday she'll write about her 15 year seclusion and her return to live performance as well.
Candy Slice naturally eclipses the rest of this weekend's publication on first glance, though there's much else good here. Young novelist Wells Tower appraises his elder T. Coraghessan Boyle's Wild Child: Stories and delivers a carefully reasoned verdict: Boyle pulls off the title story (about the Wild Boy of Aveyron) but is elsewhere too haphazard, too careless with his ambitious plots. I'm impressed by Tower's analysis, though it's strange that he spends a full page describing Boyle's handling of the Wild Boy of Aveyron story without mentioning that Francois Truffaut made a great movie about the same subject, also titled Wild Child in English. Was Boyle's story inspired by Truffaut's film? Does Tower even know that this film exists? I'm sure I'm not the only reader stopped short by this question.
Liesl Schillinger frames Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God attractively, and I'm glad to learn that this book is a novel. I had seen its title but understood it literally; I'm glad it's a fictional treatment, because I already sat through Philosophy 101. Kaiama L. Glover introduces us to the main topics covered in Chinua Achebe's essay collection The Education of a British-Protected Child, and Amy Bloom steps us through some familiar but still important questions about the nature and sustainability of happiness in an endpaper that sweeps through a few recent books promising to help us attain it.
I'm sure a memoir by Patti Smith will bring more happiness than any self-help book, and on the Patti account I have only one slight complaint: several mentions in this Book Review might lead a Patti neophyte to think that her fame is based on her 1978 hit single "Because the Night". That song was a chart success, but I have one word to say to anybody who wants to know what the fuss was really about. Horses.
1. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never before had the pleasure of watching a bookstore get born. I met blogger/bookseller Jessica Stockton Bagnulo three years ago when we both joined the Litblog Co-op at the same time, and I noted it here in January 2008 when she was awarded seed money to start her own bookstore in Brooklyn. The store is now about to open and looks just great. I hope to make it to the opening day party this Saturday at 7 pm, and you're invited too ...
1. "Detroit Housewife Writes Play". That's how Joyce Carol Oates says she was received as a young beginning writer as she reminisced during a special event Monday night at the Smithsonian Institution. I've heard this writer speak before and in fact enjoyed it enough to want to hear her again (even though, to be honest, I haven't read a whole novel of hers since Black Water in 1992). This gathering found Ms. Oates in sharp and snappy form. She spoke of her stark one-room schoolhouse childhood, cited Lewis Carroll as her earliest literary influence, and charmingly called her interviewer "naive" for suggesting that she might ever allow her characters to tell her about themselves ("how," she asks, "would a character tell me anything?"). On a roll, Ms. Oates also scolded a questioner from the audience who asked if she'd met famous people such as US Presidents, telling him "perhaps there are more important people in the world than male Presidents for me to meet". As always, Ms. Oates' willowy manner and Pre-Raphaelite affect has a breathtaking impact on audiences, and the folks at the Freer Gallery ate her up. She should be in the movies -- she could win an Oscar. I still don't know, though, if I'll find the time to read her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven.
2. I think it's great that Oprah Winfrey has picked Uwem Akpan's Say You're One Of Them as her next influential Oprah's Book Club selection. She has made several brilliant choices over the years, and Say You're One Of Them (which was reviewed on LitKicks here) is a bleak, straightforward book with a strong and highly focused humanitarian message about political violence against children in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Gabon. I'm sure Oprah intends this book is to stand alongside Elie Wiesel's Night on the bookshelf. The author, a young Jesuit born in Nigeria who has traveled through Africa and the world, is as much an activist as an artist, and the book is short on ostentation and long on horrifying truth. A lot of people -- adults and children, often together, often huddling in their own homes -- get killed in this book, but the book is no thriller. Oprah has made an unusual and brave choice.
3. Somebody recently asked "Should literary blogs get political?" Yeah, well, I think we should. It's not like critical issues aren't at stake, like the health care debate, which I find myself following carefully these days. I strongly support a health care bill and a public option, I am 100% behind Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they deal with this difficult challenge, and I really like Will Ferrell's latest commentary on the whole thing.
But some critics aim beyond serviceability and try to deliver reviews that are notable works in themselves. I've noted before that poetry critic William Logan's articles are always events: I cannot think of any other major critic for a major publication who invariably attempts such leaps. Today Logan reviews Louise Gluck's A Village Life, and once again I enjoy the dazzling performance:
Even before the unknown versifier of Isaiah, poets probably looked at a lush meadow and saw a graveyard. Louise Gluck’s wary, pinch-mouthed poems have long represented the logical outcome of a certain strain of confessional verse -- starved of adjectives, thinned to a nervous set of verbs, intense almost past bearing, her poems have been dark, damaged and difficult to avert your gaze from.
Her early poems were all elbows and knees, Plathian with a rakish edge, full of wordplay and tight jazzy rhythms. Gluck became a minimalist's minimalist, moody, anxious to her fingertips -- a nail biter’s nail biter.
Sure, there's more William Logan than Louise Gluck here, but that's okay, and really there's plenty of both. The problem with a passionate critical style is that it can overcook easily. The front page of today's review offers Jonathan Lethem on the new Lorrie Moore novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Is it just me? I sense that Lethem is trying to work up a swoon here, but his hand is unsteady and the words pour out with a weak simper:
The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words.
It's as if he's trying to sound like William Logan, but doesn't have the stuff. Fortunately the article is brief, but it's never convincing, and I'm plagued throughout by a sense that Lethem's paying more attention to his words than to the book. It's just too much fancy talk:
Finally, this book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes’s “Crow.” The motif is birth, gestation and burial, a seed or fetus uncovering its nature in secrecy, a coffin being offered to the earth. The motif declares itself upfront in Tassie’s father’s potatoes, which like sleeper cells grow clustered in darkness and then, unearthed, assume names: Klamath pearls, yellow fingerlings, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns.
Stylistic questions aside, this Book Review is packed with worthwhile pieces, like Elizabeth Hawes on J. M. G. LeClezio's Desert, and Jess Row on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck. I was very puzzled by Adichie's earlier Half of a Yellow Sun -- the Biafran War setting interested me greatly but her storytelling skills seemed lacking. Row's review hints at some problems here as well, but finds the new book valuable regardless, and that's enough to convince me to give it a shot.
The most unintentionally hilarious piece here -- indeed, the most hilariously bad article I've read in the NYTBR in several months -- is an article by Dominique Browning, titled "Reefer Madness", about Julie Myerson's The Lost Child: A Mother's Story. This is a memoir about a modern family with a son whose "cannabis habit so deranged him that he became physically violent. He was 17 years old."
Are they sure it was the cannabis that caused the problem? Browning's review fails to address this question, and indeed Browning loves the book and appears to be way too excited about the evils of this (mild, I thought) scourge upon our youth:
Her son is smoking skunk, she learns, a strain of cannabis whose THC content is much more potent than garden-variety pot -- except that it has become garden variety. I had never heard of skunk either, but a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains. My shopping cart remained empty as I browsed in disbelief. Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. "The Lost Child" is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.
First of all, nobody calls it skunk, and in fact this allegedly exotic strain of potent marijuana is what most people commonly refer to as, well, marijuana. The strong varieties are also sometimes called sour diesel, or kind bud, or chronic (ask Jonathan Lethem about it) and they're pretty popular. It certainly reasonable to discuss whether marijuana should be legal, and while Julie Myerson's son obviously has serious problems, I can't buy into the implied cause-and-effect this book suggests (which Browning completely buys into). Many, many, many 17-year-olds and others of all ages smoke pot without turning into rage-filled monsters that hit their mothers and destroy their families. As far as Dominique Browning's implication that cannabis use can cause schizophrenia goes, I haven't heard a health-based claim so ridiculous and empirically unfounded since the last time Sarah Palin spoke up about national health care.
This weekend's New York Times Book Review has a lot of ups and downs, but for the second week in a row the list of authors represented is truly impressive, and I'm really looking forward to the Book Review's fall season, since there are a lot of interesting books heading our way.
1. Author J. G. Ballard has died.
2. Pankaj Mishra is angry about the "Tandoori-Chickenisation of the literary palate in the west", or the "vastly increased preference for 'ethnic' literature among the primary consumers of literary fiction: the book-buying public of western Europe and North America." As an enthusiast for sites like Words Without Borders and festivals like PEN World Voices, I suppose I should feel chastened, but I don't. I seek out international literature because it's my own literature. Who is Pankaj Mishra to tell me that I might not have more in common with, say, Alain Mabanckou or Indra Sinha or Wen Zhu than I do with the guy who lives next door? He may as well tell me to stop eating Indian food (because I don't really understand it). A clever article, but in the end it's a familiar complaint and a cheap shot.
3, Don Gillmor investigates the history of Harlequin romances.
4. Jill Lepore on Edgar Allan Poe, whose work had "this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom".
5. A Japanese author invokes Poe with a pseudonym: Edogawa Rampo.
6. About Last Night locates a true record of a popular Louis Armstrong myth.
6. Updike on Africa.
7. William Patrick Wend on N. Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary.
8. Emma Bovary, c'est online.
9. Alleged Internet-hater Andrew Keen is just a big softie. His latest article suggests that "blogs are dead" but then quickly devolves into a rundown of some exciting new WordPress real-time/social features. Even in this new mini-era of Twitter, the only thing blogs are dying of is popularity.
10. TechCrunch says web innovators should band together and stop the hype cycle. I agree, but we have a better chance of solving global warming.
11. LitKicks poet Mickey Z. will be participating in "Earth: A Wake up Call for Obama Nation" in Washington DC on April 25.
Submerged for years in a murk of international literary diplomacy and scrupulous academic exertion, "The Letters of Samuel Beckett" has finally surfaced; and an elating cultural moment is upon us. It is also a slightly surprising moment. Beckett, in his published output and authorial persona, was rigorously spare and self-effacing. Who knew that in his private writing he would be so humanly forthcoming? We always knew he was brilliant -- but this brilliant? Just as the otherworldliness of tennis pros is most starkly revealed in their casual warm-up drills, so these letters, in which intellectual and linguistic winners are struck at will, offer a humbling, thrilling revelation of the difference between Beckett's game and the one played by the rest of us. (Beckett played tennis, incidentally.)
O'Neill includes many quotations from the letters, and closes the good piece with a personal note:
Many years ago, while languishing like Murphy in a London flat, I received an airmail envelope on which my name had been scratched with a ballpoint pen. I had no idea who could be writing to me from France, so unthinkingly I tore open the envelope. I wish I’d been more careful. The envelope contained a very short, playful message from Samuel Beckett. It’s still my most precious possession.
There is much to discuss and like in this weekend's brainy New York Times Book Review. Jim Holt, who seems to get better and better, contributes a wonderful endpaper on what it means to memorize poetry, and how it benefits us to do so. Emma Brockes provides an enjoyable summary of Arthur Laurents' bitchy/insightful theatre memoir Mainly On Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story and Other Musicals.
Far from the lights of Broadway, Jeffrey Gettleman introduces Gerard Prunier's Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by contrasting the anarchic Congo with its quieter neighbor Rwanda (obvious irony intended). Prunier explains much of the stark genocidal horrors of Congo's recent history ("More people had died in Congo than in any conflict since World War II", Gettleman says in summary) as a carryover from Rwanda's turmoil, and the explanation does ring true.
Suzanne Daley also stokes my interest in Mark Gevisser's A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. I'm glad the Book Review continues to find space for books on global politics and contemporary history, which are important for some of the same reasons that books of translated fiction are (though I wonder if the Book Review could sometimes combine the two and review translated international books of contemporary history -- that's something I'd like to see).
A few of the articles are less successful. The pugnacious Adam Kirsch's discussion of Judas: A Biography by Susan Gubar offers no surprising insights. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting a generic treatment.
Speaking of generic treatments: Alan Light's vapid explication of Bill German's memoir about the Rolling Stones Under Their Thumb is completely lacking in expression or style. I have absolutely no idea why the NYTBR continues to assign rock music books to this bland, slick writer -- a writer who couldn't even make a biography of the Beastie Boys fun to read -- when the likes of Chuck Klosterman, Robert Christgau and Legs McNeil might be available. Light ends his review with a yawning swipe at the blogosphere that couldn't be more pointless:
It also documents a bygone age, before celebrity Web sites, when a kid could spot Mick Jagger at a club, write a description, type it up in a home-stapled newsletter, mail it out a few weeks later and still break news. Now, such sightings are instantly posted on Gawker -- and the alluring quality of mystery that defined rock stars has become almost impossible to retain.
Gawker has removed the alluring quality of mystery from the rock scene? Absolutely ridiculous, especially since younger generations are every bit as excited by music as Light's or my generation was (I know this because I have kids). In fact, it's because of milquetoast establishment writers like Alan Light that we need the blogosphere.
Finally ... apparently Joyce Carol Oates wrote another book. I still haven't read the last fourteen hundred.
And also, finally again: New York City opens a beautiful new baseball stadium this week. I wish many blessings upon the place.
As the author of the family Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn's appreciation for Littell's novel seems to carry extra weight, and as an expert in classic literature he is well qualified to explain its careful references. Mendelsohn helpfully lays out significant parallels to Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, and brings not only Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies but also Herman Melville's Moby Dick into the mix. An excellent read, but can I now be excused from reading Littell's 992 page book? I think I get the main idea now, and I wonder if there is much more to get.
Since I carry my own recurring obsession with the topic of genocide, I can't approach a book like The Kindly Ones without bringing some baggage. If I understand correctly, Littell's intention with this novel is to shove our face in horror, and to shock us by presenting a credibly intellectual and well-adjusted "hero" who is also an unapologetic Nazi and a maniacal sadist. That's fine, but I've already read dozens of books about the Holocaust (Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke was, for me, the most important recent work, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the most essential history, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Art Spiegelman's Maus the most emotionally resonant stories, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the best philosophical treatment). While I'm all for burying genteel faces in horror, my own face has already been buried plenty.
I also find it inexplicable that we continue to romanticize and rhapsodize about the European Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as if it were unique when in fact genocide is so prevalent, so common, so cheap around us. For instance, a vicious, carefully orchestrated holocaust rages in the Sudan right now, as we blog, as we twitter. Reviewers of Jonathan Littell's novel talk about the murder of children and grandmothers, but communities including children and grandmothers are being ground into nonexistence today in Darfur, and very few people seem to think anything can be done about it.
It's ironic that the Holocaust has become such a cottage industry -- shelves in bookstores, museums in cities around the world -- even as "holocaust denial" grows into its own odious cottage industry, taking root from the Vatican to Iran.
I think there's plenty more to be said about the meaning of genocide in the modern world, but I'm not sure I need to read a 992-page indulgence in fictional evil when I can read articles like this, this, this, this or this in today's New York Times.
1. I recently visited a gallery in downtown New York to see Malcolm McNeill's Ah Pook Is Here, a vast, never-published collaboration with William S. Burroughs. McNeill was a young graphic artist coming up in swinging 1960s London when a magazine called Cyclops asked him to illustrate a comic strip for a Burroughs text called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart. McNeill and Burroughs had never met when this piece was published, but Burroughs sought out the artist who'd captured his uncanny likeness in the work, suggesting they collaborate on an ambitious project called Ah Pook Is Here.
Apparently based on the legend of Ah Puch, the Mayan God of Death, Ah Pook is Here is as inscrutable as any Burroughs text, and features many signature Burroughs tropes -- mob scenes, strange societies, contrasting urban and jungle environments, omnisexual beings. It's a fascinating and attractive work, and I enjoyed chatting with the artist at the show. I asked him what it all meant, and he replied that he found the meaning of the work within his long and happy friendship with the late Burroughs (whose visage seems to appear in various places within the collection's many pieces). Malcolm McNeill, who stresses that he does his work in physical media rather than Photoshop, bristled when I asked which comic artists had inspired him. "I don't see this as comic art," he said, instead citing Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon as key influences. See for yourself at the Saloman Arts Gallery in downtown Manhattan till December 14.
2. Belgian artist Guy Peellaert of Rock Dreams and Diamond Dogs fame has died.
3. Slavoj Zizek says "Use Your Illusions" in the London Review of Books:
"The reason Obama's victory generated such enthusiasm is not only that, against all odds, it really happened: it demonstrated the possibility of such a thing happening. The same goes for all great historical ruptures -- think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we didn't really believe that they would disintegrate -- like Kissinger, we were all victims of cynical pragmatism. Obama's victory was clearly predictable for at least two weeks before the election, but it was still experienced as a surprise."
4. Whose illusion? It's hilarious that authorities in China are protesting the new Guns 'n' Roses album Chinese Democracy, seeing the title as a call for Western-style democracy in their nation. Who ever looks to Axl Rose for insights into global politics? In case anybody's wondering, the title appears to be a self-mocking comparison to Chairman Mao's totalitarean leadership style (Mao used to claim, against all evidence, that China was a democracy). Axl Rose has kicked every other member of Guns 'n' Roses out, and apparently "Chinese democracy" is the only kind of democracy anyone should expect within Guns 'n' Roses now that Chairman Axl is in charge. As for the long-awaited record itself, I think it's pretty good, though I need to give it a few more listens before I reach a conclusive decision.
5. 50 Cent's The Money and the Power is probably the meanest reality show competition ever. Instead of "The tribe has spoken" or "You're fired", 50's (bleeped) exit line is "Get the fuck outta here". You know I'm a fool for good reality TV shows, and so far this is one of the good ones.
6. Carolyn Kellogg admires Johnny Rotten's excellent autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, recently reissued by Picador.
7. I didn't know there was a poetry series, "Poems and Pints", at historic Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan's financial district. We already missed Paul Muldoon and Mark Strand, but there's still time to catch Dana Goodyear, Katy Lederer, Sharon Olds and many others.
8. Bob Holman and Papa Susso on the Griot Trail in West Africa.
9. The complete Allan Sherman boxed set.
10. A dead Shakespearean makes his stage debut ... as Yorick.