Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Books Read in 2017

I read 101 books the past year, liked or loved a little more than half of them, and couldn’t finish another five. I didn’t include journals, rereads, individual poems or poem sequences (e.g.) in collections or online, books I reviewed for journals (or those upcoming), religious tracts left on my front stoop, or technical manuals on how to build bomb shelters, fascinating though those may have been. If it weren’t for time moving faster than Hermes ahead of a Zeus thunderbolt, I’d have included some words on all 50 + books I enjoyed. Here’s a list of my top ten, in order.

1) Juan Filloy, Caterva (tr. Brendan Riley), 1937. Last year’s fave book was Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop. At two novels, I’ve now completed all of Filloy’s works translated into English. He wrote, in Spanish, another 100 novels. ¡Maldici√≥n! Caterva, like his Op Oloop, another wild ride heavily influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses (this one involves seven outcasts on a bizarre peripatetic quest to acquire money by nefarious means), burns the brainpan with lexical mischief and complexity (neologisms, archaisms, vernacular insults, salty witticism, high-toned description, philosophical rumination), and through all the serpentine plot twists and asides, the undertow throws back alternating states of hilarity, tragedy, desperation, and tenderness. Run or drive to your closest book emporium and demand this novel be ordered!

2) Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (tr. Susan Bernofsky), 2012. A female protagonist is followed through five life stages and stories, each of them ending in death. It’s a merciless look at that puzzle: if we escape a brush with death, will our lives be altered in subsequent years, or does fate leave its calling card at conception (or before)? Existentially, Erpenbeck destroys any safe spaces we’ve cooked up for our own survival. Paradoxically, a sly grace is granted to the woman, despite the unsparing ruminations undertaken in a nursing home. A poetic reader may appreciate the symbolism of names and books, but that’s transcended by an attention to language carved and polished into totemic figurations, stark and unyielding.

3) Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems 1931-1987 (various co-tr.), 1988. Czeslaw Milosz was a ‘fortunate’ poet, spending the first 40 years of his life in some of this planet’s most explosive environs. His move to West Coast academia helped his profile, but it would be hard to credit that fact alone with his outstanding push to recognition when one opens this thick Collected, and encounters page after page of existential inevitability, understated sobering description, images that both startle and drift, and merciless personal inventory.

4) Silvina Ocampo, Thus Were Their Faces (tr. Daniel Balderston), 1988. Short stories have to work quickly to gain that mesmerizing affect necessary to great fiction. Some stories crash and burn. Others take the opposite route: drab anecdotes not saved by worn-out themes and symbols. Then there are authors like Ocampo. Borges loved Ocampo’s stories, and it’s easy to see why. In this lengthy Selected compilation, the stories chosen are stamped with similar ‘outward’ terrain: familial interaction, and a particular setting with (seemingly) mild conflict. Reading an Ocampo short is like walking into a twilit back alley where one is alone to wonder while noting dark shapes forming in squalid doorways. A character changes – permanently – mid-sentence, but is it because of that character’s ‘development’ (or devolvement), or the observer’s own destruction reflected in the environment he or she sees? These are disturbing stories, and though they condemn humanity, there’s an aching pity and outcry – in every story – for our spiritual limitations.

5) Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (tr. Ekin Oklap), 2013. Another epic novel from the author, Pamuk’s latest is set in Istanbul, and covers that city’s geographic, political, economic, and moral changes from the mid 20th century to the present as seen through many eyes. Mevlut – a poor boza (a drink with minimal alcohol content) seller – takes centre street in the story, but Pamuk gives first-person voice to everyone in the extended family, as well to the omnipotent narrator who (as in many of the author’s novels) turns to the reader directly from time to time. The tone is pitch-perfect. In the novel’s most heart-wrenching scenes, facts are delivered neutrally from the narrator, which increases the weight of sadness, that sadness only possible at all from earlier, carefully etched, scenes of dialogue, rumination, and description. Not as dynamic as his Snow, A Strangeness in My Mind is nevertheless another Pamuk masterwork.

6) Doris Lessing, Five, 1953. A collection of four novellas and one novel, Five shows Lessing’s early development in fiction. The first two selections were hard to plow through. As in her endless novel The Four-Gated City (which I couldn’t finish), the tone is relentlessly bleak and grey. But when Lessing shifts us to Africa, the novellas come alive. A young Caucasian boy has to fight his parents’ expectations for university in Johannesburg, choosing instead to stay in touch with his African friend. The dilemma changes in the other “gold” story from racial to economic, as another Caucasian boy must deal with his prospecting father’s duplicity. But the real show-stopper is the collection’s novel, Hunger, about a destitute African boy who leaves his family’s hut for the city, only to get naively entangled in revolutionary agitation with sexual complications.

7) Thom Gunn, Collected Poems, 1993. Most every poetry lover knows of T.S. Eliot’s move from St. Louis to England, but not as many may know of the effects of Thom Gunn’s move in the opposite direction, the latter ending up in San Francisco. Some critics attribute Gunn’s early formal verse to his London university days, but frankly gay free verse wasn’t exactly prominent in journals on this side of the Atlantic, either, at that time (1953). Gunn didn’t have any personal conflict between the two approaches, however, and he could shoe a metrical foot with as much vigour and aplomb as he (later) could a more loose and ‘offhand’ (or off-foot?) production.

8) James Pollock, Sailing to Babylon, 2012. Allusive yet seemingly casual, lyrical yet grounded, Pollock’s poetry collection is infused with a wonderful meditation-event shifting. The shorter poems work – some more than others – on a personal level, yet they also work, like Cavafy’s efforts, to bridge the wide gulf between diurnal monotony and historic import. The long “Quarry Park” is a brilliant meditation on time, regret, fulfillment, and alternate hypothetical histories, as the narrator walks over hills and among trees with his young son. The rhythms match the walking tempos, the energy never flags, and the wisdom comes from both event and reflection.

9) Lauro Martines, Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700, 2013. A hundred-hectare battlefield of history books depicting World Wars I and II cover the printed landscape, but not nearly as many deal with the wars during the long span between the Renaissance and the French Revolution. (1700, in the title, is a bit misleading.) Rather than featuring political figures, or theorizing on how one conflict led to the next in a seamless flow chart, Furies concentrates instead on the day-to-day brutalities suffered by soldiers and civilians, how religious division enflamed sieges, and how economic expansion and usurpation heightened the carnage. The book also gets into detail regarding moral dilemmas, as when destitute civilians got nabbed by nation-state authorities to fight their own citizens. (Some carried out their instructions to torture; others defected away from, or into, the ‘enemy’ camp.) Grubby and shocking, the narrative goes beyond numbers to look at the atrocities themselves, and the (mostly) stupid, prideful, and greedy reasons they were engendered. Unlike many history books, this one’s well-written. Engaging and succinct.

10) Charles Willeford, I Was Looking For a Street, 1988. The first of a two-part autobiography from the influential crime novelist, this one focusses on a two-year period in Willeford’s life from ages 16 to 18. The author, after his parents died, and to escape stifling poverty while living with his grandmother, left home to ride the rails during The Depression. Embellishments? Maybe, but who cares? The liveliness of the writing mirrors the harsh circumstances and events on the ground. Despite the hunger, freezing, desperation, depressing sexual encounters, and economic hopelessness, Willeford makes several heartfelt friendships, learns many practical lessons, and is a great manifestation of Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill me ...”.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jason Guriel, Arguing With His Own Straw Man

A while back, Jason Guriel wrote a grumpy article – his specialty – for The Walrus that castigated other essayists for inserting their own lives into the mix of whatever theme or argument they were trying to outline. A few days ago, he followed up, in kind, with another ‘rule-breaker’, this time an admonition to stear clear of the writing mill injunction to “read widely”. His previous piece had some initial merit. What reader, after all, hasn’t felt irritated after segueing in a few short paragraphs about – say – immigrants’ struggles to adjust to lateral poverty in their new countries – with the addition of language difficulties and confusion – to struggles in the author’s own life as a literary newbie trying to engage socially at a poetry reading? Trouble is, Guriel frequently takes a promising issue, sets up his own misrepresentations like tenpins three feet from the bowler, and smashes them without having to worry too much about aim. He argued against the critic’s attempt at street cred by way of personal anecdote tied to the book, movie, or CD that the review supposedly highlighted. But Guriel’s ‘proof’ weighed heavily on examples from the online world of rock crit and celebrity gossip. Rock crit, by nature, is subjective, often lighthearted, light on literary concentration, tonally hyperbolic, and personality-driven. Usually, readers prefer this approach to popular entertainment. But Guriel tries to plane off-the-cuff concert reviews onto the literary stage, with disastrously inappropriate results. Quoting Woolf, or even dragging in Pauline Kael and Dorothy Parker, means nothing when the object of ridicule is a reviewer of Celine Dion. Besides, there’ve always been narcissistic reviewers of pop culture. Teh interwebz, of course, has accelerated this, and has made it more accessible, but, against Guriel’s contention, nothing fundamental has changed. Music mags and newspaper box weeklies from yesteryear also featured self-promoting reviewers displaying their epiphanies when playing Grand Funk Railroad under the auspices of speckled black lights and lysergic acid. That’s why the venues in which their thoughts were splashed were called “rags”. You’d leave them on the bus after skimming the reviews for a laugh.

The new essay doesn’t even have a legitimate starter. “Read widely” is belittled even though Guriel is unsure of what it means. That doesn’t stop his assumptions (and resulting rebuffs), though. His modus operandi is to use very little evidence on which to peg his argument, and what evidence is used is conveniently suspect, if not, as here, ridiculous. To wit: novelist and critic Aleksandar Hemon is chided for a tweet (yes, Guriel’s entire argument is based, directly, from one tweet), in which the “hapless omnivore” (Guriel’s words), reads (in Hemon’s words) “compulsively – preferably a book of my choice, but anything would do. I’ve read, with great interest, nutritional information on cereal boxes. I regularly read wedding announcements in The New York Times.” Well, as Guriel himself wrote in an essay from his The Pigheaded Soul, “who doesn’t hate that guy?” When writers advise other writers to “read widely”, they don’t often mean to “read indiscriminately”. Also, to read widely doesn’t mean to “read everything”, as the unfortunate essay title has it. I realize that Guriel probably isn’t responsible for that click-bait enticer, but he does angle toward that hyperbolic end-point of the continuum when quoting Hemon, and when naming disparate authors later in the essay. Total assumption on my part, here, but most “read widely” advisors are probably aware that doing so still means only a waft of possible depth and breadth in the reader’s variety of literary experience contrasted to what has been recorded in the archived repository of words. But that seems an even greater argument for wide reading, to break open a window or two even though it means only seeing an extra meadow on Earth in a universe whose spatial possibilities we can’t comprehend. And isn’t it ironic that two of the “read widely” authors Guriel mentions – Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King – are literary genre and hard niche genre writers, respectively? Obsessive authors – the kind Guriel prefers – have read widely for many reasons which have later helped their vision and craft: to find out what has been done so as not to repeat the process, thereby becoming DOA; to find out what one (usually an author in her or his early ‘career’ stage) likes/dislikes or is good/bad at; to gain information out of simple curiosity, as well as for informally targetted research purposes; to take on different styles for possible use in their own writing. To this last point: Guriel is wrong about the uselessness of exploring different styles, as if this was a waste of time, or worse, a confusing avenue of approach. Would Joyce’s Ulysses have been possible if he’d been a hedgehog instead of a fox? How about Robert Lowell’s career arc? One might think of Emily Dickinson as narrowly focussed, but she was a wide-ranging, voracious reader, exploring many movements and genres. This is the further irritation in Guriel’s insistence on narrow (narrow-minded?) obsession as against diversity and expansion: an author doesn’t decide one way or another. There are great writers who’ve had a fairly limited range of background reading, but (and I don’t include farm manuals or billboards here) most authors of any renown have been plugged into a wide range of material for its own sake. “Read widely” is advice I used to give aspiring writers, as well. (Notice how I insinuated myself into this, which is, of course, a Guriel no-no?). But it’s pretty useless. Writers who are excited about writing are usually excited about reading, and variously so, whether the books involved are high or low, poetry or novels or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, politics or kitchen-sink miniatures, history or fantasy. (There will always be preferences, and even, yes, obsessions, but that doesn't cancel out variety.) If you have to tell someone to read widely, or even to read at all, you’re probably telling them to take their cod liver oil.

An author can eventually burrow deeper into one or two areas more exclusively, of course. In fact, I agree somewhat with Guriel here. But then he goes off the rails again by his focus on one author at a time. Great advice for a biographer. Pretty stultifying for a creative writer.

(Guriel gets excited by Strunk- & White-like rules. I purposely included, above, the em-dashes and semi-colons because of this. I guess he hates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s prose, or indeed, just about any eighteenth-century novel. I even caught a mid-sentence "however" in Orhan Pamuk's latest masterpiece, and I'm only on page 99!)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Stendhal's Scarlet and Black

Romanticism remains a literary football, its detractors, on different teams, digging leather-bound products from dust-filmed closets and kicking them all over their studies. The excesses of confessionalism are sometimes traced back to earnest lyrics by Wordsworth. Soft-lens adventure yarns are damned as low-middlebrow James Fenimore Cooper excitations. But Romantics – even those in the first-wave of 1789-1824 – developed specific obsessions that were faithfully adhered to, even throughout Realism, until the great artistic tumults of 1913. One of those obsessions, of course, was a worshipper’s belief in the power and value of intense feeling. And when the hyper-rational George Bernard Shaw calls Shelley’s The Cenci one of the great tragedies in English drama, one can only imagine how passionate must have been the views of its adherents back in the day when Napoleon was busting heads.

Stendhal’s masterpiece, the novel Scarlet and Black (most often translated as The Red and the Black), came out in 1830 when the first onrush of Romanticism’s emotional and individual force had lessened somewhat, though its aesthetic dominance, while not monolithic, was unchallenged. Stendhal’s genius was a combination of a unique style – wildly at odds with the descriptive flourishes the dominant movement required – with Romantic passion bordering, at times, on melodrama. That emotional drive, though, was pestered by an ironic view, finely placed, on the proceedings. (Romantics – Byron and maybe a few others excepted – hate satire.) And that style must have been a brave approach: plain and without immersive symbolism, but set in complex subordinate clauses mellifluously rendered, and with a psychological acuity both brilliant and detailed among variously motivated class-positioned characters.

Well before this point, it’s traditional for the reviewer to give a plot synopsis, but I hate those kinds of reviews. The biggest reason is that it destroys narrative surprise (though if it’s a postmodern novel, that’s usually unimportant, even encouraged). Another reason is that even in plot-heavy novels, the story is just a framework to hold more important features of the work. It’s here I smile, because the preceding few sentences of meta-commentary is a lead-in to Stendhal – that trailblazing out-of-time realist – as whispering Lawrence Sterne, the French author sneaking in one paragraph, a now famous one, which operates as a shocking narrative interruption, an l’art du roman. I include it here, prefaced by most of the preceding paragraph:

“[T]hese attach themselves with obstinate tenacity to some particular set, and if that set ‘makes good’ all the best things society can give are showered upon them. Woe to the studious man who does not belong to any set; even his minor doubtful successes will be held against him, and superior virtue will triumph over him by robbing him of these.

Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.”

The novel’s long chronicle reaches its exquisite final√© in the drawn-out prison scene, Julien a presursor for Camus’ Merseault in L’Etranger. As much as I love the latter novel, and realizing that Camus’ first-person anti-hero was neutrally positioned, Stendhal’s protagonist’s clash with the cleric, his father, and the exchanges with his two visiting loves, is elemental, frenetic, yet almost documentarily conceived, pitiless yet moving, eerie, funereal. It makes the similarly-plotted L’Etranger climax seem desiccated and didactic by contrast.

(My edition was wonderfully, painstakingly, translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw.)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta's Fabulous Fictions

“First there was the Word ...” Even if not a Biblicist, most have heard this phrase (from John?). Flattering to literary types, when thought of as a collaboration between, say, poets and creators within a different artistic field, the words usually come first. Schubert composed lieder to Goethe’s poetry, for example. The relation of words to painting, however, has occasioned a reverse sequence. Ashbery, among other poets, often uses a particular painting or drawing as a starting point for excited speculation. That relationship continues with veteran short story maker Leon Rooke and painter Tony Calzetta, in this year’s Fabulous Fictions. The latter provided a set of typically vivid abstract objects floating from or over a simple background of night sky or amoeba-like flourishes which evoke a curious feeling of neutral pulsing with menacing foreboding. It’s a perfect fit for Rooke, whose stories, here and elsewhere, trick us with uproarious dialogue, monologue, and plot (such as it can be in these particular flash fictions), so that the underbelly of human-besotted action creates shock by contrast. “Bank President’s Address To Minions On The Eve Of The Release Of The Annual Financial Report Showing Profits Heretofore Unseen In The World” shows Rooke’s strength to best effect. At first, the story seems like it could travel down the typical path of simple political denunciation, but the president’s speech, without seeming to adjust its register, incorporates personal failure, and the two narratives are interwoven expertly without the speaker’s remorse for either experience. A more immediate justice is served in other stories. “Son Of Scroll”, in what must be less than two hundred words, proceeds by way of amoral (immoral?) interviewer probing the life of another outsider now part of the ‘backwards’ island community. But it’s the interrogator who proves backward during the witty ending (which I won’t spoil). Fabulous Fictions is a delightfully insouciant production from The Porcupine’s Quill.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jan Conn's Edge Effects

“The drifter and I are hanging on/by our teeth”, is most of a couplet from “Night Deeper Than Water”, from poet Jan Conn’s Edge Effects, out in 2012. I know the feeling. Many of the offerings from this 85 page collection waver in the space between suggestion and disjunction, or, to put it less charitably, between suggestion and inscrutability. Fortunately, though, since the oneiric and fabulous are major modes within the volume, a realistic exploration of image and metaphor vacant or dismissive of organic linkage is fine. And Conn scores with many intriguing metaphysical etchings well-grounded in vivid imagistic particulars: “Pumpkins glow in the field like planets/of a brand new solar system” is just one example. Reverie’s dark side, however, is, past its inventive play of possibilities within its world-without-space-and-time, a flight from depth, or at least waking perspective. Hence, the instances of “I no longer stay at the bombed-out Ritz:/too many ashes in the swimming pool/and no laundry service.” (from “The Erotic Error Bar”), and “the lanterns explode./Sisyphus shows up drunk,/out of work and mean.” (from “Orpheus’ Garden”), which, despite their downmouth diction, fail to shock with poem-ending gravitas or humour, being merely clever with atonal juxtaposition. This is a quibble, though. Many phrases, lines, and poems deliver with imaginative concentration, both focused and playful, and although I had problems with sonorous overreach – an exotic lexicon seems to have been shoehorned into some long lines as travelogue sparkle – Conn takes chances, and succeeds, with an intriguing blend of image and psychic residue.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Richard Stark's Backflash

Every other year or so I decide to read a book from the straight-up crime genre. This time, it was probably because I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, which followed the interior excitations of a British double agent pursued (until the final scenes, psychologically) by his patriot employers. Knowing next to nothing about the legacy of noir lit, and not wanting to scour its history, I took a flyer on a plug from a comment on a crime novel blog: Richard Stark’s Backflash, from 1998.

Stark was a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Making Balzac look like a constipated, somnolent, fastidious follower of Flaubert, Westlake pumped out over a hundred novels, about twenty-five of them from the Stark brand, and about twenty of those in a series whose lead character, Parker, schemes and tricks and blasts his way to depressing glory through the grubby particulars (in Backflash) of a riverboat heist. This anti-heroic, weary, shithead protagonist is supposed to garner respect, if not sympathy. Like any of the other characters, he’s two-dimensional, and the dimensions are grey and brown. Parker has the charm of a loose dental dam, so the clipped, professional banter doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the thug, but acts simply as a way to push the plot along like an overwhelmed paramedic shifting a heart attack victim on a gurney over a busy beach sidewalk. There’s one segment, featuring unfunny but interesting dialogue, where Parker and one of his aides banter off-topic about inconsequential issues while waiting for reinforcements during an intense half-hour or so. I subsequently learned that Quentin Tarantino got his famous dialogue schtick (with the two too-cool-for-school, wisecracking, violent cops) in Pulp Fiction from Westlake/Stark. Then again, I also learned (a few years ago) that he got it from Charles Willeford. At any rate, Stark’s wit is pedestrian and repetitively signaled, which just goes to show that an idea’s originator is often poor at executing it to any positive renown.

I guess the drill for enthusiastic readers centres on plot, plot, and more plot. Oh, and suspense. The novel checks those boxes moderately well, but as for writing, characterization, ideas ... well, it’s traditional crime fiction, and the best authors of the genre know how to operate the Pavlovian machine to page-turning rhapsody.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Danny Jacobs' Songs That Remind Us of Factories

In his inaugural collection, Sounds That Remind Us Of Factories, (2013), Danny Jacobs’ poems resemble exotic vines threading their way through a thick trellis: powerful, relentless, knotted, and flashy. “Pacific Energy Super 27” sets out with, “Wind-scribe, smoke-crate, one-show boob tube/caterwauling pipewise”, and continues, nine lines down the page, with, “dustbin dreaming sleekness firebox and baffle/deep”. Many lines of many poems are similar in descriptive concentration: (from “Ox”: “set to charge the sagged cat’s cradle/of rusted wire, go gorge happy and play/longhorn sky-high ragdoll”). One is impressed with the sonorities, the doubled- and tripled-up vowel extensions which would be terrifically scored as spilling over their bar divisions on sheet music. But the technique, though impressive, tends to overwhelm. Interiority isn’t muted, it’s often replaced by dogged observation. Similarly, the limited range of emotion – stoical toughness, ironical self-awareness (in the good sense of that contemporary, prevalent ploy), bemused regret – isn’t always a problem since the images, and the sounds that power them, are doing the shovel-work of drama. The feelings are genuine, though, which is the more important consideration. And Jacobs will often unflex his line-busting biceps toward concluding epiphanies or rueful summations: “go back/to your overlords,/we may mean you harm”, from “Domestic Entomology” (first sub-poem); “It’s never loss but a changing of forms.”, from “How to Shoot Skeet With My Grandfather’s Lost Double Barrel”. If you can stay with the often-dense wordplay, and intone the lines in rhythmic momentum, the assonance is enjoyable and appropriate for much of the gritty content. However, overindulgence is the dark attraction for the author going all-in for sound. Hence, an at-times Eunoia-esque bass-loop sticking, “frumpy bolted hulk with breech plug,/lift lug, and locknut flush to the inch.//With wife gone he shunned his lawn/and got stuck on mock-ups. Wind-snug,/dud draft plans hugged my screen door”, from “Hobbyist”. In like fashion, “Scripted Pitch” ’s jackhammer jolts fill the ears with the letter ‘i’.

When Jacobs relaxes his frequent Eldar Djangarov-like itch to dazzle with pyrotechnics, poems breathe, and phrasal surprises light up (at least) this reader’s imagination with more staying power than euphonic play alone. “We’re Growing” is terrific start to finish, an intelligent lament for, and diatribe on, unspoiled wood acreage and land ‘development’, respectively. “The neighbourhood’s on the fence” is perfect, as is “ferret/out new hovels”. “Miscue” flirts with mathematical (ideational, not structural) complexity, but is grounded in its poolroom particulars, character quirks given concise variation throughout a snooker-route of differently plotted, and effective, enjambments. The “Insight” sub-poem from “What the Walls Said” is the best of the telesales section, confidently ironic, and able to maintain a direct force throughout without the self-satisfied collapse into flippant mimicking mockery other poems of contemporary anti-marketing fall into: (“If you leave for home with your headset/still horseshoeing your neck like a sci-fi ascot,”).