Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Before the Books All Disappear...


The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz :
I had some spare moments with no required reading, so I seized them with desperation and started perusing this slim volume of poetic childhood recollection pieces by 1930s Polish writer Schulz, who comes highly recommended by the great filmmaker Guy Maddin. These are sublime and meticulously described bits of Polish life, from a man who is described in the translator’s introduction as gnarled and lonely. Of course he had to be. I’m not surprised Maddin is a fan, since both men seem to exist at the whim of their memories. Maddin though has a style modeled on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, while Schulz’s recollections are firmly located in space and time, even though the way of life they describe has long since disappeared.

David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World : The outrage we’ve been waiting for in my African American literature class. Multiple exclamation points abound. Walker maintains throughout that God is just, but I want him to say even once that God is not just, or that God has abandoned us. I suppose the reason he doesn’t is because his intended audience is after all not slaves but white “Christian Americans,” and he needs to prime his warning of eternal damnation. In that way he is like Jonathan Edwards, just not so unbearable.

African American Women Confront the West 1600-2000
and Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California : Two anthologies of essays about the Black West, more or less informative and more or less well written, as anthologies tend to go. My own prof’s article about the 19th century San Francisco millionaire Mary Ellen Pleasant is the most interesting so far. I wouldn’t say she lived a charmed life, but she is one of those people whose history is an accumulation of the life of an era. If you go searching out any interesting aspect of life in San Francisco in the 1800s, she’ll be hovering in the margins.

Other recent reads:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion :
The title comes from a Yeats poem, the same poem I heard quoted last night as my roommate watched Heroes in the next room. That goes to show once again the way that a lot of these hip new TV shows tend to embody the finer points of a liberal arts education. As for Didion, she’s quite the dude. She admits that writing amounts to selling out your subjects, and the portraits here range from weirdly admiring (Joan Baez) to downright unflattering (Haight-Ashbury). I didn’t know anyone was writing with such clarity about the 1960s while they were happening. And there is a line, about California being a place where a belief in the Bible imperceptibly gave way to a belief in Double Indemnity, that made my heart leap.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
It should be called The Halfway Interesting Narrative, because the naval battle digressions and religious conversion chapter are distinctly uninteresting. Even Equiano admits, with the expected humility of an 18th century writer, that his work may be altogether without merit. This book confounds the ethics of non-fiction writing. I don’t want to spoil the controversy surrounding this narrative, but I suppose I will by saying the following: I have to suppose that Equiano’s reasons for lying are strategic ones, and that his protection of his true identity and his false narrative says as much for the relevance of his writing as his actually having lived this narrative would.


My sister in Helena, Montana alerted me to this article. I don’t want to give the impression that my hometown is unenlightened, but there is always some fool complaining about some book or play or other (to name a few: Cabaret, Grease, some Joyce Carol Oates teen novel, Fools Crow) and the debate that should never have been never dies. Feel free to send a written comment to my public library, and remember that if you don’t, I will have to live with the consequences. They may even keep me from rereading Watchmen, because Dr. Manhattan appears naked.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Maurice Sendak

There was an article about Maurice Sendak in The New York Times yesterday that made me very sad. The great artist is 80 years old, recently lost his longtime partner, had a triple-bypass that has left him weak, and is riddled with worries about whether he is in the final analysis a true artist or merely a great illustrator (his Norman Rockwell complex). The discussion of what makes something art is not one I usually like to engage in, but whatever the case, these are not the anxieties that a man at the end of his life should have to experience. Whatever Tony Kushner and others say to the contrary, he is concerned about his legacy and his potential failure, even lamenting that people aren’t impressed by a triple-bypass anymore, that it has to be a quadruple (that pithy line isn’t presented as a joke in the article, and I get the impression it’s not). Cheer up, Maury. A life spent in the arts is a noble thing, and Where the Wild Things Are (among others) is better than art because it is exactly what it is, and what it is is great!

Saturday, September 6, 2008


School started again, which means until December I’ll always have three or more books going at any given moment. That’s a good feeling, though there hasn’t been any unexpected or surprising overlap in the things I’m reading yet. I don’t really care to write here about my school reading, since I’ll have to do that for class, but I’ll jot some brief comments down, trying to whittle my feelings down to their essence. I tend to construct really convoluted and unbelievable arguments in all my English papers, so maybe here I can try to set the precedent of saying what I actually think. Right now:

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas : So far, it’s the best thing I’ve read in a long while. No one has ever needed writing like Arenas needed writing. There are some fine pieces of childhood recollection, the sexual moments are particularly honest and funny, but the whole thing is damn good.

Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley : The first published African American woman. Her poetry deals with religious themes in conventional ways, but denies simple readings; it’s a shame that the author is dead, literally and philosophically, because she could clarify much of the ambiguous meaning in these poems. This is all to say that I don’t know what I think yet (so much shouldn’t, but does, depend upon historical context), though I do agree with editor Vincent Carretta’s description of the author as “artful.” Does that make her akin to one of those 18th century literary heroines, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, whose art is both in her writing and her ability to manipulate her own status as a slave (details that won’t be gone into)? I think that’s a way to understand her importance both in terms of her identity and her accomplishments.

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
by Nell Irvin Painter :
I’ve only worked through the background and contexts, but it’s a good account so far, with an interesting bit about the contradiction of “national leadership” for black communities after the Civil War.


The Big Money by John Dos Passos : I finally finished this beast, which means I’ve finished the entire U.S.A. trilogy, and that’s a big weight off my shoulders. Joe Queenan had an article in the New York Times Book Review about his predilection for reading, and re-reading, excessively long novels, and being one of the elite few who has read War and Peace however many (too many) times. That article was obnoxious, but U.S.A.’s a book that doesn’t get read much anymore, so I do have to wonder if I’m among the elite (well, not so elite, but it is something) few currently alive who has read all of its 1500 or so pages. I wish I had some grand conclusion about the trilogy now that it’s behind me, but it’s the sort of book that doesn’t really invite grand conclusions, so I’m left with a few unimportant thoughts:

The most noticeable feature of the writing, and maybe most subversive, is the way that Dos Passos denies every moment of potential drama, and lets everything happen at the same emotional pitch, which is to say no emotion. That doesn’t mean there’s no possibility of a reader’s attachment to these lives, but one has to pay careful attention to feel emotionally moved. The characters are relatable because Dos Passos doesn’t shroud them in myths and fictions, and denies the grand narratives commonly associated with America. The Big Money is no Horatio Alger story, after all, and Dos Passos can’t be accused of being overly optimistic. The lives described are shapeless and aimless, justified by their sheer volume. The only thing particularly American about the novel is the way it’s always looking to the future. What else to like? Dos Passos is a master of free indirect discourse (better than Jane Austen?); creates beautiful imagery with basic colors; and while the “Camera Eye” sections aren’t quite feverish enough to convey a single powerful feeling, certain small phrases stick out as masterful: a theater audience described as a “vague cave of faces” (phonetically grand), a “rusty freighter wallowing in indigo.” The seeds of the D.I.Y. philosophy are here, and a bit of John Edwards’ “Two Americas” campaign theme. The characters often say they “want to see life,” and I can’t help thinking of Morrissey’s same sad desire. Every moment is given equal weight in these lives, but while there are no emotional highs and lows (except the ones assigned by the reader), it’s still life. This book is teeming with life.