The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘What I’m Reading’ Category

Testing, testing.

I’m back in Jamaica at least for a year or two, maybe forever. If my family has its way I’ll be back in foreign this time tomorrow.

Jamaican men are radically different from every other kind. I forgot how much.

I still read. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses a month or so ago. It defies a plot description and easy summation. At present I can say nothing more than it bedazzled, impressed, confused, amused, bewildered, pummeled….Good God are his other novels anything like it? Rushdie comes across as such a staid literary statesman these days and the reactions to his latest works never gave me the impression that the novels were bonkers in the most delightful way possible. (Except James Wood…”hysterical realism” was it? Ha ha.) Anyway, it cries out for a reread.

My blogging muscles are not yet fit enough to do a sensible summary of recent readings so I shall only mention what is presently on my plate and to what I am anticipating.

Reading

Orlando by Virginia Woolf – At the beginning I vacillated between “charming” and “trivial”. Now I’m at “hilarious, more to think about than readily apparent”. Why isn’t Woolf’s humour more heralded or am I weird? I’d try so many more of these Woolfs and Rushdies if critics eased off stressing their importance and highlighted the funny bits.

Rashomon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryonusuke – I knew nothing of Akutagawa’s theme or writing style before this collection. His short stories, at least the earlier ones that created his reputation, are written like fables. Very engrossing, intricately structured, and often end inconclusively. The Japanese authors I’ve read so far always build their stories on characters facing particular moral problems. How they react, what they decide forces one to consider not only the society mores of the time but one’s own personal philosophy and what it means…to be human I guess.

Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – One of my mother’s. I tried to read this when I was very young, perhaps 11 or so. I was vaguely interested in the different Protestant movements after the nun at my catholic prep school told me that my church (Anglican) formed from a royal divorce.

My brain’s a bit better at handling the content now.

Michael Manley biography – The author’s name escapes me. Manley was a former Jamaican Prime Minister both revered and despised, largely depending on how you feel about socialism and the word “comrade”.

To Come

I am dying to get my hands on Sarah Hall’s latest. Gimme gimme gimme. Besides that I need to get to those new Coetzees. Also Kwame Dawes’ poetry and Bob Marley book.

To break through my marvellous summer blogging block, let’s have a look at what I am or about to gobble up, shall we? (I have a zillion half-finished 1,000 word drafts molting in the dashboard, not to mention literary magazines (print and online) languishing in neglect. Pathetic.)

I bought a pile of Peepal Tree Press books earlier this year one of which is published in conjunction with the Calabash Literary Festival we all know and love. I’m still with Jamaica’s first literary vanguard so I started with John Hearne’s Voices Under the Window. It’s a nice step forward after reading Rachel Manley’s book about her grandparents because Drumblair endsright around the time when Jamaica was moving into the black power movement and she (being of lighter skin) discovered it difficult (being of lighter skin) to make a place for herself. Her grandparent’s legacy in Jamaica’s fight for independence turned out to be an albatross. Hearne, as Kwame Dawes wrote in the novel’s introduction, was in a similar position because of his skin colour and his neglect to pen a suitably political novel to reflect the times, according to his detractors. Beyond that Dawes makes much of Hearne’s flashback technique and how it shapes the novels over-all structure and influences one’s reading. I’m curious to see what I’ll make of it.

Northwestern University Press is currently my favourite press because of the Pierre Jean Jouve in its blacklist. Paulina 1880 made the start of my year amazing and I’m expecting similar wonder here. I don’t even knowwhat The Desert World‘s about yet, but Lydia Davis is the translator (w00t!). Ugh, if only she could have translated all of Proust for Penguin.

Still with Adam Bede. My reading here has been rather distracted after an earnest start so I haven’t had anything thoughtful to blog about here or mention over at The Valve. Anyway, the other participants have rather l33t close-reading skills so colour me mostly a bystander in this experiment. Not that George Eliot is encouraging me to be much else. I’m more of Rich Puchalsky’s mind so far — I’m partial to all the character’s Eliot does not think much of and more or less wearied of that magnificent country paragon Adam Bede and the saintly Dinah (who God should please love so much that he takes her to her heavenly home so that I don’t have to abide anymore of her perfect preacher letters). Mrs. Poysner is my favourite so far if only because one minute I think she’s rather horrid and the next minute the best thing Adam Bede has going for it. Here Eliot is unable to lay hold hard enough to my moral rudder in order to establish what I ought to feel about her. Blergh.

What’s currently on your reading plate? And is your summer going well?

I’m in the middle of Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton, which is a smashin’ good read by the by, for the Slaves of Golconda. But for this post all I want to say is that Nicholas Lansing is a stupid ass and I hope he drowns off the side of Ibis in a spectacularly horrid incident. And may Carol Hicksies (or whatever her stupid name is) get the measles.

The only reason I can give for choosing to excerpt this passage rather than any of the more respectable, representative excerpts is because it makes me laugh for about five minutes.

As a rule T. revealed little in the way of personal information, since Fulton did not seem to require it. For Fulton communication was a one-way street. And when, on occasion, T. chose to contribute to the conversation with a brief disclosure of his own, Fulton became bored and changed the subject.

“So my father,” said T. on the way to the racquet club one Wednesday, reclining in the leather passenger seat of Fulton’s Land Cruiser, “used to be an ad executive in Manhattan, but now he mixes drinks at a transvestite bar in Key West.”

“He turned gay?”

“I guess so.”

“Huh,” said Fulton, hunching down and squinting into the side-view mirror. “Did you see that? Asian woman in the Hyundai almost rear-ended me.”

“No. Didn’t see.”

“Asians can’t drive for shit.”

“Might want to keep that insight to yourself.”

“It’s not exactly a secret, T. Damn you’re a rube. Disoriented Orientals. Ring a bell?”

“If the poor woman had rear-ended this car she would have been killed instantly.”

“You gotta watch out, T.,” said Fulton, shaking his head. “That stuff’s in the genes. You could turn homo too.”

“You think so?”

“Watch out for it. If you feel the urge, rent a copy of Anal Alley and have a jerkoff marathon.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“What am I saying? That’s like offering smack to a  guy on methadone. Better stay around the front side, T. Avoid the ass region completely.”

“Good tip.”

“Janet’s sister’s church has this deal where they deprogram them. I don’t think it works though.”

“No? Doesn’t work?”

“It’s a boot camp. They tell them man-boy love is the work of Satan. They bring in the straight guys to teach them how to act straight. Like you’re not allowed to smoke, it’s faggy. Then they lock them up in small rooms and yell their heads off at them. ‘Repent, sinners! For the sake of Jesus Christ Our Lord, cast out the homo devil from your butt!’ It’s kind of like hardcore bondage and domination. It’s supposed to scare them straight but I think it actually makes them horny. Some Christian faggots actually hook up there. Serious. It’s basically a dating service for Christian homos.”

“What does Janet’s sister think of that?”

“She put her son in it and he came out with a brand-new assfriend. That’s how she found out the real deal. I have a faggot nephew.

“I didn’t know.”

“No blood relation though. Janet’s side of the family only. My genes are pure hetero. I had a great-grandfather who was a rapist.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah. The guy raped. Rapists are basically superheteros. A rapist is a hetero on steroids.”

“That’s quite a theory you got there.”

“I forgot to tell you, you gotta use the shit racquet today. The titanium’s being restrung.”

From How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet, Soft Skull Press.

I don’t know about this book. Not to be mean but my first reaction on seeing the cover was, Hmmmm, shouldn’t this have an Oprah book club sticker? the NYT’s Kakutani found it “completely original”? Why am I not heartened. I had the feeling it was going to be one of those melodramatic, multi-generational matriarchal family sagas — I don’t really do multi-generational family sagas. (It’s why I have Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and not Buddenbrooks. Also it was name checked in Norwegian Wood a lot but, yeah, I’ve seen ol’ Budden in used book stores and haven’t gotten past that word in the various novel summaries.) Anything labelled a “saga” gets a suspicious glance.

I’m not even past page 20 yet and already I’m annoyed. I think she cheated in the first chapter — couldn’t figure out a way to start the story right so she split it two under the headings of different names and proceeded to give us character profiles. The paragraph organization seems out of whack. I suppose Garcia could have done it for artistic effect — the grandmother at the beginning is a bit addled and unsettled from her husband’s death in a different country so the structure reflects this. But it’s not working for me. The sentences don’t hang together and I feel disoriented within paragraphs wondering what the hell I’m supposed to be getting from any of this.

Already the expected fat but stern, lovable and quirky female character has popped up in the form of a nurse-turned-baker.

I’m still going with it. It’s under 300 pages and it’s not awful. For a decidedly more effective, less colourful, romantic and quirky take on Cuba see When in Cuba, a photography feature by Boogie on First Magazine. If you like what you see there check out the rest on his website (click on “Cuba”).

What a difference a new (to me) contemporary poetry collection makes. Reading Walcott has led me to new ideas about the different forms of poetry collections, how they’re arranged, specifically, and how that influences my reading. It reminded me what a lot of work it is. I’m (pleasantly) forced to do minute analysis that I don’t do when reading novels (though I probably should but, argh, so many words and stuff! :p). I marvelled again at the big ideas that a poet would do his best to encompass and convey in a single page. Sea Grapes was not the only collection capable of doing this but if one is going to acquire new perspectives it’s best to do so with remarkable poems rather than bland ones.

Did I mention it was hard? Not that I should overstate things but I found his poems more difficult to close read than those in, say, Louise Glück’s Averno. There are still poems in her collection that I find opaque but it’s more due to the fact that I haven’t given them my full attention; and I feel that, once I find the right starting point,the poem’s other points will become readily apparent or more accessible, based on past experience. With Sea Grapes‘ poems I may find one entry point and follow that path to the end (if I’m very lucky) or part way and then have to step back and find another path in and another until I feel satisfied with what I’ve gleaned. Each poem is like a maze with several pathways to the end but in Averno the walls between the different routes are more permeable. Which is not to say that Walcott’s poems don’t work as unified wholes but he puts a lot into them and almost always chooses to do so with varying degrees of subtlety and complex interlinking. If I read a poem, like “The Virgins”, and got the main gist after about two or three readings — not close reading just repetition to get the poem’s basic sense — in one sense it didn’t feel like a Walcott experience. What? I’d think to myself. Must be some kind of trap here…he’s lulled me into complacency.

I’ve properly read the collection’s first five poems which worked as a loose group for me. They all have strong, obvious Caribbean connections where as the next few poems shift to New York, Europe and the Christian creation myth and I could see thematic connections but could not quite get into their situations; you’re working with my current, incomplete take on the book.

The book’s title is taken from the opening poem. Because of that I use it as the collection’s epicentre and when reading other poems, endeavour to find out whether they develop ideas, references or images in “Sea Grapes”. Averno worked differently: the title poem was placed in the middle as a kind of climax with various peaks before in the poems about Persephone, her mother and Hades. This realization has made me seriously consider the wisdom of buying “selected” editions without first trying the complete versions. Anyway, on to “Sea Grapes”.

That little sail in light
which tires of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean,
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry;

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy lost its old flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

A sea grape bush grows near beaches in tropical climates in the Caribbean area. It can withstand a high amount of salt and so is often planted to stabilize beach edges. It’s also edible and good as jam. And with that you’re immediately put by the sea, a setting that permeates the first few poems in this collection and courses through much of Walcott’s poetry. He works to establish the island image in the reader’s mind, particularly Caribbean ones, and then investigates how its past and present affects both his and the reader’s perspective. He does this through literary and biblical references, playing on assumptions and stereotypes (inverting and reversing them including his own expected role), working with contrasts and, in some moments, making a straight play at trying to encompass and define in words intangible, revelatory, powerful moments. There will be many similes to help readers out and Walcott is very careful in shaping our focus with word and verse length and rhythm to create effects that develop the poem’s meaning.

Note the diction in the first two stanzas. Walcott quietly builds the scene with short lines filled with one or two syllable words. They are tight, compact, focused until he starts to explicate his feelings. The third stanza acts as a transition and the rest are expansive with longer lines, longer words, less commas so that the less uninterrupted rhythm coerces us to break down his meaning rather than be caught up in stark images (although there is the “blind giant” near the end). The poem ends in brevity.

The enjambments in the first three stanzas help to compact meaning while still effecting a flow of continuous thematic development. The first break puts “home” with the “home-bound” Odysseus; his more appropriate “longing” for family contrasted with his adulterous one for Nausicaa (which is a departure from Homer’s The Odyssey if I’m remembering it right). He forges connections with other word arrangements as well with “Caribbean”, “Odysseus” and “Aegean” all at the end of successive lines.

One has a clearer idea of what techniques Walcott uses to convey a topic that’s discernible after a couple of reads. Observing the schooner sailing Caribbean waters reminds him of Odysseus’ ship sailing the Aegean. The ancient Greek’s own experiences of attempting to reconcile his familial obligations with his own desires reminds Walcott of his own conflict, one that partly lies with the Homer epic itself — the love he has for Western European art when his existence and residence was brought about by that region’s greed and inhumanity. It is “[t]he ancient war/between obsession and responsibility” taking place “under snarled sour grapes”. This frustration is why he describes the boat as being tired of its surrounds, so anxious to leave its “beating up” the water to get home. This projection of his interior mood on to the external objects is something that will pop up in subsequent poems.

The word “war” is a little jarring in the leisurely setting (yes, I can’t help but see it that way, there’s a guy chilling on the beach after all) and the fierce turmoil the word conveys also works against the poem’s quiet. Earlier on, I pointedly mentioned that Walcott “quietly” created various scenes because the entire poem appeals strongly to sight but not to sound. It has a banked quality, a restrained subtely that is broken only when he mentions a “gull’s outcry”. For me, though, that word isn’t a particularly sensual choice. This silence helps create a tension that is broken in a later poem. The adjective “ancient” before war is more important because it solidifies that link between now and the past and interjects the idea that Walcott’s problem is not singular, perhaps not even unique, for it “has been the same/for the sea wanderer or the one on shore/now wriggling on his sandals to walk home”.

Although the poem at the end conveys defeatism, as a reader, when I see such dour thoughts develop into such a beautifully evocative passage –

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

– it’s an optimistic moment, despite the bald, final statements that follow. There will always be a separation but it can be bridged if not erased.

Next: Walcott’s Frederiksted trilogy

Alive

Posted on: April 13, 2008

Yes, yes I’m still alive but am busy and also, frankly, not in a blogging mood. This will change as soon as I figure out how to write my first post on Walcott — I must string comments on a few poems together in a way that makes sense and doesn’t bore me to tears. This is harder than it sounds, at least for the first poem in the collection, Sea Grapes, as I find myself coming up with the tired “Walcott’s-conflict-with-mixed-heritage” yadda yadda which is probably all right but my thoughts on the other four poems are so much more interesting. And that may be because they take on and develop bits of “Sea Grapes”. If all else fails I’ll read what others have said as it seems to be one of his popular poems.

There is not much new, reading wise, as it is end of term and exam season so I had and still have a lot of glorious marking to look forward to. Undergrads always seem to have a lot of drama around this time too so I had to deal with one student who had a panic attack over a late assignment and another who came in asking for help on a topic but who ended up in tears about a boyfriend who made her “feel like shit”. Mmmmhhhmm. Worst, the Science student-run food shop is now closed so I no longer have access to 45¢ doughnuts or $1.00 Arizona teas.

Villette is now an odd companion read with the Walcott for he is very restrained and subtle, careful, while Lucy has just escaped from mental torment including suicidal thoughts — my goodness! How did the Victorian readership react to that? — as Volume I ends with her physical collapse on a strange street during a storm. It seemed a bit much after Walcott’s brief, laden lines on Sunday Lemons.

Brontë’s anti-Catholicism is also bothersome because it looms so largely in the story. For a moment or two I spitefully wished Lucy had succumbed to a priest’s kindness and ended up on her knees in a Carmelite nunnery in the Italian hills somewhere so I could point and laugh.

I’m having a harder time of explicating anything on contemporary prose. I finished a Dubus and the latest from Lydia Millet but cannot put anything down neither on screen or paper. A re-reading ought to fix things but I’m reluctant to do so for, in my impatience, I long for more and new not to go over the old. And I belatedly recall that I have Dreaming in Cuban to read for Slaves of Golconda, due at the end of the month. (I’ll probably reread. I’m less concerned about the Dubus than the Millet because on one level I enjoyed it and got what it was going for, more or less, on another there’s a stubborn gap between us. Listening to her Bat Segundo interview did not bridge it although it did cement the first impressions I had. Also, fun!)

Reading the World 2008 (via Literary Saloon) is here so if anyone needs ideas for translated reads (especially Chinese literature) do have a look around the site. The latest Bookforum (which had scads and scads of uninterrupted (ie no ads) fiction reviews in which I blissfully rolled around) reviewed one of FSG’s selections for the initiative: The GIrl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret, translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston. The best surprise this issue was the review of Rudy Wurlitzer’s latest novel The Drop Edge of Yonder, his first in 20+ years. I read a novel excerpt of Nog (to be reissued in 2009 according to the review) in The Paris Review No. 38 and my interest in eventually reading his fiction never faded. Another Paris Review contributor’s book is with Reading the World: The Corpse Walker by Yiwu Liao, translated by Huang Wen, published by Knopf, and one of the books I am sure to get (along with The Diving Pool).


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