Monday, January 26, 2015

Five (or More!) Books You Shouldn't Read This Year!

19-5-27* was the combination of my Master Lock in high school--19 Surefire Secrets! 5 Must Do Stretches! 27 Shortcuts To Staying in Shape! No thank you,  I don't subscribe, but I do love the predictable covers of self-help magazines. Oodles of lists on how to achieve fitness, sexual allure, and great abs (it really is all about one's abs, isn't it?). Be honest: did you even know what an ab was the first time you saw this dipthong in print? The writers' mags are just as bad. Recently I saw "22 Ways to Develop a Character" with an exclamation point; tough to imagine Henry James reading that article. Then there's the intriguing possibility of Foreign Affairs using the same technique to grab your short-term newstand attention: "16 Ways to Win Back the Eastern Ukraine!" or "The 22 Top Republican Fantasies About Benghazi!" Lots of traction there. Or the staid Economist: "Jamie Diamond's Top Ten Ties Worn When Testifying Before The House Banking Committee!"

Dear Reader: it irks me that Talented Reader doesn't have a catchy cover with lots of numbers and fake advice to arouse your interest. What do we offer you but idiosyncratic reviews of books, mostly without plot descriptions (and books mostly without plots)? We're yearning for bigger sales, an income stream, six-pack abs. So here we go: but not, of course, with any positive advice about improving your health, diet, exercise regime, or even your literary life. No, we'll take the low road and instead of pushing you toward five books that you MUST READ! this year in order to be happy, sexy, and slender, we'll suggest five plus books that you should avoid, books that you have been told are worth your time but which are--take our word for it--a waste.

--All poetry by John Ashbery. And while we're at it, any article, book, or statement by Helen Vendler on JA or any other poet. Or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books (I've cancelled my subscriptions) those paeans to Ashberyism. The Ashbery industry is one of the great literary scams of this or any other era. Think Robert Service, hallucinating.

--Don't bother reading the Michael Chabon novel you were planning to read, whichever one it might have been (aside from Wonder Boys). My guess, which is worthless, is that the likeable and competent Mr. Chabon yearned for NYT bestseller success and renounced his literary passion after the publication of Wonder Boys. All that has followed this amusing second book has been unlikeable--meandering plot-thick stories about loveable eccentrics (Kavalier and Klay, Yiddish Policemen, Telegraph Hill) whose adventures have a comic-book quality and little that is sustaining. I loathe loveable eccentrics.

--Admit it, you promised yourself that this would be the year you read ALL of Norman Rush. I've recently recovered from NRism--months of slogging through Mating and Mortals, and even, god help me, Subtle Bodies. Don't do it. Halfway through Mortals (which is Mating and therefore confusing) it occurred to me that I hate all novels about White People in Africa, almost all novels about adultery, and most novels that confuse personal anomie with the great crimes of imperialism. Read Achebe instead.

--That copy of Portrait of a Lady gathering dust on your bedside table? Or, god help you, The Golden Bowl? Or some novel or other by G. Eliot or Dickens or Thackeray (Vanity Fair!) that you "just can't get into"? Just let it go. Ego te absolvo. Not all of us are cut out for Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit (e.g. me). My old friend Trustman read all of Dickens, every last word, while walking her dog. Can you imagine the strength of character this took? Admit it: you're weak, you'll never have a six-pack, killer thighs, or finish Middlemarch. Be like me. Join a Recovering from Victorian Novels group. They're everywhere--check the Yellow Pages. Or read Lydia Davis while detoxing. You're basically a good person.

--To wrap up, I'll offer broad advice for the book-lorn that has helped me:

Instead of Murakami, read Oe
Instead of The Brothers Karamazov read The Idiot
Instead of War and Peace (that swollen clunker) read Anna K (really, it's all right, sort of like admitting you don't really like whole wheat bread)
Instead of Eliot and Pound read Hart Crane
Instead of all those tedious and over-hyped Javier Marias novels read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. In fact, go Portuguese this year. Try Antunes' Fado Alexandrino.
Try Henry Roth instead of Philip, Richard Yates instead of Junot Diaz, Perec in place of Le Clezio, Jean Strouse's brilliant biography of Alice James instead of yet another book about George Washington or T. Jefferson, and by all means read all of Kawabata Yasunari. "Twenty-Seven Things I Learned About Life From Reading Snow Country" is a cover story you won't ever see, but that's the way it goes.

And, by the way, the notion of "training easy and running fast" is utter nonsense. Ask Dennis Kimetto, whose face you will never see in "Runners World. "

*How fun to begin a sentence with a numeral!

George Ovitt (1/26/15)

Monday, January 19, 2015

An Artist of the Green World

Marie NDiaye, Self-Portrait in Green

--Dedicated to Neal Tonken

Green with envy, green with inexperience, a green thumb, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, "the force that through the green fuse," "nature's first green is gold," greener on the other side, "eat your greens," greenbacks, The Greening of America, well-tended greens, the green room, given the green light, green around the gills (?): I could probably find lots more phrases on-line but won't waste the time looking. Green chile. The point is that greeness as a state of being (sometimes) implies life and vitality and renewal. Other times it doesn't, or does so in a way that is quite indirect. Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo was an early fascination of mine--he could coax life from the earth and a laugh from the Captain equally well. And though I now live in the brownest of states, I grew up in the Garden State, opulent shades of green for six months of the year back in the days when our planet still had seasons. But green has a bit of menace about it as well--the life that percolates at all times just below the surface of the earth and which is awakened around the time of the vernal equinox is a great mystery and more than a little overwhelming to consider. Green might be hope, but it is also power, menace, yearning, and death.  Jack's climb up the beanstalk; the kudzu that chokes all greens to brown; the sad inevitability of green's fading...this, though not green, is greenish:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather. 

Maria NDdiaye, the Senegalese-French winner of the Booker Prize, the precocious novelist-playwright who published her first book, Quant au riche avenir, when she was seventeen, is a stylist of grace whose special power lies in the realm of dense atmospherics achieved through minimalist portraits of her characters and vaguely sketched plots. Poetic language in the service of that which is obscure--this is surely the point of Self-Portrait in Green, a novella whose quiet and cumulative effects have little to do with the conventions of story-telling and as much to do with what is left unwritten as with what is written. Women dressed in green, or with green eyes, or who evoke that which is green--or, to be honest, who mostly suggest what isn't green at all but shades of gray and black, colors of mystery, uncertainty, and sadness. See Wallace Stevens.

Mia Weinberg's "Green Painting" depicts movement and density with a minimal palate and few breaks in the monochromatic field of color. The blot of red/brown at the top of the painting breaks apart the sequencing of shades of green--from near yellow to near black. A gradation not unlike the flow of linked stories in Self-Portrait in Green. The rising waters of the Garonne River introduce a note of menace; the first woman of green appears as an apparition visible only to Marie, the narrator. This woman, perhaps the ghost of another green woman, blends into a landscape of banana trees like a figure in a painting by Rousseau. "Is she waiting for me? Does she somehow resent not being seen..." Being seen, being known, is one of NDiaye's central themes, both in SPIG and in another of her books that I am reading, All My Friends. In the greenest of Self-Portrait's plots a complex triangle emerges--husband, wife, and the former lover of the husband. Something unspeakable happens to the wife--or does it? It isn't clear what is being seen and what is being imagined or dreamed. And the resonance of this event colors the other stories: the author's father marrying a green woman and then disappearing; the author's mother in two wholly different shades of green, one resplendent and the other fading to black. Other greens include the green eyes and green trousers green souls of women who are known to Marie or a part of Marie herself, her voice at times a drone, as monochromatic as the single hue of a drive through Provence in mid-summer.

But why green? Why a novel that examines the hues of this ambiguous color? Why color at all? One might think that color would matter extraordinarily to a woman of African descent who lives in a European country (NDiaye now resides with her husband and children in Berlin). Yet Self-Portrait isn't a political book, or a book about race; insofar as it is "topical" this is a book about gender, about a woman's invisibility, her despair (perhaps her suicide), her reinvention, her coming back to life season after season. Perhaps that's it, the greening of Marie--her rebirth and death and birth again. As the Green Knight allows himself to be decapitated to prove a point (Arthur's court isn't the paradigm of morality that it pretends to be), so too do the women who are shades of Marie NDiaye endure invisibility and worse in order to unmask the lies with which women live. Or perhaps not. This sounds sententious and false. The truth is that there is a puzzle at the heart of this small book that has eluded me. It's beautifully written but as opaque as the color that lies at its center.

Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at:

 Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, is published by Two Lines Press out of San Francisco. They also have published All My Friends and other titles translated from the French.

George Ovitt (1/19/15)

Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at:


Monday, January 12, 2015

This Mutilated World


Without End by Adam Zagajewski

A collection of collections, Without End includes poems from various collections of Zagajewski’s poetry, including New Poems, Early Poems, Tremor, Canvas, and Mysticism For Beginners.

Here is a small sampling of what you’ll find:

Good Friday in the Tunnels of the Métro

Jews of various religions meet
In the tunnels of the Métro, rosary beads
Spilled from someone’s tender fingers.

Above them priests sleep after their Lenten supper,
Above them the pyramids of synagogues and churches
Stand like the rocks a glacier left behind.

I listened to the St. Matthew Passion,
Which transforms pain into beauty,
I read the Death Fugue by Celan
Transforming pain into beauty.

In the tunnels of the Métro no transformation of pain,
It is there, it persists and is keen.

Song of an Emigré

We come into being in alien cities.
We call them native but not for long.
We are allowed to admire their walls and spires.
From east to west we go, and in front of us
rolls the huge circle of flaming
sun through which, nimbly, as in a circus,
a tame lion jumps. In alien cities
we look at the work of Old Masters
and we recognize our faces in the old
paintings without surprise. We lived
before and we even knew suffering,
we lacked only words. At the Orthodox
church in Paris, the last White
gray-haired Russians pray to God, who
is centuries younger than they and equally
helpless. In alien cities we’ll
remain, like trees, like stones.

Try To Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish  yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland in 1945. Considered one of the “Generation of ‘68” or “New Wave” writers in Poland, he has written numerous collections of both poetry and prose. He lives in France.


                                               Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nigerian Nightmares

Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole

Not a novella, nor a travel book, Every Day is for the Thief (EDT) is in fact a collection of brief yet poignant ruminations on the absurdities of modern Nigeria. But "absurdities" is wrong: what is the word one might use to describe a society so dysfunctional, so indifferent to the amenities of ordinary civil life? Every one is a thief: extortion and violence are chronic; poor people--the vast majority of Nigerians--are stoical in the face of absent public services (water, electricity, transportation), but then they have to be stoical since there is no government from which one might demand redress. The nameless narrator--a medical student from Brooklyn--whose life story appears to be Cole's own, visits Lagos, thinking of perhaps moving back to the country of his youth. There's not much by way scene setting, or character development, nor is there any plot aside from the daily shock of moving through a society that has its collective hand held out for a bribe, or which appears to be overseen by workers with narcolepsy (at the National Museum, the most depressing chapter in the book).

I couldn't help but think that the capitalist ideal is something like Cole's version of modern Lagos: a society based on naked self interest, a social fabric torn by extortion and bribery, indifference to the poor, a flow of wealth inexorably upward to the kleptocracy whose role it is to rule a people it despises.**

A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l'a need. It means 'all we need is the general idea or concept.' People say this in different situations. It is a way of saying: that's good enough, there's no need to get bogged down in details. I hear it time and again. After the electrician installs an antenna and all we get is unclear reception of one station, CNN, instead of the thirty pristine stations we were promised, the reaction isn't that he has done an incomplete job. It is, rather, we'll make do, after all idea l'a need. Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception?

Resignation is rooted in cultural despair--what's the point of caring when there's no hope of a better life? I've seen something of this attitude in parts of Mexico and Central America and even among acquaintances of mine in poorer parts of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. "Take things as they come," or "Go along to get along" are variations on idea l'a need. What was difficult for me in reading EDT was making out the narrator's, Cole's, view of the matter: was he rueful, angry, detached, despairing? As you can see from the snippet above, the prose of the book is flat and plain--here's the way it is, Cole seems to say, believe it or not.

What I wanted to know as I read the book was what a fellow Nigerian would think of this description of his country. I can't imagine a white European or American selling a novel to Random House at whose center was such a dismal portrayal of an African nation--there would have to be mitigating circumstances; irony, or a focus on political failure (blame the institutions rather than the people--the liberal's escape from responsibility), but be sure to preserve some sense of the noble spirit of the long-suffering population. And the guilt would have to be rooted in European colonialism. Teju Cole make no such charges or adjustments. He is unsparing in his condemnation of his countrymen:

Nigeria's disconnection from reality is neatly exemplified in three claims to fame the country has recently revieved in the world media. Nigeria was declared the most religious country in the world. Nigerians were found to be the world's happiest people, and in Transparency International's 2005 assessment, Nigeria was tied fro third from the bottom out of the 159 countries surveyed in the corruption perception index. Religion, corruption, happiness. Why, if so religious, so little concern for the ethical life or human rights? Why if so happy, such weariness and stifled suffering? (142)

Helon Habila, the Nigerian author of Oil on Water, wrote a review of EDT for The Guardian which offered no deep objections to the pessimism displayed by Cole.

"Cole is searching for what he describes, using an image from Tomas Tranströmer, as a "spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces … " Sometimes one wonders if the narrator is looking hard enough, or in the right places. One wishes, sometimes, that the storyteller would take a detour from the well-trodden middle-class avenues, the museums and art centres, and shine his prospector's torchlight on the backstreets and hovels and tenement houses written about elsewhere by Ben Okri and Cyprian Ekwensi. Lagos is a city that stirs up ambitions not only in the writer, but also in the reader. And one feels that this writer will be back with more on this exhausting, but still unexhausted city."

What is the city of the future? Is is New York, an unaffordable Disneyland of consumption, or Lagos, a teeming and disintegrating metropolis of the poor and desperate?

It's difficult to judge Every Day is for the Thief by ordinary literary standards. The book hardly seems to contain any of the attributes of fiction. Taken with Open City, Cole's first, rather more traditional novel, EDT is a coming-of-age story; an account of awakening to the world. I can't point to any real "pleasures" in reading EDT, but only to the sobering facts of the how things have become in the greater world--the world of the majority. Remember the illusion of "flatness"? We were all to saved by computers, according to Thomas Friedman. Well, guess what? In Nigeria computers are used to scam credulous Westerners out of their money. Welcome to the Revolution, the flattened world of the dream merchants.

The way the world is turning now, Lagos will be our collective future--crowded, polluted, corrupt, and ungovernable. Not so much a fiction, but a blueprint, a prophecy, a nightmare come true. Cole isn't our Tolstoy--he's our Jeremiah.

**See Jeff Madrick, Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World, just published by Knopf.

George Ovitt (1/4/15)