July 26, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 7

Saving Angelfish, by Michele Matheson

“Saving Angelfish” is a character study of a Hollywood junkie at the end of her rope. Michele Matheson describes the low life in L.A., the desperate days of her junkie heroine, in prose that is childlike, innocent, angelic, and that conveys the allure and impossibility, the otherworldly kick, of a good high.

This book is not heavy on plot. The main line of suspense is whether someone or something will arrest Maxella Gordon’s downward spiral. Matheson spares no details in describing Max’s gutter life of heroin dependency and sickness. I never read any William S. Boroughs but, honestly, I have a hard time believing he could have written anything more raw than this.

I was lucky to meet Michele at this summer's Tin House workshop. She is charming and hilarious and, not that this is a standard for literary reviews, but she deserves all of her success. Hurry up and buy her book already!

July 24, 2007

Kapuscinski's Legacy

On cue, as if the splashes in this blog had made a ripple in the world, the editors of Tin House have published dueling essays about Ryszard Kapuscinski in their current issue.

Steve Almond, lined up to defend our intrepid Polish foreign correspondent, doesn't dispute the errors in Kapuscinski's reporting. Instead, he celebrates Kaupscinski's dedication to the noble mission of increasing the West's understanding of Africa. Fair enough.

Binyavanga Wainaina makes a narrower, and to my mind stronger, point. He first notes Kapuscinski's ability to turn out brilliant work. In "Another Day of Life," comprised of early Kapuscinski reportage from Angola, Kapuscinski is "a writer of profound and careful wonder."

But then Wainaina reads "The Emperor," about Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie, and it all goes downhill. "The Emperor" is filled with factual errors, the most notable being Kapuscinski's description of a Selassie aide whose job is to wipe the pee from the dictator's dog off the shoes of visiting dignataries. In fact, Selassie treated his guests with respect, and would not have let his dog degrade them. So, what are to make of a writer who, apparently deliberately, gets this wrong?

There are other mistakes, if you can call them that. Kapuscinski says Selassie was "no reader" when in fact he studied the Ethiopian and Western canons and held a profound esteem for reading and learning. Kapuscinski says he never signed anything when the opposite is true. Wainaina demonstrates that Kapuscinski has given the reader a caricature of Selassie, the African Dictator Stereotype in place of the real and more complex person. Wainaina argues that "Shadow of the Sun" is similarly beset by cliches about Africa and its people and it is hard, in the end, not to wonder how much a simplistic and inaccurate impression of Africa adds to our understanding.

Almond and Wainaina both tacitly acknowledge the power of Kapuscinski's writing. Whether he was nailing it in "Another Day of Life," or phoning it in in "The Emperor," the man could write. Kapuscinki's writing is always spare and beautiful, devoid of sentiment, full of grace and power, and it casts a spell. I read "Shadow of the Sun" mesmerized by that spell. It's interesting to note the power of good writing to seduce the reader.

The question that comes to my mind is, "What was Kapuscinski thinking"? Granting that he got so many fundamental facts about Africa -- his life's subject -- wrong in "The Emporer" and "Shadow of the Sun," the natural question is, What was going on upstairs?

Wainaina says Kapuscinski's mistakes reveal his state of mind. He suggests that Kapuscinski may have believed the cliched myths he propogated about the African rulers he profiled. Wainaina describes the idealistic rulers of African nations who, in the 80's and 90's, "self-orientalized" and came to "believe their own bullshit completely." (I'm paraphrasing slightly). "Their parliaments and other institutions that regulated them let them get away with murder," Wainaina says, "by mindlessly validating not just the good they did, but everything they did."

The implication is that the Kapuscinski of "Shadow of the Sun" is one of these enablers, a writer whose critical days are behind him and who is only calling in the company line.

I'd like to know. I wish it weren't too late to sit down with the old man, read him one of the passages that Wainaina quotes, and ask him what he thought. Was history in Africa really, as he said in "Shadow of the Sun," "free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data"? Had history really achieved, in Africa, "its purest, crystalline form -- that of myth"?

July 17, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 5

You Are Not a Stranger Here, by Adam Haslett

Judging solely from the story "Vincennes," which he read at last year's PEN/Hemingway event in Washington, D.C., Adam Haslett is working on a second collection of amazing short stories. In the meantime you can read "You Are Not a Stranger Here," his first collection, published in 2002 and out in paperback from Anchor Books. All of the stories in this collection are confident masterpieces of the form, the kinds of stories Chekhov might write if he woke up to find himself among us.

Which, you have to admit, would be pretty weird, for Chekhov to rise from the dead and start writing Adam Haslett stories.

Will all of these pocket reviews be of paperbacks? you ask.

Mostly, yes. These are reviews of whatever I happen to be reading, with little more design or intention than to put down whatever thoughts I have about them, and I read mostly paperbacks. Also, these are "pocket" book reviews, so it makes more sense they would be of paperbacks.

How did we get off on this tangent?

Good question. But I will say that the word that comes to mind after reading "You Are Not a Stranger Here" is "fine." These are fine short stories. Fine, fine.

July 4, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 4

Travels With Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

When he was a young correspondent, Ryszard Kapuscinski left Poland for his first foreign assignment in with a dog-eared copy of Herodotus’ “The Histories” as his only field guide. Kapuscinski’s idea for this memoir -- the last of his collections of essay and reportage -- was to describe those early travels with the father of literary travel writing, to place his early experiences in the shadow of Herodotus’ stories.

It was a lovely idea, and reading Kapuscinski is always a delight. But I have to say that this one didn’t quite seem to work as well as Kapuscinski might have intended. The early chapters, when Kapuscinski first sets off, are delightful, and of course Kapuscinski quotes the best parts of “The Histories.” He also finds some connections between Herodotus’ classic and his own adventures. But if you’ve read Herodotus before, and “The English Patient,” and seen the movie, the idea and the material will seem a bit familiar.

In the end, though, Kapuscinski turns the story toward something more personal, and more meaningful. As if he were Homer, conjuring his muse to sing, Kapuscinski writes a kind of love song to what it means to be a foreign correspondent, that is, a journalist charged with traveling to and reporting from a foreign place. The last chapter of the book is wonderful, and Kapuscinski’s final descriptions of Herodotus are the closest he comes to autobiography. When he describes Herodotus as “a vivacious, fascinated, unflagging nomad, full of plans, ideas, theories,” he is, of course, talking about himself.