Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg), by Natalee Caple

The vicissitudes and vagaries of the life of Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) form the basis for this 2010 collection by Ontario poet Natalee Caple. Tapping into a rich tradition in Canada of postmodern books that conduct a poetic rendering of an actual historical figure, Caple assembles an assortment of fragments, missives, interior monologues and other ephemera from Strindberg’s troubled life. The result is a sly, hagiography-free lens into a fascinating and fraught character. The added twist here is that Caple has actually re-imagined this infamous playwright as a woman in disguise.  

Strindberg experienced periods of both dizzying success and heartbreaking failure over the course of his career, and much of his life on display in The Semiconducting Dictionary is punctuated by his obsession with his first wife, the Finnish actress Siri von Essen. Caple strikes a good balance in this book between matters of the heart and matters of career, exploring Strindberg’s insecurities in each camp. They coalesce into what is probably the book’s strongest poem, “The Playwright Interviews Herself to Stave off Loneliness.” Here Caple writes:

What do you want?
To be a famous playwright whose plays run day and night
everywhere in every language. 
What is the greatest misfortune you can imagine?
To be without Siri and unable to write. To be unable to write.

The grandiosity of Strindberg’s vision for and of himself unwinds in this and other poems as his talents and self-image fail to live up to his ambition.

What works less successfully through this book are poems that project a rawer infatuation that the playwright felt for Siri. In pieces like “Ours [Siri]” and “She Leaves Me,” I was left with the sense that Caple was dancing up to the line of cliché and sentimentality, that she was perhaps foisting too much of her own personal emotion onto a fictional construction.

Still, there’s no denying that this book possesses a queer and original power. Whether the gimmick of turning this notorious woman-hater into a woman himself works will be left up to each individual reader. But the versatility and lyric beauty of Naple’s vision is enough to make this collection worth checking out.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Just a short review of this big, brilliant book—not only because I’m pressed for time but also because longer, better reviews of this book can be found elsewhere. Let the Great World Spin won both the National Book Award in the States and the International IMPAC Literary Award, and deservedly so. McCann has written rich, fragmentary tale focused on the twin themes of love and loss.

The interwoven tales within Let the Great World Spin coalesce around a real historical event: tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s improbable journey on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City one morning in 1974. McCann’s novel could almost pass for a hefty collection of interconnected short stories: each section of the book has its own protagonist whose life intersects with the novel’s other protagonists in startling ways, and each is related to or affected by Petit’s walk,  a stunt that really awakened the city to both its lost and future greatness.

McCann takes several risks in this book, chief among them killing off two pivotal and meticulously drawn characters early on in a horrendous car crash. How those deaths reverberate throughout the lives of the remaining characters provides much of Let the Great World Spin’s emotional heft. The tragedies that unfold are shadowed by the inevitable reality of what is to become of those twin buildings looming on New York’s skyline. 9/11 is only referred to in the book's coda, but the reader will bring that emotional baggage into the book from page one.

This is also a very thorough portrait of a New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. The city was in full decay in 1974, and McCann captures the rampant crime, drugs and danger that seemed to contaminate every street corner at the time. The city becomes a perfect mirror for the troubled lives of his characters.

A challenging but wonderful book, Let the Great World Spin has helped to establish McCann as A-list material in terms of New York’s current literary scene. I’ll definitely be pursuing more of his work in the future.  

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

There is often a blurring of the lines, with creative types, between manufacturing the conditions to create art and manufacturing the art itself. I suppose it’s inevitable that we expend a disproportionate amount of energy shaping the circumstances in which our creativity can flourish. And of course, should those circumstances not match our idealized (romanticized, fetishized) view of them—well then, that just explains the reason for our failures, and our fury. Dammit, if only I had a different job. Or no job at all. If only I had a supportive spouse, or no spouse at all. If only the critical culture out there was more in tune with the type of art I create. Maybe if my children, my parents, could just respect me more as an artist. If only I had a room of my own. This mentality, it seems to me, is bourne out of the notion that circumstances create artistic propulsion, rather than the other way around. I often need to remind myself that this kind of griping, if left to fester, will privilege the lifestyle of an artist over the art itself.

These issues seem to rest at the heart of Claire Messud’s controversial new novel The Woman Upstairs. It tells the story of Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge Massachusetts who holds pretensions toward the life of a working artist. Nora feels she has sacrificed her dreams by comporting herself to various societal pressures and expectations—the chief one being the responsibility of looking after her mother as the woman dies of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yes, Nora is bitter and angry that her life has worked the way it has, that she is “just” an elementary school teacher and devoted daughter and sister, rather than the fiery creative genius she imagines herself to be. These feelings are aggravated when she meets the Shahids, a family visiting Cambridge from Europe for a year. The patriarch of the family, Skandar, is a visiting professor at Harvard; son Reza becomes a student in Nora’s class; and mother Sirena is everything Nora wishes she herself could be—a full-time working artist with a respectable following and reputation.

Messud brilliantly captures Nora’s inner world as her infatuation with each member of the Shahid clan grows. There is something a bit Single White Female about her obsessions, but Messud is wise to have Nora cast herself as a kind of Alice Munro-esque protagonist struggling to cut her way through all the expectations weighing on her to achieve the life she wants. There is even a part when Nora channels Munro when she hears her mother’s chiding whisper in her ear: “How dare you, Mouse? How dare you? Who do you think you are, Mouse? Who do you think you are?”

So what kind of idealized vision does Nora have for her creative life? Messud portrays it spectacularly, melding together a perfect devotion to creativity with a frothy, flawless domesticity:

If you asked me, upon my graduation from high school, where I’d be at forty … I would have painted a blissful picture of the smocked artist at work  in her airy studio, the children—several of them, aged perhaps five, seven and nine—frolicking  in the sun-dappled garden … I wouldn’t have been able to describe for you the source of income for this vision, nor any father to account for the children: men seemed, at that juncture, incidental to the stuff of life. Nor did the children require a nanny of any kind: they played miraculously well, without bickering, without ever the desire to interrupt the artist, until she was ready; and then, the obligatory and delightful picnic beneath the trees. No money, no man, no help …

What’s conspicuous about this passage is not just the absence of a man or a steady paycheque (conflated here, as creative women sometimes do, into a single monolithic unit) but the absence of the art itself. We aren’t given even the slightest glimpse into what this fetishized version of Nora is creating. And it is this absence, I found, that provided the novel with much of its narrative drive. The book is less about Nora coming to terms with herself as it is with her coming to terms with the nature of her subject matter.

Of course, her art does have a shape: it takes the form of dioramas of some of her favourite female heroes—Dickenson, Woolf and other solitary figures. The “smallness” of these works are meant to juxtapose the enormity of Sirena’s massive installations. The two women end up sharing a studio space together, and Nora is able to feed off Sirena’s creative force even if it imbues her with jealousy and frustration. Messud takes us step by step through Nora’s infatuations, first with Sirena and Reza, then finally with Skandar himself. To say more would be to reveal various undulations of the plot.

There were times, unfortunately, where I felt that plot took too much of a backseat to vague ruminations and interior monologues; there are large swaths of The Woman Upstairs where nothing much actually happens. Messud does give us a potent view into the complexities of Nora’s character: on the one hand, she is narcissistic and self obsessed; on the other, she has a deep and abiding altruism and generosity toward the needs of others. But the narrative spends too much time in these places and not enough time in the action of the story.

What saved this novel for me, though, is the various small revelations that Nora encounters as her story progresses. Her mother, it turns out, was not the powerless housewife she imagined her to be. Sirena’s relationship Skandar is far from perfect. And, most importantly, her subject matter is one that can obsess her, that can transcend her romanticized notions of the artistic lifestyle.

There is no denying that this is a powerful and well-envisioned novel that captures perfectly a kind of self regard that feels so prevalent to the 21st century. The Woman Upstairs is a deeply contemporary novel that reflects back the darkness and the light of ourselves as we try to shape our own worlds and how we define the meaning of success.  

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: It’s Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems, by Jeanette Lynes

It was so nice to finally get around to reading a full collection of poems by Jeanette Lynes. I’ve seen her verse around literary journals for years and have always been impressed by her output. She strikes me as a poet who revels in her own versatility, her ability to hit her subject matters from a variety of angles. She also strikes me as a poet unafraid of having a bit of fun on the page.

Both of these attributes are apparent in It’s Hard Being Queen, a kind of poetic rendering of the life of Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, better known to the world as Dusty Springfield. Lynes’ approach to capturing this crooner’s 60 years of turbulent existence is unapologetically linear but nonetheless engaging. The collection takes us from her early days in England, making her own recordings and trying to convince her family she’s destined for greatness, to the various vicissitudes of American show business and popular culture.

One of the focuses in the early part of the book is Springfield’s notorious perfectionism. Lynes captures this best in “The Producer’s Poem” when she writes:

If he had hair
he’d tear it out.
Hour nine, she records
the same syllable again,
again, again. She makes her art
one syllable at a time and it
hurts to watch …

Such methodical obsession could be applied—as Lynes no doubt knows—to poetry itself.

It’s Hard Being Queen walks us through Springfield’s initial rise to fame as well as her subsequent collapse into obscurity. Lynes captures this fall from grace in such aptly titled poems as “Some Things She Did for Money” and “How To Be Born Again (in the Secular Sense)” with its cheeky queries, “Have the fan letters the flowers/ stopped? Do your shoulder pads outsize/ your bank account?” The collection then leads us through Springfield’s improbable comeback, which culminated with Quentin Tarantino’s inclusion of her song “Son of a Preacher Man” on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. With strokes of small genius, Lynes braids the film’s relentless violence with Springfield’s animosity towards the journalists who once again pay her attention:

She knows them, they’ve been calling
her fat and bent and lost for years,
their meat-grinder words pressed
into scandal-shaped patties.
She’s often wished them
gruesome ends.

As the collection comes to its close, one must inevitably ask: Is this hagiography? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. To be fair, there are times when it feels like Lynes is a bit too enamoured of her subject. She has a tendency to place Springfield on the right side of every situation, every dispute or flare of tension in these poems. Yet her ultimate goal is to gain a prismatic view on the life and career of this celebrity, and this is a goal she achieves. I never once felt like Lynes was telling me what to think of Dusty Springfield. There is a enough wiggle room in these pieces for a reader to come to his own conclusions.