Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Campfire Radio Rhapsody, by Robert Earl Stewart

There are many ways to show courage through poetry. Some poems dare to let their beauty arise through the gaps in meaning, in the lacunae they create to thwart our immediate understanding. Others dare to say something outright, to take the risk of making bold, definitive statements about some aspect of the world, to conjure that whiplash snap of recognition in the reader’s mind.

Robert Earl Stewart, in his new collection Campfire Radio Rhapsody, has both of these types of poetry covered. But what makes this book unique – and delightfully chilling – is the third type of courage it shows: the courage to process explicit acts of violence through a keen, well-honed poetic eye and then lay them bare for the reader. Whether summoning the mentality of a Siamese cat on the hunt (“I’m a 300-pound puma and I pounce/ on a rat and its intestines bloom/ from the furry cavity like a pink carnation …”) or relaying the human-wrought horror of an abattoir (“The pig screams for mercy, as the screw draws near/ busting gristle, popping skulls,/ using a brisket against flesh in an orgy/ of grinding and juice …”) Stewart is not afraid to make his readers squirm. There were times when this collection left me with an unrecognizable, inscrutable sense of unease. And I mean that as a compliment.

Stewart wears many hats in his life – he is a parent; he has worked as an editor for a small-town newspaper; he sings in a band called Waker Glass – and he brings many of these experiences to bear on his poetry. Campfire Radio Rhapsody maintains a precarious balance between its moments of explicit violence and its more implicit instances of tenderness, acting, I suppose, as a receiver for life’s more extreme ends of the spectrum.

Contrast, for example, Stewart's poem “The County Reporter” with his poem “Not Yet, Thomasin.” The former is about the everyday carnage that a small-town journalist can encounter in the line of his work. In part 2 of the poem, labeled Wave Pool, he describes with Ballardian accuracy the destruction of a car crash – “She removed some paperback novels/ and a tartan blanket dripping with kernels of windshield/ from the back seat ...” and moves on to the powerful image of a horrendous death:

And now, with your Buick glacially still
in the stifling corridors of corn, struck down
just north of the Dairy Freez, just south
of the last place you drew breath,
I snap the shot that will become synonymous
with your death: the dull grey hood rippled
in curtains of impact …

Compare this with “Not Yet, Thomasin,” a piece about the poet watching his sleeping son have a dream. It’s such an affectionate moment between father and child (but again, laced with an undercurrent of disquiet) as the speaker learns what his boy was dreaming about:

but he remembers his dream:
his little sister turning into a balloon and floating away,
and how he caught her and brought her back down
to his side

And he is not devastated by his dream’s
power … but rather, seems buoyed
by the assurance he’s gained in his ability to be
the protector; the boy who anchored his sister to the earth.

The fact that this collection can straddle so successfully two such disparate moments – one of cataclysmic devastation, one of familial innocence – speaks to the breadth of this poet’s abilities, his fearlessness in tackling a wide range of subjects along the frequency of life’s experience.

Whether unbraiding a brief anecdote or exploring a lengthy childhood memory, Stewart shows a well-groomed talent in nearly every stanza. Campfire Radio Rhapsody, with its mix of the gentle and the vicious, is full of small joys and larger meanings.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry

Oh, Stephen Fry. It takes a certain kind of genius to write a series of memoirs and still make the reader feel welcome even if he hasn’t read them in order. I’m certainly in this boat, not having encountered Fry’s earlier autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, before cracking the covers of his latest tome, The Fry Chronicles. No matter. Fry, that famed British actor, author, and exuberant ambassador of the sublimities of a life of the mind, is so adept at turning a phrase or unwinding a story that you don’t really mind the missing context. You’re in it for the roller coaster ride of his language.

The Fry Chronicles picks up where Moab left off – at the tail end of Fry’s adolescence, where he, among other things, spent time in prison for credit card fraud and is now pleading his way into a life of higher education. The memoir is framed around a fascinating conceit: each chapter and subchapter uses a word or series of words beginning with the letter C (Comedy Credits, Church and Chekhov, etc), a tipping of the hat, I suppose, to the word ‘chronicle’ or perhaps his alma mater, Cambridge, his time at which making up a significant portion of this book.

One could argue that The Fry Chronicles is a tad overwritten, but again, Fry’s love of language warrants a lot of forgiveness. Not many writers could get away with a 15-page description of a childhood addiction to candy, but Fry does it with aplomb. Or take this passage, illustrating the simple pleasure of lighting a pipe:

The sulphurous incense tingles in my nostrils as I tip the lit match at an angle over the bowl and then slowly flatten it out. Each inhalation sucks the flame downwards over the prepared tobacco which fizzes and bubbles in welcome, its moist freshness imparting a thick sweetness to the smoke. Finally, when the whole surface area is lit and just before my fingers burn, three flicks of the wrist extinguish the match. It tinkles as it hits the glass of the ashtray … I am puffing now. One, two, three, four, five draws on the pipe, smacking the lips at the side of the mouth. Each hard suck stokes up the boiler so that, on the sixth or seventh pull, I can breathe in a whole lungful.

The book details his brief period as a teacher at a private school, his time at Cambridge where he discovered his theatre bug, his early years cracking into England’s stage- and TV-acting scene, and his ascent from poorly paid participant in the highbrow arts to an increasingly wealthy player in England’s burgeoning celebrity culture. Along the way, Fry forges important relationships with the likes of Emma Thompson (clearly the most successful actor he went to school with, having gone on to win two Academy Awards), Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, and all manner of behind-the-scene kingmakers in London’s TV and film industries.

Fry also gives us a window into the budding obsessions that accompany his growing wealth. Some, like his fascination with the emergence of personal computers and their various technological accoutrements, are benign and even charming. (The scenes of he and Douglas Adams getting together like teenaged boys to play with their latest high-tech acquisitions are very endearing.) But when Fry starts to purchase several cars, a house in the country as well as a flat in London, and other trinkets of grandeur, we begin to worry about him. The introduction of cocaine into his life, near the end of this memoir, becomes the obvious and ominous next step in this progression.

One criticism that I do have about The Fry Chronicles is that Fry spends too much time undermining his own celebrity in the name of self effacement. It gets dull, very quickly, to read him downplaying himself and his accomplishments in comparison to Atkinson, Thompson and others. Even the captions for the book’s photos are full of pot shots at his behaviour and self image. It’s not that all of it is unnecessary, but its disingenuous persistence does break an unspoken covenant with the reader: we clearly know Fry is a big deal – otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this book – so can’t we just leave it at that?

Another pain point for me was the ending. It’s one thing to begin the second volume of a memoir in medias res; it’s another to finish it so abruptly, and under the presumption that he will not only write a third volume, but that we will read it. The final scene in The Fry Chronicles has him snorting cocaine for the first time and then closes with this: “I did not know it but this was to mark the beginning of a new act of my life. The tragedy and farce of that drama are the material for another book. In the meantime, thank you for your company.” Needless to say, I felt a little ripped off.

Having said all that, The Fry Chronicles is, on the whole, a wonderful read and a fascinating window into the mind and life of one of England’s most appealing public figures. For my money, this autobiography holds its own with the likes of Little Wilson and Big God and Are You Somebody? two exemplars of the memoir form from the U.K.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

I first learned of Richard Russo’s work back when I living in Korea. At the school where I taught, his novel Nobody’s Fool got passed around among the teachers faster than the flu. I remember it being a hugely funny, expansive novel full of richly drawn characters and an intricate plot – something reminiscent of the best of John Irving. The consensus seemed to be that Empire Falls was an even better book, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading it.

Empire Falls is certainly more expansive. Its central character is Miles Roby, a 42-year-old man who runs the Empire Grill in his small hometown in Maine, having turned his back on his education and a promising future 20 years earlier. Life has grown increasingly tough for Miles in the intervening decades: his wife Janine has recently left him for a much more virile man; his daughter Tick may be suffering from anorexia; his small town of Empire Falls is rapidly dying as all of the jobs move south; and Miles, forever gentle to the point of being spineless, is still beholden to the obscenely wealthy old woman who owns the diner where he works and most of the rest of the town, Mrs. Francine Whiting, whose family history is intricately tangled up with Miles’s own.

Russo is a big proponent of not only omniscient narration but also of the omniscient author: he has, like Irving, no qualms about playing God with his characters and with the entire world he creates for them. A lot of readers may find this old fashioned, but it can be a refreshing change of pace if you’ve been reading a lot of narrowly focused, minimalist fiction recently. Empire Falls is, in nearly every paragraph, a novel about the American way of life – how capitalism and the pursuit of personal success can bleed into every other crevice of existence: your family, your religion, your self image, your very humanity. Russo uses a wide canvas to paint his themes of self reliance vs. co-dependence. Empire Falls is long and tangential, regularly skirting off to provide lengthy backgrounds for secondary characters or descriptions of the history of Empire Falls itself. It’s an enriching experience to let yourself get carried off by the depths of Russo’s vision and to immerse yourself in the world he has created. It will feel infinitely real and entirely plausible.

Still, there are a number of things that undermine this book. Chief among them would be some fairly lazy, clichéd writing that Russo allows to seep throughout the text. I’ve spotted lines like “Mrs. Whiting also radiated … a sexuality that was alive and ticking,” (shouldn’t it be alive and kicking?), or “…young Zack, another apple that hadn’t fallen far from the tree …” or the cringeworthy “… his head and body aches had returned with a vengeance …” These clichés are signs of an author on autopilot, a writer too preoccupied with the big picture to concern himself with the importance of making every line, every sentence fresh and original.

The other issue I had with Empire Falls is how many of the secondary characters, while richly drawn, often lack multidimensional motivations. In short, some of them are just plain evil. Miles’s father Max is a near perfect portrait of a mooch; yet he’s missing even the slightest hint of a redeeming quality. Miles’s “soon-to-be ex-wife” Janine is flawless in her vanity and self-centredness, never truly cluing in to how her ambitions are damaging those around her, and her comeuppance near the novel’s end is never in doubt. And Mrs. Whiting is like the embodiment of pure evil, to the point where we never gain access to any modicum of her humanness.

But despite these flaws, Empire Falls redeems itself in the end. As Miles finally shakes off the yoke of his weaknesses and takes action to save his daughter from an explosive tragedy at her school, Russo shows himself to be in full command of his grand vision. The novel’s multitudinous loose ends tie up in satisfying ways without coming off as contrived. You walk away from Empire Falls feeling like the author has given you a portal into an entire world, one that had a grand design behind it the entire time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Review: The Italian Girl, by Iris Murdoch

As I pointed out last year in my review of her novel The Black Prince, I came to Iris Murdoch’s work with a completely unwarranted perception of it –unwarranted because I had hitherto read exactly nothing by her. Something about it being dry, prim and claustrophobically British. Of course, The Black Prince blew the wheels off that prejudice, and her 1964 novel, The Italian Girl, does it again. I’m not sure where I acquired my stupid bias of her work, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Iris Murdoch was one of the cheekiest and most daring writers of the 20th century.

The Italian Girl is a marvel for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it takes a premise that is easily one of the most clichéd in literary fiction and makes it fresh and new again. Her straight-laced and teetotalling protagonist Edmund Narraway has just returned to the home of his estranged family following the death of his mother, Lydia, and while there confronts all manner of strife conjured up by his bizarre kin and troubled past. How many novels and short stories have we seen built upon this exact narrative basis? Yet Murdoch knocks the cliché onto its boot heels by eschewing the dour, introspective tone we’d expect for a biting, caustic humour, and by plotting the relationships between her characters so carefully.

The stand-out here is Edmund’s brother Otto, a stonemason who has descended into alcoholism (a fact revealed, hilariously, during Lydia’s funeral, when he explodes into an inappropriate laughing fit), a force of nature in the household, a man with large appetites and a tenuous grasp on reality. As one character describes him: “He’s primitive, gross. Otto’s the sort of man who’ll pee into a washbasin even if there’s a lavatory beside him.” Edmund soon learns that Otto is cheating on his neurotic wife Isabel with a promiscuous young girl named Elsa, who is the [correction - sister] of Otto’s apprentice, David. This fact leaves the prudish Edmund thoroughly aghast – but oh, if only it ended there. It is soon revealed that Isabel, by way of strange irony, is cheating on Otto with David. If that were not enough, poor Edmund also learns that his niece Flora, the daughter of Otto and Isabel, is also having a love affair with David, and in fact has fallen pregnant by him. If that were not enough, Edmund, against his reserved and conservative nature, finds himself sexually attracted to Flora, and is manipulated into helping her acquire the abortion she so desperately needs. And if that were not enough, there is also the question of Lydia’s will and how much of the old lady’s vast estate she has left to whom.

The centrepiece character in this grand farce is, of course, the “Italian girl” of the title, a woman named Maria 'Maggie’ Magistretti, the household’s long-time servant and nursemaid to Lydia. She is nearly an anonymous presence in the house, and just one in a long line of indistinguishable Italian girls employed to help Lydia raise Edmund and Otto when they were small. And yet, Murdoch grants her the best bird’s-eye view of all the machinations and back-stabbing going on as the novel unfolds. It is strongly suggested that Maggie, in fact, had had, at some point, a lesbian affair with Lydia. This should make the novel’s big reveal at the end – exactly whom Lydia has left her wealth to – contrived and predictable. But it doesn’t. Murdoch is so skilled with her humour, with her nuances, with her pacing, and with her keen sense of story, that we allow this novel to lead us anywhere we want to go.

The Italian Girl is a masterstroke of setting up an expectation of predictability and then knocking it askew in sublime, delightful ways. Even the novel’s theme – the redeeming bonds of family, the conflict between obligation and rational self interest – is handled expertly and in fresh ways. This novel reveals a consummate professional at the very height of her powers. It’s an entertaining read, through and through.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Back home

Well, vacation is over and I've safely returned to the ensconcements of my Toronto routines. England was lovely - 11 days of travelling around London, Oxford and Manchester seeing the sites and taking in the fun and beverages all around us. Highlights including watching a Tom Stoppard play in London, visiting the International Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester, visiting the British Museum, pretty much all of Oxford, and drinking at least three or four pints of proper English ale every night. Oh, and Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolates. Yes yes, I know we can get them over here, but they're not the same, I swear. The milk is different over there, or something.

Speaking of addictions, I had a little run-in with a wonderful condiment called clotted cream. It's supposed to be eaten on scones but I was prone to munching the stuff clean off the knife. Considering it's about 60% pure fat, I'm glad I was able to leave it behind.

There were shockingly few developments waiting for me upon my return, I'm disappointed to say. But I'm looking forward to getting back into the grind: working on a new essay as well as some poems and some reviews. Will keep you all posted if there's any news.