Literary Review

A Strange Democracy: Frank McCourt 1930-2009

frank-mccourtAlthough Frank McCourt will be remembered as a writer, that career, begun in retirement, eclipsed his lifetime's labours as a teacher in New York. His memoir of a flea- and rat-infested childhood in 1930s Limerick, Angela's Ashes, seemed to annotate an earlier, Dickensian kind of poverty, and was largely responsible foe the industry known as "the misery memoir." His was the first, but few that followed in his wake were as refined, and as eloquent, as his particular distillation. In a debut, unflinching and unrelenting, the classic combination is harnessed. A down-trodden Irish mother, a drunken patriotic father, dead infant siblings, and the uncaring influence of the Catholic church.

Jazz Words & Images

Bisceglia_DalachinskyReaching into the Unknown 1964-2009 by Jacques Bisceglia/Steve Dalachinsky (RogueArt) French jazz label RogueArt, which has issued twenty CDs, has branched out into jazz books. The first was Logos and Language: A Post-Jazz Metaphorical Dialogue, an interesting little volume wherein poet/critic Steve Dalachinsky interviewed avant-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp about the philosophical/spiritual underpinnings of his creativity (with photos by Lorna Lentini). Dalachinsky's second project with RogueArt is way bigger, a 429-page collaboration mixing poetry and photography.

Cross-Cultural Collisions

Waguih_GhaliAfter a Funeral by Diana Athill (Ticknor & Fields) Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali (New Amsterdam Books) Diana Athill turned 91 on December 21, became an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours List, and were that not compliment enough has now been announced as the deserving recipient of the Costa Award for Biography for her astute account of the progress of age Somewhere Towards the End.

Highs and Highs

sempe

Jean Jacques Sempe
(Phaidon

Sweetness is poison. There is probably not a more horrible epithet to throw at any modern artist -- in any field. The word conjures up fields of Hallmark sentiments draped in saccharine emotion and as light as a souffle rapidly collapsing. In short, sweetness sucks. Big time.

Beyond The Pomp: Sir Reresby Sitwell 1927-2009

Sir Reresby_SitwellThe passing of Sir Reresby Sitwell brings to a close one of the most eccentric and diverting chapters of English lives and letters. His father Sacheverell, his Uncle Osbert and Aunt Edith were considered outlandlish heretics in the 1920's, that generation's equivalent of literary punks. Their patronage of the young composer William Walton resulted in 'Facade' which consisted of Edith reciting her uniquely eclectic verses through a megaphone as Walton's music skipped and shimmered, the first performance of which ended in an actual riot of disapproval.

Commonplace Exceptions

marvin-cheeseman

 Marvin Cheeseman
We Hate It When Our Ex-Lodgers Become Successful
(Cheers Ta Publications)

A sense of fun is all too often absent from poetry. It doesn't have to be difficult or elitist, but humor is mostly seen as a disadvantage to the high-minded, a case of letting the side down. Marvin Cheeseman is a poet who thankfully has been letting sides down with laughter and tremendous aplomb for years. His work has been featured on the BBC, TV and radio. He's even been name-checked by the Ting Tings. A perfect collision of a pop sensibility with a wry twist on the everyday.

A Grain of Universes

house_of_leaves"House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon) If you don't enjoy dark and disturbing sojourns into the foreboding unknown, then, in its own words, this story is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are willing to be infected and possessed by a book that will reach out and crawl under your skin as it draws you into the emptiness opening before you, then grab your measuring tape and head to the nearest bookstore.

Winter and Some Discontent

kathleen_farrellMistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell (Rupert Hart Davis) It was a brave move by Kathleen Farrell (1912-1999) to position her first novel (published in 1951) over those few portentous days known as the Festive season. Such a particular setting doesn't bode well for a long life on the shelves, the literary equivalent of a good melody marooned on a Christmas record. Her book employs the classic country house setting of an Agatha Christie, where a group of perfectly disagreeable people assemble under one roof. In Farrell's case, all could murder each other, but don't, they merely scratch, bicker, and add to the overall misery of their daily lives, supposedly in the name of celebrating Christ's birthday.

A Man of Few Words

mick-imlahMick Imlah 1956-2009 The poet Mick Imlah, who died on January 12, was a writer of immense concision and talent, but one with a scant regard for the sense of urgency. Compiling just two poetry collections in twenty years, evidencing the respect and effort of his devotions, provided the world with a legacy of rare worth. It has also left his readers with a profound awareness of pleasures unknown, unrealized, and denied.

John Updike 1932-2009

updike460I must confess I never read any of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels. Nevertheless, upon the news of his passing, I felt a yawning hole open. His essays, his short stories (many of us have probably been force fed his masterful A & P in school, it still stands as a portrait of teen angst to rival Rebel Without a Cause), and, interestingly, his poems set him apart, above so many other writers. In the age of the sentence, which we seem to be mired in, he was a crystalline master, if not the master.