Non-Fiction

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin coverA true Soviet Story by Fabien Nury et Thierry Robin (Titan Comics, 2017) (Original pub. France: Dargand, 2012) Now a film directed by Armando Iannucci.

Fiction?  Non-fiction? The difficulty of telling the stories of the Soviet Union.

“Although inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless as work of fiction..having said this, the authors would like to make it clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation…since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events.”

In this novel as in the authors’ statement and as in the Soviet Union, it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.  By writing “fiction” Nury and Robin avoid the need to decide what is true. There is almost no other way to go, as they pull this “true” story from “historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory.”  As always, it is tough for an outsider to know how convoluted and dangerous life was in both the government of the U.S.S.R. and in the opposition. I have written about The Yidanother fictional and satiric take on the Stalin’s death.

Strong (a derogatory word) leaders always leave a huge hole when they depart, and this version of the story focuses on the jockeying for position as a hole is opening. The shadowy world is drawn in shades of brown and grey, just occasionally punctuated by a red highlights: a dress, a pillow, the fabric around Stalin’s coffin.

The story is framed by a classical radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, featuring the soloist, Maria Yudina. Stalin calls the radio station asking for a recording of the performance, which had gone out live and was not taped.  Quickly, the orchestra is detained in the studio, and when they are asked to record the piece, Yudina refuses to play for Stalin.  She is bribed with 20,000 rubles, and then the conductor collapses too scared to carry on.  A second conductor is forcibly brought in by the police, in the middle of the night, and when the recording is done, Yudina, forces a note into the package with the record that the NKVD have come to collect. Stalin gets the note, reads it, and it tells him that Yudina will “pray for him” and that she will “donate” the money she was paid “to her parish for restoration work.” Immediately after he reads the note, Stalin has a massive heart attack.

The rest of the story is the negotiations and underhand manipulations that the Central Committee go through to figure out who succeeds the Georgian as Party Secretary.

It’s well written and dramatic and revealing of how decisions are made when there is no centre of power. But the idea of what is true, is central. The final image is a two-page spread of two parallel scenes. Beria is being executed,. He wonders if anyone will believe that he is guilty of the murders he is accused of, while at the same time, Yudina tells a joke about him, where a NKVD officer is crying in front of the mausoleum, and his colleague asks him if he is OK. The crying man asks, “Is it true that they arrested Beria?” The other man replies that it’s true, and the crying man says, “He raped, my daughter.” The other man replies, “Your’s too.” Beria is on the left-hand page, Yudina on the right, and at the bottom, across both pages a brick wall and a cloud of dust, and speech bubbles, presumably from Beria, say, “They’ve washed their hands in my blood…and now…they want to start afresh, to look ahead.”  The final bubble alone in the cloud of dust from the bullets that kill him, “towards a glorious future!”

Read it.  See the film.

It may seem distant in geography and in time, but these are the ways of our species.

In Russia, nobody’s laughing at Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin

Advertisements

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads

Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads Graphic

A Graphic Novel by Nick Hayes  (Abrams Comic Arts, 2016)

Woody Guthrie is to some the Walt Whitman of the depression making his way through the America that is perpetually left behind by politicians and business, and if that is the case, his Dust Bowl Ballads  are his Leaves of Grass. Guthrie wrote so fast that his songs are a record of his life and the people he met along the way.  A voice of ordinary people, life and sdturgugle in a way his obvious successors Dylan and Ochs could  never be as they came to their songs, and in Ochs case activism, in full awareness of what Guthrie had already sung and said.

Nick Hayes’ biography of Guthrie and the songs is drawn in the style of woodcuts washed in sepia with the lettering that feels of that time.  Hayes is a succinct and talented storyteller who draws the reader through the life and takes one to the places and brings to life the people that inspired the lyrics.  The sadness and persistence of subsistance seep into your bones–and Woody Guthrie is speaking to our time–so many people struggle to make ends meet, others feel left out and ready to blame others, and those us who are better off feels helpless in the face of the hateful despising espoused by too many in authority.  Government is either trying to make people’s lives worse or seems helpless to make anything better.  Business is using labour to make untold profits while paying as little as possible with no sense of the role of business is part of society. Steve Earle caught this feeling back in 1997 (Here him at Woody’s 100th birthday party in 2012.

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now.
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow.
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help us out.
Come back Woody Guthrie
To us now.

Review from The Guardian

Sarah Manguso

MangusoCheck out, Sarah Manguso.  Her website lists her books, and connects to lots of her articles.  Is what she does “prose poetry”? Probably.  But it doesn’t matter. It’s phenomenal. Tightly written short pieces.  Often autobiographical.  She has re-awoken my interest in prose poems.

Prose

300 Arguments (Graywolf, 2017)
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015)
The Guardians: An Elegy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s Books, 2007)

Poetry

Siste Viator (Four Way Books, 2006)
The Captain Lands in Paradise (Alice James Books, 2002)

Kaizen Applied to Writing

Sarah Manguso:

“The Japanese term kaizen translates literally to improvement, but it’s a term that has come to mean gradual, continuous improvement of a piece of collaborative work. It’s most commonly associated with manufacturing operations, but I think it has general application to almost everything, including writing. In companies that implement kaizen, workers look continuously for small improvements that can be implemented immediately. The philosophy was developed to adjust the work process from its traditional practices, back when making a new iteration of something was laborious and had to be done all at once.”

Last Things by Marissa Moss

Last Things Marissa Moss Cover (2)

An uncredited reviewer in Publishers Weekly writes: “Deeply affecting and harrowing… This is not a sentimental story of how suffering ennobles people.  Moss’s deliberately naive drawings effectively accompany her painfully direct text…The fact that the family does endure is impressive, and this book demonstrates how art can transmute suffering into literature.”

S/he is right on the mark.  Moss is a successful children’s author best known for the Amelia’s Notebook series has written and drawn the most grown-up of books.  When her husband, Harvey, is diagnosed with ALS, he becomes more and more distant from the family, and there is no easy resolution to their relationship or his illness.  This is not an illness story where everyone becomes a better person, but eventually, as Moss writes in her introduction  it is about the “strong bonds of family and how they can sustain us.”

Everything about the book brings home the situation they find themselves in. Like life, it has to be lived, and like life, there are ups and downs: many, many downs.  Moss is clear-eyed about what the disease is, what it does to Harvey, how she and the kids react.  In a way, this with the clear text and the expressive drawings and varied and inventive design of the pages to suit to the story would be enough.  But what makes this a great book is that alongside the story of the family and the illness,  There is more. Beyond the day to day, there is the life of the mind.  Of connecting to the thoughts and history of humanity. For Harvey, a professor of medieval art, this involves hanging on to his intellectual journey trying ever more desperately to finish his book Picturing Kingship on King Louis IX’s personal prayer book.  He cuts himself off to write his last work.  King Louis is christian, the family are Jews. And for the family it is Judaism and life-cycle events of a bar mitzvah and later on sitting shiva for Harvey when he dies that locate the mundane in a wider world. Human beings live, love, struggle and die, but our minds put this all in the context of humanity.

Book Trailer:

Review from The Forward
Washing Post article about the Jewish aspects of the book
Publishers Weekly review
Kirkus Review

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Just listened to HMMaMG on disc. Its a rock memoir, but Brownstein is not glamorizing Sleater-Kinney or her life.

People know Carrie from Portlandia .  From her previous career as a musician in Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag. This story of her life up to the final S-K show in 2006.

She begins Chapter 1 by writing “I’ve always felt unclaimed. This is the story of the ways I created a territory…something that could steady me, somewhere I belonged.” Something many people feel on some level. The first quarter of the book is growing up in Bellevue, WA.

She formed a band in 11th grade called Born Naked: “We agonized over band names (though clearly not for long enough).

After high school, she dropped out of Western Washington U and  moved to Olympia, WA and was deeply immersed in the music and art scene.  Bands like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill were inspring her.

The book moves through the different stages of Sleater-Kinney and Carrie’s relationship and friendship with Corin.  The details are a joy to read if the music means something to you, but if it doesn’t Brownstein draws the reader deep into the punk life and aesthetic–the make do, the camaraderie, and because of the relative success of the band, she is able to tell the story about how that very basic view of the world expands as success draws the outsiders back into itself.

The book doesn’t really get on to Portlandia, but as Brownstein says in the interview that is a bonus on the disc set, her description of life in Olympia is where ideas and material for the IFC show comes from in part.

Reading this along with Viv Albertine’s book brought back my sense of the late seventies early eighties, however much I was drawn to this music–especially female voices, X-Ray Spex, Penetration, Siouxie, the Slits–I only touched on the life as I moved through the world of fringe theatre rather than music.

http://pitchfork.com/artists/29213-wild-flag/

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

29340182The penultimate paragraph of Shrill begins: “My little victories–trolls, rape jokes, fat people’s humanity–are world building. Fighting for diverse voices is world building.” and the last paragraph is “We’re all building our world, right now, in real time.  Let’s build it better.”  Lindy West has spent the last several years writing loudly, and shrilly towards that better world,and many people have had to stand up for their behaviour because of her work.  At the same time, and nothing she is asking for is more than common decency, she has been thoroughly vilified on social media and even in regular media.  It seems that all this has made her stronger and more determined, and this book is testament to her fortitude. She is has written for Jezebel , The Guardian and The Strangerthe alternative newspaper in Seattle.  And despite all this work, I hadn’t really noticed her until This American Life told the story of how she met with one of her trolls.  She has been trolled out of all decency, in ways that truly make you wonder about a whole section of what I struggle to call humanity with vile threats and insults.  It is impossible to write this without feeling that trolling has become central to our daily lives under this current regime–but that is another story–listen to the segment, and see if you don’t feel disgusted and realise that there can be humanity behind that anger and that somehow, the rest of us have to be as brave  as West is in speaking out minds, in speaking out when one human insults and dehumanizes another.  She has, understndably, left Twitter, and social media is the poorer for her absence, but if Twitter and the other companies don’t trolling and other similar abuses, we will all leave for something that allows us to build a better world.

Shrill-Title

The Arab of the Future 1 & 2

indexarab-of-the-future-2-cover

l_arabe_tome_3_couv

To be published in US/UK Sept. 12, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TThese  are  the memoirs of Riad Sattouf’s childhood. He was born in France, but when his father graduates with his doctorate, they move first to Libya, and then to his father’s homeland, Syria.  The series was originally published in France to a mixed reception. The son of an Arab father and a French mother, Sattouf is often seen as anti-Arab. At the same time he s admired and seen as a master of graphica up there with Spiegelman, Satrapi and Sacco.  He has the hard satirical stance that worked for his regular column in Charlie Hebdo.    Sattouf has come to fame recently as the only Arab contributor to Charlie Hebdo, at the time of the massacre.  You can read more about him and the controversy around this book–some people find him racist and insensitive, others are great admirers.

These are full integrated graphic works.  The drawings are essential to the storytelling.  The people are cartoonish– each character’s nose is the most prominent feature. Despite the simplicity of the drawings the characters thoughts and feelings are clearly communicated.  A nice touch is that even though each the format is basically black and white, each country has it’s own colour wash: France is blue, Libya is yellow and Syria is pink, with the occasional object in full colour. Abdul-Razak (his father)’s radio is red. Gadafi, and portraits of him and his green book are green and the soldiers’ berets, when they get to Syria are deep red.

New Yorker
New York Times review of AotF
New York Times review of AotF 2
Guardian AotF
Guardian AotF 2
Arab of the Future website