With a dexterity that belies the complexity of what she’s dealing with, Alison Bechdel limns the challenges of her relationship with her mother in her most recent work, Are You My Mother? I am not ordinarily a fan of the graphic genre, but the subject matter of this memoir caught my attention, since I am myself working through similar issues, although in my own case my mother passed away some three years ago. When I called the bookstore to request that they put a copy aside for me, I asked the clerk for Am I Your Mother? Understandably, he was not very successful in finding said book: after several minutes of him searching fruitlessly, I thought I would look it up again on the internet only to confront my “mistake” – embarrassing, amusing and all Freudian. Bechdel draws – literally and figuratively – on Freud’s theory of the unconscious as she explores the difficult relationship she has with her mother. Donald Winnicott and Alice Miller join Freud as sources of wisdom, not to mention Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. The drawings are superbly detailed and, surprisingly for someone as word obsessed as myself, provide as satisfying a source of information as her words.
At the start of the year I was unfortunate enough to witness a man commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge in a ravine I used to walk in daily. I have not been able to return to the ravine and have been trying to write myself back to a place where I can begin to make that daily pilgrimage to what was the bedrock for me of “the trivial round the common task.” Walking to and through the ravine in the morning was how I began my day – it is exactly two miles from my home to the end and back. In this essay, which has become my life line – my bridge, if you will – across a chasm created by witnessing this suicide, I am exploring several ideas, one of which the British poet Stevie Smith succinctly captures in her poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” where we confront the ambiguity of actions. The man on the bridge that fateful morning so many months ago was not exercising as I had thought, but was preparing to jump. Or, perhaps, he fell, which brings me to Nobel Laureate Albert Camus’ La Chute (The Fall), which I am reading in translation. In this work Clamence, the protagonist, crosses a bridge at night and passes a woman who falls or jumps off the bridge. He neither looks back or attempts to help. The Fall explores his motives and the results of his actions or, more accurately, his inaction.
Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, edited by Ted Goosen and Motoyuki Shibata, is a useful introduction to Japanese writing with a breadth that includes poetry, manga, and fiction post Fukiyama. The interview of Haruki Murakami by Hideo Furukawa is generous and provokes further thought around ideas of the representation of history in the novel, as well as the novel’s relationship to time and history.
a corpse in the koryo (an Inspector O novel) by the pseudonymous James Church is what I call my “veg out” reading, almost always done while lying in bed. Set in North Korea, the location is the reason I keep reading, despite it being slow going sometimes. Church, “a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia,” has fashioned in Inspector O a sort of anti-hero detective who, with a great sense of irony, works within yet athwart the system. I won’t necessarily go looking for another book by Mr. Church, but getting an insider’s view of how crime investigation works in North Korea, all from the jaundiced viewpoint of an Inspector O, keeps me plodding on.
Rereading Return of the Gods reveals powerfully how timing can make such a difference to how we understand and receive books. I first read the book several years ago and missed all that appeals to me now. Ulli Beir, the author, interviews the German artist/sculptor Susan Wenger who left Germany in 1959 and went to live in the town of Oshogbo, Nigeria. There, she was very quickly initiated into one of the priestly societies and began over time to work to preserve the grove sacred to the Yoruba river deity, Oshun. Wenger argues that “art is an archaic language.” She felt that her work functioned within a religious context and in so doing served “the same purpose as ritual, in that it (could) help one to overstep the boundaries between physical and metaphysical life.” She argued that the aesthetic concepts of the West are “merely a substitute for these other things about which we no longer permit ourselves to talk.” As I engage in a process of understanding my own work, Zong!, which has been described as a conceptual work, but which I know to be that and much more than that, this albeit modest book continues to feed those ideas.
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