Yet another dog book — not!

Mark DotyMark Doty’s Dog Years is just simply a very beautiful book. It’s beautifully written, beautifully molded. It’s an exciting book because Doty CAN write dogs in such a way that they are totally believable as the animals they are (which relies on close and loving observance), he also makes clear and meaningful human attachment to dogs (which takes introspection and careful autoethnography which doesn’t assume we all have the same kind of relationship with them). He has melded in this book a light touch on politics and cataclysm (he lived through 9/11 in New York and the death of a partner with Aids), relationships with humans and animals, his own career and commitments as a writing teacher and poet, and his homes and travels. Writing plus relationships (with humans, animals and place) plus politics and clear unapologetic sensibilities. The resulting work is seamless, which is so impressive. If I go back to the other books I’ve been reviewing (see Dogs x 3) they all slightly disappoint me because they come down heavily on one aspect of emphasis (fact, science, overly personal, journalism tone, idiosyncratic forgive-me-for-my-style, to be rough on books I have nevertheless liked) but Doty does exactly what I aspire to as a writer who crosses genres — gets the combination so right it’s dazzling but subtle.

Often authors who try to combine different genres of writing resort to fragmentary styles or interlaced chapters which do the one type of writing or concern and then the other and even though this distinction is clear to the reader as an interpretive method, it often feels clunky. Doty has chosen the interleaving method where each chapter is followed by an entr’acte (“between the acts”) in italic. But instead of signalling “here is real life” in non-italic, and here’s the instrospection on it in italic, we get a mixture of all kinds of sidebars which deal in a multitude of interesting details, thoughts and commentary. So as readers it doesn’t feel like we’re taking heavy treads through the book — right foot, left foot — so much as inhabiting a very interesting head — Doty’s — as he makes his way through a multifaceted story of many losses and many gains.

It’s a beautifully constructed book which treats a reader with respect and has an expectation that this reader brings intelligence and humanity to their reading. Now for his poetry…

Form-fitting, brain-bending theory

FormsI’m not going to apologise for being overly excited at what I think is a highly original and unusual contribution to thinking, analysing and being political emanating from literary theory. And I’m not going to apologise for the feeling that because this contribution speaks directly to some frustrations I’ve had living in this world of research, theory and analysis, that I might be overstating its case. Towards the end of last year I read Michael Wood’s review in the London Review of Books of Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Despite the review, I was intrigued (maybe ensnared) by the subject matter and set out to find the book which took quite some determination before I actually located it online and managed to buy it.

I then waited a bit once it arrived because it felt like this book was going to open up something important and I didn’t want to spoil it, or discover I’d been wrong. But I so wasn’t wrong about it. However, at the outset I need to say that Caroline Levine is a literary theorist steeped in Victorian writing (and this is the soil which provokes her thinking but doesn’t contain her range of ideas), I, on the other hand am a shameless magpie with an interest in the literary, a job in media studies and a weariness about grand theory (especially now that we’re living through another revolution and still talking the same talk of the previous ones, as though more and louder will be the trick).

So how to start? Continue reading

‘I found myself here’

Billy Kahora from Brittle Paper
Billy Kahora left home to study in another country at the end of school because he and his parents could not see a future for him in Kenya. His parents wanted him to go to the US but it was expensive and a year studying there would cost the price of a degree in South Africa, so he came to Rhodes. His parents were keen for him to get into urban planning, but Billy chose journalism, English and politics. Visiting Rhodes last week he said to a class of writers: “I found myself here, trying to find a form.” Continue reading

Hello Oulipism

I’m not a fiendishly-addicted word games person (not much of a Scrabble fan, but do like Dictionary and games that involve invention and quite a bit of clever cheating) but I am a person who is very suspicious of the way writers talk about inspiration, their muses and the way their characters take over their writing, so Oulipism — which is brand new to me but maybe not to you — holds quite a bit of interest for me.

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A while ago, on a trawl for books for my book club, I happened to buy Georges Perec’s A Void (an entire novel written without the letter e, first in French and called La Disparition and then translated into English) and found it to be great fun — not a single book clubber agreed and the book remained in the club unread until I retired it. It was, however, a curiosity until I encountered a piece by Paul Grimstad in the London Review of Books (Vol 34 No 23, 6 December 2012) about Oulipism as a writing movement started, of course, in France. Continue reading