Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Hill of Doors" by Robin Robertson (Picador, 2013)

There are several "after Ovid poems. Not my type of thing. And several other other poems hit my blindspots: "Flags and salutes" is very minor. Ditto "A & E", "The dead sound", "Port na h-Abhainne". "Tillydrone Motte" reads like an easy-going autobiographical, nostalgic article. He also looks back at life/childhood in "A childhood", "Fugitive in London" (telegraphed punchline) and "The key" (an ending I've seen before).

"Under Beinn Ruadhainn" reminds me of "The Lammas Hireling", but more prosey. "The Dream House" is all plot, some predictable. It should have been flash fiction. The last line is good. In "A Quick Death" we're given a figurative description of a lobster with a compression that belongs in a poetry book ("a clacking samurai in lacquered plates"), then we're told that the lobster's in a restaurant fish-tank, a worthwhile twist. But the punch-line's a let-down - "it's the same for us in the end -/ a short journey: eyes first/ into the fire".

There are recognisably poetic fragments, but too little momentum, too much that's competently routine -

  • "cats crying that dreadful way they have,/ like the sound of babies singing/ lullabies to other babies" (p.7)
  • In "The Fishermen's Farewell" "Their long stares mark them apart ... And down by the quay/ past empty pots, unmended nets and boats:// this tiny bar, where men sleep upright/ in their own element, as seals."
  • "Frontera, she said,/ pointing in all directions./ There was nothing there." (p.29)

Other reviews

  • Adam Newey (a book that concentrates on the conjunctions between the brutish, the human and the divine. ... The world of Robertson's poems tends to be one governed by unfathomable and harsh impulses and imperatives, whether they're dealing with mythic characters or those from our own reality. ... Thematically, Hill of Doors is of a piece with Robertson's superb 2010 collection The Wrecking Light, which was shortlisted for the big three prizes (Forward, Costa and TS Eliot). There are similar dreamscapes, abandoned houses, echoes of an extinguished human presence reclaimed by nature, and a similarly flinty beauty to the imagery. It's perhaps a little more uneven than the earlier book, with a couple of poems striking what seems to me an uncertain note)
  • Kate Kellaway ("The Dream House' is one of the most pleasing poems. It is almost perfect, except that the frisson of the last line does not quite come off: it tells us too much and not enough.)
  • Omar Sabbagh (Robertson’s work in this collection is both formally taut, with a wonderful sense of line and line-break, as well as filled with what for want of a better word one might dub great yarns. ... The last poem, ‘The Key’ is indeed reminiscent in its curt conceit of Kafka’s ‘Parable of the Law’ in The Trial, or of the similar mythos in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, both being dystopian versions of, say, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. The ‘door’ in a place ‘I’d never been’ is opened at the last by ‘the key / I’d carried with me / all these years.’ Perhaps the hill is climbed ‘after’ all, with the poet’s last cadence: love out of death, rather than love as (a form of) living death.)
  • Andy Brown (a truly admirable addition to his oeuvre. Robertson writes beautiful lyric poems, sometimes with the suggestion of traditional form behind them but, more often than not, in a pulsing, stanzaic verse. ... Robertson's lines come with such lyric assuredness, it's like listening to a great composer of chamber music: dark and light, soft and crescending, angry, happy and sad: the full range. ... Another superb book of poems from the master of lyric and emotional chiaroscuro )
  • Lucy Burns (How is there space enough in the collection for a poem like “The Key” )

Saturday, 16 September 2017

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Anders Eckman, a scientist, had been sent into the Amazon jungle by his company, Vogel, to get back a fellow scientist, Anneck Swenson, who'd been researching in a secret lab. The source of interest is the isolated Lakashi tribe whose women give birth well into their seventies. He should only have been away days but he's been away months. His boss, Mr Fox, gets a letter saying that he's died. He and Marina Singh, Eckman's ex-coworker (she's childless and 42), break the news to Eckman's widow, Karen. She has 3 young sons. She doesn't believe her husband's dead and wants Marina to find the secret lab. Fox tells Marina (who he has a relationship with) that even he doesn't know where it is, and suspects there's been no scientific progress for years. So Marina flies out, met by Milton, a chauffeur, at the airport. She hangs around in Manaus, a river port, waiting for Swenson to turn up, meeting her protective tenants, the young, attractive Bovenders.

Swenson turns up. She had been Marina's medical school teacher when she made a mistake during surgery. She and Marina head back down the Negro river in a little boat steered by a deaf native boy called Easter "into the beating heart of nowhere" (p.165). They discuss, shallowly, the morals of intervention. Later we read that "Dr. Swenson strictly forbade the sharing of the scientists' food among members of the tribe as she believed that a jar of peanut butter was more corrupting to indigenous ways than a television set" (p.215). Marina's Indian complexion helps her blend in. There are special trees that the village women gnaw at, special beetles and special mushrooms. These in combination seem to be the drug that also prevents malaria!

On p.246 we learn that Swenson, 73, is nearly months pregnant. My guess is that Anders was the father. Later, Swenson tells Marina to give a native a C-section, suggesting that Marina could later give Swenson a C-section.

Fox turns up at the camp with Mrs Bovender and Milton. Marina doesn't know how Mrs Bovender could have found the way (earlier she couldn't understand how she's not noticed that Swenson was pregnant). Swenson takes Marina aside and tells her that her baby died the day before and that she needs a C-section quickly. The visitors leave the next day. Marina had been hoping for a show of emotion from Mr Fox. It's Milton who's kind to her.

On p.229 Swenson suggests that Anders might not be dead - Mrs Bovender might have seen him on the journey to the village when they passed a cannibal village. So Marina goes with Easter to the village hoping to barter oranges, peanut butter and special mushrooms for Anders. Anders is there, but the tribe want Easter (who is one of them). Anders surrenders him and the two scientists return to the Lakashi village. Anders and Marina make love - "a physical act of kindness, a comfort, a sublime tenderness between friends. She would have made love to Mr. Fox if he had been there, and Anders wouldn't have made love to his wife" (p.350)

The novel's packed with coincidences (fair enough). I didn't really get the malaria-vaccine sub-plot, but for the most part the plot made me want to finish the book. I wasn't keen on her tell-not-show approach to character development, the long dreams that conveniently provide backstory. I can't help thinking that some passages should have been much shorter. There's redundancy at the word level too -

  • She put the question to Marina directly. "Is he dead?" she asked. (p.44)
  • There was no saliva in her mouth and without the lubrication the words were sticking on her teeth (p.48)
  • The people in the car understood that the goat had escaped his fate by no more than four inches, but the goat understood nothing. It looked up, mildly puzzled (p.94)
  • "I understand your point," Marina said, making a conscious effort to get along (p.98)

I liked the snake-killing scene and some of the street descriptions. The natives maintain their otherness.

There are printing errors - the last 4 lines of p.221 and p.223 are repeated at the top of p.222 and p.224 respectively.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • Stephen J Burn (Patchett's novels typically derive their narrative energy from unlikely romantic entanglements that slowly unravel under the pressures of life ... It lacks the developed emotional core of Patchett's earlier books, but it is her most mature work to date, a novel that tries to be more alive to the nerve ends of philosophical life than to the simpler machinery of character motivation.)
  • Janet Maslin (Perhaps the temptations of the Amazon are overwhelming for any writer with such a gift for animating her surroundings. Perhaps the shadow of “Heart of Darkness” is too long and the allusions to other works too thick on the ground. And “Lost Horizon” for American ovaries? Perhaps Ms. Patchett intends that as the jumping-off point for a moral argument. But it’s a little too loony to be taken seriously. And it’s a horror that would have given even Joseph “The horror! The horror!” Conrad pause.)
  • Leslie McDowell
  • Laura Ciolkowski (Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey, "State of Wonder" is a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.)
  • Ron Charles (Loaded as the story is with profound ethical issues, Patchett also knows when to pack light to keep the adventure moving. In fact, as the end approaches, “State of Wonder” crashes toward a breathless conclusion as though she’s being chased by a swarm of Amazonian wasps. This is surely the smartest, most exciting novel of the summer. )

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

"The purpose of your visit" by River Wolton (Smith/Doorstop, 2008)

The first poem, "Thrill" is classic "anecdote becomes metaphor". Canoeing together amongst alligators, there's "the thrill: of comradeship, or proving all the voices wrong, and ridges of relentless hidden teeth". The second poem, "Reconciliation", mentions a crow bashing against a window, then says that the narrator no longer cares about the possessions that characterise her, because when there's a reconciliation - "All I know is that they fell away like ballast on a balloon flight, like the first step weightless and exultant into air". In "Gold", the persona seems to be floundering around, looking for something - anything - to believe in after a relationship's over, finishing with "You think of taking up smoking again but even that old god is good and dead".

Some later poems are more oblique - initially at least. Often a memory is described, then the persona's current surroundings are revealed (a train station, for example) then a connection is made between the two, or, more rarely, the juxtaposed descriptions are left to speak for themselves. There's a "scattering ashes" poem. I like "Sheffield - St Pancras".

Towards the end, the topics of immigration and Israel take over. The style becomes close to reportage - poems (poems?) like "Departures 4.30 A.M." don't do much for me.

Other reviews

  • Rob A. Mackenzie (She employs plain vocabulary, free verse, and a fairly regular stanza and line length within each poem. There’s little new ground being broken, but the poems generally succeed in achieving their intended effect, which is rarely disguised.)

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"The Gathering" by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, 2007)

It begins with a kind of in media res mood-prelude (as do several of her stories), then settles down, though the time-line's never linear for long.

Veronica, the narrator comes from a big Irish family. In the old days, life was busy -

Don't tell Mammy
This from Midge, especially, but also from any one of the older ones. If something broke or was split, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alive had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once catastrophically, Liam's night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conference in the hall, Don't tell Mammy

Now her mother's demented. Veronica's come back to tell them that Liam's dead.

One device is that the narrator tells us she's imagining what happened to others in the past, so for example we read how she thought her grandparents might have met in 1925, etc. This offers the writer a chance to present alternative possibilities but we don't often get them at first. She does however correct some memories as she goes along, remembering that certain people must have been present though she recalls nothing of them. The narrating's sometimes self-conscious - "Poor Charlie. His was the first corpse I ever saw; massive and still under Ada's rose-pink eiderdown. Which is why is it a kind of blasphemy to write of their marriage night in the same bed - though blasphemy seems to be my business here" (p.59)

Liam died in Brighton, England, so she journeys over, reminiscing on the way - "we ran around the streets or played around The Basin, an artificial lake whose water had once been used in the making of Irish whiskey. It was this fact that obliged Liam to piss into it, and this is the picture I have of him in my head, a small boy swinging up his behind to sling the arc of his pee up in the air, the urine spattering against the wire or pouring, suddenly easy, through a diamond in the mesh" (p.48)

It will take 10 days to ship the body back. She thinks her husband, Tom, is unfaithful. She fancies the young undertaker. She thinks about Ada again. Note the trajectory of the thoughts in the following extract - herself, Ada, Women, herself - and the combination of sharp-focussed detail with generalisation

I think of her when I do the dishes. Of course I have a dishwasher, so if I ever have to cry, it is not into the sink, quietly like Ada. The sink was her place for this. Facing out of the back of the house, something about the endless potatoes that needed peeling, or the paltriness of the yard, but, like all women maybe, Ada occasionally had a little sniffle and then plink, plink, a few tears would hit the water in the sink. Like all women Ada sometimes had to wipe her nose with her forearm because her hands were wet. There is nothing surprising about this. Though I have to say, I have a stainless-steel Miele dishwasher. And if I have any crying to do, I do it respectably, in front of the TV. (p.89)

On p.142 things get serious - "It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams". She tells us how she witnessed Liam's sexual abuse. Later she's unsure of the details, wonders if she was involved.

The end is rather fragmentary, perhaps because of her precarious mental state. She has a phase of sneaking out of the house at night to drive. Or to drink and drive. She knows something's wrong with her. She's in a loveless marriage with kids. She revisits places from her childhood, wonders whether she has the right location because the places doesn't match her memories, then realises that places change too. The family gather from around the world for the wake. Some are nearly strangers to her. She hallucinates. That night she and her husband have sex for the last time. Chapter 36 jumps to 5 months later, then we return to the main time sequence again. She wants everyone to know who molested Liam - he could be responsible for the family's other woes. She wonders who owned Ada's house and considers buying a house. She flees to Gatwick, stays there a night and plans to return immediately, wonders about having a third child.

Other reviews

  • Eleanor Birne (The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death ... The Gathering is a gathering of family members around one of their dead, but it is also a gathering of facts, of evidence.)
  • AL Kennedy (This is a world where fidelity is impossible and sex is absurd, but love is forever, like a scar. ... Enright's work is neither mindless nor inhuman; it is clearly the product of a remarkable intelligence, combined with a gift for observation and deduction.)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (So large a family is more like a tribe, with its own rites of passage ... Anne Enright has all she needs in terms of imagination and technique and she's a tremendous phrase-maker. All that I would timidly offer her is a bouquet of 'as ifs' with which to vary her 'likes'.)
  • Ling Ma (A common theme in earlier works that’s more noticeable here, Enright fixates and marvels at the plain biological facts of sex with the consequential emotional realities of family. ... her prose can be so gun-slingingly sublime, but the narration is often so footloose that it almost overrides the plot and characters themselves.)
  • Liesl Schillinger (in this mystery of past causes, the transformative power of Enright’s language keeps the story’s freight from burdening the reader. Veronica’s reminiscences have an incantatory power that makes them not depressing but enthralling ... With her curiously spare yet baroque style and her merciless eye, Anne Enright has beguiled critics for nearly two decades. In the past, she has often let fantasy or coincidence shape her creations. ... In this new novel, however, Enright hides her painterly brushstrokes.)
  • Goodreads

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"The Prose Factory" by D.J Taylor (Vintage, 2016)

Over 450 pages about literary life in England from 1918. In part it's a history of magazines (some with tiny circulations), and anthologies - Georgian Poetry, Criterion, Calendar of Modern Letters, Scrutiny, Horizon, Penguin New Writing, etc. There's a distrust of statistics (which in any case aren't likely to be too reliable) in favour of trying to catch the mood of the times via multiple mini-biographies. There's much about the ebb and flow of cronyism and elitism. Essays and "star reviewers" in the papers tried to bridge the gap between big names and the common reader. Then more opportunities for freelancers emerged - the BBC, US magazines. Newspaper reviewing improved in the 60s-70s though it's unclear to me why there are assessments of Peter Carey and James Wood. The treatment is mostly chronological, so in the same order here are some quotes -

  • "Books ... for all kinds of socio-economic reasons, were more fashionable in the later 1980s than they had been in the late 1970s" p.xvi
  • "The serious reading public of the 1830s and 1840s was tiny, consisting of no more than a few thousand people" p.xviii
  • "The late Victorian period ushered in an unprecedented phenomenon, a mass reading public. We many now want to add that this was both the first and the only mass reading public" - Philip Waller
  • "at the beginning of the twentieth century, the English people still liked poetry" - Penelope Fitzgerald
  • "An Etonian mafia was much in evidence in the late 1920s, whose members shamelessly reviewed each other's books" p.22
  • "the writer was a conspicuous figure in the 1920s media scrum, and, as a result, able to benefit from a degree of exposure otherwise extended only to a successful politician or sports personality" p.24
  • "by the mid-1920s - even earlier in sophisticated circles - 'Georgian' was a term of abuse" p.30 (too much bad poetry and too much hype)
  • "J.C. Squire ... remains one of the great bogey-figures of recent English literature, a byword for reputation-fixing, coterie politics and false standards" p.24 "Within three years of the war's end, ... Squire and his satellites had control, or at least substantial influence, over eight or more of the principal literary organs in Britain" p.39
  • "If literary modernism had a public face in the 1920s, it belonged - singly and collectively - to the Sitwells" p.52
  • "Eliot was its high priest" p.59
  • "Much popular awareness of newfangled developments in literature and the arts came through what was essentially comic disparagement" p.69
  • "A tightly run distribution network, able to talk up a particular book's chances, prepublication, with the major circulating libraries - W.H. Smith, Boots and Harrods - allowed Hodder to pull off what were, by the standards of the 1920s, extraordinary feats of salesmanship" p.82
  • "In an age when the matter of a writer's cultural affiliations loomed very large, Priestley (1894-1984), with his Georgian upbringing and his titanic sales, was always going to be a target for this sort of snootiness: what was really remarkable, as the decade wore on, was his emergence as a kind of all-purpose intellectual hate-figure, a symbol of degenerating public tastes and a byword for everything that was wrong with the contemporary novel" p.95
  • "the profound differences between the 1920s and 1930s as literary epochs were instantly apparent to the people caught up in them. At their most fundamental level, these changes were to do with the infiltration of left-wing politics into the literary mainstream" p.103
  • "The issues at stake in the literary in-fighting of the 1920s had largely been aesthetic ... In contrast the polarisation of attitudes that characterised the 1930s was firmly ideological" p.106
  • "By the mid-1930s most of the unemployment black spots in the north were home to a cluster of predominantly working-class writers ... As to why so many of the working-class writers of the period failed to achieve and kind of lasting success, the explanation very often lay neither in lack of talent, nor restricted range, but in the want of social and professional contacts" p.109
  • "Book publishing, having boomed in the early post-war period, then went into a sharp decline" p.142
  • "historically, very few writers - certainly very few 'serious' writers - have ever been able to support themselves by fiction alone" p.143
  • "the two most influential academics involved in the teaching of English literature in British Universities in 1918 were Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944)" p.155
  • "F.R. Leavis ... no academic teacher of English during the period 1930-60 was quite so influential or quite so widely resented" p.170
  • "Clearly in terms of medium and influence, the [2nd World] war belonged not so much to the poet or the short-story writer but to the man or woman who sponsored them: the editor" p.202
  • "the end of the Great War had a profoundly liberating effect on literature ... By contrast, the literary world of the later 1940s looked a stagnant affair" p.225
  • "One marked feature of the mid-twentieth-century marketplace was the collapse of the middlebrow literary magazine" p.247
  • "one of the truly striking characteristics of the 'serious' writers of the 1950s is how reluctant the majority of them were to commit themselves fully to literature" p.248
  • "the 'new man' is a feature of fiction in the 1950s" p.268
  • "Just as Stephen Spender had , in the 1930s, found himself regarded by the older, Georgian writers as a symbol of everything that was wrong with contemporary literature ... so in the 1950s he was singled out as ... 'the kind of poet who it was necessary to oppose'" p.272
  • "[in the mid-century] The anti-Victorian fires stoked in the 1920s ... had long since died down." p.288
  • "Far more so than the 1940s and the 1950s ... the 1960s and 1970s were an era in which the upmarket woman writer carried ... a great deal before her" p.328
  • "By the mid-1960s the total sum of something under £5000 [was given to literature by the Arts Council] ... The Literature Panel ... began its deliberations in January 1966" p.342
  • "In 1973-4, for example, out of the total [Arts Council] grant of £17 million, exactly £146,000 went to literature" p.342
  • "the New Fiction Society [was] a state-sanctioned book club offering newly published novels at discount prices ... a promising idea that failed spectacularly" (started in 1974-5) p.344
  • "The immense concentration of resources on the university teaching of English in the 1960s had two main consequences for literary culture. Most obviously, it began to professionalise and institutionalise literary criticism ... at the same time minimising its relevance to the greater part of the reading public" p.366
  • "the arts world of the 1960s increasingly came to be defined by its attitude to the burgeoning counter-culture" p.393
  • "By the early 1970s ... the writer was less of a public figure than he or she had been for perhaps a century and a half" p.394
  • "A few best-sellers aside (Betjeman, Hughes, Larkin) poetry was commercially negligible by the end of the 1970s" p.396
  • "The boom in 'serious' publishing that characterised the 1980s and early 1990s has no single cause ... The most obvious was the emergence of a new wave of English and Commonwealth novelists" p.397
  • "there was no denying Granta's success. This, in the context of literary magazine publishing, was simply unprecedented" p.400
  • "One dramatic effect of the early 1980s publishing revolution was a substantial increase in the amount of money available to an elite band of home-grown 'literary' novelists" p.425
  • "In the hot-house conditions of the 1980s ... the new power broker was the literary agent" p.438
  • "the two most significant developments with the capacity to alter the outward face that 'literature' presents to the world are the rise of creative writing MAs and the employment by university English departments of novelists and poems to teach them" p.447

Saturday, 2 September 2017

"The Illuminations" by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber and Faber, 2015)

Maureen is in sheltered housing, grumpy that her children neglect her. Anne's there too, becoming demented, but she used to be a promising photographer.

In a photograph pinned above the kettle, the face of George Formby was peeking round a door. 'Turned out nice again!' it said in ink under his name, a curly signature. He was smiling for the whole of Britain. The electricity sockets were covered over with Elastoplast, and the rings on the cooker were out of bounds too, taped over with a saltire of white plastic tape. Maureen thought it was like the stuff the police put up around the murder scene in those crime dramas. No hot kettles or rings. It was Jackie the warden's decision.

Maureen helps Anne, who has a 50 year-old daughter Alice with some problems of her own (widowed, father died in action in Ulster), and a grandson Luke, 29, who did an eng-lit degree. "Alice's doctor ... said the thing with dementia was that it trapped the sufferer in vagueness and spoiled the offspring's hopes for a satisfying close, especially if the relationship had been difficult" (p.21)

The scene changes. We're in Afghanistan where Luke is a captain in the army, respected by his colleagues, his reputation for bookishness doing him no harm. The complications of who to befriend, who to fight, and how to built and protect infrastructure are discussed. There's lots of wise-cracking banter. He thinks "Everything is dense with itself out there; everything is thick with its own crazed lack of known limits" (p.42). "He felt he needed [Anne] more than ever, her wanted her close, the person who once revealed to him a world beyond the obvious" (p.43). He has discussions with Major Scullion (48, childless, just divorced) about aesthetics. Jargon (e.g. "2M2H") is used and explained. We dip into the main characters' heads - "They called him the Leper, the Leprechaun, or Sean-Sean. He was the sergeant and got respect from the boys without trying. To Scullion, Sergeant Docherty was too private and too calm: by that stage of the game the major needed friends who raised the volume and showed their weaknesses" (p.59)

Back at the sheltered housing, matters are more confused. Anne's imaginative tendencies complicates diagnosis. Maureen frequently talks to Alice on the phone. Alice thinks that "Anne had failed as a mother on nearly every front, but fantasy would carry her all the the. Everybody, including Alice's own son Luke, would pity the sad life of sacrifice she had framed so perfectly for the eyes". Maureen likes her routine, and when her family visits she's not in truth very welcoming.

Luke's having problems with Scullion (who seems to be having mental problems) and Rashid (an Afghan captain working with the army). After unnecessary deaths in a village (the reckless captain nearly gets himself killed), Luke resigns.

When Luke meets Alice back in Glasgow he's disillusioned. She regrets knowing so little about her mother and father (they never married, and neighbours often had to look after Alice), and asks Luke to intercede with Anne on her behalf. Gordon, Alice's new entrepreneurian husband, arrives. He and Luke don't get on. Anne's work is being rediscovered by a gallery in Canada, where she used to live. Luke visits Scullion in hospital soon before the Major kills himself.

Luke takes Anne to Blackpool hoping to stir memories. She owns part of a house there. The landlady fills Luke in on Anne's past, and on Harry (who wasn't a war hero, who was married and rarely with Anne). There's a stash of Anne's old work. Throughout the book there are scattered Beatles lyrics. There's a photo of J.Lennon amongst the stash.

The Maureen character seems awkwardly peripheral, and the Scullion character feels contrived, which gives the novel a literary, constructed feel. I liked most the scenes with the old people.

Other reviews

  • Elizabeth Day (O’Hagan, who was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for Our Fathers, inhabits his characters with ease and is one of those rare male authors who does women as well as men. Anne’s mental disintegration is beautifully and sensitively handled, and O’Hagan charts its course with a poet’s precision and a journalist’s eye)
  • Lucy Daniel (Despite the pull of Anne’s story, the book’s most engaging moments are in Afghanistan)
  • Max Liu (The novel’s literariness is occasionally jarring. ... His characters’ quirks are well-observed, especially the way Maureen is kind and intimate with Anne but cold towards her own family.)
  • Stuart Kelly (A book which addresses the problems of an aging population, gaming technology as army recruitment, broken relationships between couples and generations, the ethics of foreign military intervention and even a nod to the arguments of the independence referendum might be accused of substituting the merely contemporary for the enduringly relevant, but they are choreographed with such graciousness that this never feels like a feature piece or opinion column inflated into a novel.)
  • Adam Kirsch (An artist himself, O’Hagan exalts Anne’s evanescent truths of vision and perception, the ones that she captured in her old pictures, over the suspect truths of ideology and patriotism)

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

"Terms and Conditions" by Tania Hershman (Nine Arches Press, 2017)

Poems from "The Rialto", "Under the Radar", "BBC Radio 3", etc. Certain "New Scientist" articles are acknowledged as providing inspiration. The book's in 3 sections with broad themes - "data collection" (observing), "warranties & disclaimers" (miss/interpreting), and "privacy policy" (personal responses). I liked several poems near the start, e.g. "Advice for the traveller" and "What do we do when the water rises", the latter an extended metaphor introduced by the title. The body of the poem's all about fire ants' collective response to water. Starting at p.22 (mostly in the middle section) there's a clutch of poems that I had some trouble with, for various reasons -

  • They make a good point (or have a good image), but the rest of the poem doesn't provide enough support - p.22, p.36 (which uses very short lines, some indented), p.48, p.50 (double-spaced, gappy)
  • They seem slow, or don't make enough of a point, though they sometimes use double-spaced short lines, or other typesetting FX - p.24, p.28, p.33, p.38, p.46, p.61 (makes a worthy point, but is it worth a page to say?)
  • They puzzle me - p.34 (My understanding of the poem is that corals were thought by scientists to be damaged by acidic water, yet they do ok if the acidity is caused by themselves. An analogy is made between this and the assumptions made by the persona missing "you". I like that, but what are the "questions"?), p.35, p.37

After about p.50 I start liking most of the poems again ("Body", "Getting away with it", etc). Interestingly, "What is it that fills us" appears in a slightly extended version in her recent prose collection "Some of us glow more than others" (Unthank Books). "What the choreographer knows about flight" feels like prose. This isn't meant as an aesthetic judgement. Roughly I'd suggest to reader-friendly writers that -

  1. If the line-breaks (or come to that other features/words) are doing little or nothing, leave them out, especially if there's a risk that they might look like an attempt to divert attention from content
  2. If the context might make readers skim over a text that would reward careful reading, it might be worth adding line-breaks as a hint that a different reading strategy is recommended. In this situation a common ploy is to make each stanza into a similarly sized rectangle to show that the particular positioning of the line-breaks doesn't much matter.

"What the choreographer ..." doesn't require exposure to the linguistic substrate, nor does it use any features that characterise poetry. So what are the line-breaks for?

Contrasting techniques are in evidence. "Happiness" is one of the most approachable pieces, which should go down well with audiences - happiness is compared to paint (industrial scale, not artists' little tubes). In contrast, "What we don't know we do not know" is very much a page poem. Some poems have no word-play, but "After you go" has ample - "forks" could be utensils or decisions; "I wipe counters" could allude to kitchen surfaces or resetting dials to zero; "love" could be emotion or zero. There's frequent use of rhetorical repetition. On p.62 for example, "I am the bird at the bottom" appears 4 times (28 words out of 88), an instance that works for me.

Seeking trends in such a varied book is a mug's game, so I'll suggest that gravity has an influence. There's a lot of weight, falling, catching, slipping and sagging. There are goings on under birds, cows, and Pompeii. Bird imagery representing freedom of a sort is frequent in her prose book, but not very common here.

Favourites that I've not already singled out include "Interview with a wind turbine", "Mirrors must not be", and "Pompeii" (except for the indents), and there are many appealing lines/ideas.

Other reviews

  • Bidisha (Whether in prose or free verse, Hershman’s writing combines a clear style and witty observations with sinister, often symbolic plot developments ... the poems in Terms and Conditions read not as plaintive first-person confessionals but as fresh, almost journalistic pieces, full of humour and brisk observation.)