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.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

"A horse walks into a bar" by David Grossman (Jonathan Cape, 2016)

In the third-person a stand-up, Dovaleh, is doing his act in Israel. We're given it nearly verbatim. He's on the edge of losing his audience - "The audience laughs with relief" (p.18) after he defuses a tense situation.

Then as the narrative sags the novel becomes a first-person narrative of someone in the audience, a retired judge who he'd invited out of the blue a fortnight before. They were friends as schoolboys. The comedian had asked him to attend - "I want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me" (p.28). At times this judge's backstory dominates the narrative. The audience grow restless because the comedian tells him life-story rather than jokes, though he has jokes ready when he needs them. At one point the judge (a widower) helps quell the crowd, though people begin to trickle away. Dovaleh tells a long story about being at Army cadet camp when he was 14. He was told to collect his stuff because he was going to be taken home for a funeral. He wasn't told who had died. The driver told him a joke or two. There's a mass exodus three-quarters of the way through the book. A few people want to hear the end of the story. The judge wonders how many of the survivors were invited like him. Finally it's just the judge (who'd been at the same camp) and the comedian.

It's a translation, but you'ld never have guessed.

The patience of the audience isn't so realistic. I don't think that matters. When the bulk of the audience leave I can imagine some readers leaving too - the anecdote about the long drive home drags.

Joseph O'Connor's "The Wexford Girl" has an obsessive joker, and I've read other short stories about sad stand-up acts. Novel-length attempts are rarer.

Other reviews

  • Ian Sansom
  • Rebecca Abrams (It is a work of sombre brilliance and disquieting rage, an unsparing exploration of the seductive spell of escapism and “the corruption that is in cynicism”)
  • Eileen Battersby
  • Michael Schaub ( Grossman takes a lot of risks with A Horse Walks into a Bar, and every one of them pays off spectacularly well ... while A Horse Walks into a Bar is, in parts, stunningly sad, it's not another "tears of a clown" sob story)
  • Gary Shteyngart

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

"Public Library and other stories" by Ali Smith (Penguin, 2016)

Between the stories are collected anecdotes about public libraries. Before the first story there's one entitled Library.

The first story, "Last", begins with "I had come to the conclusion". The narrator gets off a late train at the last station, sees the empty train put into a siding. But it's not empty - a lady in a wheelchair's been left there. The narrator wants to return and help, but there's a sign stopping trespassers, which makes the narrator wonder "why, anyway, did the word fine mean a payment for doing something illegal at the same time as it meant everything from okay to really grand?" The narrator wonders what she could say to the trapped lady - "I could tell her endlessly, boringly, about words and how they meant and why it mattered, and what had happened in my life to make them not matter." The woman is released by railway staff. On the last page we're told "The word last is a very versatile word. Amongst other more unexpected things - like the piece of metal shaped like a foot which a cobbler uses to make shoes - it can mean both finality and continuance, it can mean the last time, and something a lot more lasting than that. / To conclude once meant to enclose."

"The beholder" was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award. I'm not convinced. In "The Poet" things get strange -

There was the word gorgeous, and there was the word north, and there was a sound that went between the words that she liked. Could you wither a word?
There was an orchard nobody went to. How could anything touch it? It was all blossom right now. There was the whole meadow full of flowers, wild ones, all the bright faces, out that window beyond this house only a couple of streets away. She sat low on the old nursing chair and the Fraser books sat on the shelf right next to her eye. Fraser. Olive. O LIVE. I LOVE. O VILE. EVIL O

Plots can sometimes seem indulgent. "The human claim" begins with "I had been planning to write this story about the ashes of DH Lawrence". There's a page about Lawrence, then 5 pages about the narrator frustratedly phoning a bank because, opening a letter from the bank, the narrator realises she's been a victim of fraud. "I pressed the hang-up button on my phone and found I was in my front room./ What I mean is, even though I'd been there the whole time, I'd actually just spent the last half hour somewhere which made my own front room irrelevant" (p.83). Then 3 pages about follow-up letters and a previous pickpocket episode. Then 4 pages about DH Lawrence's ashes and works - "In one of his most famous, he watches a snake drink at a waterhole then throws a log at it to show it who's boss. The moment he does this he understands his own pettiness; he knows he's cheated himself" (p.87). Then she worries about her card again, looks on Google Earth for Lufthansa HQ (a plane ticket had been bought with her card). Wandering, she reaches Harmonsworth on StreetView, realises that old Penguin paperbacks (e.g. "Lady Chatterley's Lover") were issued from there. There's a page about writing the credit-card company a letter. The last page describes dreaming about what the fraudster might be getting up to. The ending is

Meanwhile, that snake that Lawrence threw the log at disappeared long long ago into its hole unhurt, went freely about its ways, left the poem behind it.
Meanwhile, right now, the ashes of DH Lawrence could be anywhere.

So because of distractions, the story's original inspiration (like Lawrence's snake) got away, but not before a work was made.

She likes using strange connections and what comedians describe as "callbacks". In "The ex-wife" coincidences abound. On p.100 there's "you'd say, I just need to know whether Wing was actually the original kitten of Charlie Chaplin. To know what? I'd say. In a letter to Charlie Chaplin". On p.116-7 we read that Virginia Woolf wrote about a plane that people watched above London. The ex-wife (Katherine Mansfield) was a film extra in WW1. The narrator works out that her films could have been melted down into resin to coat the wings of the very plane Woolf saw.

Typically the narrator's mind drifts when there's nothing much else to do. In "Grass", the narrator, stuck in a traffic jam, drifts back in time to when she was stuck behind the counter of a quiet shop. In "The definite article" the narrator wanders through Regent's Park, sparking off a list of observations and a regurgitation of historical/literary research. Towards the end there's "One entire Park, compleat in unity of character. Endless stories, all crossing across each other, and mine tiny negligent, quick as a blink, where nothing much happened except this: I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there's never a conclusion" (p.165)

There are lists (names of roses, for example) and concluding lyrical flourishes. There are interesting observations and phrases - "There was a man whistling, walking along holding a can of Skol ahead of himself. He was holding the can like a compass" (p.157). She likes using dreams - "All the people in the dream, I say, are strangers to me. I recognize them, but only from having dreamed about them before. And I'm looking out of the eyes of a different person in the dream every time I dream it" (p.193)

Her child characters all seem much the same whatever their age.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway
  • Goodreads
  • Francesca Wade (Each of Smith’s stories is a gem: fast-paced and incongruous, every situation made immediately intriguing by deft detail and sharply humorous dialogue.)
  • Lucy Scholes
  • Edmund White (Unhappy romances (between women) are frequently the so-called back story.)
  • Sameer Rahim (Smith delights in making unexpected connections. This can make for an amusing and insightful reading experience, but sometimes feels slightly cobbled together.)
  • Kirkus review (“The Ex-Wife,” probably the best of the collection)
  • Allan Massie

Saturday, 20 May 2017

"The best new British and Irish poets 2016", Kelly Davio (ed) (Eyewear Publishing, 2016)

In this case "new" means "not yet under contract to publish their debut full-length collection". The poets have already been in some of the best magazines (e.g. Daisy Behagg has won the Bridport as well as being in Poetry Review, The Rialto, etc). Each of them is represented by a photo plus bio (taking up a page) and a poem. Erin Fornoff's bio is at least 6 times longer than her poem. An alternative approach (and some of the poets have already been involved with them) is for a book to show-case several poems by fewer poets, a format which avoids having over 50 pages of bios and photos. The editor in the introduction writes how, from personal experience in the US, the multiple-poet, single poem format can be useful to the poets.

The introduction singles a few poems out - "Loxodrome" for its form. It's numbered paragraphs, the first 3 beginning with "The journey from", the other 7 with "The journey reimagined with". There are poems with more familiar forms - "Easter Tuesday, 1941" is a sonnet. "Altamira" has stanzas with an aabbx rhyme scheme. "The Skip" has triplets of end-rhyme. "Thrown a loop" is line-palindromic (1st line = last line, etc).

According to the editor, "It's 11.26 in SE13" "explore[s] the various possibilities of the line in free verse". It has gaps in lines, stepped lines, a pair of lines with the same indentation, etc. Here's how it ends.

But when eventually I am rheumy & slow    & worse
than this place which somehow careens on
& our futuristic children ask what the city is,
snatching at my memories for some kind of quiddity,
I will have no other words but the clear
         & all of a sudden
                 'It's a good place to love'

Amongst the editor's "poems I didn't see coming" is "The Apiarist". It begins with "Your heart was like the bees", then there's a section about getting used to the stings rather than wearing protection. At the end the bees swarm away, leaving "my placebo syrup". The final line is "What I wouldn't give to be stung again" - nice, but not a surprise. I most liked "Ideal State" (Annabel Banks) and "Things That Make Us Fly" (Cato Pedder)

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

"The North (No.57, 2017)", Ann Sansom and Peter Sansom (eds)

190 pages, 22cm by 21cm, small print. 173 poems by 84 poets (Graham Mort, David Constantine, Susan Wicks, Peter Riley, etc). Lots to read.

There are articles about Shirley McClure, John Riley, poetry for children, Jack Spicer, favourite books chosen by 30 smith|doorstep poets, etc. The standard features are "Poets I Go Back To", "Blind Criticism", "Close Reading", "In Conversation" (Susan Wicks with Jackie Wills this time) and "Featured Title" (a Peter Riley book this time). Of the 14 reviewers, 6 have had pamphlets/books published by smith|doorstep. I noted a few things -

  • "In a way I feel that having kids is almost an equivalent of going to war, historically, for men, the way women have put their bodies at risk, their identities at risk, allowing their lives to change suddenly" - Susan Wicks (p.146)
  • "The bedside lamp's afterglow is all at once 'an aspirin ... dissolving in a glass of darkness' and I put the lamp back on, reach for Transtromer" - Mark Pajak, (p.97)
  • "If books are the flagships of the literary world, then pamphlets are our kayaks and coracles - sleek and nimble, they can navigate more easily the 'music of what happens', and part the waters for larger vessels that sail in their wake" - Theophilus Kwek, (p.178)
  • "A wheelie bin crosses the road without looking,/ lands flat on its face on the other side, spilling/ its knowledge" ('The Met Office Advises Caution', Rebecca Watts)
  • David Tait writes of Jennifer Copley's "The Living Daylights" - "I'm still amazed that pamphlet didn't win some big prizes"

Saturday, 13 May 2017

"His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, 2015)

The frontispiece says "Edited and introduced by Graeme Macrae Burnet". In the Preface we're told that while researching into his family tree, Burnet came across Roderick Macrae's memoir, written in 1869. At the time, we're told, people suspected that it might be a forgery - how could a rustic 17 year old have written it? We're told that the book contains police statements, post-mortem reports, psychiatric reports and newspaper articles. We're warned of contradictions. There's a map.

It all seems rather slow to me. So what if the narrators were unreliable? So what if it's based on documented events? The characters are largely caricatures, and the write-up of the trial (verbatim dialogues) is tedious. The passivity that a few characters expressed in the face of fate could have been exploited more. The one glimmer of hope for the novel was the twist introduced by Mr Thompson about the motive of the accused and the accused's subsequent deception.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

"Jackself" by Jacob Polley (Picador, 2016)


The first poem, "The House the Jack Built" in Poetry (Chicago), charts the history of trees. It's time-sweeping and mythic. Here's an extract -

their ashes were buried in
with a scattering of grain
like stars              each small clay
heaven still hangs in the earth

   were overgrown,
steered clear of
   called dragon's ribs
      devil's cot          were nested among, rotted
down beside
   harboured foxglove

Gaps (they turn up throughout the book) seem to replace commas (though the comma after "overgrown" seems to perform the same function as the gap after "clear of"). The indents and stanza/line-breaks don't look worth the effort to me. There's variation in the collection though - after this plant-based first poem, the second poem "Every Creeping Thing" concerns animals and has AABBA stanzas, the B lines indented. The giant words DON'T//WAKE//HIM fill a 2-page spread (p.8-9). On p.38 that spread's alluded to - "WAKE UP/ Wren yells". Later,"Tithe" has very spaced out, normally sized words - 39 spread over 2 pages.


The book begins with a quote from G.M. Hopkins - "Soul, self; come, poor Jackself". Then "instead of a soul/ Jackself has a coal" (p.5). The coal imagery is continued later - "Jackself, if only you'd found that meteorite/ at the bottom of the coal hod" (p.14); "he needs a quest, thinks Jeremy Wren,/ who's been watching Jackself from the coals/ of the stove" (p.46), the latter quote suggesting that Jeremy might have been the spark to ignite Jack's too dark soul. In "The Lofts", there are further clues - "skeletons of past Selves ... Edwardself, Billself Wulfself". Then "back they go, the Selves/ Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself" and "Annself". Later, on p.30, "the locks of his head are picked/ and the distance he's kept from his different selves/ is all undone". When Jackself wants "to try to just be" he returns to the lofts. He licks his reflection in the way that "snakes eat their old skins,/ dogs their own sick" (p.37)

The book seems to be broadly chronological, Jack being school-age throughout. We see various aspects of Jack channeled through folkloric and idiomatic usages of "Jack". Jack and the Beanstalk is alluded to - "fie, foh and fum/ I smell your backwash in the coconut rum" (p.31) and perhaps again in "The Misery" when he goes to slay a monster (actually a rabbit). Perhaps Jackself is the less legendary component of Jack's character. The book doesn't end well for the self - it seems to disappear.

More poems

"Lessons" is the most prosaic of the poems so far until the end where it becomes a staircase of lines - "his mind a corner/ of beehives/ his fingers a box of matches/ his nose the afternoon rain/ his ears yesterday/ his eyes green eyes/ his tongue an earwig/ before it hatches". I don't know if the poem title "Applejack" is supposed to be anything to do with the US drink that's like Calvados. Towards the end the persona has a moment - "he returns/ nowhere to somewhere by/ standing there/ in sunlight, its flickering/ over him like     likelike/    he's been this way before". In "Peewit" he has a fit - "a breeze/ starts to ratch in the dust         the foxglove/ jangles             his legs/ break and he goes down, his eyes a white/ flutter in his head//    the boys circle him/ where he fits,/ grinding his teeth so hard they sing".

In "The Goose Shed" (which has dialogue and but for the line-breaks is Flash - good Flash) he meets Jeremy Wren. He's more explicitly poetic than Jack. I presume he's not a figment. Already there's mention of ghosts. They become friends, go fishing together, go out into the surrounding countryside to smoke and get drunk. We learn little about their parents, but we know that Jeremy's doesn't like him returning home smelling of smoke.

"Nightlines" goes mythic again - "all the streams of England run into/ Jackself's fretting ... their hooked lips/ mouthing into the waterworks and bloodstreams/ for all England". "It" uses end-rhyme with sporadic regularity. Later, "Jack O'Lantern" (one of my favourites) is in xAxA stanzas, the rhyming lines indented.

"Cheapjack" begins with "as an elephant has memory/ so Jeremy Wren has merchandise". The imagery's borrowed from marketing - "he offers Jackself the patter ... sell a man a second shadow ... Jackself lies awake,/ his commercial inhibitions coming undone"

In "Jack Frost" (it's cold) Jack is "wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top winter suit ... and the lametta wig he's kept all year in the Auto-Arctic Unit" ("lametta" is tinsel), slumped on a playground roundabout at 3am having imagined putting frost onto things. Then Jeremy Wren appears wearing "a mantel of tinsel and gauntlets and greaves of kitchen foil", also playing at being Jack Frost.

At the start of "Blackjack" (he's sad) "it's been raining for days". Jack imagines his bathwater carrying his mucky portrait away ("a skin on the water's surface, like engine oil"), the image being in the sewer "from the current on an old bedsheet". He recalls when he started to drink bathwater. He "squats/ to give his reflection in the first puddle/ on the gravel path/ a lick"

In "Pact", Jeremy Wren (who's previously shown signs of being troubled) commits suicide. Jeremy Wren haunts Jack, who sleeps rough for a few days in "The Misery". Even here, the poems aren't without humour - in "A Haunting" there's "don't talk to me about issues, Wren says, look at this old sheet I have to wear". Jack slips closer to madness. The final poem, "Jack O'Bedlam", is 15 AABBA stanzas.

Here's some of the imagery that's scattered through the collection -

  • "eight-legged/ and shrivelled like a dead/ star ... an old spider" (p.25)
  • "listen to those hollyhocks/ those lupins,/ Wren says I've watched the bees/ stealing in and out/ with their furry microphones/ to record the voices inside" (p.27)
  • "the gulls/ flash and snap, like washing on a line" (p.32)
  • "his black shoes are Frankenstein to walk in" (p.42)

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (The poems need to be read in sequence and benefit from being read aloud. ... it is to Coleridge rather than to Hopkins or any nursery rhyme that Polley is most indebted.)
  • Martha Sprackland (she's one of the two "early readers" acknowledged in the book)
  • Joe Carrick-Varty (a collection of story poems, snippets of conversation, thinking and remembering ... On the page many of the poems look sprawled, lopsided, indented, with words set alone and not a full stop to be found. ... The poems take images in nature, or moments of a day, or the cycle of a wing beat and make us experience them like we are right there inside each one.)
  • Martyn Crucefix (Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up. ... The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. ... Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

"Unthology 8", Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones (eds) (Unthank Books, 2016)

The introduction by Ashley Stokes is an edited version of a talk given at the London Short Story Festival. It charts the history of selection procedures from Unthology 1 (30 subs) to Unthology 9 (170+ subs). They decided against advertizing themes for issues beforehand.

  • David Frankel - "Beneath the melting snow". About Edvard Munch (in an afterword the author writes "I have attempted to remain as true to the real events as possible"). 9 pages set in 1932, with backstory flashbacks, then 3 pages set in 1943, then a page set in 1944.
  • Rodge Glass - "Bye bye Ben Ali". The father of the nation flees.
  • Martin Monahan - "The toasted cheese sandwich of Babel". Fast-food meets The Standard Model.
  • Judy Darley - "The Sculptor". An ice-sculptor whose father's mind is going meets a boy who's a glass-blower
  • Dan Malakin - "I, Crasbo". A first-person robot butler.
  • Damon King - "Cuts". A fight in a prison cell, coldly observed.
  • Clare Fisher - "How to get back your guts". A 21 year-old girl who works at Tasty's Chicken hopes to find love.
  • Amanda Mason - "The best part of the day". Meg, having taken a summer job at a seaside to get over a break-up, gets a bit strange over a young man without ever talking to him.
  • AndrĂ© Van Loon - "The Little World". A young couple seem happy together just talking. Then through work she meets an entertaining author. He's insecure.
  • Laura Darling - "10,000 Tiny Pieces". The heroine seems to get over an obsession with jigsaws
  • Sarah Dobbs - "The imaginary wife". A seemingly happy relationship is unsettled by e-mail from one of their ex's.
  • Armel Dagorn - "Nora and Anthony". Life in a theatre.
  • Kit Caless - "Not drowning but saving". A support group for disaster workers who need to keep helping.
  • FC Malby - "Lines in the sand". Around a fire in Africa, a tour-group start talking about God.
  • Lara Williams - "As Understood by the women". On his wedding day a groom feels out of his depth.
  • Victoria Briggs - "A beautiful noise" - Set in Nice during a festival.

Other reviews