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, 19 June 2019

"Kudos" by Rachel Cusk (Faber and Faber, 2018)

On the inside flap it says "Kudos completes Rachel Cusk's trilogy with overwhelming power. The trilogy is one of the great achievements in fiction." Wow.

It's a succession of monologues by people (man on next plane seat, publisher, fellow author Linda, Linda's plane-seat neighbour, interviewer, tour guide, etc) who the main character meets while going to a literary conference. Typically we're given a short description of the speakers before they launch into their monologue. They're all well-spoken, analytical and revealing even if they've not met before. The words of wisdom are shared out pretty evenly amongst them. Duty vs Love, Responsibility vs Freedom are amongst the themes, particularly within marriages where there are children.

We learn about the main character mostly via the others - that's she's got married again (p.84), etc. She has 2 sons, one in his last year of school, one living with his father. A son phones her at the end, asking to fly over to her. She says yes, and goes to a nudist beach. As she swims she watches a man urinate into the sea.

I wondered if the book could have been a non-fiction piece about modern parent-hood from a woman's perspective - how the promise of equality and feminism has turned out. As it is, the illustrative anecdotes are too long, stopping before conclusions can be drawn. Little is gained by introducing the characters because they're all much the same.

Here are some extracts that caught my eye while I was trawling for connections -

Pre-emptive self-criticism

  • "She never said anything unless she had something important to express, which made you realise how much of what people generally said - and he included himself in this statement - was unimportant" (p.94)
  • "It's a saddening thought, she said, that when a group of women get together, far from advancing the cause of femininity, they end up pathologising it" (p.132)
  • "He had noticed, for instance, that my characters were often provoked into feats of self-revelation by means of a simple question" (p.145)
  • "what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free?" (p.184)
  • "where everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing through the mirror, as he put it, into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility" (p.200)
  • "'Not everyone is cruel. Perhaps,' he said, 'you have just been unlucky'" (p.202)
  • "You can't tell your story to everybody, I said. Maybe you can only tell it to one person" (p.230)

A couple, plus one

  • Linda talks about a story she's been struggling with. She got "talking to a writer who told her that every day, when he sat down to write, he would think of an object that didn't mean anything to him and would set himself the task of including it somewhere in that day's work ... he suggests a hamster ... The problem, she now saw, was that she had been trying to describe her husband and daughter using materials - her feelings - that no one else could see. The solid fact of the hamster made all the difference. She could describe them petting and fawning over it while its imprisonment got increasingly on Linda's nerves, and the way it solidified their bond so that Linda felt left out" (p.55)
  • "expressed as a triangle, for instance, the Adam/Eve/serpent relationship is more tangible, since the function of triangulation is to fix two points by means of the third and therefore establish objectivity. If I was interested in metaphors, he said, the serpent's role is merely to create a viewpoint from which Adam's and Eve's weaknesses can be observed, and thus the snake might be representative of anything that triangulates the relationship of two identities, such as the arrival of a child might triangulate its parents" (p.96). I think triangulation fixes one point by means of two others
  • "but isn't it the case, he said, that it's the random thing that is so often the tool to lever yourself out of your rut?" (p.115)

Parenthood versus freedom

  • "My husband and I, in other words, had done our duty, and it was now that I considered taking some of those feminist principles I had distributed far and wide and using them for myself. The truth was that I had long wondered what might lie outside the circumscribed world of my marriage, and what freedoms and pleasures might be waiting for me there" (p.76)
  • "I have met people who have freed themselves from their family relationships. Yet there often seems to be a kind of emptiness in that freedom" (p.81)
  • "the biological basis of parenthood was essentially antithetical to reason, and as such could be seen as a whole system of inverted logic" (p.88)
  • "It may be the case, she said, that it is only when it is too late to escape that we see we were free all along" (p.110)


  • "He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet" (p.3) (good places to wear watches and shoes)
  • "She was a tall, soft, thick-limbed woman made even taller by the elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals she wore on her feet" (p.43) (the sentence could have ended with "by her elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals")
  • "[her nose] was upturned and snub-ended and had a deep V in its bridge, as though someone had drawn it with a certain license, to make a point about the relationship between destiny and form" (p.70)
  • "'... Though of course if he were a woman,' she said, leaning more confidentially towards my ear, 'he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care.'" (p.147)
  • "There are a number of works, she said, executed when Bourgeois was the mother of small children, in which she portrays herself as a spider, and what is interesting about these works is not just what they convey about the condition of motherhood - in distinct contrast, she said, to the perennial male vision of the ecstatically fulfilled madonna - but also the fact that they appear to be children's drawings drawn in a child's hand" (p.190)

No chapters, only the occasional vertical centimetre of white space until p.122 where there's a half-page gap.

Other reviews

  • Kate Clanchy (In her novels, Cusk had never been comfortable with complex, long-form plots, but at the same time was doggedly intellectual, intent on foregrounding ideas ... Almost all Faye’s conversations are with people who are also interested in writing down stories, or indeed are in the act of writing Faye down for an interview, and there is a self-consciousness to all this, a riddling, hall-of-mirrors element that is the reverse of the radical humility of the first two books.)
  • Patricia Lockwood (in these books she is very specifically exploiting the public conversations of men, which they consider genial and beneficent, but which women very often consider a burden or an intrusion.)
  • Katy Waldman (Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly unauthored, without artifice. In the service of that vision, she dispenses with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. Her recent books have a searching quality; they chase after radical realism, the authenticity of the ascetic who forswears all but the bones of life.)
  • Lloyd Evans (Cusk has a technical quirk which is noticeable in virtually every sentence she writes. All her characters have the same rhythms of speech, irrespective of their age, sex, or nationality. And they express themselves in the same register: detached, knowing, melancholy and sophisticated. ... Fey is constantly disappointed by lazy, deceitful or incompetent males)
  • Maggie Doherty (The question of female freedom, its variations and limitations, is one that has preoccupied Cusk throughout her career. ... The women of Kudos grapple with the legacy of second-wave feminism and wonder why, if we’re closer to gender equality than ever, they still feel so trapped and miserable ... The episode is typical of the trilogy: It’s a series of stories nested within each other like Russian dolls, each taking up the theme of captivity. ... Although Cusk’s material here is the same as in her earlier novels, she has reworked it so that it’s almost unrecognizable in its new form. The formal strategies she’s devised—outlining and erasing, compiling and undercutting—allow her to write honestly and precisely about the many sacrifices that women and men make in order to abide by the rules of domestic life. Unlike her memoirs, which at times can feel overwrought, Cusk finds a way here to be serious without being self-serious. ... If, at times, this fiction feels claustrophobic, with its fixed gender roles and its preclusion of alternative ways of living and loving, it is also compelling in subtle and surprising ways. Cusk has produced a portrait of domestic life that will resonate for some and feel entirely foreign for others—those to whom freedom comes more easily.)

Saturday, 15 June 2019

"Coming & Going", Helena Nelson (ed), (Happenstance, 2019)

An anthology of travel-related poems by Happenstance poets - Alison Brackenbury, Gerry Cambridge, Niall Campbell, Peter Daniels, Kirsten Irving, Richie McCaffery, Matt Merritt, Fiona Moore, J.O. Morgan, Stephen Payne, D.A.Prince, Jon Stone, and a host of others. The poems have been selected from pamphlets whose poems were carefully selected and edited, so it should come as no surprise that there are so many good poems. My favourites are "Casting Off", "Departure", "Night Drive", and "Journey Home".

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

"UCL Publisher's Prize for Student Writing 2014" (UCL, 2014)

Until Kathleen Bryson piece nothing interested me. Even that was patchy. The pieces read more like extracts than completed pieces. The most common main character is a 3rd person male who is perceptive enough to see the social conventions that others seem unconscious of, yet follows them all the same. Nicolas Baines' piece is the best example, the character stuck in a job - "The to-do list is the Magna Carta of every professional procrastinator; a pathetically superficial attempt to give structure to one's existence". I liked "Walker of Dogs" by Gwyneth Kelly , "The Tale of Lena-Jane" by Clematis Delany (about how an orphan daughter deals with the ghost of her father who kills himself each day - "she watched a woman light a bedraggled cigarette by the half-hearted shelter of a rain-blacked wall ... She didn't glance to the rectory nestled in the garden to he left, so she didn't see the vicar's anxious, round face watching her pass and chewing sadly on a hobnob, flecks of biscuit at the sides of his mouth"), and "Bud, Rose, Thorn" by Lucy Smith (spooky - "but the antibodies of my conscious thoughts broke up this dark seed as soon as it surfaced, and with it fled a faint, questing stirring")

"Solipsistically armed, she stared to basket the goods" (p.94) has a typo, at least.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

"Dung beetles navigate by starlight" by Sarah Watkinson (Cinnamon Press, 2017)

Poems from Pennine Platform, Litmus, Rialto, Antiphon, etc, with lots about science. "For Professor Alison Smith" begins with a diagram of an organic molecule.

It's impersonal. I liked the title poem - a sonnet. Some of the poems depend too much on the content - I knew about the parasite effect mentioned in "The Enemy Within" so I got little from the poem. "The First Green Human" looks very like Flsh/Micro-fiction to me, and in the company doesn't do enough.

2 poems are shaped. "Getting the Bones Right" atomises the words into syllables (10 per line), each column of syllables centred. Between columns 5 and 6, unbroken and in bold, are the words "one" to "fourteen". Here's a extract

As  a    boy,  on   ly  eleven,   once   I   dis   cov   ered
a  dead  sonn  et 

Other reviews

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

"Giant in the doorway" by Marion Tracy (Happenstance, 2012)

Poems from Obsessed with Pipework and some Australian publications.

There's much about light, kitchens and doors. The first section is a sequence about a family trip, the persona a young girl, the mother having a bit of a breakdown. Except for apostrophes it's punctuation-free. Most of the poems have 3-lined stanzas , lines all about the same length. Here's an extract -

there's a lamp a table a bookcase with glass sliding doors
and an album of pressed flowers she's upstairs

putting lennie into pyjamas

The disruptions are minor. I soon settled into reading it as if it were "just prose" - indeed some of the pages could be prose (Flash sequences are all the rage nowadays). Madness is a tricky topic in that a straight depiction can sound poetic. So all in all, I had trouble reading this section neutrally, the easily poetic layouts not allaying my suspicions about the naturally poetic content.

I much preferred the 2nd part (individual poems) - "ECT" and "Constriction" are my favourites.

Other reviews

Saturday, 1 June 2019

"Stones & Fires" by John Fuller (Chatto, 1996)

Poems from London Magazine, LRB, Oxford Poetry, Poetry Review, TLS etc. There are 3 long poems. I have problem with long poems, but I liked "History" once I tuned into its pacing - "And pondering yourself the puzzle of how we come/ Through all the undetonated chances and mistakes,/ Following the mothballed flag of our assumptions". There are longuers (e.g. a stanza which points out things that happen only once may as a consequence be trivial or especially significant). There's nothing new in "the sense/ Of how we must salvage everything that we can/ From the tide that casts us up on the shore of our lives/ At every moment, wave upon wave upon wave", but there's enough poetry at a small and large scale to succeed. "Europe" follows, 22 Petrachean sonnets which I liked less.

The shorter poems vary in tone and quality. "First Day" includes "The babble of the sap/ As it begins to seep./ The autumn orchard's chorus/ Of thudding apples.// Then came a deeper sound/ Running through time, like sand/ Invisible in glass,/ But pounding, pounding" which is flat compared to the later "Song is the pain of change,/ Song is the body's hinge/ When the whole future widens/ As window or angel.// Til what you have become/ Tells you from where you came,/ Your heart-beat loosened from/ The earth's drumming". I didn't get "Logical Exercises". I didn't like "Shape". "Barbed Wire Blue" was fun. "A Cuclshoc" (shuttlecock) worked from me. "Edward Lear in Corsica" is light verse pastiche. "Canicule Macaronique" (a French/English mix) didn't tickle my funny bone.

After all that I was looking forward to the final long poem, "Star-gazing", about stars and his dead father, but it didn't move me. The rhyming emphasizes the weak parts

And if we wake up in the night,
We easily feel flabbergasted:
Our dreams had such vast scope, despite
Our knowing that it must have lasted
No longer than a meteorite.
No pattern there, except in death,
The stubborn drawing of a breath
After breath after breath that perseveres
For all of our allotted years,
The sixtieth, seventieth, eightieth.

A book well worth reading all the same.

Other reviews

  • Fuller's 1996 collection Stones and Fires stands out from the rest of his oeuvre for its very unwhimsical portrayal of grief at the death of his father, in poems like "The Garden", "Star-Gazing" and the marvellous "A Cuclshoc" (David Wheatley)

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

"Legoland" by Gerard Woodward (Picador, 2016)

  • In the first story, "The Family Whistle", a long-lost soldier husband returns to his wife after WW2. But her husband's already returned. Which one's the real one? She prefers the one she's with even though the new one's probably the genuine article. An ok plot, but little development given the length of the piece.
  • I like "Union State" though there are too many words towards the end.
  • In "A Night Crossing" a guy encounters a stag-party group, and thinks he's missed out on a night with a beautiful women. He end up sleeping in the stag-party's minibus regretting his missed opportunities and wondering what sort of person he is. I like the way the man's portrayed.
  • "The Dogs" is a dud.
  • "The Face" is a decent idea that nearly comes off.
  • "The Fall of Mr and Mrs Nicholson" is fast-paced, with some humour - a writer is involved when a president is overturned and killed.
  • "A birthday cockatrice" doesn't work for me.
  • "The unloved" is mostly a dud, which puts 60 pages of deadwood in the middle of the book.
  • In "Legoland" a man who's lost his memory has the main character's phone number in his pocket, on a playing card - the 3 of hearts. The narrator visits him in hospital, doesn't know him. The narrator's girlfriend Gemma (36 - she lives in another town) gets a heart-shaped tattoo which shocks him. The amnesiac briefly visits, attended by a nurse, suspiciously finds a pack of cards lacking the 3 of hearts, asks to stay for a few days because he doesn't want to stay in hospital. Like several of the other characters in the book, the narrator says yes when he means no. Gemma gets a matching tattoo on her other breast. The amnesiac calls himself Terry. They take him to Legoland because he'd been found walking towards it. They lose him there, and are relieved when they find/remember him again. There's a brief hint that thanks to Legoland the happily childless couple might consider starting a family.
  • "Astronomy" - out of the blue a mother of 3 gets her husband a big telescope for his 32nd birthday. In the back garden "When he came to putting his eye to the eyepiece, he felt as gauche and as inadequate as a boy stealing his first kiss" (p.222). He "was astonished at how much of his neighbours' lives was visible, that they conducted them so openly, illuminated and uncurtained" (p.223). The story could have worked with a bit of tweaking.
  • "Vice" - not saved by the final paragraph.
  • "The Underhouse" - a neat idea that doesn't outstay its welcome
  • "Glue" - Dawn (legal secretary - married with 2 daughters) and Lara (her younger sister - lesbian artist) don't meet often although Lara is the godmother of the girls. They fall out, with some help. Another weak piece.
  • "The Flag" - A family is struggling to get food now that their country's been invaded. There's a giant funfair in the centre of town where everything is free. I didn't get much from the story's linear trajectory.
  • "Neighbours" - a divorced man is asked by his old neighbour, Mrs Bredell, to complain about baboons howling and knocking in the adjoining empty flat. He can't see/hear them, but it's a problem in their city - 3 pages are expended telling us about it. After hearing noises they knock on the door, she with a harmless gun. Young lovers answer the door. The story ends well with the man consoling a shaken Mrs Bredell as a baboon appears at her window.

Several times in these stories I felt that the proportions were wrong - a passage lasted 3 pages instead of 1; a story idea should only have supported a page or two of text, or have been a sub-plot of a longer piece. I liked some aspect of many of the pieces.

Other reviews

  • Max Liu (Woodward's writing is accessible but never simple or sentimental ... It's true that not everything works. "The Flag" owes too obvious a debt to Kafka, the depiction of the artist in "Glue" is unconvincing and some shorter stories are forgettable.)
  • surreyedit
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