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, 21 April 2018

"Magma 70" (Spring 2018)

86 big, nearly square pages - about 50 of poetry (3 poems/page sometimes), 10 of reviews, and a wide selection of articles. Poems by Matt Sweeney, Richie McCaffery, Josh Ekroy, etc. This issue has a "Europe" theme, to which it sticks quite closely. There are different themes and editors each issue. The feature that struck me was that several of the poems repeat a word many times - "Invitation" has "Hotel Europa" in each of its 10 stanzas; "Les Vacances" has "Monsieur" in each of its 4 stanzas; "Duck Three Ways" has "aka" 5 times and "According to" 3 times; "La Monnaie" has 16 lines starting with "In the"; "Hungarians" has "Hungarians" 8 times, and "Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere" has "nowhere" in each of its 14 lines. There's a fair amount of non-standard typography too.

The launch was in Europe House with well over 100 attendees on Apr 6th. I managed to squeeze in at the back.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"On becoming a fairy godmother" by Sara Maitland (Maia, 2003)

I thought at first that the repetition hinted at the character's early onset dementia. When it happened again, I thought that maybe it was an attempt at rhetoric. When I saw that the only two acknowledgements were for BBC Radio 4 I realised that the style might suit radio well. Here are some examples of repeated or daisy-chained phrases

  • I have gone over and over it with my sister of course. We have wondered and speculated and been sad and curious and have missed her and hated her and loved her and envied her. We have been angry on our behalf, on her grandchildren's behalf, and on grounds of abstract morality, but we cannot be angry on his behalf, p.68
  • My lover has a ribbon, a twisted purple ribbon that run across the white skin of his belly, across the contours of his white chest, p.73
  • She woke up too early, restless and hungover; dry mouth, blurry eyes, a little nauseous, slightly achy. And tired: tired from the whole of the day before and tired again from sleeping badly. She had fallen semi-stuporous into her bed, but before sleep had reposed her she had been awake again. Her skin had itched ... So she she was restless and tired and hung over, p.93
  • I was a Child Protection Officer. It is a terrible thing to be. I came too near to the foulness - to the stenching, sulphurous pit. I also came too near my [sic] own incompetence, omniscience, self-righteousness and smug, ugly pride. None the less I was a good Child Protection Officer, p.114

Subject matter includes witches, step-mothers, abandoned wives, childlessness, menopause (Eve menopausal, Helen of Troy at 60, thin and brittle hair, etc), couples breaking up. The situations are explored inventively (I like the Tarot reader) though some stories are light, with little exploration - "She was locked into perpetual passivity and gratitude and love", p.34. Sometimes there's more reflection, about people as well as literature -

  • I'm not exactly looking for self-justification. There's this thing going on at the moment where women tell all the old stories again and turn them inside-out and back-to-front - so the characters you always thought were goodies turn out to be baddies, and vice versa, and a whole lot of guilt is laid to rest: or at least that is the theory, p.28
  • So in the end - and yes I have examined all the motives and reasons why one woman should be cruel to another and I do not find them explanatory - so in the end I was cruel to her, p.33
  • regardless of women's rights and post-modernity, you still have to play one role or another in the old tales, p.126

The later stories are more interesting - "On becoming a fairy godmother", "Helen of Troy's Aerobics Class", "Choosing Paradise" and "Having Sex with a Saint". I was hoping that "Loving Oedipus" would be saved by its ending. It wasn't. "Sybil" began rather predictably but became prose-poetry by the end. She's not Angela Carter, but she shouldn't be underestimated.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads (There were some terrific standouts, like "The Wicked Stepmother's Lament", "Sailing the High Seas", and "Choosing Paradise". "Foreplay" and "Loving Oedipius" were good, and "Helen of Troy's Aerobics Class" was fun. But there were a few that were uneven, and one or two that could have been left out of the book altogether ... Some hit, some miss. I like the story of Cinderella's stepmother's point of view. And another about Helen of Troy. But some just fall flat for me. ... Although I liked some of the stories, overall I found this anthology disappointing. Too many of the stories shared the same characteristics of voice and theme)

Saturday, 14 April 2018

"The Electric Michelangelo" by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, 2016)

Having much enjoyed her short stories I didn't expect this novel to be as much of struggle as it was to read. The main narrative voice is usually coloured by whichever character it's focussed through at any one time, but it's always wordy. The first paragraph has "If the eyes could ... If the eyes were not ... The trick of course ... The trick was ... If he kept his eyes away". The rhetoric repetition helps stoke up the story I suppose, but what about the following? - "The little smoulder gathered strength and in the strong sea breeze it spun into a persistent glut of flame. Then the fire, suddenly very confident, spread to the ground-floor ceiling of the structure and lay upside down across its rafters. The great pavilion of the Taj Mahal went up in a blaze the likes of which the town had never seen before. The golden dome of the building shone in the darkness as reddish flames leaped upwards from the wooden strutting of the deck" (p.42). "little smoulder"? "spun into a persistent glut"? "reddish"? And what about

  • He also possessed a boisterous, cane-happy left arm and a good aim for catapulting loose objects from the blackboard shelf at chattering individuals, but that was by the by (p.56). Who's saying that it's "by the by"? Why "loose"?
  • A man was wiping the bar down with a cloth, he nodded his head to Riley when he entered, in cursory greeting (p.71). I don't think "down with a cloth" is needed, nor "his head" or ",in cursory greeting". It's a run-on sentence too. Maybe just "A man wiping the bar nodded to Riley when he entered" would have sufficed.
  • The man appeared thunderous with concentration and premeditation, as if some kind of vendetta were in operation (p.76). Is the rhyming deliberate?
  • Like magic, like an illusion, or a trick of the light, or some other unspecified miracle (p.84) - why all the words?
  • she arrived a week later, smelling of old lace and apprehension (p.105)
  • Cy thought to himself (p.295)

We learn about the tourist trade in Morecambe, pissing contests, suffragette visits (don't know why), quicksand, a pier fire, Aurora, and the effect of the first world war. It sounds well researched. I liked the description of Riley on p.90-96, and the analysis of the tattooist-client relationship, the nature of tattooing, and the symbolism of the designs, and how they might summarise a person - "Humans had gone well beyond the red hourglass and the simplicity of natural informative markings. They had evolved, complicated life, refined it and lost touch. They had tried to push back the basics, the cruelty and poison, the seeds and urges, the nurture and beauty" (p.149). On p.140, Cy, the main character, now over 30, parentless and childless, suddenly goes to the States using a false passport. He opens a booth on Coney Island, calls himself "The Electric Michelangelo".

  • For all the city's obscure adaptions and unclear reveries, for all its urban confusion and impacted allegories, Brooklyn did have one uncomplicated feature. It had purity of light (p.172)
  • Coney Island, as it turned out, was Morecambe's richer, zany American relative. A fat, expensively dressed in-law with a wicked smile and the tendency, once caught up in the mood, to take things too far (p.182)
  • Coney Island offered up inebriation with startling dexterity and precision and for a time it could predict the vulgar thoughts of the masses like a mind-reader, responding with tailor-made surrealities and rides which were pure stimulant (p.189)
  • Coney now had all the desperation of a mistress high on some cheap substance, eager to please her lover, terrified and motivated by the knowledge that he was becoming less interested in her charms and she could no longer instinctively guess his fetish (p.194)

He has the gift of the gab now, he's even swotted up on The Dodgers. After a few years he meets Grace, who reminds him of his mother - "Grace has solemn eyes that were territorial and displaced and dark ... Her eyes said that she also arrived young in a foreign country, or on the cusp of two ages ... The eyes spoke somehow of abandonment and resolve ... They spoke of adopted parents ... They said something of failed immigration procedures" (p.214). "Her eyes, even in the inadequate light, were each a litany of struggle, strategy, and survival" (p.219). Grace wants him to tattoo eyes all over her. She thinks that "The secret was that if the city tipped just so against the light you could see a fine web between corresponding human hearts throughout it, like a spider's web ... And the beauty was, if you turned and looked behind you, perhaps you would see that you had spun a separate strand" (p.215). She has "a mind that went out like a rider on horseback to meet an enemy, both courageous and negotiating " (p.217). She plays chess. In the phrase "news of a queen's gambit broke" (p.213) I suspect "Queen sacrifice" is intended - there's nothing unusual about the Queen's gambit. It's 1940. He still has flashbacks to earlier times. They can feel rather forced - on p.293-4 the boggart and quicksand return. Only on p.231 did I realise that his mother was an abortionist. Grace tells him that in Europe Jews have numbers tattooed onto them. She asks if he's seen the work of Braque. He has. She's a victim of an acid attack done by a man who wants her skin restored to its original condition. She recovers, but it takes a while. He sees her skin grafts. He helps her to take revenge. In 1946 he returns to Morecambe, soon in decline. He resumes his profession and takes on Nina, a punk, as an apprentice.

I think some of the wordiness is sloppy, but most of it looks like a chosen style. I got used to it, though I prefer a more minimalist style.

On p.336 "unkown" looks like a typo.

Other reviews

  • Jem Poster (There's evidence in the detail of the text that the novel has been edited with rather greater haste than was good for it, but this doesn't significantly affect its essential virtues)
  • Kirkus Review (There is a torrent of whimsy and caressingly lyrical description, but the effect of all this poetry is not enchantment; it’s weariness. The characters are flat, the story travels far without ever really going anywhere and the occasional attempts to philosophize about tattoos are generally fatuous. A lot of flash, and not much more.)
  • Michael Caines (The Electric Michelangelo is not a light-footed novel, and its imagery jangles heavily as it plods through the years in chronological order)
  • Peter Mathews (The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian ... Hall ... is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, ... Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable)

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

"The Singing Sands" by Josephine Tey (Arrow Books 2011)

A whodunnit first published in 1952. I found some of the sentences hard going, and the dialogue not always convincing. Perhaps it's the dialect or era -

  • Browsing. A fattening-up for the table. A mindless satisfaction of animal desires. Browse, indeed! The very sound of the word was an offence. A snore. (p.3)
  • They fished turn-about, in a fine male amity (p.31)
  • 'I take it that he is a once-born.'
    'Him! He's not born at all, man. He's a-a-a egg.'
    Grant concluded that the word Pat had sought was amoeba, but that knowledge had not reached so far.
    (p.32)

There's much more about Grant's conquering of his own demons than of the crime, and Grant's deductions from handwriting (and observing the similarity between "Rub'al-Khali" and "robbing the Caley") are far-fetched. I like the idea that the detective has a debt to the murder victim (the investigation acting as therapy). Grant's "inside voice" is so overt that it's a psychological problem in itself.

I had trouble determining whether there were sexual innuendos - things were "gay" and "queer" (far enough) but on p.161, the beautiful widow Zoe says "You haven't missed anything, Alan Grant. No one has had a nibble all day. Would you like to take my rod for a little? Perhaps a change of rhythm will fetch them"

Grant takes planes rather than trains as often as we do nowadays. On p.234 he receives as letter from the murderer which explains the plot.

Other reviews

Saturday, 7 April 2018

"The first bad man" by Miranda July (Canongate, 2015)

It's perhaps easiest to read it as comedy. Cheryl, 43 years old, the 1st-person character, has fancied Phillip, 22 years her senior, for years. He at last invites her to his place for a meal. He has something important to tell her - he's fallen in love with a 16 y.o. girl. Have they had sex? Phillip says "Well, I want to, and she wants to - but the attraction is so powerful that we almost don't trust it. Is it real or is it just the power of the taboo? I've told her all about you and our relationship. I explained how strong you are, how you're a feminist and you live alone, and she agreed we should wait until we got your take on it" (p.47).

The company she works for produces self-defence DVDs, which might explain her role-playing tendencies. Cheryl discovers that her two therapists are in a relationship, that they role-play too. She lets a colleague's daughter, Clee, stay with her. Clee disrupts her careful routines. They role-play scenes than involve violence. Cheryl fantasises the sex fantasies that she thinks Phillip has, playing the male. She's offered a place on the board by Clee's parents, to replace Phillip who's mysteriously disappeared. Clee becomes pregnant, wants a home-birth, wants to give the baby for adoption.

After the birth, Clee decides to keep the baby. Clee and Cheryl begin a physical relationship and Cheryl becomes a co-mother. Clee's parents aren't happy with the inappropriate relationship and demote Cheryl. When baby Jack is 7 months old, Clee leaves by mutual consent. Then Phillip turns up.

Along with the comedy there are passages of inspired writing, as on p.38-39, p.153, and p.162 when a one-dollar bill is used during childbirth.

Other reviews

  • Laura Miller (Nearly everyone in the novel justifies their capricious narcissism with the lingo of self-actualisation, all while treating the lonely Cheryl as either a convenience or an encumbrance. ... It’s true that if you dig deeply enough, you can find something bizarre about almost anyone. When, however, the focus for nearly 300 pages is on a relatively small cast, the multiplying weirdness becomes unamusing absurdity)
  • Lauren Groff (Challenging work tends to incite readerly resistance, and I’d bet that “The First Bad Man” will not be exempt from this rule. ... The book ends in precisely the way any perceptive reader who reaches Page 8 would predict. By then, the novel’s conventional shape has neutralized some of its early strangeness and potency. The story is a smaller one than it promised early on.)

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

"Assembly Lines" by Jane Commane (Bloodaxe, 2018)

Poems from "Bare Fiction", "The North", "The Morning Star", etc. "Our Old Lady of the Rain" was in the Guardian, with notes. "The shop-floor gospel" with notes was in "Proletarian Poetry". "Sand" was in "And other poems".

At times it assaults with density. Syntax is clear (no linguistic fireworks) - it's the content that forces a slow read

  • Manning barricades/ for a word plucked/ from the bible-paper-thin/ passport pages/ that open on/ another world entirely/ but refuse to navigate/ on dialects (p.12)
  • [a school anthem] will be composed of skiving off and suicide alley,/ the sound of civic pigeons colonising the silverware,// the clash of boy meets girl meets tragic ensemble of light/ somewhere beyond the silos of a different town just like this (p.14)
  • Being not much to look at is my first footprint/ on the unmade bed of your heart;/ unassuming, with my shark's under-bite,/ I scent the blood of single parent (p.50)

Phrases are packed - "a bent penny jamming the mind's jukebox" (p.49); "Framethrowers hiss the shocked verse on the impromptu plaza of a flattened city" (p.54). "Night as rag-soaked petroleum" (p.60) uses a tricksy word-swap. "where the washing waves our shadows from the line"(p.62) needs unpacking too. The poems require and reward attention. I struggled with the poems on p.24, p.27, p.37, p.39, p.43, p.55, some of which I liked all the same.

It's perhaps unfair to isolate lines, but these following downers are just some that appear at/near the end of poems, where you'd expect conclusions - "a seam of light is struck/ to fade the poster of a one-hit wonder" (p.9); "All you have taught us/ is the story/ of our own/ destructions" (p.11); "We seem to be moving along without gaining ground,/ giving way to actors who do a better job of the poor drama,/ shifting to the sidings of our own roadside attractions" (p.16). Industrial/urban decline is symbolised variously. There's a sense of inevitability to it, the "I bloody told you so" of "The Shop-floor Gospel" echoing implicitly throughout.

  • In "Fabrikgeist" a ghost manifests itself as movement of abandoned factory objects.
  • In "The Shop-floor Gospel" a shutdown isn't compensated for by retail parks or hanging around in public libraries.
  • In "Coventry is" the city's "always the bridesmaid and never the bride ... only needs a good architect to get rid of the dark roots ... and get herself back on that bloody horse" (like the young Godiva, but also a reminder that after a fall, the advice is to get straight back on the horse).
  • In "Midlands kids," "car plants, company overalls, jobs for life" all vanish.
  • "Our Old Lady of the Rain" was "a Midas inside-out", making things rust and clog up.
  • In "Odds On" the golden age of Red Rum, Dawn Run and Arkle is over - "Mass graves for the trophy ponies".
  • On p.33 "the shammy camouflage of enterprise zones, the vortex of estates and vast retail shacks" don't compensate - "heartlands become poundlands".
  • The title of "How the Town Lost Its Song" continues the theme. Later in that poem it's time to "monetise the hinterlands".

The book cheers up when hearts are "proof then, even in our age of surfaces, that/ what is hidden, messy, within, still matters" (p.32) and ends on a high, in a back garden of a nondescript town - "There is so much that could be said about/ the commonplace miracle of being here in this moment".

There are few signs of rebellion - "An afternoon misspent in the study of gravity's trajectory; stones chipping the verandahs of the elite" (p.13); "You are the lone no on the shop-floor" (p.18). There's little hope for an authentic future - "Fortune-teller, free agent,/ laughter in grubby canteens;/ Mark my words./ We’re a living museum!/ There’s no future" (p.18).

If I told you that my paternal grandfather was a pipe-layer in Coventry, you'd already know more particulars than you'll find in this book. Classmates wouldn't recognise the personae, Midlanders wouldn't recognise their towns. There are no computers or phones, and more horses than cars. No families. No homeless. Some poems, nostalgic though they may be, make it clear that there was no Golden Age - not for the towns nor the narrators. What's the connection between the narrators and the setting? "Our Old Lady of the Rain" ends with "I loved her, though I didn’t know if I should" which could be read as having doubts about risking pathetic fallacy, or guilt about using such imagery if one isn't on the breadline too. In "Homing" the narrator has a sense of class-based detachment, of being a square peg in a round hole - "the fault lines of class are never far from the surface of conversation, though it will ache to know this. Odd then, this squareness of feeling, round wholeness of being apart, homesick for a place where there are no manners to feign".

There's much daisy-chaining of themes and images from one poem to the next. Here are a few examples -

  • Themes segue from maps (p.24-28 - also on p.51 and p.54) and horses/dogs (p.29-31) to hearts (p.32).
  • "How the Town Lost Its Song" is followed by "The poem written to settle an old score" (pun on "score"?) and later, on p.54 by "Only slow decades will ... give back the words with which the street's aria is sung"
  • "a biscuit tin of fireworks under the stairs of a matchstick house" (p.49) twins with "I'll squat in your lives, a tinder box waiting for a stray spark" on p.50
  • "Disturbed, a blackbird's nest" (p.52) is followed on p.53 by "an ill-rumouring wind disturbs the birds"

What impresses me most about the book is how consistently the poems made me work - there are no easy rides, and there's always something to appreciate. My favourites are "National Curriculum", "Sand", "Border Dispute" (a relationship argument is symbolically resolved by ripped up and regluing a map), "Seven Horse Secrets", "Double Exposure", "How we fell in love with big data", "The Ghost Light", and "Otters, Avon".

Saturday, 31 March 2018

"My Grandmother's Glass Eye" by Craig Raine (Atlantic Books, 2016)

The inside cover says "There is something Johnsonian in Craig Raine's common sense - an elegant wrecking ball used with precision and delicacy to pick off the pretentious, the platitudinous, the over-promoted". Chapter headings include "Vagueness and Accuracy", "Rhythm", "The Line", and "Metaphor". He deals with these issues in a way that poetry readers might find useful.

Clarity

  • "I am against poetry which is vague, pretentious and exaggerated. I am against neither difficult poetry nor pellucid poetry", p.x
  • "Bad readers, like the poor, are always with us. And their badness takes the form of the complacent confusion they bring. Poetry isn't diminished by clarity", p.xx
  • "It seems odd to me that we are still trapped in the idea that art and sincerity are logically incompatible to poetry", p.2
  • "both music and poetry appear at once unspecific and all-encompassing. If a single meaning cannot be assigned with any conviction, then perhaps this is because both arts are too profound to be paraphrased", p.12
  • [of Ricks] "What is the procedure, the methodology here? To notice a pun, notice it is irrelevant, yet explain its 'function' - as a suspect to be eliminated from enquiries", p.36
  • "the first task we require of poetry is to mean something. Second, when we read, we eliminate unhelpful connotations of words and look for the relevant meaning - the one which unlocks the sense of the poem. Deconstruction is no way to read poetry", p.155
  • "Banville is not alone in this preference for imprecision, for indistinctness, for fog", p.125
  • "Paul Muldoon's 'Quoof' is a genuinely difficult poem. Here are three critics - Tim Kendall, Clair Wills and (not sorry about this) Tom Paulin again - all getting it wrong", p.148

Rhythm

  • He quotes several poets who claim that the rhythm of a poem came before (sometimes years before) the words - e.g. "Words fall into rhythms before they make sense. It often happens that I discover what a poem is about through a process of listening to what its rhythms are telling me", Anne Stevenson, Poetry (March 2007)

Metaphor

He compares the execution of some attempts tackling the cemetery-city trope - e.g. "Manhattan mocked by the packed verticality of the headstones" (Julian Barnes), "citylike miniature eternity" (Allen Ginsberg), and "headstones presented the appearance of an overdeveloped city of the future" (Ian McEwan), "the high-gloss obelisks of the new burial plots, a miniature Chicago of the dead" (Julie Maxwell) - trying to identify what makes a successful metaphor -

  • "The conceit is the opposite of the epic simile which maximises the distance between the two things being compared - to maximise the satisfaction of closure when it eventually comes", p.84
  • "What makes a bad metaphor? Metaphor which is vague, metaphor which is pedantic, metaphor which is slow", p.95
  • "For a metaphor or simile to work, there must be an obvious distance between the tenor and vehicle ... The effective simile is also a self-conscious simile", p.82

Subtexts

  • When a poem (e.g. "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening") seems too simple, it's worth delving. The poet often leaves clues - "a surface 'inadequacy' that prompts further searching", p.120
  • "the simplicity, the fit of this solution to the words on the page, is how we know the meaning is right", p.144

Other reviews

  • Sarah Crown (The book, it becomes clear, was born out of Raine’s frustration with what he sees as the indulgent and at times ridiculous mystification of poetry, and his corresponding desire to strip it back and show us that poems do, actually, have concrete, graspable meanings. ... it soon transpires that though his aims may be high-minded, his methods are frequently anything but. The cogency of his arguments is warped by their interspersal with what amounts to a series of vendettas waged against other, lesser critics whose fatal misapprehensions and vanities Raine is determined to expose. ... This is an undeniably gripping book – in part because Raine’s own close readings can be insightful and elegant, but also because of the sense you have, holding it, that you’re in a front row seat at a boxing match. Still, there is a fine line between invigoration and assault, and alas, it’s a line that Raine regularly fails to observe. Despite his neat trick of implicating his readers by cosily including us in the circle of his brilliance (“we realise”, “we understand”, “we are all familiar with … ”) the ad hominem nature of his attacks becomes first wearing, then distancing and ultimately alienating)