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, 25 June 2022

"Roddy Lumsden is dead" by Roddy Lumsden (Wrecking Ball Press, 2001)

Poems from Magma, Poetry Review, Snakeskin, TLS, Verse, etc. In the first section all the titles begin with "My" - e.g. My pain. In the notes he mentions his depersonalisation problems and writes that these earlier poems are "an attempt to make some sense of that loss of identity and temporary death of selfhood."

The poems are accessible, with insights and witty turns of phrase, though it seems to me that if he has 3 ideas he writes 3 poems rather than a single, more intense piece. "My Prayer" for example ends with "please may/ the emotional tourist in each one of us/ cast anchor in a sun-spoilt bay", but the 10 lines leading up to that do little. Similarly "Escher". I prefer "My Solitude" or "The Lost Boys".

He's also good at eking out the most from lists ("The Cola Venus") and chains of ideas ("Underground Literature"). He uses rhyme sometimes, often rather loosely.

Other reviews

  • Clare Pollard(None of our most established poets, from Duffy to Motion, has laid bare skeletons, vulnerability or pain in their oeuvre, and the idea of writing to come to terms with personal events has come to be perceived as almost the hallmark of amateurism ... Whilst his poetry is technically dazzling, and packed with beautiful and unexpected lines, he often appears to have a paucity of content. This may be linked to his prolific output, and the fact poetry seems to come as easily to him as talking - he often appears determined to work even the most insignificant image or idea into a poem. The second section of Roddy Lumsden is Dead, 'But Sweet,' contains a number of 'throwaways' that could easily have been cut to produce a stronger collection. ... part of the reason why the second section seems weak is because it is an irrelevancy after the dazzling title sequence that makes up the first half of the book. This would have been a strong collection in itself (at 58 pages), and in its urgency, highlights the slightness of the other work.)

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

"Collected stories" by Janice Galloway (Vintage, 2009)

The stories come from 2 books, one of which (where you find it) I've already read. So this is really a write-up of the "Blood" book

  • Blood - Lots of dualing of exterior with interior. While a schoolgirl has a big tooth extracted, she looks into the dentist's mouth. She's given a sanitary pad for her mouth until the bleeding stops. She returns to school. The toilets have drawings of private parts. Her period starts. While she's playing a piano, she puts her (ivory) tooth that she's saved onto the piano. A boy student who never talks to girls suddenly talks to her. Blood pours from her mouth onto the (ivory) keys.
  • Scenes from the Life No. 23: Paternal Advice - Like a play script, or a cartoon script -
    SAMMY's eyes mist with sudden tears as the object of his sentimental contemplation appears in an oval clearing above the mans head. A thinks balloon. Inside, a small boy of about five or six years ...
    SAMMY clenches his eyes and the balloon vision pops. POP. Little lines radiate into the air to demonstrate with the word GONE in the middle, hazily. Then it melts too.
  • Love in a changing environment - A couple move into a room above a bakery shop. Their actions and emotions are dominated by the rhythm of the smells and noises from below. Then the bakery is replaced by a butchers and things go wrong. She moves out. The piece does quite a lot in 3 pages.
  • Frostbite - A female music student helps a drunk old man get on a late bus. He seems ok, but suddenly tirades against women and lashes out at her.
  • Scenes from the Life No. 29: Dianne - An overheard discussion about a holiday from working on the rigs. 2 pages.
  • it was - An old woman starts following Uncle George for a cup of tea though she knows he's dead
  • David - a tipsy girl is taken advantage of in a place (and by a boy) that she thought was safe, unthreatening. She was enthusiastic at the time.
  • two fragments - alernative anecdotes to explain family disfigurements
  • Scenes from the Life No. 26: The communist and the senior citizen - An old lady is visted by a health worker using a play script format and some Robbe-Grillet technique. The old lady overdoses at the end?
  • Into the roots - A woman's life is described by reference to her hair - thick, dyed, styled, etc - with a nostalgia for past styles.
  • Breaking through - Janet, 6, visits 2 ladies. Blackie is their dog. The old lady throws herself into the open fire
  • Fair Ellen and the Wanderer Returned - A woman sees a man approach from a long way off. He tells her he's back. She tells him it's too late. 10 years. She waited but now she's married. The weakest piece so far
  • Scenes from the Life No. 24: Bikers - Some description of 3 people in a chip shop, then "It is hard to know where to break in: they seem so self-sufficient and give so few clues. It may as well be now". We then get some fragments of conversation about car mechanics, then "They chant in minimalist verses, machine-shop precise ... A ritual by heart: components of tea-ceremony delicacy for Zen brothers in black leather robes" then chat about a woman who killed herself because a man who got her pregnant would marry her. Then back to engine chit-chat.
  • Need for restraint - A woman sees a fight on the way to meeting her husband to do shopping. She wants to talk to him about it. She thinks the two of them might argue. She wonders what kinds of disagreements should happen in public, and which should be interrrupted by passers-by.
  • Plastering the Cracks - When a woman peels off wallpaper, plaster comes off too. She gets builders in who speaking incoherently and offer a quote too good to be true. She takes them on. They seem to be overdoing things, then playing a trick on her, so she dismisses them. Actually they've done a fine job. I don't get the story.
  • later he would open his eyes in a strange place, wondering where she - A couple commit suicide.
  • The meat - I don't get this short piece. A carcass hung in a shop is abandoned.
  • Fearless - A cranky man confronts people who look at him - and sometimes people who don't. The locals are used to him, even respect him for being a character. They pretend to each other that they find him amusing. The 2nd half of the story describes the narrator's turn to be confronted by him, when she was a little girl walking with her mother. It's clearer now that the man symbolises threatening behaviour - the sort that lone women face and laugh off after. She kicked his shin though the women, her mother included, said she should have ignored him. She's kicked shins ever since
  • Scenes from the Life No. 27: Living In - Another script. A man wakes, prepares, leaves, returns, goes to bed. "THE EXPRESSION ON HIS FACE NEVER ALTERS". When he's asleep a naked woman gets out of his bed. She's been there all the time.
  • Nightdriving - 3 episodes of night-driving.
  • things he said - No
  • A Week with Uncle Felix - Much the longest piece - c.50 pages. The beginning is
    'Clementine.'
    The buzzing came clearer by degrees.

    Duncan humming through the engine noise, the same bit over and over. Grace was muttering at the same time, paper crackling under her thumbs
    Things don't clarify for a while. Senga is a girl who lives in Scotland, sharing a double bed with her mother. She has been driven for 8 hours by Duncan and Grace to her father's brother, Uncle Felix (a widower), who was a young man in 1944. Her father (who died in hospital) was called Jock. They're staying for a week to give her mother a break. Senga is given a fair bit of freedom. She's given a pound and allowed to go into town alone. When she's left alone in the house she finds uncle Felix's porn mags - he'll see that she disturbed them. She overhears her mother, Greta, being described as bitter and twisted. How old is Senga? It's unclear. Men joke that she and Grace could be sisters. After 30+ pages we've given the hint that she has pubic hair. She's aware of Grace's moods when Duncan obsesses with cars. On the last day Felix tells Senga she can ask about her father. She doesn't know what to ask. Her mother says he was a drunk. He gives her the pearls of his late wife, something to remember him by. He touches her breast, asks for a kiss. At the end, Grace is photographed with "her brother" - who? Duncan starts whistling "Clementine".
    My favourite story of the book. A standard style, with passages of near stream-of-consciousness. I didn't know that "greet" means "cry" in Scotland.

Old ladies, rectangles of light, women killing themselves. Contrast between observer and participant - observer/narrator becoming participant.

Other reviews

  • James Holden (By and large, though, Galloway’s stories run along on alternative rules, primarily for paragraph indention and ways of marking speech, that are consistently deployed across both collections of stories reprinted in this book. The overall impact of this is to inject realism and intimacy into her writing. ... Her short stories are like a master class in finding small details that render a realistic setting or momentum ... They also tend to be set during quite tight time frames ... ‘Love in a changing environment’ is just one of a number of truly outstanding pieces in this collection, sitting alongside ‘Blood’, ‘valentine’, ‘the proposal’ and ‘last thing’ as short stories that ought to be recognised as classics (‘last thing’ was included in Penguin’s recent Best British Short Stories curated by Philip Hensher). Most of the highlights here were first published in Where You Find It, whose stories appear to be a little better controlled, a touch more variety in the characters, plots that are a smidgeon more compelling.)
  • Kirkus Reviews (Many of the pieces are little more than brief sketches of a mood, place, or character; others resemble scenes from a play ... Powerful images and ideas in stories often too elliptical and fragmentary to engage fully. An interesting but uneven debut.)

Saturday, 18 June 2022

"The Telling" by Julia Webb (Nine Arches Press, 2022)

Poems from Alchemy Spoon, Butcher's Dog, Poetry Wales, Under the Radar, etc. At the launch on 26th May, Jane Commane suggested that some themes were - finding where the damage is; how stories shape us; how trauma is passed down. Julia suggested another theme - that of water, saying that in dream it represents emotion. There's the horror of flooding, of domestic space invaded by water. She started the reading with the book's first poem, "Crash Site", the mother as a crashed plane - "we never did find that black box" - and ended with the book's last poem, a reconstruction of the mother from things around the house, magicked into life by chanting her name (perhaps an analogy to how the words of this book summoned a living mother character).

The book has fewer myth/fairy-tale elements than "Bird Sisters" had, and less about Thetford and growing up than "Threat" had. It's replete with family characters - mother and father get at least half a dozen poems each. Grandparents, sisters, ex and children also feature. They're rarely alone - interaction between "I" and these characters is the norm. Consequently it's rather hard to review the book without indulging in character analysis. I'll assume that all references to "mother" in the book refer to the same person (ditto "father", etc). I'll assume that the "I" person is the same in all the poems, though I won't assume that it's the author. Sometimes the supporting cast interact - mother and sister in the same poem, or mother and father, so it useful to read the poems in context.

When the "I" is the focus in this book, it tends to be transformed (into a picnic rug, mermaid, comet, concrete, bear, lobster, broken-down van) or fragmented (e.g "Selves (non existent)") - not so much to escape, to be someone/something else, but to be able to see others differently, the other often mutating too - e.g. "When she was a field/ I ran through her ... When she was a road/ I parked myself ... When she was a train" (p.16). In other poems mother's a bramble, father is a rhinoceros, a parrot, a budget supermarket, a pine tree. These transformations can backfire though - "I was a bomb and he was a fuse - and she lit it" (p.34).

The symbolism and focus on relationships come at a cost. The characters don't learn about each other by sharing activities. There aren't crowds or landscapes. People don't go for a swim or a ramble. In fact, they barely move, barely have a location. They don't have a sense of belonging to a place. Travel might do them good, a chance to be at one with nature. Having a tea on an old Indian train offers some writers the new perspectives - here the character would become a teapot. When the external world appears, its objects become internalised, become psychological props. "Inside" is a common relation between 2 entities. Conceptually it can mean "absorb" or "conquer", though it can also lead to rather mixed spatial metaphors - e.g. there's " a hurricane inside me" then "I" becomes a storm shelter on p.46.

The text

The current tendency for all stanzas of a poem to have the same number of lines is present, though interestingly many poems are nearly regular - e.g. a few poems mix 4- and 5-line stanzas, or 6- and 7-line stanzas. A few pieces (p.38, p.67) have a prose layout. A few (p.31, p.35, p.68) use "/" instead of line-break. On p.23, p.43, p.57, p.61, p.63, p.69 there's some adumbration. I'm probably alone in thinking that removing all the repetition (especially on p.43 and p.57) would improve the poems. I think "Prayer for the Lack" uses spaces instead of commas, and line-breaks instead of full-stops. "The future died inside me" has no punctuation.

Role-play

I don't know much about transactional analysis. I suspect knowledge of it would help readers of this book. "Prayer for the Lack" mentions "the empty chair" - a standard therapy ploy.

I don't know much about drama/comedy ad-lib exercises either, but I've seen people pair up and perform scenes where they were objects (those objects sometimes unknown to the audience). I know objects are used in therapy. I read that "Rojas-Bermudez’s (1997) specific use of intermediate objects relates to the use of an object to symbolize the therapist when a client cannot tolerate the vulnerability of direct human interaction. Instead of the dialog taking place between therapist–client, it takes place between object–client to reduce intensity and decrease activation or alarm." (Essentials of Psychodrama Practice - Scott Giacomucci). Role reversal is sometimes used so that participants can see situations from both points of view (see "The Hunt"). The biggest pay-offs (key insights) often happen early. In comedy ad-lib the chairperson hits a buzzer for the participants to go on to the next pair of roles once returns diminish. In this book (e.g. p.16) there's a stanza-break instead of a buzzer.

Psychologists suggest using role-play to explore the past, to learn and undergo cathersis, then return and integrate the knowledge into the current self. This final phase - of analysis, change and looking ahead, renewed - is denied us in many of these poems. Such endings would give the poems a more standard shape though - thesis-antithesis-synthesis or anecdote-reflection-conclusion - and perhaps result in a less interesting collection. There are few comforting endings: last lines include -

  • to keep the darkness dark
  • you can't always find what you need
  • you woke up black and blue
  • here is the staircase down which she fell
  • so that I could be the one to cry; but secretly they hoped I would fall
  • and in that moment darkness fell

The hopeful endings are perhaps revealing -

  • "and my little fish taught himself to swim" shows that water isn't always bad
  • "we threw open the doors and cheered"; "trying to see each other in the dark"; "and is finally flowering"; "and lights up her face"" oppose the prevalent darkness and inwardness

When a son in "Giving Thanks" talks about the future, the persona is happy!

Communication

It's a key theme, emphasised by the poems often involving two entities -

  • "the distance between us/ became whole galaxies, oceans even - garbled as if speaking underwater" (p.12)
  • "miles between us" (p.13)
  • "the distance between us so big" (p.15)
  • "I reached for his words but couldn't pin them down" (p.27)
  • "the gaps are bigger than the words either side" (p.40)
  • "There was nothing left between us to say" (p.41)

Water and especially flooding (i.e. emotion) seems to hamper communication -

  • "her lake was so wide/ we couldn't see to the other side of each other/ we broke ourselves on each other's shore" (p.15)
  • "the future was a glacier that melted flooding the house" (p.20)
  • "we could hear our parents downstairs (neither of them swimmers) struggling to keep their heads above water" (p.32)
  • "no one could stop my river bursting its banks ... when the flood warnings sounds I didn't hear them" (p.46)
  • "the river running between us/ was getting wider, overrunning its banks" (p.54)

Miscellaneous

  • "The Telling" - Throughout the book, physical proximity doesn't guarantee empathy or communcation. Instead it may provoke silence or diversionary role-play. In this poem emotions are shared. Significantly, it's done distantly, by phone. A "telling" is where a fortune teller reveals the future. I'm a bit confused by the details - the mother is on the phone, the narrator is on the phone, the father (behind the narrator?) is urging "you tell her", then the narrator picks up the phone. The last line's good though.
  • "Daddish" - the middle section is entitled "I want my father to be an owl". In her previous book "Bird Sister" I think mother and sisters became owls.
  • I don't get "Rules of the Liar Family"
  • I like the simple ending of "When I was made of concrete"
  • I don't know why "Duplex" has that title. Is the first stanza needed?
  • "remaking mother" - it's interesting that the materials seem to have no sentimental value. The previous poem mentioned decluttering, which is what this poem might be describing. It sounds most like a school project. "I sing her name out" here contrasts with "she made a prayer of my name" in "Prayer for the Lack"

Quite often when I've read a poetry book I feel it should have been a pamphlet. This book however earns its pages - it doesn't sag in the 3rd quarter like many books do. My favourites are "Crash Site", "girl was born", "That year there was a hurricane inside me", "we had nothing but love for the bird he had become", "That day I was a picnic rug". I wasn't so keen on "The Telling", "Comet and Moon", "I don't believe in death", "The hunt".

Other reviews

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

"Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

An audio book.

The first-person narrator is 30 with a lowly office job. In a slow reveal we learn that her mother's inside for starting a fire that scarred one side of Eleanor's face. She doesn't know her father. She was raised by various foster parents, has a good degree in classics, lived when a student for 2 years with a man who was violent to her.

She's says she's happy alone. She likes cryptic crosswords. She's socially awkward. Office colleagues openly make fun of her. Her lifestyle is solitary and routine - 2 bottles of vodka per weekend. She stockpiles painkillers. But things suddenly change. She sees at a pub gig the man who she thinks is "the one" and smartens herself up for him. She finds out where he lives, follows him online. A new IT worker Raymond tries to befriend her. They save an old man, Sammy, who collapsed on the street, visit him in hospital and get know his family. Raymond invites her to visit his mother. She finds she rather likes families. Sammy dies. Raymond and Eleanor go to the funeral together.

But all the while she's been smartening herself up for the next gig where the singer will fall in love with her as first sight. He doesn't, and she's killing herself in her flat when Raymond saves her. She goes to therapy during which she realises she had a sister. An internet search reveals a final twist about her mother.

Some episodes seem over-long. For example, the therapy session has lots of Eleanor's musings. I suspect the idea is that Eleanor's musings later in the book are different to the earlier ones - she's beginning to care about others - so the musings matter. I thought her behaviour issues might not have been innate but she keeps saying she's always been considered odd.

Given the unreliability of the narrator it's not surprising that data's withheld, though sometimes the reason seems much more to do with storytelling contrivance than psychological accuracy.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

"The woman in the photograph" by Stephanie Butland

An audio book. Until I read reviews I didn't realise that there were extracts from a character's unpublished book, legends accompanying photographs, etc in the exhibition, etc. There are lists of events for each year ("the happenny removed from circulation" etc). Action switches between 2 timelines - 2018- and 1970-

In 2018 Veronica, 70, is previewing an exhibition of her photos. Her last photo was in 1984. In 2007 she had a brain tumour operation and fears she's forgotten things. The tumor's returned. She doesn't have long to live. She fears that her judgement is affected. Worse, she fears blindness. Her lover Leonie is dead. The exhibition's been curated by Erica, Leone's niece. There's lots about V's aesthetics of photography. V and Erica discuss photos. Erica asks if V has any of the private photos of battered women. Erica asks about (queries the success of) the first wave of feminism. In return, V asks about Erica and Marcus's lifestyle - they have a child. and Marcus ensures that the couple have "us time", but Erica deals with most childcare issues. When V takes Erica on a march, Erica is taken to a police station. They go to Greenham common. Erica's pregnant but isn't sure she wants the child. V tells Erica that she's Leonie's daughter, she tries to convince Erica by showing her photos. V's convinced she didn't let L die - she can't recall the details, but she deduces from photos and tells Erica about them. V dies soon after the exhibition opens. Erica has the child and calls it Leonie.

1970 - V, a naive newspaper photographer, moves in with staunch, loud, feminist L (a writer, but she can't get her books published). L gets an abortion. They attend a protest about Miss World and a strike about equal pay. V's close to her father. Her mother's dead. L rants at unreformed males and isn't impressed at V's selling-out. V stays for 7 years, becoming well known as a naturalistic photographer - Mother Teresa, Mrs Thatcher, etc. When Leonie becomes pregnant too late to have an abortion, she offers the child to V, who's not interested. A good photo matters more to her than a child - or a relationship. Leonie gives the child to her childless sister, Ursula, in such a way that the NHS thinks it's Ursula's child. V and L visit Greenham Common, a place that helps to focus the feminist cause. V moves out. L becomes a lecturer in the States. When she's in the UK in 1984, V photographs her in Ursula's house. Erica is a toddler. L tell V that Erica's her daughter. During the photoshot L dies. Because of the photo that's released, people think that V took photos instead of trying to save L. V escapes to Canada, returns to become a lecturer, invests in property that she rents to deserving women.

The writing's not always tight (e.g. the section about the worst time of the developing process for the lights to come on), the plot hinges on some unlikely events, and for me the examples of L's "Dear John" writing go on too long.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

"Days of Awe" by A.M. Homes (Granta, 2018)

Stories from New Yorker, Guardian, One Story, Playboy, etc.

  • Brother on Sunday - The 3rd-person PoV protagonist Tom is a 53 y.o. doctor spending a few days at the beach with his wife and their set of friends. He doesn't particularly like them. They ask his advice about their spots, etc. They have affairs. His brother arrives. Rivalry turns into a brawl.
  • Whose Story Is It, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? - 4.5 pages. 3 therapist sessions. In the first, we hear how the patient self-harmed herself with rose thorns. In the second we learn that her grandmother was raped in rose bushes when young, that she didn't want her daughter. In the third, the learn that the patient's mother obsessively stole roses. The therapist offers her a sweet shaped like a rose.
  • Days of Awe - 50+ pages. A lesbian (bi?) novelist and a male war correspondent who've known each other off and on for years find themselves at the same Genocide conference, booked into the same hotel. They have sex because she wants to be reminded what it's like. They argue about whether fact or fiction stirs the most empathy. He says she "grieves for others because she can't feel anything in her own life". She writes about the holocaust and is attacked for inauthenticity. She meets Otto, "keeper of the grief", her hero. She argues with her girlfriend on the phone. When she returns they make up rather than break up.
  • Hello Everybody - Mostly dialogue. Walter, returning from a term of studies, meetsup with Cheryl, a close friend with fake breasts. Her brother died 3 years before from a snake bite that grandparents ignored. She went to see her mother's therapist. She tells her sister that Walter's adopted. She twice asks to sleep with him. He refuses. He goes out for a meal with the family.
  • All is Good Except for the Rain - two women meet for a meal. A husband ditches his wife, then returns. No.
  • The National Cage Bird Show - Different fonts for different people in a chat-room for parakeet lovers. But they don't all like birds. One's a bomb-disposal soldier on active duty. Feels very long at 44 pages.
  • Your Mother Was a Fish - 7 pages. The great-grandmother swam to the States in a mermaid costume. It stuck. She married Ray, whose mother was a bearded lady and whose father was the world's tallest man. Their daughter Penelope had a longer sharp index finger. Their son had wings. Penelope gave birth to hermaphrodite twins, had an affair with a dolphin, built a spaceship and went to Mars.
  • The Last Good Time - A father who's unhappy (too quiet for his wife) feeds his baby then drives to his dying grandmother who gives him cash. He sees photos of himself as a child dressed as a cowboy - he even went to school in the outfit, with a gun. He flies (from Europe?) to LA, drives to Disneyland where he was last happy. He recalls a holiday there with his parents. While he goes on the rides he recalls how his father suddenly left, how he and his father met on Sundays. "he laughs at himself for still being in love with the idea of cowboys - wondering what it is he thinks is so magical about men learning to be tough, to hold on to their feelings." "He goes on each of the rides multiple times. He tries to stay focussed. The disorientation of going up and down, high and low, and round and round allows him to reprocess his experiences". A young female worker (a "cast member") takes him to her flat of left-over merchandize and food. They have sex. "how do you know what's real?" he asks. "You bite into it," she says. They drive to Joshua Tree. It snows. He goes back to Disneyland. There's fake snow. He phones home, saying that he's got what he needs and he'll be returning soon.
    Not a subtle story, though it's pacy, with humour and surprise.
  • Be Mine - 6 pages. An artist and therapist live together. The artist wants a baby or at least a pet. The therapist suggests she get a plant and stop complaining. Nearly all dialog. 20% shorter and it would be ok.
  • A Prize for Every Player - A money-conscious family go shopping. They find and keep a baby, the husband makes a political speech, and they save money.
  • Omega Point - A grandmother tells her family she's part-Chinese. Her Chinese side helped build a nuclear bomb and develop a citrous fruit. A Chinese man appears after decades away. Bones of Peking Man have been sent to the family over the years.
  • She Got Away - Prelude to "Hello Everybody"? Abegail (married to Burton because he doesn't intrude on her loneliness) phones her sister Cheryl asking her to return because their parents are on ventilators in a hospital. Their brother died of an undiagnosed snake bite 6 months before and the pool gate's code is 1234. They get the parents back. Abegail dies in the night. The electricity fails.

Other reviews

  • Tessa Hadley (in this new collection of stories I’m having a problem. It feels as if it’s to do with liking the characters, but perhaps it’s just that the rhythm of the writing has lost its elasticity somewhere. ... The first story, “Brother on Sunday”, is the best in the collection ... We don’t need to like the characters in a story, but we need to like the writer’s relation to her characters, to feel she’s caught them in their act with wit and poise. Sometimes the writing here just isn’t funny enough to help us enjoy them.)
  • Lara Feigel (Much of Homes’s skill lies in inventing plots that seem just about plausible as she leads you along but far less plausible when you stop to consider them. She narrates the stories in a pacy present tense, energised by amusing quips and details.)
  • Ramona Ausubel (Whatever the tone, hanging over “Days of Awe” are questions about how we metabolize strangeness, danger, horror. Impossible things happen all the time. In each story the characters seem to be looking around at their lives and asking: Is this even real? Has the world always been so jagged? )
  • Belinda McKeon (Several of these 12 stories seem unfinished but some are compelling with unexpected nuggets ... The collection is distinguished by the title story, an account of the affair of a novelist and a war correspondent at a symposium on genocide, but what elevates that story above the others is its attention to the nuances and layers of a story of human behaviour which is complex because it is also often funny and oddball, rather than having that complexity short-changed by those qualities. Which is to say that too often, these stories gesture and caper with no apparent ability to land, not just in terms of anything like plot but also stylistically ... two pieces in the collection (All is Good Except For the Rain and Be Mine) read like the scripts for listless two-hander plays. Meanwhile, both the formal approach and the character tropes of The National Cage Bird Show, which depicts the different voices on an internet forum for bird-lovers using different fonts, and tells the stories of a sad young Manhattanite and a traumatised young veteran, seem dated and unexciting.)
  • Johanna Thomas-Corr (The two opening stories, oddly, are the most lacklustre. ... The 50-page title story, about a fling between a war correspondent and a novelist at a conference on genocide, displays some of the dark wit we’ve come to appreciate from Homes: Holocaust jokes and penis chocolates, but the writing is flat and affectless. ... Too many of the other stories collapse into the same themes and archetypes. Hapless men wait for their lives to begin, women suffer psychosexual crises and middle-aged fools get sucked in by the promises of plastic surgeons, nutritionists and shrinks.)

Saturday, 4 June 2022

"Send nudes" by Saba Sams

An audio book (so my attention may have wavered). Stories from Granta, Stinging Fly, White Review, etc

  • Tinderloin - a girl, 16, whose mother died when she was 6, helps her butcher father. She recalls him dealing with her first period. She meets Ryan, 27, and quickly loses her virginity. More blood. Her father helps her get an abortion a month later. She gets attached to Ryan's dog Petal, feeding it scraps from her work. Petal becomes possessive and bites Ryan badly - there's blood and he holds his arm "like a baby". They split, the girl taking Petal.
  • Overnight - The female narrator (father gone) and George have been friends for years, since their early school years. She wakes one morning to find him in bed with her and her virginity gone.
  • Snakebite - Meg (a studious student) is working behind a bar when Lara and a boy come in. Lara wants to be friends with Meg (they're on the same course, though Lara rarely goes to lectures) because she lacks female friends. Lara opens Meg's eyes to a new way of living. Meg's aware she's naive and that Lara's teaching her - when Lara gets drugs, the cost being a blowjob, she gets Meg to do the blowjob. When Meg suddenly has sex with a male co-barworker (she was nearly a virgin) Lara tells her she's already had him. Lara's expelled and Meg's warned about her marks. Meg invites Lara to move in, and she gets her a pet rabbit that moves freely around their room. Meg likes sharing her single bed with Lara. She begins to understand how marriages could work. 6 weeks later they visit Lara's suddenly dying mother, who complains about Lara's negligence. When they get home, Lara disappears. Meg find her very drunk and drags her home. Meg empties Lara's bank account and has sex with a passing postman in their bed. Meg's love is unconditional. Lara leaves then returns after a few days because her mother has died. She's bought some watercress for the rabbit she's been unkind to. They have sex for the first time. Meg comes, Lara doesn't, but she doesn't mind. Lara disappears in the night.
    I like the story, though the main plot's now too common - a quiet, submissive person has a whirlwind relationship that changes them forever, the wild person ending up being the vulnerable one.
  • Send nudes - Waiting for a bus, the narrator exchanges sexy typed words with an anonymous guy in a chatroom. A storm is due. He asks for a nude photo. She writes "you first" so he does, while she's on the bus by a boy. The poster seems a nice guy, not too pushy. She doesn't usually feel good about her body shape. The dialogue has made her feel confident though, walking naked in her flat that evening. When she does finally post a headless nude photo she seems not to intend to continue the dialogue (because he might not like her if they meet?). The storm breaks, "The whole city flashes".
  • Flying kite - Sage (female) is a pubescent foster child. Kite is a foster child with the same family, a 6 y.o. boy who, when asked to choose his name saw a kite flying free. Jara, the mother, had given up on getting pregnant but she's pregnant now. She thinks the children should be at the birth. Kite has been told he needs to return to his natural mother. He's re-assured that his father won't be there. Sage tells him of an idea to get him adopted. They see the water birth. It puts Sage off having a child. Kite drifts away. She finds him outside looking at the horizon.
  • Here alone - Emily picks up Toby for casual sex then phones him a few times. He invites her to an engagement party where there are lots of his old friends and his recent ex. She tells Emily that Toby still loves her, and that he's only with Emily to make her jealous. Emily breaks up with Toby after phoning him, drunk, another 13 times. She goes to an Italian restaurant and sucks strands of spaghetti up one by one.
  • The mothers and the girls - The girls (about 15 y.o.) have mothers who perform as trapeze artists at festivals. The 2 girls are used to going along too. They meet River, a boy who's a bit older. He doesn't exploit them though they are given laced cake. They gently compete for his affections. He doesn't want to choose. They try to force him. When he refuses they might try to kill themselves at the end, jumping off the trapezes.
    The characters are often referred to as "the girls" and "the mothers".
  • Blue 4eva - Frank, a photographer, has married Clare. They each have a daughter - Jazmin 18, and Stella 12. They go on holiday with Blue, an old friend of Jazmin. Stella wants to be accepted by the older girls but she doesn't understand all that they say. At least one of them thinks that Clare is a marriage-breaker and Frank is a bit creepy. When Blue throws Frank's expensive camera into the pool, Stella tries to take the blame.
  • The Bread - A woman who's had an abortion is also trying to bake her own sour dough bread (which is like becoming a mother, says the yeast-provider). We get flashbacks about how she got pregnant (last night of a festival) etc. When she returns from the clinic she's wearing a nappy which reminds her that "When my little brother stopped wearing nappies, my mother laid a sheet of plastic over his mattress that crackled in the night. She was attentive to him when we were young because of the baby she'd lost before he was born. She and my father had planted a rose bush for the baby in the back garden. I was 4. "That's my sister," I told my neighbour, shouting over the fence"
  • Today's square - A little daughter has been promised a holiday in Tenerife by her poor mother. Lockdown arrives. The girl notices bags of sand left by builders and uses them to convert a room into a beach. The mother despairs, then recovers.

Quite a few absent parents and early parental deaths - an easy way to pump up the emotional power and justify behaviour. But she doesn't over-exploit the opportunities. She selects details carefully, not providing backstory (upbringing, etc) unless it's useful to do so. I like the way (in "Send nudes" for example) that she can carefully describe everyday events like having a shower and a snack without it sounding symbolic yet giving us an insight into the person. The scenarios are varied enough. My favourite was "Snakebite".

Other reviews

  • Madeleine Feeny (In spare, rhythmic sentences, this exhilarating collection captures the light and dark of negotiating relationships, solitude, sexuality and loss. Sams makes language her own, conjuring piercing imagery that leaves its imprint on your mind)