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, 3 December 2016

"Tales of Persuasion" by Philip Hensher (4th Estate, 2016)

No acknowledgements. Does that mean all these stories are previously unpublished?

In the first story the main, gay character, invites someone to share his flat though they've never met. "Timothy from Kenya" turned out to be a scheming white girl rather than a young, black boy. So instead he tries (with meek desperation) to seduce a neighbour's young man who's finally gullible to being flattered about his (actually limited) intelligence rather than his looks. The style reminds me a little of VS Pritchett's. Nothing much there for me. The second story, "A change in the weather", is about a first day at an office job. I'm wondering whether to bail out. "My Dog Ian" is better, though some sections seem unnecessarily long -

'We missed you,' Margaret said, sidling through the door with a clipboard.
'Oh, Christ,' I said. 'It was the - Christ, what was it?'
'The education and outreach committee's budget meeting,' she said. 'It's been in all our diaries for weeks.'
'I knew there was something,' I said.
'There was indeed,' she said. 'There was something, you're right there.'
'That's a catastrophe,' I said. 'I don't know how I could have forgotten it.' 'You'll get the minutes,' she said. 'Don't be hard on yourself.'
Of course she was right: people missed meetings all the time
(p.50)

The main character's invited to a strange, academic household -

I looked at his clothes, and at Natasha's, with compassion. They were the clothes of the children of theology professors the whole world over. 'I'm precocious. Do you know what that means?'
'I would say that being able to describe yourself as precocious at your age is a fair definition of it.'
'No,' Mark said. 'That's not really correct. That would be an instance of precocity, and not a definition of it.'
(p.53)

"The Midsummer Snowball" includes more smug children, this time with some bullying, which is where things get interesting. Before then however, there are many paragraphs to wade through. E.g. -

It was not like Miranda to start inviting people only an hour or two before she wanted to see them arrive. A Saturday-morning invitation for a Saturday-afternoon gathering at her pink-and-white house, the glass surfaces gleaming, her awed parents withdrawing from the sitting room, once they had arranged the mounded-up trays of refreshments about the place for their prodigious daughter that was unheard of. The smallest of Miranda's gatherings usually meant a week of giving and taking away invitations, as she played current favourites off against each other, holding out the possibility of an invitation, threatening another with exclusion. The pleasure of the party, for Miranda, was obviously in the anticipation. Once the guests had arrived, Miranda had no more power over them; they could only either leave or stay; and her parties, even her smallest gatherings, had a dissatisfied aspect that radiated from Miranda herself (p.100)

I like "In Time of War", perhaps because it has a more conventional shape. The main character, Fred, eventually discovers something about himself. After having spent years in London socialising with a little "posse" of gay friends, he gets sacked and announces to his posse that he's decided to wander around India.

'Of course,' he said, 'I'm not about to discover myself, or anything.'
They grinned at the idea that there was anything much of Fred to be discovered. Like the globe, by the beginning of the twenty-first century that terrain had been thoroughly gone over by all sorts of amateur explorers
(p.120)

In a quiet Indian hotel he's befriended by an English girl who's recently broken up with a man who loved her more than she loved him. Fred comes to realise how much he depended on his posse as a source of information about the world and as an audience. He tells her too late that he's gay. At the end, the hotel staff around him, he realises "It was going to take him weeks and months to discover what they so lucidly saw".

In "Under the canopy" a dying, confused husband has an unexpected day out for which the carer gets into trouble. I liked "The Day I Saw the Snake" where we track the lives of a bunch of musical friends. I don't like "The Pierian Spring". "The Whitsun Snoggings" has a good title and a fun monologue by Joanna. The plot of seeing repeated snoggings has potential which isn't delivered in this over-long story.

At over 80 pages "The Painter's Sons" is the longest piece. Enough things happen to stop it being too boring. The concluding "A Lemon Tree" (a merciful 6 pages long) contains a confused person who may or may not be at an Italian spa visited by famous people. It doesn't work for me in its current form, though I think it could be made to work.

In most stories the main character is a fish out of water. In some stories they meet other characters who are out of their element too, knowingly or otherwise. And there's usually someone who apologises for talking too much.

Other reviews

  • Chris Power (although Hensher is capable of very good, sometimes brilliant writing, I can’t say much of it is on show in his new collection of short stories ... The frustrating thing about Tales of Persuasion is that most of the stories are overlong, and it is easy to identify the fat that should have been trimmed. )
  • Ian Thompson (My Dog Ian, a bravura performance ... At times the writing is overblown — “He looked like the Book of Job, and you could imagine him spottily going to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it, forgiving everyone in a pimply manner” — but on the whole the 11 stories have real edge and distinction.)
  • Randy Boyagoda (10 elegant stories that radiate with fine human feeling inspired by altogether muddled lives)
  • Leo Robson (As a fiction writer, Hensher has virtuosity on tap, so every page delivers something enjoyable and even eye-popping: a vibrant exchange, a spry description, a tickling bit of indirect speech. Yet the story emerges as a less-than-ideal courier. ... There is an emphasis on resignation and mild regret and the clarifying long perspective.)

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"Poetry Ireland Review (issue 110)" by John F Deane (ed)

128 pages, with about 50 pages of poetry and 8 pages of colour art. Shuttle, Oxley and Judy Brown are amongst the foreign contributors. There are obits/appreciations of Jack Gilbert and Dennis O'Driscoll, and one of the last poems of Tom Duddy. There's a 9-page essay on Gerry Murphy with a dense page of notes, and a 13 page essay reprinted from the Catullus Festival (Lake Garda, 2006) - "[the poor] named a public house in the Liberties district after him long before the Irish Tourist Board determined that every pub in Dublin should display the images of about least ten writers". Poems range from the bland (Sweeney) to the obscure (Mary O'Driscoll, whose notes informed me that the Irish language alphabet has only 18 letters) - e.g a good mix.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

"Down with poetry!" by Helena Nelson (Happenstance, 2016)

It includes poems from Unsuitable Poems and The Unread Squirrel. The back cover suggests that poetry is "worthy of serious satire" and that "Some of [the poems] even rhyme". Acknowledgements include Ambit, PN Review, and The Rialto - a heavier list of magazines than many unlight poetry books can boast.

Marianne Moore famously wrote "I, too, dislike it". Ben Lerner has recently published The Hatred of Poetry where he "takes the hatred of poetry as the starting point of his defense of the art". In an age where allegedly only poets read poems, and those poems are written by friends, and those friends teach poetry all day, I think skepticism is healthy - even necessary. Standing back to take in the bigger picture (to include the worlds of Flash, stand-up, etc) it's sometimes possible to see things that aren't so obvious to practitioners - the new rules and fashions, the old tricks in new disguises, and maybe the emperor's new clothes.

It does no harm for poets to laugh at themselves. Many of them (sorry, I mean "us") work on the fringes of pretence. And let's face it, some forms are asking for trouble -

Submission Guidelines
Do not go gentle into that villanelle
Allow yourself a period of remission.
Rage, rage against a rhyming hell.
Why they exist, no laureate can tell

...

Try a sestina. Forget that villanelle!
It's not too late, it's really not. Oh well.

Helena Nelson is a practitioner but she's also a publisher. She has to read thousands of poems a year, many from previously unpublished poets. She's also a shrewd reviewer/essayist for PN Review and The Dark Horse. She can see the wood and the trees. She's old enough to have seen waves of fads come and go. People intending to submit to her press are well advised to read this book. Once or twice I blushed as I read it, embarrassed that my tricks had been exposed.

My favourites are "Poetry Virgin", "Bellytalk", "Fillers" (not at all light) and "The Contemporary Poem Explains Itself", whose beginning and end are "I'm not allowed adjectives and adverbs./ Exclamation marks are out too, which is sad./ I can have any amount of verbs, I adore verbs./ My tone is casual, but that's just a front. ... You're supposed/ to go back to the beginning now/ and get to know me better".

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"The Stinging Fly (issue 34/volume 2)"

In September 2016 they tweeted that for their next issue they'd received over 800 submissions including more than 500 short stories. This issue has about 130 pages - roughly 75 of stories, 26 of poems, 12 of interviews/articles and 11 of reviews. They say that they have a particular interest in "promoting the short story form". I liked Nicole Flattery's story the most, and of the poems, Stav Poleg's "Cartwheels". Liz Gallagher's story was too advanced for me. Marcus Mac Conghail's poem (translated from the Irish) was too plain - starlings and lava lamps again.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

"The Cannon's Mouth (issue 61)"

A quarterly by Cannon Poets, from Birmingham. Such magazines are a dying breed. It publishes poems, reviews and articles by members and others, the poets having published in Acumen, Rialto, Orbis, South, etc. 56 pages with a colour cover. This issue has obits for Geoffrey Hill and Yves Bonnefoy

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

"Where have you been?" by Joseph O'Connor (Vintage, 2013)

In "Two Little Clouds" 2 schoolmates meet years later in a pub. The twist is unexpected and worthwhile - the main character's been told a fib. "Orchard Street, Dawn" is set in New York, 1869. An immigrant Irish family's baby dies. We see how the community provide support, learning about the parents' past and future. In "Boyhood's Fire" we're in London, 1988. It's the day of the England-Ireland football match, but the main character has to go to an Wedding reception (Irish wife and flown-in relatives; English husband). Old arguments return. The Ireland team's managed by Jack Charlton, an Englishman. Tempers fray - the main character's in a state because of something his sister told him, but a trick's been played on him. "Death of a civil servant" charts the fall of a now childless husband whose wife leaves him without warning and who's preparing his suicide. "October-Coloured Weather" features a married woman with maybe 10 months to live. Alone in Dublin she goes to a hotel room with a chatty widower she meets, spending a probably sexless night with him. He's kind, so is the waiter, and kindness matters now. "Figure in a Photograph" is the weakest of the stories so far - a husband who wanted children now has them. In "The Wexford Girl" a son recounts his friendship with his father, his mother's sudden departure and death, then his father's death. He died laughing, having joked himself out of awkward situations. It might be my favourite story in the book.

The concluding novella "Where have you been" shuffles some by now familiar ideas - the main character, Cian (Irish), had a breakdown after his divorce (he'd wanted children, but had none). He spends time with his ailing father. He meets an English women, Catherine, who often visits Eire for her work (it emerges that she was a self-harmer and still visits a therapist). There's long, drawn out dialogue. The whole thing saunters along. The final section jumps a few years. Cian delivers a requiem for his father. We get the inevitable history lesson and discover that through Catherine he met an Irish divorce with whom he has a family.

There are several fathers trying to have a closer relationship to a son, or v.v.. Dublin is booming, the Irish are returning. The dialogue's good (so Irish that it sounds stage-Irish at times - "I will not indeed. I've no voice on me these days. Don't be mocking the afflicted" p.71), with Irish history feeding the flames. There's humour, with passages like "His glasses are of a kind promoted by opticians as suitable for parents of toddlers. Designed by geniuses in a wind tunnel, advertised by astronauts, they are guaranteed unbendable. The Swiper in the Diaper whips them from Sean Hyland's face, does something fast and deft with her clever little hands and tosses them triumphantly on the footpath. They look like an ampersand. Sean Hyland's daughter has a future in origami. Or vandalising car aerials" (p.171). Overall I was underwhelmed.

There's a typo on p.91 - "people only it in for the buck".

Other reviews

  • Chris Power (Guardian) ("The Wexford Girl", the one really excellent story here)
  • Catherine Taylor (Telegraph) (Nostalgia is effective when not laced with sentimentality; “The Wexford Girl” is a fine, stripped-down example of loneliness. However the collection ends with an overblown “novella” deploying O’Connor’s familiar prototype of male depressive and failed affair, and a preaching, ponderous coda. It is this sonorous earnestness which dogs the writing. )
  • Lucy Scholes (Independent) (Individually these stories are quietly unassuming gems; together, a powerful ode to modern Ireland)
  • Brian Maye (Irish Times) (There are stories here about broken marriages and the tender love of sons for fathers (familiar themes in O’Connor’s writings). That love is most movingly and impressively expressed in The Wexford Girl (probably the finest story in the collection) but dissipated somewhat in the final, overlong part of the novella that gives the book its title. O’Connor has a wonderful ear for dialogue )
  • Philip Womack (New Humanist) (This collection is beautiful; full of pure, simple truths that linger long in the mind. All around O’Connor’s characters, things change – but humanity, in its loves and losses, stays the same)
  • Kim Evans (The story which most memorably stands out is Orchard Street, Dawn ... This is a perceptive and moving collection of stories, although most of them are better described as flashes of emotion and moments in time rather than a strong narrative, with the exception of the novella at the end.)

Saturday, 12 November 2016

"Any other mouth" by Anneliese Mackintosh (Freight Books, 2014)

30 stories (from Gutter, etc), 2-20 pages long. Most of the reviews point out the novel/story-collection, fiction/auto-biography fusion, frequently quoting the first page -

1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.

I wasn't impressed by the first story. In "What Happens When Someone Dies Twice" things improve. Here's the main motif - "My grief is bigger than your grief ... I think you are starting to get funny about having to share a bed with my grief ... I just can't help but feel that if I could beef up your grief somehow, feed it and make it grow until it was at least five times the size - then maybe you and I could finally make love once more ... With that in mind, I've been thinking about poisoning your parents ... We could go on holiday, me and you and our respective griefs, and we could drink Sangria and hang out at the beach, maybe even learn a New Thing together, like surfing or chess or the Kama Sutra". "Crave" was better - good in fact. "Daddy Smokes" mentions the narrator's father's smoking, the scattering of his ashes and the burning of his porn cache. Here's the ending - powerful? melodramatic?

I take a walk around the garden, and, under the elderflower bush, I spot a charred, damp scrap of paper. There a naked woman and a phone number on it. The woman's face has been partially burnt odd. I kneel on the soil while I look at her, and, after several minutes, I have my first orgasm. It's shaky and lonely and filled with grief.
Then I wander down to the pond, thick with algae, to the chicken coops, overgrown with weeds, and finally to the bonfire. It's funny really - when I look at it, I can no longer tell which parts of the grey dust are porn, which are cigars, and which are my dad. But even though the smoking has stopped, I know that all of them, once, glowed red.

I thought that "When I die, this is how I want it to be" would run out of puff. It didn't and I liked it.

Some sections (e.g. "Somebody Else's Story", "These Little Rituals") don't work for me as stand-alone pieces - too schematic - though they supply back-story for the novel. Some of the weaker sections have crisp, symbolic endings. Here are 2 consecutive story's endings -

  • "I looked down at my thighs, ran my fingers over the thick black lines of my biggest tattoo: a pair of wovles [sic], standing else side of Tiw, the Anglo-Saxon god of hope and war. The ink had faded, but only a little." (p.91)
  • "I stopped running away from my reflection, and began, very carefully to run torwards [sic] it" (p.100)

"Doctors" is fast-paced, 2nd person. It was in The Best British Short Stories 2013. "The Easiest Thing I Know" is fast-paced, 2nd person. Most of the stories are easy to read, though there are exceptions - "The snow octopus who was afraid of the dark" begins with "This is a story again a snow octopus. No, it's not. It's about a shark and a football. Some swimming goggles and a diamond ring. I've a better idea. Let me start again. It was raining for fifteen years in North Korea", and "You are beautiful" has interruptions.

"A Rough Guide to grief" lives up to its title - "You might find you need to talk about the person who has died over and over again. In truth, you may become a bit of a bore ... Here's a phrase you'll hear a lot while you're grieving: it gets better. Some of your 'friends who have grieved' will delight in telling you this as often as possible. The good news for you is that you will soon have earned the right to tell this to other people, those who are just starting out on their journey. It gets better, you will say, and you will pat them on the shoulder, and then go back to your flat and cut a swearword into your shin, which is a shame, because you thought you were over that, but never mind: it gets better". It's a useful document, and works as part of the mosaic of the novel.

Throughout, there are interesting images - e.g.

I opened my laptop. Instead of looking at the screen, I watched the people out in the street for a bit, moving from the left side of the window to the right, from the right side of the window to the left. As I watched them, a tiny question popped into my mind. A tiny, persistent question, that I asked myself almost every day.
What does it feel like to be normal?
Finally, I looked at the computer screen. Perhaps I could become addicted to a new game
(p.158)

I liked "Google Maps Saved My Life", though it's small scale.

Towards the end of "Possible subject for a future novel" she writes "I stop thinking about her life, and I think about my own. Not everything I do has to be a possible subject for a future novel. I don't have to fall in love with nasty acts because they make great sentences". I think she has a point. "Butterflies" mentions in passing a suicidal sister. Other sections mention such a sister too. It's an easy way to ramp up the emotional impact, and were this a story collection it might be considered an over-used trick. "Butterflies" also has a father about to die while a mother is online-dating - i.e., the volume dial's set to 11.

So, an entertaining read with a few good stories and an informative handout about grief.

Other reviews

  • Doug Johnstone (What a fresh and original book this is ... There are echoes of Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and Miranda July throughout ... The finest stories here are also the most inventive. In “A Rough Guide to Grief” Mackintosh takes the self-help template and twists it into new, scary shapes, while in “Doctors” she takes the reader on a terrifying journey into mental breakdown via a potted summary of a disastrous PhD. ... “This Could Happen To Us”, Gretchen, in the first flush of love, dreams of a future life with her damaged boyfriend. It’s one of the saddest yet most uplifting things I’ve read in ages and it made me cry. Mackintosh is a real talent and Any Other Mouth is a remarkable debut.)
  • Gutter (Upon reading three stories in a row, the characters’ voices, vocabulary and worldviews seem exceptionally similar to one another. The plots, too, are made up of different moments in what seems to be a single life.)
  • Nija Dalal (They are written well and clearly; they are indeed easy stories to read. But they are not easy stories to feel.)
  • subtlemelodrama