Books · Review

Adventures in Poetry. Pt. 2

Seven Days in and I’ve already stumbled into Perplexing Poetry.

Having decided to spend a year reading more poetry (Adventures in Poetry),and exercising the long dormant poetry-processing portion of my brain: then having found a book that will remove all responsibility for making any kind of decision regarding what poetry I should be reading¹, (A Poem for Every Night of The Year) I am happy to report that the first seven days have been pleasantly rewarding.

Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration – for me it was the first five days. I didn’t remember to buy the book until January 3rd. But once I’d got it and overcome my personal discomfort at not having begun it on the right day, thereby missing the first two poems² I found it quickly became something I looked forward to each night.

A poem for every night of the year
Allie Esiri’s book does exactly what it says on the cover, providing a poem dedicated to each night of the year.

The very first night I was initially joyful and then increasingly confused as a poem I thought I remembered from my childhood soon became unrecognisable. Sara Coleridge’s The Months begins with a stanza that is engraved on my heart, but as I progressed through each month I began to feel more and more like the child that loses it’s parent in the toy department: I should have been in seventh heaven but there was a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that I might have spend eternity in my posh shoes and pooing in a public toilet if I couldn’t get back home. Not only was I certain that the words I was reading were not the words I used to repeat as a child, but I knew for a fact that the last verse ran thus: “Then- , Bloody January again!” and with each advancing line I was more convinced that those words had never sprung from the pen of Miss Sara Coleridge. I was deep into the dark days of November when it came to me. Miss Coleridge had been cannibalised by Flanders & Swannª:

 

The next couple of nights were happily occupied by A A Milne (apparently its alright to like his poetry as a grown up!) whose style and syntax, I realised, are probably unique  and certainly instantly recognisable, and Robert Frost.

I repeatedly forget Frost when thinking about poets I love despite the fact that at least two of his poems have affected me profoundly. Nothing Gold Can Stay shattered my heart into blissfully desolate pieces³ when I first read it at about fourteen in Susie Hinton’s The Outsiders. Undoubtedly context played a part in that: without the tragic story leading up to Ponyboy’s analysis of the poem I probably wouldn’t – at that age – have fully appreciated the meaning in it. But the other, The Road Not Taken, has resonated with me since the first time I read it, at a level so deep I can’t easily define it. If I were asked to choose a motto for myself it would be “I took the road less travelled by”. So much so that I used to have it written on a wall in my house. It both describes, and informs my life-choices on a daily basis. That and The Logical Song.¹¹

As it turns out these few nights of happy, reminiscent and uncomplicated reading were designed to lull me into a false sense of security. On night six I reached for The Book secure in the knowledge that we, the readers, were being eased into the Serious Poetry Stuff along a gentle and meandering path. So my shock was whole-hearted when Esiri side-swiped me with a fully loaded T.S.Eliot, and there wasn’t even a cat in it!

If you don’t know, T.S.Eliot – when he’s not burbling on about cats – is a hardcore Poet. A Real Poet’s poet. Initially, the poem didn’t appear to be too demanding but in the final verse the true Eliot rose from the sea of the comprehensible and suddenly I was equating birth and death and wondering what the hell had happened, and if he even knew what he was trying to say.

I find that’s generally the give-away. If you find yourself perplexed; re-reading it six times, moving your lips as you go; if there’s a big, fat “eh…?” punctuating every line then you have probably arrived at Serious Poetry. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule or something, somewhere. “If it’s too obvious you’re not poeting properly!”

However my confusion led me to  a realisation. I had started this experiment just one week ago to try and discover what it is that sets poetry readers apart from prose readers.Why they seem to be two different breeds of the same animal. Why do poetry readers get so much more out of the texts they read? In truth it was something I had forgotten, rather than something I’d never known. They get more out because writers like Eliot do their stuff. If the words you’re reading don’t state simply “Jane shot John”, but twiddle around the edges and swap clarity for obliquity then the reader is gong to have to bring more of their own thought to the understanding process:

“Jane raised the gun and pulled the trigger once. John fell in a bloodless heap on the floor and plaster rained down on his face, matching the pallor of his skin. Holes pierced his body and mind but as Jane dropped the empty weapon and blood spilled from the searing wound in her chest he rose to his feet, turned, and left.”

I mean, I just wrote that and I don’t have a clue what happened, but I’m pretty sure someone could make a story out of it if they thought about it for a while.

Perhaps it is just as simple as that. Prose readers read for the story. Poetry readers read for a deeper understanding, not just of the text, either. But does that mean the story is less important to them? Or is it that the story within a poem changes from reader to reader, biased by individual interpretation? If so when did that happen? The Icelandic Sagas just tell stories. I’ve read Beowulf (in translation, obvs!) there’s nothing that seems to me deliberately obscure. So when and why did poetry attain this highbrow quality that stipulates Real Readers have to be willing to indulge guessing games? I am genuinely asking, I don’t actually know.

It’s easy to come away from these kinds of analyses with the feeling that somehow you are ‘less’ than the towering intellects that spend years immersing themselves in tomes of Serious, Perplexing Poetry, squeezing every last ounce of interpretive meaning from them. So cheer up. Because if you are comforted  by petty examples of how the literati occasionally get so full of themselves they just disappear up their own arses then you will love this.

The only poem from The Book that I am going to reproduce in full, this is a shining example of something that makes normal readers gape at each other in astonished bewilderment. Somewhere there are people out there who think that this (fun as it may be) actually warranted publishing:

The Loch Ness Monster’s Song
Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
blp.
Edwin Morgan, from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)
 Footnotes

 

¹ In fact the book suggested the process. When I first saw it on the shelf at work I thought it sounded like a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry-wanna-be’s who think it’s all beautiful suffering and unrequited love. Fuzzy Emos, basically. But the idea of a daily dose of poetry seeped into my subconscious until the whole plan erupted, fully formed, into my conscious mind. I subsequently realised that this was the perfect text for my experiment. Of course I simultaneously realised that rather than a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry wanna-be’s,the book was, in fact,  a very sound anthology of reliable verse for sensible people who make informed and intelligent decisions regarding their reading matter and practices. No Fuzzy Emo shit here.

² I’m not O.C.D. I’m not ‘a little bit O.C.D.’ (that’s not a real thing), I’m just tight-fisted. There is a sliding-scale zone within which I can more or less comfortably ignore the real start date for something, but there comes a point beyond which I cannot go. January 14th would have been  too late. I could never have started this book that late into the year. I paid for those first fourteen poems, dammit, and I don’t want to be wasting money on poems I’m not going to use!

³ I’ve always had a bent for the melancholic, tragic irony, and pathos. It’s why I love David Gemmell. And Irish music. The only music on the planet that can sound sad, even when it’s belting out cheery sedition.

¹¹ If you think this is weird print out the the words and read them instead of listening to them as happy background noise. Then take a good look at education for the last thirty years¹²

¹² I had to go straight to ’11’ because there is no superscript ‘4’…thanks WordPress.

ª I grew up on a regular diet of these two. They were hilarious and ridiculously clever, and in a small but tidy piece of construction Donald Swann, who was an Oxford Linguist, was very good friends with another professor of languages called J R R Tolkien. The man who first translated Beowulf into English, and whose translation I read.

Books · Grahpic Novel · Review

Flashpoint, & Flashpoint ft. Batman

 Geoff Johns, &  Brian Azzarello
I don’t do DC but Dystopian Dystopia was more than I could resist.

Flashpoint

Ok, so I arrived late at this particular game. I’m not the world’s biggest graphic novel reader, and I tend to stick to the independents. I haven’t read anything off the Marvel or D.C. shelves since I was a kid, pushing forty years ago.

It’s not that I don’t like them. I cut my teeth all those decades ago on regular doses of X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but that was back in the days when they were still comics, and fandom didn’t require that you memorised every detail of all of the characters lives and evolutions through different multi-verse manifestations. I can’t be bothered with that shit. Also, I like things a little twisted and, really, superhero books are ultimately all superhero books, no matter how anti-hero the superheroes are.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman and Iron Man: I love X-Men and Wonder Woman, but I’m not really interested in reading my way through the umpteen different series each major character has spawned.

Enter: a customer in the shop one day. He starts rattling on about this alternate DC Universe stuff: a series of books were the nominally twisted world of DC becomes even more twisted and warped. Where Wonder Woman is at war with Aquaman and half of Europe has been sunk. A universe SO twisted that when the Waynes are held up in the alley – it’s not Thomas and Martha that are killed, and so it’s not Bruce that becomes Batman…

Well, I was never going to resist something that twisted and warped and now, two books in, I’m spending as much time researching all the stuff I missed by not reading all those comic-books as I am actually reading the comic-books!

Anyway, long story short: These story lines are fantastic, and if you like DC, and you like twisted you should definitely be reading them.

Books · Review

I Am No One

By Patrick Flanery
Half hearted ‘cyber thriller’  isn’t very ‘cyber’ and fails to really ‘thrill’

I Am No One CoverWritten in the first person I Am No One is the account of recent events in the life of the fictional NY academic, Jeremy O’Keefe. O’Keefe, ironically an expert in surveillance, finds himself the subject of apparent scrutiny by unknown observers, a discovery that propels him into paranoia and pushes him to the boundaries of sanity. As the story is unpacked, page by page, it becomes clear that O’Keefe’s paranoia is not unfounded, and that his initial confusion as to why anyone would want to bother observing the behaviour of a mundane and only moderately successful Professor actually belies a deeper understanding of the cause and his actions that precipitated it.

O’Keefe is a difficult character to really sympathise with. Whilst his ideology is admirably egalitarian he falls into that bracket of slightly stuffy, middle-class liberals who take themselves too seriously and fail to practise what they preach. In fairness to O’Keefe he largely has the grace and self-awareness to question the rationality of his fears and accidental moments of prejudice (though he is of the very typical male Liberal variety that doesn’t seem to recognise the contradiction of professing himself feminist whilst watching porn): slightly pompous, slightly too much self-regard slightly too much sense of victimhood, he is not unlikeable just a bit of a non-entity. Whilst this is clearly intentional it makes his narrative stodgy. Not unreadable, but at the same time easy to put down for a week whilst a more engaging book is read. This is either a spectacularly adept piece of characterisation or an unfortunate reflection of the author, Patrick Flanery. I do hope it is the writing because if not then all the peculiar, inaccurate and unlikely observations made by O’Keefe on behalf of his character regarding differences between the British and Americans are likely also Flanery’s. For example the breath-taking assertion that socio-economic failure is treated more harshly in the UK than in the US, when any basic knowledge of sociology in the two countries shows that the criteria for failure is a) much broader in the US and b) responded to far more harshly, e.g.: “if you don’t earn enough from your three jobs to afford medical insurance to pay for your cancer treatment, you clearly haven’t worked hard enough. The fault is yours , you are a failure and the punishment is premature death.”. It is also difficult to accept that Flanery is regularly treated with distrust and dislike by bank cashiers for his Irish name. Quite aside from anything else most bank cashiers in this country now aren’t old enough to remember the Irish troubles, and the bigots-for-bigotry’s-sake have long since transferred their angst from the Irish to the Poles and the Muslims.

Flanery is also an academic, something that is abundantly obvious from the highly structured writing method he employs in this book. The reader is left with the impression that where other novelists write books to be read as stories Flanery has written a text with an eye to future deconstruction by English Lit students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but occasionally one wishes he could have been a little less concerned with construction in the minutiae and more concerned with crafting a story with a complete beginning, middle and end: and therein lies one of the greatest failings of this book: it has no real conclusion. Questions are raised that go unanswered. In particular there are issues with characters, whose true identity may never be elaborated upon or, in the case of his girlfriend who makes a sudden, poorly explained behavioural volte-face that is entirely out of character but provides Flanery with a device to enable his protagonist take the critical closing step to the tale.

It seems that Flanery has written this book as a parable on the dangers of unfettered digital surveillance: how easy it is for those who wish to to access all our personal data and how very quickly and efficiently lives can be subverted. Whilst this may be a revelation to a few it has to be said that there is nothing revealed in this book about the scope and methods of data collection that anyone who has even a small amount of technical savvy won’t already know, which rather undermines it as an expose. The book also attempts to portray how easy it is to suddenly and unintentionally find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately in this story the actions which purport to have landed O’Keefe in possible criminality are so ridiculous and far-fetched that only the most paranoid would ever see an offence in them. Contrary to highlighting the ease with which the well intentioned can unwittingly find themselves in need of lawyers it suggests that all the peripheral characters are actually far more paranoid and delusional than O’Keefe will ever be

Books · Review

The Incredible Crime

by Lois Austen-Leigh
Aged Like A Chip-Shop Vinegar Rather Than A Fine Wine

Incredible Crime

If you want murder mystery this is probably not the book for you – the body doesn’t appear until very late in the book. That is not to says there isn’t mystery to be tackled, simply that there is a notable shortage of bodies in libraries, as it were. Which is surprising as the story is set between Cambridge University and a contemporaneously typical Old Country House which surely must have had perfectly good library offering oodles of potential for simply dozens of bodies. Sadly this was an opportunity completely over-looked by Miss Austen-Leigh.

Which is a shame because it almost certainly would have made it a more appealing read.

 

I wanted to love this book. I loved the main character Prudence. I loved her name. I loved her independence. I loved the way she freely cursed whenever she felt like it, despite being a Bishop’s Daughter. I loved the setting. I loved the idea of smuggling. But then there was the rest of the book.

It is expected, when reading books from another era, to have to make allowances for the social norms and prejudices of the time, and I am very good at that. Golden Era crime is one of my favourite, and most-read genres. I am used to making those allowances. But this time I found I just couldn’t get past how deeply steeped the story was in a very narrow social and moral ideology , and how dated and exclusive the expression of those ideas was. The whole concept, for example, of judging someone to be upstanding and reliable based on the understanding of what type of ‘hunter’ they are is so archaic that it is rendered laughable in the worst way.

There are many books that are, and feel, dated but which maintain a literary integrity because they are solid, well-written and well plotted. So their antiquity becomes not only forgivable but remains a quintessential part of their nature. Unfortunately in the case of The Incredible Crime the distance in time seems to have just emphasised the books position as a froth piece. As a result things that may have been forgivable in other cases (making up a drug and the side-effects of it that you then don’t have to name) serve to make the story, and by extension the characters and their values seem silly and trite. Although the fact that they are silly and trite also contributes to that impression. Where most of it’s contemporaries, whilst being very distinctly products of their time, manage to remain largely on the side of ‘historically charming’ this book serves as a rather brutal reminder of the classism, sexism and elitism that most of us are glad to have left behind.

Having said all of that, once I’d got to grips with the fact that a body wasn’t appearing any time soon, and the outrageously chauvinistic social mores I found that there was a reasonably engaging mystery to be cracked. I am sure that there are many people out there who will enjoy this and be able to ignore all the bits that made me twitch. I, sadly am still twitching.

4/10

Books · Review

Wilde Lake

by Laura Lippman
Beautifully rendered story chronicling the awful collision between events past and present for a newly inaugurated District Attorney.

 

9780571321766 Thank you to Andrew at Faber & Faber for the ARC. This book was the first in a run of a fantastic half dozen or so that I read back-to-back – either ARC’s or proofs – and that were all compulsive reading.
OK – so my first admission here is that, although I read a lot of crime I have somehow managed to remain completely oblivious to the (quite large!) body of work from Ms. Lippman!

That said the, fact that there exists such a body to give evidence to her long experience as a writer goes someway to explaining the smooth skill with which the story of newly-appointed State’s Attorney, Lu Brandt, is unpackaged and delivered to the reader.

The story is told in a combination of first- and third-person relating current and past events. I found this a slightly odd and unsettling, though effective, way to use the voice of the narrator, and I was constantly bothered by who was narrating in the third-person sequences.

Lu Brandt, scion of a former and legendary State’s Attorney , grew up in the experimental new town of Columbia, in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake. For me she is one of the most realistic characters I have ever read, and I feel a strong empathy for the child Lu in the historic sequences, though she was far smarter than I ever was! Her mother’s death early in Lu’s life, her father’s immersion in his job and the age gap between Lu and her older brother left the precocious Lu with the feeling of always being an outsider in her own life, yet one with a unique and largely over-looked position from which to view the events of all their lives. In childhood this externalism simply confused her: as an adult she misconstrues it as casual and unintentional neglect – nothing she can’t overcome or forgive with an adult’s perspective. Gradually, though, she begins to feel there may have more deliberation behind it.

The plotline is simple: The first case to land on Lu’s desk in her new job is a mundane but nasty murder. Directing the police to be more thorough than her predecessor demanded Lu finds occasional links back to her earlier life in Colombia. At first these seem like nothing more than the kind of inter-connection of lives that is to be expected in small town, but the further she digs the closer to home the connections appear to come, and her earlier childhood observations begin to take on a more menacing cast.

This is not an original format or even a particularly uncommon story but it is in the details and the delivery that Lippman’s skill is brought to bear. The steady rhythm with which the facts and fictions, truth and lies are laid before the reader; the characters, who are developed from bright-eyed high-schoolers, through college and into more cynical middle-age; the events that carry those same characters to that darker stage of their lives – all of these aspects of the story are delivered with a style and depth that make this one of the most thoroughly engaging books I have read this year.

 

 

 

Books · Review

This Is Going To Hurt

by Adam Kay
A trip through the modern NHS in easy and accessible anecdotes.

This Is Going To Hurt

On the surface of it this is an engaging and often hilarious collection of anecdotes from someone who worked as a doctor in the NHS for several years. There is an abundance of stories for those who love to hear about the quirks and peculiarities of humanity. Dark and funny things that will make you laugh out loud whilst simultaneously making your toes curl.  The de-gloved penis.  The dehydrated cocaine users. The homeless man who preferred to go back out on the streets rather than run the risk of MRSA.

Referring to the diaries he was obliged to keep during his years as an obstetrician, Kay has pulled together a raft of stories and thoughts ranging from simple one line ‘notes-to-self’ to more lengthy tales of patients he cared for.

The happy, the funny and the occasional simply uplifting make for an easy and read that clips along nicely. I had this in audio book form and it was a little over six hours long. It is easy to pick up, slightly less easy to put down.

You may also have seen this  book  referred to as ‘heart-breaking’.

And it is. Because in writing a highly entertaining  memoir Kay has found the perfect vehicle to deliver some brutal truths about the state of our NHS these days. To highlight the lies being peddled by the Secretary of State for Health and the government.

This is not a treatise on the issues facing the National Health Service and the people who work there-in delivering health care, there is no lengthy analysis – he simply punctuates the usually funny, sometimes tragic stories with brutal realities he has experienced first-hand:

Being told that he would have to come back for a weekend halfway through a two-week holiday abroad because the cover he had had to arrange himself fell through;

Falling asleep in his car in the hospital car park before he even managed to start it and waking up the next morning only to find he’d slept so long he was still late for work. On Christmas Eve;

Working out that with the unpaid overtime he was expected to put in his actual wage was £6.60ph – less than if he’d worked in McDonalds.

This is far more important book than it is really given credit for. I would recommend this book for everyone who loves stories about the peculiarities of people, and it’s a must read for all those who love the NHS. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever nodded their head when Jeremy Hunt’s lips have been flapping.

Books

Currently Reading…

WARNING: GRATUITOUS KITTEN PICTURE

Kitten Underground

Warnings aside this is – so far – an absurdly easy read dotted with absolutely horrific details. Not surprising given the subject matter but it’s the read equivalent of slipping into a big, deep, gloriously comfy sofa containing concealed razor blades. Every so often you get sliced by something you barely feel until you’re bleeding all over the upholstery…

Books

OFFICIAL FIRST POST™

OK, it’s not actually trademarked. You couldn’t actually trademark that. Probably. Unless you were a big multi-national corporation, preferably U.S. based…

Anyway, enough rambling, I do quite a lot of that, which will probably become to clear to anyone who is masochistic or foolish enough to follow this blog for anything more than one post. Assuming that I actually manage to do anything more than one post. I’m a bit of a Serial Starter. Things seem like a great idea. I look into them, I set them up, I get some steam into them and then with clockwork regularity and a complete lack of consideration for my efforts they fail to run themselves. Posts don’t write themselves, images don’t edit themselves and comments don’t respond to themselves. It’s very disheartening and shows an utter disregard for the feelings of their creator. Aaaand now I sound like I have a God-complex. I don’t, although my kids may disagree. And some of my friends. And relatives, and possibly the poor bastards that have to work with me.

Anyway generally speaking I don’t have a God-complex, nor am I U.S.-based multi-national corporation (though if you want to see some people with YUGE God-complexes…) but I do have bloody good taste and great discernment when it comes to books, which is why you really should follow and read this blog, becasue you just will get some amazing tips on books you should read. And possibly some other crap. And probably cats. And also, I have words. I have great words. I have the bestest words on the planet, it’s true. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you…