Tuesday 29 March 2016

Review by Laurie Cusack of "Mr. Jolly" by Michael Stewart

All the way through Michael Stewart’s collection of short stories the everyday is peeled back far enough for the reader to register the absurdities of existence. ‘The Naked Man’ reads like a paean to Stephen Gough the nude eccentric rambler who refuses to wear clothes and is continually imprisoned for his acts of conscience. Stewart confronts our conformity and our conditioning and our prejudices and begs a question.  The tension he creates politically unsettles and challenges the reader.

Stewart’s crafted text certainly leaves an after-burn. All his stories’ pay-offs linger. His minimalist style and economy reminds me of Raymond Carver and the dirty-realism school of writing. I like the absence of quotation marks and the absence of the word said after direct speech, which work to create an impact on the reader.    

 His existential musings in the title story ‘Mr Jolly’ reminds one of how lonely life’s journey can become. How loneliness encroaches on us all, eventually. It made me think about people’s electronic lives. How alienating life is nowadays. A scarecrow performs the same function in this absurd tale until our protagonist tires of it and it’s sacrificed on a fire: burnt-out like its maker. In ‘Mann,’ the human biological machine comes under scrutiny, as time, routine, speed and stress impact on a commute to work. What seems important swamps Mann’s survival mechanism: split second decisions destroy. Rushing against the clock blinds his common sense. Mann’s conditioning makes him a slave to routine and punctuality. What a waste. His spiritual epiphany comes too late to dynamite his life. The story forces the reader to take stock. Bravo! 

Stewart confronts life’s truths and painful problems with economy and thoughtfulness. But what really lifts this collection are Stewart’s quirky insights that inhabit these cracking tales. An undercurrent of unease concerning our modern lives is realised within this text, which is refreshingly raw and new. The everyday is always unusual and different, if we only stepped back to see. Michael Stewart steps back and he does see and he cares  ̶  and this is what really makes this collection fizz.  

About the reviewer
Laurie Cusack is scraping at the underbelly of Irish Diaspora through a collection of short stories for his Creating Writing PhD at Leicester University. His writing influences include: John McGahern, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Claire Keegan and Colin Barrett.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of "Parade's End" by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford was a close friend of Ezra Pound, and part of a remarkable literary Modernism sustained in Britain, and specifically London, between the first meeting of the CafĂ© Tour d’Eiffel poets (later the Imagists) in 1909 and the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. 

Ford wrote a considerable amount of poetry, but was even more committed to prose, and the tetralogy — a sequence of four novels — of Parade’s End constitutes, undoubtedly, a great Modernist work of art. Published between 1924 and 1928, they augmented the Modernist project in Britain. The first novel Some Do Not…  is set immediately before the First World War; the middle two, No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up, are centred on the Western Front; and the final one, The Last Post, takes place in the war’s aftermath.

Although written in the third person, there are, as befits Modernism, shifting points of view, and the most impressive writing is the way Ford conjures stream of consciousness monologues from different characters. Nevertheless, there is a central character: Christopher Tietjens. A member of the Yorkshire gentry, he is variously described as “The Last Tory,” an “Anglican Saint,” and someone who would have been more at home in the eighteenth century. He moves to his own beat and with  measures of idealism: his refusal to take family money results in a continuous argument with Mark, his even stuffier older brother. Fortunately, Christopher is balanced by Valentine Wannop, the love of his life, who is a suffragette and pacifist. The triangle made with Christopher’s wife, Sylvia, an adulterer and vindictive in her ways of maligning Christopher, is a constant in the four novels.

Ford had been an officer in the trenches, but those looking for blood and guts battle scenes will be disappointed. While death and physical pain are not ignored, Ford prioritises the psychological and spiritual suffering endured by those at the front. This continues for soldiers, like Christopher, who survive, and the final novel has Christopher and Valentine seeking the peace of a rural life in Sussex.

There are many literary Modernisms — Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Hemingway etc.— and surely Ford is up there with the best of them. He has become the subject of academic study and conferences, and, inevitably, the Ford Madox Ford Society is tweeting as @FordMadoxFordie. Adding to this growing interest, Parade’s End was, in 2012, serialised for television: scripted by Tom Stoppard and with Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher.

Parade’s End shows a ruling class defined by a set of people from the same aristocratic and upper class background who all consequently know each other: a world largely dismantled by the upheavals of two world wars. Or was it? Despite significant social movements and changes — think, as examples, of women’s liberation, gay marriage, and the ascendancy of popular culture — we have a current prime minister who was at Eton and Oxford with the very person now vying to replace him. I do not think I am alone in finding that depressing. 

Parade’s End is a brilliant achievement, though somewhat daunting to approach, but I would encourage you to strap on the crampons and enjoy climbing these Modernist heights. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). www.bobzlenz.com

You can read Robert Richardson's review of the BBC adaptation of Parade's End here.


Sunday 6 March 2016

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "A Brief History of Time" by Shaindel Beers

At one point in her remarkable poetry collection, A Brief History of Time, Shaindel Beers remarks that 'perhaps / Derrida was right - that the center is not the center, / but is perhaps the center of something else / whether we are speaking of time, language, the universe.' The whole collection might be seen as an empirical testing-out of this philosophical hypothesis: to put it another way, in Beers's poetry - in the words of Blaise Pascal - time, language, the universe are spheres in which the 'centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.' No doubt Stephen Hawking - as well as Pascal, Derrida and Einstein - would understand. 

The poems themselves understand and test out these ideas, particularly as regards notions of time. In many of the poems, the present - what should be the 'centre' - cannot hold; the poems' present is always unstable, volatile, always prone to slip backwards of forwards, into present and future. The title poem, for example, starts with the word 'Now' - the 'Now' of a present love affair - but quickly moves backwards to the Elizabethans, the Greeks, the poet's own past, and forwards via insurance policies to a loveless future ('though I'll [still] love mountains as only a flatlander can'). The present is always ready to collapse into past and future: in 'Sleeping Man and Woman, Circa 2000, C.E.,' contemporary lovers are viewed like museum exhibits from the distant future; in 'Why It Almost Never Ends with Stripping,' the dominant present tense encompasses both the start of a stripper's career, and its horrific end in violence and pornography; in the wonderful final poem, 'How Time Betrays Us,' the present of the writer ('Right now, I am 27 in human years. / My cat is 83') might be very different to the 'present' of the reader, which is also necessarily very different to the multiple presents of everyone else around the reader - as, indeed, Jacques Derrida himself might have predicted:

In the time it will take you to read this,
somewhere in America, a woman was raped. 

171,233 animals were slaughtered for human consumption.
32 children worldwide died of starvation.

I may have already died, but you are reading this,
thinking I am 27 and very much in love. 

Clearly, there is an implication here that written language survives us to be read in the future; and the same implication pertains in the poem 'I Give You Words': 'Because the body is so ephemeral and corrupt, / what is beautiful today may not be so ten years hence. / I give you words.' In this sense,  words can reach out to the future; but they are also marked by the past: 'I try to use old words, inherited from generation / after generation, and try to make them say new things.' At the end of the poem, though, Beers admits that she has 'failed ... / to say the thing anew.' Always reaching out to the future, words - marked as they by 'generation / after generation' - also collapse into the past, and 'newness' is almost an impossibility. 

The only real escape from the flux of time - from the overwhelming co-existence of past, present and future - in Beers's poetry seems to be death. Only in a 'dying man's house' (for example) is the 'bathroom clock / ... stopped at thirteen 'til two.' Only in this house are 'the weeds ... certain as death.' Death, in this sense, is like 'hiding under covers' - hiding from future and past. Still, in the poem 'Overview of the Carbon Cycle,' whilst is it true that 'it took death to wrench us apart      for good,' at the same time, the narrator imagines a future in which 'someday ... / our carbon bases [might] combine ... / to burst forth the head of the same daffodil.' So, even in death, there are encoded possible futures which reconfigure the past. 

Not that the interpenetration of past, present and future is all negative; time doesn't always 'betray us': after all, a transient love affair reconstituted in a daffodil is a beautiful possible future, and in the superb and disturbing poem 'HA!,' one man's cruelty towards a cancer victim is answered by a possible karmic future. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Saturday 5 March 2016

Review by Alisia Nelson-Smith of "Sleeping on Jupiter" by Anuradha Roy

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy is a story about many worlds, the worlds within them, and even the secret worlds of the characters. They find themselves in Jarmuli, Roy’s fictionalized religious capital of India; however, each of them appear humanly irreligious in their own way at this tourist attraction. Badal wrestles with his unrequited love for Raghu, a young man who works in a tea shop by the sea under the all too watchful eye of Johnny Toppo. The snippets of folk songs and poetry in the novel are all sung by this tea shop owner: ‘Wary as a thief is that watching egret, White in the emerald paddy. And the rain came again and again that night, Soaked all the emerald paddy.’ Yet perhaps these words allude to the scars he keeps tucked under his neck scarf and is more than what he says he is.

Nomi is the protagonist of the novel, an orphan originally from India who grew up with her foster mother in Norway, and who now returns to the fractured world of her past. Suraj is her unwilling and ominously hot-blooded colleague, never seen without a cigarette in his mouth, who has been tasked with helping her research the temples for a TV show. Roy’s beautiful turns of phrase never cease: ‘A bulb,’ to Nomi, ‘was a secret between the soil and me,’ and when the sexual abuse and violence of her past is revealed, Roy really achieves the art of breaking a reader’s heart.

The story is punctuated with the ramblings of three old biddies, Latika, Gouri and Vidya, who have escaped from the city and their family troubles to enjoy Jarmuli. Their aches, pains and Gouri’s encroaching memory loss are rather endearing and their holiday has an air of being the last rebellious fling of their lives. Just like the characters, all of us in some way are sleeping on Jupiter, either meditating on our past or imagining a different world for our future. Roy captures this dual experience of suffering and yearning quite perfectly in the world she has created and shows us the struggle of Nomi to liberate herself from the consuming world of her past. 

About the reviewer
Alisia Nelson-Smith is a just finishing her BA in English at the University of Leicester and is hoping to go on to do an MA in Modern Literature and Creative Writing. In her spare time she enjoys swimming, hiking, playing her Dalmatian Thomas and travelling. If she’s not doing these things she’s probably dreaming about them.