Book Review: Bottled Goods

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn.

Bottled Goods is described as a novella in flash fiction. It is structured in short chapters with each offering a window into everyday life in Romania under Ceaușescu. The plot moves forward apace.

The protagonist is a young woman named Alina whose wealthy family lost their land to the communist government before she was born. Her mother is an apparent zealot for the regime, although this may be her way of retaining control over her daughter who has a tendency to dream of fulfilling yearnings of her own. Alina’s aunt, Theresa, has influential connections through her marriage and uses these to help her niece when she can.

Alina marries Liviu against her mother’s wishes. For all her communist ideals, Mother continues to regard her new son-in-law as a peasant. Refusing to help the newly weds who have defied her, their early married life is made more difficult than it needed to be. Alina resents that she must take a low paid job as a teacher to enable her husband to finish college, something she was thereby unable to achieve.

What hopes the young couple may have had for decent careers, which would have made life a little easier, are shattered when Liviu’s brother defects. This action brings his wider family under scrutiny from officials tasked with ensuring all comrades adhere to party diktats. Liviu is called in for questioning and then reassigned to work in a remote and difficult location. When Alina overlooks a breach of protocol by one of her students she too suffers the close attention of party officials. The couple now live in fear of more serious punishment, putting their marriage under greater strain.

The portrait of life under such a controlling government is cogently enraging to read. Alina must also live with the fear of betrayal from colleagues and even family who would be rewarded for providing information. Alina understands that her mother is selfish and desires a compliant daughter who puts the mother’s needs and wishes before her own. She struggles to accept that any parent would sacrifice a child as punishment for daring to try for a better way of life that does not include them.

Alina turns to Theresa for help and is offered a solution that requires a step of faith. As with any advantage gleaned in this country it comes at a cost, including the weight of guilt.

This is impressive storytelling with fully three dimensional scenes packed into each short segment. The characters appear rounded and real with their varied traits and behaviours. Communist Romania is as much a character as any of its people. The story has depth and passion whilst retaining flow and an engaging tension.

Despite the frustration and despair I felt at Alina’s treatment this was an historically fascinating tale. The unusual structure was harnessed with skill and then worked superbly to build empathy. There are magical elements which could be taken at face value or accepted as metaphors that offer further details to consider.

Alina is presented as a far from perfect individual with her trials providing a foundation for portraying the realities of life under a closed, communist dictatorship. Written with flair and precision this is an immersive and compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fairlight Books.

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Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Lindsey from Fairlight whose book, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Fairlight Books is an independent publisher based in Oxford. Our aim is to promote literary fiction and quality writing by new and established authors. Literary fiction has been under threat in recent years and with our attractive books and illustration-led covers we are trying to reconnect readers to this strand of literature.

Established in 2017, we publish 7-10 titles per year, including hardback and paperback novels. For us, it’s all about quality, rather than quantity. We also publish novellas, as part of our Fairlight Moderns series.

One of the reasons writers of high-quality and literary fiction find it so hard to get published these days is because the system over the last few years has become very geared towards finding and promoting genre fiction, particularly the hugely popular genres of crime and thriller writing. In fact, The Arts Council recently suggested that literary fiction in the UK was in crisis.

Because of this, we think it’s important for us, as a publisher of literary fiction, to be innovative in how we source and promote literary fiction for readers.

One of the ways we do this is by focusing primarily on receiving our submissions direct from writers – not with windows that open for short periods of time at random moments, but through a constantly open submissions process. We review every single manuscript we receive and although sometimes it can take us a few months, we do get back to every single author with a response one way or the other.

We’re also unusual in that we are happy to publish and promote novella-length literary fiction. Our Fairlight Moderns series is quite unconventional in being made up of novellas of new English-language writing (not translations) from literary writers worldwide. With their gorgeous jewel-like covers, each with a unique illustration by New York-based Sam Kalda, this eclectic collection of stories from around the world is proving popular with readers. They are a great way of introducing new literary authors’ writing to a wider readership.

It’s great to see such prizes as The Republic of Consciousness Prize out there supporting small independent presses, and celebrating literary fiction. It offers a good opportunity to get visibility for our authors and expand our readership. Since one of our Fairlight Moderns, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, was longlisted we’ve had a great response from the industry which has really raised awareness among readers as well.

Find out more about Fairlight Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @FairlightBooks

Book Review: Now Legwarmers

Now Legwarmers, by Pascal O’Loughlin, is set in a housing estate in Ireland that is expanding over rural fields. It is written from the point of view of John who is nearly fourteen and has been living in one of the newly built corporation houses for a few months with his mother, Peggy. John’s father was killed in a road traffic accident and Peggy had not wanted to stay in the flat they shared. Concerned at her son’s lack of friends she bribes him to attend a local youth disco. Here he meets Angela who is a year older than him and lives in a bungalow built on farmland some distance from the estate. She has an older sister, Marion, who goes missing before she and John can meet.

Angela introduces John to kissing and smoking and David Bowie. They discuss books, music, films, and the stories of the people who live or once lived in the places they explore as they hang out together. John has a vivid imagination which helps him to process the grief he feels at the loss of his father, and his concerns for the feelings and changes in his body that he sometimes struggles to understand and deal with.

John is intelligent but attends an all boys’ school where he is expected to conform, especially to the religious tenets of the time and place. His lack of skill or interest in sport adds to his inability to fit in.

“I never knew what a boy was actually supposed to be like and I still don’t. Even now at school I watch them running around, and sometimes I’m running around too, but always it’s a bit like I’m pretending to know the rules to a weird game I don’t actually know how to play.”

John’s father had encouraged him to play football but memories of their visits to the pub are recalled with more pleasure. Peggy disapproved of her husband’s drinking and socialising, wanting him to spend what free time he had after work improving their home.

“she wanted everything to be brand new all the time and spick and span like she didn’t want what she already had at all, as if as soon as you had a thing that you wanted then it was no good. So she always wanted new things or to paint things or to put up wallpaper.”

Peggy is concerned that John is overweight. He hides from her the food he disposes off after pretending it has been eaten.

Angela also hangs out with two of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, Paul and Tony. She tells John of the rows her parents have and how they prefer Marion to her. She talks of the terrible things Paul and Tony have done, although the details sometimes change. Their conversations worm their way into John’s dreams when he is both asleep and awake.

John must also deal with his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a local man, Mr Daly. His feelings ricochet.

All of this is told in a stream of thoughts over several weeks in a dreary winter. John’s life is in many ways ordinary but by viewing it from inside his head the issues and concerns are shown to be idiosyncratic and a challenge for him. The author captures the angst and vernacular of a boy in his situation. The adults around him are well meaning but exist at a distance, unable to reach or empathise with someone his age.

“‘She misses Daddy’, I said.
‘You’re the man of the house now so you have to look after her’
I said nothing. I knew what the man of the house was and I wasn’t that. I was the son.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him and the look on his face said something else, it said he didn’t know who I was at all”

The story is quietly devastating in its portrayal of small town life and the invisible lacerations caused by the expectations of family. It is an impressively told reminder that young people think for themselves. A poignant, arresting and satisfyingly original read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

Book Review: Resistance

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn).

Resistance is a fairly short novel but one that should on no account be rushed. The language and turns of phrases reward those who savour. It is a story about a family and how each are differently affected by the same experiences, both shared and inherited. The insights offered are meticulous, sympathetic and deserving of attention.

The narrator of the tale is the youngest of three siblings whose parents fled Argentina in the 1970s and settled in Brazil. The couple brought with them their infant son who they had adopted after failing to conceive. They knew little of their new-born’s background – how he came to be offered to them. They were assured it would be better this way.

Their younger two children were born after the forced migration. The children always knew their brother was adopted although it was rarely referred to. The narrator is exploring if, within his family, this difference in birth – parentage and country – had a detrimental effect.

“I’m writing […] a book about that child, my brother, about the pains and experiences of childhood, but also about persecution and resistance, about terror, torture and disappearances.”

Each chapter is short offering a vignette on childhood, a retelling of family mythology, and the narrator’s questioning of the truth behind his memories. He recognises the difficulty of expressing feelings that continue to reverberate across years during which the events will have been retold on a variety of occasions.

“They’re all disposable fictions, nothing but distortions.”

Photograph albums are viewed and an apartment in Argentina visited as the narrator attempts to reconstruct the anecdotes his parents shared.

He recalls missteps, embarrassing incidents when he said or did something he immediately regretted. Childhood experiences leave imprints that grow imprecise in recollection.

There is a careful hesitancy, a striving for authenticity, yet the prose is piercing in its power to convey with clarity the difficulties of being a child in a close knit family whose history involved conflict and deracination.

An Argentinian colleague who was disappeared by the regime is remembered by the narrator’s mother, her story thereby impacting the next generation.

“I never knew Martha Brea, her absence does not live inside me. But her absence lived in our house.”

These family stories are an aspect of a childhood that was itself loving and stable. Also remembered are later difficulties dealing with the elder brother, although these are viewed differently by their parents and perhaps by the subject himself.

“I have tried to construct the ediface of this story, on deeply buried foundations that are highly unstable.”

The narrator is drawing on the experiences of parents and other forebears in an attempt to explore how an adopted child may be impacted when raised alongside unadopted siblings.

“An attempt to forge the meanings life refuses to give us”

The narrator writes of how his brother is regarded by their family and also by the boy’s friends. He acknowledges that the family view can only be his interpretation, and is perhaps not shared by his siblings or their parents.

“Our children always transcend how we think of them.”

After spending two years pulling together his various stories and analysing his thoughts on them he concludes:

“writing about the family and reflecting so much on it isn’t the same as experiencing it, sharing its routine, inhabiting its present.”

The narrator can only view his brother through a personal lens.

As a reader it is not so much the unfolding history, interesting though it is, that affected; rather, it is the carefully considered depiction of family and their interpretations of shared memories that reverberates.

The prose is breathtaking in its power and beauty, carefully crafted and always engaging. This was a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Charco Press contributed a fascinating guest post about the origins and aims of their publishing house last year after one of their inaugural titles, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, was longlisted for the RofC prize. This title went on to make the 2018 shortlist and was also longlisted for that year’s Man Booker International Prize.

You may read the guest post here.

I did not ask them to contribute again but was grateful to receive a copy of this year’s longlisted book, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), which I will review tomorrow.

In looking at what has been happening at the press in the past year there was a wealth of exciting news and achievements (summarised on their website). Charco are reaching impressive heights in the literary world and deserve further, wider attention.

A conversation between Ellen Jones and Charco’s Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, published in Hotel magazine, was of particular interest – you may read it here. Amongst other topics they talk of: the exciting publishing scene in Scotland; their vision for the visual presentation of their beautiful books; the value of bringing established and respected authors who have won awards internationally to English speaking readers.

Resistance has already won the Jabuti Award for Book of the Year (2016), the Oceanos Prize (2016), the José Saramago Literary Prize (2017) and the Anna Seghers Prize (2018). Julián Fuks has gained recognition as one of Brazil’s most outstanding young writers.

Charco’s aims are best summarised in their own words from their website.

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Personally I would like to read every book put out by this fabulous publisher. I am grateful that the Republic of Consciousness Prize brought them to my attention.

 

You may follow Charco Press on Twitter: @CharcoPress

Book Review: Cure

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Medical research scientists are required to be rigorous in their investigations but also open minded to the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from the results of clinical trials. Drugs that show early promise may not be as effective when tested over the long term on a wide variety of subjects. Side effects of treatments and surgical interventions can be as harmful as the problems they attempt to resolve.

While doctors may be eager to find more effective treatments, particularly for the growing number of chronic conditions, there are deep seated biases against certain alternatives: homeopathic remedies, mindfulness and meditation, distraction techniques, hypnotism, religious belief. What Cure sets out to do is to look at the trials that have been undertaken around such so called woo woo treatments and scientifically question their efficacy.

The book opens with an investigation into the placebo – pills given to patients that are known to contain no active ingredient, or treatment that has been shown not to work after accounting for the placebo effect in test results. Time and again trials show that many patients’ outcomes improve when given a placebo. The author asks why such a cheap and easy alternative is not offered when it could have clinical value. It is now known that the body is capable of producing its own powerful drugs, e.g. endorphins. The brain is a natural pharmacy.

“If someone takes a placebo and feels their pain melt away, it isn’t trickery, wishful thinking, or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.”

There are important limitations in the placebo as treatment; it is limited to the natural tools that the body has available.

“Placebos are good at influencing how we feel but there’s little evidence that they affect measures we’re not consciously aware of”
“Feeling great isn’t everything. We also want to be kept alive.”

Yet for those who do not feel great, placebos could offer a welcome improvement in the way they live. Certain patient groups, especially those with chronic conditions such as CFS / ME, reject that the mind can have such an important impact as they then feel they are being blamed for their illness. This separation of the mind and the body, and the biases such thinking uncovers, may be one reason why the treatments looked at in this book are often dismissed.

Another reason is the difficulty of obtaining funding for large scale clinical trials. Drugs companies are unlikely to support investigations into treatments that will lead to fewer expensive drugs being administered.

Living with long term stress has been shown to create physiological damage and to rewire the brain.

“people in a threat state take longer to recover to baseline once a task is over […] Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension. And as we’ve seen, repeated activation of cortisol can damage the immune system.”

The author investigates a variety of alternative treatments that attempt to train the body to deal with challenges and decrease the harm caused.

“Just as with physical exercise, if we put our bodies under a manageable amount of stress, then go home and rest, this eventually makes us stronger and more resilient.”

The effects of meditation and mindfulness are studied and compared to the effects of antidepressants. Once again, certain patients enjoy benefits yet many medical practitioners dismiss such treatments as nonsense, the proponents delusional. Prejudices are strong.

One problem with alternative and holistic treatments is the way modern medicine is practiced. In the UK an initial consultation typically involves a ten minute GP appointment with the expectation at the end that there will be a prescription or potential for surgical intervention. There may not be a pill for every ill but there could be minimally invasive and effective treatment if the patient is willing.

Drugs for stress, depression and chronic pain are costly with damaging side effects such as risk of addiction. Trials have shown time and again that mind-body techniques can work better on many. Despite the evidence, stigma remains.

Religion is shown to have a placebo effect although only if compassionate and accepting rather than threatening. A sense of belonging – the importance of community and damage caused by loneliness – are also investigated. There is a beneficial effect on health when a patient feels they are a part of something bigger.

“the prolonged impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful”

The author is asking: if an alternative treatment works for a patient then why mock and dismiss it? It is clearly stated that a patient may not simply wish themselves better yet there are ways in which the conscious mind can influence outcomes and deal better with painful situations. There is also the argument that keeping alternative medicine within the NHS allows for regulation and the ability to offer conventional treatments as needed. The potential for harm is acknowledged, such as when proven beneficial medications such as vaccines are withheld for spurious reasons.

Each chapter contains details of a variety of patients’ experiences alongside interviews with clinicians and references to papers and journals in which studies are detailed. Throughout, the writing is warm and accessible, the tone clear and inquiring rather than dogmatic. The reader may decide for themselves if improvements in health are worthwhile even if treatment cannot always be fully, scientifically explained in the traditionally accepted way.

Any Cop?: This is a fascinating approach to a controversial subject. The author offers due diligence and a willingness to look for facts without prejudice. The workings of the mind may not yet be fully understood by doctors but this doesn’t mean it cannot be harnessed for innovative and effective treatments. The book offers a compelling and persuasive contribution to a wider conversation. It may change the way rational and informed readers view alternative medicine.

 

Jackie Law

Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Peepal Tree Press who published Kitch by Anthony Joseph. On their website we are told that Peepal Tree

“aims to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.”

“We publish fiction, poetry and a range of academic and non-fiction titles. Our goal is to publish books that make a difference”

Do please read on to find out more.

Founded in 1985 by our Managing Editor, Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree press had humble beginnings. Our first title, Backdam People by Rooplall Monar, was typeset on a daisywheel printer after hours in college. In the last 34 years, we have brought readers around 350 titles by Caribbean, Asian, and Black British authors, making a name for ourselves as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature.

The inspiration for our name came to Jeremy in the form of a poem by Indo-Guyanese poet Jacob Chinapen. In the poem, workers tell stories under a peepal tree after a day at work. The peepal tree, which originated in India but was brought to the Caribbean, seemed to Jeremy to be a perfect metaphor for something transplanted – symbolic of putting down roots. And so, Peepal Tree Press was born, out of a desire to help Backdam People be published in a time of Guyanese oppression.

Since then we have survived on various shoestrings, prioritizing great literature that says something new to the world, and editing those books with the utmost care. We have evolved through the development of different printing technologies and are now in a place where we are publishing 20 or so books a year, members of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, and home to Inscribe, which delivers writer development and support. Peepal Tree is based in Leeds, part of a growing independent publishing sector outside of London and the South East, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It has been an honour to have the brilliant Anthony Joseph’s innovative fusion of novel and biography, Kitch, longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Discovering the books on the longlist has been a delight, and prizes like ROFC are hugely valuable in helping readers discover amazing books from indies that they might not otherwise have come across. Similarly, ROFC’s nomination of Marcia Douglas for the 2016 longlist was hugely beneficial to us, attracting new readers.

We hope to continue developing and contributing to conversations about Caribbean literature and culture, publishing wonderful books, and opening up this world to readers and writers. Our new anthology, for example, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, featured on BBC Radio 4 Open Book, shines a light on a wide range of authors across the Caribbean and its diasporas, with a strong focus on women and LGBT writers. You can see a list of the books we have planned for 2019 here, and look out too for the New Caribbean Voices podcast, launching soon on Soundcloud. We’d love it if you followed us on instagram, twitter, or facebook – or you can even subscribe to our newsletter.

We wish luck to all of the authors longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.