Book Review: The Dominant Animal

The Dominant Animal, by Kathryn Scanlan, is a collection of thirty-six short stories portraying ordinary if atypical aspects of the lives of fictional Americans. There is a detached and disturbing undercurrent as individuals’ private moments are observed. The raw imagery appears somewhat shocking in our carefully curated and sanitised social world.

A Deformity Story is set during a lunch where friends are gathered in a restaurant and the narrator wishes to share an anecdote. How often in social situations are participants performing to the crowd?

“I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.”

People and the things they interact with are presented as grotesques, as, to conclude, is the behaviour of the friends.

Colonial Revival condenses a life into three pages. A man returns from a war, builds a business and home, marries, has children. The hollowness and futility of what many would aspire to and be admired for is brought to the fore by the lack of emotion. There is kindness and there is death – and time moves inexorably on.

Surroundings are described and, at times, enjoyed but many of the lives are lived without apparent beauty. Humans encountered are disturbing, their distasteful aspects presented unadorned and without obvious recourse. There are moments of horror – one story includes the sexual abuse of a baby – but even the more mundane lack hope of uplifting. And yet, the characters mostly accept their lot. It is, perhaps, this reader who looked for succour.

To give an example, descriptions of foodstuffs are of bagged, wet, congealed, oily concoctions. Taste is rarely mentioned. There appears little desire to create pleasure. The characters are mostly insular and focused on self.

Small Pink Female describes what its narrator considers a typical date.

“I’ve courted in the traditional fashion, of course – coming together on evenings arranged in advance, in the dark, on padded seats, facing the huge brash rectangle, or else in simulated candlelight, knees tucked beneath a drooping white cloth, enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication.”

Where is the excitement? the potential for fun?

Salad Days describes a relationship, its beginnings where everything, however ordinary, feels like a prize. Inevitably this cannot last. Dissatisfaction leads to violence.

Within these pages parents dislike their children and children their parents. Couples tolerate derided behaviour and take part in activities they do not enjoy. Those who manage to escape rarely find anything better. In Bait-And-Switch a couple carelessly destroy the comfort they have unexpectedly been granted.

The subjects may appear hollow and dark but there is a breathtaking honesty in the layers of meaning, however challenging this is to absorb. I was left feeling bereft at the humanity presented, yet in awe of the skills apparent in the author’s writing.

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

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Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

“These lessons do not conclude with simple answers. They aim to stimulate further thinking, and help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time.”

Unlike many commentators, Yuval Noah Harari presents his premises, thoughts and conclusions in calm, measured language that takes into account the wider causes and effects of topics discussed. He states that criticisms made within these pages are not condemnation but rather a study of flaws followed by attempts to work out how a situation may be improved. History has shown that opinions are easily swayed by the repetition of clever rhetoric. Here he encourages a more considered approach from all.

“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.”

As the title suggests, the book is divided into twenty-one lessons, each covering a significant contemporary subject. These are grouped into five broad topics, opening with The Technological Challenge.

The tools governments use to bolster their power include the threat of war but also, increasingly, machine learning. Data harvesting and the growth of decision making algorithms are the future. Machines, algorithms, may not always get it right, they don’t have to. They just have to be better than humans.

“Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.”

Automation in the hands of a benign government may be an improvement but few governments are benign.

“We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots who know how to press our emotional buttons […] The bots could identify our deepest fears, hatreds and cravings, and use these inner leverages against us.”

At an individual level the author writes of the changing job market and how large swathes of the population could find themselves longer lived but unemployable due to a lack of relevant skills in a global economy that increasingly relies on AI.

“Trump and Brexit were supported by many people […] who feared they were losing their economic worth.”

“It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.”

Revolutions in biotechnology and information technology require fresh visions. He asks how we update: liberalism, nationalism, religion.

Following on from the political challenge are chapters on despair and hope. Terrorism, war and God are discussed followed by the impact of ignorance and fake news. Humans, he opines, prefer power to truth.

“If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.”

On nationalism the author suggests that countries offering so called universal support provide it only within their own borders. This can lead to resentment of immigrants manifesting as culturalism more often than racism. Those who champion liberty and equality need to define for whom and in what form. Globalisation means the victims of automation may live elsewhere.

The global problems considered include: nuclear war, ecological meltdown, climate change, technological disruption. There are repeated references to religion, described as the handmaid of modern nationalism. Mass cooperation can be manipulated by belief in shared fictions.

There is a plea for greater humility. Every creed and culture claims they are the foundation and lynchpin of civilisation. The author delves into his own upbringing as a Jew now living in Israel. He explores the hypocrisy of proponents cherry picking elements of their revered stories to bolster behaviours they wish to enforce.

Due to the same premises and arguments cropping up within many of the lessons, the further into the book one reads the more repetition is encountered. What starts out as impressively calm and precise fact seeking, a search for sense rather than sensation, concludes on a personal journey that demonstrates the author’s privilege.

There are flaws, perhaps minor but irritating. As an example, he asks: why would a robot (AI) have a gender? Perhaps had he read To Be A Machine, in which a male engineer is greatly looking forward to the day when he may own a programmable ‘woman’, he would have a broader grasp of the depressing continuation of such human desires which markets will therefore service.

The lessons have been drawn from essays previously published in the media which the author has collated and reworked to provide a concise and readable study of global problems man faces today alongside those he should be preparing for. There is little new or surprising, rather it enables the reader to focus without the usual partisan bluster.

Any Cop?: The broad scope limits the depth available for each topic. Nevertheless, the content is thought provoking and therefore provides worthwhile reading. Such measured and balanced views are rare in our click bait culture.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes, by Giorgio van Straten (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre), documents the author’s research into and thoughts on how allegedly missing manuscripts from renowned writers came to disappear. Some are assumed lost due to accidental fire or theft, others destroyed by their creator or at the wish of surviving family. Reasons are myriad and it is the musings on these that form the basis of this work.

How important, really, is any piece of writing? The author states this view:

“The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature”

Poignantly, the daughter of one of the writers featured, Sylvia Plath, wrote in a 1997 poem of the appropriation of her mother’s memory by literary commentators who speak as if they had known Plath despite never having met her. Such is the interest and affinity generated by certain literary works.

There are thoughts on ownership and control of written words, of censorship due to the culture of the time along with protection of life and legacy. A memoir written by Byron is suspected destroyed due to its reveal of his homosexuality at a time when this was regarded as more shameful than incest. It would not only have been his reputation that was affected but also those of the men he had had affairs with.

Scholars grow excited at the idea of the rediscovery of writing assumed lost forever. When pages do emerge there are concerns over authenticity.

The book sets down known facts alongside rumour and conjecture. One writer featured, Malcolm Lowry, is reported as having destroyed the manuscript of his second book when he could not achieve the desired perfection. He wished to write an incomparable masterpiece. Such was his conceit that he preferred not to publish rather than submit a lesser work. Of his first book it is stated:

“It was praised superlatively and attacked; vilified by reactionary critics and admired in the most progressive literary circles.”

How familiar this sounds. There are certain books one is supposed to revere to be considered discerning. Opinion may be subjective but will be judged by the self professed experts and their acolytes.

As a lover of literature but one without qualification I found this book fascinating yet its supposition a little frustrating. There are so many fabulous books in existence, is the loss of a few such a calamity? From an academic perspective there may be unanswered questions. Completists may mourn a possible gap in their collection. A reader can always find some other book to read.

An interesting exploration of the reasons manuscripts disappear alongside aspects of writers’ lives and their proclivities. It is succinct and engaging. The importance of the missing works is perhaps a different conversation.

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

Book Review – Francis Plug: Writer in Residence

Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, by Paul Ewen, is the follow up to the author’s remarkable debut. How To Be A Public Author introduced the unsuspecting world to the inimitable Francis Plug during the period when he was conducting booze fuelled research for his Booker Prize winning novel. In a travesty of justice that first book was not awarded the prize. It did, however, lead to Francis Plug (and in real life, Paul Ewen) being offered the post of Writer in Residence at Greenwich University.

Francis takes the job title literally and moves into an empty office on campus with his camp bed. The Christopher Wren designed surroundings prove more comfortable than the rat infested garage in West Hampstead where he had previously laid his inebriated head. It also saves on travel costs, an important consideration since he lost his gardening equipment and thereby any means to earn an alternative living.

Francis’s immediate superior in the Creative Writing Department that now employs him is Dr Alex Pheby. Dr Alex is organising The Greenwich Book Festival and asks Francis if he could use his connections to persuade other authors to participate. Francis regularly meets the big hitters of the literary world, usually at their events where he enjoys the free drinks. He sets about fulfilling his appointed task with gusto. Despite many drinks being consumed the authors do not appear amenable to Francis’s mostly incoherent invitations.

As Writer in Residence, Francis is expected to write his next book while in residence. The office environment suits him best when it is empty of colleagues – when, for example, he may race up and down the corridor on his office chair. For actual writing he works best in a pub, preferably one in a backstreet location not frequented by students or charging tourist prices. He locates several local establishments that suit his needs before being barred due to drunken infractions that upset other regulars.

Francis intends to write a campus novel (which will include the blowing up of a neighbouring power station) so sets about reading other author’s previously published works on this theme and attending their events. As a published author he must also appear before the public, the prospect of which requires a great deal of lubrication. He travels to Paris for an event at Shakespeare and Company, staying in their writers’ accommodation. He participates in the book festival despite complaints about his behaviour.

Francis may have written a helpful book on how to be a public author but performing in public is not an activity he is comfortable with. Neither is teaching students, although he makes an impression. Even when schmoozing with the literati at exclusive events his publishers, Sam and Elly, grant him access to he struggles to make appropriate conversation. When he is recognised it is not for lauded authorial achievements.

This book is best read in chunks rather than in a sitting to fully appreciate the wit and wisdom. The antics, conversations and observations are laugh out loud funny while also being percipient. The inclusion of real people and events, some of whom I have met, adds to the entertainment. I hope that those name checked are happy with their depictions.

If you read books, attend author events, have any interest in the literary world, then this novel is for you and comes highly recommended. Francis Plug may be a socially inept alcoholic, one you may hope never to encounter beyond the page, but his salient thoughts, poignant musings and indecorous behaviour deliver a comedic triumph.

 

If you wish to purchase the black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The purple paperback will also be available from the publisher, discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

Book Review: The Life of Almost

“how do you tell, when you come from a storied landscape, what is alive and what is dead? What is really there and what was only intended, presumed spoken into being? Can you tell?”

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaught, is the story of a storyteller. It is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the landscape presented as a living, breathing influence on residents whose hearts and histories are intricately bound to the place where they were made.

The storyteller is a young man named Almost Llewhellin. He begins by introducing his cast, the bulk of whom are wider family members, many of them dead. His story is populated by unhappy families, infidelities, cruel mothers and damaged children. It opens with Almost briefly escaping the confines of the home he shares with his brutal sister to find comfort by the sea.

Almost has mermaid friends who can shed their sea garb to explore the land and spy on its inhabitants. He is besotted with Seren, the adopted daughter of his wealthy benefactor, who treats him with disdain. Almost takes an apprenticeship with the local undertaker – there are detailed descriptions of how to prepare a body for burial. Attitudes towards and treatment of the dead are recurring themes.

“Death in life and life in death”

The story is of those who went before and who continue to shape the living. Almost comes to understand why each family member behaved as they did. There are the missing, the murdered, the mute who still exert influence. There are unexplained forces that could be used for good or evil.

Almost travels to London, tries to settle in Wiltshire, but is drawn back to Pembrokeshire and his tangled heritage. The puzzle of his links to each cast member is revealed, the reader invited to consider what truth may mean.

“To be sure closes doors”

The garb of the mermaids could be the vitality of young women, a lure that must then be shed to pacify their controlling men. The direction Almost chooses for himself could be a demonstration that even the most difficult start in life need not lead to perpetual anger – with the damage this can wreak.

Set in contemporary times, the narrative brought to mind Shakespearean soliloquies albeit peppered with Welsh vernacular. It took me some time to engage with the language and form which has a dream like quality and poetic repetition. There are numerous literary quotations and references, most of which I could not place.

I read about a third of the book – my copy is 160 pages – before becoming engrossed and wanting to know what happened next. The world conjured has a mythic quality, the story a dark beauty. Having finished, its impact lingers.

“Who am I? Did you make me, or am I really just so?”

Although dealing largely with death there is a playfulness in the telling, an invitation to accept possibilities and rise above expectations. For readers open to a story that may not be quite what it first seems, this is a beguiling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

Monthly Roundup – August 2018

August is my birthday month (I had a lovely day) and also school exam results month (my youngest child attained his place at university) so as a family we have been celebrating. Having reached month’s end this is also the end of summer, although I still have a couple of weeks with all my children home before they disperse, each to a different UK capital city to continue with their studies. I anticipate quieter times ahead.

I was offered a new opportunity early in the month when a producer from my local radio station, BBC Wiltshire, contacted me to ask if I would like to come into their studio in Swindon once a week to recommend a summer read to listeners of the afternoon show. How could I refuse? You may read about, and listen if interested, to my five guest slots by clicking the following links.

Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5

The 15 books I read in August proved a mixed success in terms of enjoyment, the smaller presses mostly outperforming the larger houses.

     

Takeaway by Tommy Hazard, published by Morbid Books
Layover by Lisa Zeidner, published by One (Pushkin Press)
Night Driver by Marcelle Perks, published by Urbane

  

Prodigal by Charles Lambert, published by Gallic Books
A Perfect Mother by Katri Skala, published by Hikari Press

A note on this next book…
I had a ticket to a sold out event in Bath, part of Patrick Gale’s latest tour, but offered it back to the bookshop when I realised his latest story wasn’t for me. I hoped that a more appreciative attendee could go along and perhaps buy the book – better for all concerned. In doing this I discovered that the bookshop runs a waiting list – worth knowing if you can’t or no longer wish to attend a popular event.

  

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale, published by Tinder Press
Strangers With The Same Dream by Alison Pick, published by Tinder Press

I reviewed two books in the Canongate Myths series for Bookmunch. The latter proved not to be what I had expected, and not in a good way.

  

Weight by Jeanette Winterson
Lion’s Honey by David Grossman (translated by Stuart Schoffman)

I will be attending the Debut Authors event at the Marlborough Literature Festival next month so borrowed (and enjoyed) the books to be discussed from local libraries.

  

Sal by Mick Kitson, published by Canongate
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe, published by Fleet (Little Brown)

Salt kindly sent me their 2018 short story collection, edited by Nicholas Royle and offering a fine taster of current work in the form. I had only read a couple of these stories previously, in author collections. I do enjoy short stories and must read more of those currently languishing on my TBR mountain.

Best British Short Stories 2018

I also enjoyed three poetry collections. I would happily take more of these.

    

What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, published by Nine Arches Press
Certain Manoeuvres by Lydia Unsworth, published by The Knives Forks And Spoons Press
Circling for Gods by Jo Burns, published by Eyewear Publishing

 

I posted two interviews that other sites did with me.

Bookblast: Meet the writer behind my book reading hen avatar
Link Age Southwark:  writing competition judges interview

Judging the writing competition referred to in that second interview will likely keep me busy throughout September, limiting my other reading. My blog may appear unusually quiet.

Finally, as a judge for last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize, I and my fellow judges were asked to nominate a wildcard choice to complete their shortlist. We opted for Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash, published by Dead Ink. If you are following the prize and read the book do let me know your thoughts.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Book Review: Circling for Gods

Circling for Gods, by Jo Burns, is a pamphlet poetry collection that brings together twenty-one of the author’s works, many previously published in a variety of literary journals.

It opens with The Mid-Ulster Machinery Museum which succinctly evokes the experience of growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

“And every child knew the meaning of strange words
like denomination and sectarian. And we happily played
Across the Barricades, acting Kevin and Sadie, unaware
that most don’t look under cars before they can even drive.”

I recognised much in this excellent portrayal. During my own Belfast upbringing we did not burn Guy Fawkes, whose day was ignored in favour of Halloween when we too enjoyed the activities listed. Our bonfires were lit on 11th July and the effigy burned was papal.

The collection continues with reminiscences of family and death, the culture realistically presented yet emanating deft and often enchanting imagery.

There are poems on inheritance and travel, the narrator’s nomadic lifestyle abruptly curtailed as is poignantly described in Conception.  

“I lie, this night, pregnant, propped to dream,
searching for some tool, to pull this news
through needle eye, to sew,

to stitch the world down to what I know.
The night is a bar over the anvil of fear.
The bar – the mother I hope I will be.”

This is followed by Cosmology, on the birth of the baby and how children will inevitably grow away. The mother, once the centre of his universe, must accept a lesser role. Her life, rewritten for the child, must adapt again.

The poems on parenthood are powerful. The anguish of a child’s illness palpable.

Returning to the theme of travel the author explores language as well as place. Later poems also look at faith. They find that reverence is more likely made real within the beauty of nature rather than in a church.

The collection concludes with Texere Noctum

“In brilliance, new threads
of possibility sing

Weave. Weave your life well.”

Many of the works possess an undercurrent of affirmation, even those dealing with difficult, painful subjects. The collection is rich, empathetic and, as fine poems should be, emotionally resonant.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author after her publisher, Eyewear, went on extended hiatus. Her latest collection, White Horses, will be published by Turas Press in November 2018.