Book Review: Terms and Conditions

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

As a reader with no tertiary qualifications in language or literature I was, for many years, reluctant to pass comment on poetry. It is a form that requires more than simple reading of words to be appreciated and I feared ridicule for my unscholarly interpretations. These days I read for pleasure making no claim on any ability to knowledgeably parse or critique. Much like music, if it feeds my soul I will rate it.

On this basis, Terms and Conditions is a veritable feast. It offers a literary dégustation to be dipped into and savoured. So many of the offerings left me sated it is a challenge to select just a few for special mention here.

The book opens with ‘Baby’, in which a child is being carried (or are they directing?), gathering data as they travel by train. Baby’s thoughts are on absorbing the now, but they also look forward to what could be with curiosity, hope and anticipation.

In ‘What do we do when the water rises?’, the subject is the behaviour of fire ants, how they survive as a colony – a lesson for humans:

“How do they know

How hard to hold, and when

To let each other go?”

‘Insist on it’ entreats the reader not to give in to the persuasion of others who are older, who believe they know better, perhaps because they still see a child to be schooled. Knowledge and experience require a past. Life is worth exploring in other directions.

As one who eschews pigeonholing I was particularly drawn to ‘No, I do not Tango’. This notes the names people are given by others, labels widely assigned. The narrator will not be owned by such limitations:

“You can call me anything you like. I know my name.”

‘Surplus, 1919’ was inspired by the two million women labelled as such due to the lack of marriageable men after World War I. At the time the women’s worth was often judged by marriage. It was not they who sent the men to die.

“how now to live: alone

Or worse, with parents; how

To earn, with what to occupy

Those hours emptied of expected

Spouse and children.”

‘How to be fully-grown’ explores the stamping out of impropriety in children, the quashing of fun. Adults look on as the adults-in-training enjoy sliding across a brilliantly-shined museum floor on their knees. How long before they cease considering such pleasures as possibilities?

‘Where once Mercury had winged feet’ offers the nostalgia and excitement of a passionate kiss, emotions generated floating above whatever else weighs down the kissed.

Any Cop?: This entire work, the author’s debut poetry collection, pulses emotion, speaking softly, powerfully in the silences after reading. The poems explore existence, love and ‘the uncertain business of our daily lives’. There is nothing difficult to understand, although it takes more than these few words to eloquently convey the depth of sensation. The appreciation is in how the reader is made to feel.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: The Squeeze

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

I have long been a fan of Lesley Glaister’s work. Her stories are perceptive, engaging and memorable with just the right degree of humour and originality to lift the difficult subjects she explores. Thus I eagerly awaited this, her latest publication. It is perhaps unwise to approach a book with such high expectations.

The Squeeze revolves around two characters who must each find a way to survive the choices they have made. Neither can become the person they long to be and, whatever befalls, life will only ever move forwards.

Marta grew up in Romania under Ceaușescu. Her father had high hopes for his daughter but was killed just before the regime was overthrown. Instead of preparing for university, Marta works in a chemical factory and helps to care for her little sister. When a well groomed stranger starts to woo the tired and yearning teenager, she ignores the warnings and accepts his attentions. Within weeks Marta has been abducted, trafficked, and forced into prostitution in the UK.

Mats is a businessman in Oslo with a pragmatic wife, Nina, who refuses to have the child he so desires. Mats is offered a transfer to Edinburgh and Nina tells him to accept, but that she will stay where she is. Mats considers himself steady and loyal, always eager to do what is right. If those he loves do not respond in kind he feels let down.

On a drunken night out with a work colleague in Edinburgh, Marta and Mats have sex. To Marta he is just another punter but Mats is wracked by guilt. When their paths cross again Mats is seeking absolution. It will cost him dear.

From this point on I found the development of the story somewhat preposterous. The day to day life and future prospects of the sex workers are achingly evoked but Mats’ reaction to his indiscretion seemed overblown.

Although wishing to be generous and giving, Mats is weak and needy. The women in his life, drawn by his looks and gentle demeanour, become frustrated by his lack of empathy, his expectation of gratitude for unasked for efforts. He wants his new wife to fit an image he has created, becoming disappointed when she strays from this construct. He thinks longingly of Nina, unaware of how she regards him.

The reader views Mats through his wife’s eyes as she records her thoughts – therapy for post-natal depression. There is little communication in their relationship.

Marta’s friendships with the other sex workers are touched on but never fully developed. The woman she travels with, Alis, is given a voice in the narrative but remains elusive. Despite living in the brothel for years little interaction is detailed.

The denouement may be regarded as auspicious, or perhaps just another chance for Mats to set himself up for further disappointment. He appears to have learned little over the years.

A great many social attitudes and issues are packed into this story, all insightfully portrayed yet somehow lacking coherence. It is written as a novel but at times reads as a series of vignettes. Each is effectively crafted and interlinked yet missing a degree of fluidity.

Any Cop?: The tale is easy enough to read and offers layers to unpick but is not as strong as I had expected. The characters are well drawn in their aloneness but action too often felt cumbersome. I am left dissatisfied.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Illogic of Kassel

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

The Illogic of Kassel presents something of a literary conundrum. It offers what appear to be perceptive insights, nuggets of wisdom, wrapped around a tale that does not always engage. It is mocking, opaque in places, appearing clever but perhaps for clever’s sake.

The protagonist, a Spanish writer who enjoys morning euphoria and then suffers evening depression, is invited to take part in a prodigious, avant-garde artistic endeavour, Documenta, in the German town of Kassel. Despite his antipathy towards the live installation he will be required to be a part of, the writer agrees as he wishes to solve what he describes as the mystery of contemporary art – to ‘seek the aesthetic instant’.

The writer is influenced by all he reads and observes – his life experiences. He plays out scenarios in his imagination which then inform how he acts. Reading this story felt, at times, like playing a game where the rules kept changing, where the premise and coherence shifted as the plot progressed.

On arriving in Kassel the writer finds himself repeatedly drawn to certain exhibits. He is particularly taken by a vast space, first empty and then leading into darkness, pulled along by a current of air. He opines,

“I had proved that solitude was impossible, because it was inhabited by ghosts.”

Whilst this may appear to be profound, a result of his careful deliberations, it is exactly what the artistic space represents.

In walking around Kassel the writer realises that his evening depression has lifted. He is affected by the exhibits he visits and ponders if art appreciation is purely a state of mind. In an attempt to be cultured, are intelligent people looking for inspiration in what is ridiculous? Does the avant-garde exist when, if acknowledged as art, anything can be accepted?

(I ask myself if I, as a reader of this book, am seeking to be impressed because I believe I should appreciate the skill of an acclaimed author.)

The writer is passed between organisers of Documenta and their assistants. Although enjoying their company he does not always understand what they say or mean. He forms ideas of them and is then discomfited when they do not act as he expects.

“how frightening people are who suddenly show a side of themselves we’d never imagined”

The installation of which he is to be a part involves him sitting at a table in a remote Chinese restaurant becoming a Writer in Residence. To cope with the unknown aspects of this, particularly the attention he may receive, he invents a persona for himself and considers how this alter ego would react to observers.

“we are so many million people in the world, and yet communication – real communication – is absolutely impossible between any two of us.”

The writer comments that the contemporary art of Documenta is created without the contamination of the laws of the market. I found this disingenuous, akin to an author claiming not to care whether or not their book sold well.

The story is witty with much play between experimental arts of all kinds but still I am left feeling underwhelmed. This is much the same as when I view modern art, particularly live installations.

Any Cop?: If designed to provide a debatable literary experience the book succeeds. Whether it is one worth seeking – I am not entirely convinced.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Homo Deus

This review was written for, and was first published by, Bookmunch.

“An accessible and wide ranging exploration of the changing lives of homosapiens through the ages” – Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

hdynhHomo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, is an accessible and wide ranging exploration of the changing lives of homosapiens through the ages. It looks at history, science and the views of social philosophers. Its arguments provide sufficient background to enable the reader to consider what has been, what is now, and what may happen next.

The book opens by postulating that war, famine and plague – humanity’s central preoccupations for millennia – have been transformed from uncontrollable forces into manageable challenges. Individuals now expect to survive into old age, and many wish to postpone death indefinitely.

Advances in science and technology are offering the possibility that humans may be upgraded. This is already happening with the use of pacemakers, prosthetic limbs and trials of brain implants to cure depression. When a new development offers a cure to a medical problem it generally follows that healthy, wealthy individuals will wish to buy this product to increase their personal attributes. Think of those who demand plastic surgery or viagra. There are parents who drug their children to improve cognitive ability. The military are trialling the use of brain altering helmets as a means of providing more focussed soldiers in the field.

Complex ethical issues are raised, for example the impact when doctors have the ability to create so called designer babies. The issue of how ethics derive from beliefs is discussed at length.

Ancient tribes of hunter gatherers had different rules to monotheistic societies. The former offered sacrifices in exchange for earthly rewards. The latter used the concept of a human soul to persuade followers that rewards would follow when they died. Believers were convinced that the existence of this soul made them superior to all other mammals, indeed to all other things. This enabled ethics to apply only to people.

In the modern age corporations, money and nations have, for many, taken the place of gods. Ethical issues have become factual arguments concerning the most efficient way to maximise happiness.

Having taken the reader through history, highlighting how man has behaved and why, the author then turns his attention to what may happen next. He asks, if the whole universe is pegged to the human experience then what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?

Modern developments rely on data and the willingness of many to share details of their lives. Proposed improvements in how we live could require a relinquishment of personal control. There is also the issue of who will benefit, and what happens to those who are left behind. If governments, armies and corporations hold the purse strings, their narrow interests may lead to decisions that medically downgrade certain types of people to meet a requirement, with unknown repercussions for the future.

In its 400 pages this book argues cogently if not always convincingly. What it offers is the opportunity to consider the world picture over the long term. Day to day concerns and preoccupations lose much of their significance. Even bigger issues such as climate change are only touched upon.

Any Cop?: This is a study of the challenges mankind will face when confronted with the results of its own destructive power. If the danger to humankind comes from humankind itself, hell-bent on gaining the upperhand in the service of an ideology, could there be an argument for handing control over to highly intelligent machines?

 

Jackie Law