Book Review: Sincerity

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Poetry, perhaps even more so than prose, is deeply personal in both the writing and the reading. When it hits the mark its effect can be visceral. In a sizeable collection such as Sincerity there will likely be certain poems that do not resonate quite so deeply. Structure and use of language can still be appreciated even when the intended significance remains elusive or opaque.

The issues explored in this collection travel through personal memories to a wider worldview. There are allusions to Trump – ‘Gorilla’ is particularly amusing – and other powerful figures from taught history. In common is their narcissism and view of the insignificance of those who have served them, whether by choice or coercion.

From ‘The Ex-Ministers’:

“And when they are here, they are unseen;
Chauffeured in blacked-out cars to the bars
in the heavens – far, glittering shards –
To look down
on our lucrative democracy.

Though they have bought the same face,
so they will know each other.”

The lack of empathy in certain politician’s reactions to Grenfell is compared to Aberfan.

The homeless and cruelty of factory farms warrant separate mentions.

Other historic figures featured include kings and queens of old. ‘What Tennyson Didn’t Know’ posits that Queen Victoria could have used her grief at widowhood as a disguise, enabling her to live a life previously denied.

Literary notables also feature‘Charlotte imagines the frustrations felt by the Brontë sister of that name.

“the prose seethes, will not let you be, be thus;
bog-burst of pain, fame, love, unluck. True; enough.
So your stiff doll steps in the dollshouse parsonage.
So your writer’s hand the hand of a god rending the roof.”

Amongst the more personal musings are reflections on the passing of time. In remembrances from childhood there are poems reflecting the boredom and mischief of holidays, and the dryness of schooldays:

From ‘Dark School’,

“Dark school. You learn now – the black paintings
In their charred frames; the old wars;
the voiceless speeches in the library,
the fixed equations – ab invito.
Above the glass roof of the chemistry lab,
insolent, truant stars squander their light.”

A parent laments their empty nest. A grown child experiences their parent’s death. Shade and influence are cast from beyond the grave.

Burgling is a clever take on the rarity and value of silence for a writer – a reflection on a retreat taken despite the business of other commitments.

“I steal a silver sonnet and leave sharpish”

Although love and relationships are recurring themes these are never sugar coated. The faults of parents are remembered alongside their more positive attributes. Gardens and woodland spark cherished memories.

In ‘Physics, a marriage avoided in the past is regarded as a wise decision. Alternative scenarios are imagined that do not proceed to the much vaunted happy ever after of the institution.

“You walk towards me across the terrace,
all I want of love
in that world –
correct when you promised
all would be well. Well,
then again, I feign sleep at your footfall
and we are in Hell.”

Death is considered in several of the poems but not feared. The paths walked by the famous are visited with interest but also in the knowledge that it is the cemetery that now holds their names.

The collection closes beautifully with the titular poem, spare and elegiac.

“I look up
from the hill at Moniack
to see my breath
seek its rightful place
with the stars
and everyone else who breathes.”

Any Cop?: This varied collection contains much of note – the humour and sagacity lifting the wide ranging musings; their broad scope remaining grounded and at times piercing. It is an enjoyable if not always easy read. Complex, colourful and humane, it is a worthy swansong for Duffy’s tenure as Poet Laureate.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: The Little Snake

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Little Snake is written in the style of a fairy tale, although it contains no fairies. It is a story about people and the effects of the choices they make – especially on themselves. Certain place names are used but the settings are universal. Man made borders are troublesome. All cities contain those who hoard and then worry about holding on to money and possessions they will never truly need.

The tale opens in the garden of a small dwelling where a young girl, Mary, lives with her parents.

“Standing in her garden – which was on a rooftop and a bit bigger than a big tablecloth – she could look one way and see the very many sad, tiny houses of the squashed-in people. If she looked the other way, she could see the tall, sparkling buildings full of crocodiles and meadows.”

Mary is engrossed in a game when she encounters a beautiful snake. She decides to call him Lanmo. He understands how unusually clever she is and they become the best of friends. Lanmo spends time with Mary, accompanying her to school where the foolishness of the modern education system helps him understand why some people end up behaving so stupidly.

“’No’, said the teacher. “We should be proving that we are clever so that the National Test Assessors can assess us, and when we have been assessed we can move on to our next assessment.’”

Mary learns little of value at school. At playtime she is either ignored or rebuffed by the groups of “Very Attractive Friends”. When Lanmo sees how she is treated by her peers he is angered. Emotions are new to him, and challenging to deal with. He discovers that love causes pain. He starts to see people through new eyes and changes the way he behaves with some of them.

Mary reads books and then dreams of the adventures she will have when old enough to go exploring in jungles, oceans, glaciers and deserts. Lanmo’s job takes him all over the world and he cautions her about the dangers she may face. He talks of lions and bears. What will hurt her though are the actions of men.

Lanmo encounters many causes of such wickedness: the greed and thoughtless cruelty that grows alongside increases in wealth; the violence people in power invoke to maintain their positions; family members impatient for their inheritance. None of this makes a difference where Lanmo is concerned. Until he met Mary he had not cared how those he was required to visit had lived.

Lanmo returns to Mary on several occasions as she grows into a young woman. He observes how her home city becomes increasingly battle scarred and dangerous. He cannot protect her from damage and loss caused by other people’s choices which remain freely made. What he offers are continuing good dreams amidst the difficulties she must deal with.

Any Cop?: The story is deceptive in its simplicity, almost childlike yet keenly perceptive. Its message is not new but is beautifully rendered. There remains hope because each of us may choose to be kind, even if this means not adhering to the prescribed culture we live in. It is a tale for our times.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Bridge of Clay

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The best storytellers draw the listener or reader into their tale with a mixture of voice, content and anticipation. At each stage in the telling they must provide sufficient background for context but not become waylaid by irrelevant tangents. Their audience must remain eager to know what happens next, attention effortlessly retained.

Bridge of Clay is close to six hundred pages long so holding this reader’s full attention was going to be a challenge. I prefer short books, devoid of padding, where every word is necessary for pleasure and progression. Markus Zusak exceeds beyond expectations, and these were high given his last publication was The Book Thief.

Set in and around Sydney, Australia, the focus of the story is the Dunbar family. The narrator is the eldest of five boys. They are Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. They live in the family home with a menagerie of unusual pets. Their mother is dead and their father disappeared. Matthew has been breadwinner and de facto parent since he was in his late teens.

It is hard to pin down where the story begins because it is a family history with many players. The pivotal point is the bridge, but to understand why it comes to be built it is necessary to get to know how this family lived.

And so there is a beginning, because the teller must start somewhere. There is before the beginning, and the time around building the bridge. Each part of the tale relies on strands of history – of the boys, their parents, grandparents and key friends.

Somehow the author makes it work. The narrator’s voice is original, compelling and richly resonant. He takes us through the devastating challenges of loss but also the joy of being loved. He takes us through what it means to live.

The boys’ mother is Penelope, born in the USSR and a talented pianist. The reader learns how her father quietly plotted to give his daughter the chance of a better life, and the heartache caused bringing his plans to fruition.

The boys’ father is Michael, a small town Australian and talented artist. By the time he met Penelope his heart had already been broken, his aspirations irredeemably scarred.

There is also a girl is involved, an apprentice jockey named Carey. She and Clay share their love of a book, The Quarryman, which also has a history.

All this we learn in fragments. It is the necessary context to enable the reader to understand how the five boys ended up alone, viciously fighting each other as a day to day occurrence. Matthew worked hard to keep his brothers together after the loss of their parents. When their father reappears asking for help and Clay decides to leave, it is an end that feels like betrayal.

The reader needs to understand Clay’s reasoning, and it is this that Matthew aims to convey in typing out his story on the old typewriter, dug up from a garden where it lay buried for years alongside a dog and a snake. Clay grew up listening to his mother tell him the family stories. He has now tasked Matthew with their excavation and reveal.

There are reasons why beloved boys become vicious young men. Hurts manifest in differing ways. All may not be as it first appears.

Every life is filled with endings and beginnings. Yet still they continue, however difficult each day may feel.

The short chapters switch between the various threads, progressing each along different timeframes and points of view. Even the best meant actions and decisions in life have cause and effect. Bad things sometimes happen, traumatising survivors in misunderstood ways.

The writing is lyrical, powerful and spellbinding. The threads weave in and out around Clay’s pivotal secret. This reader suspected the truth early on but this in no way detracted from the pleasure of reading. The storyteller has perfectly balanced the crescendos, tragedies and reliefs throughout his tale.

Any Cop?: A book to savour, a reading pleasure, a voice that will linger – this is storytelling at its best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Lies That Bind

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

“labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.”

“As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.”

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed.

“Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.”

The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression.

“In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.”

What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others.

“Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.”

Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun.

If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation.

Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices.

The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned.

“It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.”

Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal.

“being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent”

Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers.

The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership.

“we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.”

Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things.

In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited.

The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree.

Any Cop?: Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read.

“I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law

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: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law