Book Review: The Martian’s Regress

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch

“if the ultimate purpose of his race
was its own prolonged survival
if mere existence was in itself a success
if existence on its own was everything”

At some point in the future, the human race has irreparably plundered the planet it inhabits thereby destroying its life support system. Knowing that this was coming, preparations had been made. A select group travelled to Mars carrying specially developed seeds and other essentials that could survive the environment to be developed in the inhospitable new territory. Over time, these first martians and their descendants adapt and assimilate with the new order created. Their raison d’être is survival by whatever means.

The Martian’s Regress is a powerful long poem that tells the story of this new world’s development and how its inhabitants evolved across generations.

Divided into sections, an all too familiar one deals with the unexpected arrival of another rocket on the planet. The travellers who disembark display an

“old-world pallor
That caused consternation
A worry that such feebleness might spread.”

“At length, a decision –
The men were tied off
The women sewn up”

“Each incomer granted nothing less
Nor more than their natural span of days”

Meanwhile, a martian daughter is offered toys and beauty treatments, despite her obvious antipathy to such fripperies. Her future is made clear when she is handed over to a willing partner and discovers: ”‘the nursery – its row of empty cribs.”

More time passes and there is curiosity about what became of the old planet, abandoned so long ago. The protagonist of this poem, The Martian, boards a rocket and travels there. He takes with him basic supplies for the journey and a companion.

“She was made to be non-marking
Her body was wipeably clean.

That doubled height
Those gangly limbs
The overt femininities

All relics of an ancient era”

“As insects are content to possess a pared down intellect
She was content”

Sections of the poem cover the journey. Others provide background on how the colony on Mars came to be. Given the likely makeup of the original travellers, their priorities are not surprising however depressing this is.

The Martian arrives on the old planet and sets out to explore what remains. He enters a museum. Unable to make sense of the purpose of exhibits he rearranges them for his own amusement, breaking items at will. He enters a cathedral, light diffused by a stained glass window that he breaks to let the unfiltered sun shine in. He observes colossal angels perched on a balcony and pushes them to the ground far below, watching dispassionately as they shatter. None of this is done with a sense of ruination. The Martian cannot fathom any value in these things. He does, however, take away a crucifix to which a suffering Christ is nailed.

“Here was something the martian could relate to.
Due punishment was always worthy
Of prominent display”

The Martian and his companion come across a well with a sign seeking gold that wishes may be granted. The companion drops a bank’s reserves of ingots into its depths, adding jewellery, even teeth. To The Martian this is a harmless pursuit. Gold will not sustain him. I pondered what the companion may have wished for.

Although sections of the poem jump back and forth across a lengthy timeline what is being portrayed is an interesting and always accessible variation on a dystopian theme. By writing it as a poem, the story remains taut and reverberates. There is little that is uplifting in the behaviours portrayed.

Any Cop?: Challenging in places due to its content but written in a language that draws elements of humour even from dark places. A warning, if anyone remains willing to engage.

Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Ocean Vuong is an award winning poet and this is his first novel. I expected gorgeous prose. What I came away with was akin to being emotionally flayed.

Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, the story is told in fragments jumping around in time and place. The key characters are three generations of Vietnamese immigrants now living in America. They are Little Dog – given a ‘despicable’ name because evil spirits will leave something worthless untouched – his mother and grandmother. There are men on the periphery, most of them demonstrating a propensity for violence. Poverty and violence permeate each page.

“freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey”

In writing his letter, Little Dog, now grown, is remembering his childhood. He was regularly beaten by his mother who was exhausted by her efforts to support her family through her poorly paid job at a nail salon. She in turn had been beaten by her husband, ending up in hospital before he was imprisoned. His attempt to bribe the police personnel called to deal with the incident, which would have been the end of the matter in Vietnam, is to no avail.

Little Dog correlates love with pain.

Throughout the letter are tales of cruelties man inflicts on animals. A monkey brain is spooned from a living creature in an attempt to improve virility. The raising of calves for veal is detailed.

Men are also cruel to each other. Little Dog’s mother suffers from PTSD as a result of her experience of war in her home country. Her father is an American GI.

As a teenager, Little Dog engages in sexual activity in which he encourages and submits to practices that physically hurt. The graphic imagery detailing these episodes verges on the pornographic – not something I enjoy reading.

Alcoholism and other drug taking is commonplace amongst peers and parents. These practices cause several deaths.

At seventeen, Little Dog comes out to his mother. She responds with a revelation from her past, another terrible experience she was forced to bear.

“We were exchanging truths, I realized, which is to say, we were cutting one another.”

The writing is visceral although in places felt overblown, perhaps because there was little let up in the horror of the fragments and their vivid depiction. The wounds that scar each family member run deep and are excavated from different angles, piercing and then piercing again. This emotional legacy infects across generations. Little Dog observes beauty and, with it, seemingly inevitable death.

Any Cop?: A harrowing depiction of a life containing much intimate and disturbing detail. Although not always easy to read, it is a powerful portrayal.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Vertigo & Ghost

Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson, is the second full poetry collection from this multi-award winning poet. It is divided into two parts. The first part is a sequence of poems featuring Zeus as a being who regards sex as his right and women as objects existing to satisfy his often brutal urges. The second part explores motherhood and the challenges of birthing and then keeping daughters safe in a world filled with multiple dangers. The themes explored are visceral, powerful, disturbing in their authenticity.

The collection opens with Ace of Bass which is, perhaps, the best depiction of young females on the cusp of becoming sexually active that I have ever read. It brings to the fore their natural desires inhibited by fear born of societal expectation. There is an innocence to the girls’ chatter about boys and music, their dreams of love as a follow-up to sexual satiation.

“and sex wasn’t there yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist”

This opener is all the more affecting given what comes next. Zeus the abuser, the rapist, the taker of young girls for his own warped and savage pleasure. He is caught and imprisoned but incarceration is temporary in a hat-tip to real life examples of the treatment of rapists.

“The judge delivers
that he is an exemplary member
of the swimming squad;
look at his muscular shoulders,
the way he forges through water;
as for the girl”

Zeus is the hunter and women the prey, yet the hounds are everywhere. The hares can run until they drop exhausted, tormented, broken. Zeus represents the worst of men who lust after pretty women, young girls, even babies. They feel entitled to sexual gratification, uncaring of damage inflicted on their disposable victims. And they are allowed to get away with it.

“I came to understand
rape is cultural,
pervasive;
that in this world

the woman is blamed.”

One of the most terrifying pieces suggested that, if there is life after death, women would remain powerless and abused, surviving in fear – that death may not bring the relief of an ending.

Part two has a very different feel although continues with dark themes. After a few introspective pieces, Haruspex turns a corner and the focus changes.

“my mind has been wrong
for a long long time.

Here is its fruit.
It is true,
I hear voices
and talk to myself.
I am done with shame.”

The author writes of a failed pregnancy and then a successful one leading to the birth of a second daughter, and the effects of motherhood on body and mind. Daughter Drowning is an excellent depiction of the changes inflicted on a previously born child.

“Now she’s trying to get me to look,
and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped
that means I watch the new-born like a hawk
afraid she’ll forget to breathe, or her heart will stop
or she’ll choke on her own tongue if I look away,
even for a second. Meanwhile here’s the first-born
fighting for attention, as if it were oxygen
and she were drowning”

With Termite Queen the poems revert to wider issues facing women, now from a mother’s perspective.

Illness is explored alongside conflict, where women are powerless to protect their offspring.

In Hide and Seek the author muses on the game her daughters play, on how to keep them safe in a world of war and men.

“I don’t know who
I’m teaching you to hide from, but look
how eagerly you learn.”

The final poem in the collection, Eurofighter Typhoon, has the two daughters happily playing in their garden when a fighter jet flies overhead terrifying them both before they can be reached and hugged close by their mother.

“always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plastic dolls”

There is an empathy with those who suffer in war zones – their helplessness in the face of man’s selfish, greedy games.

This is a raging, powerful collection that pierces the armour we build to allow us to ignore what goes on in plain sight around the world. The voices are evocative and often painful. They demand and deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Jonathan Cape.

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