Book Review: Light Rains Sometimes Fall

light rains

“There is more, much more. No matter how well you look, there will always be something else”

Light Rains Sometimes Fall, by Lev Parikian, is structured in 72 short chapters, each focusing on a micro-season from the ancient Japanese calendar. The author lives in suburban London and spent the few days that make up each season closely observing the gradual changes in bird, insect and plant activity within a few miles radius of his home. By visiting and revisiting the same sites repeatedly he experiences the wonders of nature as it has adapted to life in a city environment.

Parikian is interested and attentive but not an academic expert. His style of writing is enthusiastic and often self-deprecating. All of this makes what he documents and comments on both entertaining and accessible. Buoyed by his optimistic approach to the wildlife he encounters, readers may well find themselves wanting to get out around their own neighbourhoods to also ‘look, look again, look better’.

The first season covers 4-8 February which Japan notes as the beginning of spring. In London, spring is still some weeks away. What we get here is the author introducing the areas he will be observing. This includes: his own back garden and those of neighbours, the streets he traverses, and a large cemetery that will provide many of his most exciting encounters.

As well as describing the creatures as they go about their daily business, there is commentary on habitat and how more nature respecting residents have adapted to the presence of people. There is wonder at the industry of birds, at their vocalisations, along with acceptance of the necessary deaths that occur to provide food and enable continuation of each species. Parikian notes that humans tend to have favourites, willing the fluffy chicks to survive while cheering the deaths of certain ‘nuisance’ insects.

What comes through clearly is the wonderment of all that happens yet goes unseen by many – the unfurling of leaves, the intricacies of nest building or web spinning, the global migrations. Readers are urged not just to look up or down at the obviously amazing but to look closely at all plants and the creatures that inhabit them, however ubiquitous they may seem.

“I do this occasionally, looking at something as if for the first time. It’s a way of finding beauty and interest in the mundane, learning to appreciate the things that form the backdrop to everyday life.”

The book was started in 2020, a year that became like no other, for humans at least. The author’s observations are noted during permitted daily exercise when the distance he travelled was limited. While creating its own stresses, for the purposes of this project the new rules provided a need to focus on an even smaller area than was perhaps first envisaged. There is still much to see.

“if you’re not interested, you can easily go through life without being aware of the microscopic universe around us”

For those who pause to listen there is rarely silence, even when much remains hidden. Behind the noise made by traffic and power tools there is birdsong and a good deal of raucous behaviour. The author seeks out areas where nature has been allowed to proliferate – not tidied by people intent on their own comfort and desired aesthetics. Wild creatures are sensibly wary of a killer species.

“I wonder, too, at the human instinct, when faced with something we perceive as a threat or a pest or just something that’s in our way, to destroy it”

I read this book slowly, taking many breaks to go outside and look at my own area. It is a rich and joyous account of not just the beauty that occurs briefly and grabs everyone’s attention – the special treats – but also the ‘wallpaper’ we may wander past without noticing. The author rejoices when he spots a rare visitor above his garden but also appreciates the intricacies and interdependencies of the regular residents.

An enjoyable new way of looking at the annual lifecycle of a locality, the bitesize chunks offering much to savour. The author’s enthusiasm is infectious – in a way to be welcomed – his writing style knowledgeable but never pretentious.

This book will now sit on my coffee table as a reminder and reference. It has inspired me to observe and listen, to go outside and pay attention. I may not possess the author’s ability to differentiate between certain species, aurally or visually, but can still recognise how awesome nature is with its casual complexity and interdependencies.

This is a highly recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Daniels’ Running Formula

daniels running formula

“Don’t compare yourself to other runners; focus on your own fitness and performance.”

Over a career spanning many decades, Jack Daniels has coached elite athletes as well as those rising through the ranks of high school and college. He believes in coaching the individual as there is no one size fits all training plan. Having said that, there are clearly approaches that work when the athlete wishes to improve their: endurance, speed, economy of effort. It is these, and the reasoning behind what is being suggested, that he wishes to explain in this book.

The opening chapters focus on what can be achieved. Factors include: inherent ability, motivation, opportunity, direction. Every time a runner goes out they should be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of this workout, why am I running today? Training may not always be fun but it should always be rewarding. The importance of progressing slowly, building up the necessary muscles to avoid injury, is a key factor. The runner should be aware of their personal limits at each stage and not push beyond until their body is ready. Eating well, staying hydrated and getting adequate rest are as important as working out.

The focus then shifts to training plan development. At this point the author becomes quite technical, although each concept is explained clearly. Daniels expects runners to know and be capable of adapting: stride rate, steps per minute, foot strike, breathing rhythms. They should also be keeping tabs on: heart rate, oxygen consumption; hemoglobin levels. There are useful graphs and tables provided that the runner can refer to. Many of these are based on current distances achieved and time taken.

By now it had become clear that I am not the target audience. As a 57 year old with a current Vo2 max of 36 who runs around 25k a week and has only recently come in under an hour on a 10k run, there is only so much I can take on board. I suspect the knowledge and advice being imparted is aimed at coaches or younger runners with a chance to compete at a high level. Nevertheless, the science behind what is being discussed was of interest, as was the author’s experience of working with athletes and what it is possible to achieve.

To be fair, runners at every level can work within the parameters and plans set out. Easy runs maintain good running mechanics, help build resistance to injury and develop heart and other muscles. Threshold running (comfortably hard for around 30 minutes) improves ability to clear blood lactate and build endurance. Interval training increases aerobic power. A great deal of detail is gone into as to different types of run to incorporate into a weekly training plan. Training intensity needs to be tailored and key measures tracked over time.

A runner’s body needs to be prepared for new stressors (increases in speed and distance) before they are attempted. It is important not to overdo it. Rest matters so long as this is not avoidance. Consistency is vital. No runner should train if injured or ill as this will exacerbate the problem.

Having presented the whys and hows of training, sections offer plans for specific distances and abilities. Each is typically divided into four phases to build on improvement. I was pleased to find a plan that I could work with.

“This red plan should do a pretty good job of preparing a runner for some recreational track or road races, even if the distance to be covered in a race is an hour or a little longer”

The more detailed plans provided in following chapters expect athletes to run at least marathon distance each week, going up to well over 100k per week as training progresses. These are clearly for serious runners with time for such dedication.

Mention is made of: treadmill running, altitude training, cross country. The focus, though, is on track and road – from 800m to marathon.

Daniels recognises that many people start running with a desire to simply complete a marathon. He provides plans for different approaches based on current ability and achievement aimed for. Novices are not expected to match the elites’ training, which is lucky as most runners couldn’t run close to the weekly distances required.

The final chapters mention supplemental training.

“nonrunning activities include such things as stretching, resistance training, massage, ice baths, and yoga”

Resistance work builds strength that protects against injury. Taking short breaks in training will aid recovery. I liked the look of the simple circuit routine detailed and will incorporate aspects into my own weekly training plan. I won’t be partaking in ice baths.

Appendices then provide more information on: aerobic profiles, times a runner should expect to achieve over various distances based on their current times. From this I learned that, given my typical 5k run time, I should be able to improve my 10k and half marathon. The final appendix provides suggestions for various high stress workouts. As with many of the training plans provided, runners are expected to keep tabs on their pace, heart rate and other factors while running. Perhaps Daniels expects all runners to work with a coach.

A great deal of information is provided in this book. A code is introduced early on (E for easy run, M for marathon pace and so on) which must be remembered if sense is to be made of subsequent advice. The more technical aspects seemed to me somewhat beyond the recreational runner. Nevertheless, I gleaned much of interest and will be taking applicable suggestions into consideration as I continue to work to improve my personal endurance and times.

Daniels’ Running Formula is published by Human Kinetics and is now in its 4th edition. I read the 3rd edition, a gift from my son.

Book Review: Shalimar

shalimar

“I am not listening out for the same pitch or cadence, I am listening out, always acutely, to the differences. These, I know, tell me exactly where home is and all the spaces in between.”

Davina Quinlivan describes herself as of diverse cultural heritage. Her forebears are of Irish, Burmese, Portuguese and Indian descent. Within each ethnicity are other minglings as, throughout time, people have emigrated for work or safety, blending to create new identities. Her father was born in Rangoon but lived in England for most of his adult life. Davina was raised within a close, multi-generational family scattered around the West London area, being told the stories of her relatives’ early experiences in distant parts of the world that have since changed borders and names as colonisers secede. There has never been enough money for them to make return visits to those left behind.

Shalimar is a memoir that explores what the links between home and family mean. It opens with a defining incident in her father’s childhood, made all the more poignant as he has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Davina and her husband have been living with her parents for the past six years. They now decide to move away, to settle in their own place. Over the course of the stories being shared they move from London to Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and finally Devon. In the intervening years they have two children, and Davina’s father dies.

Grief, for someone with terminal cancer, begins before the actual death. Davina writes of denial, of running away from what she knows is inevitable, and of how she copes when it happens. Her life in London mostly revolved around the streets where she and her relatives lived. Once moved away she starts to use walking as a coping mechanism rather than a way to simply travel. She discovers the beauty and sensation of nature, the comfort to be found there.

“Even if you pull a tree out of the ground, its roots will have threaded through the other trees around it and will go on providing a scaffolding to the living systems it has dwelled within for years to come.”

Although there is obvious fondness and gratitude for the stability they offered, observations and anecdotes from wider family get togethers are entertaining and recognisable. Being related, especially through marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean being liked.

“In truth, there was a subtle history of unspoken tension between these two sides of my family, which followed them to England. Both families had known each other in India and Burma, but they were very different … These differences would manifest themselves at family gatherings, never openly admitted, but there in the way they interacted with each other. Everyone would be measuring each other’s behaviour.”

Many of the author’s musings focus on how a person is shaped not just by personal history but also by the histories of parents, and they by theirs’. In her children she recognises features they have inherited from both sides of their family. She ponders what they carry forward of her late father.

Quinlivan’s own experiences include the influence of aunts, uncles and grandparents. For example, she remembers, as a young child, being taught to swear in Burmese.

“Though a little blunt and inappropriate, it was a lesson really: in her own way, she was teaching me to be armoured, to be fierce.”

Davina may not have moved as far as her forbears to resettle but the new lands she encounters have similar issues. Ownership is asserted by the powerful not because of love of place but for the right to plunder its wealth. As she walks through fields and woodland she observes how everything eventually goes back to the earth or sea from whence it came. The great oak trees planted when ships were built from them remind her of the journeys her family made to get to England.

“this book is not my ship, it is my father’s, carrying my family safely within it, through all the little gaps in space and time.”

The prose in places is dreamlike and poetic. The grief the author feels is palpable. There is humour and love aplenty but what comes to the fore is how much a part of everything everything is. We are affected by an ecosystem whether or not we acknowledge it.

A hauntingly beautiful memoir that evokes the multiple layers that exist in people and place. An appreciation of life in its myriad incarnations.

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

Book Review: The Other Jack

the other jack

“‘The characters in this book are fictional and bear no relation to actual persons, living or dead.’ These disclaimers are there, I assume, in case of libel actions, but I’ve always believed they are part of the fiction.”

I have met Charles Boyle on a handful of occasions at book events. The first time was a gathering linked to a literary prize I was helping judge and for which one of his novels had been submitted, albeit under a pseudonym. The prize was to reward the publisher as well as the author. In this case, Boyle was both.

“In 2007 I published four books under an imprint I made up on a whim and two of them were by me. I planned to take copies of the books into local bookshops and humbly suggest they might like to stock them … In a bookseller’s book, self-published authors are shady characters. They can come across as a little desperate – with reason, but it’s not a good look. So, Jack Robinson.”

My impression of this creator of CB editions – which publishes, among other fine authors, himself and Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist, Broken Consort, Murmur) – was gleaned not so much from our brief conversations but from the esteem in which he is obviously held by those who know him better. I detected no artifice in his public persona but rather a desire to remain in the background. He appeared more embarrassed than anything when presented with a special recognition award.

As part of my coverage of the prize I invited Boyle to write this guest post in which he indicated his intent to wind down his publishing activity. As a reader, I am pleased it does not yet appear to have happened, not least because this latest book by him is an absolute gem.

The Other Jack offers a window into the author’s thoughts on a wide variety of literature, including literary history, habits and tropes. It is framed around conversations with a young woman, Robyn, who the narrator meets in coffee shops. The reader may assume it is autobiographical, although if Robyn exists she too has a pseudonym.

“Exposing the artificiality of conventions involves even more artifice than was originally required”

The book is about: books, publishing, readers, writers, class, prejudice, rivalries, and what the author describes as poshlust. There are regular mentions of Stendhal, an ‘obsession’ that the narrator admits to and, in certain ways, appears to learn from personally. Impressions gleaned of Boyle are of a fierce intellect but self-deprecating demeanour. His writing oozes wit and intelligence while never appearing clever for the sake of it.

We learn that the author grew up in Yorkshire, boarded at an all boys school – although the only further abuse mentioned of his time there was being beaten for tardiness – and then went up to Cambridge.

“I read Dostoevsky and a whole shelf of fat black Penguin Classics in translation when I was at Cambridge, a period in my life I have few fond memories of. Very long books are often read by people at times when they were unhappy and perhaps lonely.”

Now living in London, this straight, white man is searingly aware of the tribe he fits into – supposedly well-educated Guardian readers who like to grumble when their views are not more widely agreed with. And yet, this book proves that Boyle thinks more deeply and possesses an understanding of alternative views, something that can appear absent among his cohorts. Although about him, this book is as much a take-down of his ilk as about the literati he could claim a valid place with. He offers nuggets of rebellion against what may be expected by ‘serious’ readers.

“In bookshops I often read last pages. I take browsing seriously. In life you can’t know how it’s going to end but in books you can, and I’ve never seen any reason not to … skipping to the end before the author is expecting me there – getting the ending out of the way – protects me against anticlimax. Endings so often disappoint.”

The book is structured in bite sized musings that circle and segue effortlessly. There are reflections on: dead authors, death, pretentious posturing, sticking pins in those who readers are suddenly encouraged to condemn.

On getting published, Boyle writes:

“Is serial rejection a calculated initiation rite? A way of culling down to the ones who just won’t go away?”

On banning books, he points out the double standards and conceits.

“The trial of Madame Bovary for obscenity in 1857 was an attempt not to ban its publication – photo studios and shops selling pornography were flourishing in Paris at the time – but to prevent women from reading.”

A century later, in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for obscenity, the jury were told:

“You, sir, may be trusted with this book, but heaven forfend that it should be read by women and the working classes.”

I have quoted widely here yet have barely skimmed the surface of the many subjects brought under the author’s piercing lens – and wryly shared. Robyn requests that he mention umbrellas less frequently yet each inclusion added merit to the discourse, as was the case for each topic breached.

A book about books by a writer who writes with elan and repartee. A joy of a read for readers who enjoy not just stories but what is behind them.

The Other Jack is published by CB editions.

Book Review: The Long Field

long field

The Long Field, by Pamela Petro, is a memoir wrapped around musings on hiraeth – a Welsh word that approximates to homesickness. The author spends much of the book attempting to more clearly define the word for a wider variety of uses. The writing is also a paean to Wales where Petro, an American, studied for her MA in 1983. In the intervening years she has made more than 27 trips to the country – for work as well as pleasure – and she now directs the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing at a small campus in Lampeter, linked to the University of Wales. The school attracts students from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds – unusual in this remote and insular location. As well as teaching, Petro hopes to inculcate at least a few of her charges with the deep and abiding appreciation of the place, something she felt from the outset.

The author was born and raised in New Jersey, by loving parents who longed for their daughter to find the settled family life they had enjoyed. Petro, however, fell in love with a woman she met in Paris – Marguerite – although she never openly came out to her parents. She tried dating boys in Wales but did not find her happy ever after. What she did find was a feeling for the country that altered her profoundly.

“Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working-class, mostly rural place … I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.”

Petro is eager to learn the Welsh language and muses on the importance and benefits of keeping local cultures alive. She delves into ancient history, particularly around the stone-age megaliths of the region, discussing how traders and invaders brought supposed progress that may have made life easier but also different. Successive changes over time shifted the balance of power, often at a cost to the indigenous population.

Fond as she is of the Welsh countryside and customs, she cautions against blind nostalgia.

“A good friend of mine might be able to travel to Italy, but her grandfather’s rural village of family stories – always conceived by her generation as a future destination – is now a suburb of Naples. The village only exists in memory and imagination. Hiraeth speaks to the salveless ache of immigrants and their descendants.”

To a degree, however, such longing can bring benefits if considered in wider context.

“To be able to put a name to what refugees are experiencing in exile as they seek safety far from home means that we who are already home can more easily put ourselves in their place.”

The author’s ponderings on language, stories, conquest and loss meander through the pages. There is much repetition as she tries to capture the subjects that intrigue her. Despite her obvious love for this small, damp country in western Britain, she comes across as, and admits to being, very American in expectation and outlook. Her positive perspective barely skims the surface of the lives of residents whose choices are stymied through being unable to afford to leave.

Petro is obviously a skilled writer. She provides a clear and concise analysis of Trump’s victory. The historic and literary elements of the book are fascinating. I learned much about the legend of Arthur, and other myths that were once believed. I would, however, have preferred a pithier version. In rambling so freely and repetitively through place and time, engagement occasionally waned.

Perhaps, for me, this memoir would have worked better as an addition to the publisher’s fabulous Monographs series. There is much beauty within its pages but I prefer the threads of a tale to be more tightly woven than this. Having said that, the meandering fits with Petro’s years of trying to pin down an idea that is hard to translate. A thought provoking if somewhat long read.

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

Book Review: The Intimate Resistance

intimate resistance

Having studied philosophy for a couple of years at university, when I was offered The Intimate Resistance to review it sounded right up my street. It wasn’t, however, an easy read. Described as a masterpiece, the culmination of years of work, the author has done well to condense the many ideas discussed into a book of less than two hundred pages. The result is a densely packed essay that, while interesting and well argued, requires the reader to maintain concentration. Several times I had to backtrack as I realised I hadn’t taken in the concepts propounded after several pages of parsing words.

Among other things, the early chapters cover nihilism, nothingness and angst. Not the cheeriest of ideas to consider. The human condition is described as a constant disintegration. There are many mentions of death and suicide.

“For a long time (and for too many people, even now) to live meant striving to survive, employing all of one’s strength to do so. In richer societies, however, this push to survive has given way to something else: the struggle not to disintegrate. And while the apparent enemy is much less terrible, failures and defeats are all the more frequent.”

The importance of a shelter – home as a refuge – is introduced. There was no mention of those for whom home is an emotional prison or place of danger. What does come to the fore is that individuals should look to themselves more than others in how they speak and act. The author extolls the value of everyday life, the ordinary and non-elitist, over wealth, fame or power.

“Evasion is not evasion of the world, but rather of my own self, from the nothing that I am, from the mortal being I am.”

Alongside the need to look inwards is the importance of socialising. This was challenging to read given our current situation, when other people are regarded by many as a biohazard and blamed for non compliance with a new belief system. I agreed with the author, especially the arguments around the wisdom of local, person to person, discussion as opposed to relying on screen based soundbite propaganda and supportive echoers, virtue signalling on social media.

“The sugar-coated scepticism propounded by cut-price intellectuals is painful to watch as they belittle ancient gods and old beliefs while fanning the flames of new dogmas”

Finding the strength to stand up for common sense – to resist – can appear in short supply when there is conflict over issues. The author argues that such strength also enables one to endure, to not fall into excessiveness, to avoid judging all and sundry.

“Strength is not expressed through heroism or daring, but rather through stability, faithfulness and perseverance. It doesn’t stand out, but provides confidence to those close by, embraces and helps.”

The author’s arguments are stated repetitively, perhaps to ensure that key points are understood from a variety of angles. He states a need for quiet reflection and careful consideration – done silently rather than indulging in the all too common verbal diarrhea that attempts to stifle dissent. Thinking rather than merely talking endlessly is to be encouraged.

“To think is an experience because it doesn’t leave things as they were”

Moving on, the difference between scientistic ideology and scientific reasoning is discussed. It is proposed that haughty and dogmatic pundits appearing on radio or screens spout more rubbish than is witnessed in a village café among ‘simple folk’ who have common sense and, importantly, an ability to recognise their ignorance.

“We are being overwhelmed by know-it-alls”

“They are all answers and leave almost no room for the questions to which they have no answers”

Throughout the text there are many references to the work of philosophers from ancient times through to the more recent thinkers. Etymology is mined in arguments presented.

There is discussion of act and potency. What came to mind for this reader was a consideration of those who loudly state that others, who do not agree with their point of view, must be ignorant, thereby alienating them in an attempt to silence resistance.

“We ‘obtain’ information. We don’t obtain the meaning of things.”

The constant flow of words in modern media is noise with little space for reflection and has proved damaging, not least by stifling calm and considered debate.

“Egocentric by definition, those who mutter nurture a sentiment of dissatisfaction and avarice […] muttering is the perfect example of the empty word”

The importance of human connection and conjunction is discussed, as is the value of silence. Attempts to stifle resistance through brow-beating and berating can lead to dangerous frustration when the vocal forget to listen.

“Violence comes from dogmatism”

To reiterate, the human condition, shadowed by nihilism, requires shelter and resistance alongside proximity to others.

“One’s fellow being, the home, the day to day care”

Resistance against following dogmatic words spouted by media pundits matters.

I have tried to highlight key points I took from this essay but should make clear that a great deal more is covered and all in greater and more eloquent detail. Also, it was first published in the author’s native Catalan in 2015 so, although I found the arguments highly relevant, the book was not written in the time of Covid. And this is important as it is about the human condition and therefore not tied to a particular time period.

An intense and inspiring reminder to resist the baying of the most vocal and continually question both others and ourselves. A stimulating reminder of the relevance of philosophical thinking in what is happening every day.

“Philosophy is simply self-questioning: we ask ourselves”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press.

Book Review: Aurochs and Auks

aurochs and auks

“we speak, but we rarely listen; we tell cautionary tales, but we go on making the same mistakes; we state the obvious daily, yet we never act on what we say we know”

Aurochs and Auks, by John Burnside, is a collection of four essays that ponder man’s place in the world alongside his culpability in the extinction of species. Whilst it may be depressing to consider how foolish and damaging our behaviour too often is, the undercurrent in this writing is one of hope for what still thrives among ruins, and will do so when we are gone. The author may grieve for the damage wreaked by our self-destructive habits but can also look out in wonder at the here and now.

The opening essay, Aurochs, explores story telling across the ages and how this enables ‘the most radical alternative to authorised history’. The titular animals preceded domesticated cattle and survived in lands where man had not yet decreed that places could be enclosed and owned by an elite. Farming turned animals into commodities, killed for profit rather than as needed for a hunter’s sustenance. By changing natural habitats – building on wilderness, felling forests, over fishing oceans – a long trail of extinctions followed. The author posits that many so called civilisations have lost connection with the liminal spaces our ancestors sought to connect with. What became organised religion was once a respect for unknown but occasionally encountered forces rather than a belief in a deity.

“Out in the wild, or gazing up at the stars … I do not feel diminished. On the contrary, I feel appropriate, one instance of a particular species with its own way of being in the world”

The second essay looks further at extinctions and how those who act on their concerns come to be branded negatively, often criminalised. Politicians and business leaders focus on the economy, ignoring the wide variety of damage industrialisation causes. The author reminds us that the ‘economic health of entire societies is measured according to the market value of its richest members’. The degradation of land, and the removal of freedoms afforded in wilder spaces, has left people ‘greedy, anxious, less spontaneous’.

Interesting asides include the way nature has recolonised the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now ‘lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life’.

“normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown”

There are further reminders that habitat changes result in displacement, that land should not be viewed primarily as a profitable resource.

“Land ownership inevitably leads, first to the denaturing of place and, second, to the basic conditions for social injustice. If one person has the right to enclose, develop or colonise an area, then others are not only excluded from its use, but also coerced into a position where their relationship to the land quickly becomes distorted.”

The penultimate essay, Auks, includes the always distressing account of how the Great Auk was systematically slaughtered to extinction. This, along with commercial whaling, depicts man at his worst in so many ways. Much is made in historical accounts of holocausts and genocides – man killing man. How we treat our other fellow creatures says much about moral compass – so called humanity.

The final essay tells of the author’s recent near death experience when he caught Covid-19. Once recovered he found himself more attuned to the now, more connected and appreciative. He offers special thanks to the healthcare workers who saved him, noting that a pay rise would be a better way of expressing this than a nation’s halo making.

“Nobody can say that these people are as culpable as the CEOs and politicos who keep the extinction machinery running – they, at least, have chosen to work on the side of life”

Although grateful to be alive, the author accepts his mortality and rejects the entitled assumption that ‘the whole show belongs to us’. He posits that it is this attitude that will drive man towards his own extinction, and that other species will likely blossom and flourish in the ruins we leave behind.

The writing is persuasive with many points of interest raised. Little hope is offered for change given how entrenched man’s self-entitlement remains, the comforts enjoyed that cost so dearly. Nevertheless, those who understand and value nature’s ecosystem will recognise that we are merely one species among many. We know what we are doing and continue, making a mockery of any complaints we may raise at our systematic degradation of what is our life support system.

Never didactic but clear on the issues that deserve unadulterated consideration, this is recommended reading.

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

Book Review: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law

Guest Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

Today I welcome Valerie O’Riordan to my blog. Valerie is a writer, critic and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at the University of Bolton. Her fiction has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Tin House, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, and The Manchester Review. She edits both Bookmunch and the Forge Literary Magazine. It is through my contributions to Bookmunch that we are associated. After I had submitted my review of Things Are Against Us to Bookmunch, I noticed that Val was reading the book. Interested in what she thought of it, I was delighted when she agreed to review it for Never Imitate.

Lucy Ellmann, Things Are Against Us

Things are against us, if by *us* we’re talking women, and anyone who identifies similarly, queer folx more broadly, and that’s not even to mention the issues thrown up for Black and brown and indigenous peoples, and by *things* we mean, oh, the institutional structures of human societies worldwide. In fact, notes Ellmann, when you look at it with a keen eye, ‘the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.’ So what’s to do? Well, while we work busily on a global socialist-feminist uprising, we might as well complain.

Things Are Against Us is complaint writ large. It represents a glorious bellowing back against the Trumps, the Weinsteins, the mansplainers and manspreaders; against penile architecture and commodity fetishism and tech utopians and widespread ignorance; against bras, against travel, against morning routines and stereotypes; against fake news and FGM and femicide; against violence of all sorts. Make no mistake: this is a tirade. Or, tirades, really, because this is a collection of essays, Ellmann’s first work of non-fiction, drawing several previously unpublished pieces together with polemics printed over the last twenty-one years, from ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’ (2000) to ‘Sing the Unelectric’ (2013), to ‘Consider Pistons and Pumps’ (2016) and ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’ (2017). The recurrent theme is patriarchy and its manifold woes, and the latter essays are sharply focussed on Trump and his administration, still in power when most of these pieces were composed. With the election of what Ellmann calls, variously, ‘this delusional mass murderer’ (gun violence, kids in cages, Covid), ‘the phoniest guy they could find’, and, turning Trump’s own vocabulary against him, ‘the big fat loser of a president’, and the attempted MAGA coup following Biden’s election, America reached ’a whole new level of patriarchal absurdity’. And this book is dedicated, mostly, to a setting out of this
state of affairs: how it came about, how it’s manifesting itself, how screwed we all really are. And it is all of us: while Ellmann’s a steadfast ex-pat (she lives in Scotland), she doesn’t let the UK gets away with anything — Tony Blair is a war criminal and Brexit is, she argues, ‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’ — and even though America does play its hand especially blatantly, it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real enemy, not any particular nation-state. ‘Wildlife is pretty much finished now’, Ellmann says, plainly, and it’s true. So what do we do? Well, complain, for a start: make ourselves heard. Take a stance. Hold out for worldwide matriarchy, suggests Ellmann. Be strong, take the
money, and run. (And take the pill.)

Now, remember, this is Lucy Ellmann, who might well be the living embodiment of barbed wit: this is a funny collection. It’s bold and brash and unafraid to offend, defiantly belligerent, and for every swipe the book takes at unabashedly misogynistic and colonialist and ecocidal world leaders and conventions, it takes another at missing hot water bottle stoppers, blenders and pumpkin spice lattes. It’s a serious book, but a fun one; it’s an easy read, a rapid read, a fist-thumping and grinning read. It’s enjoyable. But that’s also how it gets you: Ellmann lays a trail of funny breadcrumbs, draws you in, and then, bang: we’re reading about the stupefaction of the public by YouTube and Fox News and we are furious. It’s smart and ingenious and demonstrates enormous rhetorical skill – skill that has, often, gone underappreciated in the reaction to her works online. Ellmann rails against so many Things that critics — and, naturally, social media users who, in many cases, haven’t actually read her works — have liked to latch onto isolated examples (her dig at crime fiction; her twitter essay about ‘crap’) as case-studies in why she ought to be ignored. But one of the Things Ellmann rails against is this proliferation of electronic noise: the unconsidered pile-on, the lack of critical thinking encouraged by the exact varieties of patriarchal capitalism that got Trump into the hotseat in the first place. Slow down, she’s saying, step back, shut up and think. We don’t like gobby, unapologetic women, do we? Why is that?

‘I made nice,’ Ellmann says, and ‘it didn’t work.’ So pay attention. Get angry. Be strong: complain.

Valerie O’Riordan

Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law