Book Review: My Life of Crime

Life of Crime

“We live in our bodies, stuck with the same model for the duration of our brief lives”

My Life of Crime, by Tyler C. Gore, is a collection of twelve essays, the final one of which is novella length. The book opens with an amusing Introduction in which the author explains that the essays are highly personal – ‘the kind of stories a friend might tell you over a pint.’ Certain details have been changed to enable a smoother narrative flow, and to protect those who feature, but the events happened more or less as recounted. Depending on the type of person the reader may be they could find the author’s renditions entertaining, or self-indulgent to a degree that induces apathy.

The titular essay documents events from the author’s younger years. He writes of ‘pranks’ that come across as shockingly wasteful – costing local businesses and their employees hard earned money. Some were more simply downright dangerous. Spawned by boredom they provide some insight into the author’s character, something that he will build on in later essays.

Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Gore moved to New York City as an escape. Here he lived in a slew of apartments that came with issues rendering them barely habitable. He made little attempt to make them more homely. He admits that his family are hoarders, a habit that may have accelerated his father’s demise. When he had to move back to his mother’s home for a period, he set about trying to improve their situation, despite his own habits being similar if not quite so extreme.

Gore writes of his family and neighbours. Mostly though the essays detail incidents in his own life: a walk on a beach; a walk in the rain; jury service; the solitude of city life. There is humour behind many of the anecdotes shared but it is of a very particular type. He describes in detail the good looking people he meets, making his memories appear quite superficial. He delves into how he is feeling but rarely his perceived impact on others he interacts with.

I found The Elderly Widow Problem a bizarre essay, but the first eleven entries are short and easily read. My main irritation was the way the author appears to normalise recreational drug taking and a pornography habit, something that became even clearer in the final essay, Appendix. This attitude grated as much due to the disparaging tone in which he writes of ‘junkies’ while admitting to his own proclivities.

“Why bother when booze and cocaine are widely available and demonstrably more fun?”

I suspect he would consider me, to use his own words, a holier-than-thou prig and puritan for these thoughts. I would disagree but that is for a different discussion.

Appendix is not just long it is also meandering. It details a routine surgery the author underwent, at a time when his cat was also sick, and then there was a snowstorm in the city. If we take the ‘tale over a pint’ suggestion, this is a storyteller who wishes to share every detail of what he believes is highly interesting because it features him and his health issue – a bloated story of a bloated man and a depressed cat. There are nuggets within, for example his musings on why pets are so valued, even by the blinkered privileged.

“As an unspoken policy of the human race, we’ve agreed to trivialize these interspecies friendships because they reveal all too clearly that animals are sentient beings, just like us, endowed with thoughts, emotions, and individual personalities: a moral truth too hard to square with the everyday cruelties we inflict upon animals we exploit – for labor, research, clothing and food”

The author’s wife comes across as intelligent, dedicated and interesting. He does seem to appreciate this.

The writing offers what is promised but, sadly, I couldn’t warm to the tone or content. The author writes well enough but his various anecdotes smack of intemperance – I found them more irritating than interesting. Stuff would, perhaps, be the exception, being more structured, poignant and taut.

Gore’s essays have been well received in notable publications. I suspect I am simply not his target audience. Digressive self-indulgence does not appeal. Perhaps this is why I rarely meet up with friends for a pint.

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

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Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

Book Review: My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is

my mind to me

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everywhere, echoes”

On 3 May 2015, Paul Stanbridge’s older brother, Mark, died by suicide. Nine days earlier he had entered an area of woodland near Stoke by Clare on the Suffolk/Essex border. His body was discovered a day after the pivotal event, hanging from a tree, by two local men walking a dog.

Such are the bald facts of a close family death. They are teased out over the course of this narrative – a memoir in which we are told memory cannot be trusted. Timelines remain fluid. What happened is known by the author through hearsay as he cannot yet bring himself to read his copy of the coroner’s report. His grief manifests in wandering considerations of seemingly random interests that then serve as metaphors for aspects of the brothers’ relationship.

“Many of the things I remember are impossibilities, and yet for me they happened.”

For over a year the author’s life stalled as he struggled to process his loss. He would sit at home in the dark, sometimes aware of the presence of someone outside on a rocking chair, smoking. His insomnia was interspersed with underwater dreams.

The book opens with his thoughts on Doggerland, the toponymy of the North Sea and the naming of its regions. There are: maps, history, those who wrote of the place. It becomes an obsession during a time when his mind lacked more regular focus, when he did not wish to think of his new reality. In navigating this labyrinth of grief the past is rewritten each time elements are remembered.

Included herein are stories of strange happenings: a child born with a twin sibling growing inside him, unknown until it eventually kills him; trees that consume articles left beside them – fences and bicycles becoming strange appendages. There are musings on how relics of Christ were valued and dispersed in abundance, far more than could be possible, due to the belief in the power of a lingering presence after death. It is clear that the author’s brother still exerts influence.

Historic interests and researches are interspersed with memories of Mark, coming together to read like a fever dream. There are occasional lucid moments but much of the discourse is oblique. Mark was obviously a disturbed individual, behaving, in his brother’s words, badly in a wide variety of ways.

“If I had to describe him in a single phrase, it would be: wilfully uncooperative.”

In amongst the memories of a troubled relationship, one that led to estrangement and death threats – although there was reconciliation in the months before Mark’s death – there are happier recollections. The author writes of a bike ride they undertook in the Pennines, a moment of joy glimpsed on a person whose chosen way of living was challenging to be a part of, hard to comprehend.

More than a year after Mark’s death, friends of the author asked him to house sit their cottage in Wiltshire while they travelled abroad for several weeks. It was here that a healing of sorts began, to the backdrop of an unexpected interest in horses – creatures never before esteemed. Books on the subject were read avidly, bike rides undertaken to investigate. Insomnia and the underwater dreams faded away.

The interests documented in this memoir – water, horses, trees, memorials – link to Mark in myriad ways. Although distractions at the time to aid coping, there are obvious links in how they are written of here.

The lingering pain of grief comes across clearly. What is set out here does not always make for easy reading.

I struggled to retain engagement through the many digressions. When Mark was referenced directly my attention was awakened but wandering through the reflective researching of the author at this difficult time did not always pique my interest. The obvious poignancy garners sympathy but the narrative style, with its many historic anecdotes, required investment. Perhaps prior knowledge of subjects would have helped.

There were nuggets that kept me reading – mostly when I shared the author’s fascination with a topic, when that prior knowledge existed. I could appreciate how each element was pulled together to make a coherent story in which the shadow of Mark pervaded. I admire what has been written but, in the main, did not enjoy reading it.

Any Cop?: I wrote of the author’s previous publication, Forbidden Line (a retelling of Don Quixote): ‘Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of the seemingly abstruse sections more had I been familiar with the original.’ Once again, I feel a ‘better read’ reader may gain more from this book. It is clever and of interest, but was not for me.

Jackie Law

Book Review: brother. do. you. love. me.

brother do you love me

“Does Reuben have a learning disability or do we have an understanding difficulty? We pathologise the condition but are too busy to listen.”

brother. do. you. love. me., by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe, is a memoir of the brothers’ struggles to move forward with their lives following the stringent Covid Lockdowns. While incredibly moving it is also eye-opening, offering a window into the challenges faced by a loving family who are dealing with the needs of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. Aged 38, Reuben had only recently moved into a care facility for adults with learning difficulties when he was required to confine himself to his room, all outside visitors banned. The care staff were overstretched and bound by rules. In his loneliness, Reuben grew depressed and stopped talking. For a time he stopped eating. The title of the book is taken from a text he sent his brother when at his lowest ebb. It prompted Manni to leave his home in Spain and move with his brother into the rural farm cottage owned by his partner. Over the months that followed Manni worked relentlessly to find ways to bring Reuben back to something like his former self.

Reuben was the fourth son born to a couple whose Christian faith was a vital part of their lives – something that caused a rift when Manni came out as gay. Reuben grew up valued by all his family for what he was but often pitied by wider society. There was a desire to mould him into what was regarded as normal rather than build on his individuality. As the memoir unfolds it becomes clear that the Covid restrictions did not trigger his first crisis.

“this is what life must be like for my brother: he meets people, casts his nets of friendship, full of love and aspirations, only for those nets to be hauled back empty. People simply cannot or do not want to slow down enough to get to know him”

When Manni received the text, he had been living in Spain for the previous 19 years. He had a business as a tour guide and, since 2015, had lived on an olive farm in Andalusia with his partner, Jack. For a time Reuben had lived with them, a cherished member of their family. He moved back to England following a violent storm that badly affected him in the summer of 2018. It is this incident that opens the book. Both Manni and Jack were away from home that night and Manni ponders if this trigger forced Reuben to face his loneliness and mortality.

Manni writes with his heart on his sleeve as he recounts the brothers’ backstories alongside the struggle of helping bring Reuben back from the brink. There is an honesty and an intimacy, an admission that Manni has needs as well as Reuben. Alongside the recollections are colourful pictures, drawn by Reuben and bringing to life his needs and fears. The book truly is a collaboration and more powerful for the inclusion of what is effectively Reuben’s diary of their time together.

The months spent in the cottage are exhausting for Manni even if precious. As Reuben slowly improves his brother comes to realise that this cannot be a long term solution. He misses Jack. The ongoing stresses of the situation affect his ability to stay constantly calm and collected, as Reuben requires if he is not to regress. Manni recognises that Reuben’s continuing improvement depends on him feeling capable and useful, even if his first reaction is to allow others to do everything for him. Reuben finds any change scary. Manni is aware that if he is to return to Spain and his work there, he must place his brother back into a care system that previously failed him. Jack disagrees.

The guilt and concern felt are well portrayed. The brothers find an impressive support network, but professionals move on with their lives and careers and cannot be relied upon forever. From his drawings it is clear that Reuben understands much of what is happening, the nuance if not the detail. He still fears losing his family again and being unable to communicate his complex needs to carers.

A beautifully written account of a bond between brothers and the positive impact it has on both of them. Manni never glosses over the difficulties but the love felt is clear, along with its cost.

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

Book Review: Hysterical

Hysterical

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“When a person has to repeatedly adjust their emotions to accommodate outside expectations, it leads to emotional exhaustion”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions does exactly what the strap line claims. Written by a behavioural scientist, it offers a methodical and detailed exploration of why the myth of gendered emotions was established – and continues to be perpetuated. It looks at the language of emotion across different cultures, although points out that most scientific research has been carried out in Europe or America. Much of this was flawed, in ways that are explained, with the science also suffering from selection bias and prejudice.

There are many references to historical texts which reinforce the belief that men are naturally superior to women. In men, emotional expression is assumed situational; in women it is assumed to be innate and irrational.

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.”

There is much psychology and anthropology in the research cited and discussed. Although written in accessible language, prior interest in the subject will likely increase reader enjoyment. The gendered imbalances and assumptions can be rage inducing, especially as this reaction would likely be regarded as proof of my weak little female emotional incontinence.

“The beliefs that some groups were more or less emotional started many centuries ago, and since then we have seen what was thought of as a ‘civilising’ process, a linear progression from emotion to reason, with education being used to teach people how to control their ‘primitive’ faculties”

The author comes at her subject from a great many angles, looking at how and why women were regarded as prone to hysteria. From ancient times to modern, they have had to adapt behaviour to survive. The societal pressure to conform comes at a mighty cost. Swallowing down an emotional response in order to act as society demands and expects has been shown over time to manifest as ailment – mental and physical.

“emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social positions”

Anger is a tool for claiming agency, and agency in women is rarely well received – ‘considered aberrational’. Attention is focused on calming her down, not to addressing whatever it was that made her angry. In men anger would more often be regarded as justified – as a righteous reaction to whatever riled him.

“Interpretations of behaviours and emotional expressions are largely determined by the stereotypes that we already hold … These stereotypes have persisted through history, and the gender roles and hierarchies have remained stable over time.”

The hierarchies discussed are certainly gendered but also affected by race and class. Societal expectations differ if a woman is pale skinned or dark. Likewise, a man’s anger may be more acceptable if he is white rather than black. From birth, children are taught to conform and absorb what pleases their caregivers, peers, and those wielding power over them.

It is not that the male and female brains are different – modern neuroscience studies have established this is a fallacy. However, brain ‘wiring’ is changed over time as behaviours are learned. There is also great difficulty persuading against entrenched perceptions. This is made even more difficult when media jumps on the slightest suggestion of gendered difference – reporting it for click bait.

“there are very few studies with large samples that show any sex differences, but they receive more attention than the many studies that do not show any sex differences in the brain”

The final chapter explores the effects of pornography and sexbots – the harnessing of artificial intelligence and robotic technology to provide men (it is mostly men) with their ‘ideal’ companion. Although marketed as a remedy for loneliness, the customised ‘dolls’ on the market have been developed with a focus on sexualised features that perpetuate the worst gendered stereotypes.

“The dream he describes is to create a perfect companion: one who is docile, comforting, submissive and always sexually available”

With young boys accessing pornography, there is the very real risk they will prove unable to view girls as equals with agency whose focus is not them and their needs.

“boys thinking that girls are only there to serve them, and girls thinking that their role is to be sexy or invisible”

The role of parents is discussed but does little to raise hope of changing such attitudes, gendered upbringing being subtly ingrained across generations. Time and again studies have shown that daughters are treated differently to sons. However well intentioned there remain differences in the way behaviours are encouraged or dismissed – and this can have a lasting impact.

Any Cop?: A great deal is covered in this wide ranging and fascinating exploration although much of it is a damning indictment of supposedly enlightened human behaviour. An important read, then, in raising awareness of bias and prejudice. A clarion call for base level change.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Don’t Turn Away

Dont Turn Away

“It is easy to cast a critical eye back over history; much harder to face up to it in the present.”

Don’t Turn Away, by Penelope Campling, offers a searing account of the traumas encountered by the author during her work in psychiatry and psychotherapy over the past forty years. She started her training in one of the large Victorian asylums that were earmarked for closure. She has experienced first hand the changes in mental health treatment from then through to the fallout from the Covid pandemic.

Having recently moved from the NHS to private practice, Campling can now be entirely honest in her assessment of where patients are failed by the systems imposed on frontline staff. As a young and inexperienced doctor she was expected to follow procedures without question, the consultants at the time revered. These days consultants are also facing mental breakdown, the pressures under which they are required to work often proving too great. It is no wonder there are severe staff shortages, exacerbating the problems caused by rising numbers of acute cases in need of treatment.

Following the closure of the asylums, there was great hope that moving patients into the community would remove some of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. While this appeared to be improving for a time, changes to funding and therefore staffing levels diluted the impact of what is necessarily a building of trust in the therapeutic relationship. Joined up medical care becomes problematic when departments are competing for dwindling resources. Outsourcing to companies looking to make a profit further diminishes the quality of day to day care. Patient need cannot be properly met when criteria for accessing treatment admits only the most desperate, and even they may have to wait months for any sort of limited consultation.

The book is structured around patients Campling has encountered during her long career. The problems they live with are shocking, stemming as many of them do from horrific abuse, especially in childhood. These triggers can be difficult for the patient to acknowledge, often leading to substance abuse and sometimes criminal behaviour. Self harm is common, the risk of suicide real. The author writes of the importance of granting agency to the mentally unwell, offering support alongside non-judgemental discussion, paying attention to cues offered that too many dismiss with platitudes. Prescribed drugs can be helpful but core issues need to be recognised if progress is to be made.

Chapters focus on some of the problems that can aggravate mental health patients’ afflictions. In the asylums bad practice could occur in what was a closed community that few outside wished to even think about. These days failings are more common because those in need are locked out by gatekeepers whose job is to decide who qualifies for available treatment.

Some of the most harrowing cases detailed were encountered in a more successful unit that offered in-patient counselling led by supervised peers. As a lay reader it is hard to see how such damaged minds can ever be rehabilitated. It is no wonder psychiatrists are affected by their work given the experiences they must listen to and counsel. Patients will not always engage however much effort is made. Cases can haunt a doctor’s mind for years.

Not a book, then, for the faint-hearted but one that opens up a section of society that is too often ignored or condemned without consideration. A well written and engaging memoir that lays bare the failings of our healthcare system, the toll this takes on overworked staff, and on the patients it should be existing to help.

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

Book Review: Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

I first came across Jake Goldsmith when I was asked to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize  – a book prize dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing – which he founded. I became aware that he lived with chronic illness but had no comprehension of how much this affected his life. Neither Weak Nor Obtuse removed some of the blinkers that exist when casually pondering the difficulties faced by those who struggle with daily tasks most accomplish with unthinking ease. Such lack of consideration may be unintentional, but works such as this are important if only to raise awareness of how society must do better and not turn away when challenging issues are raised.

“Heaven forbid you make the healthies uncomfortable. One better not present a less than heroic image”

The author describes his book as an ‘indulgent memoir’. I came to view it as a philosophical treatise. Although clearly articulated, the thinking is meaty, requiring time to consume and digest. While indirectly personal, thoughts and feelings are often expressed through opinions on others’ written works.

Goldsmith was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and life limiting condition for which there is no cure. He makes clear that he is now very ill and has known since childhood he is likely to die before his peers. This prognosis has shaped his attitude and outlook. Nevertheless, he remains a highly intelligent and reactive young man with all the baggage this brings. Within these pages are moving reflections on love, romance and friendship – how some may feel that allowing oneself to care deeply for a person with limited life expectancy could be regarded as an act of ‘self-harm’, and how hurtful and damaging this thought process can be. The author writes of loneliness, of a longing for companionship. It is not a call for sympathy so much as a reminder that the ill and disabled are human beings.

The early sections of the book reflect on how shallow and fickle much thinking is in our current culture of fast media and judgemental reaction.

“With the contemporary world comes mass saturation. Slowing down to reflect goes awry when surrounded by zooming things. And I want something reflective over something so hurried. It is in some ways a primitive wish. A quickened culture, as well as one of mass quantity, neither reflects nor understands itself very well.”

The author spends some time pondering the way society allows itself to be led down pathways without examining cause and effect more deeply – believing the soundbites and shallow virtue blaming – and how this could be changed.

“Our opponents are stronger than we think and we need to act tactically and more astutely”

He cautions against those who believe pulling systems of governance down is necessary as this would merely open the doors for new oppressors to enter.

“Razing the ground does not give a pristine opportunity to rebuild, because most are incapable of that”

Goldsmith is also wary of those who believe their country harbours so much that is bad it should be abandoned, and of those who are so convinced by their own intelligence they look down on anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions.

“Arrogance comes easily if one can set themselves apart from their peers just by knowledge accumulation”

The ideas presented are woven around the writings of many historic thinkers. The author is obviously well read and capable, peeling back the layers of common complaint and complacency to urge a more profound and reflective debate.

This is not, then, a memoir in the more common vein of the genre. Nevertheless, it offers a window into the experience of living within a painfully failing body while retaining a sharp and questioning, if modestly presented, intellect and open heart.

Not a book to be rushed but one with potential to change a reader’s outlook, especially as regards the ill and disabled and the lives we all live in a shared society. A profoundly moving but also thought provoking and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.

Book Review: Multiple Joyce

Multiple Joyce

“Will you hold your peace and listen well to what I am going to say now?”

This month marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, an author who David Collard describes as ‘the greatest prose writer of the century’. Multiple Joyce provides an exploration of the cultural legacy of the celebrated Irishman who wrote about the Irish but escaped the island as soon as he was able. The 100 short essays herein are written with impressive intellectual rigour but also a strong undercurrent of wit amidst the wisdom imparted. After careful and considered reading I now know a great deal more about Joyce and his work than previously – and am no more inclined than before to actually read his books.

Perhaps that is a tad disingenuous. After the fun of the first few essays, Collard waxes lyrical about Joyce’s Dubliners – ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. I have this on my bookshelves so paused to reread it, enjoying it no more this time than previously. In admitting to such an opinion I place myself amidst those Collard disparages within these pages as philistine readers. Given his descriptions of aspects he admires in Joyce’s writing, what he draws attention to suggests I would not enjoy any of these works.

I am not put off reading Joyce by the supposed difficulty of his prose – I have been impressed by many works condemned by certain critics with that descriptor. Rather, it is the reports of repeated mentions of sexual acts and musings, by the bodily fluids and objectification of women, of the playing fast and loose with language such as to render text so cryptic as to require patient and repeated study to uncover meaning. I am not suggesting that Joyce is a bad writer – what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anyway? I simply doubt I would enjoy his work enough to make it worth my time and effort. There are always other books to read, such as this one.

Collard describes Joyce’s writing as ‘subtle, sophisticated and stratospherically accomplished’. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, described the fragments of Ulysses he read as ‘foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.’ Collard muses that those who do not appreciate Joyce’s genius are of inferior intelligence. Bear this in mind when deciding if my thoughts here are worth your consideration.

“Of course there are no objective measures when it comes to literary judgements”

Have no doubt that the essays in Multiple Joyce are well worth reading. They provide interesting contextual background to Joyce and the times he lived in. There are also engaging personal anecdotes from Collard – from literary events attended and those he met there, to his own upbringing among the cultish Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although coming across as confident in his intellectual opinions, the author can also be highly amusing and self-deprecating.

The cultural legacies referenced are wide ranging and entertainingly eclectic. There are hat tips to many other works – classic and contemporary. We share a strong appreciation of the value to literature of the ground breaking, small, independent presses.

As the essays progress it becomes ever more understandable why Collard rates Joyce’s writing so highly, although I did find it interesting that he has not yet managed to read Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety. It seems he can still gain satisfaction from dipping in occasionally.

“Here is something I can study all my life and never understand.”

Alongside the commentary on Joyce’s writing are nuggets on the man and his family. He spent the war years in neutral Switzerland where other writers and artists lived to avoid having to take part in the conflict. Collard muses on what this may say about Joyce’s relation to society.

“Hs apparent indifference to the Great War … may be down to heartlessness, or self-absorption, or high minded dedication to a greater cause.”

Certainly, Joyce appears to have had great confidence in the worth of his writing – that, as Collard has done, ‘his readers would contentedly spend a lifetime deciphering his work’. It is clear our author here believes only those who appreciate Joyce’s work may present themselves as an intellectual. I find it curious that we share many mutually respected acquaintances in the bookish world (in real life and online), that I have read and enjoyed a good number of the more recently published titles he writes about here, yet nevertheless, for my opinions on Joyce, he would still consider me an ‘idiot’ (although to be fair, I doubt he considers me at all).

As well as writing of Joyce, these essays cast their focus on certain works by the man’s contemporaries and other classic texts. There are also mentions of the development of cinema and influential films. Once again, there is an artistic snobbery to note.

“a tendency for film producers to seek a degree of social and cultural respectability through prestigious association and to attract profitable ‘high hat’ audiences – metropolitan, sophisticated and with more ‘advanced’ tastes.”

Collard is a fine writer and I was regularly amused by the turns of phrase he dropped in to many of these essays. On Melville and the reception of Moby-Dick: ‘Melville at the age of 32 now had a promising future behind him’. There may be a degree of condescension in some of the opinions stated but, that aside, there is much of value, interest and gratification to be gleaned.

The collection provides a most enjoyable way to learn more about Joyce – his work, life, times, influences and legacy – without having to read any of his books (sorry, David). To quote Molly Bloom, ‘O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.’ Unlike his subject, Collard avoids the cryptic yet writes with aplomb. I recommend this collection to all readers with an interest in the art of literature, whatever their opinion on Joyce.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.

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.