Book Review: This Is the Afterlife

thie is the afterlife

“I always tell myself the past only seems simpler because I’ve had time to process it. The only thing I can do right now is react”

This Is the Afterlife, by Jeff Chon, is a collection of fourteen short stories with thematic links around the effects of living in America, especially as someone who looks Asian. It provides an excellent evocation of place and of those who inhabit each space portrayed. Certain characters appear in several of the tales although this is understated, only noticeable to those paying attention. There are undercurrents of sadness such as the inevitability of once close childhood friendships fizzling away into distant acquaintance. The lasting effects of school bullying are explored through aging and reunion.

Racism and bigotry raise their ugly heads as does the manner in which these are typically dealt with – few wishing to make a fuss within a neighbourhood they must continue to live within. The American fetish with those who have fought for their country – ‘thank you for your service’ – appears in a number of entries, along with the reality of how war can ruin participants psychologically.

Many of the young people who feature grow into an adulthood they feel diminishes former expectations. There is a great deal of drug taking, perhaps as an escape or to fit in with peers.

Other recurring themes include difficulties in understanding across generations. They Belong Here Now is a particularly shattering tale of adopted children who wish to reconnect with their place of birth. Two Korean born young adults who have experienced racism growing up in America try to make new lives for themselves back in their home country. They take on names they feel better fit what they were born to be. Their loving parents naturally feel rejected, but as much because they truly believe they were offering something better, unable to see their white saviour actions as anything negative.

The opening story, P.A.L.A.D.I.N., mocks a small town religious community as they try to save their young people from the evils of popular music. Subsequent stories explore what becomes of such young people as they escape to college or the world of work. These are typically quite bleak depictions. Life continues to throw curve balls as they age. Parents are perplexed and disappointed by how their grown children behave despite advice and best efforts.

The dead feature but perhaps the book title is more a reference to how life must continue beyond milestones that were supposed to lead to more ease or fulfilment. There is no happy ever after. People are let down, although mostly by themselves.

The stories may be bleak but they are interesting to read, offering food for thought on attitudes and prejudices. The writing flows and the characters are well formed and developed. A serious take down of the supposed land of the free but one that provides sufficient entertainment to keep the casual reader engaged.

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

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Book Review: Don’t Look At Me

Don't Look At Me

Don’t Look At Me, by Charles Holdefer, tells the story of Holly Winegarten, a young basketball star who, following injury, immerses herself in academia. She shifts the focus and determination necessary to succeed in sport onto her literature studies only to realise after a few years that what seemed so vital in this insular world is just another hamster wheel for the ruthlessly ambitious. Belonging means moulding herself around what is expected within the supposedly hallowed sphere.

“only people who inhabited the university environment cared about its workings. The rest of the world didn’t give a damn.”

Holly discovers an affinity with Emily Dickinson, the poet’s words resonating strongly with a young woman who, despite being constantly stared at for her stature, has never felt seen for who she is. When she comes across some previously unpublished writing by Dickinson in the university archives, she is torn between wanting credit for the discovery and staying true to the person she aims to be.

There is both humour and pathos in Holly’s backstory. She comes from a loving family but, following her mother’s death, struggles to accept her stepmother. She tries to support her younger brother despite his apathy and selfishness. In order to fit in at the university Holly adopts the complex language used by her peers and teachers. This leads to her father asking that she speak like a human being, making Holly feel he does not appreciate what now matters to her.

“Of course she wasn’t expending hours of intellectual energy on something trivial. Power, identity, our relations to other creatures – these were important questions!”

Literature studies cannot focus on one author and Holly must read widely, including authors whose work she does not enjoy. I was amused by her take on Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby: “this brontosaurus turd of a novel”. It is good to be reminded that reading is subjective and no texts are must reads – although the literati this book pokes fun at may struggle to agree.

Holly must also learn to submit work written in the style her tutors will grade highly rather than giving free rein to her own critical insights. All of this strips the gloss from her desire to progress with her studies, especially when she observes how those around her manipulate and kowtow in order to succeed in academic circles.

In her personal life Holly harbours a natural desire for intimacy, although not enough to compromise her ambitions. She makes mistakes with who she can trust which leads to conflict professionally. As the denouement approaches the tension ratchets up. The ending is satisfying as the author avoids any twists in aspects of a character so expertly crafted.

The story being told is engaging and well structured but what raises the book above others is the balance of wit and wisdom in the exploration of the human psyche. The reader is drawn into Holly’s world and experiences with her the successes and setbacks as she matures. The varied cast of characters offer comparison between what matters in academia and the outside world.

Just as Holly learns that language is powerful but need not be comprehensible only to the initiated, so the reader can enjoy a finely wrought tale that flows with ease. Don’t Look At Me has impressive breadth and depth but was also a pleasure to read.

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

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: Reset

reset

“Not doing something is a doing that is often underestimated”

Reset, by Paolo Pergola, tells the story of Lapo Pardini, an Italian marine biologist who ended up in hospital having been found in a roadside ditch with multiple fractures. At first he had no memories of who he was or his past life. As his amnesia gradually clears he realises he preferred it when his head was empty.

“One day a woman came into my room, took my hand, the left one, and looked at me. It was nice. I didn’t know who she was, but isn’t that always the case? Now that my memory has come back, and I know that that woman was my wife, now – I wonder – but wasn’t it better before, when I didn’t know who she was, than now, now that I think I know who she is?”

Narrated in short chapters by the protagonist, the reader learns that Lapo would like to remain in hospital where he is fed and cared for without having to take on any responsibilities. His family and the medical staff tasked with his care are impatient with this attitude. They wish him to make an effort to return to how things were before his accident.

“Is real life forgetting to live every day”

Lying in his hospital bed, Lapo considers the details of his surroundings. He reads the same two books repeatedly. He plays the video games that occupy the youngster sharing his orthopedic ward and watches football matches he has no interest in with the older man in the other bed. Regular visitors – his wife, mother and brother – cannot comprehend why he fills his time in this way given how active and enquiring he used to be.

Lapo recognises that, although his days may appear the same, each is different. People go about their business. Time does not stand still. He ponders the possibilities should he be permitted to stay in this state of stasis. What had been his normal life no longer appeals.

Those trying to reason with Lapo are portrayed with a threatening undercurrent, their demands failing to account for how he now feels. He finds comfort in the acceptance of a kindly nurse, and his young niece with whom he plays word games. There is a childlike quality to his clinging to the known hospital routine, his retraction when the outside world encroaches and expects his compliance.

Interesting analogies can be made with Lapo’s recollections of his work studying fish and their reactions to hypoxia. Species develop differing reactions to maximise their chances of survival. Amongst these are choices between diving deep alone, thereby suffering the lack of oxygen, or swimming near the surface where the shoal risks the notice of predators.

Although written clearly and concisely in a way that conveys Lupa’s everyday experiences, his musings offer interesting thoughts on existentialism. In stating his wish to abdicate from former responsibilities, he risks upsetting his family. Eventually he will be forced to make some decisions.

The denouement offers another lens through which to consider Lupa’s behaviour. It provides a fitting pulling together of threads.

A story that offers a study of how everyday lives are lived, viewed from a fresh angle. A thought provoking and engaging read.

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

Book Review: Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun

hashtag good guy

“Part of the reason he’d never talked to girls was because they all seemed to think they were better than him. It was bad enough guys thought they were better than him, but when girls looked down on him it just seemed to hurt more.”

Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun, by Jeff Chon, is a darkly humorous satire on ideas of masculinity in the America that voted for Donald Trump as their president. It opens four days before the 2016 Presidential Election. Scott Bonneville, a high school English teacher currently out of work due to a sexual misdemeanour, enters a chain pizza restaurant with plans to expose a paedophile ring rumoured to operate out of the premises basement. Unexpectedly, he encounters an armed holdup and shoots the gunman dead. The media labels him a hero, a situation milked by his legal representative. Scott harbours many delusions, not least of which involves his unrequited love for Lisa, a woman who dumped him.

“Maybe he wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe if he’d only asked her about her experience, he could have comforted her, showed her what a compassionate and kind boyfriend he was.”

Scott admires Lisa’s looks, especially her breasts, and focuses his time and energy when they are together on getting her to have sex with him. He can’t stop himself correcting her when she comments on issues using arguments Scott knows to be flawed. This irritates her. Scott believes that if he were wrong in the way she so often is he would be fine with being corrected, it’s just that he never is.

Lisa’s son, Blake, was instrumental in the couple’s breakup. Blake was angry at the way his peers at school treated him but could see no way to improve matters other than to take the abuse without complaint. His teachers showed little interest in what they regarded as a slow-witted, smelly, uninspiring boy when they had potential sportsmen and scholars to nourish. All this changes when Blake moves school and befriends Walt, who introduces him to the Company of Men. Blake starts pushing weights and taking care of his appearance, living by the code laid down for the brotherhood who offer a channel for his negative energy.

“The men in the room especially liked watching the males cry, those bearded gender traitors who’d sacrificed their manhood in order to project a facade of virtue. They hated that facade, the men in the room. Thanks to RadFem, modern women had been taught to favor false virtue over strength. In turn, a generation of boys grew up to become weak-minded peacocks who displayed the feathers on their backsides rather than face forward like real men.”

Scott has a younger half-brother, Brian. Their father runs a financially successful doomsday church where they both spent formative years. When their father’s wife decides to leave the cult she takes only one of her adoptive sons with her – Scott. Neither boy can ever forgive her this choice.

Blake also blames his mother for the difficulties he faced growing up. Thanks to the Company of Men he can make sense of his hatred towards her.

“A man needs structure, because without structure, there was nothing to rebel against. And when a man can’t rebel, he becomes complacent, weak. How could he break down walls if none were provided for him?”

Alongside these characters are veterans suffering PTSD and a homeless man struggling with delusions that make him believe he and others are occupied by uncanny beings, possibly ghosts. The survivors of the pizza restaurant holdup play supporting roles, as do the family of Blake’s estranged father. As their backstories and interactions are revealed, the reader is treated to a droll tale of man’s gullibility, stupidity and senseless conviction of wisdom and rightness in the age of internet propaganda and conspiracy theories.

The women in the story play supporting roles that highlight how delusional many of the men remain whatever their experiences. The story is not one of man-hating or feminism. Rather, it is a satire on how hard done by certain men feel because the women they lust after choose not to sleep with them.

“You know what superpower I’d like to have?” he said “The power to make people see the things they’ve done. To make them really understand how they’ve affected things.”

After the election come days of reckoning. Blake and Brian each seek revenge on those they believe wronged them.

“Of course, there were still people with smiles on their faces, people who’d run into neighbors or relatives, still hoping for the kind of consideration they’d refused others for the past eight years.”

Trump’s unexpected victory is regarded as an opportunity to burn down assumptions that have festered and led to the RadFem mess the Company of Men resent and now hope will lose influence. Although masculinity is a key thread, there are multiple layers to peel back in what is a biting depiction of modern America. The traditional family setup does not come out of this well, despite being the bedrock on which many of the ideas fostered by the Company of Men rest.

In many ways this is a discomfiting read due to its recognisable portrayal of men who blame others for their personal shortcomings and lack of emotional intelligence. The inconsistencies and contradictions in their arguments – their blinkered beliefs – are easily mocked, but what cannot be denied is the damage wreaked, not least on themselves.

The story is also engaging and entertaining. The author has struck a fine balance between depicting a brand of masculinity as performatively toxic alongside revealing the innate personal anxieties such beliefs mask.

An original take-down of contemporary issues where underlying causes are too often dismissed as unworthy of attention. A story that stands on its dark humour as well as literary merits, but which offers more for those willing to question why men such as these feel so desperately hard done by.

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

Book Review: Lake of Urine

It is rare in the book world to find a story that is truly original while also being eminently engaging. I’ll resist describing Lake of Urine as experimental because the tale told may be tall but it is droll and never difficult. The author plays with many precepts and conceits, inverting accepted behaviours. Ideas and turns of phrase add richness to a landscape reeling in the bizarre yet woven to plausibility within the world created.

Divided into four parts, each focuses on a different key character. The first is Willem Seiler, a man besotted by Noranbole Wakeling. She is the the overlooked sister of the titular Urine. Their mother – the many times married Emma – favours Urine and treats Noranbole as their scullery maid. Unfortunately for Willem, Noranbole has no interest in him while Urine willingly complies with any and all of his requests.

Willem likes to measure things with string. For example, the depth of winter is determined by the distance that may be travelled safely from home before the cold or wolves become too much of a risk. The depth of a creek may be measured by tying a weight to one end of the string. There is a lake near to Tiny Village – where Seiler and the Wakelings live – and Willem feels compelled to measure its depth. Despite several attempts, which do not go as planned, he persists, leading to a tragedy.

Except within this story tragedies are largely accepted with equanimity. Reader be warned, scattered throughout are acts of violence and other abhorrent behaviour towards people and innocent creatures. Normally this would upset me. Here they are surreal, as are many other elements.

The second part of the book focuses on Noranbole, who has moved to Big City with her boyfriend, Bernard. This section takes a delicious dig at the corporate world and how celebrity, particularly in sport, is venerated. Noranbole is now head of Terra Forma, a company so powerful that it has the ear of the country’s president.

“She was settling into the routines of her new position, having risen to it from the post room in a mere eighteen months and a series of fortuitous events so highly improbable as to defy description here.”

Working alongside her to rewrite the company strategy manifesto is Vacuity Blanc, head of corporate branding. As the board of directors struggles to deal with – or at least discuss in unintelligible jargon – crisis upon crisis, Noranbole gives precedence to concerns of the manager at the Noodle & Burger Emporium where Bernard works, washing dishes. He is eager to move to noodle cooking, promotion the manager claims cannot be rushed.

Bernard’s voice is only understood by Noranbole. I have no idea if the dialogue included as his language, before she translates, has any meaning.

The third section takes the reader through Emma Wakeling’s life, framed by each of her marriages – in reverse order – and the rooms in her house. The setting is timeless – transport by horse and cart but mention of internet. As with the rest of the tale, these upendings of expectation are made to work well.

Emma’s father is a pastor with a particular interest in ‘fallen women’. He educates his daughter from: the bible, his many sermons, tales of those in their locale he ministers to. He is aided by the family’s stern housekeeper. Emma is the only girl attending her small school. All this may go some way towards explaining certain choices she makes in her behaviour.

The final section brings the protagonists back together and is titled Urine. The mayor of Big City visits Tiny Village to see for himself a situation that neighbouring communities have complained of. Rubbish has become a valued commodity. The smell is unpleasant. Prominent villagers proudly take the mayor to admire the art in a valued exhibition.

“”What do you mean, in what way? It’s rubbish. We are literally falling over this stuff in Big City. People complain about it.”
Chuckles from the next table. Bunbury smirks and shakes his head.
“So we understand, sire,” he says with an air of indulgence. “Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’ve got.””

Meanwhile, Seiler is still distracted by the lake. The Wakelings’ lives are about to be affected once again.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the story but after this the pace remained pleasingly expeditious. The short chapters and plays on language entertained with understated witticisms. It is certainly not a ‘nice’ love story – there is too much masturbation and violence for that. Nevertheless, it pokes fun at aspects of life taken much too seriously while presenting serious issues lightly but as worthy of consideration.

I thought the author brave to go with a title I found off-putting. Had he not sold me on the synopsis I would not have accepted the book for review. Having read it, I’m very glad I did. Satire can be difficult to maintain in storytelling without appearing pretentious. The author has achieved a fine balance between: dark, quirky, humorous, and engrossing. This is a singular and satisfying read.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus Press