Reading Review: First Person and other stories, by Ali Smith

Ali Smith is another universe I’m taking a brisk walk through. I accidentally didn’t finish The Accidental – I started it on holiday with way too little time, strife of a reader, right? It’s hard to know where to start with writers like her, every time I get the thought to read her work, she seems to have a new book out. So, where to start… I was first introduced to her short fiction, so The First Person and other stories seems like the best idea.

I’d describe Smith as a zany Cormac McCarthy, without American reference points. She treats the page in a similar way to McCarthy; no punctuation above letters, no ‘ or ” to be found. The prose is bleach-clean. Dialogue relies solely the reader’s attention, the speech only distinguishable by the line breaks and the odd ‘he says… she says…’ It’s ergonomic, but unlike McCarthy, Smith delves into snapshots of human lives with a swift in/out, yet burdens your heart with each story. McCarthy paints desolate landscapes where you fight to choose humanity or abandonment or inevitable doom. These are writers of gravitational fields. Sink wisely. Smith is funnier, too. But enough with comparisons.

Good short stories for me shut out your ability to read anything else for a period of time. Smith’s world is a slow place to find your bearings, but I was immersed after two stories in this book and living with characters that I could hate/love/fear with ease. Smith interrogates person and tense in ways I’m not sure I even understand yet. She’s not afraid to leap perspective and drop you elsewhere in the turn of a line. I want call it poetry… but that’s what poets do to narrative.

There is commentary in many of these stories on how to write a story. The opener, ‘True short story,’ charts Smith’s attempt to write a short story while she edits it over in conversations with her friend who is fighting cancer. In the final pages, she even lists quotes from short story giants, my favourites being:

‘Jorge Luis Borges says that short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages.’

‘Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.’

My favourite story in the collection would have to be ‘No exit’ in terms of its character’s neurotic sprawl and how that comes to affect their everyday dialogue and interactions with the world. Smith weaves a fire exit metaphor in the story both in physicality in the character’s world and the reader’s mind. It’s a pathway story that sets up so many beginnings and endings that are all driven by character obsession. It took me a while to exit the story and get back into my body.

Smith’s writing is a constant diversion to then draw you into her key themes. There are times where I got lost and that can be a turn off in narrative, but if you can trust Smith’s writing, you will have learnt something from the path she led you down.

Ali Smith, The First Person And Other Stories, Hamish and Hamilton, 2008

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Reading Review: The Education Of A British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe

Do you ever find yourself wandering around bookshops and you see a name pop out in several places at once? Chinua Achebe is a writer I have not heard of for way too long.

This book is a collection of Achebe’s essays. He’s a writer of a vast canon of poems, novels, essays, stories, a well-known and leading professor, of whom I’ve never been exposed to. And here lies the most piercing part of this essay collection; Achebe comments on how long it has taken for African literature to receive the exposure it needs.

This volume is a mastercraft in social and cultural study. He writes of Nigeria, his home country and his Igbo ethnicity. He reflects on the impact of British colonisation and its dominance on his education and culture. He writes about English language and the weight of one’s choice to write within it. He writes many moments of critique on the novel, Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, seeking to dialogue with the book’s racist portrayals of African people within the novel; they’re presented as ‘savages,’ beast-like demons skulking in the forest, in Conrad’s words, ‘subhuman,’ reacting with violence as the white men delve deep into their home land to claim it as their own. This most blistering point of this essay is a moment where Achebe finds that when he first read this, he read it as if in the mind-set of the colonised British man, seeing the Africans in the novel as savages, serving as an absolute arrow into the heart of the effects of British colonization and its flooding of education.

By the end of the volume, I was completely in awe of these essay’s work, their writing. This is a book of seeing. At no point, did I feel manipulated by Achebe. He takes the middle ground so well in the face of being scorned, standing as possibly one of the most important writers and thinkers I have had the chance to stumble into. I wish I had been in the space when he delivered these speeches aloud, to hear the fire I am enthused by when reading them.

What I ask of myself now is why has it taken me so long to stumble into this work? When I look back at my degree, I can’t think of one African writer or translated work even cropping up in the secondary reading list. I think further back in my education and there is a slim line of classics that are upholding similar ‘explorations’ as Heart Of Darkness. These were all thrown to me at an early age as books to learn from. They are blinding.

I believe we can see and understand the world deeper through literature, but I do not think we can do this by absorbing these ancient texts, shaped by archaic thinkers. This used to be our only reference point in the world but this is no longer the case. We need to hear the stories from their core, from the people living through these experiences, to be exposed to them from our earliest ages. These writers need the same exposure as all others receive. We need to be challenged to read wider than the first option on that slim line of classics.

Chinua Achebe, The Education Of A British-Protected Child, Collected Essays, 2009, Alfred A. Knopf

Reading Review: There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Continuing in the vein of Stephen King, I’m still in a dark place this week in terms of reading, hence this collection of short stories leapt off the library shelf for me. I’m always trying to read wider into translated texts too and this short story collection by Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, has been an expansive venture for me.

As the title suggests, this is a volume of punchy, dark stories. These are swift, eerie fairy tales, that don’t fail to deliver that gothic emptiness and slight-unsettling atmosphere. Many of the stories are about resurrection or unsuspected reanimation, my favourite being about a woman’s son who comes back from the dead in a blaze of vodka-soaking. These are funny stories, despite being dark, almost sarcastic fairy stories that derive from modern day situations.

The translation work is good, the stories are authentic and hold true to their reference points. Petrushevskaya throws us into Aesop Fable-esque lines that chart the vast passages of time in mere sentences. Some parts read almost as charming as PowerPoint summaries… and fail to grab at necessities in telling.  As a result, the pacing can be jaunty but is a trope of the genre and it’s cool to see this happen in a contemporary work of fiction.

Another trope executed by Petrushevskaya is cliff-hangered endings of the stories, sometimes to the point of ‘oh… did she just stop writing?’ But that could be down to translation. The rhythms of stories are formed by the language and I can’t make that a bad point of this reading… Also, I love jazz.

The stories are bullet size; you could finish the collection in an hour if you hit it hard, though I feel Petrushevskaya and her editors have crafted work that does benefit from laboured attention, as well as allowing the reader to pace through the work and retain stories.

There could be more shifts and pitches in the openings of the stories; they follow the trope of ‘there once lived…’ or ‘there once was…’ which can get tedious, yet again a trope of the genre… I’ve said that too many times throughout this review…

This is the first fairy tale book I’ve laughed through, whilst also being suitably arrested at points. The language isn’t playful, quite straight-cut economic, but the concepts that Petrushevskaya works with are sharp fantasy, so I think that makes up for it.

Read When: You want short stories, something from a different reference point, something dark-funny, supernatural, new fairy tales that read enough like old fairy tales.
Don’t Read When: You want language innovation, clean cut endings/resolutions, volume.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby, translated and edited by Keith Gassen and Anna Summers, Penguin Books, 2009

Reading Review: The Shining by Stephen King

I broke one of my rules. I’m a strict reader-before-film guy. Friends will ask me to go to the cinema for a movie and I’ll ask first ‘is it a book?’ I don’t like watching things before I’ve read them. Sometimes, I learn that a film was derived from a book after watching it and I have to swallow this. Other times I’ve let it fly because I’m reading other things. I do my best.

The Shining was a film I watched ages ago and vowed to read the book ASAP. I have only just done so…

The Shining is about the Torrance family of three, Jack, Wendy and their son Danny. Jack takes a job as over-winter caretaker at The Overlook hotel, which is millions of miles and aeons from anywhere. The hotel has a dark history, as does Jack Torrance. Danny has powers that are unexplainable. They are briefed by some of the hotel employees, who then leave the Torrances for six months. Cue King’s supernatural happenings and boom, you’ve got a killer story.

I was amazed by the pacing of The Shining. King can drive me crazy sometimes with his lack of movement in plot; I characterise him as having incredible beginnings that lead to a lull for 200 pages  to then pick up and then drop you in an ending that leaves you unanswered and maybe a little shakey. Not here. The Shining is a definitive novel of how you show the breakdown of a character or rather, how you can exploit a character’s past traumas and resurrect them into present actions and shape a narrative that both progresses, yet dialogues with the past. King brings in the past conflicts of Jack, Wendy, Danny and all the inhabitants of The Overlook into a melting pot of wandering voices and stir crazy dialogue… And metaphysical wasps/marine life… Jack Torrance alone is worth tracking this entire novel; his emotions are an absolute rollercoaster of love-abusive-understanding with the potential to flip at any moment and damage his most loved ones.

The setting is golden. The Overlook is the perfect liminal space for King to goad the reader into and trap them with the family. The rules of the building shift with the characters and I found myself threatened by the supernatural horror occurring as King treads the fine line of what happens in the physical and what happens in the mind. He works symbolism tightly to every function of character and emotion, executing tension build and climax to perfection.

The defining part of the book for me is when Mr Hallorann, the Overlook janitor, tells Danny about his shining. It’s a tender moment of strangers connecting over a magic they both possess and Hallorann’s revelations are heart breaking and honest. It’s incredible story telling throughout.

Criticisms could be King’s lack of balancing force in Wendy; she is often just silenced or put down by Jack in situations where he threatens her child and she is never given an opportunity to properly overcome Jack’s abuse. I’d have liked it more if she had been written to not give up so soon in situations and I think King missed a trick by not bringing her supernatural energies into The Overlook. That could have brought even more dimensions to this book.

Overall, classic King, definitely one of his tightest writings, definitely worth reading, even if it’s to find all of the inspirations of intertextual references…

Read When: You want supernatural happenings, threat, creepiness, thriller, liminal, gothic, Stephen King…
Don’t Read When: You want to chill out, light reading or if you’ve seen the film recently, it’s WAY different in some aspects…

Stephen King, The Shining, 1977, New English Library.

2015 APPLICATIONS OPEN!

Poetry&Words at Glastonbury Festival

CALLING ALL POETS, spoken word artists, wordsmiths, lyricists, raconteurs, stand-up poets and slam champs…

2015 is flexing its lexicon in anticipation of a phenomenal year, and we at Poetry&Words are once again opening the floodgates to all you wonderfully talented poetry types. SO, if you want to perform your work on Glastonbury Festival’s poetry stage, then this is your chance! We’re looking for applications from experienced writers and performers, with something awesome to offer the audience of the world’s biggest greenfield arts festival.

If you think that could be you, then please e-mail poetryandwords@hotmail.co.uk with a short Bio and 1-3 video and/or audio files of you performing your work. We’re happy to receive either attachments (of a manageable size!) or web links. We can also provide a snail mail address if you’d rather do things the old fashioned way!

We do pay a fee, but this is only small…

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