Setlist Poem 17/09/2015

Tell a god while you are crouching under 

your half of the bunk bed. Your brother

might not come home. You know

a boy who knows Hesporous is the opposite

of an evening star. It’s cloudy and what he said

means nothing to you. Place a hacksaw

twice under your rib. Watch it in the wing mirror

of a car that hasn’t arrived yet. 

Tell an absent fairy you had a wish about today.

It listens by making aeroplane sounds 

for a thousand miles. You’re just talking 

to half a jaw, hand held,

that knows wood-anatomy,

that can’t answer back. Driveway light

cuts out. Wait for Hesperous.

The cerealbox bland-surprise is a sponge

astronaut toy, never shrinking,

not even in hours underwater. 

Find the puffy faced boy of the first prayer

eating from a bowl. 

Don’t tell him you were scared.

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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.

Reading Review: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has possibly been the most recommended writer during my life. As I built myself as a younger/teen reader, I was always surfing the fantasy/sci-fi spectrum; Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, then tumbling into the darker stuff by Darren Shan, James Herbert and Stephen King, so on. This always involved my hands stumbling near the vast canon of Terry Pratchett’s The Discworld Novels, rows and rows of books, all exploring the various sections and characters of Pratchett’s universe. I would ask people where to start, because apparently it doesn’t matter and I never took it upon myself to discover what the first one was.

Thud! was thrown at me recently. I have ignored this writer for too long, blocked by the fear of where to begin. I clambered into the Discworld on the back of trolls and dwarfs and protagonist Sam Vimes, who is searching for a mystery murderer of a Dwarven king, while racial tensions rise.

The problem with hype is nothing stands up against how much you’re told something is good. I’ve been endlessly indoctrinated with how he’s funny, how he throws out mad concepts in super-sharp-sci-fi-surreal beauty and how he works allegory into such exciting tales.

I didn’t laugh through Thud! The presence of humour was probably in the fart jokes that most of the characters are called… The only concept I really liked was how a vampire couldn’t feel all together after turning into ‘bats mode’ until each and every bat had reconnected. Thud! discusses racial prejudice in an insightful way. The whole book is based on the conflict between trolls and dwarves who share the same living environment but can’t work together because of their racial differences AND Pratchett breaches the issues of policing within these parameters/tensions. Sweet allegory, right? But it’s dulled by a bland story full of characters who all talk the same. I could only follow the protagonist Sam Vimes’ voice because he occurred the most. I forgot who most of the dwarves and trolls were otherwise… Oh yeah, there’s a woman vampire and werewolf who obviously have to be naked at some point for their transformation in front of male characters, har har har… It’s just cheap and dull. Also the only way I know when a vampire is talking is because they get all ‘vwhere vare vyou vgoing.’ You know? The ‘V’s that vampires put in front of everything they say? Bleh. Cookie-cutter characters.

For the majority of the book, we’re not even taken to scene of action; it’s always reported in speech. There’s a climactic action sequence towards the end, written well and easy to follow, but it took me 350 pages to get there. WHY?!

A major fault for me is the establishing work of the book. It takes about 80 pages to be fully swatted up on where we are in Discworld. JUST THROW ME INTO THE STORY, MAN! YOU HAVE A LOT OF BOOKS TO DO BACK-STORY ON, JUST SHOW ME THE WORLD… Bleh.

I’m a victim of the hype. There are poetic moments and granted Pratchett’s obscene bibliography (you could probably stock an entire library section with his canon) it’s certain that he’d drop a dud. Maybe I should start with the first book and work my way here? I just hoped every book would live up to the creativity I’m endlessly told Pratchett writes with. An absolute plus of this book is its race allegory and it’s encouraging how that might help younger readers broach this subject.

I’m not going to black-hole Pratchett. I just think I need to get over the hype and throw myself elsewhere before more Discworld adventures.

Read When: You want some fantasy, some allegory, lighter reading.
Don’t Read When: You want character.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett, 2006, Corgi Books

Reading Review: Two Plays – The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Invisible by Tena Štivičić

I’m not cross examining the plays… they are too different. I read them one after the other and thought I’d open a dialogue to discuss whether we should read more plays other than engaging with them in the form that they are written to be delivered in. Cue Christmas bestselling lists of playscripts…

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a play engaging with the witch trials that took place in Massachusetts and other regions of America in the 17th century. A town descends into hysteria over the discovery that there might be witches among their townsfolk. It serves as a comment on how quickly people can denounce each other and lose their lives or livelihood in the defence of others. Mob brutality, family, fear and faith challenges are the themes present here. It’s full of shouting and brash action, accusations and court room drama. Miller writes in a deliberated, heavy-set way, each character talks with the very depth of their being. I’m not asking for light moments in what is obviously a dark and cruel moment in American history, but the dynamic of the play is the descent of a train down a dark tunnel never to emerge.

Its plot moves fast and gets more harrowing by the moment. In attempt to assume control over directorial decisions on the play, Miller lumbers in reams of backstory behind each pivotal character, which would not appear on stage, but as a reading experience, is a load of sludge to walk through. Still, the moment of denouncing the accused witch and transformative scenes are tense, climactic and the definition of how to build and release character conflict within a drama.

Invisible by Tena Štivičić is a play that tracks the lives of numerous emigrant workers from various parts of Europe to England. It’s a snapshot-story where we are fed glimpses of the character’s hardships, relationships and actual hips shaking in a dance scene. It’s a stunning work of weaving character’s pathways and does well to keep scenes short and sharp. Themes of social struggle, love, family, race. It’s a blueprint play, where the reader is provided with no stage directions, no actions that could define a character, no visual quirks that tell us about their ticks, their physicality in situations… Why not?! The dialogue is swift, sharp, realistic, but could be even more streamlined by a movement of character. At one point a character punches another and the only thing indicating this in the text is character shouting ‘AH, YOU PUNCHED ME!’

Playwriting is a visual form. I don’t know if Štivičić is a director and would have mainly devised actions over these words in rehearsal, but as it stands in text, Invisible is just a bunch of people talking. Maybe that’s OK in book form. But I feel the book version of a play should make some attempt to hold the audience in the way the lay would on stage. Everything said on stage is moved through so quick you have to just hope the audience has caught what has been said and is following you. Having the book of the play allows you to hold the dialogue for as long as possible, BUT you then have the handicap of no visuals that are necessary to the playwriting form. So, maybe Štivičić’s Invisible works in the best written form of a play… or it’s the worst.

The Crucible is different. The play’s text can almost be read as a historical document which would drive me to boredom aloud but works on the page. However, Miller has some moments of incredible action that injects momentum into the character’s dialogue and suits to build and release their conflict. On page, these sections are some of his best writing, giving us stark, metaphoric movements which really stretch your imagination. This works best for me, I love visuals and knowing I can treat this play as a piece of writing and a performance simultaneously.

I’m an advocate of plays working both forms. The delivery of a play is unrivalled by any form of writing, you can make characters do anything. Within the text, the play should allow us further insight into the dialogue we want to hold onto for a little bit longer AND allow the audience in our minds to see everything as they would in the theatre. I don’t know if this is elitist, if anything this would make plays the most accessible they could be, but you can’t beat a theatrical show. I should probably go and see both plays and really cross reference how they work live too…

Arthur Miller, The Crucible, first published in 1953, Penguin Modern Classics.
Read/See When: You want something harrowing, something dark, explosive plot, something religiously challenging, something historical.
Don’t Read/See When: You want to relax, you want something light, you want something quiet.

Tena Štivičić, Invisible, 2011, Nick Hern Books.
Read/See When: You want social commentary, snapshot narrative, characters to follow.
Don’t Read/See When: You want something light, something visually dynamic (who knows!?!).

Reading Review: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I first stumbled into Douglas Coupland’s writing with his language-landslide of a book JPod, which follows the lives of six game developers who are well developed characters, full of conflict and quirk, living in a satirised world that Coupland sinks us into within the use of subliminal-advertising-style typography breaks and symbols. It’s a fun book, a deep book, a meta-book and definitely worth pursuing for all the narrative jerks and laughs.

The Gum Thief is almost, on looking, nearby, stumbling towards this direction of quality, but falls into a well just before crossing the border. Go-go-gadget reading metaphor. I read this book to give my head a rest from the onslaught of the last two I had eaten (see Paradise and Footnotes In Gaza), so granted, I wanted something lighter. The Gum Thief is a light book. It’s slim on plot, on narrative tension, on anything that really makes it a grab-up-and-go adventure.

It’s a discourse, essentially, between two characters who hate their jobs at Staples; a man who is a manic-depressive recovering alcoholic and a woman, a goth who goes to Europe and gets screwed over by the guy she travels with. The man is writing a book called Glove Pond (points for title) which is a narrative device that holds all the characters of The Gum Thief together, while serving as a fun meta element.

Coupland is great at shaping character, mainly because he deals with the idiosyncratic. There were no moments of cheap, throwaway ‘this makes a man character manly’ lines and vice versa for the women. Great development of each speaker’s voice and how they bleed their everyday situations into their interactions is close to that of how you imagine humans speak… Great dimensional people.

BUT character is all there really is here. A few driving plot moments happen but these are mitigated in immediacy and punch by the letter-writing style of delivery – everything is told in hindsight, so there’s no grab or urgency. Each section or chapter is marked by who is talking and you’re thrown into rambling existential crises for 200 or so pages. That’s all The Gum Thief is. Existential crises.

Coupland shapes these crises in the form of body issues, being drunk, having no direction in life, being deluded into thinking you can write a novel… It’s all a bit surface level. I expected to have the cutting scenarios and interactions that Coupland presented in JPod, doing so well to show a reader a character’s struggle and desperation through external conflict and zany plot twists. But The Gum Thief is just a pond… A glove pond.

Maybe that’s what book needed to be. Does everything have to be deep? I certainly don’t think so, but I do feel you have to create with the same edge and inspiration that drives all of work, even if you’re making something lighter. Debate away.

Read When: You’re having an existential crisis, want something light, want something funny…ish.
Don’t Read When: You want the deepness, plot, narrative momentum.

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007