Monday, 26 January 2009

The Process of Reviewing

Reviewing is something of an art. Not the art of words. But deciding which books to review and which not to review. Also working out why I felt the way I felt about a particular book. Perhaps it is me. The mood I'm in while I read a book or what is going on in my life at the time. Or perhaps it is the book itself. The subject matter. Or the way it is written. It's omissions or its details.

In the end, I feel whatever it is, the review is legitimate so long as I explain why I feel the way I feel about the book. Reading is not objective. It is an individual experience. We bring to it all our previous life, our experience, our moods and emotions and make it our own version. We bring it to life. Or not. Or partly.

I have twice received books that I have said, sorry I can't review this. It's not my thing. One book I tried to tackle and struggled to get beyond the first chapter because I felt it was written badly. I am not going to force myself to read a book just for the sake of a review. Another time, I backed out of writing a review of some poetry that I knew I couldn't review fairly because it was from a poetry faction that I'm not keen on, and I knew some people might love the book, but not me.

My latest review is a struggle with myself and reviewing. It is my discussion with the book, and my decision to post it was about honesty, even if others disagree.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A Review: Sister Morphine

I finished reading Sister Morphine a while ago and have been putting off writing about it because I wanted to let my thoughts sink in, work out why I was troubled by this 'novel' by Salt writer Catherine Eisner.

I love most Salt Books. I love the design, the ethos of this very exciting publisher, and the quality of writing. There is something ground-breaking about a UK publisher focusing on short story and poetry, and producing such quality and quantity of books from writers around the globe.

Sister Morphine was sent to me as part of my membership of The Story Bank, one of their book groups that has an annual fee for the benefit of getting four luxury first edition hardback books delivered to your door, a free copy of David Gaffney's brilliant Sawn Off Tales, 30% off all orders, and other special offers. A wonderful bargain for any short fiction lover.

So when this wonderful door-stop of a book arrived some months ago, I was very excited. Here was Salt's first ever novel, waiting for me to read, and not only that but Sister Morphine tackles 'themes of suicidality, sibling murder, child abuse, morbid self-harm, guilt, jealousy, incest, drug addiction, infidelity, illegitimacy, obsessive compulsion, bereavement and a case of grand larceny in the second degree' and is premised as 'Women's Narratives from the Case Notes of a Community Psychiatric Nurse'. This is entirely my cup of tea, especially as I am both a writer and a social worker. The idea of a book with narratives/case studies is exactly what I want to read.

And I guess the reasons for my curiousity being so excited have contributed to why this book has so troubled me. I had certain expectations. Partly through the way the book is described and partly because of my own experience of mental ill health/the mental health system as a professional and personally. It meant that I was already coming to the book with my own ideas, and this is usually not a good thing.

Firstly, I was troubled by Sister Morphine as a novel. As I started to read it, I fetl strongly this was not a novel, but a series of short stories connected by the fact that the characters take prescription drugs for mental health reasons. The idea behind the premise is brilliant. But, it felt to me that the 'narrator' or the 'character' of the Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) wasn't strong enough for this to be considered as a novel and in fact was decidedly 'absent from a lot of the narrative. We were reminded of her from time to time, but she wasn't a central character. We didn't have much insight into her as a person until the final story. The narratives were sometimes first person, sometimes third, and usually from the point of view of the patient. And hardly ever did we meet the CPN in these narratives, she didn't seem important, and for me as a reader, the central character of a novel must be important to me, I need to understand her.

The CPN was 'present' in the 'Assessment Summaries' attached to the beginning of each story, which give information about a patient's symptoms, diagnosis, presentation and medication. These were interesting and felt authentic. But they set up expectations for each story, which I felt as a reader weren't always delivered on. As I was reading Sister Morphine I started to wish that the 'Assessment Summaries' would get put back in the confidential files of the patients where I couldn't read them. The connections between the assessments and the stories were not always clear, and they felt like an 'add on', sometimes distracted me from the stories that I was reading.

There are many other discussions that could be had about what makes a 'novel'. In the end, I decided that perhaps this was marketed as a novel for industry reasons, because collections of short stories, connected or otherwise, are not as popular or easy to market as novels.

Secondly, another thing that troubled me was the women in these narratives are not women I can easily identify with. There was something emotionally distant about them, as though the characters or writer was not fully engaged in their emotional experience. These women, who even though they are bank tellers and primary school teachers, have aspirations or backgrounds of a different class: attending public school, coming from “highborn matrilineage” or character who have Aunts who can lend them a house complete with servants in St John’s Wood. And because of this 'distance', I didn’t feel the stories dealt with mental health issues in a grounded way, such as in Janet Frame’s beautiful short fiction in The Lagoon or Padrika Tarrant’s disturbing and insightful Broken Things (you can read my review and interview with Padrika on Bookmunch). Both these writers create stories which I felt were about women who are just like me, could be me, could be any of us given certain circumstances that might create fractures in our mental health. In Sister Morphine I was reading about 'other women'.

So, in reading this book, I had to try and strip away the problems I was having with how it is described on the cover, the notion of 'what is a novel', my own expectations, and the fact that medication and mental ill-health is not integral to every story. Once I got over the fact that this is not a novel, I found that there are many stories in Sister Morphine that deserve to stand alone. I found some brilliant story-telling. Catherine Eisner (if this is her real name) is a writer who writes as though an expert in the genre of short story. She approached most stories in an indepth biographical way, and (once I got over that these women are from a different background to me) I found characters I was fascinated and entertained by.

These stories are often funny, very detailed, and well-written. Perhaps not as emotional as I would have liked. In Cousin Ludwig’s Subtraction Game for instance, I found a great story, cleverly written. We are given a complex family history and the dynamics of the family are very effectively explored. There is some beautiful detail and description, and the notion of paternal love being calculated using a complex system of subtraction was well executed. But I wanted to feel more of the emotion, and I wasn't sure whether this was my difficulty as a reader or a difficulty in the story.

Catherine Eisner either has some indepth knowledge or diligently researches aspects of her stories, such as army life, choreography, euthanasia, poetry, drugs (illegal and presciption), and shamans/voodoo. She uses some interesting, experimental devices within her narratives, that sometimes I loved, as in the diary in 'A Stranger in Blood', and sometimes found inaccessible, as in the diagrams and theories in 'The Eleven Surviving Works of L. v K. (1902 - 1939)'.

I think 'Honeymoon Without Maps' was one of the most accomplished stories, and such a wonderful title. The violence from the characters husband is written on a stave as Benesh notation, something which I needed explaining. Once I understood that the narrator is understanding their physical fight in the only way she can, as dance choreography, I was drawn into this story beautifully. There are some touching moments, like the small sign that her husband is living with her friend and she says nothing about it. This story twists in unexpected ways and has various stories within the story, rather like the way memory works.

'Dispossession' is another wonderful story, set on a farm, exploring the relationship between a brother and a sister. This story captured the family intensity that seems to be at the heart of most mental distress in my experience. There is some beautiful description, it’s clever, well-researched, and imaginative. It requires concentration, her story-telling does not run on a straight trajectory, and involves complicated plots. But it has the best start to a story in the whole book,and I felt did capture the emotions that some other stories lacked.

In, truth, as I write about Sister Morphine with some distance since I read it, reading through my notes, I am brought to wonder whether sometimes there is just something to be said for personal taste. I had many problems with this book, that other readers might see as qualities. I certainly wouldn't say it is a bad book. I finished reading it. I was interested, and put in the effort as a reader (which I wouldn't have done for a lesser book). But sadly, for me the problems I had with it outweighed the positives.

In 'Honeymoon Without Maps', the narrator says “I daydream for hours and pictures from my past just fall into my mind like projector slides in a carousel… and often out of sequence”> I felt as though the stories in this 'collection' inhabit this space as well. There are some wonderful pictures from characters' pasts. But, in my mind it is more like a carousel, and not a novel.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Lives of Others

I watched the film 'The Lives of Others' tonight. Interesting film. I think it's the only film I have seen about the former DDR that deals with issues seriously. The Stasi were sinister, dangerous, manipulative, and the extent of invasion of personal information overwhelmed me while I was watching the film. Very frightening.

I was interested particularly in how the film explored the issues facing writers, and other artists in those countries in Eastern Europe after WWII and until 1989 when the Berlin wall came down. How being a writer meant either writing to very strict codes or being a dissident, imprisoned, tortured, exiled. It is not so long ago.

It reminds me how lucky I am as a writer to have the freedoms to write what I want, where I want, in the way I want.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A Review: Alice

Alice is a beautifully produced chapbook of 20 poems by Jane Weir, published by independent publisher Templar Poetry.

The beautiful opening poem is set in a coffee shop in Derby draws on the opening scene in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. This is apt as many of the poems in this chapbook are located in another century, and focus on both ordinary women – selling second hand clothes at market, women burning their ‘jam rags’, women who knit, cook and raise children – as well as more famous women we might recognise such as poets Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Mew.

These poems are tender and down to earth and political with a small p. We meet Alice Wheeldon, a Derby suffragette who harboured conscientious objectors during World War II. We explore the purple, green and white scarf of the suffragettes in Scarf 1908, examine the sexual politics of the poem ‘Goblin Market’ in Delight.

The strength in these poems for me is the local feel to these poems - and I don’t mean provincial or limited in scope or subject matter - I mean local references and experiences written in this beautiful northern lilt with the odd colloquialism and gritty language. I can hear the voices; see the locations the poems are set in.

I particularly enjoyed Burning Rags on Pear Street, A Pan of Potato Hash, Scarf 1908 and Helping you put your Coat on. I think mainly because they are looking back, examining the lives of women that came before us, our heritage. The last of these poems, I thought was a beautiful tender poem, a daughter (or granddaughter) helps an older woman put her coat on.

My one slight criticism about these poems is that at times I felt there was an over-reliance on simile. Some of these similes were beautiful and very original: ‘you hold my gaze like a handful of Napoleons’; ‘her equine eyes blacken/smoulder like thatch’; and ‘You half rise, lodge/your trembling knees/like giant sycamore seeds/into the grain of the table’. But others were not so good: ‘scatter like iron filings,’ ‘racing through their blood like viruses’ and overall I found other more subtle imagery more powerful

‘Ahead, three or four gulls, black backed
snip at the swollen lips of the river’

‘I can see her hands
licked with damson burns’

‘as gentle autumn
purrs the scalps off trees’

These are some of the images in these poems that made me almost gasp at how beautiful language can be in the right poet’s hands, almost envious that I hadn’t written these lines.

A review: Barnacle Love

I have recently started writing book reviews for The Short Review...

My first review is online now, a review of a book I adored called Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa

Here's a little excerpt fom my review:

Life in these stories is gritty and hard. It is woven with myths,superstitions and feelings around God, family and survival.There are so many moments in these stories I loved, written with such sensitivity and poetic detail. When Manuel’s mother’s body is laid out ready for burial her daughter: "…smeared the woman’s mouth with bright red lipstick, went beyond her lips and up toward her cheeks like a child who chose not to colour inside the lines." The Rebelo family experience pain, resentment, memory and love with such truth and poignancy that most readers will recognize their own family experience within theirs.

Please click on the title and read more.

I love the Short Review it is such a wonderful resource of reviews and interviews and information on the short story.

Monday, 12 January 2009

paper planes

On Saturday I went to a writing workshop in Manchester. I've been meaning to go to Paper Planes for some time. Somehow I ended up on the mailing list and kept getting lovely mails about these creative writing workshops every second Saturday of the month.

So, this week, I packed my little notebook and pen and headed down to Fuel cafe bar in Withington, Manchester. The group is run by poet Steven Waling, and fiction writer Anthony Sides. I know Steven a little from various poetry events and his latest book Travelator. I've never met Tony Sides, although I have to say he was very forgiving about me sitting in his chair, and also using his fleece as a blanket because the venue was oh so cold.

Those of you who know me from myspace or real life will know I have mixed feelings about writing groups. I tend to drop in and drop out of them. I love workshops and courses, but find it hard to commit and am never sure whether I will get on with people. It was a lovely group. There were one or two familiar faces. A nice mix of writers. Very laid back atmosphere. Some inspiring writing exercises. A lot of laughs, respect for others' writing, and encouragement.

It started at 12 (ish) finished at 4 (ish), we started with two good writing exercises - one using a kicker line to start some stream of consciousness writing, one focusing on sound which seemed to inspire an unexpected piece of prose for me. Then we broke for lunch where we all bought tasty food from the cafe downstairs and chatted about writing and life and relationships. I found out that the workshop has been running for a few years, some people there from the beginning, others have just started.

After lunch, three more writing exercises. One focusing on dialogue, another on a childhood object, and the last brief one where we had to include six very disconnected words into a poem. It wasn't rocket science, these were good old writing exercises designed to inspire new work. We all read out what we had written after each one, and people made a few comments on what they thought, mainly positive and encouraging. And there was some good writing. Inspiring.

One woman, Almeira, came up with an image that I found really beautiful - 'a pigeon cooing inside its own head'. I learnt that the word 'kareoke' means 'quiet orchestra', and a man called Paul wrote a very moving poem about his 'interrupted childhood'. I never fail to be surprised by how inspiring words can be, how people can write the most amazing lines or poems in such a short burst of time.

Me. I wrote three pieces that I feel have promise. Unexpected subject matter. One was very autobiographical, the others fiction. And I met such lovely people.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A Review: McSweeney's 29

I have just finished reading McSweeney’s 29, the latest ‘Quarterly Concern’ edited by Dave Eggers.

It is a beautiful book, hardback, ‘a finely die-cut cover wrapped in several kinds of cloth’ with cut-out moon. Inside there is colour art on every page, mostly collectable Eastern European matchbox labels, beautiful and strange images that strike a fine contrast with the stories on offer. The paper and print are both great quality, and I loved the smell and feel of the paper as I was reading. (Reading is a whole experience is it not?)

And I have so enjoyed the stories themselves. It is a quirky collection, great stories with a focus towards the surreal/science fiction, but not at the expense of emotion. I headed straight to ‘Labyrinth’ by Joyce Carol Oates. A story on the endpaper written as a spiral, so you have to move the book constantly to read it, something I would not have done for many writers, and perhaps only for one like Joyce Carol Oates whose stories I love. ‘Labyrinth’ is a very short sinister story and worth the effort.

One story (which I wasn’t too keen on) is written as a series of TV shows, another more convincing story by Yannick Murphy follows the repeated and ever-changing cycle of a vets life, through each CALL, ACTION, RESULT, THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME, WHAT THE CHILDREN SAID TO ME WHEN I GOT HOME, WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER. Although I found the ending a little weird, kind of funny but also a little disappointing.

Several stories focus on strange creatures – mythical, imaginary or symbolic. J Erin Sweeney’s ‘Augury’ is a story about the ‘Loris’ an animal that can give unsolicited advice and is brought to Rockville Pennsylvania to try and cheer up the locals. It’s a bizarre tale that I found very entertaining. ‘History Lesson’ by Nelly Reifler, is the story of a couple with a failing relationship who find two unnamed creatures and take them home and try to care for them, almost as if they are nurturing the failings in their relationship. I found this last story, oddly moving. It seemed to capture something for me about relationships in a most unusual way.

There are three stories however that I loved above all the others: ‘Cadence’ by Erica Plouffe Lazure is only four pages long, but the main image is horrific and vivid, and the emotional content very strong.

Laura Hendrix’s ‘A Record of Our Debts’ was most compelling. Selma has a serious problem, she is a half-crazed girl, with an illness that is slowly infecting the whole village, and everyone blames Selma and her family. The story is told from the point of view of her sister, a beautifully-written child perspective, that I loved reading. I was absolutely gripped by the story, the language, and the narrative voice.

And then, Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Painting’. I love Roddy Doyle’s novels, most of all The Woman Who Walked into Doors. This short story, split into very short ‘chapters’ and written in such an easy to read style, I found achingly sad. It felt like the story crept into me, in the same way that Adam creeps into his neighbours’ house at night to alter the painting of the woman he begins to love. It is set in a very down to earth world, the dialogue, as usual, for Roddy Doyle is wonderful, real and funny, and the story is tightly written, quite perfect. It also contained my favourite line in the book, which is even better read in context: ‘The Eskimos, it is said, have two hundred words for snow. The Irish had many words for no.’

I have only recently subscribed to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and wish oh wish I had known about it way back when it started. It feels like an absolute must for a short story lover. And I wish oh wish I could afford to buy the back issues. I wait in eagerness for the next one.