Everybody's Reading

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Review by Amirah Mohiddin of "Dividing Lines," edited by Farhana Shaikh with a Foreword by C. G. Menon



Dividing Lines is an anthology of short stories dominated by themes of divisions of caste, gender and race. This lyrical and haunting collection brings to the surface a deep appreciation of life as well as a fear of the future. Frequently dealing with conflicts based on oppression and betrayal, Dividing Lines is an evocative representation of Asian experiences.

My first impression of the short stories was full of excitement. It’s rare to see such a diverse collection of short stories, and each really gave a different view of culture. It’s difficult to find media representations which break down the walls of stereotypes. The themes of belonging and division are so strong in some stories such as Ashok Patel’s ‘Ninety Days’ and Serena Patel’s ‘The Other Side of the Bridge.’ These stories offer an insight into how racism can have devastating consequences for minority communities. 

The stories are not only infected by fear but also a psychological burden that emotionally cripples the mood of the society they are set in. ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ takes us into a bleak future while ‘Ninety Days’ tells the story of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in the 1970s. Two of my favourite quotations from ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ were: ‘I didn’t belong there and maybe I don’t belong here’ and ‘I don’t seem to be here or anywhere else anymore.’ These powerful lines in an all-round heart-wrenching story quickly became my favourites because of the pain they reflect. The scary in-between where you’re lost and can’t go back or move forwards particularly reached out to me due to my own hybridity as a British Asian continuously trying to find the balance between the expectations of British society and my deep-rooted Indian values and heritage. 

Another story I really enjoyed was ‘Under the Same Sky’ by Farhana Khalique. I could relate to the soft and comforting childhood experiences and innocence. The use of space imagery and this idea that somehow we’re all connected through the sky no matter who and where we are added to its magic. I would definitely recommend the Dividing Lines anthology. It’s one of those collections that is an all-round emotional rollercoaster, featuring relatable characters and a wide selection of writing styles. 


About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham, U.K., is a BA English (with Creative Writing) graduate. She is an aspiring writer, a storyteller for young children, a volunteering editor for Seeing Ear. Her latest project is about a female warrior in a fictional middle eastern war-torn kingdom.

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "The Sorry History of Fast Food" by Paul Sutton



In her book The Poem and the Journey, Ruth Padel suggests that ‘all poetry is about loss: about being, at the same time, in one place and another you can’t get to, or can’t get back to.’ If this is true – and, like any generalisation, it is debatable – then poetry is always in danger of a nostalgic conservatism, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to better places, pasts and people which have been lost. Not unlike the Daily Mail, with its constant harking back to a fake version of the 1950s, poetry’s present becomes a poor substitute for some utopian ideal which has been lost – something which perhaps never really existed in the first place. 

Certainly, some contemporary British poetry is susceptible to this kind of nostalgic conservatism and backward-looking political quietism. By contrast, judging by his new pamphlet The Sorry History of Fast Food (Open House Editions, 2017), Paul Sutton’s poetry emphatically is not – even though it too is all about loss. His poetry is angry, politicised, nuanced, paradoxical, and ambivalent about both present and past – and hence about as far from a simplistic Daily Mail nostalgia as it is possible to get. Indeed, Sutton arguably satirises such monolithic nostalgia directly in his poem ‘Jupiter,’ where ‘Holst’s giddy joy,’ which seems to embody ‘pride, history and triumph, / … green English fields – / assurance, love, trust,’ is really ‘only a sound, / pure cadence; / just words.’ Though it inspires ‘old feelings’ in the listener, Gustav Holst’s famous piece of music seems to represent an Englishness, or Britishness which has only ever existed in music and words – an Englishness which has always already been lost.
   
Beyond the experience of Holst’s music, Sutton’s ‘old feelings’ of loss are much more complex, conflicted. On the one hand, the pamphlet is all about what has been lost through ‘the sorry history of fast food’ in modern Britain: with its urban gentrification, the ‘regeneration of King’s Cross / or even worse Paddington,’ its ‘frozen food,’ and ‘motorway service station[s]’ and their ‘invocation of oblivion,’ it would seem that ‘our true country’ has become ‘pure retail park, B & Q.’ Undoubtedly, this all represents ‘such a loss,’ for Sutton - but, on the other hand, the past itself is no golden age; the past itself is ambivalent, with its ‘coffee … [like] Thames mud,’ shops which had the ‘aroma of an old man’s crotch,’ the ‘rain [that] smelt like bomb damage,’ the ‘Victorian chophouse[s]’ and ‘Elizabethan / “offal and hoof quickbits.”’ In this respect, Sutton’s sense of loss might be termed a ‘dirty nostalgia,’ a harking-back to a past which was ‘loved … all the more for being so bad.’

This dirty nostalgia reaches its apotheosis in the poems ‘My Boy Jack’ and ‘Street Chicken,’ in which the narrators look back to Jack the Ripper, and attempt – nostalgically, as it were – to connect themselves with a frankly horrific past. In their narrators’ attempts to ‘trace [their] … history / through such disasters,’ these poems critique a poetry of loss, expose the dark side of poetic nostalgia. 


About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Friday, 18 August 2017

Review by Alexandros Plasatis of "Conjunctions:67 - Other Aliens"


"Published by Bard College, with editorial offices in New York City and Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Conjunctions is a cornerstone of contemporary literary publishing. Since 1981, the journal has been a living notebook in which authors can write freely and audiences read dangerously" Bradford Morrow, Conjunctions editor.

This starts with two stories by Leena Krohn, translated from Finnish by Eva Buchwald. Sweet beginning, I thought, foreign. Nice, slightly eerie stuff. The first story, a story that made me feel a little sad, is entitled In the Quiet of the Gardens and is about Sylvia’s private world as we see it portrayed in her own creations of miniature gardens.

Later on in the volume, in Clouds, by Julia Elliott, an earth-woman and a sky-man go in a tavern and get hammered on organic, biodynamic wine from a local vineyard where they bury bull horns crammed with cow manure to add to the taste (if you’re into this sort of stuff and you live near Valley Falls State Park in West Virginia, please visit the Red Wolf Tavern). After getting drunk, they end up in bed, where the earth-woman explores the sky-man’s anatomy: firm chest, uncircumcised erection. They have mammalian sex (with satisfying crescendos), and the earth-woman gets pregnant and gives birth to a half earth- half cloud-baby, Adelaide. The problems begin when the earth-woman meets her sky-woman mother-in-law. Ah, mothers-in-law, you always, always mess things up.

In Valerie Martin’s Bromley Hall, Americans Janet and Frank visit the UK, but Janet isn’t happy with the hotel room they stay in and wants to be moved to another one and this really pisses off Frank who, in order to punish her, refuses to go to Bromley Hall with her. Janet doesn’t give a shit and decides to go on her own. Big mistake, Janet. So she gets on a bus driven by a very weird Indian man, then the bus breaks down in the middle of the highway (motorway…) and Janet feels all adventurous and walks off to find Bromley Hall. This is when she really starts missing Frank, and she will miss him much, much more when she gets to meet the DNA samplers…

Tinkerers by Lavie Tidhar takes place on the Mountains of the Moon. Atmospheric night-prose here, with farting horses, donkeys, scorpions, caiques, and the Stranger in a lonesome journey, riding away from the Doinklands and into wild, dark forests, until he comes across a couple of tinkerers (dwarfs) and their wagon. I liked these two characters, the dwarfs, they were funny and scary at the same time. I felt blessed being a smoker while reading this story – that bit about the pipe stuffed with cherry-flavoured tobacco got me going.          

Tinkerers is followed by an interview with Samuel R. Delany, conducted by Brian Evenson, which I found very, very interesting and informative, and, actually, an entertaining read. After that, there is a sad story with a very beautiful ending, Matthew Baker’s Transition.

50 pages of Conjunctions 67 consist of a selection of letters from James Tiptree, Jr. (the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon) to the feminist SF writer Joanna Russ (who, for most of the time, didn’t know that Tiptree was a woman). Nicole Nyhan did a great job gathering and slightly editing those letters. There are many moments in those letters where the writing is beautiful and sharp, and there’s plenty of advice for writers.

The Process Is a Process All Its Own, by Peter Straub, is another beautiful story in this volume. It’s a horror story (I went to the toilet 4 times) that won’t let your mind drift away, and which, sometimes, made me smile with its clever prose (Only the strongest, most distinctively individuated, if that’s a word, of individuals can control the colorations of the words that pass through them).

In the pages of Conjunctions you will also find Madeline Bourque Kearin’s first ever literary publication. Her strength, I found, lays in beautiful descriptions: “I watched the buds on trees open and close like grasping fists and watched the pink blooms of rhododendrons yawn in and out of existence.”  

Joyce Carol Oates is a long-time Conjunctions contributor. I never read any of her stuff. For some reason I had this idea that her writing was King Kong-like, you know, dark, with heavy balls, and sloooow, one step …zzzvvvbooom… another step half an hour later, zzzvvbam…. The Undocumented Alien was nothing like what I imaged though, the prose was lively and funny and energetic, zip zip zip, mosquito-sounding-like, minus the annoyance.

I won’t write anything about E. G. Willy’s short story Radio City, except to say that I’m an admirer of his work now. Great style there, fantastic dialogues, a pure joy, fantastic, great fiction, amazing, amazing, so good (that’s my Trump impersonation).

There are many more beautiful stories in there, there are poems, a play, interviews and discussions. I’d like to close with an apology to those contributors that I didn’t mention in this little review of mine.

I’m not a big SF, fantasy or aliens reader, and, still, I’m glad I have a copy of Conjunctions 67.       

About the reviewer
Alexandros Plasatis is an immigrant ethnographer who writes fiction in English, his second language. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in UK and American anthologies and magazines: Meat For Tea, Meridian, Aji, AdelaideBull, UnthologyOverheard: Stories to Read AloudCrystal VoicesblÆkk, Short Fiction in Theory & Practice, and Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class. He is a volunteer at Leicester City of Sanctuary, where he helps find and develop new creative talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community. He lives in Leicester, UK. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review by Luke McNamara of "Risk the Pier" by Shelley Roche-Jacques



From free verse to the ballad Shelley Roche-Jacques demonstrates her ability to execute a wide spectrum of forms, as well as her ability to assume the perspective of a range of characters in her new collection Risk the Pier. Ranging from a mental health patient, a murderer, a struggling parent, the disgruntled everyman, to an innkeeper’s wife, Jacques’s collection traverses the landscape of the 19th century – with her allusions to Chekhov, Browning, and the Great Sheffield Flood – as well as the modern day.

Thematically blending voices two hundred years apart through her occupation with social realism and the tribulations faced by every manner of person, this time travelling collection never feels disjointed or chaotic. The highlight of part one (Men, Women and Mice) for me is ‘Shrink,’ telling the tale of a mother suffering mental health issues, triggered by Robin Thicke’s blurred lines. Roche-Jacques highlights the relentless and unforgiving torment of social media for the speaker’s decisions; a trap which so many find themselves in. 

A standout from part two (Somewhere to Get to) is ‘We Do Not Mention.’ Roche-Jacques’s fruitful yet controlled use of conduplicatio over the phrases ‘the meat was tough’ and ‘do the washing up and then make love’ symbolises the mundane repetition of married life for both man and woman. Yet both continue to live such a life ‘not mentioning’ how bored they really are. 

Part three (Claims – Voices from the Great Inundation of 1864) is principally an anecdotal collection relaying the untold tales of this tragedy. For me the final poem of the collection – ‘Claim for Mary Ann Pickering, Aged 8’ - is the strongest. Roche-Jacques’s anaphora in the final stanza elegantly conveys the heart-break of a mother who desperately, yet unsuccessfully attempts to recover her daughter’s personality.  

Overall, the collection continues a trend in modern poetry to employ the free verse form to relay the experiences and suffering of many different kinds of people, but Roche-Jacques succeeds in capturing not only the voices of the millennial generation, but also those of the Victorians.


About the reviewer

A graduate in literature, soon to undertake an MA in Modern Literature and Creative Writing, Luke McNamara has a passion for experimental literature. He was previously on the Creative Writing Committee for the University of Leicester, and has aspirations to see his own novels and poetry published one day. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "The Book Index": An Exhibition at the Bodleian Library



It’s hard enough to display books interestingly, but book indexes? This I have got to see, I thought, so I travelled up to Oxford last month and picked my way through the city’s shops, tour parties and bicycles to the Bodleian Library, where there turns out to be … one display case.

Still, it covers a lot of ground. First are early Bible concordances (from 1230 onwards) – alphabetical lists of key words together with the passages they come from. These were the models for all subsequent alphabetical indexes, we are told. The curators have grouped three of them with a ‘Goldilocks’ motif – one too small (the size of a smartphone), one too big and unwieldy, and one just the right size. 

Then there is a charming list of individual squiggles put together by early medieval theologian Robert Grosseteste, each of which he assigned to one of 440 topics such as ‘Imagination’ and ‘Existence of God’, then used in the margins of books when the writers mentioned these things. 

Next are the first known page numbers, in a book printed in Cologne in 1490, followed by playful indexes by Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. Lastly we have artist Tom Phillips’s concordance to The Human Document by W H Mallock, a 19th-century book which he picked up at random in a bookshop in 1966 and vowed to use as the basis for a long-term artwork. Since then he has brought out six editions of the book, calling it Humument (see http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument/introduction) most pages worked over by him artistically at least twice. Here is one of the pages, the text now illegible under Phillips’s ink except for a few words picked out in white bubbles to make a nonsense sentence. Phillips’s concordance to the novel is a brown pocketbook with tiny lists of handwritten words.

The display is thus bookended with two concordances, the first a necessary accompaniment to a central text of the time, the last a private aid for an idiosyncratic artwork.

But have search boxes put indexes out of business? ‘Ctrl +F is not the same as a good subject index,’ claims the display text. Is this true? Well, a good index is not an automatically compiled list of words but the work of someone trained in choosing and ordering the most important ones, and thus should have some intellectual credibility. An index also offers chance discoveries – you may find things by accident when browsing through it, not so likely when starting off with your own search terms. An index is also I suppose a production in itself, like a noun-heavy summary of the book with wonky syntax and a non-chronological order. A search box, by contrast, is not a work but a tool, albeit a very powerful one. And of course you can’t use them with paper. 

Still, indexes will have to argue much harder for themselves in the age of the e-book. This display, by showing that indexes have functioned for hundreds of years as ways of mapping reading and thought, is part of that argument.

The Book Index was at the Bodleian Library, Oxford from 28 May - 9 July 2017.


About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds is a teacher, writer and editor. Her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain's Museums was published in February this year. She blogs here.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review by Rachel Evans of "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

(Some spoilers!)
Much like the terrifying and sentient Wood at the centre of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, this novel reaches out with subtle violence, wraps its tendrils around your expectations and pulls them out from under your feet, leaving you (and your beliefs about what fantasy should be) altered for good. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, Novik is happy to take you by the hand and show you the safest route, saving you from any twisted ankles – or absolute insanity.
The tense stalemate between the two warring nations of Polnya and Rosya is but an abstract threat for Agnieszka, resident of the village of Dvernik, located on the border of The Wood. The most pressing issue for Nieszka, who happens to be Dragon Born, is the almost inevitable loss of Kasia, her best friend and fellow Dragon Born; for the Dragon chooses one girl from the surrounding area, and keeps her for ten years. In return for this, he protects the towns and villages from the constant, malevolent onslaught of The Wood.
Of course, this is not what happens. In a slightly predictable (and yet effective) twist, the Dragon ends up abruptly whisking her off to his lair – uh – tower. Apologies Ann Rice fans, but this Dragon is, in actual fact, a Wizard. He abandons Nieszka at the top of his tower without so much as a word of acknowledgement, leaving her to the realisation that she is going to spend the next ten years of her life locked up with him, not Kasia.  Unfortunately (fortunately) for the Dragon, Nieszka is not one to sit quietly and take instruction. Despite, or more accurately, because of his generally terrible behaviour, it is highly satisfying to witness Nieszka’s determination to make his life as difficult as possible. Nieszka’s vibrancy and agency in a world that is constrained not only by gender, but also class (making her pretty low on the food-chain) proves that there is scope for more female-driven fantasy that does not rely on the (boring) idea that 'women can do what men can, but in heels.'
The first third of the book focuses on world building, and brings to life the living, breathing threat of The Wood. It is refreshing to have a completely different antagonist to the usual run-of-the-mill demon/necromancer/manic ruler. The Wood is a genuinely terrifying creation, filled with all manner of creatures and malice that are hell-bent on destroying humanity. Beyond The Wood are Polnya and Rosya (Poland and Russia respectively), who have been at war with each other since the Polnyan queen disappeared with the Rosyan prince (into… you guessed it, The Wood!) These combine to create a backdrop of conflict and tension that feeds into every aspect of the story.
The rest of the book moves rapidly through a complex and sometimes confusing narrative. One could argue that the story doesn’t quite work in its current form, and could benefit with either being trimmed down or expanded into a multi-book series – there is certainly a wealth of material to draw from, both within the fictional world, and the mythological corpus on which it is based. In fact, the only true criticism that I have of Uprooted is its need to be everything at once; both high fantasy, multi-series epic and punchy one-off; YA but also oh-so-adult (some of the overarching themes and scenes in The Wood are highly disturbing); action-fantasy-thriller and romance. In fact, it is the romance aspect of the story that lets it down the most, something that I found incredibly disappointing. For all of Novik’s innovation with The Wood and Nieszka’s system of magic, there is a woeful lack of imagination and diversity when it comes to l-o-v-e. Initially, I thought that there was going to be a queer relationship between Nieszka and Kasia, and I was overjoyed. Those high hopes were crushed, however, when Novik practically forces the Dragon and Nieszka into a tryst that neither of them seems to want. The resulting relationship is both awkward and lack-lustre.
Despite the issues with pacing and with character interrelationships (both of which may have been better addressed in a multi-book format?), Uprooted is still a vastly enjoyable read. Novik’s prose is both evocative and hypnotic, and the way in which she builds the world of Polnya, Rosya, and The Wood is so immersive that it is possible to forget that you are reading a novel. Finally, Nieszka is a character that would cause me much distress if we were friends in real life; which is exactly what makes her such an excellent protagonist to guide you through the deepest, darkest parts of The Wood in order to reach the other side, both changed, and yet exactly the same.
 
About the reviewer
I am a first-year PhD student exploring the connections between gender and textiles in Old Norse literature at the University of Leicester. In my spare time I like to read (mostly dystopian, speculative or fantasy novels) and knit.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Review of "Alien Covenant" by Jeremy Sumner




(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

It’s been a long five year wait for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sequel to Prometheus, but now we have been finally presented with Alien: Covenant. The film follows the crew of the Covenant spaceship that is transporting thousands of colonists and embryos through space towards a newly identified hospitable planet. During the course of their journey, they pick up a stray transmission that leads them to discover a previously unknown planet. This one possesses uncannily similar traits to Earth itself and, compelled by curiosity, they decide to follow the message and explore this alien planet.

Having read previous reviews of Alien: Covenant, I was very sceptical as to whether this film would be the sequel I wanted it to be. The consensus appeared to be that the film, whilst delivering on entertainment and visuals, rarely contained the essence of horror that had been synonymous with the rest of the series. Where Prometheus had aimed to fascinate with its stimulating origin story, Alien: Covenant was set to add more pieces to finish the puzzle of how Alien came to pass. I tried my best not to let anything I’d heard before taint my experience as I took my seat in the cinema.

Despite the action sequence that unfolds shortly after the trademark Alien titles roll, the first section of the film felt very slow. I found myself struggling to feel the threat and terror that has become associated with Scott’s Alien films, perhaps due to not having met the crew of the ship whilst the event is happening. The slower tempo is understandable after this as we are gradually introduced to the rudely-awakened crew of the Covenant. Unsurprisingly, the main point of focus as we meet the cast is Daniels. Like Noomi Rapace as Shaw before her, Katherine Waterson provides a strong female lead as Daniels, balancing the character’s sense loss and hope with ease, and not to mention providing the only voice of reason when newly appointed Captain Oram decides to detour to the mysterious and uncannily Earth-like planet. Her trepidation over visiting this planet is one that will be undoubtedly shared unanimously by the audience, albeit primarily for her own personal reasons, as me and my friends still to this moment struggle to understand the logic behind the Covenant’s rogue mission to this “perfect” planet that they have somehow managed to miss.

Where Alien: Covenant really succeeds is where things start to go wrong. Curiosity does kill the cat, and the Covenant’s crew are unsurprisingly no exception. In a chain of events that contain gore, tension and hilarity (I found myself laughing out loud at an uncharacteristically slapstick shotgun failure), the tempo accelerates as violently as the deaths of the unfortunate few that succumb to this remorseless hostile world. These are humbling segments that show the weakness of this militarized unit that they seem hopelessly incapable of dealing with the horrors that they are encountering. The creature kills themselves pay tribute to the films gone by; there’s enough chest-bursting and face-hugging to please even the most casual fan of the series. 

The stand out performance, or performances, of this film has to come from Michael Fassbender. Reprising the role of the intellectually curious android David and also undertaking a new one as the identical robotic counterpart Walter, Fassbender delivers with both of his roles. I struggle to remember a film in which an actor has been able to create genuine sexual tension with himself (no, Austin Powers doesn’t count). The verbal sparring Fassbender participates in as David with Walter and the surviving crew members of the Covenant acts as an enthralling stop-gap between the disastrous first landing on the planet and unveiling the dark secrets that will inspire a truly shocking finale. Visually, Walter and David are inseparable, but it’s a tribute to the actor that he can make a simple American accent create two distinctive and believable personalities.

From what I’d heard about the film prior to viewing, there had been some debate as to the overall plot and ending. Personally, I quite liked both. I will refrain from revealing any spoilers, but the arc that had begun with Prometheus I felt was satisfyingly met, with Shaw and David’s story intertwining cleverly with the people of the Covenant. The ending itself was both haunting yet fitting, although I have to admit I had been able to work out the climax earlier than I’d have liked. As someone who longs for jaw dropping plot twists, I was slightly disappointed at the predictability of the ending, but nevertheless I think it fits in nicely with the story.

Having had time to reflect and think about Alien: Covenant, I think it’s fair to say the film has under delivered on the promising platform that Prometheus had built for it. The only character that I felt as though I was really rooting for to survive was Daniels. The rest of the crew felt very disconnected and individualised, with the relationships as artificial as the androids. This seems even more disappointing when you consider the underuse of both James Franco and the returning Guy Pearce, who have all too brief cameos in the film. The scenes that are designed to create unease and fear don’t have the same weight behind them that is traditionally associated with the Alien series. The idea seems to be to replace relentless terror with bucket loads of blood, and this tactic doesn’t quite resonate as well as Scott would have hoped.

Despite it being a reasonably enjoyable watch, and a film that I will undoubtedly watch again, I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the levels of terror and fear that are welcome baggage with Scott’s series. Having said all of this, there is still nothing quite like hearing the terrifying screech of the xenomorphs. And let me tell you, in the cinema, everyone can definitely hear you scream.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016, film, directed by Warren Beatty)

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first film as a director for eighteen years and as an actor for fifteen, and has the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Beatty, at its centre. It is also a song within the film, actually composed by Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather, but for the purposes of the plot it is written and sung by Marla Mabrey, played by Lily Collins. The song applies as much to her as Hughes, the maverick who, despite his wealth and power, is shown too behaviourally odd for the template of corporate America. Similarly, Marla, a writer of songs rather than a singer, does not fit in with the expectations of Hollywood, where she has arrived with her mother (Annette Bening) from Virginia, as a contract actress, one of many, for Hughes’s film studio. Back home she had won a beauty contest, but a demure one since both mother and daughter are devout Baptists. Beatty, who also wrote the script, sets the film in the late 1950s/early 1960s and captures the church-going conservatism of Eisenhower era America. Eventually, the mother becomes tired of failing to have any meetings with Hughes, the promises of screen tests that never take place, and the general vacuity of Hollywood. She returns to Virginia, leaving her daughter with warnings of Hughes’s notoriety for bedding his contract actresses.
 
Frank Forbes  (Aiden Ehrenreich), the driver assigned by the studio to Marla, soon falls for her, and she for him, but they are both restrained not only by their religious backgrounds, Frank is a Methodist, but also by regulations imposed by Hughes. After Marla finally gets to meet Hughes, a triangle of sorts emerges, although this is not realised by Frank until the end of the film.
 
Marla does loosen up, but only as brief lapses from her Baptist upbringing. There is no trajectory into promiscuity or alcoholism. This is after all a romantic comedy, and Beatty successfully maintains a genial tone. In a similar vein, Frank’s personality becomes a little more steely when he is promoted from driver to one of Hughes’s close aides, but he retains his essential humanity.
 
Beatty obviously relished the role of Hughes and has great fun playing him, and this communicates to the audience, which is not a bad thing for a comedy to do. Hughes’s eccentricities were many, and Beatty plunders this fund for our entertainment: e.g. the obsession with TV dinners, burgers and banana nut ice cream; the repeated private viewings of Hell’s Angels, the World War One flying film he produced and co-directed in 1930; the ludicrous use of doubles  (Hughes employed more than one to fool the press and others). A more tragic side to Hughes, his addiction to codeine, is only mentioned in passing.
 
If ever there was a life open to fiction it was Hughes. In a way, he seems like a character from an American comic: supporting the conventional money making values of America, while paradoxically defined by strangeness and deviance. Currently, another ego-driven billionaire businessman is strutting the planet as US President. I think it is preferable when, like Hughes, they hide away.
 
Through this film, Beatty has created an opportunity for an impressive ensemble performance, which includes Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan. As well as the pay cheque, I think there was probably the motivation of working with Beatty and contribute to his welcome return to filmmaking,
 
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). Two of his publishing projects were recently represented at a festival in Rome, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

Monday, 29 May 2017

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney of "Deaths of the Poets" by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts



A recent Radio 4 Book of the Week, Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape), is a thought-provoking and wildly amusing literary journey. The authors explore the legacies left by some the world’s most-notable poets, largely by visiting the geographical places associated with each poet’s final moments – taking in Britain, Europe and America. Opening with the death of young Chatterton, then exploring the tragic figures of Keats, Thomas, Plath and Sexton, to name but a few, the authors, employing an unusual first person plural in terms of voice, attempt to address the notion that poets – as opposed to novelists, say – are a unique breed of creative, in that they often carry a self-destructive urge to bow out of life when it proves too much to bear, or by enjoying the more visceral aspects of experience and often cutting their lives short. 

I came to this as an avid fan of several poets within the selection, and it made me feel better knowing the same voyeuristic, ‘net-twitching’ need to peer beyond the curtains of pure, biographical fact was felt by other writers out there, too. Treading the ground of more familiar stories leads to some genuinely illuminating discoveries, including the works of Rosemary Lightband and Frank O’Hara, which I did not know prior to reading this study.

 Where the writing is consistently high-quality, the structural design is less successful. Ironically, most sections would have benefitted from including more poetry, showing the connection between economy of form and a life short-lived, perhaps. The first half is also edited with a sharper eye: poets are grouped according to theme with some genuinely stand-out observations made by the authors.  ‘We know London had something to do with it. Indeed, a monochrome, peeling, puddly, just off-rationing country seems bound up with Plath’s suicide.’ Yet, the second half of the book is more meandering. A fatigue sets in for both writers and reader, as we take in yet another tragedy – outcomes of contractual commitments appearing to being played out, rather than the authors trying to prove an over-arching hypothesis. So that by the final poet, Farley and Symmons Roberts take their collective foot of the gas, reducing some of the impact of the study, overall. 

That said, this is not meant to be construed as high literary criticism – it is more about two poets essentially wondering if their own works will be canonised if they remain with us much longer, and the ways in which art is commodified for consumers. Vain enterprise, indeed, to be human. Or, as Keats states more helpfully in 'Ode to a Nightingale': ‘Thou was not born for death, immortal bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down.’ 


About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the disciplines of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.