Day 1: the birthday

The plan: to note something for each of the next 365 days. May be something, may be garbage….may not last past June.

Today by “the pond” in Reykjavik in the sun a young girl feeding bread to ducks, gulls and geese. She was earring a Barcelona football shirt with the name Camilla on the back.  On her feet were purple glitter trainers.

Later we bought things from dead.

Featured post

Freedom Read #118

(translated by Philip Boehm)

The important thing about this novel is that it exists. Boschwitz was a German Jew. This novel was written in a blistering four week spell directly after Kristallnacht – 9/10 November 1938 – and many of the episodes of a man on the run in face of state-sponsored antisemitism are semi-autobiographical.

Boschwitz escaped Germany, but as the afterword explains, he perished soon after when the boat he was travelling on, the MV Abosso, was torpedoed by the Nazis, somewhere off the Azores in October 1942 killing all 362 passengers: he was 27. Prior to that he had been held in internment on the Isle of Man, by the British, and later in an Australian camp. Peter Graf – author of the afterword – goes on to explain, that in the aftermath of 10 November 1938, “The outrage sparked by the accounts was universal, but it did not lead, as one might expect, to a great willingness to help, by granting more Jews the possibility of immigrating abroad, for example. Quite the opposite…it became clear to Jews remaining in Germany that flight was the only way to save themselves, but the doors were gradually closing.

In terms of literary quality the book is middling – according to letters sent shortly before his death, Boschwitz was intending further edits – there are repetitions and digressions, some avenues opened but not explored etc. The value of the book is that we ‘live’ in the mind of the main protagonist, Otto Silbermann, we see his panic, understand his paranoia, but also his lack of comprehension about how the world of well-to-do, middle class, law-abiding, business owner can be turned upside down so rapidly and with seemingly no challenge from others around him: to non-Jews of his acquaintance nothing seemed to be amiss. One of the most affecting passages includes the description of Silbermann, sitting in the cafe across from the business he (still) owned, being too afraid of his employees to dare venturing in one last time.

Silbermann criss-crosses Germany on a series of ever-less sensible or thought-through train journeys. He meets random people, some give him advice, one tries to seduce him. He losses his brief case, some money, buys a lot of tickets he doesn’t use, rents a hotel room for a month and leaves before the first night. All-in-all, he is caught a spiral of doubt and confusion, and of justifiable fear, seemingly without anywhere to turn to – not even his brother in law, an Aryan, will help him.

“Have I completely lost my wits? he worried, surprised by his own weakness. To the point I would take my own life? I, Otto Silbermann? On account of the Nazis? The idea is laughable. I have thirty-six thousand marks on me. What reasonable human being takes his life with thirty-six thousand marks in his pocket?”

The book was first published in English, in 1939. It took several decades for it to be be published in Germany.

Poetry Read #8

This is Morag Anderson’s first pamphlet – 26 poems over 28 pages – and it is a cracking debut.

The opening poem – Two Doors Down – about the “daftest dad on the street“, finishes with “No one collected his ashes. / They believe / he is burning yet.” Gives you a fair idea of the territory we are being invited to view: an ‘ordinariness’, often situated in childhood, an overbearing (and unforgiving) religious community, not to mention the stuff that ‘goes on behind closed doors’. The next poem – The Heated Kitchen – is one sentence spread over 13 lines to create one brilliant, shocking poem locating violence clearly and plainly in the domestic: there are so many good lines / images – “the broken doll blink of my eyelid” – but you need to read the entirety of it.

The poems are almost without exception terse, tight affairs, saying what needs to be said, with an economy and precision that is enviable. At their best, there is almost no distance between language and sensation – she uses words in a way that make you feel almost in advance of any thought: of a baby, “I…thumb / the estuary of her milk-mouth.“; “it is difficult to swallow / the tight collar of his words, / sharp like the cut of his shirt / against the skin of my dress.“; “I am disposable and new. / An emaciated mare / barely good for glue“; and my favourite, “pour me over ice / smashed like fallen birds / bury me with a mouth full / of cherries“. At these times – and there are others beyond the ones quoted – the writing is electric, it flashes across your skin.

The sequence of poems from DNR, through Glasgow Coma Scale and Kintsugi to In the School of Life Sciences, run through heartbreak and loss and the complicated memories of those things, adding weight to the end of the collection that seems in some way to slow down the reading of the final pages.

While there is an underlying hope that there is love out there, these poems are not for the faint-hearted; there is violence, abuse, and other cruelties. Clearly it does not do to surmise biographies from things that people have written, but these poems display such clarity and authority … then again, conviction and the ability to convince is a measure of good writing.

And I could not close without mentioning the line from Offertory, that makes me laugh each time I read it: presented as a scribbled note in a hymnal, it reads, “for circumspect sex, call Mary M on XXX”.

Available from Fly on the Wall Press: https://www.flyonthewallpress.co.uk

Freedom Read #117

Madrid. Unfinished. Man Dying.

70 scant pages, barely an hour’s reading.

7 sections – canvases – of stripped back prose – some conversation, some that almost falls into poetry. There are repeated ideas, thoughts, types. Some prose, some words run together like a melting, struggling consciousness. Some passages play on the sounds of the words, wandering away from meaning down side alleys. Some is brutal, vulgar, languid, viscous, self-lacerating, maudlin, telling whatever tale wanders across the increasingly arid plane of his thinking. There are remembered meals, arguments, addictions, sex, a visceral hated for the extremely “English colour” green and a lot of telling people to “fuck off.” All of which is believable.

“Wounds. Typical of me, all the gore, special effects, now I am the empty-headed celebrity meat master of macabre, lead in his wounds, champagne, doomed.

The restraint and / or the brutality of the editing that must have gone into this book is quite something to consider.

It is described on the cover as a “great painter lies on his death bed“, and that these “written pictures” show the “explosive workings of the artist’s mind“.

You will love it or hate it. Today, I find myself in the former camp, tomorrow, who knows.

2021 Reading Summary

  • The novel most enjoyed: new (to me) writers: 

M John Harrison: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise; Conor O’Callaghan: We Are Not in the World; Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain

  • The novels most enjoyed: older writers: 

Richard Flanagan: Gould’s Book of Fish (a novel in twelve fish); Cormac McCarthy: The Border Trilogy; Willy Vlautin: Don’t Skip Out On Me

  • The most striking non-fiction work:

Laura Bates: Men Who Hate Women

Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution

  • Any novel that disappointed, or simply didn’t like:

Bohumil Hrabal: All My Cats; also, Coupland’s Generation X has not aged well

  • The year’s most striking fictional character:

Elena and Lila from Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels; Horace Hopper from Don’t Skip Out On Me

  • …and the most-dastardly villain(s):

“The System”: the patriarchy, the racist, capitalist, climate change denying system.  

  • The best authors encountered for the first time this year:

Conor O’Callaghan and Douglas Stuart

  • The most beautifully written novel:

Shuggie Bain & Gould’s Book of Fishsome sections of Waymaking were transcendent

  • Poetry most enjoyed: 

Introducing my own second sub-section (as I am allowed to do in my own list), then the most urgent poetry I read last year was Caleb Femi’s Poor, which has so much to recommend it, that I don’t know where to start.

Discounting people I know / count as friends (which is quite a few in this year’s list), it would be Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa and Li Po’s Selected, in the runners-up slots, but by far my favourite was Stephen Watts’ Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds.

  • Memorable passages from books read this year; #75 from Republic of Dogs

“The flock of starlings burst from the rowan again and set up new geometries in the static air. And they tried to establish new speech patterns and remembered a protest song.

Then a solitary heron flew in from the moor with the breath-pulse of its wing beat and another looked up from its fish-watch down on the wrack. And two cormorants flew straight out of the sun – black, black, black, charred pieces of air and veered past the convening rock and looked back and swerved their bodies out towards the nesting cliffs and clamour. Young ones in the nests fell out and sank in the lake. High above great gulls wheeled in slow circles and still higher brent geese barked out their reports; the state of a besieged city, the burning of libraries worldwide, the migration of whole peoples, the bandaged sun, and all the farcical haloes of inane cruelty.

Lapwings from their moor meadow’s hollows, oyster catchers with their long orange beaks and gulls from their nests on tiny tidal islands would whorl about and dive intruders’ heads to save their young and their eggs. And the return to peck at the herbs or the wrack. Sandpipers and avocets, long-legged waders and even the hidden corncrake came in to say their beakful. The snow owl and the passing whooper swan, the wild merganser with its orange ring, the wrens and the water wagtails, the cuckoo and the crow that had its taste for lambs and their tiny tongues, the raven, carrier of seed from island to island.

Skuas and Arctic terns, their paper wings bouncing on the tides of air. And then a gannet with its superb design, with its unrepeatable, aerodynamics, with its beak and its wing-tips dipped in yellow, fell into the sea, wings strained backwards, and came up to the surface again with its food fish in the straightforward triumph of its everyday action.

A wind got up and had words with the still calm air.

The wren came back and cocked its head, to listen to what might be being said.

Hawks and choughs and other birds that need have no dealings with us.

In that place cleared of people, their republic was their own. Their language was the language of birds.

And they were their own republic under the sun.”

BOOKS 2021

Fiction

Boschwitz, Ulrich Alexander: The Passenger

Coupland, Douglas: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Crace, Jim: Quarantine

DeLillo, Don: The Silence

Diaz, Junot: Drown

Diop, David: At Night All Blood is Black

Ditlevsen, Tove: The Faces

Ferrante, Elena: The Lying Life of Adults; My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name

Flanagan, Richard: Gould’s Book of Fish (a novel in twelve fish)

Forster, EM: Maurice

Harrison, M John: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise

Himes, Chester: Lonely Crusade

Hrabal, Bohumil: All My Cats

Hunter, Megan: The End We Start From, The Harpy

Jansson, Tove: The Summer Book

Kawakami, Meiko: Heaven

Mars-Jones, Adam: Box Hill

McCarthy, Cormac: All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain 

Mishima, Yukio: The Frolic of the Beasts

Mort, Helen: Exire 

Myers, Benjamin: Turning Blue

Newsham, John: Killing the Horses

O’Callaghan, Conor: We Are Not in the World; Nothing on Earth

O’Farrell, Maggie: Hamnet

Okri, Ben: The Famished Road

Porter, Max: The Death of Francis Bacon

Rankin, Ian: Standing in Another Man’s Grave

Roth, Philip: Everyman

Ryan, Donal: The Spinning Heart; From a Low and Quiet Sea

Stuart, Douglas: Shuggie Bain

Tillman, Lynne: Weird Fucks

Trevor, William: Cheating at Canasta

Trocchi, Alexander: Young Adam

Tuomainen, Antti: Little Siberia

Vlautin, Willy: Don’t Skip Out On Me

Zamyatin, Yevgeny: We

Poetry

Anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art: Waymaking

Morag Anderson: Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s

Colin Bancroft: Impermanence

Rachel Bower: These Mothers of Gods

Jo Burns: Brink

Anne Caldwell: Alice and the North

Aziz Dixon: Because of the War

Lorna Faye Dunsire: Fiery Daughters

TS Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-35

Steve Ely: The European Eel

Mike Farren: Smithereens

Caleb Femi: Poor

Anna Greki: The Streets of Algiers

Seamus Heaney: The Aeneid VI 

Ted Hughes: Remains of Elmet

Amanda Huggins: The Collective Noun for Birds

Ilya Kaminsky: Dancing in Odessa

Harry Man & Endre Ruset: Utoya Thereafter

Andrew McMillan: Pandemonium

Helen Mort & Katrina Naomi: Same But Different

Ian Parks: Citizens

Don Paterson: The Landing Light

Jill Penny: In Your Absence

Li Po: Selected

Pauline Rowe: The Ghost Hospital

Sophie Sparham: The Man Who Ate 50,000 Weetabix

Stephen Watts: Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds

Neil Young: After The Riot

Nidhi Zak / Aria Eipe: Auguries of a Minor God

Non-Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: Notes on Grief

Akala: Natives

Laura Bates: Men Who Hate Women

Extinction Rebellion: This is not a Drill

Christiane Ritter: A Woman in the Polar Night

Sophie Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

Carlo Rovelli: The Order of Time 

Maria Stepanova: In Memory of Memory

Olivia Sudjic: Exposure

Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution (Vol 1, 2 & 3)

Freedom Read #116

This is not the first time I have read this loosely connected series of short stories or episodes, it was published in 2018, and I find it hard to described how mesmerised I am by them. They are not easy, in fact, they are often hard, grudging, irritable, unsatisfactory yet whole, they make you realise you have been holding your breath, you feel uncomfortable, you don’t know where to put yourself. Sometimes you want to look away. Should you put the book down. The book engenders more of a visceral response than anything intellectual and yet, it is smart, whip smart, cutting yourself open on jagged glass smart. And, there you are 18 months later picking it up again…a literary scab you cannot leave alone. Shifting – like the moor in one episode – untrustworthy narrators, with often, unworthy ends in mind. There is taking and hurting and brutally transactional relations and there is the agency, Exire. It feels like too much coffee, like coming out of being drunk late in a night, or early in a morning and keeping on, without sleep. The unfiltered morning so grey and bleak, that it looks filtered. Shiftless and scratching, a grain of sand under your eyelid. The section entitled Maureen is heartbreaking; the final Laura section is so surprisingly sad and uplifting that it melts hearts – such longing and loss.

Brilliant. When you’re in that mood.

Available from Wrecking Ball Press: https://wreckingballpress.com

Freedom Read #115

I saw Glen James Brown read from this novel as it was released 2018. He was someone I’d never heard of, it was his first novel, it was a small club (Wharf Chambers in Leeds) and he seemed really nervous, with his gentle north-eastern accent. It was wonderful.

The book is the tale – or several linked tales – told through different narrators, relating the years on a run down estate, somewhere on the edge of Middlesbrough. The stories take us from just after the heaving industrial disputes of the 1980s almost up to date. The heavy industry of Teeside is already on the wane, the value of the housing stock is in decline, the estate is not being looked after as it should be, “the wrong sort” are moving in – often roving gangs of teenage “scunners” as the dialect has it – eventually some unscrupulous housing association buys the houses up at below market rates, before building new stock and selling them above what the old residents can afford. The tales reek of poverty, of trying to get by, of folk pushed against the wall and disregarded.

There is the story of the last hairdresser on the estate, setting the perms of her last customers on the last day; the guy who runs the mobile library, with his 1950s rocker / Teddy Boy look; the newspaper man and his shop, the only remaining shop that could sell alcohol on the estate and so the one that gets burgled most frequently; and there are stories of young girls going missing. These people grew up with each other, played with each other, dated each other when younger, they frequently worked together – sometimes on less legitimate enterprises – and their kids, the ones who haven’t escaped yet, date each other now.

Of course the estate has a ‘big man’, who goes by the name of Vincent, who is thoughtlessly violent to humans and animals alike – and some scenes involving him need a warning to those of certain dispositions. One of the tales crosses into the rave scene of the early 90s, with a lot of drugs, confused wanderings around the home counties looking for barns, warehouses, trying to avoid the old bill, and three kids from the estate trying to make their own big event in the old water-treatment works on the estate.

The story that really pulled me in was the opening one about two teenage girls trying to navigate growing up together. One of them, Una, mysterious and sometimes almost a ghostly presence, has a difficult home life with her mother. She does a she pleases, bunks off school, wanders off frequently, doesn’t tell people where she’s going…probably described as running wild. She becomes an artist but again of a strange and ephemeral kind. She is most famous for a painting known as The Green Girl. Reviewing her work someone says that most of her surviving paintings are of much the same scene / atmosphere: dusky waterside, probably a river, some willows and reeds and a general feeling of foreboding.

Then there is Peg Powler – local legend and possible water spirit – who allegedly haunts both the open waterways and the sewers, water pipes – so much so that one character has his toilet lid sealed down with gaffer tape, out of fear that Peg will reach up out of the bowl and grab him. Jean, Una’s friend, is convinced that Una made a pact with Peg… And there is The Day of the Dark when the whole estate was inexplicably plunged into a “midnight darkness” and violent weather, at midday.

“I saw myself reflected in the tranquil murder of Gus’ dilated pupil…” is as good a description of a close-up encounter with a Sparrowhawk (called Gus) as you’re likely to read.

Short-listed for several awards, it is a cracking read. From Parthian Press: https://www.parthianbooks.com

Freedom Read #114

This is a delightfully vicious little book. The writing sharp as a talon.

Lucy has a husband Jake, and two young boys – Paddy and Ted. They live a normal suburban life.

One morning a stranger rings Lucy, introduces himself and tells her “Your husband – Jake – is sleeping with my wife. I found out today. I thought you ought to know.”

The woman in question is Vanessa, a colleague of Jake.

After the expected fury, swearing and lashing out, Lucy and Jake settle on the arrangement that Lucy can ‘get her own back’, three times and no more, then that will be an end to it.

We don’t know what Jake expected that to mean – perhaps that Lucy would get a free pass for three infidelities, who knows – but I doubt he expected what he got.

I won’t say any more, for fear of spoiling it, except that Lucy studied Classics, hence the appearance of the Harpy, which runs through the book in italicised side-chapters.

The book is sharply and sparsely, written. A quick 190 pages or so. We do not hear from Jake’s side, this is Lucy’s story.

A warning: there is blood!

Freedom Read #113

(translated by Sasha Dugdale)

An extraordinary feat. It is not a novel, rather it is 500 pages somewhere between memoire, investigation and imagining. (as well as being another gorgeous Fitzcarraldo thing)

Stepanova starts with her (extended) family, working outwards and backwards and forwards through history, following them and their journeys abroad, correspondences from war, listening to oral histories / stories told and re-told across the kitchen table, photographs and momentos, and weaves it all in and out of the huge, melancholic history of Russia. It is breath-taking. Always engaging. Always wandering off into tangents. The closest analogy really is to think of it as someone whose elderly relative has recently died, and they are left to go through all their belongings, all those unmarked boxes in the attic…some of which contain objects of impenetrable provenance and importance, others containing teapots or children’s toys.

And then weaving these bits of bric-a-brac, family heirlooms, into national history.

There is a recurrent theme of small porcelain dolls, thousands upon thousands of them. They were apparently the ‘bubblewrap’ of days gone by: packing crates filled with all of these tiny mass produced dolls, designed to crack and take the bumps and crashes of cargo handling and delivery, hence few remain in pristine condition. Maria has one.

Throughout her telling she conveys a sense of obligation, of familial expectation or duty. Stepanova tells us she has spent ages trying to write this book, whether that means all the years of listening, of being around parents and grandparents and absorbing their stories, or whether that means just living in Russia throughout the last years of Communist rule, Perestroika, the current cutthroat capitalist experience, or whether it means getting the words down, who can say. A combination of the three, probably.

One distant relative served in the war at the siege in Leningrad. His letters home to his mother survive and they seem mostly to be a series of worried questions, that mostly go unanswered. He describes dead bodies frozen in the street.

The question of her family’s Jewish-ness, Jewish history, the shockingly (to us, nowadays) common place anti-semitism that was apparently part of the ebb and flow of everyday conversation, at that time, is laid out in plain view.

There is a long discussion on Rembrandt’s self-portraiture, various poets appear, disappear, sometimes to resurface 100 pages later (Pushkin, Blok, Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva). Tolstoy also hoves into view, blocking out everything else behind him including Proust and Thomas Mann, who at least provokes a fascinating tangent on the artist Charlotte Salomon, who created an apparently un-categoriseable and extraordinary art work, which she named Life? Or Theatre? – comprising hundreds of watercolour paintings alongside text spread over 750 pages – which Stepanova notes, dissolves most of the accepted borders between artist, creation and audience. Salomon escaped to Southern France, but was eventually betrayed to the Nazis who transported her to Auschwitz, where 26 and visibly pregnant she was put to death on arrival.

In some ways, there is just too much in here, it is a compendium, in other ways it is perfect because of its rambling, discursive imperfections. You can pick it up and put it down as you wish, and not really loose ‘the thread’ – which is a fairly subjective notion in this book anyway. For some reason this feels like a very Russian thing: all this telling, and family, and sadness, the enormity of the world versus our meagre place in it. I loved it.

In discussing Rembrandt, Stepanova says the following, which could well describe her undertaking here:

“A commentator has likened the relationship between Rembrandt and his own images to a trial of the self. Wouldn’t it be more exact to call them ‘a refutation of the self’…the alienation from, and the shearing off of a whole phase of life, together with the one who has just lived it… For this to happen the artist has to very literally come out of himself… All the phases of this process are simultaneously discrete and unending. We see before us not enquiry, but fixation.”

Poetry Read #6

“I’m making this up as they go along.”

Bear with me: you might blanche at the idea of a fifty page poem on the life-cycle – what little we know of it – of the European Eel, but it is fascinating. Not just steeped, as it is in a wide variety of sciences, but with an obvious care to the language. It is very clearly and unapologetically a poem, a fine, fine poem.

The story-poem and life-cycle starts and ends in the Sargasso Sea – “a bright lens of brine” – drifts across the Atlantic, from where it can wander randomly up any one of a multitude of river systems, in this case we follow the Humber “where they hide from the light in the dredgings of Empire”, and into the flatlands of South Yorkshire / Lincolnshire, “…the kingdom / of the Amazon Fulfilment Centre…” with its “devastation of investment, jobs and growth“, eventually, into a fish tank and all the way back again. To the climax.

“…The embryos float / in the Miocene water like dust motes / caught in a shaft of light, and ascending / through the photo cline, join the thermonuclear / microplankton of the drifting epipelagic.”

“…the Gulf Stream, a roaring silt river / hurtling north on the edge of the American / continental shelf, its estuaries of blight: / oestrogen-saturated sewage, methamphetamine / neurotoxins, chromosome-warping / neonicotinoid run-off.

Bits of history and local lore are noted in passing, as are the unavoidable ‘physicalities’ “...rat smells / trout smells, effluent from the Landrace piggery / stinks of dead pigeon, pheasant and crow.

The “underslung hook-jaw” is sacrificed in the startling metamorphosis and extraordinary self-consuming effort of the return journey. Over the course of the “Eight months and six thousand fasting miles” she “reduces herself“, “every non-essential body-part – eyes and bones, / digestive tract…“, “…of the flesh of her gourmet body” recycled, in the cause. It is hard to do justice to the creative effort that has gone into imagining this stage of the eels’ lives and I guess this is where the poetry lives, taking the scant facts, filling in the gaps, and portraying one possible version of the generally unimaginable.

Yes, you will (probably) need access to a dictionary, Google or the like, but that doesn’t have to slow you down. Savour the feel and sound of the strange words the first time, roll them around on your tongue, enjoy the musicality of the piece, then come back later and do your research.

Containing art work by PR Ruby, the book is handsomely presented and available from Longbarrow Press: https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/

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