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.

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Isolation Reads #1

A ‘whodunnit’ that plays with surrealism (and miserablism). Set on ‘the plateau’ in the south of Poland, close to the Czech border, where the wind always blows, where the ground is frozen, except when it is a moving river of mud and where most of the houses in the village are holiday homes, only visited by city-dwellers at weekends in the summer. Mrs Duszejko has installed herself as the caretaker to most of these holiday homes.

Members of the local hunting club start turning up dead, in peculiar circumstances and Mrs Duszejko is convinced it is the work of local animals exacting revenge, she has seen it in the stars – she describes herself as an expert in astrology, claiming to be so good at it that she knows the date of her own death. She is also a huge fan of William Blake.

The humour is bone dry and mind altering…a fantastic read, if you like your middle-European stuff. And Tokarczuk is a Nobel Laureate, so trust the judgement of others if you’d rather.


Devastating. This is a story of every day horror.

The book lays out in detail the destruction has been wrought to millions (?) of lives, the misery, in the pursuit of ever greater profits. Macy’s research is painstaking, years of meetings with and interviewing hundreds of individuals, going back month after month meeting the same people, watching as some struggle and decline, some as they successfully recover and others as they ‘get clean – relapse – get clean’ in a terrifying cycle. All the while charting the damage to communities, their battles with authority and the indifference of those who really could affect a change.

This is capitalism without a safety net: unleash a supremely addictive product on a weakened, receptive customer base, pay off the people supposed to control it, make sure people in high places are ‘indebted’ (maybe finance their political campaigns, for example) and watch your fortune grow…and ignore the suffering of people already pretty close to the bottom of the pecking order…people who are mortgaging/selling everything their (extended) family has to feed the habit…and ensure dissenting voices are sidelined. Hey presto, you’re one of the richest families in America.

Purdue Pharmaceutical company, under the wing of the Sackler family, celebrated for their sponsorship of art, art galleries, museums and friendship with the British royals, among others; the same Purdue that came up with OxyContin (Brand name for Oxycodene) the latest on long line of increasingly potent opiates used ostensibly to treat pain, especially in end of life, pain-management situations. Instead of confining use of the drug to those scenarios doctors were encouraged to prescribe the drug back up through the pain spectrum for things like wisdom tooth surgery, back pain and bronchitis, and to provide longer scripts: ie doses that were supposed to be taken over a longer period. More and more people exposed to an extremely addictive drug. In a bizarre twist where apparent racism worked in favour on non-white communities, it was found that there was a much lower incidence of OxyContin addiction amongst African Americans living in these same areas because doctors appeared to be less willing to prescribe the longer scripts to this group.

The problem escalated when the supposed ‘controlled release’ aspect of the drug was circumvented and people found they could get all of the dose, intended for a span of 10-12 hours, instantly. This immediacy and potency mixed with massive rural poverty, whole swathes of lost industry, high incidences of disability among the population led the largest drug epidemic in US history, with this drug being the leading cause of death by drug-related means by 2011. All in the name of profit.

forty eight

An interesting exercise – named after one of my favourite cafes – the basic premise being that the philosophy lecturer Meskin, would supply the poet Mort, with some recent philosophical essays on matters of mutual interest (art, tattoos, rock climbing, whether something can be ‘so bad it is good’ etc) and the poet would supply a poem in response. Each poem would then be sent to the author(s) of the original essay for a 500 word response.

There is no sense in which the poems are ‘just fillers’ or give the impression that they were rushed off: just read “Learning to eat” (which is also about falling in love) for example:

Learning to eat again/ is like learning to run/ down a mountainside,/ I mean really run, your/ legs freewheeling,/ your ribs bright spokes/ in your chest.

Or, “Christina at the Super Bowl” which starts:

She’s turning the word ‘brave’ into a highway with no speed limit/ where SUVs with bullbars juggernaut towards the light, / their tiny drivers whooping behind sunglasses…”

and quickly runs into a personal memory of being told “no one likes a show off” by a teacher quick to admonish the young poet for reading too loud in class.

With 10 original poems and responses, this is an enjoyable and thought provoking experiment which has produced the kind of book you dip into randomly and put down and come back to.

forty nine

Total impulse buy. Never heard of her. Thought she looked pretty cool – actually ‘hard as nails’ – on the cover. Loved the title. Picked it up and started in. Kept reading as I got to the check-out and then into the nearest cafe. Pretty much read in a sitting. Very “European” in that arch way that make europhobes sneer about Bunuel movies or Kundera novels. Fuck’em. This isn’t all great poetry, but when it is good, it is bold, honest and carefree. It won’t be the right thing for every mood, for every day, but when it is right it will hit the spot.

These poems rarely have titles, they don’t appear to have a formal structure – although the translators note a great deal of attention has been paid in the original Italian, to the (hendecasyllable) meter and the use of traditional techniques – and they rarely end rhyme. But they have energy, drama, coffee, cats, cigarettes and passion. A few random quotes, from different poems:

“Two hours ago I fell in love/ & trembled, & I tremble still, / & and haven’t a clue whom I should tell”

“…(I) discover that every one of my emotions/ is due to some approaching thunder”

“…swaying anorexic or bulimic/ between two mothers as always/ this one who loves me falsely/ and would deny me food/ that one who loves me falsely/ and would kill me with food,/ and me forced to choose one or the other/ starve or binge…”

I love it when impulse is proven so correct. I finish with this poem (in its entirety) that did it for me:

“Someone told me/ of course my poems/ won’t change the world.

I say yes of course/ my poems/ won’t change the world.”

forty seven

On his death bed, at a youngish age, Alexandra Bergson’s father told her three younger brothers to listen to Alexandra, to be guided by her in relation to the running of the family farm, as she was the sibling who had been most interested in learning from him, shadowing him round the place day after day. And so, for twenty years with hard work and wise investments Alexandra transformed the small dusty patch of Nebraska known as ‘the Divide’, from its unpromising beginnings, to a sprawling success. She bought up neighbouring farms as their owners gave up the struggle, sold-up and moved on; she embraced the latest techniques and technology, which she kept abreast of by studying the journals. All in all she made their land a success and the brothers, working for her, shared the fruits of this success…marrying and setting up their own house on their share of the land.

But Alexandra never married and when a childhood friend returns and she becomes romantically interested, two of the brothers try to usurp her from her place at the head of the family, unfairly downplaying her importance in their good fortune. The third and youngest brother Emil, suffers tragically for falling in love with the wrong woman on his return from travelling in Mexico.

This intragenerational strife forms the spine of this wonderfully concise and evocative novel. There are other elements: the land; the weather; the ex-pat Northern European community; the strange barefoot Bible-quoting hermit, who Alexandra takes under her wing and allows to move in to her barn from his quasi-cave hovel.

In 160 pages it achieves far more than many book two or three times its size.

forty six

I loved the TV adaptation and I’ve wanted to read this since I saw that. It is meticulously researched and brilliantly written. And Mantel is obviously a prodigious talent. Why then did I find it so difficult to get through all 650 pages? It took me two months, which for me is a pretty much unheard of marathon. I just couldn’t get with it. Some days I read a chunk, really enjoyed it…and couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again for days that became weeks.

I guess i just don’t do historical fiction.

There’s just too much of this, too many characters, families, machinations, plots…counter-plots. Lots of other people like it. I must be wrong. I guess.

forty four

This is a slim volume, made up of brief poems (only one laps onto a second page), with short terse lines (I don’t think any reach across the page). None of this is a criticism: a pinch of chilli is enough to enrich a dish, a good malt is always taken by the sip.

The poems deal with illness, ageing, alcoholism, marriage breakdown and loss and they do so tenderly, acerbically and with enviable economy…and then there is the sudden delight of the playful ‘A Supermarket in County Derry’ written ‘after Allen Ginsberg’ in which the poet imagines stalking Seamus Heaney as he ponders ‘potatoes turnips cabbage’.

Some poems build to a savage punch at the end: these are the last three lines of ‘Distillation’ a poem of three stanzas reflecting on alcoholism being passed down the family genes and whether writing is in the same way,

‘The time he drove to church when I was fourteen/ Telling me about nihilism/ After I told him his drinking made me wish I were dead’

Or this, the final lines from ‘Parenting’, which is the childhood memory of being left in the car while her father went into the pub, having warned her against telling her mother, talking to strangers or letting off the handbrake,

‘Then he would start the car/ slur off up the hill/ I would join in when he sang/ it was safer that way’

‘Other Places’ talks about difference and travel through the realisation that, ‘l will not meet anyone I know here so will not/ have to be polite; but if I fall nobody will rush to me/ calling my name.’

While ‘Trucks and Pyramids’ carries horror from its opening lines:

‘dead boys lie in streets/ strangely relaxed…’

‘…these boys will not be buried/ with jewels or a cat…’

Noting the fathers of these boys and their ‘exuberance of grief’. Fourteen short lines, like knife thrusts.

I love poetry cut back to its sinews, showing the bones. This collection is a fine example of the ‘nothing wasted’ school of writing while being full of humanity.

forty five

Consisting of two essays originally published 9 years apart, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) and ‘Three Guineas’ (1938), are very much of a theme; the injustice of a woman’s designated place in society.

A Room…uses the vehicle of a woman wishing to create art, primarily writing, and her inability to find the time and space and peace and financial wherewithal to do this, to open a wider discussion about financial independence, the constraints of society: financial ‘freedom’ being contingent either on a wealthy and beneficent father, or husband.

She undoubtedly writes from the gentility of Edwardian middle class, some of the problems she describes would these days earn the withering epithet ‘first world problems’ and has little in common with or apparent understanding of the lives of women of the working classes, but that is not the central point, the central point is wholesale economic independence, for women, will bring emancipation. And the system is stacked against it. In a passage where she interrogated herself on the concentration on the materialistic in the essay, she counters, ‘even allowing for symbolism…that five hundred pounds a year (Woolf’s notional figure required for independence) stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself…’ before going on to take a pot shot at all the poor-little rich boy, university educated poets of romance. It is a brilliant – and brilliantly argued – if somewhat eccentric essay.

Three Guineas…starts from the receipt of a letter from a learned man wringing his hands and asking Woolf ‘ How in your opinion are we to prevent war?’ Woolf essentially spend the next 120 pages saying, why would you ask me, a woman? I have no agency in this society other than through my male relatives and their position in it; I have little access to education to develop my talents, my intellect…going on to list many of the ways she and nearly all other women are kept down. And brilliantly skewering the crass ideas of patriotism. It has more anger than the earlier essay, but felt less focussed, digressing at times when tighter editing would have really helped.

All that said, it is a wonderful idea to capture these two essays together in one place: both of which will have created quite a stir in those circles at that time. It has made me think again about Woolf as a writer, given that I have often struggled with her fiction.

forty two

Simply one of the great novels of the twentieth century by one of its great novelists.

Buy it. Read it. Wallow in it. Read it again.

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