Archive for April, 2016

April 19, 2016

Citizen – An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Books, £9.99, out nowClaudia Rankine CITIZEN

This book has been out for ages.  It has been in the shop for ages.  It won the Forward Poetry prize for best collection last year.  So why am I writing about it now?

I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it, and because it opened something profound in my head.   Because it added to my intellectual toolkit and challenged the way I think about racism.  Because I have bought it for others.  Because I recommend it all the time but still can’t really find words to adequately describe it, and because it’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.

Rankine writes with honesty and great style about racism, both as experienced in her personal life and in public life.  She tells stories which are both effortlessly relatable and deeply shocking, the more for being truthful – for example, she arrives for an appointment with a new therapist who screams at her to get out of her yard before realising that she is, in fact, a client.  Her work benefits from being heard aloud, as much poetry does.  I heard her perform this piece (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/citizen-vi-train-woman-standing ) and it was like an electric shock ran through the room waking everyone up.  Her pieces about Serena Williams alone are worth buying Citizen for.  The book itself is a beautiful object, with art and photographs scattered throughout.  It’s not a comfortable read, but transformative books rarely are.

Review by Bethan

April 16, 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte

by Team Riverside

tenant of wild

Paperback, Vintage, 7.99

Ashamed of not having read anything by Anne Bronte but only her sisters I recently began reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was astonished (though perhaps should not have been) firstly by how psychologically convincing the characters are, and secondly by the strangely addictive quality the writing possesses; considering its length (it is nearly 600 pages in the recent, extremely beautiful Vintage editions illustrated by the gifted Sarah Gillespie) I was amazed at how quickly I was half, then three-quarters, then all of the way through it, and wishing it was not over and that I could read more.

The main reason to recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, is that Anne Bronte has created a strongly – even radically – feminist heroine in Helen Huntingdon; one who shuns the institution of marriage when circumstances call for it (an act most nineteenth century novelists – especially early nineteenth century novelists like Anne – shied away from; as they shied away from depictions of male depravity that Anne is utterly fearless in recounting) despite paying a price that at some points seems impossibly high, refusing to be swayed from following a path her own integrity marks out for her. This strength of character is common to all the Bronte’s work, of course, but Anne’s portrayals of women are by far the most revolutionary and only recently beginning to attract the recognition they deserve. It is also worth noting that her male characters possess a far more convincing inner terrain than either Emily or Charlotte’s; Heathcliff may be iconic and overwhelming, but iconic and overwhelming characters are not usually noted for their plausibility, relatability or tendency to inspire empathy. All these aspects make it both extremely sad and surprising that Charlotte Bronte herself dismissed her younger sister’s literary efforts and had so little insight into just how progressive they were.

For all these reasons, I would encourage anyone whose interest in the Brontes has been sparked by the recent TV program or who is simply wishing to embark upon a worthy, provoking and highly enjoyable Victorian novel, to invest their time in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; high-quality literature and effortlessly involving, it is the perfect marriage on many fronts.

Review by Emily

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April 1, 2016

Being a Beast, Charles Foster

by Team Riverside

BeingaBeastcover

Hardback, Profile Books, £14.99, out now

If the belated but welcome Spring sunshine has you feeling newly mindful of our wildlife and hankering for all things natural then I couldn’t recommend anything better than Charles Foster’s latest book, Being a Beast ( – short of actually departing for the country and taking up residence in a badger set, that is; which Foster has helpfully done for us), which is a breath of fresh, heady – and slightly crazed – air. Foster, amongst many other things (he is a vet, philosopher, anthropologist, acupuncturist, academic, Oxford Fellow…the list apparently continues), is an ardent natural historian; he used to hunt animals for sport, he confesses, but is now intent on hunting them in an entirely different way: placing himself, as much as a human being can, in their skins in an attempt to know what it is like to ‘be’ them. To that end, and for prolonged periods, he lived in their physical environments, deprived of human comforts, reporting his intimate and thought-provoking experiences back to us. In Being a Beast he takes on the challenge of finding out what it is like to be a badger, an otter, a city fox, red deer and swift, combining neuroscience, psychology, natural history and memoir in a quest which takes him the length, breadth and depth of the British Isles.

As well as being a dauntless explorer (could you lie in a freezing highland stream for hours or sit in a river in Namibia watching leeches looping up your ankles en route to your groin?) Foster is also an erudite, witty, humble and entertaining writer. Take this passage, for instance, in which he reminisces about the days when shamanic ritual could transport performers into other states of consciousness:

‘You had to dance to the drum around a fire until you were so dehydrated that blood spouted out of your ruptured nasal capillaries, or stand in an icy river and chant until you could feel your soul rising like vomit into your mouth, or eat fly agaric mushrooms and watch yourself floating into the forest canopy. Then you could pass through the thin membrane that separates this world from others, and your species from other species. As you pushed through, in an epiphanic labour, the membrane enveloped you, like the amniotic sac in which you issued from your mother.’

Foster’s attempts to experience animals’ consciousness by immersing himself in their phenomenal worlds stem from a similarly impassioned desire to ‘be’ a beast (apparently he has been obsessed with birds and animals since he was a child), involves a similarly intense ‘labour’, as well as the odd moment or two that really could be described as epiphanic.

Even for those usually uninterested in nature writing Being a Beast is a winner: who can resist discovering what earthworms taste like, for instance (the terroir varies, apparently, according to region, like wine)? This is vital, dynamic, exhilarating writing that uncovers deadened senses, invokes empathy, fosters compassion and the all-important feeling of oneness. In delving into the ‘being’ of various ‘beasts’, Foster does something else too: he allows us to see ourselves more clearly – human or otherwise.

Review by Emily