Archive for July, 2016

July 31, 2016

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Serpent’s Tail, £14.99, out nowSarah Perry THE ESSEX SERPENT

Victorian religion, science and superstition battle it out over a possible giant sea serpent off Essex. Cora, whose abusive husband has just died, sets out with her unusual young son Francis and working class activist friend Martha to investigate.  Finally able to explore her own interests, this amateur naturalist wonders if the serpent might be a surviving relative of her heroine Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur.

While in Essex, Cora meets Will, an Anglican priest, with whom she immediately connects – and with whom she immediately disagrees over the serpent.  Will’s wife Stella welcomes Cora into her home, and becomes close to Francis (who I read as autistic, and whose effective portrayal here reminds me to “think smarter about people who think differently”, see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/neurotribes-the-legacy-of-autism-and-how-to-think-smarter-about-people-who-think-differently-by-steve-silberman/ ).  Left behind in London, Luke, an innovative but impoverished surgeon, is in love with Cora and resentful of her new relationship with Will, while his wealthy friend Spencer considers philanthropy, in part as a possible way to get closer to Martha.

The Essex Serpent is a fresh and gripping story about class, difference, attraction and most of all friendship.  The epigraph from Montaigne is identical to that used by Rose Tremain in her recent The Gustav Sonata, another beautiful exploration of how friends are (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/the-gustav-sonata-by-rose-tremain/ ).  This book will appeal to those who loved Sarah Waters’ Victorian novels, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and the gothic elements to fans of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney.  Perfect holiday reading.

Review by Bethan

July 17, 2016

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner

by Team Riverside

hatred of poetry pic 2

The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner

Paperback, Fitzcarraldo, £9.99

Ben Lerner is one of our subtlest, most erudite and original writers so it was with great anticipation I opened his latest publication: a short essay in the form of a simple yet beautifully bound paperback published by Fitzcarraldo, whose impeccable taste, evident in both who they choose to publish as well as how they present their offerings, seems to be unrivalled (they recently produced the equally brilliant Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, bound in a similarly chic jacket). Lerner’s language may alienate some readers: we plunge straight into iambic pentameter, parallelisms and conjunctive adverbs. Words such as: ‘innominate’, ‘lubricity’, ‘fungible’, phrases like ‘vector of implication’, and sentences such as: ‘The virgule is the irreducible mark of poetic virtuality’ are to be found on nearly every other page. While some elements of this essay smack just a bit of affectation and faux literariness (the overly-aestheticized large print, for instance, and the italicised topic headings in the margin that summarize key points in the text: ‘unfolding of the word’, ‘E pluribus unum’, ‘I, too’) and may grate a little, on the whole the essay is so accomplished that I am sure Ben Lerner will garner many more fans than detractors.

He begins by tracing poetry’s history, from the first ‘poet’ Caedmon, through Plato’s Republic and Sydney’s Defense to the present day, analysing society’s conscious and subconscious assumptions about poets and poetry along the way; Lerner, being a published poet as well as novelist, has had his fair share of exposure to these, which involve, he says, ‘both embarrassment and accusation’. His central thesis is that poetry is ‘an art…hated from without and within’, and such duality is the hinge upon which he levers much of his discussion, unearthing contradiction and dichotomy wherever he turns his gaze. Reading ‘bad’ poetry, he says, simultaneously alerts us to what good poetry might do and be. ‘[T]he closest we can come to hearing the ‘planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music’. Awful and dazzling poets, by virtue of their awfulness and brilliance respectively, both show us heavenly poetry, though it is easier to agree on a very bad example of something than a very good one. The central impulse, even within poetry itself, Lerner suggests, is to stop writing in favour of silence and linguistic (if not literal) death (he cites Rimbaud and Oppen as cases in point). The avant-garde, he argues, for all their posited hatred of conventional poetry and attempts to explode the form, still create poems; and poems remain poems however transgressive and subversive they are. And this almost magnetic attraction towards void, empty space and erasure, towards nothing rather than something, or if not nothing then something one remove from itself; something encased and re-contextualised, possessing, as Keats would say, ‘negative capability’, Lerner deeply relates to: ‘I tend to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose…’ he writes, ‘where the line breaks were replaced by slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.’ He even sees contradiction in the disappointment in poetry’s lack of political power in the present, which unites, he says, the futurist and the nostalgist.

Lerner’s fascination with the poetic impulse towards both creation and destruction yields particularly rich results when he devotes himself to what he does best: detailed critique and appreciation of individual lines of poetry. His analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I dwell in Possibility’ is itself a thing of beauty, his identification of Shelley’s belief in the usefulness of poetry with its very uselessness, and his unpicking of the paradox at the heart of Whitman‘s verse (who ‘sing[s] difference but cannot differentiate himself without compromising his labour – which is part [in turn] of why his labour has to be a kind of leisure’) are masterly. His mini essay on the virgule is even more dazzling, if possible, for being as diminutive as the mark it discusses, than it would be if it had been drawn out. Despite his brilliance, however, Lerner is also likably human, freely admitting he has never been put into a trance by Keats’ odes and doubting any critic has either, while his diamantine dissection of William McGonagall’s awful ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ affords the reader a giggle or two. He is also humble, continually referencing his erstwhile and ‘brilliant’ teacher Alan Grossman, writing: ‘I come to realise with greater and greater clarity how central Grossman’s thinking is for me’.

What we are left with after this exploration is what Lerner describes as the common tendency to ‘virtualize’ poetry – evident in everyone from Keats, to Whitman, to Dickinson – a sort of universal recognition that poetry cannot and never will be enough, so must be negated even as it is created; and thus, possibly, we may approach if not the Ideal itself then at least knowledge of it. Even Claudia Rankine, Lerner writes, deploys the lyric (two collections of her poetry have as their subtitle: ‘An American Lyric’) subversively in order to highlight the ‘felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories’, in which, once more,  ‘‘Poetry’ becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems’.

Lerner’s conclusion? That all of the impossible demands and criticisms levelled at poetry throughout history are actually an ‘unwitting way of expressing the Utopian ideal of Poetry’, which he himself believes he came closest to experiencing in the liberating, mercurial and magical changeability words possess in early childhood, when ‘any usage signified’. Even in adulthood, however, poetry is ‘a vocation no less essential for being impossible’. And hatred can be a part of its appreciation – even it’s nurturing, for – in a concluding sentence that in its effortless style, originality and contradictory brilliance can be taken as a token of the whole that precedes it – Lerner exhorts readers to perfect their contempt of poetry, to deepen rather than dispel it, so that, in ‘creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.’

Review by Emily

July 12, 2016

Neil Gaiman/Chris Riddell signed copies now in store!

by Team Riverside

Signed copies of the gorgeous new edition of Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere, now in.  Get yours before they go…Neil Gaiman NEVERWHERE

We also have the small book How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, also set in the Neverwhere universe, if you need a little extra fix too.

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

July 5, 2016

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, out nowDeborah Levy HOT MILK

The mother made me want to scream.  Out loud.  “She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water.”  Brilliantly effective and funny, this is a sharp and speedy summer read.

Sofia has brought her mother Rose to an exclusive private clinic on the Spanish coast.  This clinic may nor may not be run by a quack.  They can’t afford the fees and Rose’s symptoms change all the time.  Sofia is a former anthropology PhD student who has been working as a barista in London, and her idiosyncratic observations on her situation give the book its bite.  It’s not clear what, if anything, is physically wrong with Rose, but her power over her daughter is unmistakable.

Under the hot sun, on the rocky shore and in the jellyfish infested sea, things start to change.  This is a strangely memorable novel, which left me thinking about memory, identity, and control.  It also has a notable dog in it.

Review by Bethan