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Geoff Sawers "geoffsawers"

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House of Nine Squares: Letters on Neoism, Psychogeography and Epistemological Trepidation
House of Nine Squares: Letters on Neoism, Psychogeography and Epistemological Trepidation
by Stewart Home
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars If you're prepared to join the dots yourself, there are some interesting ideas herein., 30 Mar 2011
`Neoism' is, or was, a movement almost exclusively - and aggressively - negatively defined. `It's not a movement!' There is a good reason for this; it enabled Home and his cohorts to both blur the divides between Art practice and Political action, and to attempt at least to situate what they were doing outside the narratives of the avant-garde, modernism, post-modernism, and so on. The most interesting aspect to my mind was the use of multiple names - authorial identities that are open to any and every one to use. This book collects a (very loose) bunch of correspondence relating to these ideas; essentially it's just Home's email inbox for a period of a few months, barely edited. As such it contains some material that is fatuous, but also much that is interesting. There is an entertaining discussion about which multiple identities are best. Monty Cantsin, apart from being a weak antinomian pun, is not all that much used; Karen Eliot is very tied to Home himself; so Luther Blissett seems one of the most promising at the moment. It doesn't appear in this book, but I remember Home, shameless careerist that he obviously is, once suggesting that `Stewart Home' should become another. The `Stone Circle' novel was the result.


The Home-Maker
The Home-Maker
by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A modern house-husband's perspective, 30 Mar 2011
This review is from: The Home-Maker (Paperback)
This novel was a Christmas present from my wife. First published in the 1920s, it describes a couple in which the wife is sharp, business-minded, and going completely potty running a household and looking after three sickly children. The husband is genial, slightly dreamy, and completely unsuccessful as a businessman. The solution to a modern eye might seem obvious, but it takes at least 100 pages and a fall from the roof leaving the man in a wheelchair to effect the complete swap of roles. And, naturally, everything changes; the trivial ailments recede, the mother's waspish temper softens, and everyone begins to emerge from their separate prisons and engage with each other.

Some of the humour is dated; the reader is expected to find the very idea of a man darning socks or scrambling eggs hilarious. But as much of the humour is not, and the delight of the book is in its minute domestic detail. There is a wonderful scene, for instance, in which the father and his young daughter do not know how to break an egg - but by dint of patience, discussion, and good-humoured experimentation, they finally work it out together. It last about 3 pages. You may have guessed from this that gender roles do not swap altogether; it is the daughter who is expected (by everyone) to help her father in the kitchen. Nor indeed are gender roles even altered much; when they swap, they are swapped intact. Some consideration is given to the fact that the man is wheelchair-bound, but rather more to the wife who must sigh and learn to accept a certain degree of slovenliness around the house. Quite familiar, really, and I don't even have a wheelchair to use as excuse...

Towards the end of the book, as the man begins to regain the use of his legs, we realise with a dull ache that every single character in the book (the kids excepted) assume unquestioningly that this means he will have to go back to work, and his wife leave her job and return to scrubbing floors. I won't give away the ending, but I'm happy to say that it does avoid being too polemical an attack on a pre-Feminist world. The author has points to make, but she does them the right way, by getting you under the skin of the characters rather than by preaching.


The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse
The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse
by Robert Crawford
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing range of Scottish poetry over the centuries. Balanced and engaging., 29 Mar 2011
This big new compilation is a much-needed survey over several hundred years of writing in Scotland, from the so-called `dark ages,' through the anonymous ballads, right up to the concrete poetry of the 1960s and beyond. It begins in the linguistic confusion of early medieval Scotland; Latin, Welsh, Old English, Old French and Old Norse gradually give way to Scots with a scatter of Gaelic. By the 19th century English has taken over almost entirely, but the book comes to a close with what seems like a new flowering of trilingualism, as Gaelic and Scots writing return to our pages in strength. Languages other than English are all given a facing-page translation in English, and the Scots is well-glossed, so the book remains very approachable, for all its diversity.

We may know about Burns and Scott, and of course they are well-represented, but we are introduced here to dozens of less-familiar names and works. The real revelation (for me) was in the wealth of the carefully excerpted stretches of medieval Scots verse. I only really knew Robert Henryson's work, but we get passages here from several other 15th century poets, such as William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, whose work all has a richness and sinew that really makes you want to read them aloud.

Post-Burns, there is something of a fallow period, into which creeps a strong strain of twee romanticism; in the midst of this rather bleary stuff a dash of MacGonagall is actually quite welcome! There remains however, not that much to get excited about until the arrival of Hugh MacDiarmid's extraordinary "On A Raised Beach" and Robert Garioch's "The Wire" - a nightmarish Modernist vision in broad Scots. These lead naturally on to the many fine Scots poets of the late 20th century; Edwin Morgan and Douglas Dunn, to name just two.

It is always tempting to look for themes in an anthology, and there are several that recur across the centuries. The vicious name-calling that Dunbar and Thomas Maitland both so clearly enjoy in the medieval period is taken up with equal delight in Sydney Goodsir's Smith's 20th-century "The Grace of God and the Meth-Drinker." You'd never guess there were 500 years between them. The violence of war that preoccupies many early poets is also of course echoed in the 20th century, although there is also a delightful anecdote from Barbour's "The Bruce" in the 14th century of the great king halting his entire army's progress to wait for their laundrywoman to give birth. Presumably she was expected to be back on the road again straight afterwards! And there is something of an obsession with bad weather that crops up time and again through the years; from Douglas's "Eneados" (Virgil in medieval Scots), through ballads such as "Get up and bar the door," James Thomson's elegant Augustan "Winter," and so on.

My one disappointment was that none of the Gaelic translations seemed to have much power or conviction; but perhaps that just tells me I ought to try to learn the language and read them in the original! All-in-all, this is a massive work, and a finely balanced, engaging and entertaining one too.


Culture and the Real: Theorizing Cultural Criticism (New Accents)
Culture and the Real: Theorizing Cultural Criticism (New Accents)
by Catherine Belsey
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.53

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, even when I disagree with it!, 29 Mar 2011
What is real? Is there a `real' anyway, or is culture all there is? By `real' we mean not reality, that which we know, but everything else, everything that we do not; everything outside. What is our relation to that which we cannot know?

It might sound odd to say that you have thoroughly enjoyed a book when you fundamentally disagree with it, but Belsey's book is fascinating and entertaining - quite unlike some of the sources she is commenting upon. Some I have read; many more I have not. Some that I have looked at seem virtually unreadable, and it is great to have an accessible guide to them. But it is far from an impartial one. In a crucial passage, Belsey reverses Bishop Berkeley's famous question - `How do I know the world is there when I am not looking at it?' - and asks, what if the object were to take on the idealist position, and question the existence of the viewer - ie, us? This leads into an intricate discussion of Van Eyck's `Arnolfini Wedding,' and the role of the mirror at the back of the picture, showing that we are not there. Of course! This painting was made in 1434; it has an inscription to say so. How could we be there? The painting is an intervention in time; and through the use of this mirror, an insistence upon our absence, as viewers. Thus far, I am fully with her.

But I just don't agree with much of the rest of what she says. She has no sympathy with the concept of the sublime; seeing it as an unnecessarily prestiged (is that a word?) category; the sublime valued over the beautiful. She goes through some quite obscure territory here; she is concerned to rescue Lacan from Zizek's interpretation of him; specifically from any `taint' of idealism. But what is so wrong with idealism, or with Kant's notion of the sublime? Belsey seems to believe that both have echoes of transcendentalism; that they are sneaking in theological categories through some kind of back door, and she must be the gatekeeper to keep them out. Well; that's as may be. I appreciate her exposing the way in which people have twisted their sources. But, in the case of Zizek, I never expected anything else! Part of the joy of reading him is the sense of intellectual fireworks exploding in all directions; I never imagined it would all be contained in Lacan - whom I confess I've never yet read. It is a creative work itself; as indeed is Belsey's. Reading this book led me to look back quickly at Zizek's "Gaze and Voice as Love Objects." He echoes Derrida in suggesting that "hearing oneself speak... is the very kernel of experiencing oneself as a living being..." - a kind of `Cogito,' almost. Surely the sublime - in Kant's terms at least - is a kind of image itself of the real, or Real (I never know when to capitalise) - in Zizek's terms, the `absent object-cause of desire'?

And again, maybe I'm quibbling. An excellent book.


The Solitude of Thomas Cave
The Solitude of Thomas Cave
by Georgina Harding
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.40

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A beaytiful, melancholy novel., 29 Mar 2011
I was recommended this by my mum, perhaps because she remembered how much I loved Moby Dick when I was younger. It is an intricately layered novel, set during the Seventeenth Century, and centering on a sailor on a whaling ship out of Hull who takes a wager to remain in Greenland through the winter. It is a book about loss and loneliness, carefully paced and finely spun out in waves of clear, almost sparse narrative interspersed with flurries of lush descriptive writing.
The kind of book that makes you happily forgive the occasional glaring error. Ten pounds seems far too much for an ordinary seaman in the 17th Century to wager. The tone of the whole book, in fact, seems to be more like the early 19th C - until we reach the beginnings of the Civil War, in the final chapters. And what on earth made the author suggest that Snipe have curved bills (p.21)? Straight as a pikestaff, whenever I've seen one. Is she confusing them with Curlew? No matter - it is still a lovely novel.


Victorian Families in Fact and Fiction
Victorian Families in Fact and Fiction
by Penny Kane
Edition: Paperback
Price: 22.31

5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book., 29 Mar 2011
This in-depth examination of sexual behaviour and sexual politics in the Victorian era in relation to declining family size ranges across a vast range of contemporary sources. Close analysis of statistics on illegitimacy confounds several easy assumptions. During periods when the average marriage age rose (due probably to economic factors) one might expect illegitimacy to rise too. It did not; the same pressures seem to have affected risk-taking and promoted abstinence. Another example: during the 1840s, more than 20% of first pregnancies were conceived before the wedding. But if you were to expect shotgun marriages to be pushing the average marriage age down, you'd be disappointed. It remained unaffected; the author infers that it was only engaged couples jumping the gun; elsewhere the taboos remained in force.

An interesting aspect of this book is that, as well as the straight statistical analyses, the author is unafraid to fill in the gaps with extensive recourse to the novels of the period. The way in which children are passed around, given away, or abandoned in Victorian fiction has always struck me, and there is a lot of illumination here about why this was. It also yields fascinating detail with regard to, for instance, customs and attitudes surrounding contraception, about which official records are of course almost silent. Women went, in quite a short period, from an average of about eight births each down to about three; a huge social shift, and Penny Kane makes a lot of insightful comments about what was happening. The decline in birth rates was actually underway before the big drops in infant mortality for instance; another myth out of the window. A fascinating book.


Journey to the Orient
Journey to the Orient
by Gerard de Nerval
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Only half the original book, but excellent even so!, 29 Mar 2011
This review is from: Journey to the Orient (Paperback)
I'm a big fan of the French Poet Nerval, and those who know me may well have had the misfortune to listen to me wittering on about how under-read he is in this country. At his visionary best, in `Aurelia', for instance, I believe there's no one to match him. So I was pleased to track down a copy of his bulky travel book `Voyage en Orient', although I'm a little disappointed to discover that the 2-volume original, describing his travels of 1842-43 through Egypt, Syria and Turkey, has been abridged into near-incoherence. But even so, there's a lot to enjoy in this book.

The abridgement has cut out many passages of description and foregrounded instead the long digressions in which Nerval recounts and elaborates on two Oriental folk-tales; Caliph Hakim's flights on hashish wings, and the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Both tales are important and shed light on Nerval's idiosyncratic but fascinating personal cosmogony; he believed that he (and everyone he admired) were members of an outcast race - the children of Cain - who brought light and art to the world, but who would always be persecuted or ignored.

My major gripe with most translations of Nerval is that they miss his humour. It is a subtle, but to me indispensable part of his work that, even as he goes off into flights of mystical fancy, he is always also sending himself up as a funny, bumbling little figure. And in this translation a lot of Nerval's humour does come through, particularly in his dealings with Zetnaybia, the slave-girl he acquires, who ends up bossing him around. There are some delightful moments too in which the majestic Queen of Sheba, in the midst of her stately courtship with King Solomon, momentarily slips a gear and begins to sound like a bourgeois Frenchwoman criticising his curtains. How Nerval manages to hold such different registers in his head as he writes amazes me. I just wish the translator (Norman Glass) had been able to give us the whole book. Zetnaybia, for instance, disappears half way through; in the original she reappears later on. Perhaps the publishers wouldn't give him the space. Never mind; this is the best we have, and it's still a lovely book.


Spoken Here: Travel Among Threatened Languages
Spoken Here: Travel Among Threatened Languages
by Mark Abley
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Should inspire everyone to learn another language!, 29 Mar 2011
Apparently, US presidential hopeful John McCain was recently accosted by a woman who wanted him to know how furious she was about something. What was the issue? America's foreign policy? Russia's actions in Georgia? Nope; her local store had put the sign `Entrada' above the entrance.

English speakers are famous for their ignorance of other languages, and their occasional paranoia at the mere sign of linguistic difference. Yet English is fast becoming the single dominant world language. And two of the most prominent English-speaking countries (Australia and the USA) between them hold several hundred aboriginal languages in real danger of dying out within a generation or two. Mark Abley makes a compelling case for the importance of linguistic diversity, comparing it to biodiversity, in terms of the multiple ways of thinking that each language contains. This is an fascinating book, not quite as depressing as I have made it sound, in which the author - not a trained linguist by any means - visits various programs to revive threatened languages around the world - from Manx here in the UK, to Boro, Yuchi and Mohawk. I found it quite inspiring, not least because I am a Welsh learner myself. When will I stop calling myself a dysgwr - learner - and call myself a speaker? Perhaps never. Ah well, sdim ots da fi! Monolingualism in the UK, and the opprobrium levelled at Welsh in particular has always stuck in my craw. This I think is a book that should encourage every English speaker to learn another language.


Unearthly History: The Balance Between, Vol. 1: Balance Between v. 1
Unearthly History: The Balance Between, Vol. 1: Balance Between v. 1
by P.R. Moredun
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 5.51

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect maybe, but a gripping read., 27 April 2004
This appears to be the first volume of an ambitious (if unspecified in extent) series, set partly on the east coast of England in the run-up to the first world war, and owes something to Philip Pullmann in the way that a fantasy world is interleaved with an Edwardian detective story. There is a possible nod also to Roald Dahl's 'The Witches', but the end result is darker and grislier than either. Overall it is tightly plotted, but unfortunately the writing is a bit uneven. It reads as though the author had been given a year to plot the book, but then a ruthless editor forced him to write it out from start to finish in one go. We get sentences like"The wizard could see and feel the man's state of anxiety. He was very frightened." This is terrible writing, and it is a real shame, because elsewhere the writing is excellent, both descriptive and comic ("The bear roared once, looked around the room and said, 'Excuse me, are you James's mother?'").
I may be quibbling. Overall, I enjoyed it hugely, and I look forward to the next volume.


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