I Love Maps

That’s right, I love maps. You heard it here first. I’m a nerd for them. Whether I’m day dreaming about potential trips or remembering my favourite journeys, I like to stare at maps and let my mind wander.  Throughout my years of travel, plenty of places have inspired my poetry, but after living in England for nearly 7 years, those places are more and more likely to be British. So, when I found out about Places of Poetry, I just had to get involved. Places of Poetry gave me the perfect opportunity to set some of my favourite British poems in their proper geographical context. This extra dimension of setting is a great gift to readers and poets alike, especially when you consider how often people ask questions like “what is this poem about?” Now, on some level, they can get a concrete answer. I also love the classic 400 year old feel of the map itself and the story behind it’s origins.

I’ve added four poems to this brilliant interactive poetry map, two from my first collection and two from my second. Because it’s not possible to explain their publication histories on Places of Poetry, I just wanted to make a note of them here. What Begins and Ends With Water or June 2015 first appeared online at Seethingography and then again with On Leoni Bridge in my chapbook, (Reasons for) Moving [Structo Press]. In Brighton first appeared in Issue 14 of Structo and then again with Silent Appliances in my full length collection, Caught Light [Friends of Alice].

In Brighton has a self-explanatory title, but to help you find the rest of my poems on the map, you should know that On Leoni Bridge deals with Carshalton, Silent Appliances is about Arundel, and the last stanza of What Begins and Ends With Water is set in Kingston, so that’s where I pinned it on the map. But, if you’re curious, the first stanza is set in Surbiton, the second is set outside Birmingham, and the third is set nearer to London.

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Recent Readings

Sorry to say, I spent so much time dithering over my last author review that I haven’t had a chance to mention what else I’ve been up to. Since Friends of Alice published Caught Light, I’ve been trying to get out and promote my new book. Back in early March, I returned to the Adelaide in Teddington for their monthly poetry evening. Eddie Chauncy was the featured poet and he cemented himself in my mind as one of the most talented writers in our area. This was my first time at the Adelaide’s open mic in far too long, but they were gracious enough to offer me a chance to come back soon as a featured poet. That date’s not set yet, so stay tuned for updates.

A long time ago, a friend told me about something called Stanzas. But it took me until April to finally try my local branch of this wonderful writing group. For the first time in ages, I had a new poem drafted and I was eager to get it workshopped. Fortunately, the Chiswick/Barnes Stanzas group was very helpful and they suggested some great revisions.

Later in April, I was back with the Write Out Loud crew for the Woking Literary Festival at the Lightbox Gallery. This 4 hour marathon event featured Robert Granham, Annum Salman, and a tremendous amount of great open mic poetry.

Moving into May, I tried an event at Sutton Central Library called Words Aloud. This was put on by the writer in residence there, Rachel Sambrook. There was a good crowd and a entertaining featured reader, Jasmine Gardosi, who even managed to win over the rowdy nearby teens cramming for their exams. Between the horrific traffic and getting lost in Sutton while trying to find some parking, the trip there was a nightmare and I was sorry to turn up 20 minutes late, but I’m still glad I went.

In May, I also had the privilege of participating in the Chiswick/Barnes Stanzas SpringBack at The Ship in Mortlake. They were kind enough to let me join in with their annual public reading, even though I had only just joined the group. It was a great opportunity to read alongside everyone from both of the group’s segments. Of course there was the unfortunate noise pollution from riveted football viewers, the understandably drunk stragglers from the recent wake, and the disruptive youths making rude gestures through the windows, but it was a fabulous night nonetheless.

In June, I’ve got my eyes set on Guildford. I’ve been missing those 1000 Monkeys. In the meantime, I’ll try to get my next author review up ASAP.

Author Reviews V: Haruki Murakami

Reviewing Murakami right after Rushdie feels right to me for several reasons. If you’ll forgive a violin analogy, both of these brilliant authors rub the bow of the fantastic against the strings of the mundane and make them sing. But each does it in their own distinctive way. While Rushdie takes an embarrassed blush and amplifies it into something that can scald, Murakami takes something surreal like a talking cat and treats it like a sip of beer. Also like Rushdie, Murakami has written a masterpiece which isn’t my favourite.

In my humble opinion, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Haruki Murakami’s greatest achievement. It digs deep, both into the depths of history and the individual psyche, perhaps even going so far as to suggest where these tunnels intersect. Most novelists can only hope to produce something like this in their lifetime.

Despite how much Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has to offer, I still enjoy Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World more. This long-titled gem is, you guessed it, simply more fun. Though not exactly a beach read, it’s much more of a page turner than Wind-Up. It’s got more adventure (on the run from subterranean monsters), more mystery (what’s the deal with those unicorn skulls), and much much more glorious weirdness.

It’s the weirdness in Murakami’s work that I love so much, which is why I prefer books like A Wild Sheep Chase, After Dark, Kafka on the Shore, and Sputnik Sweetheart. Whether you’re talking about a nefarious super sheep, a creepy figure emerging from a television, fish raining from the sky, or a woman who encounters her own doppelganger, these stories hook you with their utter strangeness and don’t let go.

On the other hand, when I look at Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, or Hear the Wind Sing, I enjoy them but can’t get past the feeling that something enormous is missing. What, no giant frogs? No portals to other worlds? Nothing?

Unfortunately, not all of Murakami’s signature strangeness is welcome. There are three undeniable facets of life that Murakami tackles head on: food, sex, and death. I used to appreciate his unflinching frankness, but a little while back, I listened to a YouTuber complaining about his depictions of sexual violence. I dismissed it at the time, but after reading his last few books, my opinion started to shift. Now, looking back at his work through a critical lens, much more of it seems disturbing than it did before. Certain problematic motifs seem to pop up again and again. 1. Relationships between older men and adolescent girls that border on inappropriate 2. Dreams of sexual violence that are somehow both real and unreal 3. A fixation on breasts. His latest novel, Killing Commendatore, suffers from all three and it would be a much stronger novel without any of them. It has that trademark weirdness, with the forces of good and evil ambiguously manifested as strange men in diners and pint-sized figures lifted from paintings, but even all of this glorious oddity barely holds your attention when the main character keeps prattling on about every woman’s breast size.

Similarly, 1Q84 had the potential to be Murakami’s masterpiece – something even greater than Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but a couple of key points drove it right off the rails. One of those points was the introduction of a distracting 3rd narrator in the 3rd volume, but the other was the (spoiler alert) disturbing sexual interaction between two of the main characters (I won’t go into details). I could cite other examples of how Murakami’s sexual content weakens his work, but this review is already getting too long.

Before I wrap this up though, it’s worth mentioning one other thing. 4 of Murakami’s books link together in an unusual way. Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973; and A Wild Sheep Chase form what’s called the Trilogy of the Rat. Dance Dance Dance is a sort of sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, but not technically part of the trilogy that precedes it. So, in a sense, if you’re going to read any of these, you might as well read all of them and do it in order. The first two were Murakami’s first attempts at novel writing and it shows. Even Murakami was reluctant to release them in English (which only happened recently). But, for all of their weaknesses, they’re still worth a look. On the other hand, Sheep Chase is basically Murakami at the top of his game. It’s the best of the four and if you’re in a hurry and don’t mind not knowing who this Rat character really is, then it stands on its own.

I feel like this whole thing has taken on a negative tone, which wasn’t my intention, so just to recap, I’d say that at least the top three books on this list are unmissable. Make time and eat them up. Beyond that, pick and choose according to your tastes. Next up in my author review series: Tom Robbins.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
A Wild Sheep Chase
After Dark
Dance Dance Dance
Kafka on the Shore
Sputnik Sweetheart
1Q84
Killing Commendatore
Hear the Wind Sing
Pinball, 1973
South of the Border, West of the Sun
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Norwegian Wood

Author Reviews IV: Salman Rushdie

You can’t really review the novels of Salman Rushdie without acknowledging that one of them nearly got him killed. The Satanic Verses is the proverbial elephant in the room, so I might as well address it first. The controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses annoys me, because it focuses on whether or not the book is offensive without asking whether or not it’s good. In my opinion, it isn’t. I’d even place it 2nd to last in my Rushdie ranking. It certainly has some very promising elements, but their development is hampered by superfluous subplots. (I also hate the fact that most of the people who called for censorship against this book probably never even read it, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Now that we’ve got Rushdie’s most infamous book out of the way, the next in line is his masterpiece: Midnight’s Children. It’s no coincidence that this book was declared Booker of Bookers. It deserves it. It’s a rich multi-generational story that illuminates history, while its deft use of magical realism ensures that it’s not bogged down by dry facts. This novel is Rushide’s most significant. If you only get a chance to read one, this is it. But it still isn’t my favourite.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is thought of as (and possibly dismissed as) a ‘children’s book’, but I think it’s just as rewarding of a read for adults as it is for children, maybe even more so. It’s a great introduction to Rushdie’s fanciful side. And, unlike most of his other work, it’s an easy read. Rushdie’s exceptionally long sentences (strung together, as they are, into long books) have a tendency to trip people up. I think many people get bogged down in Midnight’s Children and give up. I have one very intelligent friend who put down Satanic Verses within the first few pages because he simply found it too hard to follow.  But you can dodge these pitfalls by starting with Haroun. And most importantly, it’s fun!

The next four books on my list stand on fairly even footing, but my favourite among them is The Enchantress of Florence. Published more than 25 years after Midnight’s Children, this novel is just as sophisticated, but far more approachable. You get the sense that Rushdie finally learned how to make his writing more digestible without dumbing it down. Turn the clock back more than ten years and you’ll find that, while The Moor’s Last Sigh is just as strong as Enchantress, those verbal kinks haven’t been ironed out yet, so the story is more of a slog. Between these two, you get Shalimar the Clown. In it, you can see Rushdie moving towards the smoother quality of Enchantress, but maybe losing some of the richness in the process. One thing that this cluster of books suffers from, which is most evident in Shame, is making the reader feeling like they’ve been left out of an inside joke. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t read a fictionalised history of Pakistan without being puzzled by exactly who each character is mean to be lampooning. Of course, the internet can decode just about any historical factoid in disguise, but the process takes something away from the experience. Fortunately, Shame benefits from one of my favourite Rushdie tricks. In the same way that Midnight’s Children takes a strong sense of smell and makes it impossibly strong, Shame takes an embarrassed blush and turns that heat into something scorching. This device of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary is a real pleasure to read.

Despite being a sort of sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka and the Fire of Life just isn’t as enjoyable. It’s still a light read and I particularly liked the portrayal of Prometheus, but there’s something missing. Maybe, it’s just not as magical.

Similarly, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a novel with something missing. Like Satanic Verses, it has some fantastic elements that are a real joy to explore, but most of the story feels like it’s struggling to gain momentum and, to whatever extent there is a build, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Also, Rushdie’s fixation on the jinns’ sexual appetites is absurdly distracting. We get it. They love sex. You don’t have to draw attention to it over and over!

Fury is the only one of Rushdie’s books that I might call an out and out failure. When he writes about Mumbai, Kashmir, or even Spain, it feels believable, but when he turns to New York City, he seems completely out of his depth. The whole ‘Little Brain’ subplot is especially ridiculous. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

I do have a blindspot when it comes to Rushdie, because not only have I yet to read his first (Grimus) or last (The Golden House) novels, I’ve also unfortunately missed one in the middle: The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Still, from what I’ve managed to read, I’d say start with Haroun, don’t miss Midnight’s Children, and if you enjoy them both, branch out to Enchantress, Shame, Moor’s Last Sigh, and Shalimar. The others are missable.

Next time, I think I’ll take on another master of magical realism: Haruki Murakami. And, don’t worry. I’ve read every single one of his novels.

Midnight’s Children
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The Enchantress of Florence
Shame
The Moor’s Last Sigh
Shalimar the Clown
Luka and the Fire of Life
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
The Satanic Verses
Fury

Pi Day – 2019

I’m interrupting my author review series to make a special announcement: it’s that time again! That’s right, Pi Day has managed to sneak up on me so stealthily that I almost forgot to do my annual commemorative post. Fortunately, I caught it just in the nick of time. As usual, I’ve included a few of my most recent pi art experiments below so you can see what I’ve been working on for the last year. But my most important pi related update is that my debut full-length collection of poetry, Caught Light, features 5 original pieces of my pi art, including the cover! Pick up a copy today, if you haven’t already. And, happy Pi Day!!!

Author Reviews Part III: David Mitchell

I often find that an author’s ‘best’ book is not my favourite. It’s true of Vonnegut (as I already mentioned), it’s true of people like Steinbeck, Murakami, and Rushdie (more on those later) and it’s certainly true of David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas is Mitchell’s masterpiece. It’s ambitious, far-reaching, and multi-layered. The plot, which stretches from distant past to speculative future, is convincingly communicated in a variety of different voices through a range of different mediums, including journals, letters, interviews, and more. All of this comes together to form a book that’s nothing if not impressive. I was certainly impressed. But there is something self-conscious about this impressiveness, almost to the point of being forced.

Cloud Atlas turns up in charity shops all of the time, and I think it’s because so many people think it’s too difficult. It flies in the face of short attention spans and instant gratification. After the first section of the book is (spoiler alert) interrupted mid-sentence, many people probably get frustrated and give up. After pushing through one or two more sections, only to discover that the first narrative thread still hasn’t been resumed and each subsequent thread has also been left in limbo, many more people probably give up. If they persist, they might decide that the pay off is worth it, but even that’s up for debate, because what unifies the parts into a whole is subtle and could be easily missed by some readers.

Cloud Atlas is a great book, and in some ways, Mitchell’s best, but I prefer number9dream. Why? Simply put: it’s more fun. It manages to be an easier read without sacrificing quality or depth. It’s not at all dumbed down, but there’s a clear-cut main character who’s plainly coming of age; you’re right there with him, along for the ride. And what a crazy ride it is.

If you’re looking for something that stylistically bridges the gap between these two books, try The Bone Clocks. It has a lot of the same structural traits as Cloud Atlas, but with more of the readability of number9dream. It seems a little less lofty than Cloud Atlas and a little more personable. The characters are more immediate and the action is more compelling.

After you’ve enjoyed Bone Clocks, you might as well carry on and read Slade House. It’s not exactly a sequel, but the two should definitely be consumed together and in order. Slade House isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as Bone Clocks, but on some level, it gives you more of what you want. You’ll just have to take my word for it; you’ll understand if you read them both.

I hesitate to call Ghostwritten a novel. It’s really more of a short story cycle and the thread that ties it all together is even less clear/more tenuous than in Cloud Atlas. It’s truly great at times and stunning as an authorial debut, but you can tell that Mitchell hasn’t got his bearings yet.

When taken as a whole, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is more mature than Ghostwritten, but its best bits aren’t necessarily as interesting as Ghostwritten’s best bits. It’s narrative is even more straightforward than number9dream’s, but it’s nowhere near as fun. The historical background is interesting, but the side plots are distracting at times and the love story is unsatisfying. Despite all of that, it’s still a good book, but it doesn’t live up to my top 3.

Black Swan Green is my least favourite Mitchell book. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book, it’s just a little too ‘Boy Meets World’. It’s also missing a little something, namely Mitchell’s obsession with reincarnation/transmigration/soul-eating immortals etc.

In summary, don’t miss number9dream. Tackle Cloud Atlas if you have literary stamina. If you have slightly less literary stamina, binge read Bone Clocks and Slade House back to back. Try Ghostwritten if you’ve got the time, but don’t stress if you never get around to it. And give the last two a miss altogether. Next time, I’ll run through the ever-controversial Salman Rushdie.

number9dream

Cloud Atlas

The Bone Clocks

Slade House

Ghostwritten

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Black Swan Green

 

Author Reviews Part II: Kurt Vonnegut

When you read the works of certain authors, their style and voice are so familiar and comforting, it’s like having a conversation with an old friend. For me, this is probably most true of Kurt Vonnegut. I definitely enjoy some of his novels more than others, but I’d gladly sit down with even my least favourite of them just to re-visit that conversation. Vonnegut’s novels can very loosely divided up into sci-fi and non-sci-fi (though he was never 100% comfortable with the sci-fi label). Generally, I prefer the former over the latter. For example, I’d rather read Slapstick than Hocus Pocus and prefer I The Sirens of Titan to Jailbird. But there are, of course, exceptions to every rule. That’s why my top 5 Vonnegut novels include Mother Night, Bluebeard, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (none of which fit under the sci-fi umbrella), as well as Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five (both sci-fi classics).

It’s not easy to order these novels from most to least favourite, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to say a little something about each of them. First, Slaughterhouse-Five is easily Vonnegut’s most well-known work and, for that reason, it could be mistaken for his best. It’s certainly close, considering its masterful employment of non-linear narrative and brilliantly oblique treatment of WWII. But I’m not 100% convinced. Mother Night deals with the war in a much more direct way, but still manages to be extremely powerful, possibly even more powerful than Slaughterhouse-Five (as far as war books go). If you broaden the context, I suspect that Cat’s Cradle is an all-round stronger novel than either of them, though I find it hard to explain why. It’s exploration of the fictional Bokononism religion is simultaneously comical and thought provoking. The thoughts that it provoked in me are still churning around in my head to this very day. Similarly, I think that Bluebeard is a solid novel no matter how you look at it, but I know that I’m favourably biased towards it because I’m an artist, just like the protagonist. I also hold God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in high esteem because it portrays one of the most successful unorthodox Christ figures I’ve ever encountered.

Moving on to the ‘very-good-but-not-the-best’ portion of my list, I can’t help but notice that it’s uniformly sci-fi. I like all of these books and would particularly recommend Sirens of Titan, Slapstick, and Breakfast of Champions. Sirens is so good, I’m tempted to let it slip into the Top 5. Slapstick is strange, because Vonnegut himself always trash-talked it. I think he gave it a D minus or something like that, but he was way off and I’m eager to defend it. Breakfast of Champions is probably Vonnegut’s most experimental novel and, for that reason, it might not suit everyone’s tastes, but I’d certainly recommend giving it a try. It’s a wild ride, but if you hang on till the end, you could discover that it was worth it. Player Piano and Timequake are essentially bookends with one coming at the beginning of Vonnegut’s career and the other near the end. For that reason, neither is amazing. In the first, he’s still getting the hang of it and in the other, he’s losing his touch. As you could probably guess by now though, I still like them both.

The last 4 books on the list are also good in their own ways, but if you never get a chance to read them, you haven’t exactly done yourself a disservice. In summary: don’t miss the top 5, and if you’ve got time, read the top 8! World Book Day has come and gone, but I’ve got more reviews in mind, so I’ll keep this rolling until I get bored or run out of authors. Next up, David Mitchell (no, not the comedian).

Cat’s Cradle
Mother Night
Bluebeard
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Slaughterhouse-Five

The Sirens of Titan
Slapstick
Breakfast of Champions
Timequake
Player Piano

Hocus Pocus
Galápagos
Deadeye Dick
Jailbird

World Book Day

Generally, my posts here focus on my own poetry and art, but since it’s nearly World Book Day, I thought I’d try something a little different: reviews. But, I don’t just want to review books; I want to review authors. I’m not sure what constitutes being ‘well read’, but there are a handful of authors who I’ve read just about everything by. Therefore, I frequently find myself rating each of a given author’s works in relation to the rest of their bibliography. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share a few of these personal rankings over the course of the next several days. I’ll start with the novels of Jack Kerouac.

I tend to place an author’s works on a qualitative spectrum with some at the top, some in the middle, and others at the bottom. Unfortunately with Kerouac, I find it necessary to employ more stark categories i.e. Definitely Worth Reading and Probably Not Worth Reading. In the first category, I put On The Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur, with the possible addition of Desolation Angels. Taken together, they do well to encapsulate some of the tragic trajectory of Kerouac’s life, or at least his fictionalised version of it. What starts as a grand frenetic adventure of cross-country travel, jazz, friendship, experimentation, and spiritual investigation eventually sours as the party ends and the delirium tremens take hold. If you have a morbid fascination with that inevitable downturn, you could also read Satori In Paris, but I wouldn’t recommend it. In my opinion, there is no Satori (or enlightenment) in it at all. It only serves to illustrate the floundering decline of Kerouac’s literary prowess.

As with all of my reviews, this is firmly rooted in my own preferences. I think Kerouac’s wild journey of self-discover sets the backdrop for his most interesting work, while his attempts to describe his early years, including Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard, all fall short in comparison. But, even his other books about the ‘wild years’, like Tristessa, Visions of Cody, and Subterraneans, don’t do his talent justice.

There are, however, a few Kerouac novels that don’t fit neatly into either of the aforementioned categories. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a sort of odd outlier, particularly as only half of it is by Kerouac. It’s not great (which Burroughs himself thought), nor is it awful, but it does provide an interesting insight into a particular piece of the New York years. Similarly, The Town and The City is interesting as a record of Kerouac’s developing style, but you can’t call it a great novel. The biggest anomaly must be Pic, because it seems to be Kerouac’s only attempt at fiction that’s well and truly separate from his own experience. Sadly, it seems like he wasn’t up to the task. The character’s voice isn’t fully convincing, but at least the plot is easier to follow than some of his more convoluted prose.

In the interest of full disclosure, there are a few minor Kerouac novels that I haven’t read yet and, therefore, cannot comment on. But, from what I’ve read, my rankings are as follows:

  • Must reads: On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur
  • Of some additional interest: Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, The Town and the City, Pic
  • Not worth the effort: Satori in Paris, Tristessa, Maggie Cassidy, Doctor Sax, Visions of Gerard, Visions of Cody

So, maybe there’s a little more of a spectrum than I thought. Next time, I think I’ll tackle Vonnegut.

Biggest News Ever…For Me

The definition of serendipity (according to the first result to pop up in Google) is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” With that in mind, I’m extremely pleased to announce that Friends of Alice will be publishing my first full length collection of poetry, Caught Light. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy dose of serendipity. I met the folks from Friends of Alice the last time I attended Platform 1 at The Poetry Cafe. I read my work, they liked what they heard, and the rest is history. Sure, they publish poetry and this was a poetry event at The Poetry Cafe, but if either of us hadn’t attended that night, none of this would’ve been possible. Furthermore, they weren’t just looking for a collection of poems; they wanted a manuscript that included original artwork. And who just so happens to be an amateur visual artist? That’s right, ME! Caught Light features pieces of my pi art, both on its cover and within its pages. It’s all come together just in time for Pi Day (March 14th i.e. 3/14 by the American reckoning). I’m exceptionally thankful for this wonderful turn of luck and if you happen to pick up a copy of this new tome from Amazon, I’ll be thankful for that as well. Friends of Alice will also be promoting the book at The London Book Fair (12-14th March), so be sure to stop by their booth.

Caught Light
Caught Light