Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Martin Macaulay’

‘My Mother Was An Upright Piano’ by Tania Hershman

In Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on April 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Tania Hershman’s My Mother was an Upright Piano compacts 56 stories into 136 pages. Her short-short stories and micro-fictions are concise, impressively constructed examples of the form; stories with soul despite their brevity. Hershman’s writing is cross-discipline, eschewing a specialist streak that in lesser hands might have resulted in sets of navel-gazing motifs or a hermetically sealed collection. Instead she plunders from science and the arts, creating dense philosophical microcosms that have more to say about the human condition than the attempts of some lengthier works.

My Mother Was An Upright Piano Tania Hershman

Each sentence is stripped back; their words scraped or polished until the paragraphs are whittled into shape. These are sculpted fictions that fizz with intelligence. They spark ideas in the reader that linger afterwards, like ball lightning coring into your mind.

I was hooked before the book had even properly begun, sucked into the introductory note on the font that is used – Crimson Text – and its backstory. The opener, ‘The Google 250’ is a modern take on personal gratification as technology supplants sex to satisfy our base desires. Google fuels ego, and the narcissistic need to look at what others say is interwoven into everyday life, ultimately to replace sexual satisfaction.

People were having dreams about browser pages that had words missing, their names had wings and had taken flight, like heads off a goldfish.

It’s a tight story, playful, but the premise isn’t too outrageous. This tale is more cautionary than comical.

Hershman writes with a lyrical precision that slices apart what it is to be human. In ‘My Uncle’s Son’ a young man regards life from the periphery until someone reaches out to drag him into the living. ‘Under the Tree’ is one of the longer pieces at over three pages. A mother worries as her son has begun to sit under a tree all day, distant and withdrawn. She longs for his deceased father to be alive again, to help her understand. Her desperation is palpable:

Help me, I say at night, lying in the lonely bed, the marriage bed of not-John and me. Where are you?

Mother and son are reunited but what lies ahead is left hanging. Is this merely a temporary reunification? Has the mother pulled the son over, or is it vice versa? Open to interpretation, there is no doubting the intensity of emotion packed into this short.

‘The Prologue’ is a wonderful piece, barely a page in size. In a role reversal, here the prologue is the story, the novel itself succinctly wrapped in a few sentences in the final paragraph. ‘Missy’ is a mere paragraph but shows us the devastating impact that nurture can have on fucking up future generations. A would-be mother transfers the undermining statements and vicious words onto a would-be daughter, unable to blunt the phrases that cut her deep, open wounds that have failed to heal:

If I had a daughter, this is how it would be. It would be all, Stand up straight, missy, shoulders back, no slouching, and she’d be sulky, sullen, pouting, wilful

My Mother was an Upright Piano is more than the sum of its parts. The book is structured into seven groups of six and two groups of seven, bonding this collection together as tightly as a chemical compound. It’s a solid, unbreakable and inspiring collection. Hershman creates worlds with depth and heart. She shows us lives soaked in loss; some with glimpses of hope, others dystopian. Reading My Mother… is a bit like discovering a boxful of unfamiliar photographs in a curiosity shop. You study each picture, try to decipher the look on the subject’s face, or work out what that object is in the foreground. Hershman pulls you in to these beautifully condensed fictions. The difficulty is in trying to climb back out again.

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‘Long Drawn and Other Random Bits’ by Bradley E Robinson

In anthology on March 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Long, Drawn and Other Random Bits is a visually arresting collection of self-published short writing by its author and illustrator Bradley E. Robinson. A series of observational pieces, short stories, photos and drawings, it is in the author’s own words a “folio…for the adventures, perceptions, and randomness of a generation…intended to be nothing more than a window of a generation”. Credit to Robinson, the title could lower expectation levels into something resembling, graphically at least, that of a ‘zine but Long Drawn… has higher ambitions. It is a professionally produced collection and I couldn’t help but think Robinson had more than one definition of folio on his mind when he made this available as a free download. Not only does he know his way around desktop publishing but his illustrations are striking, a series of tattoos that (l)ink his words together.

Long Drawn and other random bits

And in his words, despite the undeniability of the ‘random bits’, there are recurring themes or motifs that help pull this folio together: the ebb and flow of friendships, bus journeys, new beginnings, lost endings and bourgeois attempts to limit freedom of choice. Robinson appears to be more at ease with the observational or creative non-fiction elements, but I was suitably impressed with ‘Apre Moi’, a coming-of-age tale that ticks all the requisite check-boxes (drugs, love, study, parents, mates) as well as the not-so-common issue of mental illness, but it does so with a hefty dose of charm, humour and honesty, such as when Onowa’s father ‘confronts’ him about his nightly escapades:

“Are you going through the window, when you go out at night?” he asked me without breaking his
stare from the television…

“Umm…” I replied gauging his cool tranquillity with such an issue.

“Just use the god damn front door next time.”

His other short story ‘The Farmer’ didn’t grab me in quite the same way. I felt it over-reached itself somewhat in its attempt to recreate a futuristic society whilst trying to provide weighty social commentary. But I won’t dwell. It could just be me that didn’t take to it. There’s plenty worth noting elsewhere in Long Drawn… such as ‘The Canadian Memoirs’, a road trip incorporating a series of character sketches. The writing is sharp and here the observational stuff is much less intrusive:

In one carry-on put all your urgent needs for the two-day trip that is about to follow. Sleeping aids are advised.

Robinson’s style is functional. Dipping occasionally into witty, he’s never smart-ass with it. This suits the semi-reportage tone blending in with the photos and Polaroids, more in keeping with a magazine and reinforcing his skater-ethic (which becomes evident in certain stories). There are a few errors strewn throughout the collection but these are not enough to detract from the overall quality of the publication. I’m sure it’s the case that some of this is down to what Bradley E Robinson sets out in his ‘Forward!’, that ‘this haphazard venture…will be lost in translation’ but I did find myself wishing that a bit more care had been taken when choosing certain words. Undoubtedly there are examples where this is intentional, but equally I found occasions where it seemed slightly careless, or if intentional, detracted from the flow of the sentence. This aside it is difficult to criticise something that has been so lovingly crafted and made available for free. Not all the stories were for me, but those that were I enjoyed and it’s clear that Robinson has a natural flair in his ability to navigate his way across the page as he does across the continent.

The Portable Museum (Ox and Pigeon)

In online magazine, Short Stories on December 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

The Portable Museum is a literary journal curated by Ox and Pigeon, a digital publisher keen to use the electronic format to share stories in translation from around the world. Four short stories furnish the first edition, each originally published in Spanish from Latin America or Europe. This makes for a compact and fairly rapid read, but the texts included here have real depth and reward the reader with each return visit.

The Portable Museum 1, Ox and Pigeon, reviewed by Martin Macaulay for Sabotage Reviews
Fabio Morábito’s ‘The Mothers’ is a dazzling beginning to the collection. A dream-like retelling of a rite of passage that twists the archetypal mother, at least for the period of June, into a savage seeking refuge up trees and hiding on balconies. During this month they are wild and naked as they feverishly hunt their prey: ‘an office worker, a manual labourer’. The mothers descend from their hideouts at dusk to rest in doorways, allowing their children to nurture them, clean their wounds and feed them. The cared-for temporarily become the carers. The role of the mother is displaced and they are portrayed as creatures both feral and uncontrollable. Yet throughout, they retain the silent respect of society as this ritual passes. Originally published in 1989, ‘The Mothers’ is a compelling fable worthy of (re)discovery.

By contrast, ‘Nazi Girl’ by Álvaro Bisama first appeared in 2010, but is a fine complement to the opening short story. This is a tale of a girl brought up by Nazi fetishist parents as she enters adulthood, set against the background of the Pinochet regime in Chile. At face value it is a tale of a girl, struggling to fit in, who latches on to the fanatical element instilled into her by her parents. Dabbling with Nietzschean philosophy, she asserts her own world view, proudly able to set herself apart from her classmates. As she matures, BDSM and Nazi role-playing take a stronger hold, but the distinction between consensually-inflicted pain and the suffering of fellow countrymen and women is brought sharply into focus. Despite glimpses of black humour – ”Soon everyone forgot about my reputation as a Nazi” – the inescapable brutal reality of the past is never too far away.

In ‘The Japanese Garden’ by Antonio Ortuño, Jacobo seeks to find a lost companionship of a different sort. As a child, his father hired a girl, Fabiana, to keep him company and spend the night with him. When his father passes away his guardian uncle decides that this irregular practice should end too. After a while Fabiana moves out of the neighbourhood and Jacobo loses all contact. Despite the passing years, he can’t stop thinking about her. When his father’s estate passes to him he decides to find out what became of Fabiana. ‘The Japanese Garden’ raises some interesting points around the currency of friendship, and the relationship between artifice and happiness.

Finally, this small collection closes with Enrique Vila-Matas’ ‘Loves That Last a Lifetime’. Ana María is a high school teacher who lives with her grandmother. She is trying to deliver bad news to her grandmother; the story revealed to us through Ana María’s inner and external dialogue. A thread of unrequited passion pulls the characters together, but ultimately it’s the weight of history and lasting impact of colonialism that tears at individual responsibility.

Each short has much to offer. One story may share a theme with another – fascism, family, unreciprocated love – but the thing that cuts across them all is the calibre of writing. Disappointingly it features an all-male cast, but this does not detract from the final product. If The Portable Museum is to thrive in this digital age, with ever-increasing traffic and monetary devaluation of artistic endeavour, it needs to position itself apart from the others. The voices of literary magazines and journals can get drowned out, lost within the electronic chatter and noise. Fortunately, this journal speaks loudly and with a clarity that should allow it to be heard above many others. For only a couple of quid, you get four outstanding stories. The second issue is due in the first quarter of 2013 and I’m looking forward to its arrival already.

‘The Space Between Things’ by Charlie Hill

In Novella on September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Like a time-lapse recording, a sound recording, of a period and time when people were drawn together by a combination of narcotics, techno and a swelling anti-establishment noise-mongering, Charlie Hill’s The Space Between Things vividly documents a growing counter-culture movement. The account is fictional but so grounded in early-90s historical accuracy that it is difficult to believe that this story didn’t occur. Hill writes with a charm that doesn’t alienate the reader who is either too young to remember or was just never part of the scene at the time.

The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill

The Space Between Things is a story about people. About how we find people and lose people. Sometimes, it’s not until they are gone, or in danger of slipping away, that we appreciate the role they have had on shaping our existence and world view. Arch and Vee spend the night together after meeting at a party. When he awakens, she has left. They are both out with their respective partners when they bump into each other the following day. Ella, Arch’s girlfriend quickly figures out what happened the previous night and dumps him. It takes some time for Vee to make an appearance again, but during her absence Arch finds himself replaying things she said to him the night they were together. The Space Between Things explores a spectrum of politics and questions individual and collective commitment.

Arch is a bit of a dabbler, in blow, music and poetry. He lives in Moseley where the ‘young radicals’ once lived and a place which ‘had the political in its petals. Back then, everyone was trying to make sense of the world…There was even a culture you could counter.’

But the fight has been sucked out by more than a decade of Tory rule. Thatcher has just resigned and an air of directionlessness permeates:

‘…by the time she’d gone she’d won. They’d won. Worn us all down. There was no politics.’

Instead the inhabitants of Moseley turn to partying. There is an open house culture. Arch moves from party to party, and we meet a kaleidoscopic array of Moseley’s residents. The variety of drugs increases and Arch’s musical tastes develop. The parties become more sophisticated, sound systems are ferried across locations. When Arch decides to go to a free festival in Castlemorton his outlook is changed forever. It’s not just the combination of ecstasy and techno; it’s the realisation of what people can do when they work together – a free festival:

‘Fuck Glastonbury,’ says Sorrell, ‘Glastonbury’s all about money, yeah? This is about love and respect. And party people.’

People across cultures are brought together: the travellers and the ‘scallies’ or as Arch is corrects, the ‘cheesies…cheesy quavers – ravers.’ In two days of discovery, of techno and ecstasy, he recognises there is a bond amongst the people. They have a sense of unity and togetherness. Eventually when the police come to dismantle the site, people stay behind to help the local council with the clean up, strengthening Arch’s belief in community and the possibility of a new political movement. Unfortunately rave culture has become staple fare for the mainstream media and this has got the Tory government worried. The Criminal Justice Bill seeks to destroy that which Arch and his mates partied so hard to create. Partying has reawakened their political activism.

Arch receives a postcard from Vee postmarked Split and we get our first inkling that she has a different set of political priorities. When she returns, it’s through the silences of her time in what was formerly Yugoslavia that we begin to piece together the hidden narrative. The juxtaposition of what motivates people; erosion of personal liberties against humanitarian war crimes is neatly teased out. Arch’s arguments are genuine and real enough, yet poorly formed and ill-thought through. Vee is frustrated at the level of engagement he and his Moseley-ites have with the outside world:

‘What gets my goat is that some people, people like you Arch, for Christ’s sake, supposedly sussed, politically active educated people, people like Moseley, are so precious and cosseted and wrapped-up in themselves that they’ll march for the right to party but need stirring-up about genocide.’

The author never brow-beats and it’d be wrong to think that this is a tub-thumping novel. It is anything but. The characters may be loosely sketched but they are oh-so vibrantly drawn. The names evoke classic comic creations: Nervous Mark, Jimmy Wibble, Shifnal Phil and Little Bill. The dialogue is energetic and the novel races along effortlessly. In places the novel is very humorous if not bewitchingly funny:

‘I don’t trust him. He has the conviction of the dim.’

‘I know what you mean,’ I said, ‘there’s definitely something missing. And all that running around he does. He’s got far too much energy if you ask me. He’s a bit like a more sinister version of Kenny Loggins, on the quiet.’

At its heart though, The Space Between Things is about Vee and the impact she has on Arch’s life. Early on she cautions against the Beat movement, or rather ‘what it’s become. That whole Beat vibe’s just a bit of an excuse for self-indulgence now, isn’t it?’ It’s a note that resonates loudly at the end of the book. Educate yourself and choose your battles carefully. Make it your duty to know. Don’t just accept what you are palm-fed, and if you are ready to commit, make sure it’s for a worthwhile cause. The Space Between Things is an accomplished and relevant novel which deserves to be widely read.

[Charlie Hill will be co-hosting the PowWow LitFest in Birmingham on September 23rd, an event featuring Joel Lane, whose work has been reviewed by Sabotage last year – Ed.]

‘Kindling’ by Stephen Livingston

In anthology, Short Stories on March 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Kindling Stephen Livingston
Stephen Livingston’s short story ‘Choose Your Future’ was one of the winning seventeen stories to appear in Scotland Into the New Era, a collection of short stories published by Canongate that celebrated the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This story also heads up Kindling, the writer’s first collection of a dozen stories. It’s a fitting reappearance for the short as Scotland reappraises her political powers and role within the Union. I bought Scotland Into the New Era when it first came out back in 2000. It’s interesting reading ‘Choose Your Future’ again, a story effectively date stamped by its decade, being somewhat wrought from the tracks of Trainspotting. Written in the second person you are told it is “decision time…time for you to choose.” A Ewan McGregor hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mark Renton delivers the question, but Donald Dewar (Scotland’s First Minister at the time) dressed as a clown is also present to offer advice. Bill Drummond, Ian Wilmut, Dolly the Sheep all appear to convince you to choose a future. It’s an accomplished tale, a little derivative perhaps, but Livingston sweeps you along fairly effortlessly.

‘Recycling’ is another prize-winning story. It concerns a household battling to keep itself together. Angela attends school, whilst her mother Mags has turned to alcohol after finding out her husband was having an affair with one of his students.

Oh, the irony of it all. Her working to support the family while he researched his doctorate in Moral Philosophy and tutored undergraduates in Ethics.

This is a technique that Livingston favours, labouring little nuggets of circumstantial information so that they ultimately appear contrived or caricatured. Sometimes he pulls it off, but a few stories in, I found it lessening the impact the story could have made. This short ends with the mum determined to make a new go of it. “Recycle herself.” Underscoring the title of the story here is unnecessary. The few remaining paragraphs that follow are poignantly understated and handled much more dexterously. Mags takes the first few steps of regaining control of her own life and mending broken bonds with her daughter. It’s well handled but undone by those loose words thrown down beforehand.

The writer has a good ear for rhythm of speech in dialect. The next short, ‘The Waster’s Tale’, won the EndPapers Tales Series prize. A modern inebriated Canterbury Tale, relocated to Glasgow and written in the local first person. Wine for breakfast, the pub for lunch, a club for supper and topped off with a short stay in a police cell. The following morning begins afresh with a quest for picking mushrooms. Livingston creates a memorable character and the tale is well-paced and funny:

Jist aroon the corner fae the scaffoldin’ buildin’ there wiz a nice comfy lookin’ bush, so ah jumps intae it an’ right enough it wiz really comfy. The branches hud jist enough give in them tae support ma body weight an act like a springy mattress. John dived intae the bush beside mae an’ agreed it wiz a good place tae lie aboot.

By turn, ‘The Wheel of Justice’ is a clumsy, farcical story. Yes, this is supposed to be satire, but it doesn’t excuse the heavy handedness of the text. A TV game show whereby previously wronged contestants can exact revenge by winning the opportunity to execute someone on death row. Rainbow, the ‘executionee…flashes a feral smile’. The host is a Christian fundamentalist Bob Vicarage (geddit?) who asks the questions:

“…what former football star was acquitted after murdering his wife and her…” Bzzz. “Yes Davor.”
“It was J.J. Simpleton, Bob.” The crowd go wild, split between cries of “the bitch deserved it” and outrage at the failure of the judicial system.

This could have been a memorable story for all the right reasons. It’s a clever enough conceit undone by the writer’s inability to trust his readers’ intelligence. Everything gets spelled out. It annoyed me. Perhaps this was the intention, crank up the ridiculousness to show how close reality actually measures up. Ironically his point would have been made much more explicitly simply by turning down the volume. Instead it’s like playing a game of poker with all your cards face up.

Kindling is an inadequate collection. Some pieces shine but even they can be let down by some sloppy writing – the plane ‘dropped like a stone into the East River’. It’s unoriginal and detracting. I get the feeling that Livingston has more to offer, but he’ll need to up his game. The reader will only forgive so many times before s/he closes the cover for good.

Now That I’m Ready To Tell You Everything

In Novella on August 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

I didn’t realise it at the time when I chose to review G. K. Wuori‘s Now That I’m Ready to Tell You Everything, but I really needed to read this book. It caught me off guard. A recent read had let me down; a real anticlimax having promised so much. My faith in indie lit had taken a bit of a skelp and unfairly, I approached this novella with a weariness through no fault of the author.

I should have shown more faith. As far as openings go, it’s up there amongst the most memorable:

“Serena didn’t know what to make of the toe she found lying in the street in front of the Able-Bodied Bookstore. While the bookstore, an ‘adult’ one of the genre, often attracted a kinky clientele, Serena felt sure that most of them both entered and left the store with all their toes intact.”

The toe is an unlikely subject to use as a focal point to lead us into others’ lives, their dependencies, weaknesses and desires, but it works surprisingly well. The toe is traced back to its owner, who turns out to be the landlord of her friend Mariel. It would be doing this book a disservice to simply retell and reduce this novella to its plot; it is so much more than this. We weave through interlinked stories at various points of time, shadows cross others’ paths and we see the interconnections between lives but it’s the effortless nonchalance of the writing that sucks you in. I warmed to Wuori’s book instantly. The humour and personality are so amiable and bloody funny that I reckon you’d be hard pushed not to love it.

The author eschews a direct style where words punch out staccato sentences. He uses commas like stitches, embroidering fragments into sentences or a patchwork paragraph. The rhythm never falters though, and the asides thrown to us offer more insight into personal histories. Just when you think there is no more to tell us, in the one sentence we are thrown another morsel. Normally this isn’t a technique that curries much favour with me, but it isn’t flowery or overly descriptive. It exudes confidence, control and utter craft. Dazzling.

Now That I'm Ready To Tell You Everything, by G. K. Wuori, reviewed for Sabotage by Martin Macaulay

It turns out that it was the amputee’s son who cut off her toe in exchange for a pregnancy termination she had planned. Sex and birth play heavily in Now That I’m Ready… but it’s never under a spotlight, or pulled from the narrative, it’s part of people and how they deal with living, however bizarre.

“’But Binky says he’s replicating the birth canal, the experience of it.’
‘In a culvert?’ Serena said. ‘He’s replicating a vagina in a ditch?’
‘It came to him last night. We’d just finished having a good screw and I said ‘Do you want me to see what’s in the tube?’ and he said, ‘Did you say in the tube?’ and I said, ‘I meant on the tube, the TV. Do you want to watch TV?’ and he just said, ‘Holy shit, something’s come to me Gladys.’ Then he stayed up most of the night jotting things down at the kitchen table, drawing pictures of oil pipelines, plumbing systems, and vaginas, lots of vulvas and vaginas with their functions drawn with colored pencils.”

Serena has taken work as a dancer. Her husband, Mitch Calloway had his job downgraded and they need the extra cash. She’s also pregnant. Sex is a spectrum in this book: commodity, giver and taker of life, fetishised, red-blooded and eager, straight-down-the-middle missionary, or a bond between close friends. As in life, it’s complicated (though the writing never is) and it means different things to many people. Angus, the dancing club manager, sees money in a pregnant dancer and Serena wants to talk this over with Mitch.

“Remember that one time, too, that I told you about, when I had the nosebleed?
Oh sure.
They loved it. They didn’t want me to stop. I had blood all over my tits, and then when I sneezed, I got blood all over them. They cheered. They threw money and poured beer on my feet.
Blood and sex, M. Calloway would say, a pretty obvious connection.
This is different, darling.
What’s different, Serena?
This baby inside of me. Can I take it out there, on the stage? Should I take it out there? In front of all those men?
It’s just your tummy, Serena. What do you think they’ll see?
What they always see, I suppose, Serena would say.”

Life is sacred and fragile, but depends on work to exist. People need other people for sex, love and friendship, but things tend to get tangled up in a big ball of a mess. This book doesn’t preach; it simply holds up a fractured mirror for us to look into and reflect upon ourselves and those around us. It’s a small town, anytown, but we inhabit it people, with our neuroses and quirks and predilections. We should be grateful to G. K. Wuori for drawing us in such a memorable way.