Friday, 15 December 2017

Book #60

Sindbad the Sailor

A selection of fantastic and perilous adventures at sea from the Thousand and One Nights. 

I enjoyed this little glimpse into the Thousand and One Nights

Sindbad the Sailor recounts his travels and adventures to Sindbad the Porter, and although I found them somewhat far-fetched, brutal, and wondered how such a level of misfortune could befall one man, they felt almost like gorgeous little fables.

I’m interested in the origin of these tales; there is very little to go on in terms of where they’ve come from, and even less on who wrote them. That they’ve travelled over to the West slowly, is more than apparent, and that in this edition Allah has been amended to God is a curious fact to consider.

Although short and jarring in their seemingly random selection, Little Black Classics have achieved what I was looking for in this series: to open my eyes to new texts and spur me into buying the originals, which I’m sure for this addition in particular will display far more colour and vividness than three short stories can evoke here.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Book #59

Hings: the B-Sides by Chris McQueer

Just when you thought it was safe to move past Hings and read something else (how dare you), we present... the B-Sides.
Chris McQueer’s humour has achieved rave review through his debut collection and online, being described as “doing something similar for Glasgow” as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting did for Edinburgh, so it’s a fine time to give you some more. Eight more stories, in fact.
Chris’ writing is weird and really bloody wonderful, and the B-Sides is that little refresher of short stories to keep you going.

After finishing Hings a few months ago, I tweeted McQueer begging to know if he was going to grace us with another masterpiece. Although he assured me he would, he also stuck in the wee jolting fact that it won’t be with us until next year. I can’t have been the only one with this appetite, and thank god, because now the B-Sides have arrived with us.

Comprised of eight short stories which didn’t make the final cut for Hings, it’s a perfect wee collection to keep us all going, and to whet our whistles for what’s to come in the future. Where the original Hings family was a dysfunctional one, the B-Sides are the members of the clan who were just that wee bit too weird, were shunned by everyone else, and eventually moved to Rothesay.

I got through all of these in a forty minute train journey, and I don’t really want to think that anyone was watching me reading. My standard commuting bitchface took on a look of familial pride as I got tore into Sammy’s Maw’s New Motor, I let out an endearing dry boke cough during Bursting, was wide-eyed in astonishment at the appearance of my paramour John MacKay in News, and best of all started laughing mentally at Love is Love, my favourite of the eight. They all must’ve thought the weird wee lassie in the corner seat had been on the halves at lunchtime.

The absolute worst part for me was knowing there were only thirty two pages, and by the time the train stopped at Larky, it’d all be over once again. The B-Sides have done nothing to change my opinion of McQueer’s writing at all; hilarious and rank with stunning social commentary. And although I’ve never had a step-da, I’d encourage you to take a read of this if you feel like getting rid of yours.

Absolute belter once again; I am bursting for more.

“Don’t you dare try and compare me and Adam to you and yer fuckin Tamagotchi burd, son.”

Book #58

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

A selection of Rossetti's most famous poems, from the hallucinatory 'Goblin Market' to 'In the bleak mid-winter'.
Goblin Market is a wonderfully interesting poem which can be interpreted widely and openly into various themes and meanings. Through the various sexual undertones rippling through the verses, I read of the dangers of temptation, addiction, and of women giving themselves to men. Depicting men as goblins, Rossetti paints a clear picture of untrustworthiness and cunning. She allows us to understand that the goblins are merely looking to use the girls, and are employing a smoke and mirror effect with their delicious fruit for sale. The suggestions and implications were interesting to understand and consider, with Rossetti’s feminist commentary shining through subtly, yet brilliantly.

The rhythm in Goblin Market is difficult to get to grips with, and I felt if I had managed this better (and sooner), I’d have had a better appreciation of the poem itself. On reading the other poems including in this edition, I was able to appreciate Rossetti’s varying metre and couplets, however I am yet to experience the wonder of poetry revealing its secrets to me in general.

Wondering whether to give up on poetry entirely, or whether to wait for something to fall into my lap which will change my views entirely.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Book #57

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

"Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor." Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim?”

Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery
Atwood impresses me once again. Having read The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and now Alias Grace, I’m only amazed it’s taken me so long to discover Atwood’s work.

In this tale of not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction, Atwood explores the life and imprisonment of Grace Marks, convicted of a double murder in 1843, at the tender age of sixteen. Arrested alongside fellow servant James McDermott after the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear, and the housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, it was widely believed at the time that Grace and McDermott were lovers. Although McDermott was hanged for the crime, Grace’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment; and questions still remain. 

The real story has always had a great number of holes in it, and Atwood does her best to fictionalise Grace’s life, and attempt to fill in some of the blanks. It’s unclear whether the entirety of Grace’s confession was true, or whether this was an account which was felt by her lawyer to be more likely to lead to a softer outcome. Her version was also a notable contrast to James McDermott’s final words, blaming Grace for encouraging him to help her carry out the murder.

To give more depth to Grace’s tale, Atwood introduces Simon Jordan – a doctor interested in studying criminal minds, with the hope of understanding catalysts. He visits Grace to hear her story, and so her whole bloody history is revealed. Atwood allows her a personality, a family, and a journey, none of which were granted her by the journalists or authors of the 1840s. Her story is written with a lack of dialogue punctuation, and this unsettles the reader into wondering whether Grace is speaking a particular thought aloud, or merely thinking it. This uncertainty is important here, as Grace is already an unreliable narrator, so our confidence in truth dissipates when we encounter her flighty methods of recounting her life story.  
This construction is delectable – we’re given excerpts from newspapers, words from books written about the case, and even quotes taken verbatim from Grace’s confession, as well as Atwood’s fictional imaginings of Grace’s life, feelings, and motivations. The juxtaposition of fact and fiction is utterly gorgeous, and completely blurs the lines of what’s real, linking in with Grace’s confusion and inability to properly remember exactly how the events unfolded.

I was interested to explore the feminine issues raised here, also. Social custom in the nineteenth century has always been something I love to sink my teeth into; Atwood’s commentary on status, poverty, expectations and humiliation was a beautiful thing to digest. Even more interesting, was the treatment of criminal women in those days, particularly in comparison to male criminals.

At the end of the novel, we’re still unsure about the answers to the outstanding questions – what really was Grace’s involvement in the double murder? Was she in love with James McDermott? Did she sexually entice him into committing the crime? Or was she really as insane as she behaved? So much time has passed that we’ll never know the answers to these questions, so Atwood’s indefinite conclusion feels sensible, respectful, but also leaves a curiosity fire burning with her readers.

An extraordinary and fascinating fictionalised account of the life of a murderess – Atwood has created a masterpiece here, and one which will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Book #56

The Black Lady of Broomhill by Helen Moir

The Black Lady of Broomhill is an account by local author and historian Helen Moir concerning the urban myth and factual story surrounding a local ghost story from Larkhall in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

The stories of The Black Lady have haunted me since I was a child. Back then, the only information I had was that you would die immediately upon locking eyes with her, that she roamed around the pub near my house, and that she was mercilessly killed a long time ago. That was enough information to keep me from straying too far from home, especially at night.

As I got older, morbid curiosity seemed to overtake the fear, and articles online gave me some more clues to who The Black Lady was. Everything has been pieced together, rumour and speculation, until this factual account by Helen Moir ended up in the aforementioned pub. I had to buy it.

The Black Lady was a real woman, brought to Scotland by Captain McNeil-Hamilton. She was brown-skinned, unused to the Scottish climate and customs, and (I imagine) completely out of her depth. She lived in the Captain’s household, until one day the locals noticed her disappearance. Claiming she had gone home, despite damning evidence otherwise, the Captain continued with his life and ultimately died at a young age. It’s highly likely we will never know exactly what happened to her, but it seems she haunts the Broomhill estate to this day. In this account, Moir names her as Sita Phurdeen, giving real humanity to the spectre of myth all Lanarkshire locals tell stories about.

Moir’s interest in the lady’s origins greatly surpasses my own, and it’s astonishing to contemplate the level of research she’s undertaken to put this booklet together. It’s filled with gorgeous factual accounts and pictures of the Broomhill house and their customs. Not only that, Moir has a close connection with the house and family who lived there, as members of her family worked for the household at the time Sita Phurdeen was resident. Recounting a series of recurring dreams she has over the course of many years, she speculates and surmises on the Black Lady’s fate. Most disturbingly of all, she compares a room she sees in her dreams with an old servant’s account, and it’s scarily familiar. Add in some ghostly sightings of the lady, and this makes for very curious reading.

Although my curiosity will never be fulfilled on this score until I learn the full story - one, I’m sure, which will never surface, this is a delightful and chilling collection of facts on Larkhall, the lady herself, and the man who brought her here. Whether he is to be vilified or not remains to be seen, however I have never thought of him as anything other than a villain.