Monopolies of Loss by Adam Mars-Jones

monopolies

I have read bits and pieces of Adam Mars-Jones, including his excellent novel from the 90s, The Waters of Thirst. This collection of short stories predates that (1992) – I stumbled across it on Kenny’s Bookshop’s secondhand section and had to have it.

Firstly, it’s a collection of stories about AIDS, and boy, if that wasn’t a weird book to be reading at the start of quarantine in this pandemic. I felt like I was transported back in time, back to another disease that people didn’t understand, that people used as a weapon against others for the own personal gain, or bigotry.

Adam Mars-Jones, to be honest, writes lines so beautifully that I could read him write about paint dry and he presents nine stories (eight about AIDS, although some don’t even, purposely, mention the word, and the first, Slim, is a character’s personal nickname for the disease). Prescient, scary, this book is fully of relationships ending, of people trying to move on, of a real world that is distant and remote from their lives. It is a book, to put it bluntly, that is spookily about now.

Recommended.

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

sky in the deep

Blurb:

“Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.”

Review:

This is one of those books that you can’t help but read in a day. Straight away you are thrown into a battle between  rival tribes and you instantly hope the main character will prevail. You can really connect with her warrior driven values.

There are lots of twists and revelations throughout the book, a few you can see coming from a mile away but some really throw you for a loop. The author brilliantly focuses on the characters over action at times and you can’t help falling for them.

Overall a very well written debut novel by Adrienne Young, here’s hoping her next books are just as gripping.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

my dark vanessa

The novel everyone seems to be reading.

My Dark Vanessa tells the story of Vanessa Wye, who had a sexual relationship with her English teacher when she was fifteen. Now thirty-two, he has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student of his, but in her eyes, it wasn’t abuse, it was love.

This novel is essential reading in the age of post-#MeToo. Impeccably written, the novel delves into the ins and outs of their relationship as Vanessa struggles to align her memories with the world around her, and what people are saying now. I don’t want to go too much into the plot, as I feel it is a wonderful tightrope that should be experienced as is.

However, as a fan of Nabokov, I wanted to say a few things. Lolita appears throughout the book – Strane gives her the novel to read at the start of their relationship, and whilst many novels (and plays and other media) have tried to give voice to Lolita’s side, this is the first, in my opinion, to really do that. And why this works over the others is the contradictions, the unreliability of Strane and Vanessa – journeying through memories that you are unsure how you feel about, and tellingly the title, My Dark Vanessa, is a Nabokov quote, not from Lolita, but from his other masterpiece, Pale Fire. In it, a long poem by John Shade (who shares his initials with Jacob Strane), is explicated in commentary and footnotes by Charles Kinbote who has built up a fantasy about what is happening that begins to crumble around him, much like Vanessa’s does.

Essential, and often very uncomfortable, reading. Highly recommended.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

our souls at night

Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbours for years. Now they both live alone, their houses empty of family, their quiet nights solitary. Then one evening Addie pays Louis a visit.

The proposal she makes surprises him, and us. This is a beautiful book, the tender story of a growing friendship and love. It’s set in a small town in America, where neighbours notice everything and family are quick to criticise and make demands.

I was hooked from the start, engrossed in their present and past lives and eager to see what happened next. This is actually the last book that Kent Haruf wrote but the first that I have read, it definitely won’t be my last.

 

Tattoos in Japanese Prints

tattoos in japanese pictures

The elaborate pictorial tattoos of the old Japanese tradition have always been a source of inspiration for contemporary tattoo lovers.

Τhis exquisite book – highly recommended to all tattoo artists – offers a thorough exploration of the history of Irezumi, an art form that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, but whose roots seem to extend back to the three prehistoric cultures of Japan: the Jōmon culture (from which the indigenous Ainu people of Japan’s far north are distantly descended), the Yayoi culture and the Kofun (Tomb) culture.

japapic

As Sarah Thompson, the author of Tattoos in Japanese Prints, argues, the reason there have been no recordings prior to Edo period is due to the fact that tattooing was not practiced by the ruling classes (the nobility and the samurai), but amongst the courtesans and the marginalized/the outlawed. In early Edo period: ‘they were used both as involuntary markers of punishment’ ‘for minor offenses as theft’ ‘and as voluntary testimonials to solemn vows, either romantic or religious’.

Later on in the 18th century, as we learn from Thompson, tattoos would become a fashion among ‘urban commoners of various occupations’, among merchants, artisans, courtesans, and peasants, due to the prevalence of the colorful and pictorial Ukiyo-e woodblock printmaking (eg. Kuniyoshi’s ‘pictures of the Floating World’, a form of art which the government had often tried to suppress and to regulate).

japapic2

Sarah Thompson dedicates the greatest part of her book to the exploration of the 18th century woodblock print scenes, revealing an intricate world of ephemeral human passions and urban entertainment – similar to the world reflected in Kabuki plays – now literally animated and eternalized through the vehicle of the human body, each with its own carved story to tell…

Thompson often gives the examples of scenes where “Both men and women vowed eternal love by getting a tattoo of the name of the beloved plus the word ‘life’ (inochi) with the last stroke of the word written extra long to suggest lifelong devotion’’ (p.34). Other scenes offer the antidote to love through the use of moxa, the very herb used in acupuncture, which both courtesans and their lovers would burn on their bare skin so as to erase what was left of a romantic love…

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Without any doubt, this book will leave you meandering the alleys and passageways of Edo (the city known today as Tokyo), offering you a most authentic taste of Japan’s culture and history.

 

Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos

diaries of exile

Everything was forgotten before it was said.
And silence is no refuge.
Yiannis Ritsos, Diaries of Exile

Diaries of Exile is a collection of poems written by one of Greece’s most outstanding 20th century poets, Yiannis Ritsos. It has been translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keely and published by Archipelago Press.

In his Diaries of Exile Yiannis Ritsos recounts his experience as a political prisoner during the Greek Civil War, firstly during his exile in Kotopouli of Limnos and later on the desert islands of Makronisi and Agios Efrstratios in the years 1948-1952. Ritsos’ political exile then continued in the islands of Gyaros, Leros and Samos between April 1967 and December 1970, when the army colonels staged a coup and seized power.

 

ristos

Persecuted for his Communist views, the poet spent many years in exile, in prisons and in sanatoriums. During these years in exile Ritsos produced many poems, essays and dramas and stood in solidarity with his fellow political prisoners (Communists, Trotskyists and other political dissidents), most of whom had fought against the Nazis during WWII. Now the battle for life and human dignity continued for them – it was a cruel struggle to maintain humanity in the face of de-personalization and abuse of power, torture and persecution.

At Kontopouli Ritsos did in fact play his mandolin and paint stones and driftwood, while on Makronisos he became involved in the prisoners’ theatrical productions, part of the re-education project that was the camp’s supposed raison d’être. But if Stefanidis’s description, written at a distance of six decades, doesn’t sound half bad, the letters and poems Ritsos wrote while in exile belie this. Already in Diary of Exile I, written during Ritsos’s first year at Kontopouli, we have descriptions of harsh labor, beatings, and meager rations, not to mention the feeling of entrapment caused both by the inescapable fact of imprisonment and by the daily repetition of the same routine.

(Excerpt from the Introduction to Diaries of Exile, written by Karen Emmerich)

In Diaries of Exile, the minute details—this zooming into a world of objects, animals, elements — are flooding the psyche of the prisoners shattering the boundaries between the inside and the outside, all the while accentuating them. [The door is open / I can’t leave; memories of birds / that sank into the unknown; elsewhere, the eyes open two holes in the wall […] I planted a tree. I’ll raise it. / Whatever happens I am not going back (p.59)]

The prisoners’ last refuge for struggling to preserve their dignity lies in the power of words. ‘Behind a word’ Ritsos encourages them to ‘escape’ in order to ‘take back all the words they took from them’, in order to share and to communicate naked truths:

The deck of cards has no numbers.
The Jack is unarmed.
[…]
The other side
was nothing
but an overcoat buttoned to the neck.
(November 28, 1948, p. 47)

‘Forget about words’, he continues…

Ritsos displays a profound humanism. The world can change for the better if man becomes honest with oneself by getting to grips with the transient nature of what one considers to be one’s unique and fixed reality. Ritsos utters words that seem to be aimed at future readers of his diaries (possibly at his old self too, at his old aristocratic family background) — those who have taken for granted a long cherished freedom, when history is contorted by acts of cloud-like forgetfulness:

Things don’t happen
as you expect them to
The cloud isn’t always
A faithful dog
And the most hidden key
One day is lost.
(December 3, 1948, p. 53)

It is a great paradox that cannot be ignored by any reader of Ritsos, that his Diaries of Exile, the first part of which was written during his imprisonment on the island of Limnos in the late 1940s, particularly reverberate in the 21st century—those trampled voices of thousands of migrants and refugees, women and children presently imprisoned in squalid detention camps at the edge of Europe, under appalling living conditions.

Winter came suddenly. It smells of rain.
Great north winds uproot the thristles, blow them against the barbed wire.
We’ve put on our jackets. Put our hands in our pockets.

A cloud came down into the middle of the road
took the telegraph poles aside, is telling them something.
Whatever they say, we know
that bread is always bread and what’s right is right.

Their secret conversations don’t bother us at all.
The afternoon truck came passed by loaded with flour
Leaving behind a torn sack and some orange peels.
One by one the exiles went out and pissed on the grass
Pushing the wind with their foreheads
Then they stood and looked at the clouds.

Somewhere it still smells of pine sap and crickets.
(November 9 – Evening, p. 20)

During the ruthless years that followed on the island of Macronisos (Diaries of Exile II), political prisoners were tortured, driven mad and committing suicide, executed. Due to the lack of hygiene in the concentration camps, they were plagued by serious epidemics, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid.

The dead are many
very many.
We don’t fit. We’re crammed in.

A gull
shook out its towel.
Nobody wiped his hands.
Nobody saw.

(January 19, 1950, p. 99)

Ritsos will eventually win against the odds his personal fight against tuberculosis, as much as his lifelong battle against depersonalization, abuse of power and tyranny.

In his final poem of the Diaries in Exile II, he will push the wind behind with his forehead and will seek the voices of the dead under the stones where ‘illicit stars’ are shining, revealing a ‘larger and deeper’ sky…

At night those killed
gather together under the stones
with some notes in their cigarette packs
with some densely scribbled scraps of paper in their shoes
with some illicit stars in their eyes.

Above them the sky grows larger
grows larger and deeper
never tires.

(June 1, Macronisos, 1950, p. 138)

A few resources on Yiannis Ritsos’ life and work:
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Yannis-Ritsos
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/yannis-ritsos
https://cycladic.gr/en/page/giannis-ritsos
http://sacredtrespasses.com/sacredtrespasses/2015/9/28/encounters-yannis-ritsos-and-the-messages-in-the-bottle
https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/an-anthem-confined-to-home-1.59473
Thanos Mikroutsikos’ discography: ‘Γιαννης Ρίτσος: Του Απείρου Εραστής’; Giannis Ritsos: Tou Apeirou Erastis‘ (Giannis Ritsos, Lover of Infinity), 2000.

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

pale horse

Forget the depressing BBC version. The true Pale Horse is much more creepy and fun. Join Mark Easterbrook on his quest to solve the mystery of the witches living at the old Pale Horse Inn.

I love Agatha Christie’s books. Yes they are old fashioned and yes some of them are the same plot under different titles (don’t tell anybody!) but what I love most about them is their comfort factor. I read Agatha Christie books before I go to sleep. They don’t worry me or stop me from sleeping. They are the epitome of cozy crime. They are the roaring fire or comfy blanket of crime.

This is not a bad thing. Christie as always sprinkles enough red herrings around to keep us guessing. The characters are fun and well presented (if at times a little one sided) and it rips along at a fair old pace. This is not one of her most famous books and it does not include the superstar sleuths Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple but it is well worth a read.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries catalogue here.

That Girl by Kate Kerrigan

that girl
Blurb:

You can escape a place. But you can’t escape yourself.

Hanna flees the scene of a terrible crime in her native Sligo. If she can just vanish, re-invent herself under a new name, perhaps the police won’t catch up with her. London seems the perfect place to disappear.

Lara has always loved Matthew and imagined happy married life in Dublin. Then comes the bombshell – Matthew says he wants to join the priesthood. Humiliated and broken-hearted, Lara heads to the most godless place she can find, King’s Road, Chelsea.

Matthew’s twin sister, Noreen, could not be more different from her brother. She does love fiance John, but she also craves sex, parties and fun. Swinging London has it all, but without John, Noreen is about to get way out of her depth.

All three girls find themselves working for Bobby Chevron – one of London’s most feared gangland bosses – and it’s not long before their new lives start to unravel.

Review: 

Love, suspense a bit of everything;  the unexpected occurs at almost every turn.  It crosses life in small town Ireland, with life in the busy London in the sixties.  I was hooked within the first 30 pages.

Her Last Promise by Kathryn Hughes

her last promise

Another dual story line between the past and the present, a format that I always enjoy, I found this book an enjoyable read, sometimes moving and sometimes surprising.

With the secrets and mysteries from the past waiting to be solved, it is an intriguing read throughout. I liked the journey to deepest Spain in search of the answers. I nearly read it in one sitting.