• Shanley McConnell

Week Six: The Monday Review

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1. The Age of Magic, Ben Okri


Okay, so we've returned to Ben Okri with The Age of Magic.


This novel takes us on a journey: a magical, literal one in which a tightly knit group of artists travel to different destinations around Europe filming a documentary; they carry a lot of unwanted baggage with them - fear, anger, jealousy, love.

When they arrive in an idyllic Swiss village ringed by mountains, they discover a haunted world and find themselves compelled them to confront the things from which they have been trying to escape.

A mind-blowingly beautiful book, full of unexpected, poetic, metaphysical revelations.


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2. Lanny, Max Porter


Published earlier this year (5th March 2019), Max Porter's second novel (prose/poetry collection) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and Wainwright Prize. It was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize as well.


I read Lanny in a day and a half. It is an intriguing, brilliantly-constructed little novel separated into three segments. The first begins with a rhythmic pace; lyrical without losing its sense of direction. The familiar magical-realm elements of Porter's Grief Is A Thing With Feathers are not subtle here.


I think one of the strongest things about this novel is its characterization. Of mythical Dead Papa Toothwort, of Mad Pete, of Lanny's mother and father, and of the title boy himself. As far as my reading of the story, the beginning half of Lanny is engaging. The third half seems to lose itself a little, unwinding into a string of unspecified voices------perspectives-----that bounce back and forth in the unravelling. After finishing the story, I learned how intentional this was. However, at first, I was a surprise by the seeming switch in tone.


Initially, I worried that the end would be disappointing due to the shift in rhythm, but the denouement was strong and thoughtful.


Overall, I enjoyed Lanny and would recommend it to readers, especially those who enjoy Patrick Ness' style of work. Although both authors are distinctive in their style and subject, Lanny's avant-garde form reminded me a bit of Ness' The Chaos Walking Trilogy and short-story The Monster Calls.


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3. Assurances, J.O. Morgan

(Cape Poetry, 2018)


As narrator of this poignant poem (one that extends the entire 48 of the book), Morgan acknowledges the historical weight of its narrative in order to create vivid moments. He approaches the Cold War awareness of his father's role in maintaining the R. A. F. Airborne Nuclear Deterrent during this time.


Questions regarding accountability, responsibility and expectation are left as they are: unanswerable. This is expanded on towards the end of the book, Page 37:


The question of blame in such matters has several strands. Who shoved whom the hardest? Whose strategy was bound up with pretence? Who thought it sensible to have such weapons openly in stock? Who loved their country the most? Who loved life more? It makes no difference how it's asked, the answers get us nowhere in the end.

Morgan's sensitivity to rhyme and form strengthen the poem immensely, and despite the length of the book, the poem does not lose its momentum and carries the voices of its characters along with it as it shifts and changes settings. I found Assurances to be an impressive read, and would read it over again if given the chance.

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4. Globe, Micheal O' Siadhail


In Globe, Michael O'Siadhail examines how historical events and geographic relationships affect memory, placement and the present. It addresses globalization, space and the growing interconnectedness:


Born in a land, I wake in a globe.

The collection makes the author's 60 birthday, and his careful reflections deserve acknowledgment.


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5. Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth


Jez Buttterworth's Jerusalem opened in the Jerwood Theatre of the Royal Court Theatre in London of 2009. Starring Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, the play received raving reviews and its run, extended. In 2010, Jerusalem was performed in the Apollo Theatre and was later enacted on Broadway in the summer of 2011. Most recent, the play premiered in Toronto Canada in 2018.


With its a cast of around fourteen characters, Butterworth's Jerusalem is quite a strange scene. Inspired by retired builder Micky Lay, who lived in a caravan in Pewsey, Wiltshire, Jerusalem centers its attention on Johnny "Rooster" Byron, and the many individuals who come to visit his mobile trailer out in the woods somewhere in Wiltshire, England: the council officials, the mother of his son, an enraged step-father and the array of displaced neighborhood youths addicted to his drugs and alcohol. The title itself comes from the play's frequent allusions to William Blake's song 'Jerusalem.'


Despite its small-town, one-day set, Jerusalem is expansive; it rides the comic to fury, from endearing to desolate places. I often find plays a bit more challenging to read. Probably because I am more accustomed to sitting down with a screenplay, a novel and/or collection of poems. I read Jerusalem (125 pages) in a single sitting. Due to the colloquial dialogue and internal span of time, I wonder if it might be one of those stories that is best understood this way.


Because of the play's focus on the impact of drug-addiction, along with its sexual references and inclusion of curse words, I would advise that those who interested in reading it, do so with this in mind.


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6. The Freedom Artist, Ben Okri


Many authors throughout history have scrutinised the human condition, calling it a prison------a place where men and women sleepwalk their days without purpose or longing, without hope or heart. From Plato through to Boethius, Chaucer and Shakespeare, to Kafka, Camus, Borges and more, this notion has been layered and unravelled until, through the act of reading, the men, women and authors themselves wonder if they have come, even a little, closer to knowing the truth about identity and the prisoner?


First of all, I would learn to think clearly and take nothing for granted. Secondly, I would be in love all the time. If I could not find someone to love, I would love the future. I would love the trees. I would love difficulties. I would love the edges of things.

---- pg. 78


I love the idea presented here. To be able to love comes from a place of knowing and seeing things, not as what they represent, but for what they truly are.


You all know that I adore the work of Ben Okri. His characters are real, his themes poignantly political and personal; The Freedom Artist is no exception. Published earlier this year on the 7th February 2019, The Freedom Artist tackles the circulating question about what it means to truly be free.


In six books within the overarching narrative, Okri creates a world that is as unnerving as it is promising of a hopeful resolution. As always, Okri masterfully balances characterization with symbolism until they co-exist; one cannot be without the other.


Much of the narrative gleans upon biblical narratives with an originality that expresses itself in the graphic detachment and simultaneously depth. In my opinion, although there was a lot happening in this novel that felt, in a sense, overwhelmingly bleak, with an ending that came so swiftly I did not entirely feel ready, in terms of satire, Okri has certainly succeeded in what he set out to do.


On page 125--126, Okri refers to compassion------awareness; a young boy sees in sadness a certain hope, small and lingering. The connection between sadness and hope is eloquently expressed here in a subtle way, and provides that strange sort of comfort that comes with recognizing deep sorrow is to have known deep love.


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7. Revenge, Yōko Ogawa


Published in 2014 by Vintage Books, Yōko Ogawa's collection is circular in that each individual story is, in some way or another, connected to the next; the chilling narratives unravel, weaving in and between one another, until characters with no seeming relation begin or, rather, once again, cross paths more and more frequently.


Most of the time, I'll begin a short-story collection and read only the first two or three; enough to get a glimpse of the author's style and form. The interconnectedness of Ogawa's Revenge narratives, however, were so mysterious and involving that I kept reading and reading until I'd reached cover over cover and arrived at the last devastating line.


I read in a review that Ogawa stories are linked in tradition with Classical Japanese poetic collections, using images and motifs. Revenge is the kind of collection best read in its entirety, however, I think my favorite two stories would be Afternoon at the Bakery and Fruit Juice because they highlight a real sense of human sensitivity-------the characters demonstrating that compassion can be shown without fully understanding its presence and/or the need for it to be.


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8. The Comic Destiny, Ben Okri


Ben Okri's The Comic Destiny is fascinating because of its reflection form; the thirteen tales written in a new prose form, stoku. Okra noted that, after a long period of searching for the smallest unit of fiction, he delved into poetry and discovered the haiku. While there are smaller units, Okri writes that the haiku form combines "quantum essence with cultural force."


I dreamt of an alchemy of story and haiku.

--- Okri, introduction


Choosing not to be bound by the traditional seventeen syllable, three-line spread of a technical haiku, Okri focused on the internal components such as imagery and spiritual reflection in order to write the thirteen stokus within the collection.


Overall, the collection startled me a bit; it was chilling, twisted at times and dark. The Comic Destiny itself often reminded me of Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. Simiarily to Beckett, Okri's employment on intentional, theatrical dialogue kept the pace of the book consistent. My two favorite short stories in The Comic Destiny would be Magic For A Ruined City, and The War Healer.


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9. Dart, Alice Oswald


Published by Faber & Faber, Dart is a gorgeous read. After spending three years recording conversations with individuals who live and work on the Dart in Devon, Alice Oswald composed homage to the powerful river, reflecting on its presence and impact on the land around. While Oswald prefaces Dart with a note that asks readers to view "all voices [...] as the river's mutterings." Despite this, the tone and characters within the poem read with a level of intimacy-----independent from one another.


This was one of my favorite reads of summer; the language is as embracing as it is revealing, and the imagery is powerful, poignant and alive.


I have chosen to examine Dart as a primary text for my course's upcoming extended-essay, and so, I will save many of my thoughts to include in that review later, however, I wanted to recommend it. For those of you who may be more unfamiliar to poetry, at a little over forty pages, reading Dart would also be a beautiful way to engage with 21st century poetry.


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10. Sweet Bean Paste, Tetsuya Akikawa


Tetsuya Akikawa's novel is one of great poise and thoughtfulness; it is poetic, full of sorrow, ambitious, simple in both narration and reads with a great awareness of human nature------of sympathy and the compelling force of compassion given in the state of being and recognizing great loneliness in oneself and in another.


This was one of my first introductions to the "odd-couple" genre. Akikawa's narrative focuses on Sentaro. Burdened by a criminal record, alcoholism and an introspectiveness on his own failure to become the writer of his dreams, Sentaro works in a tiny confectionary shop selling sweet bean paste pancakes (dorayaki). He meet Tokue, an elderly woman whose lived restricted and equally ridiculed by her own troubled past and physical disabilities. When Sentaro allows her to work with him in the shop, Tokue teaches him how to create a sweet bean paste unrivaled by generic brands. As their friendship grows, the surrounding social pressures begin to chip away at their strength and stamina, leaving them behind in an ending both bitter and sweet.


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11. The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald


Published by Oxford University Press, The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile is Alice Oswald's first book of poems, and includes a selection chosen and previously-regarded by other renowned poets (especially at the time of its publication in 1996). The poems within are warm, steeped with motion, emotion and a musicality that adds a sound layer of meaning to the text.


Her execution of "Sonnet" on page nine is thoughtful; she does not linger in the rhymes, but uses them to move the rhythm forward. I read each poem, captivated; although they speak of similar things using similar images, there is a distinctive quality about them (both collective and individually).


I'd like to share a bit of "Ballad of a Shadow" with you; it is perhaps one of my favourite moments I've read in the last couple weeks. It begins:


Take from me my voice and I shall voiceless go
to find you; take from me my face,
I'll track the hill invisibly,
my strength, and I shall run but keep no pace.
[...]
And I shall love in secret
and I shall love in crowds
and love in darkness, in the quiet
outlet of shadows, and in cities,
as a ghost walking unnoticed,
and love with books, using their pages like a wind,
not reading, and with people, latticed
by words but through the lattice loving.
And when at last my love is understood,
with you I shall not love but breathe
and turn by breathing into flesh and blood.

~ Alice Oswald, p. 25.


If you read this slowly, aloud, with a melody that is both powerful and warm, I promise you will feel something sorts of courage settling.


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