Book review: Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (Ireland)

Fierce Appetites: Lessons from my year of untamed thinking is a collection of personal essays by Irish medieval historian Elizabeth Boyle. Sub-(sub-)titled Loving, Losing and Living to Excess in My Present and in the Writings of the Past, the book was published in 2022 by Penguin, and (appropriately enough) I’ve read it during Cathy‘s Reading Ireland month ’23

Part memoir and part deep-dive into medieval Irish poetry, it meditates on the interconnectedness of time and place, and describes a year in Boyle’s life, the pandemic year of 2020, which opens with her father’s death in January.

“My brother poured seventeen sachets of sugar into his black coffee. I muttered to him, ‘If dad dies while you’re adding all these fucking sugars I will never speak to you again.’

We walked back to the ward. Dad had died…”

There are 12 chapters, broken down by month, containing personal meditations on 12 topics, such as grief, motherhood, travel, lockdown, nature and time, and interspersed with quotes from, and analysis of medieval poetry and history. She finds connections, parallels and contrasts with the past as she passes through that weird, pre-vaccine COVID year, a year in which she turns 40. In that birthday chapter, situated in August 2020, she quotes from a female-perspective medieval poem on ageing:

Ebb-tide comes to me, as to the sea.

Old age yellows me.

Though I may grieve at that.

It approaches its food gleefully.

I am Bui, the veiled woman of Beare.

I used to wear an ever-new tunic.

Today, attenuated as I am,

I have not even a cast-off tunic.

From here, in the same chapter, she notes that an ex told her that during arguments she would always come up with some ‘bullshit narrative’ to justify herself; she quotes James Baldwin (“the only real concern of the artist … is to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art“), adding that “this includes turning emotional chaos into bullshit narrative, to justify myself to myself, if not to you.”). Next she turns to the world of academe: “Academic hands tear texts apart in a hungry search for something that might pre-date Christianity; pre-date literacy. Stripping away words after word until there is nothing left but unspoken ideology. Bullshit narratives.”

Segueing between loosely connected topics like this could go wrong in less assured hands, but I found it all fascinating. And although the subject matters sounds erudite – and it is – the writing is also no-nonsense and sometimes very funny.

Boyle can be uncomfortably open, acknowledging upfront that she is an alcoholic from a family of addicts, and questioning her motives for her leaving her six-year old daughter in England with her father to pursue her academic career many miles away in Ireland. The rare but eyebrow-lifting accounts of her sex life are such that the Daily Mail would probably wheel out terms like “shameless”. And amid the confessional writing, she is clear-eyed, incredibly clever, emotionally raw and extremely good company.

“When I was very little, no more than three or four years old, I had already moved house so often, amidst so many permutations of my shifting family unit, that I told my stepmother that I didn’t know where my home was. She told me that my home would always be wherever my teddy bear was.

Today, Poodle lives in my bedroom in Dublin. He has a hole in his arse from when one of my brothers anally raped him with a pencil. His head has been sewn back on twice, badly, and sometimes stuffing falls out of his neck. But he is home.”

Book review: The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins (Canada)

This work of non-fiction by Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins, published in 2022 by the always interesting Fitzcarraldo and sub-titled An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees, has been described as a work of “radical empathy”.

Aikins was living comfortably in Afghanistan (this was in 2016 and well before the recent Taliban takeover), when his friend and ‘fixer’/interpreter Omar decided to try to migrate to the West. Aikins, with a mixed Japanese-Canadian heritage and knowledge of Persian and Dari that meant he could ‘pass’ as a fellow Afghan refugee, decided to accompany him on the often perilous illegal migration route to Greece, crossing the Mediterranean in an inflatable dinghy.

Obviously Aikins had less to lose than his companion, who left behind his family and his girlfriend for an uncertain outcome. Although Aikins faced threats to his safety in pursuing the illicit migration route, his Canadian citizenship meant that he had the privilege of being able to call time on the endeavour if it got too much. This aspect of the experiment made me think of David Rosenhan’s 1973 study On Being Sane in Insane Places, which I read for my psychology degree: the radical act of infiltrating a place (a mental institution vs a refugee camp) and a state of existence surely only the most desperate or foolhardy would choose.

Aikins pretends to know no English, adopts the name Habib and even sends his passport to a friend. But whereas Omar is effectively imprisoned in the refugee camp on Lesbos in which the find themselves, Aikins always had the option of calling in his passport. This is an important and absolutely fascinating book, in revealing the horrors of the migrant trail, while the contrast between Aikins’ experience and Omar’s utter lack of a safety net really magnifies the vulnerabilities of desperate migrants left at the mercy of often hostile governments.

Vietnamese food at Banh Banh on Peckham Rye, London

Last week, in the same week I went to see the wonderful new British romcom Rye Lane (can it do for Peckham what Notting Hill did for … Notting Hill?), my husband and I went for cocktails at Funkidory on Peckham Rye before moving a couple of doors down to Vietnamese restaurant Banh Banh.

Banh Banh was set up by five siblings, inspired by their grandmother’s past as a chef in Saigon in the 1940s. The restaurant is pared-back and definitely not swanky, but the food is top rate and the bill very reasonable.

We had baked black sesame seed rice crackers with a sweet chilli dip, together with chargrilled aubergine with a fish sauce glaze, peanuts and coriander. We also ordered some lovely light vegetable spring rolls, and a bowl of delicious jasmine rice. My husband had the lemongrass-marinated pork skewers, grilled and served with a coriander dipping sauce, and I added the delicious chicken, sweet potato and green bean yellow-style curry with turmeric and coconut, paired with a couple of glasses of wine (me) and a local beer (him).

We went on a Tuesday, but Mondays are entirely meat-free so I may have to try that too. It’s not easy to find great Vietnamese restaurants locally, and this one is a keeper.

Book review: Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Israel)

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Waking Lions is a 2014 novel by Israeli writer and psychologist Ayelet Guder-Goshen, which was published in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2016.

It opens with hospital doctor Eitan, a devoted husband and father of two, who has just completed a busy shift. It’s late, he’s overworked and exhausted, and he pumps up his music and puts his foot down, intending to blow away the stress as he drives his SUV through the seemingly empty Negev desert.

He was thinking that the moon was the most beautiful he had ever seen when he hit the man. For the first moment after he hit him, he was still thinking about the moon and then he suddenly stopped, like a candle that had been blown out.”

Eitan determines that man is an African immigrant, and that he has no chance of survival. In the next moments he makes a fateful decision: that nothing he does can save the dying man, but that he can save his career and save his family from the fall-out of the accident by simply leaving the scene.

All this takes place within a few pages, in the first chapter of the novel. But Eitan cannot simply put the accident behind him. He is plagued by guilt, and when the man’s widow, the beautiful Sirkit, tracks him down, she compels him to establish a sort of field hospital in the desert to treat illegal Eritrean refugees, who are unable to access medical treatment through the normal routes.

Eitan tortures himself: can he still consider himself a good man? A good husband and father? His situation is complicated too by his wife Liat’s job as a police detective, as an investigation into the hit and run is launched.

The novel is pacy, and reads like a thriller, while weighing up issues of guilt, of the meaning of privilege, of the plight of African immigrant and Bedouin communities, and of the complacent, unacknowledged racism of ‘good’ people. It is neatly plotted – perhaps too neatly plotted – but overall I found it to be a gripping and thought-provoking read.

My Top 10 Tracks from the Island of Ireland

It’s Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy. Admittedly, these aren’t books, but here is some of my favourite music from the island of Ireland.

  1. Glue by Bicep (2017): Belfast duo Bicep are dismissed by some as middle-class, middle-aged dinner party electronica, but I unapologetically love this nostalgic serotonin rush of a song.

2. Courage by Villagers (2015): Conor O’Brien channels a sort of late ’60s folk vibe, and this song is just gorgeous, as is Everything I Am Is Yours off the same album.

3. One by U2 (1991): Not a big U2 fan, but I asked for the album Achtung Baby for birthday way back in 1991 on the basis of this song. I remember being sorely disappointed with the rest of the album, with the exception of the fab The Fly (and so much tape winding and rewinding was required to find the two decent tracks!).

4. Teenage Kicks by The Undertones (1978): A Northern Irish pop/punk classic that was reputedly awarded a 28-star rating (out of 5) on its release by iconic DJ John Peel.

5. A Lady of a Certain Age by Divine Comedy (2006): I’m not usually a big fan of this Northern Irish band, led by Neil Hannon, but I do love this one.

6. I Don’t Like Mondays by Boomtown Rats (1979): A song that’s not heard often these days, it was the sixth most popular song of 1979 according to Wiki. The dark lyrics reference a school shooting in that year in the US. Here’s Bob Geldof performing the song at 1985’s Live Aid concert

7. Ramalama (Bang Bang) by Roisin Murphy (2005): energetic electronica with a banging baseline from 50% of the band Moloko (of The Time is Now fame).

8. Watermark by Enya (1988): There’s undoubtedly something deeply cheesy about Enya, but I can’t help loving this beautiful instrumental track.

9. Zombie by the Cranberries (1994): written in response to the death of two children in an IRA bombing, it’s a howl of rage and despair from Cranberries singer Denise O’Riordan who tragically died in 2018.

10. Take Me to Church by Hozier (2013): Famed for its amazing video, the song describes a gay relationship stigmatized by religious discrimination. According to Wikipedia some people unfortunately took the title literally and “were very upset” when they discovered the song was “not actually about being taken to church”.

Classics Club #33 (My 2nd Spin)

Joining in with this again, for just the second time, as I’m working my way through a pile of ad hoc classics as well as the 1001 books list.

Last spin gave me the momentum to read and enjoy Sebald’s modern classic Austerlitz, so I’m looking forward to finding out what comes up this time. I’ve removed that book from the list, as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which I read recently on audio book, and Tove Ditlvesen’s strange and disturbing The Faces, which I read in January. I’ve had to rejig the list a bit more too, as lots of my books are in storage pending building work!

My Book Spin List for the Classics Club

1 Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
2 The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
3 The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair
4 The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway
5 Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
6 Emma by Jane Austen
7 The Infatuations by Javier Marias
8 The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
9 Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
10 On Beauty by Zadie Smith
11 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
12 Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta
13 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
14 Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley
15 Thank You Jeeves by P G Wodehouse
16 The Middle Ground by Margaret Drabble
17 The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas
18 The Annotated Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
19 Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
20 The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twen Eng

TV series Squid Game (South Korea)

Korean export Squid Game was all over the media about 18 months ago, so it had to be my TV selection for South Korea. Astonishingly, Netflix UK claimed Squid Game was its most successful debut ever, with 111 million viewers across the world, although the methodology used to arrive at this conclusion was unclear. South Koreans were apparently bewildered by the success of the series overseas. Had we simply run out of stuff to watch after endless COVID lockdowns and delayed TV production schedules?

Certainly subtitled TV has been losing both the ‘fear factor’ and the snob factor and has entered the mainstream. Not before time, and not unexpected given the fact that a fair few people watch TV with the subtitles on even in English, as well as the fact that South Korean film Parasite (which I reviewed here) won the Oscar for best film in early 2020.

Social media seems to be the main explanation for the show’s popularity. My son canvassed us to let him watch it after seeing clips on Tik Tok, and claimed “everyone” at school had watched it.

The premise of Squid Game is not particularly original: disenfranchised down and outs compete in a raft of violent and often fatal games, as previously seen in films such as 1980s Arnie vehicle The Running Man and, more recently, The Hunger Games. What is original is the horror of the design: these games are based on innocent childhood pastimes, and given a horribly sinister spin. The games’ losers are killed instantly. For the overall winner, however, there is a tantalisingly enormous cash prize.

The first two episodes of Squid Game were full of back story, and I found them a bit tedious (despite usually far preferring character development to senseless violence). However, seeing the characters’ lives outside the Squid Game scenario helped to explain why they would return to the game even when given a chance to leave. Indeed, in episode 3 we learn that the ‘re-entrance rate’ is 93%, while those who haven’t returned are nevertheless being monitored.

As the competitors are ruthlessly whittled down, there is everything to play for, and Squid Game plays out to its perverse conclusion.

Film review: Close (Belgium)

If there ever was a film to make you want to hold your children tight it’s Close, directed and co-written by Lukas Dhont.

Shortlisted in the category of Best International Feature at the upcoming Oscars, Close tells the story of two best friends, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), who are teetering on the brink of adolescence.

They spend beautifully shot golden, giggling summer days together, playing games, running wild in the fields, and enjoying regular sleepovers. The boys are close, expressing easy physical warmth with each other, but it is an unusually intense friendship that is immediately picked up on and questioned by the students at their new secondary school, who tease them about being a couple with a curiosity that borders on bullying.

This teasing places a strain on their friendship, as they try to cope in their different ways with teen life, with Leo trying out new, more macho interests (football, ice hockey) and new friends. Rémi is increasingly pushed aside, and full of confusion and raw pain. I can still remember the hurt of being dumped by a close friend as a teenager! Then the unthinkable happens, and Léo is confronted with a whole new reality.

This is a coming of age tale of the most brutally moving kind. I sobbed in that cinema, with tears rolling down my face and dripping off my chin; afterwards I overheard a man admitting to a friend: “I was just a mess in there for a full half an hour”. The film captures universal vulnerabilities of adolescence, as well as the characters’ individual difficulties, and with a young teen son it hit particularly close to home.

Close is a emotionally intense tear-jerker that ought to come plastered in trigger warnings, but ultimately deserves the plaudits.

Book review: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn (Scotland)

I loved this work of non-fiction by the Scottish writer Cal Flyn. Although I’m often bored by nature writing it had been so well-received that I put it on my wish list and asked for it for my birthday last year. It still took me a year to get round to it, but it was well worth reading. The book, sub-titled ‘Life in the Post-Human Landscape’ won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for both the Wainwright Prize for writing on conservation and the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2021.

Flyn discusses several ‘post-human’ landscapes, among them the buffer zone of the frozen conflict between Cyprus proper and the Turkish-claimed (and internationally unrecognised) ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, the land surrounding Chernobyl, the forever blighted soil of Verdun in France following the First World War and the deserted Scotland island of Swona. She describes scenarios as different as urban US areas virtually destroyed by the impact of over-zealous industrial expansion, and the invasive plant species of Amani in Tanzania.

Flyn visited the abandoned places discussed in the book, both urban and rural, so this is a personal account as opposed to a polemic written from a garret. The writing, often in the first person present, is beautiful, conjuring for the reader a vividly evocative account of nature left to its own devices, a well-shaped mixture of subjective experience and scientific and historical evidence.

The main takeaway from the book is unexpectedly positive. Flyn is hopeful about regeneration, telling of the return of wolves and bears to the woods around Chernobyl in Ukraine, and the flourishing herds of feral cows on the deserted Scottish Orkney island of Swona, which demonstrate a fascinating social hierarchy. I found the writing on animals more engaging than Flyn’s deep dives into plant species, but the book is never dull, and never spends too long discussing one place or topic.

Despite the positivity about environmental recovery, there is recognition that the current rate of human-inspired degradation continues to outpace it. But this is overall a hopeful book – the natural environment will no doubt thrive without us.

“When he drops me on the island, Hamish the boatman has a last piece of advice: ‘Stay in the house at night,’ he says, ‘and lock the door behind you’.

‘Oh?’ I say, taken aback.

‘Don’t camp outdoors,’ he repeats, ‘or the cows will trample you. Make sure you sleep in the house. See you tomorrow.’ Then he’s gone, and I’m left alone on my desert island. Just me, and the birds, and these trampling cattle. I turn to face it: green and tumbledown and wind-battered, and feel for the first time a shiver of unease.

Art review: Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017)

“I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope and every possibility of transformation … I am not interested in the practical usefulness of my work”

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s woven installations have been on display at Tate Modern since November, and the exhibition runs until May. I’ve seen the exhibition three times over the past month: once dropping in to a private view with my membership after a slightly boozy work do nearby, then again on a day doing the galleries with my mum, and finally with my son and daughter during half term, a day out that also fulfilled a GCSE art homework requirement. I’m definitely getting my money’s worth from the membership at the moment.

Abakanowicz was born into an aristocratic Tatar family, but her family exited the war in much weakened position. Nevertheless, and despite the strictures of communism, living and working after the War in Poland she became internationally renowned for her work with natural fibres and for the immense scale of that work.

Magdalena Abakanowicz with her husband at their wedding:

The exhibition opens with wall-hung weavings with colourways that reminded me of 1970s hall carpets. Maybe my own 1970s hall carpet – it would have been at eye-level regularly at the age I was then.

However, the monumental woven sculptures that make up the core of the exhibition are mysterious and appealingly intense, and these so-called ‘Abakans’ make up a ‘fibrous forest’. They are shaggy and enveloping, like enormous cloaks or alien forms, and their sheer scale creates a feeling of spectacle. For Abakanowicz, they represented a refuge and a safe space “like the hollow trunk of the old willow I could enter as a child in search of hidden secrets”.

Elsewhere, though, they resemble instead lungs or – though the Tate’s information booklet is strangely reticent in it’s failure to acknowledge this – female genitalia, often entwined with salvaged rope, like roots, or even intestines.

The evening I went to the private view (a perk of my Tate membership), it was almost empty, which added to the impact of the work.

Abakanowicz didn’t only work with textiles. Her last major commission was Agora, an installation of more than 100 headless iron sculptures displayed in Grant Park in Chicago.

The textiles on display at Tate are closer to enormous sculptures than ‘home crafts’, and Abakanowicz was making installation art well before that was a thing. With this show, as well as the work by Slovakian artist Maria Bartuszová also currently on display at Tate Modern, it feels that women artists are finally being given their due.

%d bloggers like this: