Thoughts: Jackself, by Jacob Polley

I finished this book a little while ago, but honestly it’s been too hot to think about anything in an intelligent way until around now. And I can’t vouch much for now.

It doesn’t help that this is a book of poetry, and I’m very nervous of saying too much about poetry on a good day, because I don’t read much of it. I feel like I lack a lot of the tools to judge it beyond the immediate and very subjective, with nothing to back my opinions up and no wider context to hang them on, and so have very little of interest to say.

So what’s the immediate?

I knew that Jackself was a sort of poetic autobiography, and that it drew on the various Jacks of nursery rhymes and folklore, but I was still not quite prepared for what this was. The poems were standalone, sort of unmoored in time, but they also referred to each other, and followed on. There was a chronology to it, like a story told in vignettes, and rather than a concrete timeline of events, what I was left with was a sense-impression, caged in a period of time, that I could follow, almost touch. Growing up an odd boy in a Lake District village. Something restless and ill-fitting, something old and dark, something rough and ordinary about it all.

I saw that one of the judges for the T. S. Eliot prize described it as “moving”, as well, which hadn’t been part of my little parcel of expectations when I picked it up, but is absolutely in line with my experience. It was moving, surprisingly so. I don’t think I appreciated just how incredibly well done it was until I started gathering together my impressions of it. I enjoyed it a lot, and when I got to the end and there were no more poems, I had a distinct moment of No, where’s the rest?? which is always a good sign for a book (but always a bit sad for me).

Strange and quite wonderful.

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Thoughts: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

This should give you an idea of how far behind I am.

I almost felt a bit bad reading this one now, because the triumph of the story of how black female mathematicians were part of history all along actually felt so dissonant to the current unrest in the US. But you know what? It was a great time to read it.

A sort of disclaimer! Pre-emptively, I am not here for “if you’re not x you haven’t been paying attention” on this. I am not American. I am from a different continent and have lived in different countries which have just as much history and politics to them, and I’m not comfortable apologising for not being aware of some very detailed history from before I was born in a different country. I’m just not, and I don’t like the parts of the internet that have begun to tend towards blaming people for becoming aware of something later than other people, but that’s by the by. Everyone has to learn things. Don’t shit on strangers for not doing so to your personal timetable.

Obviously there’s no spoilering history, but let’s snip for length.

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Thoughts: Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

Another top notch non-fiction recommendation by the kind soul who recommended Your Inner Fish, Why The West Rules – For Now, and The Mismeasure of Man, and she continues to hit it out of the park, as the Yanks would say.

This is a book I picked up as research for a short story, which feels intensely embarrassing to say, as I am a hack who has no place writing the kinds of stories that need researching, but there it is, so let’s never speak of it again.

Snip for length and convenience.

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Thoughts: Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack

As 2017 started, I decided that I clearly wasn’t adding enough books to my TBR and added one more condition to the existing conditions of “one book by writers whose obituaries you come across when timewasting in the Guardian” and “books whose adaptations you see in other media”; namely, “books which win prizes”. I felt like I was missing out by reading all these reports on book prizes but not reading the actual books themselves. Solar Bones is the first one of those to have been put on the list, and now, in 2020, I have finally got there. Yay!

And yes, this prizewinning book is indeed good.

Before I get into it, I’m going to say I spoilered myself when I was 60% through by idiotically skimming Goodreads reviews. And I don’t usually mind spoilers, but this time it did affect the experience a bit. As soon as I spoilered myself I wondered what it would have been like to come to it organically as I read or all at once when the book revealed itself. Don’t be like me. If you enjoy those books that are also whole lives, then keep yourself pure and give this one a go.

Last spoiler warning!


Before I get into the spoilers, though, why not start with The Gimmick (which is a mean way of putting it), or The Eye-Catching Thing about this book, which is the fact that it’s one giant book-length sentence. I don’t know if I’m of an age where such things no longer impress me in themselves, or if I was just a bit grumpy, but I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of a book-length sentence – if nothing else, all my reading is done on commutes and in the spaces between work and errands and hobbies and whatnot, and where are you supposed to pause to go to bed if there aren’t any sentence breaks, let alone chapters?

I kept remembering that quote by Hitchcock: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Bladders are less relevant to books, but there’s still some relationship with human physicality or biology there, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t the easiest book to put down or pick up again. I did appreciate that he put paragraphs in though! Not just because it made it easier to read, but it added almost a sense of poetry to the prose, a sort of enjambment angle that was really quite lovely.

I do have to say though, that like a lot of Longest Sentences, it… wasn’t technically a single sentence. It just lacked full stops. I saw a Goodreads commenter peeved about the lack of punctuation in dialogue in particular, which I agree was the most egregious trick (some of those really were complete and finished sentences) but it didn’t offend me or anything. I was happy enough to accept it as a style choice by that point. It would have been odder to have put punctuation in them given the rest of it.

Solar Bones is the story of Marcus Conway’s life, as retold through Marcus Conway’s zigzagging thoughts as he sits at his kitchen table, and I must admit that though I enjoyed being in Marcus’s head, I spent some time wondering what the book was saying, and whether it had just been beloved for its style and format. Well. If I hadn’t gone and bliddy spoilered myself I would have found out, wouldn’t I?

Last spoiler warning!

As I knew I wanted to read the book because it was a prizewinner (and from three and a half years ago so it wasn’t as though I remembered much beyond “it is a single sentence”) I didn’t bother reading the blurb or anything when buying it. So when I was faffing around on Goodreads and saw the description contained “blah blah ghostly visits on All Soul’s and this is the story of one such visitation blah blah” I went “…oh.” When I read the irritated review about the sentence thing and got to the bit about “the controversy over the back of the book giving away that Marcus is dead when you only find it out on the last page” I went “Oh.”

I had started to wonder about something by this point, every now and then when we were brought back to him sitting at the kitchen table, and he’s getting more and more restless and is more and more convinced his family will never come by here again I suspected something, but not that he was the ghost.

Well, I’ll never know whether I’d have sussed it now, and I have no one to blame but myself.

As I said, I liked being in Marcus’s head. I have a soft spot for that kind of character, who works with his hands or with solid things, who has the integrity not to sign his name to things that aren’t up to his standards and is immune to the worst kind of politics, baffled but supportive of his children as they charge off in directions totally alien to him. I liked the moments when he got caught up in sudden wonder, and the way he talked about Mairead and his father. I liked the look at 21st century Ireland too, so often eclipsed by its past (not meant in an “Ireland’s past is unimportant” way, but in an “Ireland continues to exist in this the year of our lord 2020” way).

And speaking of the Ireland part, the whole epidemic thing read particularly interestingly in a way I guarantee it didn’t when it first came out. It retained its original power as a sign of a huge problem that won’t go away, and that no one will solve because no one knows who’s to blame because everybody’s to blame, and the knotty complexity of its causes between urban/rural, big/small in a way that I think resonates depressingly throughout the whole Northwest European Archipelago. But it also hit very close to home in a less metaphorical way, these sudden emergency conditions, the politicisation of reality, the abstract treatment of things by faraway speakers which are affecting real people who are much closer to us in visceral ways.

The more I think about it, the more I like it, and I liked it pretty well as I was reading it.

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Thoughts: G, by John Berger

I have finally made it into the 2017 part of my TBR list! Yay!

So this was kind of a weird one. All the reviews I saw on Goodreads were either very highly rated or very low rated, but my own experience was decidedly… middling.

Partly I couldn’t quite get into the story, partly I think I was missing some background context (Italian history in the late nineteenth century, the Don Juan story in its various forms…), just a variety of little things that stopped me loving it.

Usual spoiler warnings ahead.

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Thoughts: Postcards from the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

If you aren’t sick of me saying “Wow, this book everyone says is great turns out to be great!” then you are in luck!

I always approach novels by people whose names I know from other spheres with some trepidation, but I’d seen it around on people’s Goodreads, and it finally went on the list, and I had a fantastic time, honestly. Probably not much in the way of spoilers, but you should still go and read it for yourself.

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Thoughts: The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams

Yeah, I did this to myself.

When Richard Adams died, I wanted to put one of his books on my list. I read Watership Down as a teen, and though it was all about nature being hard there was a pleasing amount of worldbuilding around the rabbits that scratched my fantasy itch, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I knew people talked about The Plague Dogs in the reverent tones reserved for the British tradition of traumatising kids with beloved media, and I kind of wanted in. Surely it couldn’t beĀ that b-

Reader, it’s harrowing. Spoilers and cruelty to animals follow.

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Thoughts: To Sir, With Love, by E. R. Braithwaite

Yep, another book with a film based on it that I haven’t seen. I really want to see this one though.

It seems to have been a little bit forgotten – I put it on the list when Braithwaite died (yes, I am still in 2016 on my book list) but hadn’t heard of it before then. It’s an autobiographical novel of the author’s time teaching in a post-WWII London school, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it, in a lot of ways.

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Thoughts: Closed For Winter, by Georgia Blain

I didn’t read this one particularly quickly, but I kept going back to it, a slow immersion of a reading experience. The reviews on Goodreads are pretty divided, and I can see why – it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – but the things that make it anathema to some are catnip to others.

Not sure if there are many spoilers ahead? Probably not many? And not big ones that would spoil the reading anyway. It’s not the bare plot that makes the book.

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Thoughts: Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright

First things first, if you look this book up all the marketing blurbs tell you it’s a thriller. It is not. And expecting it to be a thriller does a disservice to the book.

As we’re still in “books based on films I watched in 2016” I only had vague memories of this one (the film’s title is Nocturnal Animals). The story within a story’s beginning I remembered, and some dark weirdness in the framing story. Some of it matched the book and some of it didn’t. I’ve since looked up a synopsis of the film and I can see those differences pretty clear now. Interesting choices were made!

This time, an actual spoiler warning. Also contains men raping and murdering women, if that’s something you are not in the mood for.

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