Book Review: “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with FeathersGrief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a poetic story of the process of grieving. None of the characters are named: a man, a woman who has just died, two young sons and the presence, in the man’s psyche at least, of a crow. Each brief chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters. Also looming large in the background is Ted Hughes, about whom the man is writing a book. Hughes’ “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”, has likely been central to the man’s literary history. This is a short but very intense story of a man and his sons, much disturbed by the death of the most important woman in their lives, and their process of returning from the pit of despair to ‘normality’. It is written in short, imagistic, disjointed chapters with sections which are more poetry than prose.

A moving and brilliantly conceived experimental approach to the important subject of grief.

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Instapoetry

PM5a

I did a short workshop on Instapoetry with Kate Larsen recently, at the Guildhouse in Adelaide. Kate is / was artist in residence at ART WORKS. From her bio:

Kate Larsen is an Adelaide writer, arts manager and non-profit/cultural consultant. One of Australia’s best-known social media poets, her alter ego Katie Keys (or @tinylittlepoems) has written and posted a daily poem on Twitter or Instagram for nearly a decade. Her work has been published or commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne, the Australia Council, Kill Your Darlings, Overland Journal, and anthologies, magazines and blogs in Australia, Singapore and the UK.

and she says:

The internet has given birth to an exciting new world of digital poetry. Putting your poems onto Instagram (or other social media platforms) can connect you to a vibrant online community and expose your work to a much broader audience.

The workshop was a succinct introduction to ways of putting your words, usually along with an image, onto a social media platform. Kate mainly focused on using the Over app to do this, and within a remarkably short time, had most of the twenty or so participants posting a fresh poem on Instragram.

Some Instapoets have developed huge followings and gained greater exposure and financial benefit than would have been possible following the traditional publishing path. The most famous is Rupi Kaur, an Indian born Canadian poet, writer, illustrator, and performer. There is much debate in the poetry community about the merit of InstaPoetry, but it cannot be denied that it has introduced poetry to an audience that it would not otherwise have reached. The downside risk as that poets will be tempted to “write for clicks” rather than for quality, resulting in a plethora of “Hallmark card” / inspirational poems.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of short poems on the theme of “The President’s Mirror”. InstaPoetry is a perfect medium for exposing these poems to a wider audience. I’ve started reformatting them for Instagram, and am posting one a day for the next month or so (one example shown above). You can follow me on Instagram here  or via the Instagram app. The latest posts are also shown on the right hand side of this blog.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Paroxysm Album Tribute Gig – Nevermind, Nirvana

nirvanagig

Friday 19th July 2019 at 19:30
Broadcast Bar
66A Grote Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000

Six writers / poets (including me) will give their response to tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album.  This is one of a series of gigs run by Paroxysm Press over the years, in which they invite writers to perform their work in between blasting out tracks from the chosen artist. I’ve taken part in previous gigs which featured Kate Bush and the Divinyls. Kerryn Tredrea of Paroxysm Press curates these events and always picks interesting albums and an eclectic mix of writers. The results are often zany, unpredictable, edgy, chaotic, inspired, fresh and entertaining.

The Facebook event is here

This description of Paroxysm Press will give you an idea of the sort of evening to expect:

“Paroxysm Press rose from the gutter of the Australian music scene in 98’. It’s been fighting tooth and nail ever since to publish the type of hard edge, honest and high impact writing we all love and live for ourselves.

Poetry and prose, ‘shotgun’ fiction, rapid-read novellas; tight, slick, hard hitting spoken word that can hold the stage and keep an audience on their toes even in front of hundreds of drunken music fans. The Paroxysm Crew carry with them a passion, a stubborn anger and a strong awareness of their need to entertain that sees them now among the best authors this country has to offer.

Paroxysm Press simply refuses to die; we will not back down, we will not go away. Every year we get bigger, every year we expand our audience and (most importantly) our much valued, much loved cult following. Like-minded writers from around the world now gather here with us to fight for the power of words. Bigger name authors stand by our side even when the rewards are less than they can receive elsewhere because they too believe in the hard, tough, true to life material we publish. They see Paroxysm fight against a world it can never beat – but they stay anyway – because they can see the fire in our eyes.

Paroxysm Press : ‘too stubborn to die’”

Film Review: “Rolling Thunder Revue – A Bob Dylan Story” By Martin Scorsese

The best documentary I’ve seen about rock music is “The Last Waltz” which centres on the final concert(s) given by The Band, and includes almost every rock legend of the time, from Bob Dylan, to Neil Young, to Joni Mitchell, to Eric Clapton and even Neil Diamond. “The Last Waltz” was a Martin Scorsese film, and so is “Rolling Thunder Revue ….”.

This appears to be a documentary of the 1975/76  tour across America in which Dylan and his band played 57 concerts, in mostly smallish venues, in a 7 month period. Some of the venues look almost like aged care facilities, some are on Indian reservations, others in towns so mundane that the populace is astounded that Dylan would even bother stopping there. The artists on tour with Dylan include Mick Ronson (ex Bowie guitarist), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Joan Baez, Alan Ginsberg and T-Bone Burnett.

The restored video of these concerts captures Dylan at the absolute top of his game. He stalks and snarls around the stage and puts everything into the songs. His face is painted white, his hat is set with flowers, his teeth are bared yellow. His facial expressions as he sings are priceless. As Joan Baez says, there is nobody who can match his charisma and probably never will be. The concerts are interleaved with discussions with current day Dylan and others involved in the tour.

Something to watch out for is that this film is partially spoof. It presents as a documentary but Scorsese and Dylan have planted practical jokes within it – for instance Sharon Stone appears implying that she and Dylan had an affair on tour (they didn’t), a fake movie director complains that he was the one behind the film (he is a fictional character). Dylan gives a coded warning of this early in the film, when he says “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” The title also hints at it – “A Bob Dylan Story”.

This is 2 hours and 20 minutes of Dylan at his peak. If you don’t like Dylan, you might be won over at the end. If you do like him, this is unmissable.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

TV Mini Series – Chernobyl

Horrifying yet gripping, this series is both hard to watch and compulsive viewing. HBO has produced five episodes, about seventy minutes each, which give an account of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine in 1986.
The series starts in the home of a man, whom we later learn to be a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, in the aftermath of the disaster. It then moves inside the control room of the plant on the fateful day, when, of all things, a safety check is being conducted. A sense of dysfunction and panic pervades the room. We are taken then to the nearby high-rises where people go about their normal lives, but soon congregate on a railway bridge to watch the awe-inspiring sight of the power plant on fire and the glowing sky.

The following episodes track the initial denial of the seriousness of the disaster, followed by the reluctant but inevitable recognition that immediate and drastic action is required to limit the catastrophe. The story revolves around three figures – Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, and a fictional character, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) who is a composite of various concerned Soviet nuclear physicists. It depicts a political system designed to protect its reputation above all other things. The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary working men and women is in stark contrast to the self-serving cowardice and incompetence of the political class and time-servers. The cost imposed on the innocents living in proximity to the plant is most vividly represented by the fate of one of the firemen initially sent on the hopeless task of putting out the fire, and his pregnant wife.

It brings to my mind the denial and obfuscation by our own incompetent, self-serving political class, incapable of even recognising, let alone addressing the clear and present dangers of climate change.

The series has had mixed reviews in Russia, where it is viewed by some as an unfair portrayal of the response to the disaster. Certainly, some of the characters appear to be one-dimensional. The use of the composite character of Ulana Khomyuk has also been criticised as misrepresenting the efforts of the wider Soviet scientific community.
Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a terrifying and timely reminder of what can go wrong when corners are cut, workers are not trained sufficiently and political imperatives override the welfare of the community. In the case of a nuclear power plant, unimaginable disaster is the inevitable result.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about …. loneliness, trauma, friendship, community, recovery, office politics, mother-daughter relationships. At times very moving, at times hilarious, at times the characters make you cringe in embarrassment. This is a wonderful book which I found grabbed me from the start. It’s Honeyman’s first novel and therefore an incredibly impressive feat to pull off such a polished book.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely young woman whose life consists of an office job during the week, and a weekend consuming vodka and pasta, and talking to nobody. She possesses zero social skills and is the brunt of jokes amongst her work colleagues. Once a week she is the subject of a conversation with her mother, in which she is put down, mocked and humiliated.

Early on in the story she becomes infatuated, from a distance, with a pub singer. She is convinced that their futures lie together and formulates a plan which she expects will lead to them becoming life partners. Where this book then becomes more interesting and insightful is in depicting the way in which, against her will almost, Eleanor is exposed to the warmer side of the Glasgow community in which she lives, a warmth that she has never before experienced. It also takes us into her mental state, the dark story behind her childhood, and the route to her salvation.

We have probably all met an Eleanor Oliphant in our lives, and probably been unkind towards her or at best ignored her. This book gives us pause to think about why people are the way they are, and how a kind word or invitation can make a huge difference to people who have rarely experienced them. If it has a weakness it is that perhaps the characters are a bit too black and white – either totally evil, or wonderfully warm and kind. But this does not detract from the power of the story. Highly recommended.

———–

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019


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TV Mini-Series – Catch-22

It must be 40 years since I read Joseph Heller’s classic. I’m sure that many people younger than me who use / misuse the term “catch-22” have never heard of Heller, let alone read the book. This six-part mini-series, directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, is a brilliant adaptation of the novel. It’s so long since I read the book, I cannot, however, attest to its faithfulness to the original.

What I can say is that it is in equal parts moving, hilarious, farcical, depressing, cynical and, I suspect, very accurate, in relation to the reality of war. The main role of John Yossarian (‘Yo-Yo’) is a played by Christopher Abbott. Abbott manages to capture Yo-Yo’s endearing combination of intelligence, naiveté, passion, bravery, compassion, humour and sensitivity. His facial expressions in particular are highly skilled and the camera close-ups on his face are a key part of setting the tone of the production. It’s one of those performances which make it hard for anyone else to play the role.

Clooney has a significant part as the eccentric Scheisskopf. Almost stealing the show is Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder, the fast talking but lovable budding capitalist, who finds the most inventive ways of making money out of war (presaging perhaps the rise of disaster capitalism, Bechtel, Halliburton etc.). Hugh Laurie appears early on, including the central role in one of the funniest scenes in the whole series. Not all of the characters are funny and likeable however, and the cruelty of war is represented, though perhaps not as fully as it might be.

Yossarian finds himself trapped in a paradise island off the coast of Italy, which the U.S. army air force is using as a base to bomb the German forces on the mainland. His life consists of contrasting periods – swimming in pristine waters, boredom awaiting the next mission and the nightmare of being a sitting target in a bomber aircraft flying over Italy. The erosion of his sanity progresses steadily until the last episode, in which the viewer is confronted with the full horror and futility of war and the contorted logic of those in command.

Highly recommended.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceWhat You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché’s memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved with that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem “The Colonel”, (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem…). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”.

I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago – it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G27j…)

Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed.

Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attacks on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gómez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation.

This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 2004, this has been on my “to read” list for some time and is well worth the wait. I know little about autism, but the author appears to provide a very credible insight into the mind of an autistic boy. The boy in question, Christopher, narrates the tale. The story opens with him finding a dog skewered by a garden fork. He decides to play detective in order to discover the murderer. So the story is part “who dunnit” but then develops into a vivid depiction of marriage breakdown, single parenthood, the challenges for parents and schools of interacting with autistic children, the challenges of being autistic and of being, at times, overwhelmed by the modern world. This sounds very dark, but there is a lot of wry humour here. Christopher is both lovable and infuriating. The story moves at a good pace, keeping the reader engaged right to the end. There are surprising twists and the occasional illustrations provide a further glimpse into the autistic mind. Recommended.

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