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Above Us, Only Sky.

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Above the clouds, where the air is as pure as the sunlight, she floats with her arms by her sides, looking out at the sky around her. She can sense that her physical body waits on the earth beneath her, that this is a matter of perception, afforded her by virtue of an education at her mother’s knee.

She looked at the sky around her, endured the bone deep ache of being in the presence of beauty such as the world around her. Her soul trembled at what she had to do, but when she spoke, her voice rang out across the sky.

‘I am Esperanza, daughter of Dona Maria, I am curandera and I come to find something that has not been lost.’

Her voice echoed, but nothing moved or responded. A chill wind blew across her shoulders, wracking her with shivers. Was this the response? Mama had said that they would speak to her. Esperanza took that to mean a conversation, but this was a chil breeze.

She felt it then, a tugging sensation to her left, like a child pulling at the hem of mother’s skirt and she followed it.

Downwards.

She plummeted, too fast to scream and blacked out for a second with it’s terrible velocity.

2.

Beneath her, the soft damp bed of moss laid damp against her cheek. She got up, wrapping her arms around herself as she looked out at a sea of trees, tall enough to pierce the low hanging clouds above her. So thick was the cloud that it made her strain to see the details. She shut her eyes, and listened.

The gentle trickle of running water, and she smiled to herself.

There is the Rio Abjao Rio, the river beneath the river. If you hear it, in the air, the spaces when you hear your true love’s voice, then you must follow it. She got to her feet and began to walk. Her steps were tentative, but she took a deep breath and carried on into the forest.

The noise of the water gained presence and volume as she drew nearer. The air was cool, damp in her nostrils and on her lips. She raked her hair away from her face, and wriggled her bare toes into the moss beneath her feet. She drew courage from herself, and kept moving.

Which was when she heard the roar, not of the river this time. She felt the thump of motion gathering pace as it came towards her, knocking back undergrowth and branches with no more care than you would walk through a column of smoke.

She looked into the bear’s eyes. The warmth of corn liquor, caramelised and liquid. Beautiful, and all the more so, for the grizzled ferocity of it’s expression. It roared and she put her hands up.

‘Stop.’

The bear reared back on it’s legs, blocked out the light with it’s size.

Which was when it began to chuckle.

Esperanza suffered fools all her life, but she had been unprepared for such mockery to arise in a place as pure as thought. Pure as sky.

‘You do not laugh at me without cause, spirit.’

It guffawed as it licked his left paw with his thick, pink tongue, watching her with an expression equal parts hunger and amusement. It thrilled her to be looked at in such a way, but frightened too.

‘No, it appears that I do not. What do you search for?’

She took a deep breath.

‘I come to surrender.’

The bear shook it’s head and lowered it’s eyes as it moved onto all fours.

‘To me, is it that simple?’

Her stomach grew hot and sour, the bear’s voice was gruff but smooth, burnished by endless experience and beneath it, a warmth like a good shot of tequila began to smoothe out her fears. She shook her head.

‘No, it is not. My mother taught me that.’

The bear looked around and grinned before returning it’s gaze to her.

‘And, what is that lesson? Humour a big old bear, would you.’

Esperanza closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spoke, not from memory but from heart.

‘A woman’s surrender is a gift, a demonstration of power and not defeat. We surrender to the cycles of life and death, the release of purest ecstacy and the duties of the flesh. To surrender such power is a gift and it is done not in the spirit of looking backwards.’

The bear padded over to her, sniffed and hummed deep in it’s throat, it’s massive chest reverberating the air around it with it’s vibration.

It licked along the line of her neck, the tongue was soft, but rough like a washcloth and it tickled her sending delighted shivers of sensation down her spine.

‘I accept, Esperanza.’

It lowered it’s shoulders to the ground then looked upwards at her.

‘What are you doing, Bear?’

‘I will take you to the rio abjao rio, Esperanza. I know the way.’

She walked around the bear, reaching forward to take purchase in the thick, brown fur on it’s back. She lifted her leg over, until she was astride. It’s heartbeat thumped like a drum and the hot engine of it’s breath moved her like the tides. It was frightening and exciting all at once.

The bear lifted it’s shoulders and turned it’s head.

‘Are you ready, Esperanza? I know that this frightens you, but the truth of a situation often does. ‘

She gripped the fur and smiled at the bear before her. Beneath her.

‘Then you must show me, Bear.’

It began to move, slow at fast but then faster.

It never quite matched the rapid pace of her heart though. Nothing was faster than that.

 

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Knowing

Feel me

Until your surrender

Arrives

Relax in the direction

Of my attention

I am as aroused

By your dancing anger

As by your giggling joy

I remain willing

To crack the shell

Of closure

Lick my love against

The soft heart flesh

Inside

My breath is full

My body strong

I enjoy your anger, your tears

Your silent hardness

The world ever gives me that

I do not analyse

I encourage

You who must follow

Heart’s white rabbit

I allow you to go mad 

With love

You must be the ocean

Not the ship that

Waits, tied with fraying rope

To proprietary dock

Oh how I know you

As you know me

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Animal Vs Angel

When the black eyed angel folds it’s wings

Around me, I would tear them,

Root and stem

Unmanned, and in my divine rage

Dash it’s ugly skull into the concrete

It is not an action fuelled by violence

In the palace of my skull

Wanders an animal

And it knows not love nor hate

But survival

And it is that,

A compulsion that blesses

The places where the world wounds me

It screams it’s hate into my face

But I remain inviolate,

I have work to do,

And armoured in that

I face the legions that follow it,

Bleak envoys that tied me to darkened rooms

Silenced me but I have many allies,

Beautiful, brave, bold and quick

Set against

These monstrous shadows that claim so many

Dumb pawns invigorating them with the phrase

‘Pull yourself together’

But I have triumphed before

I carry it’s memories in my veins

And I will win again.

Wash the blood off my hands

With the sweetest love

I’ve ever known

 

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Ghosts of Celluloid

He sits at the back of the theatre

Recalls how it was all new

Once

No colour, no computer generated effects

Not even sound.

He looks at people hunched over their phones.

People move so much faster

He doesn’t get why people

Wear their hair the way that

They do

Why the news is always bad

He knows that the day he wakes up

Without pain

Will be when he’s dead.

Stopping to make conversation

But there’s no time for that

People too busy

He looks out

Wishes not that he could go back

He treasures every precious mistake

Nor does he seek to disappear

No, what he asks for,

As the music swells

Is that things slow down

To the point

That we could all stop

See one another

And start to talk

She moves from the screen

From a time before

The world broke her spirit

Her lips press against his cheek

Not caring that his hands shook

Too much to shave

His chest grows tight

And he follows her

Leaving everything behind

Missing every frustrated second

As he lets the world go on

Without him.

 

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I Will Continue

Clouds break,

Smudged light emerging from

Between them

I stand and lift my face upwards

Apart from everything

But open to it regardless

I built a suit of armour

From my words

But there are still

Fresh scars underneath

Yet within me

Lies a beast that knows

Pain only in the abstract

No one tells you

The world is only interested

In what you can offer

But you learn it

To the bone

The storm will pass

The sun will come out

I will continue

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Raise your shield high

Silence has a weight

Texture

A rock worn smooth

By time

A delicacy as raw silk

Sliding over my rough, dark hands

Inside,

The screams – outrage, pain disguised

As signals of virtue

I stand askance

My path takes me through

These places

Once walled gardens of enthused discourse

Now the flowers drip blood

I hold my own counsel

Keep making my art

As though casting a suit of armour

Against the fragile, vicious beasts

Within

Without

My silence is my shield

And I raise it high

I raise it high

 

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Synopsis:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations.

Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America.

This book serves as a delicious mixture of the intimate and the epic. There is the sweep of history, and it’s made intimate by the lives and the passions of the characters. There is a rich and compelling humanity on display here. There are no villains twirling mustaches, but simply people and their secrets, those that they keep from others and those that they keep from themselves.

Cal, the narrator, takes us back in time and intersperses those stories with his own experiences. He captures the poignancy of life lived as someone who is borne outside of gender norms, but it is not something that you are bludgeoned over the head with. Eugenides draws upon a disparate and dizzying array of influences and events to bring this book to life. I found myself involved from the start, and the deeper I got into the book, the more complete it’s hold over me became.  There is life, death, sex, rioting, incest, blackmail, food, mythology, egotism, hubris and history all within these pages.

I loved this book, it’s depth and power do not undermine it’s entertainment value, they enhance it. The prose is exquisite, the insights that come from each development are startling and for all of it’s weighty matter, it’s warm and funny with it too. You grow to love these people as Cal loves them and I loved Cal, for his integrity, his willingness to pursue and be himself. It’s a story that has dead ends and incomplete events but it serves to add to the reality of the story.

The trick with literature that wins prizes isn’t that it’s pretentious, it’s just not simple and clean cut. It’s humane and expansive, it teaches you about how people are, not as you would wish them to be. Some of it is pretentious, but even then you’ll learn something from it that makes for an interesting conversation, stops you being an asshole in person or online (okay less of an asshole) but still it’s a really good book and I think you should read it.

 

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Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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Synopsis:

Unusually for Dickens, Hard Times is set, not in London, but in the imaginary mid-Victorian Northern industrial town of Coketown with its blackened factories, downtrodden workers and polluted environment. This is the soulless domain of the strict utilitarian Thomas Gradgrind and the heartless factory owner Josiah Bounderby.

However human joy is not excluded thanks to ‘Mr Sleary’s Horse-Riding’ circus, a gin-soaked and hilarious troupe of open-hearted and affectionate people who act as an antidote to all the drudgery and misery endured by the ordinary citizens of Coketown.

Macaulay attacked Hard Times for its ‘sullen socialism’, but 20th-century critics such as George Bernard Shaw and F.R. Leavis have praised this book in the highest terms, while readers the world over have found inspiration and enjoyment from what is both Dickens’ shortest completed novel and also one of his important statements on Victorian society

I had a cultural awareness of his work and had seen adaptations of it on television and at the cinema, but this was my first experience of reading Dickens. His shadow reaches across the centuries, he’s buried at Westminster Abbey and he’s a cultural icon.

After reading his work, I get it now.

The language and craft are impeccable, entirely of their time but still in possession of a clarity and insight that makes the subjects timeless. There is woven within the delightfully realised descriptions and interactions, a great deal of genuine anger and insight. He never stinted at going after the big issues – class, education and character. His plotting is superb, the story develops and reveals true character, whilst holding to a wonderfully terse and delightful story that shows the virtue of being true to oneself.

In the political and social novel, the tone can sometimes veer towards preaching but Dickens made informed and cogent insights without forgetting to be entertaining. Even his choice of character names are reflective of their respective characters and have a deliciously rich and ridiculous power to them. One of the teachers has the surname of M’Choakumchild and the rigorous, logical father has the surname of Gradgrind. On every level, Dickens puts together a story, an argument as delicious and delicate as a string of pearls.

Language has changed, culture has changed and yet Dickens shows us that human nature and desire has not. He makes an argument not for a particular political party or idea, but compassion and honesty in our dealings with one another. He shows the damage that a focus solely on education as repetition without the development of character and heart can cause, personified in the odious yet logical progression of Blitzer and in the Gradgrind children themselves, but how they overcome this serves the story.

Hard Times was wonderful and I would recommend it without reservation.

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Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

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Synopsis:

Cass Neary made her name in the seventies as a photographer embedded in the burgeoning punk movement in New York City. Her pictures of the musicians and the hangers-on, the infamous, the damned, and the dead, earned her a brief moment of fame.
Thirty years later she is adrift, on her way down, and almost out when an old acquaintance sends her on a mercy gig to interview a famously reclusive photographer who lives on an island in Maine. When she arrives Down East, Cass stumbles across a decades-old mystery that is still claiming victims, and she finds one final shot at redemption.

Read this. It’s strong writing. It slows down in the right places and  it is a solid and well constructed noir. It builds slowly, establishing the setting as a character in it’s own right and the protagonist Cass Neary has a damaged toughness and an unerring instinct for self preservation. Hand does with her, what Stephen King does in his work. Establish their heart authority, their abilities and knowledge/self knowledge and then test every facet of that against the momentum of the story.  It shows rather than tells us about the history of the people and the place that Neary has to visit to interview the reclusive photographer and it uses that gradual pace to draw us in deeper before turning the key and locking Neary (and by proxy, us) in with the nightmare.

She writes beautiful prose, that does not derail the menace. There’s a constant tension, a sense of mystery, a fluidity and lack of judgement for her characters that made this book a swift and beguiling read. It is beautiful and sad, haunted by itself and quick to establish a point of view that the losers of the culture wars are worthy of attention and storytelling as the winners. Probably more so, as Hand ably demonstrates here. The sections of exposition about photography, both in it’s history and technology/technique are confident and passionate, bringing together that Neary’s talent is her redemption and despite some actions of pure, dark self interest, she has the toughness and the damage to see where the past is still wounding the present.

I enjoyed this book, I will be looking into reading more of her work as she has a fantastic back catalogue and there are also sequels with Neary again to look forward to. Generation Loss is a great book, well worth your time and attention. She is on Twitter as @Liz_Hand and at her website http://www.elizabethhand.com.

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The Sex Myth by Dr Brooke Magnanti

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Synopsis:

Is there any truth to the epidemic of sex addiction? Are our children really getting sexualised younger? Are men the only ones who like porn? Brooke Magnanti looks at all these questions and more – and proves that perhaps we’ve all been taking the answers for granted.

Brooke Magnanti is no stranger to controversy. As Belle de Jour she enthralled and outraged the nation in equal measure. Now her real identity is out in the open, Brooke’s background as a scientist and a researcher can come to bear in her fascinating investigation into the truth behind the headlines, scandals and moral outrage that fill the media (and our minds) when it comes to sex.

Using her entertaining and informed voice, Brooke strips away the hype and looks at the science behind sex and the panic behind public policy. Unlike so many media column inches, Brooke uses verifiable academic research. This is fact not fiction; science not supposition.

So sit back, open your mind and prepare to be shocked

Most of what we think we know, what we are told about contentious issues in respect of sexual mores is wrong. It’s floated on a tide of faux outrage, opinions and hidden agendas. What Dr Magnanti has done here is present actual evidence that this drive is harmful to the people that it claims to be protecting. That the continued criminalisation of sex work adds to the vulnerability of sex workers rather than protects them to any degree.

If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, then you are seeing the horseshoe theories of far left and far right ideologies being used to build the future that Atwood shows us. Ironically, it’s a system that strips women of agency and it’s sad that Dr Magnanti is one of a small group of people who have done the work of pointing this out.

If you are at all concerned or interested in women’s issues, then this book will either make you angry or make you think about the opinions that you hold. I was moved by the compassion, the excellent and rigorous data that she wields to maximum effect. In one section, she refers to her own experiences as a sex worker (she wrote two books under the nom de plume Belle De Jour) where a comment on the Guardian’s website said that the ideal ending to her story was for her to be left dead in a ditch, for which she sought legal redress, to no avail.

A fatal flaw in any movement, is one where we ignore the voices of the people concerned. If those voices are inconvenient to the aims and objectives of the movement then it must be asked if it is a worthwhile cause at all. Since I read about Watergate, my maxim has always been cui bono (who profits) and Dr Magnanti shows us that there exists an alliance of conservative millionaires and radical activists, fronted by well meaning but poorly informed celebrities, fronting foundations where as little as one dollar in fifty goes to actually helping people but goes to gala functions and gift bags.  If it can be said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the mortar is incomplete evidence and massaged statistics.

This is an uncomfortable book to read, touching on hot topics such as pornography, human trafficking, sex work and freedom of speech. She’s on Twitter as @bmagnanti and is definitely worth a follow if you’re interested in her thoughts and opinions. I thought this book was fantastic and entirely worth a place on any thinking person’s bookshelf, if only to fuel interesting debates, which is where we grow as people and hopefully as a society.