All the Books I’ve Read in 2014

  • Amir and Khadil, Zahra’s Paradise
  • Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza
  • Radwa Ashour, Spectres
  • Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
  • Jo Baker, Longbourne
  • M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
  • Max Barry, Lexicon
  • Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters
  • Max Brooks, World War Z
  • Cassandra Clare, City of Heavenly Fire
  • Jonathan Coe, The House of Sleep
  • Justin Cronin, The Passage
  • Rach Cusk, Arlington Park
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Lleaves
  • James Dashner, The Maze Runner
  • Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park
  • Neil Gaiman, American Gods
  • Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
  • Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Preludes and Noctunes (Book 1)
  • Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: Dream Country (Book 3)
  • Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, Stardust
  • John Green, Looking for Alaska
  • Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy, I am the Beggar of the World
  • Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl
  • Jonas Jonasson, The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden
  • Marie Lu, Legend
  • Marie Lu, Prodigy
  • Marie Lu, Champion
  • Sarah Maguire, The Pomegranates of Kandahar
  • Eeimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road
  • Patrick McGrath, Ghost Town
  • Patrick McGrath, Martha Peake
  • Jon McGregor, If nobody speaks of remarkable things
  • David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
  • Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds
  • Jonathan Rabin, Surveillance
  • Atiq Rahimi, The Patience Stone
  • Veronica Roth, Allegiant
  • Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
  • Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
  • Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • Maria V. Snyder, Taste of Darkness
  • Craig Thompson, Habibi
  • Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
  • Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
  • Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala
  • Koethi Zan, The Never List
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
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Quote: Neil Gaiman, American Gods — ‘I… can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe.’

“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in Drive-In Movie theatres from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big on comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian Shaman. I believe that Mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in an empty and godless universe of casual chaos, background noise and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, life is a cruel joke and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”

–Neil Gaiman, American Gods (London: Headline, 2004) pp.424-5

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Lancaster Litfest 2014: The Book of Gaza // Matters of Communication

Venue: The Book of Gaza (readings by Nayrouz Qarmout and Mona Abu Sharekh) @ The Storey (Lancaster) [Thursday 16th October, 6.00pm]

The Event

It’s safe to say that the event did not go as planned.

After ordering my ticket I received an email informing me that:

Due to the closure of the visa office as a result of recent hostilities the two speakers are no longer able to attend in person but have pre-recorded their readings.

At first I felt disappointment; I had looked forward to seeing Nayrouz Qarmout and Mona Abu Sharekh in person. Nonetheless, the event itself still promised to be interesting and, further still, what better demonstrates the ongoing struggle in Palestine than the very fact that two writers cannot leave their country, for even a short amount of time, in order to read aloud and speak about their stories?

In his introduction to The Book of Gaza Atef Abu Saif draws attention to the restrictions on printing and publication in Gaza and discloses that Gaza thus became ‘the exporter of oranges and short stories’.[1] Writing the stories themselves is not the challenge… communicating these stories, on the other hand, most certainly is, something that became increasingly clear as the Litfest event transpired.

Delays in the beginning of the event were the result of ‘technical difficulties’, something that became particularly understandable once the event began. Attempts had been made to connect via skype and Facebook to both Mona Abu Sharekh and Atef Abu Saif. However, as the event began to round off, these attempts remained unsuccessful; most likely because the distribution of power in Gaza is increasingly diminishing and rolling blackouts are becoming more erratic and frequent. There is something quite striking about having a panel sit before you, informing you of contexts of/and events in Gaza while behind these people is a projection of a skype page which reads ‘no answer’ after each attempted call.

Communication is limited and hindered, even from a technological standpoint; when inventions such as Facebook and skype, programmes that I’ve depended upon to communicate with friends internationally without racking up a huge phone bill, don’t even work then where do we stand? In the twenty-first century, where everything is mapped and satellites galore roam the skies, why is it so difficult to make contact?

Neither Nayrouz Qarmout nor Mona Abu Sharekh were able to cross the border in order to speak in Lancaster; Mona Abu Sharekh was not contactable via Skype; Nayrouz Qarmout was unable to send a pre-recording of her reading. All these demonstrate how communication has failed in what is an increasingly modern, technologically advanced world.

However, Mona Abu Sharekh was able to send a pre-recording of her short story ‘When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head’. Once again the short story was exported out of Gaza… the voice exported via the technological medium. Mona Abu Sharekh read aloud in her native language before a camera. The audience was able to see and hear her read her story. Beneath her reading the English translation of her words also appeared and so we find many different elements at work. In the first instance, Mona Abu Sharekh vocalises her story… she verbally delivers it and does so in her own language… this is her voice. The nature of the pre-recording is charged with the restrictions already laid out above; it necessitates a dependence upon technology and the voice must be mediated via the optic lens of the recording camera and the viewing screen, rather than Mona Abu Sharekh simply stepping across the border. However, whereas other instances throughout the evening demonstrate where electronic communications were unsuccessful, without technology there would have been no reading at all. There is also the issue of the English translation. Translation itself is a huge topic that could fill, and has filled, countless books, but in this instance I simply want to acknowledge that while the translation once more serves as a mediating force between Mona Abu Sharekh and her audience, it also allows for us to understand the words that she is speaking; it enables communication.


At the opening of the event we were told that, due to the event’s (and venue’s) alignment with the council, to quote, ‘we’re not allowed to be political’… a statement met with incredulous laughter from the audience. How does one not be political when it comes to discussion of Gaza (and Palestine)? Ironically, when Comma Press conceived The Book of Gaza, the book was intended to depoliticise Gaza; to go beyond the news stories of bombings and conflict and to show the smaller details… the meetings of old friends in coffee shops; the children chasing through the streets; the families and lovers.

The Book of Gaza does not have to be political. It can very easily be politicised, but these short stories are not news stories, or government reports… not everything has to be about statistics; maybe a bomb went off yesterday, but those two brothers also smoked on the street corner and talked about their sister’s upcoming birthday. Both these events did not necessarily occur yesterday… but what’s to say that one of these events is more likely than the other? What’s to say that these events did not occur yesterday, or today, or won’t tomorrow? If they both occur on the same day, which will make the news? The short story reaches past the frames of the news cameras and across the borders of countries and languages. In the words of Atef Abu Saif:

The book seeks to paint a portrait of Gaza through the eyes of its writers, as a city different to the one presented in the media. Gaza is a city like all cities by the sea… (p.xiii)

One last note…

Something to make note of, and which was discussed during the event itself, is that the stories that are featured in The Book of Gaza were all written before the most recent conflict that has occurred over the summer. Comma Press, the publisher of The Book of Gaza, includes on its website the more recent writings by the authors of the book which, once again, shows that despite the sometimes failure of technology, it does also allow for the communication across vast distances when physical travel (or print) cannot be achieved… if only the electricity and resources are provided.



Comma Press / The Book of Gaza:

Litfest / The Book of Gaza:


[1] Atef Abu Saif (ed.), The Book of Gaza (Great Britain: Comma Press, 2014), p.x

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SERIES: Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife Carnivalesque and Grotesque / ‘Angels’ and ‘Monsters’ – SALOME

‘Women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised’ (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar)



Sexuality is most typically expressed through bodily activity that is linked to the lower strata, and Gilbert and Gubar argue that ‘the monster may not only be concealed behind the angel, she may actually turn out to reside within (or in the lower half of) the angel’.[1] The passive ‘angel’ is not so passive after all; the ‘monster’ resides within, specifically located within the lower strata and thus aligned with bodily sexual activity. The patriarchal suppression of such seductive and sexual wiles stems from what Gilbert and Gubar identify as a ‘male dread of women’, stemming from ‘male ambivalence about… traditional images of such terrible sorceress-goddesses as the Sphinx, Medusa, Circe, Kali, Delilah, and Salome, all of whom possess duplicitous arts that allow them both to seduce and to steal male generative energy’ (Madwoman 823). The man therefore dreads not so much the ‘shameful’ lower strata but, rather, female sexual dominance, and these dominant female figures thus find themselves designated as the marginal other; the ‘terrible’, terrifying, undesirable ‘monster’.

It cannot be ignored that, of the list provided by Gilbert and Gubar, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife pays tribute to four out of the six; a majority representation. ‘Salome’, as one of this party (and in fact the same can be said for ‘Circe’, ‘Delilah’, and ‘Medusa’ also), is not a ‘Mrs’. Unmarried, these ‘monsters’ (and to be fair, Salome’s murderous act is certainly neither angelic nor neutral), are not the possession of another, nor defined by any man; they have each their own voice, dictated through poetry, and their own individuality.

Salome’s monstrous actions serve to undermine the male figure while empowering herself. The male figure is literally a severed body-part and a question mark: ‘a head on the pillow besides me – whose?’[2] While Salome has the power to speak, the man has no identity at all. Salome is cold and calculating, and a serial killer:

I’d done it before
(and doubtless I’ll do it again,
sooner or later)
(World’s Wife 56)

Salome epitomises the seductive ‘monster’ that Gilbert and Gubar describe. She steals away the man’s generative energy; she literally cuts away his head from the body where the lower strata (indicative of sexual activity) is located. His mouth is one that ‘obviously knew how to flatter…’ (World’s Wife 56). The use of ellipsis here undermines the flirtatious powers that are attributed to the unnamed man through this statement; it incites the reader to pause… a hesitation that makes this ‘obvious’ fact a little more uncertain. Salome then takes control; his ‘beautiful crimson mouth’ is the object of desire, she is the one who leans in for the kiss. Already we can identify the shift in power; the roles are reversed and the man is the ‘[c]older than pewter’ corpse/statue while the female Salome takes on the role of seductress.

Salome’s narrative takes place between ‘sticky red sheets’ (World’s Wife 57), and this exaggerated, grotesquely ‘sticky’ blood serves to break down the sexual power dynamics between sexes even further. Julie Kristeva cites menstrual blood as that which ‘stands for danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes’ by highlighting the sexual difference between the two through an internalised action that slowly manifests in an abject, corporeal process; blood trespasses beyond the boundaries of the container (the body).[3] Blood between the sheets (either menstrual or virgin) typically signifies the female as the subjected individual (or object) of sexual advances… but Salome tells a different story. Gubar and Gilbert argue that ‘[t]he “killing” of oneself into an art object… testifies to the efforts women have expended not just trying to be angels but trying not to become female monsters’ (Madwoman 823). As such, women conform to the image of ‘angel’ so as to appear positively in the eyes of the man that fear the uncontrollable, undesirable ‘monster’. Salome makes no such attempts; she reclaims her bed through the use of the possessive apostrophe – ‘Salome’s bed’ (World’s Wife 57) – and the blood, once a symbol of feminine subjection, is a consequence of murder. Mikhail Bakhtin argues that ‘[t]o degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better’.[4] Degradation manifests in the sexual activity that is located within the lower strata, but also in the blood that pours forth from the orifices created by the severing of the head. This action of severance literally kills, but also sows the seeds, the blood, amongst the sheets in a monstrous action that defies the ‘angel’ image and which pronounces the extreme individuality of Salome. Salome kills while simultaneously taking control of both her sexual and individual identity.


[1] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.820

[2] Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Salome’, The World’s Wife (Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 1999), p.56

[3] Julie Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudie (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p.71

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Rabelais and His World’, Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.688

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The Great Gatsby: ‘They’re such beautiful shirts’

A consideration of a few of the wider themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with specific attention paid to Daisy’s first entry into Gatsby’s house (Chapter Five)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is ‘the true substance of an age, the dazzle and fever and the ruin’,[1] and these four components resonate in particular when Daisy first explores Gatsby’s house. Gatsby is ‘the product and manifestation’ of the American Dream.[2] His dream? Daisy, and ‘he had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end… at an inconceivable pitch of intensity’.[3] In this scene he becomes ‘consumed with the wonder of her presence’ (59), and thus reaches the climactic point of his dream: a feverish dream that dazzles and which will ultimately result in his ruin as the dream deteriorates… all-consuming… all-devouring. The intensity of the dream permeates every corner of Gatsby’s house and is, in fact, embodied by it; ‘blazing with light… lit from tower to cellar’ (52)… literally dazzling.

The ‘dazzle’ is appropriated by the prolific amount of Gatsby’s material possessions and wealth. Despite being the simplest room, the bedroom is still ‘garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold’ (59). To garnish is to accessorise, and the grandiose extravagance and pointlessness of much of Gatsby’s possessions is wholly apparent much earlier when we are presented with a ‘machine… which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times’ (26). These material, ‘unreal values’ are those which Daisy aspires towards and, therefore, so does Gatsby.[4] It is not just the pointlessness of this unnecessary materiality, but also the extreme excess of this materiality that is of significance, and which is embodied by Gatsby’s shirts, which are ‘piled like bricks in stacks a dozen’ (59). Compared to bricks, these shirts represent the building blocks of materiality which Gatsby has built himself, and their dazzling variety of ‘coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange’ colours and patterns (59) encapsulates the essence of the diverse bodies and characters and colours that appear throughout the novel and at Gatsby’s parties. This is all for nought; all the material wealth and grandiose is meaningless at the end; all the colour, the shirts, and the partying people mean nothing at all when we are confronted with his all but empty and bland funeral.

Nick suggests in his narration that as Gatsby speaks he does so ‘hilariously’ (59), although he can barely get a word out. To consider this moment as hilarious is a gross exaggeration on Nick’s part, but for Gatsby it is symptomatic of feverish delusion in the face of an overtly dazzling, sheer world. This ‘fever’ is not merely embodied in Gatsby’s hopelessness, ‘running down like an overwound clock’ (59), but also in Daisy’s over-reaction and hysterics when confronted with his extravagant shirts as she ‘began to cry stormily’ (59). Over-emotional, this stormy reaction indicates the beginnings of failure in both Gatsby’s and America’s dream. Gatsby and America ‘sprung from its “Platonic Conception” of itself… raw power… haunted by envisioned romance’;[5] but this romantic, transcendent aspiration is beginning to crumble, purely by the very nature of its unattainability. The golden and sheer materiality might emulate these ‘greener pastures’ of a Romantic vision, but they are fakeries; machines that, like the broken clock, and like Gatsby himself, find themselves ‘running down’ (59).

Gatsby’s dream ‘run[s] down’ (59) inevitably towards death and ruin. It is not the objects that construct the pathways of this dream which are fakeries, but also the subject of the dream: Daisy. It ‘is because his dream is unworthy of him that Gatsby is a pathetic figure’.[6] Daisy’s feverish and stormy reaction is directed not at Gatsby, not with any true sentiment of love, a feeling which she holds back from even her daughter, but towards ‘such beautiful shirts’ (59); the epitome of materialism. Her vanity is demonstrated in that the first thing she approaches in the bedroom is the hairbrush ‘with delight’ (59). There are no true sentimental feelings held by Daisy towards Gatsby; her interest is in money and in herself. We are given an insight of Daisy’s true preoccupations, a hole that rots at the core of Gatsby’s dream; ‘he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass… material without being real’ (103). He learns of Daisy’s base nature, thorny, rotten, and grotesque; and of how the spectacle of his ‘scarcely created grass’ (103), a metaphor for his new wealth, is ‘raw’ (103) and not real. The shirts may be beautiful… but they are only shirts.

Great Gatsby


[1] John Aldridge, ‘Fitzgerald: The Horror and the Vision of Paradise’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.32-42 (p.42)

[2] Edwin Fussell, ‘Fitzgerald’s Brave New World’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.43-56 (p.46)

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (St Ives: Wordsworth Classics, 2001), p.59 All other references to this text will be given parenthetically

[4] Fussell, p.47

[5] Lionel Trilling, ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.11-19 (p.17)

[6] Aldridge, p.35

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Mapping Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl

Shelley Jackson’s hypertext, Patchwork Girl, begins with a series of, not so much headings, but hyperlinks: ‘a graveyard, a journal, a quilt, a story, & broken accents’.[1] To click on each hyperlink is to venture into a different zone of the story; I hesitate to say chapter; that would imply some kind of linear progression to this story. A hypertext is primarily displayed through electronic media and appears as a ‘complex textual webwork[] of multilinear narrative[s]’, composed out of ‘architecture, mapping, design, and navigational procedures’.[2] In the first instance we might therefore call Patchwork Girl an architecture; a structure that is blueprinted and navigated and is, for all intents and purposes, a map. Peter Turchi argues that for some time ‘mapmakers have not started at the beginning. Rather, they have started with other maps’[3] and thus we enter into a space that has not begun its construction at a beginning; and is therefore not a linear construct, but in fact spatial. The complex webwork within which Patchwork Girl makes its appearance does not begin with Jackson’s hypertext, but with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and therefore not at the beginning. Further meta-textual links back to earlier texts and sources are made even more apparent during ‘a quilt’ which is built up out of quotes from earlier texts, ‘pieced together in an intuitive crazy-quilt style’ (Jackson). At the very basis of its construction it is clear that, as mapmaker, Jackson has built upon earlier texts… she has, as Turchi says, ‘started with other maps’.[4]

The architectural map remains a significant concept when considering the text in and of itself, as the reader/explorer must negotiate the spaces they are presented with, and actively interact and respond to them. The map, for all its supposed intent of leading the explorer, is not without its shortfalls. Eric Bulson warns that maps ‘are built around selections, omissions, classifications, and hierarchies’[5] and indeed this proves to be true with the hypertext, a medium which lets us enter each space with only a click of a mouse. Jackson herself asserts that ‘in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the entire text is within reach, but… I can see only the part most immediately before me’ (Jackson). Selections and omissions are unavoidable in any map, but particularly within an architectural space that applies blinkers to the reader; as one lexia (a text box) is opened, a threshold, an opportunity; the previous closes; only one space can be observed at any one time. The exception to this rule is the hyperlinks that connect each lexica… each space. Just as we are presented with an initial list of spaces available to us in the title page, this list format persists as we set off on our virtual journey. If you enter the ‘history’ tab in Patchwork Girl the reader/explorer can track the path they have taken and the mapped space that they have thus far constructed (although they still cannot see more than one step in front of them at any one time). The electronic space is primarily an interactive space and the process of mapping this space is dictated by the responses of the reader and the click of the computer mouse. Interestingly, one cannot just simply view the path that they have taken, they can actively step backwards in metaphorical leaps and bounds… the reader/explorer is granted more freedom along the path that they have already travelled, able to skip lexica/spaces and jump back to a chosen spot. However, the reader can also choose to become an amnesiac; by clearing the ‘history’ tab the reader can no longer back track… they can only go forward.

These spaces, mapped and layered, shadowed, iterated and spectral, appear to us as a palimpsest, a space that is ‘created by a process of layering – of erasure and superimposition’.[6] This network of hyperlinks between spaces (as that is, ultimately what these lexica are within the explicitly and tellingly titled ‘Storyspace Map’ (Jackson) prove to build, supplement, and override other spaces within this electronic architecture and even further still through the text’s connections to earlier texts such as Frankenstein. There is an additional palimpsest that is made known within Patchwork Girl: the method of construction. We have discovered the architectural space and the electronic platform, but this story space is also constructed out of a pen, a needle, and a body. Within the same lexica (‘Sight’), the reader/explorer may take two different directions that, layered, appear palimpsestuous as, both ‘written’ or ‘sewn’, the creature is constructed: ‘I had made her’ / ‘I had sewn her’ (Jackson)… I constructed her.  The similar speech patterns used between these two separate lexica, both mapped from the same point and dealing with the construction of the monster, enters into a palimpsestuous space through not just the map itself, but the very means and purpose of the maps construction. And at its core: ‘her’… an image at the centre of a mapped, textual space… a body of writing/ a writing on the body for, as Jackson says: ‘You could say that all bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing’ (Jackson).

[1] Shelley Jackson, Patchwork Girl; or, A Modern Monster (Watertown: Eastgate Systems, 1995)

[2] Robert Coover, Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age (29 Oct. 1999) <> [accessed 12 Aug. 2014]

[3] Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2004), p.220

[4] Ibid

[5] Eric Bulson, Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850-2000 (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p.41

[6] Sarah Dillon, The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), p.12

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Apocalypse and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

Kermode’s ‘apocalyptic types’:-
-Decadence and renovation
-Progress and catastrophe

Cloud Atlas
Empire – Ewing’s colonial themed nineteenth-century narrative.
Decadence – Frobisher’s richly indulgent narrative (pre WW-II).
Renovation – Lusia Rey’s period of industrial growth/change in 1970s America.
Progress – Sonmi’s Nea So Copros is an example of progress at its very peak.
Catastrophe – Zachry’s island has been cannibalised, both literally, and as a result of some kind of implied nuclear (or similar) disaster.

Further Comments

There is a somewhat linear progression and build up across chronological eras and narratives. There is however, the cyclical nature of the narrative to remember, in which the cannibalistic catastrophe of Zachry’s era both has the potential to be fixed, if we correct the wrongs that the protagonists later confront as the narratives fold back in on themselves; and has already potentially existed, whereby Goose refers to the cannibals that had inhabited the, now colonised, islands, prior to Ewing’s era. Both the novel’s narratives and movements in time (and apocalypse(s), are thus cyclical.

It would also be wrong to categorise these narrative segments as wholly ‘one type’ of apocalypse. In the same way that these narratives are embedded within and between one another, and share motifs, themes etc., they also, to some extent, share apocalypses. Thus, Ewing’s narrative, as I’ve already addressed, is suggested to have followed an ‘epoch’ (as Kermode calls it) of Catastrophe; Frobisher writes on the eve of a catastrophic war; Sonmi’s period of progress is also one of ample consumerism and decadence; Swannekke Island in Luisa’s narrative makes precarious and dangerous progress; and so on, and so forth.

There is also one glaring absence to these considerations: Timothy Cavendish; and deliberately so. Cavendish somewhat serves to disrupt the narrative cycle that can be observed above, but isn’t that the nature of this very time that be live in, for that is Cavendish’s time also? In the now we cannot identify a common theme as you can with the past, or fictitious futures, for it is a moment that has not yet finished.

cloud atlas


Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of  Fiction (London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University  Press, 1967), p.29, pp.101-2

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (London: Sceptre, 2004)

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SERIES: Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife Carnivalesque and Grotesque / ‘Angels’ and ‘Monsters’ – PYGMALION’S BRIDE

‘Women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised’ (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) 



Gilbert and Gubar argue that women must simultaneously kill the ‘aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art. And… the angel’s necessary opposite and double, the “monster”’.[1] Both the ideal, classical body and its un-desirable opposite must be destroyed. This process of self-definition by the female artist, however, ‘is complicated by all those patriarchal definitions that intervene between herself and herself’ (Madwoman 812-3), that is, the self that is presented within society, and that is susceptible to patriarchal discourses, and that self which is her own. Bakhtin’s carnivalesque can be used to subvert the motions through which society complicates female self-definition as ‘the grotesque is counter-posed to the classical aesthetic of ready-made, completed being… [t]he carnivalesque body… [expresses]… ideas of simultaneous death and rebirth’.[2] The introduction of the carnivalesque disrupts that which has been socially prescribed as the appropriate and classical body.

The speaker of Duffy’s ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’, a ‘cold’ statue,[3] appears to be anything but Bakhtin’s grotesque body and, instead, emulates the image of a classical ‘angel’. As this classical figure, the speaker is alienated ‘from ordinary fleshy life… not just a memento of otherness but actually a memento mori’ (Madwoman 817). The classical ‘angel’ embodies a passive existence akin to death, and is further marginalised from life (‘flesh’) as she is, quite literally, fleshless, constructed from stone:

He kissed my stone-cool lips.

I lay still
as though I’d died.
He stayed.
He thumbed my marbled eyes
(World’s Wife 51)

To be a statue built from stone, the physical frame, or body, of the female speaker is built from the hands of another and thus implicates the processes by which a woman’s self-identity can be, and in this case, is quite literally, constructed by another. Her own self-identity is thus is displaced in that she is firstly built by another and is then subjected to a male suitor. I use to term subjected as, lying still, as if dead, the interaction between the two, the ‘I’ and the ‘he’ are anything but an equal relationship. The statue’s ‘marbled eyes’ also serve to obscure the gaze of the woman, while the male suitor is free to thumb her eyes in a rather forceful gesture that also further serves to obscure, or even completely blind the woman speaker’s gaze. The woman is not, quite literally, made to be a subjective individual, but is purely subjected to the whims of the male observer, whose gaze and movements are left unhindered. Duffy presents an image of the perfectly aesthetic ‘angel’; a woman with no individuated self-identity and no flesh, but is made of stone.

Unlike the unresponsive, ‘still’, and classical body of the ‘angel’, the carnival body is neither smooth nor physically passive. Instead, the Bakhtinian ‘grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences… and orifices’.[4] ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’ represents the classical opposition to the grotesque:

He let his fingers sink into my flesh,
he squeezed, he pressed.
I would not bruise.
(World’s Wife 52)

Unlike the grotesque body where ‘[t]he outward and inward features are often merged into one’[5] the classical body is closed for biologically, at the very least, there is no blood.

Duffy, however, goes on to effectively kill the ‘angel’ that has been crafted by patriarchal hands, as the speaker, in order to get rid of her unwanted suitor, ‘changed tack’ and ‘grew warm, like candle wax, / kissed back’ (World’s Wife 52). The speaker is no longer passive but begins to participate in the sexual activity and, in doing so, reciprocates his actions. The statue becomes human and mouldable, ‘like candle wax’, and, most specifically, re-moulds herself and is thus ‘reborn for new, purely human relations’.[6] The Bakhtinian carnivalesque is further implicated where, for Bakhtin, ‘[t]he people’s laughter… was linked with the bodily lower stratum. Laughter degrades and materializes’ (Rabelais 688). This laughter is perhaps embodied where, no longer silent, the speaker:

began to moan,
got hot, got wild,
arched, coiled, writhed
(World’s Wife 52)

And, ‘at the climax screamed my head off’ (World’s Wife 52). Duffy forces the silent ‘angel’ out of the female figure as she becomes ‘hot’ flesh. The speaker becomes an active and vocal participant during the pair’s sexual activity, synonymous with laughter as a means of vocalising identity, and, better yet self-identity, further implicated by the relationship of sexual activity to the lower strata. The female speaker bodily participates in acts of degradation while she literally screams her humanity.

[1] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.812

[2]Andrew Robinson, ‘In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power’, in Ceasefire, Friday, September 9, 2011, <> [accessed on 29/3/12]

[3] Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’, in The World’s Wife (Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 1999), p.51

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (USA: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp.317-8

[5] Ibid, p.318

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Rabelais and His World’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.687

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SERIES: Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife: Carnivalesque and Grotesque / ‘Angels’ and ‘Monsters’

‘Women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised’ (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) 



Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar conceptualise the female figure, represented in literature as ‘angel’ and ‘monster’. The ‘woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of “angel” and “monster” which male authors have generated for her’.[1]

The ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ serve to either subvert or obvert Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of grotesque realism; the ‘bodily element’[2] of carnival. Carnival, as ‘temporary liberation from… established order’ (Rabelais 686), signifies the suspension of hierarchy through ‘numerous parodies… humiliations, profanations, comic crowning and uncrownings’ (Rabelais 687).

Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife becomes that which Bakhtin observes in Renaissance folk culture: a ‘feast of becoming, change, and renewal’ (Rabelais 686). The Bakhtinian grotesque, with ‘images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life’ (Rabelais 687), is particularly significant in Duffy’s poetry and these images of consumption, bodily processes and sexuality are subject to carnivalesque ‘[e]xaggeration, hyperbolism, [and] excessiveness’.[3] As both a process of renewal and ‘a form of transgression’,[4] the carnival body provides Duffy’s female speakers with the opportunity to reclaim their bodies by re-defining the images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’.

‘The grotesque body… becomes a body of resistance and subversion… [and]… offer[s] new avenues for identity making’[5]. The grotesque body provides a platform in which to subvert and revise the images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ and this process can be identified in Duffy’s poetry as she reclaims and re-defines the female body and, therefore, female identity.


[1] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.812

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Rabelais and His World’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.687

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (USA: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.302

[4] Paul Allen Miller, ‘The Otherness of History in Rabelais’ Carnival and Juvenal’s Satire, or why Bakhtin got it Right the First Time’, in Carnivalizing Difference: Bakhtin and the Other, ed. by Peter I. Barta, Paul Allen Miller, Charles Platter and David Shepherd (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.149

[5] Cristie March, ‘Bella and the Beast (And a few dragons too): Alasdair Gray and the Social Resistance of the Grotesque’, in Critique, 43:4 (Jan 2002) 323-346 (323-4)

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‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’, by Sarah Maguire

A short close reading of Sarah Maguire’s phenomenal and beautiful poem.


‘[S]mall shards of sweetness’.[1] Sarah Maguire’s ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ is a long oxymoron that is wholly apparent in this single line. The ‘shards’, that which is broken, and jagged, and can inflict damage upon those who come into contact with it, is juxtaposed with the sensual receipt of the cloyingly ‘sweet’ taste. The poem is a conflicted battle between sharp and sweet; and the conflict that is battled out between the words of the poem reflects the battle that has been inflicted upon the location of the title; Kandahar.

While the poem’s title locates the activity of the poem within a definitive geographic zone, the verse itself shares nothing so specific. As such, I find myself recalling the epitaph of Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, which locates the narrative of the novella to be ‘[s]omewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’.[2] In this case, even the use of ‘somewhere’ fails to specifically localise the events of the text; but this appeal to non-specificity is the intention. The thematic subject of exploration in both The Patience Stone and ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ is not contained to one specific space but spreads out to other towns and cities, and to other countries. The essence and the meaning of ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ can be taken and used to interpret the ways in which warfare and violence plays out in other parts of Afghanistan, and even further afield.

The subject of violence, the jagged shards that are implicated with the ‘heft of ordnance’ that weighs down on the poem from the very first line, is one that, throughout the poem, is always present, but also, in part, obscured, as images of ‘joyful fruit’ and ‘barefoot children’ take centre stage. The imagery that permeates the poem also locates the pomegranate as a clear metaphor for not merely the landmines themselves, but the effects that these brutal objects have. The poem is structured in such a way that the two objects become increasingly more difficult to separate, until the landmine becomes an image that, while wholly powerful and damaging, is also indoctrinated into normalcy; it is no less fantastical or ‘out there’ than a piece of fruit, in fact, I get the impression that the fruit is more precious and less available.

The first stanza introduces the ordnance, and its appearance as the first image we are given means that its presence is retained, in some part as we are next introduced to the ‘[r]ed balls’… the pomegranates. The next stanza follows as such:

A mirrored shawl
and dozens tumble down –

The solitary appearance of the word ‘splits’, which is visually and verbally accentuated by its drastically contrasting short and singular length, slices between the lines and emphasises the action. The disruption that this split causes, not merely to the fabric, but also to the reflective surface of the mirror, which further emphasises the role that duality plays in this poem, results in the loss of the divide that had separated the pomegranates and ordnance from one another in the previous stanzas. Instead, they are now one and the same as they tumble down together.

The previous concealment and separation of the ordnance from the scene of the marketplace is disrupted. The generally positive list of ‘poppies’, ‘rouged lips’, and ‘[p]roud hearts’ which, when standing alone in a single stanza, seem innocent enough, is disrupted by the presence of an overlaying sentence which reads, not as a list of positive images, but of ‘Proud hearts / built of rubble’. The line break is also a stanza break, and its apparent effect of disassociation actually, ironically, forces the images of the pomegranate and the ordnance even closer together as that which was initially associated with the positive ‘jewels’ of the pomegranate, the ‘[p]roud hearts’, becomes a living emblem that is grown out of the aftermath of violence; the ‘rubble’. What follows the image of ‘rubble’ is no longer images of ‘joyful fruit’, but images that suggest a build-up of violence; to ‘prise’ and ‘thrust’ and ‘twist’ with a ‘knife’, which ‘cleaves open’ the fruit in a deluge of negative and forceful language to reveal at the centre of the pomegranate ‘small shards of sweetness’:

till a city explodes in your mouth
Harvest of goodness,
harvest of blood

The ‘sweetness’ and the ‘goodness’ of the fruit becomes overpowered and sandwiched between the violent images of explosions and blood. The ‘city’, although the title implies that it is Kandahar, could also just as easily be ‘somewhere… elsewhere’. The ‘city explodes’; it explodes literally as the ordnance detonates, it explodes metaphorically, as violence and damage ensues, and it explodes as the pomegranates are sent ‘careering through the marketplace’… and suddenly those earlier images of the ‘joyful fruit’ are not so innocent, as the ‘shawl splits’ and tears, damaged, and the ‘shouts of barefoot children’ ensue, for a shout can be as negative and scared as it can be an expression of excitement and joy… and those images of the ‘[r]ed balls’; ‘jewels of garnet, jewels of ruby’ and ‘the deep red of poppies’ become haunted by that which might not be so much a ‘[h]arvest of goodness’, but a ‘harvest of blood’.


If you want to read the poem in its entirety then it can be found at the following:-


–          Sarah Maguire, ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’, in The Pomegranates of Kandahar (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), pp.42-3

[1] Sarah Maguire, ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’, in The Pomegranates of Kandahar (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), pp.42-3

[2] Atiq Rahimi, The Patience Stone, trans. Polly McLean (London: Vintage Books, 2011)

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