Monday, November 23, 2015

Iris by Jean Marsh

Steeped in post-World War II English culture, Jean Marsh’s third novel, Iris, is a straightforward, smart tale of a working class woman trying to survive — if not happily, then at least somewhat comfortably.

In 1952, Iris is a 17-year-old who is not an escort in the strictest sense — since she does not have sex with anyone that she goes out with — but gay men in London don’t mind using her as visible company when they go out to clubs. Occasionally, older straight men just want to be seen having lunch with her. Among all these men are some with ties to organized crime, and having a pretty face available is effective advertising for their restaurants and clubs. She enjoys the chance to go out, have drinks, dinner, and to feel valued, albeit in a naïve way.

When men give her cab fare home, she takes the bus instead and uses the change to help out her parents. Her mother is a headstrong woman, and though Iris is quite close to him, her father either drinks away his wages or owes them to a loan shark down Chancery Lane. Her younger brother, Sam, is mostly baffled by her frequent nights out.

Marsh draws from much of her own background, having grown up working class — “a scrubber” — in Islington and various other North London haunts, and she was also expected to leave school and earn a living at age 14. She would have been a year older than Iris in 1952, but she worked as a dancer and had just started acting, an experience reflected when Iris gets a part through one of her dates:

The set was absolutely enormous and quite nice. Lots of columns and arches and big cushions, most likely for lolling, and long tables and large candles and through the biggest arch were the baths, which were like a cross between the Turkish baths at the Dorchester Hotel and East Finchley swimming pool. As the girls weren’t friendly she tried standing next to some Roman gentlemen to see if she could find out anything. All she learned, apart from the fact that the canteen was cheap but awful, was that this was a party scene, which she’d already guessed. Then an assistant was moving her around as if she was deaf and dumb and on skates. Someone was shouting instructions, and people got into positions.

Iris spends much of her time trying to learn about politics, social customs, and the club scene, so that she has something to talk about with the people with whom she spends time. She reads poetry, but learns not to quote it in casual conversation. She admires Bébé, a woman who attends many of the same parties, but pities the desperation of hostesses who fruitlessly flirt with “the poofs.”

Her entire world is steeped in sex and secrets, but she has no desire to go bed with any of these men. She’s fond of her friend Nick, but he isn’t interested in women, and he is busy with politics. Within this environment of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, more than anything she craves a sense of belonging, yet she doesn’t quite know how to achieve it.

The band was playing some songs from South Pacific. Maybe they’d play her favourite, one of her top favourites of all time, ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ That’s how she knew she would fall in love with a stranger across the room. It would needs be a small room on account of her dodgy eyes, and the stranger wouldn’t fall for her if she was wearing glasses.

Marsh was also very near-sighted (until surgery later in life), and it’s that and other little details — like someone commenting on how much Iris resembles Audrey Hepburn, with her thick brows and small chest — that make it difficult for a knowledgeable reader to parse author from character. And that’s an irritating thing for a writer, I know, since while we draw from our lives while writing fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily make one’s tales autobiographical.

Considering that, when Iris encounters a group of manipulative, drunken men out on a stag do, her half-façade of naivety meets a crushing end, and the protective side of myself wants to believe that what happens is based off the knowledge of other women’s stories, and not drawn on personal experience.

Marsh’s writing examines the competition between the internal and external — the performances we give others, and how it feels to be in one’s own body. The body, the occasional crudeness of physicality, and how that affects a woman’s inner monologue is constantly at play throughout the story. Iris is strong all throughout her learning about herself, but while she may not show it to others, she’s quite in touch with her insecurity. She resents her initial lack of educational opportunity, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop learning to spite herself. When it comes to sex and men’s desires, she learns what is within her control.

The fear and shame of touching herself had been instilled by her mother. ‘Always keep it clean.’ It. As if it was a pet mouse kept in a cage like Sam once had. […] She touched now, carefully. It was swollen and tender like a giant bruise. The whole area was swollen. Her fingers gently pressing back the sore flesh couldn’t find the bones. The tender skin was torn in places, and as she examined her fingers, was, she could see, bleeding. The official word for it was vagina. She knew that from the dictionary.

I have a few minor quibbles on an editorial level — not enough dialogue tags, a few typos that slipped through, unnecessary head-hopping to another character's perspective — but I have no issue with the story itself. The jarring instances of racism and homophobia are reflective of their time period, and one gets the feeling that Iris is learning how to rise above any prejudice surrounding her. She learns how to be less of a sponge and more of a conduit for change in her own life. Iris is a wonderful, sometimes thematically-difficult book, and perhaps an ill-appreciated gem from the late ‘90s.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Story For Desmond by Jason Walz

A Story For Desmond 
by Jason Walz

A Story for Desmond is an excellent example of the tragedies and hopes of real life being presented in a heartfelt and simple comic book format. It's a short, simple story of a parent explaining loss and hope for the future to a very young child. In doing so, a parent often speaks as much to themselves, and to their own loss, as they do to the child.

In that regard, A Story for Desmond is as much a story for anyone who has experienced loss. However, that does not mean the comic is entirely sad, as it tends to focus on the positive things those who leave give us, and the strength of families when they come together.

A Story for Desmond is presented in a simple cartoon style. The writing is kept clean and not overly adorned. This seems to be a rarity with small press comic books. Too often, small press writers seem to be convinced they need to show you how hard they are writing, rather than simply telling a story. Jason Walz avoids this trap and presents the story in a basic, effective way. He writes as we speak, and that has its own power.

A Story for Desmond is not something that's going to change the world by any means, but its strength is in its genuine nature — Pleasant, without being saccharine.

Monday, October 5, 2015

October 5th is World Teachers' Day.

World Teacher Day infographic
(This sponsored post brought to you by Grammarly Plagiarism Checker)
Do something nice for a teacher in your life, or consider donating to an educational charity, like Teach For America or another similar program.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Internal News: 9-5-15

Oh goodness, let's spare ourselves all the excuses and jump right into things I've been writing elsewhere over the past three months.

I've decided to take a hiatus from Record Machine, so most of my posts at Persephone Magazine are now of the Friday News Bites variety. Still, I've had some other stuff go up there:

At Persephone Magazine:

And at Word Riot... I've finally updated Notes From Elsewhere! Here's the latest roundup of literary links.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Internal News as of 6-2-15:

Hello, darlings one and all. It's time for another round-up while I continue to get my writing life in order.

Now at Persephone Magazine:

And that's all for now. I've really enjoyed doing these interviews with writers and musicians, and with any luck, there will be more to share with you soon. 

Today, Florence + The Machine have a new album out, so let's celebrate with a video:

Until next time, friends.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Internal News as of 4-19-15:

I sometimes joke about how very specific outlines are one way to guarantee what will not happen in my writing, and it seems that four bloody months ago me saying that I was going to update more often made it so that I updated even less often than usual. So, I'll quit promising things; I'll just do the best I can, and it will all shake out fine in the end.

That said, let's round up what I've been writing since we last met here.

I wrote a few things for WhoCulture:

And at Persephone Magazine:


Record Machine:

I won't bother to list every Friday News Bites, but here's the most recent one. Same for Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot. Here's the WR Blog link, and from there you can see my updates, along with a few other guest writers I brought into the fold over the past few months.

Until next time, friends.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Internal News as of 1-9-15

Happy New Year, friends! We're overdue for another Internal News update, wherein I tell what I've been doing at P-Mag and elsewhere. My goal for Glorified Love Letters is to update more regularly in 2015, like I used to do in years' past. We may even have a few more guest contributors here from time to time.

Record Machine:

Book Reviews:

Misc. P-Mag:

Also, since I've started bringing other writers into the fold over at the Word Riot Blog, we've got a few other posts over there besides my usual Notes From Elsewhere. Do check it out.

Annnnd I think that's it for now! Until next time.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Giveaway: Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz audiobook + My Top 5 Books for 2014

Hello, my darlings! How about a holiday giveaway? Seems like every other blog is doing one right now, so why not Glorified Love Letters? Today, I'm giving away the version of one of my favorite books I read this year: Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz. I reviewed it back in July at Persephone Magazine.

To Enter:
  • Leave a comment telling me your favorite food to eat for whatever holiday you may be celebrating this month.
  • Either give me your email address in the comment (so I have some way to contact you, if you win) -OR- email me at sarahabein [at] gmail dot com (if you'd rather not leave your email in the comments).
  • Giveaway ends Dec. 20th, 10PM (MST), winner determined by random number generator.
Now what about my other favorite books from 2014? Click on through to my latest post at P-Mag: Reading List: Top 5 Books - 2014.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

33 1/3: Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven

33 1/3 Definitely Maybe by Oasis - Alex Niven

Oasis' Definitely Maybe (33 1/3)
by Alex Niven

Let's establish one thing from the outset: In no way will this review be unbiased. As someone who has spent the past eighteen years studying the career trajectory of Oasis and the post-breakup albums of the band members, and as someone who is hopelessly indulgent when it comes to the arrogance of Noel Gallagher, it is through these filters that I read Alex Niven's contribution to the 33 1/3 book series, his examination of Oasis' 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe.

Though I love talking about music, sometimes I find it difficult to read about it. I like my praise unreserved, and I like my criticism without snobbery — not standard qualities found in the Pitchfork-age of decimal point ratings systems combined with the decades-old stance of preferring “their earlier stuff.” So while Alex Niven's insights into Definitely Maybe were often thorough and interesting, they are bound in the idea that one should behave a certain way when successful. Because he lost interest in Oasis after the '90s — as a lot of people unfortunately did — his commentary that compares the band's first album to their later output is frequently off the mark.

To put it more plainly: While reading, I was torn between thinking, I am totally with you, followed by, And now we're in a fight.

Oasis is a divisive band, I know. They were arrogant, unafraid of success, would say things just to get a rise out of people, and for awhile, the drugs amplified everything. In just a few years, they went from playing tiny clubs to the 300,000-person audience at Knebworth. Much has been written about their early history — some of it exaggerated for legend, some of it corrected over time — and even while they were one of the biggest bands in the world, people still criticized. They were “ripping off the Beatles” or The Who. Or The La's. Or the Stone Roses.

And the band said, So?

In a 1996 Guitar World interview (that I distinctly remember reading instead of paying attention in English class), Noel Gallagher famously said, “Usually, I'm saying, 'These are the greatest songwriters in the world. And I'm gonna put them all in this song"'

The band's directness and influences are not in question, and neither is their massive success. One could write a whole other post on it, but I kept wondering why Alex Niven spends so much time bemoaning their enjoyment of that success, especially when he opens 33 1/3 saying:

In what follows, I have tried to treat the early Oasis narrative with the seriousness it deserves. With one or two exceptions, previous writing about the band has tended to be salacious or plain dismissive, so there was a need for a study that looked Oasis through a critical lens, and with at least an attempt at objectivity and balance.

Just a few pages later, it become more clear that Niven is one of those disappointed, “they never did anything good after 1996” fans:

Where are the forgotten details in our recent history that might help us escape from a cynical present in which populism has disappeared from pop music and in which we don't seem to have made any real artistic and social progress since the 1990s? The argument of the following book is that one way of answering this question is to look at the most apparently banal, ordinary, hackneyed phenomenon of the last 20 years. In order to move forward positively again, it seems reasonable to suggest, we should look at the most central, the most visible, the most obvious presences in pop culture and try to work how they went so badly wrong. We should look at the events that filled people with belief and made them feel part of a team, at the melodies that buried themselves in our collective consciousness but became so cliched and commonplace that we began to resent them, at the people who were co-opted and stereotyped in a world of money and selfishness until they became a crass parody of their former selves. One way we should do this, the following book argues, is by looking seriously and at length at the rock band Oasis.
Even if most of what they did from 1997 onwards was a travesty of popular art, we ignore the scope and significance of the initial Oasis narrative at our peril.
But how did it happen, and where did it all go wrong? What stray details about Oasis should we try to recover at all costs?

All right, settle down there, man. We can talk about the cultural significance of Oasis without throwing their later albums under the tour bus. How is it objective to talk about how great Definitely Maybe is, while also implying that Oasis are now tragic figures? You do know that on their last tour they filled stadiums, right? That every single studio album sold over two million by British chart-counts alone? Yes, yes, just because people buy something doesn't necessarily indicate quality, but even with a more muted presence in pop culture, to write as though they are some sort of wayward genius-types that haven't been written about in an in-depth way is ludicrous.

Their rise to success is practically a musical folktale at this point — blagging their way onto the fateful King's Tut gig and how they were the biggest seller for Creation Records before the label's implosion. However, Niven does have a point in that study of the songs themselves, paired with the social-economic environment from which they were written, is a relatively new thing. Noel Gallagher has done some of his own retrospective analysis, but it's more difficult to see something's impact when you're still a part of the thing itself. Every time we arrive at a decade-based anniversary (like the 20th anniversary of the first album), the more journalists and obsessives like myself reflect upon the culture that informed Oasis.

I am with Niven when he talks about Oasis as a populist band, but where we disagree is that, while their perspective changed, I believe that they never stopped being one. Even now, Noel Gallagher and Oasis fans are still — to borrow that '90s phrase — madferit, singing along to every song (yes, even the new ones). In a somewhat critical Telegraph review of Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn's 2013 Teenage Cancer Trust gig, Neil McCormick writes:

The mast to which he has pinned his own musical colours remains stoically unchanged since the nineties. His headline set was the usual mass singalong event. It’s as if he can’t write a tune that doesn’t have the kind of melody drunken men like to bellow in bars and at football matches, simple and soaring, anthemic and cheery, with words so vague they mean whatever the singer wants them to. […] The most vociferous singing is done by men with unfashionable pudding-bowl haircuts and shirts hanging outside their jeans. The correct posture is arms spread, pint in one hand, like a football hooligan goading the opposition. For Wonderwall, one arm may be hooked over the shoulder of a girlfriend or wife, if available. For more rambunctious Oasis numbers, both arms should be thrown around a male friend. Plastic pint glass, preferably empty, may now be thrown into the air. 
It really is extraordinary. These songs don’t really mean anything yet they mean everything to this audience. It is the church of Noel, a lung-busting collective celebration of lost youth.

Pair that with Niven's analysis in this book's introduction:

In an era in which destructive cynicism was threatening the very existence of counterculture and the mainstream left, Oasis offered an anomalous vision of radical positivity. And the fact that this was indisputably a working-class lived experience — one founded in the solidarity and fraternity of working class lived experience — was crucial. As the band's biographer [Paolo Hewitt] once put it, Oasis were the sound of 'a council estate singing its heart out.'

Comparing this twenty-year old sentiment with the decades that followed is not all that difficult. Consider the disillusionment with Tony Blair's “special relationship” with George W. Bush, the 2008 Economic Crisis, and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan — The early 2000s were also not easy times to lean left. Pair that with humanity's nostalgic predilections, and suddenly, having a bit of rock n roll church seems like a great relief.

“Oasis songs proliferate with calls for breakout and departure,” Niven writes, “but with an accompanying sense that doing so will result in betrayal and the loss of some precious aspect of a core identity.”

Are we not all culpable, to varying degrees, for how our lives changed over the past twenty years? And aren't we, despite our successes, sometimes trying to find that place where we feel at peace?

Oasis initially may not have been convinced they would succeed, but the songs suggest that, if they did, some sort of downfall was inevitable. The press would turn. Listeners would punish them for their success and hubris. One core identity — that of working-class kids from Manchester — would feel both innate and farther away. This progression changes a band, yes, but it does not wholly discredit them.

Still, as tempting as it is to write a dissertation on the value of post-1996 Oasis songs, we should talk about the 33 1/3 book itself. Niven divides the book into elements — Earth, Water, Fire and Air — which ends up working quite well. The punk rock magic of “Bring It On Down” fits well into the Fire Section, while the melancholy and desire for escape earn “Slide Away” its Air designation.

Analyzing both Definitely Maybe and its B-sides is necessary, since many of Oasis' stadium-rousing epics never appeared on the studio album. Though the myth of Noel joining the band with a bagful of songs has been widely amended, he still had a fairly sizable output. It is within these B-sides that we hear Noel himself pleading, as Niven says, “to escape from the world, to live a secluded life by the sea where he can be alone and enjoy the little things in life.”

Do you know who is able to do that? People with money. People who have the privilege of controlling their own schedule. “My favorite pastime is staring out the window. When I go on tour, I can spend hours and hours just staring out the window, thinking about nothing. I love all that,” he once said.  But no, let's be disappointed that he can accomplish his goals when he pleases. Let's try and set some arbitrary rules about how famous people are supposed to spend money they earned from two near-perfect albums. And all the subsequent albums.

I digress once more.

Niven talks about Noel's mixture of hope and despair throughout the book, the “profound unease,” and he's more or less on point. It matches up well with Noel's Dig Out Your Soul-era quote, “No one's fucking harder on this band than I am.”

Talking about Definitely Maybe as a reaction against Thatcherism and England's changing political climate is also spot on, with “Up in the Sky” perhaps being the band's most directly political song.

As Noel Gallagher once commented: 'we were on the dole at the time under Conservative rule … ['Up in the Sky' is] about establishment figures who really didn't have a clue how people were living in England at that time, and what people had done to the country. It's quite an angry song...' 
Like 'Rock n Roll Star,' 'Up in the Sky' is a song borne out of a feeling of lowliness and claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped and desperately wanting to burst out into the open.

So while I go back and forth on agreeing with Niven's analysis (for instance, calling later Oasis lineups “session musicians,” while also enthusing over the band Ride as though Andy Bell is not a member of both? Irksome), I still respect the amount of research beyond the band itself that had to go into writing this book. Knowing the climate in which Oasis was created is as necessary as the songs when one wants to talk about the importance of the band. On that, I am with him. The lyrics themselves, like many have noted before, are populist in that they can apply to so many situations. We can sing through our sadness, our triumphs, and everything between — and change will happen whether we want it to or not.

This is my first 33 1/3 book I've read, and while I'm aware that they vary in style, I wonder if I would have such conflicting feelings about the way the series covers other albums. Perhaps I take it all too personally, as though I should be treated as some sort of indulgent Oasis expert. Perhaps I wouldn't know any better than to believe analysis of other musicians, and I'm inevitably going to be more critical of this book. It gave me a lot to think about, and the discussion and study of Oasis is one of my favorite subjects. While it's near-impossible to mute my bias when it comes to Noel Gallagher, I can instead be up front. Other readers are also not without bias, and such is the reason we all passionately defend our favorites. In essence, your mileage may vary with Definitely Maybe, but don't treat the “downfall” narrative as gospel.

Full Disclosure: Bloomsbury sent me this book for review purposes.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Internal News as of 11-29-14

Greetings, patient readers. Wow, I've been awful about updating 'round these parts, and it seems like I've said that a lot this year. Perhaps that will be my resolution for 2015: Get back in the regular writing game. It's been hit and miss all year, apart from the regular P-Mag stuff. I took September off from writing things elsewhere, for the most part, so that I could get back on editing my book (which is coming along). That said, let's get to some updates:

At Persephone Magazine:

Bob Marley and The Wailers - Babylon By Bus (cover)
Record Machine:

Flesh: Poems and Photos by Tyson Habein (cover)
Book Reviews:
Women in Clothes (cover)
At Word Riot: Notes From Elsewhere:

Besides that, I'm still working away at reading and trying to get my writing life in order. Thanks for bearing with me.