Review: Granta 122 by John Freeman

granta122Granta‘s theme ‘Betrayal’ offers scope for many things, from love to war, from politics to survival, and more. As usual, the pieces included come from authors around the world and their contributions are unexpected, innovative and excellent.

Janine di Giovanni, who has reported on wars for more than twenty years, begins ‘Seven Days in Syria’ with her baby son, whose tiny nails she finds herself unable to cut. She charts this same sense of vulnerability in the lives of the Syrian people as she sees the effects of war gradually seep into their lives. Her account is personal and vivid. “There is no template for war“, she writes,  only the agony, the uncertainty and the fear, which is constant.

Karen Russell, too, writes of the effects of war but she weaves a sort of magic into her fictional story. Beverly, a professional masseuse, begins therapeutic massage on an Iraqi war veteran whose body tattoo is a “skin mural” of the war-landscape on the day his friend was killed. “Healing is a magical art” said a pamphlet which attracted Beverly to her career, and her ability to empathise with a customer and to use her massage skills to feel and relax the tensions expressed in the physical body is remarkable. But her expert physical work with this particular customer has inexplicable results, the tattoo does strange things, and there are unexpected psychological effects for both of them.

As well as reportage and stories, Granta includes photography and poetry. Darcy Padilla’s photographs of ‘Julie’ chart a life affected by poverty, abuse and AIDS but they show happiness, partnerships and children as part of her struggle to survive. And John Burnside’s poem, ‘Postscript’, echoes some of Robert Frost’s well-known lines and offers a modern perspective on an evening in snowy woods. It tells of a passing moment in which a search for a mobile phone signal prompts musings on the ephemeral nature of beauty, a cup of tea, a welcoming home and “no promises to keep“. And the only path is the one back to the car.

Mohsin Hamid tells of a young boy’s text-message based love affair with a local girl who has the ambition, it is suggested, of sleeping her way to a better life. Samantha Harvey’s small-scale apocalypse-survival scenario set on a fictional island could well be a true story. André Aciman documents an editor’s experience with a young woman writer with whom he begins a strangely satisfying relationship. Neither of them seem fully able to commit themselves but perhaps it is just his reading of the situation, or perhaps he is just a man who cannot make big decisions. The result? I will not spoil the story by revealing it.

Colin Robinson learns about group loyalty and Paddleball. Ben Marcus imagines a dystopia in which group and family loyalties are tested. Lauren Wilkinson writes of the fatal attraction of guns. And Jennifer Vanderbes writes of a lone woman fire-mapper in the forests of New Mexico whose isolated life is briefly disrupted by a male forestry worker  with whom she shares friendship and memories. Both, it turns out, have reasons for choosing to work with fire.

Callan Wink’s ‘One More Last Stand’, introduces us to a man who participates in historical re-enactments of General Custer’s last stand but who is inclined to tell tall tales to tourists and to fraternize with the ‘enemy’. It can also be read on the Granta web site at http://www.granta.com/ , along with other material not included in this quarter’s magazine.

Granta 122: Betrayal  is excellent reading and a fine addition to Granta’s long tradition of fostering new writing.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review – GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies by John Freeman

TITLE:  GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (30 January 2012)
ISBN: 9781905881550        256pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]http://ann.skea.com/).

I always thought that Douglas Adams’s dolphins had the perfect exit line: ” So long, and thanks for all the fish” . But was that part of an exit strategy? My dictionary defines ‘strategy’ in terms of the art of war, planning, and self-protection, but Granta‘s interpretation of it is much broader. It covers, as the advertising blub tells us, “how we get ourselves out and the repercussions that follow”, which includes war but also the contemplation and remembering of many different sorts of endings, such as the end of a writing career, of a love affair, dying, memory loss, extradition and environmental disaster.

As always, the pieces chosen for this issue are unconventional, entertaining, thought-provoking and well-written. The writers, photographer and poets come from many different backgrounds, cultures and countries. Some are well known, like John Barth, who wonders whether a recent hiatus in his writing after fifty-three years of being published is ‘The End?’. Clearly not! Others are newer voices, like Jacob Newberry, whose ‘Summer’ explores the uncertainties of gay friendship.

Some pieces are factual or based on fact. Susan Minot’s,’Thirty Girls’, tells the story of Sister Giulia, a Catholic nun caught up in the kidnapping of her schoolgirl charges by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Other pieces are pure fiction. David Long’s, ‘Bonfire’, reads like a young man’s erotic fantasy remembered years later when the domesticity of marriage and children dominate his life. Claire Messud deals with her own feelings when a writing commission takes her away from her dying father to Beirut, where, with only a sketch-map hastily drawn by him from memory, she tries to find the places where he spent his happy childhood. And Vanessa Manko imagines an interview and the resulting deportation from the U.S.A of a Russian man during the roundups of supposed communists and anarchists in the early 1920s.

Stacy Kranitz’s poignant photographs of a family living on the disappearing Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf of Mexico, show the effects of the world’s rapidly rising sea-levels. And four very different poems explore endings, searches, losses and the puzzle of life. The poetry is not easy, but like all good poetry it condenses powerful emotions and thoughts into brief, vivid experiences for the reader.

And there is much more. The complete list of contents can be seen on the Granta website at www.granta.com/Archive/Exit-Strategies, where you will also find additional exit-strategies posted on the Granta blog and a range of sample pieces from the Granta archive.

REVIEW: GRANTA 117: Horror by John Freeman

TITLE:  GRANTA 117: Horror
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER:  Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (21 November 2011)
ISBN: 9781905881369         256pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

This is no collection of ghosts, ghouls and gruesome fantasies. Indeed, there is enough real horror in the world for imagination to be unnecessary. So, Granta’s ‘Horror’ covers Will Self’s thoughts on his own rare blood disease; Tom Bamforth’s field notes from a humanitarian mission in a lawless area of Sudan; Paul Auster’s reactions to the death of his mother; and Santiago Roncagliolo’s memories of returning to Peru as a worker for the Public Defenders Department and working with the Belgian human rights activist, Father Hubert Lanssiers, interviewing convicted, potentially violent, terrorists in an overcrowded, high-security prison. Mark Doty writes about eroticism, desire, insatiability, addiction and Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman; and Julia Otsuka examines the strange world of memory loss.

Fiction is not completely absent from this collection. Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ (translated from the Spanish) traps you in the fertile mind of a man obsessed by a film story; Rajesh Parameswaran shape-shifts into a man-eating tiger; Dan DeLillo follows in the steps of a film-obsessed stalker; Sarah Hall creates a weird and frightening dog story; and Stephen King tells a ghost story with a sting in its tail.

Sometimes, however, fact is weirder than fiction, like the crypto-gothic fight club in Los Angles which is visited by Daniel Alarc Cave Woman fights The Hammer, Arctic fights The Mad Monk, and rivers of fake blood flow across the floor so that your shoes stick to it.

Poetry and art, too, explore death and disease. D.A.Powell’s poem ‘Quarantine’ suggests a black future in which the world becomes “one great gall'” and Kanitta Meechubot gathers life, love and death into her unusual images of ‘The Garden of Illuminated Existence’.

There are nightmares and terrors enough, here, to haunt the imagination and keep you awake at night. And, as usual, Granta has chosen the best people to tell you about them.

Review – Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman

TITLE: GRANTA 115: The F Word
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (1 June 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 905881 34 5         272 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Buy Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman here…

GRANTA, if you have not met it before, is one of the very best literary magazines. It has no manifesto but it “believes in the power and urgency of the story both in fiction and non-fiction”. Since 1979, it has consistently published the best writing of new and established authors, and many who made their debut in Granta have gone on to become well-known. In recent years, photo-journalism and poetry have become a regular part of Granta’s offerings and it has begun to publish the work (in English) of writers from around the world. Frequently, too, it publishes large samples of work-in-progress which will shortly be published in full by major publishing houses.

I have been a reader of Granta for many years now and generally each issue has a theme. Selecting at random from earlier issues, I find ‘The Best Young Writers’, ‘Travel’, ‘History’, ‘The Best New Nature Writing’ and, from 1980, ‘The End of the English Novel’, which includes chapters from a new work by Salman Rushdie calledMidnight’s Children, and contributions from Angela Carter, Russell Hoban, Alan Sillitoe, and Emma Tennant, amongst others.

Granta 115, ‘The F Word’, with its theme of feminism is an issue to which I was not initially attracted but, as usual, the contents are surprising, entertaining and thought -provoking. What is new about Feminism? How radical do you have to be to be called a feminist? Aren’t all women feminists? Has feminism in earlier times changed anything in the world? All the usual questions are raised but in interesting and unusual ways.

There are the thoughts of a Japanese migrant woman adapting, with her children, to a new culture. There are the childhood perceptions of an African women in a male-dominated world. There is a man’s perspective (written by a woman); a poem about Ariadne, her god/lover and an empty tomb; a lesbian encounter; and the view of the ‘other woman’ in an adulterous relationship. Most vivid, terrible and extraordinary is the account of the experiences of a group of French women who, in 1942, were arrested on suspicion of having links with the French Resistance and who were held in  the Nazi death camp, Birkenau. Through mutual support, fifteen of the thirty-five women arrested survived.

Louise Erdrich explores enslavement. Laura Bell describes her feelings about willingly giving up her independence to be a so-called “kept woman”. Clarissa d’Arcimoles’ photo-essay recreates and compares childhood photographs with shots of the same family members fifteen years later. And to prove that things have changed for women in the world, A.S Byatt recalls being told by a male lawyer that “women can’t be ambassadors”  when, as a teenager, she expressed this ambition.

For a complete list of the contents of this and earlier issues you can go to the Granta Home page at www.granta.com/Magazine/. And there you can also sample some of the stories – be they fiction, non-fiction, essays, memoir, poetry or reportage.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

The Gap

I came to a realisation yesterday while attending the Interrogating Twitter session at yesterday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: there is a significant gap between those who get Twitter and those who don’t. And that gap may never be bridged. How can it? Those who despair of social media genuinely believe that it will destroy our language and do irreparable damage to our consciousnesses. But those who use social media can barely understand why everyone is complaining about it.

I don’t necessarily think this gap is generational. The panellists ran the gamut from the venerable Ruth Wajnryb through to the younger, hipper end of the spectrum with John Freeman and David Levithan. Nonetheless, all of the panellists seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing wrong with Twitter (or other forms of social media) and that we shouldn’t worry that it will cause the next generation of children to be illiterate. In fact, if anything, the panellists seemed mildly perplexed that this should even be at question. The only dissenting voices came from the audience, who managed to sound exactly like the fusty SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype.

So where does this gap come from? And why? Freeman’s new book, Shrinking the World, posits that each forward leap in communications technology has been greeted with scepticism, fear and contempt. The Gutenberg press was called the ‘devil’s machine’ by monks and the telephone was going to tear families apart. Nonetheless, Freeman cautions that Twitter, just like any other communications technology, is not necessarily benign. How could it not change the way we think, he says, when we can barely go a moment without checking our phones?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people of late. And it perplexes me – maybe because I’m absolutely on the ‘understanding Twitter’ side of the gap. Why is there a persistent myth that those who participate in the brave new world of texting, Twitter and Facebook suddenly become automatons who cannot make the choice to switch off their devices and will have some kind of panic attack if they’re ever alone? Nothing I’ve learned by participating in social media has led me to believe this to be true.

This kind of Luddite moaning about the value of being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’ is ubiquitous on the other side of the gap. I had a conversation with another (very young) author at the SWF about travelling on the train. Nowadays, he says, it’s impossible to have a moment of quiet introspection while on the train, such is the cacophony of noise produced by communications devices. Since when, I ask you, has public transport been the most Zen part of anyone’s day? Human beings have spent thousands of years going to remote locations in order to be truly alone. How has that changed?

You always have the choice. Whether it’s to switch off, go somewhere quiet or to not participate in social media at all. As David Levithan said – if you’re not interested, don’t worry about it.