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A Salute to SPANISH POETRY, by John Howard Reid

March 8, 2012 5 comments

A Salute to SPANISH POETRY

100 Masterpieces from Spain & Latin America

rendered into English verse by John Howard Reid

[This book has no back cover copy]

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 A Salute to Spanish Poetry: 100 Masterpieces from Spain & Latin America Rendered Into English Verse is an anthology of various Spanish poems: some hundreds of years old, others much more contemporary, and they’ve all been translated into English by John Howard Reid. I am a great lover of poetry: it provides an intense literary experience and at its best, poetry can inspire and enthral, but sadly this collection does neither.

Mr. Reid might well be a good speaker of Spanish; he might even be a good, if literal, translator. But he’s either no good at translating poetry; or he has picked some really bad stuff to translate.

The versions of the poems in this anthology are stodgy and dull; they’re full of clichés; they’re free from assonance, alliteration and rhythm; their meanings are often unclear, and despite each one being written by a different author there is little variation of voice or tone across the collection. This translator has neither a light nor a sensitive hand.

You have probably worked out by now that I am not terribly impressed by this book. These poems, read in this English form, lack all sense of grace and significance. But my main concern, when reading this collection, was one of copyright. While the bulk of the poems it contains are out of copyright a few of them were written more recently, which means that when this volume was published they were still protected by copyright and the permission of the authors, or their literary estates, would have been required to use them in this way. And yet there are no acknowledgements in this book; there is no attribution of where the poems were first published. But there is statement which reads “text and photographs copyright 2010 by John Howard Reid”.

Mr. Reid does not have the right to claim that copyright as the work is not primarily his: what he’s done, in putting his own copyright onto this edition in this way, is to imply that he not only translated these poems from the Spanish but that he also wrote those first Spanish texts.

As I see it, Mr. Reid has very few options open to him. He must seek written permission from the literary estates which he has exploited in publishing this book, and if such permissions are not forthcoming he must remove the appropriate pieces from his next edition; and while he’s waiting for such permissions to be granted he must withdraw this edition from sale.

If he does have the permissions required to use these works in this way then he must indicate that in all further copies of this book, and ensure that he acknowledges the authors of these poems appropriately in all future editions of this work, and in all other translations he has published.

Of course, I could be wrong: Mr. Reid might well have reached an agreement with the authors and literary estates concerned that it was fine for him to claim copyright and to use these works without proper attribution: if that’s the case then I apologise unreservedly to him for the comments I’ve made regarding copyright in this review. But I do not apologise for my comments regarding the flat and uninspiring nature of his translations. I read five of this book’s one hundred and forty eight pages, skimmed through a few more, and felt extremely reluctant to read any more of it.

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Mousetrapped, by Catherine Ryan Howard

February 16, 2012 13 comments

Three big dreams, two mouse ears and one J-1 visa. What could possibly go wrong in the happiest place on earth?

When Catherine Ryan Howard decides to swap the grey cloud of Ireland for the clear skies of the Sunshine State, she thinks all of her dreams – working in Walt Disney World, living in the United States, seeing a Space Shuttle launch – are about to come true…

Ahead of her she sees weekends at the beach, mornings by the pool and an inexplicably skinnier version of herself skipping around the Magic Kingdom. But not long into her first day on Disney soil – and not long after a breakfast of Mickey-shaped pancakes – Catherine’s Disney bubble bursts and soon it seems that among Orlando’s baked highways, monotonous mall clusters and world famous theme parks, pixie dust is hard to find and hair is downright impossible to straighten.

The only memoir about working in Walt Disney World, Space Shuttle launches, the town that Disney built, religious theme parks, Bruce Willis, humidity-challenged hair and the Ebola virus, MOUSETRAPPED: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida is the hilarious story of what happened when one Irish girl went searching for happiness in the happiest place on Earth.

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This is one of those reviews which is very difficult for me to write. There’s a lot to praise in Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida; but there’s also a lot to criticise and knowing Catherine Ryan Howard as I do, I am as certain as I can be that she’d rather hear all of my reservations than be fobbed off with a few kind words. So brace yourself, Catherine: this is going to be tough.

Catherine Ryan Howard has an engaging, friendly tone and the story trips along at a reasonable pace. Everything she writes is infused with a lively humour and she has a natural storytelling ability which I’m sure many writers would envy. This already earned her a recommendation for me (so you can stop worrying now, Catherine). She has the basics right: her spelling and grammar are fine, although the punctuation is flawed and inconsistent. But these problems are few, and are nowhere near bad enough to interrupt the flow of her narrative, or to put off a determined agent.

However, there is an indication of problems to come in the back cover copy, which feels a little repetitive and over-long; to then come across phrases from the back cover copy repeated in the first few pages of the book feels a little wrong: I would expect the back cover copy to be its own entity and not a close copy of some of the passages from the book. The opening of this book is not up to scratch: the pages before she reaches Disneyland are too long, too rambling and once more repetitive.

This doesn’t mean that I disliked the book: but I can see how easily (!) the opening could be tightened up and made significantly more absorbing, and how its lack of focus and clarity might well put browsing readers off.

To continue with my criticisms, the humour is at times rather forced; Catherine Ryan Howard’s bleak first few weeks in Orlando made me feel very uncomfortable and unhappy for her despite the jokes she kept right on cracking; and I found her stories rather episodic, as if this were a collection of short stories or articles rather than a continuing memoir. I would have preferred more variation in tone, and more integration of the book’s various strands: I don’t think either is beyond Ms Ryan Howard as she is clearly a confident, intelligent writer. If these points were addressed (a more concise opening, more variation in tone and a better narrative flow) then this book would be very much improved

Where I struggled was with Ms Ryan Howard’s actions. She seemed to crash off on each new venture with little thought or preparation, which at times made me wonder if she was purposely sabotaging herself. It could just be the natural foolhardiness of the young which caused her to believe behave in this way; but I found it infuriating and anxiety-provoking, and that directly affected my enjoyment of this book. I’ll admit that I am an obsessive researcher, and make thorough preparations before I even brush my teeth: so this could be my natural caution showing through.

On the whole, then, an enjoyable read from a humorous and talented writer, which could be much improved with a more stringent edit to improve the pace, tone and flow, but which nevertheless earns a recommendation from me. Well done, Catherine!

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Note: I received this book aeons ago and its review should have appeared much sooner than this. My apologies to Ms Ryan Howard for the delay.

The Faith Of A Child: Stefan G Lanfer

August 26, 2010 1 comment

Preparing for fatherhood? Freaked out? Help is here.

Playwright Stefan Lanfer has penned a vital new book on the struggles of dads-to-be.

When a woman prepares for motherhood, other women guide her on her way. Not so a dad-to-be, who gets pats on the back, corny jokes, or vague assurances he’ll do fine. Until now, his best hope was by-moms-for-moms baby books–a gap filled by Stefan Lanfer’s The Faith of a Child and Other Stories of Becoming and Being a Dad, in which the author chronicles his own journey to, and into fatherhood, lending a comforting and humorous peek into the vagaries and joys of being a dad.

According to Lanfer, “When my wife was pregnant, I was STRESSED out, and the guys around me were no help–until, just in time, I hosted a group of dads at our home. I fed them dinner, and they fed me their stories.” As he listened, says Lanfer, “I got inside the head space of a dad, and, finally, I felt ready.”

To pay forward this gift of stories, Lanfer shares his own in The Faith of a Child. To dads-to-be, Lanfer says, “If you want tips, tactics, and advice for childbirth and parenting, you’ve got dozens of choices. But, if you want real stories that actually let you picture fatherhood, The Faith of a Child is for you.

The Faith Of A Child is composed of a series of vignettes from Lanfer’s life with his wife and, eventually, two small children. He writes in blank verse, which I didn’t find particularly successful: his writing is neither tight enough nor lyrical enough to shine in this form (to see blank verse working well, read Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, a book I adore). And while he presents this as a book of stories to prepare men for fatherhood I’m not convinced that fathers will find the stories collected here at all useful: most are without any real resolution or message, and far too personal to Lanfer to inspire or instruct anyone else.

It’s a shame, as there are occasional glimpses of beauty: for example, the title story is touching and rather lovely. But the few gems there are are muddied by Lanfer’s rather unfocused style, and they’re hidden among a lot of other stories which only invoked a reaction of “so what?” from me, I’m afraid.

A reasonable effort, then, let down by a lack of clarity and focus. While I think it’s wonderful that the author finds his family life so compelling, he really needs to look at his stories with a harsher, more critical eye in order to recognise which are worth working on and which should be kept as a private, more personal record. I read thirty-two pages out of one hundred and fifty-five.

More About The Song: Rachel Fox

June 24, 2010 1 comment

Exposing

Does a blurb ever lie?
Can it tell what’s inside?
Go on, open me up
I have nothing to hide

Poetry was the first thing I ever had published: I’ve read a lot of it, I’ve written a lot of it (mostly bad), and, more importantly, I expect a lot from it. I expect poetry to have some sort of lyrical beauty even if it’s a harsh or bloody kind; I expect its language to be at once sparse and pure, and dense with meaning. I want to read poetry which makes me think more deeply, surprises me, and which stays with me for days after I’ve read it. It’s a very restricted form and so, more than any other, poetry cannot afford to have even a single word misplaced.

What poetry should not be is unfocused, meandering or trite. It shouldn’t remind me of that boring bloke I sat next to on a train once who insisted on telling me all of his poorly-informed opinions about things I’m just not interested in.

I’m afraid that Rachel Fox’s More About the Song fell into the category of my second paragraph, not my first. Her language is plodding, her imagery almost non-existent, her rhythms are unreliable and her ideas are trite. She hammers her points home in a way which is entirely unpoetic: and although I read this slim collection right to its end I cannot recommend it. It left me feeling dismayed and faintly embarrassed, which I don’t suppose was the author’s intended effect.

Stubbs And Bernadette: Levi Montgomery

June 10, 2010 2 comments

You cannot be yourself, until you know who you are.

Her name is Bernadette Elsbeth McIntyre, and she hates it. There’s a whole story about the people in the family she’s named after, people she’s never met, never seen, never heard from, but she tries to not learn it, tries to not remember it. She hates names in general, and her name in particular. She hates the whole concept of names. Names make things real. Names give things substance. Knowing names gives people power. Only someone who knows your name can get you into trouble. Think about it — what’s the first thing the cops always ask you for?

Alone, at home, in bed, he goes again through the long catalog of her imperfections, trying to make sense of this whole thing, trying to scare himself off, away from this whole spooky set of new feelings. Her hair is wild and uneven, her ears stick out a little, her eyes… well, all right, there is absolutely nothing wrong with her big green eyes. Her nose has been broken, and it’s a little crooked, her lips are a tiny bit thicker on the left than the right, her chin is pointy. Her cheekbones, her collarbones, the bones of her wrists and knees, her hipbones, are all just a tiny bit too prominent, her arms and legs a tiny bit too thin. To top all that off, she’s weird — she dresses oddly, shouts at teachers, smashes peas on the lunchroom tables…

Why why why is she the most attractive girl he’s ever seen? Why can’t he stop thinking about her? Why can’t he sleep?

Levi Montgomery lives in Northwest Washington. He has been married for nearly thirty years, and he and his wife have six children, four of whom are active-duty United States military personnel.

Stubbs and Bernadette is an extraordinary book, and Levi Montgomery is a writer of rare potential. He has created some wonderful characters who would veer close to caricature in the hands of a lesser writer: but with him in control they are complex, compelling and utterly believable. I love the stream-of-consciousness flow of his text, and the intimacy and subtlety with which he writes.

Where he lets himself down, though, is in the editing of his work. He frequently takes far too long to make his point; he makes the same point over and over, which gets a little irritating for the reader; and he makes far too much of some things which add nothing to the forward movement of his story, or to the depth of his characterisations.

Stubbs And Bernadette is readable and enchanting: but it would be significantly better if a good editor got her hands on it and helped Montgomery pare away all of his unnecessary meanderings. It would result in a tighter, more compelling narrative without sacrificing any of the beauty and subtlety of Montgomery’s text. I read fifty-two pages out of two hundred and two in order to reach my score of fifteen: but I will be reading this on to the end, and despite its flaws I recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s a beautiful, bewitching book with the potential to be even better.

Straight From The Horse’s Heart: R T Fitch

March 24, 2009 8 comments

Horses can’t talk, but they can speak if you listen. And in Straight from the Horse’s Heart: A Spiritual Ride through Love, Loss, and Hope, R. T. Fitch translates what he has learned while listening to horses. In fact, the author is not so much a horse whisperer as he is a horse listener. From the horse’s mouth to our ears, he beautifully captures the essence of the language of horses and the special relationship between horse and human. As dramatic as it is inspiring, his insights on life, love, and survival are echoes of the windswept mane and beating hooves of a wild mare and the calm stillness of a foal. Together these melodic, often poetic stories find blessings in the eye of the storm and celebrate the quietude of reflection and inner peace.

When I started to read this book I expected to dislike it: I don’t do well with sentimentality, nor with those “tragic-about-brave” tabloid-fodder stories that so often form around animals and those who rescue them.

Instead, I found a book which is, at its start at least, heart-warming and full of a very particular charm. It is simply written and very accessible: but the text needs a stiff edit as it’s let down by a good few careless mistakes in punctuation and structure which could easily have been addressed, which prevented me from reading past page twenty-five.

What worries me more, though, is the direction that the book eventually takes. It is episodic, built from thirty-five short standalone pieces: but while the early chapters discuss the author’s work with horses with great simplicity and charm the later pieces are rather more surreal, and take the form of conversations with horses in turmoil, several of which are written from the horse’s points of view. I did not find these pieces convincing or credible: and they let down the rest of the writing, I’m afraid.

I suspect that the author would have had a good chance of finding a mainstream publisher if he had only written a different book: despite the errors that I spotted he writes well, seems to have a natural sense of pacing, and I’ll bet he has plenty of stories to tell. I’d strongly advise him to consider writing a book which describes all the various horses he had helped over the years, and discusses the many challenges that each horse presented, and trying for a mainstream deal next time.