Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that the gated community where we were staying would be full of the kind of nerd who wants to make things more difficult for everyone else, and not just for himself. […]

A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement pan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Philip Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

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Review: Now We Are Six Hundred by James Goss and Russell T Davies

This article first appeared on DoWntime on 14 September 2017.

It’s a fair question why this book exists. With Doctor Who off the air until Christmas and Jodie Whittaker on the horizon, the decision to release a poetry collection, of all things, is  inscrutable. Its author, James Goss, has been writing Doctor Who spinoff material for more than a decade, and its illustrator is Russell T Davies, who famously revived the series in 2005. The result is a book that feels stuck in the past, and its overall tone is wildly confused. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of both Doctor Who and poetry in general. Now We Are Six Hundred is a wasted opportunity, a funny little footnote on the way to better things.

Of course, it’s the illustrator who is the real draw here. The reasons for this are obvious, but Davies does demonstrate some real artistic talent. His style is somewhere between Martin Brown and Pete McKee, with a scratchy line and exaggerated facial features, which help create a sense of playfulness. As on television, he has a solid line in visual gags, with highlights including K9 sitting on Snoopy’s kennel, and Four using his scarf as a lasso. But he also manages to inject some real pathos. His illustrations of a lonely and abandoned Sarah Jane, or a nostalgic yet forgetful Donna Noble are genuinely moving, and demonstrate real emotional range. Judged solely as a vehicle for Davies’s illustrations, Now We Are Six Hundred is a fabulous success.

Unfortunately, the accompanying poems are uniformly dreadful. Goss bases many of them on the work of A.A. Milne (the title refers to Milne’s Now We Are Six) placing the book firmly in the realm of children’s literature. But there’s very little sense that Goss has engaged with children’s poetry, or indeed poetry in general, beyond 1927. His attention to metre is sloppy at best, and he has a knack for ear-scraping forced rhymes.

Take the poem ‘Absences’, about schoolteacher Clara Oswald disappearing for an adventure, and then reappearing to the consternation of her class. This is prime subject matter for children’s poetry – one can imagine Michael Rosen or Andy Tooze writing something very witty in exactly this vein – but Goss squanders the premise with this final stanza:

“Miss Clara

Slipped back in the

Middle of a lesson. “Now, where were we?”

Where were you?!?” “What’s the hurry?

I’ve been in space, met Ghandhi for curry,

Saved the human race, s’okay don’t worry

And no, don’t thank me.”

Oh Miss Clara

Miss, this time

You’ve gone too far-er.”

Setting aside the appalling last line, the misspelling of Gandhi’s name, and indeed the crassness of ‘meeting him for curry’, what’s most annoying about this poem is the disservice it does to Clara as a character. Throughout the series Clara is framed in terms of both literature and childhood; she’s an English teacher, she refers to ‘basic storytelling’ in explaining things to the Doctor, and her second story involves her literally taking a leaf out of a children’s book. This makes her perfect for a poem like this. But she’s also defined as “a bossy control freak” with a pathological need to keep things in order. So when Goss has her casually disappear for weeks in the first stanza (“Miss Clara?/ Where are yer?”) it simply doesn’t wash. The tension between Clara’s desire for adventure and her need to maintain responsibility is what drives her relationship with the Doctor, and indeed Doctor Who. To have her carelessly swanning off is not just out of character, it misunderstands what makes her character interesting.

This tendency to ignore thematic depth in favour of shallow blandishments is best exemplified in the climactic poem ‘Friend Ship’. It attempts to pay tribute to the Doctor’s companions over the last fifty years, and it does this by simply listing their first names:

“Rose, Jack and Jackie

Martha, (horse) and Mickey.

 

Donna, Donna, Donnaaaa!

(Never forgetting her)

 

Amy, Winston, Rory

River (that’s another story).”

The problem with this list is twofold. First, it relies entirely on the reader knowing who all these characters are, and in quite a lot of detail. We need, for instance, to remember that Donna’s final story involved having her memory wiped, that Winston Churchill appeared in two episodes nearly seven years ago, and that a horse appeared in a single episode more than eleven years ago. No problem for the dedicated adult fan, but surely baffling for the children this book is ostensibly aimed at. But this list also fails by the standards of the continuity-minded adult fan, who will instantly point out that Winston wasn’t ‘really’ a companion, and that the horse’s name was Arthur. Goss has failed to think through his readers’ experience here, and so the book ends up feeling vapid and cynical to an older fan, and likely confusing to a younger one.

But even worse is the poem’s final couplet:

“Then Nardole, Bill and River too

And,

MOST IMPORTANTLY

There’s

YOU.”

This is not just trite and unimaginative, it actively talks down to its supposed audience, something Doctor Who never did under Russell T Davies (or for that matter Steven Moffat). The worst that can be said of Now We Are Six Hundred is that in its fealty to the letter of Doctor Who, it is almost antithetical to its spirit.

The sad thing is, this project could so easily have been better. There are surely dozens of published poets who would love to play with the wealth of concepts (and the wide audience) Doctor Who has to offer. Hell, there are hundreds of writers and artists online doing exactly that, mostly for free. So instead of wasting a tenner on this book, I recommend you go and follow some of them. Particularly good are unknown-companion-poems, Johannesviii, James Wylder, and Jonne Bartelds, all of whose work is far more stylish, and far more deserving of support than Goss and Davies’s efforts. At the end of the day, the value proposition of this book is far less than that of simply opening a Tumblr account.

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

CONTENT WARNING: This review discusses industrial and animal abuse, as well as detailed descriptions of cancer symptoms. It also discusses the book’s ending, if spoilers are a big deal for you.

Science fiction these days seems to be intractably stuck in both the past and the future. Which is to say, the present. Brooke Bolander’s new novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing, embodies this generic mandate. Set in both the past and the near future, it nonetheless speaks to our chaotic cultural moment. While the execution occasionally falls short, the book is most fearsome, and most timely, in its depiction of solidarity among the oppressed, even as it is unflinching about the reality of that oppression.

The novella reworks the historical stories of both Topsy the elephant and the Radium Girls, respectively an elephant publicly executed on Coney Island and a group of women systemically poisoned in an effort to save money. This does involve fudging the dates slightly Topsy was electrocuted in 1903, while the Orange New Jersey factory opened in 1917, yet the novella depicts these events as happening simultaneously. This allows Bolander to create a general commentary on the early twentieth century, and her version of events, in which Topsy’s electrocution causes a nuclear explosion off the coast of New York, is open about the cruelty and exploitation on which modernity was founded.

The narrative shifts between multiple protagonists, both before after the Topsy disaster, as well as media cuttings, commemorative songs, and a Kipling-inspired fable about an ancient mother elephant. This might sound like information overload, and the cacophony of voices is very much part of the novella’s effect, but Bolander manages her transitions impeccably. Every narrative jump feels natural, and each one either helps the story progress, or injects fresh perspective on what has come before. Pacing overall is absolutely flawless; the book is precisely the length is needs to be, building ruthlessly to a telegraphed ending that still manages to shock.

The book in general is long on horror, as befits its heavy subject matter. The novella opens with a description of a mountain contaminated by nuclear waste, long after humanity’s extinction, and the irradiated elephants who live there.

“At night, when the moon shuffles off behind the mountain and the land darkens like wetted skin, they glow. There is a story behind this. No matter how far you march, O best beloved mooncalf, the past will always drag around your ankle, a snapped shackle time cannot pry loose.”

The problem of nuclear waste lasting longer than human civilisation is a real and terrifying thing, but this abstracted horror soon gives way to more visceral nastiness, as we meet the character of Regan, an elephant handler poisoned by radium paint. Regan spends most of the novella slowly dying, and Bolander describes this in agonising detail:

“The ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle. Even now, trying to teach this cussed animal how to eat the poison that hammered together her own rickety stairway to Heaven, it’s throbbing and burning like Satan’s got a party cooked up inside and everybody’s wearing red-hot hobnails on the soles of their dancing shoes. She reminds herself to focus. This particular elephant has a reputation for being mean as hell; a lack of attention might leave her splattered across the wall and conveyor belt. Not yet, ol’ Mr. Death. Not just yet.

These metaphors may feel overwrought at first, but they effectively convey Regan’s overwhelming pain, the sentences carefully modulated so that they never feel monotonous. The subtle, jerking moves this paragraph makes towards describing Regan’s interactions with Topsy help convey the conscious effort Regan is making to concentrate on her work. Her pain may be enormous, but she literally cannot afford to dwell on it.

These lengthy, painful descriptions are a clear, and even affecting, part of the book’s point, but there are moments which risk tipping over into simply aestheticising that pain. Worse, though, is the occasionally crass depiction of Regan’s fellow workers. There’s a rather clumsy attempt to sympathetically characterise her abusive foreman, and at one point Regan receives a letter from fellow Radium Girl Jodie that feels a little patronising in its efforts to demonstrate how these women have been denied education.

“Regan,

Just want you to no, aint no hard feeling about the way things paned out. You all did best you cood lookin out for me like blood kin when you no I never had no body since Mama past away. Even yor own mama used to give me a seat at the tabell when holy fokes sooner feed scraps to a stray tomcat than a big uglee plain mannerd girl like me.”

Jodie clearly *can* write she is not illiterate ­ so to have her misspell every other word like this seems like overkill, and the sentences are a bit too lucid to suggest the misspellings are a result of mental deterioration. It’s a small slip, but it is a shame, especially given the novella’s overall success in depicting the humanity of these workers who have effectively been poisoned for profit.

It’s also odd given the savviness of the book’s politics overall. Bolander is heartbreaking in her portrayal of reckless industrial and political elites. Particularly striking are Regan’s long, awkward confrontation with her boss in Part Two, and an early scene where political negotiator Kat realises she is effectively asking a group of elephants to do something for nothing, because it simply had not occurred to her to offer them anything.

“The translator stares at Kat for a little longer than is necessary. She glances back over her shoulder at the matriarch, then back at Kat.

“I just want to make sure I’m hearing this correctly before I translate,” she says, in a lower register. “Did you seriously just show up to what is basically a diplomatic meeting with no bargaining chips whatsoever?””

Moments like these are subtle, yet savage in their portrayal of a system which would not only allow, but encourage this disregard for marginalised groups.

But it’s the ending which takes The Only Harmless Great Thing from savvy and well-crafted story to essential-feeling political statement. Topsy is being marched to her public execution, with both the reader and the main characters knowing it will result in nuclear disaster. At first, she refuses to move. “She smells her ending, and her feet plant themselves, bending-parts senselessly locking.” But then Regan emerges:

“Another human pushes out of the mass the dead girl, still moving, still somehow on her feet when every part of her stinks of corruption. […] She turns, asking in the language of twisted trunk-paws: Are you well? Can you walk? It’s just a little further. We’ll go together.

And even this much We is enough to drive the fear back into the high grass. Her mind stills. Her legs unstiffen. Together they cross the overwater, men flytrailing behind. Together they go to sing the song of their undoing, the joining, teaching, come-together song.”

This final act of compassion, this insistence on solidarity in the face of fatal oppression, is fundamental to the book’s success. The Only Harmless Great Thing is bold, cutting, and exactly what science fiction needs to be right now.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available to preorder from Tor.com, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back by Brian Sonia-Wallace

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 15 September 2016.

Some books are brilliant and original. Some are predictable and clichéd. And some manage that strange combination of both, by being not quite as original as they at first appear. Brian Sonia-Wallace’s debut collection, I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back, fits the latter. Sonia-Wallace has spent the last few years as a self-styled ‘RENT Poet’, braving the streets of L.A. with a typewriter, and taking on-the spot commissions with an aim to create “a society of patrons for the arts starting at $1”. Each of these poems was “written in 5-10 minutes for a stranger who shared themselves with me on the street or online”. Sonia-Wallace then photographed his output for re-sale purposes, and here presents the best of what he produced on the job. A good idea for a collection, but Sonia-Wallace seems convinced that his scheme to “write poems for cash” is somehow revolutionary. He declares that “you can keep your high art, I am shamelessly for hire”. But street artists have been around for centuries, and working on commission is as old as the arts themselves. All of that said, there are some solid poems to be had here, even if the ‘RENT Poet’ persona fails to boggle the mind.

Given its street origins, it’s not surprising that the collection feels like all human life has traipsed through it. From grieving relatives to frustrated teachers, from squabbling kids to hopeful parents, there’s a real range of subject matter, handled with spontaneity and wit. The opening of the early poem ‘Courage’ is a good example:

We all begin as voyeurs,
flies on the wall
with frogs in our throats

eating our words
to get more salt in our diets.

What’s in our throats
eats us up,
consumes us, sticky-tongued,

throat frogs and stomach butterflies—
let them drown.
I’m done with being Noah’s Ark.

The lines are misshapen, yet coherent, shifting between twisted haikus and deformed couplets, the poetic voice alternately creepy, bitter, acerbic and weird. The sense of emotions turning against us as “throat frogs and stomach butterflies” is subtly unnerving, and the comparison of the human psyche to Noah’s Ark is rich in its implications. This complex yet elegant style is where Sonia-Wallace really shines. It makes one curious as to its original commissioner, as many of these poems do. Sonia-Wallace sadly includes only a handful of his poems’ backstories in the end-notes, a combination of poetic licence and patient confidentiality, and ‘Courage’ is not one of them.

There are moments where he’s wonderfully playful with form, as well as with his own role as a poet. ‘Eulogy for a Poem’ is particularly dry: “Cause of Poem: unknown./ Time of Poem: 8:18 PM./ Rest in poem,/ Poem.” It’s a pleasing send-up of death’s banality, and the final couplet borders on the profound: “Here lies poem/ survived by us all.” But while Sonia-Wallace is extremely daring within his short time frames, he occasionally lets his pen run away with him. This results in peculiarities like “eating breakfast off the tits of destiny”, the sort of cringeworthy line which would hopefully not survive a more thorough compositional process. That line also points to the book’s irksome casual sexism. The penultimate poem, ‘Watching You Go’, exemplifies this:

I guess your ass is a peach.

Not a melon but a sort of stone fruit. Juicy.
It’s already hot out here.
You’d better watch what you do with that thang

your body is a novel.
I’m a voracious reader.

It feels like leering dressed up as insightful artistry, which is no excuse. On its own it’s objectifying and crass, but as one of the final poems in the book it leaves a bad taste. One can only speculate as to its original commission, but the poor woman’s reception is probably worth a poem in itself.

I Sold These Poems is a perfectly decent collection, whose better moments transcend their hurried origins. Sonia-Wallace’s work ethic and commitment to populism are admirable, even if there are moments that can be accused of thoughtlessness. The book’s status as working poetry cuts both for and against — its roughness gives rise to poetic brilliance and rushed-out nonsense, and there’s no easy way to separate the two. But if, as Sonia-Wallace asks, we judge it as a purely commercial item, it’s easy to recommend — at $15 for 31 poems (a wholesale price of less than 50 cents a poem), this book certainly represents value for money.

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.