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Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry – Scottish Review of Books
by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Gallimaufry

February 18, 2010 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

The Hundred Thousand Places

Thomas A. Clark

CARCANET, £9.95 pp96, ISBN 9781847770059

The Hundred Thousand Places, inspired by walks across the isles and highlands, is a single poem in three parts. Time unfolds gradually in Clark’s verse. His short stanzas, some only a few lines long, illustrate a slow gathering of thought. The collection begins in the isles, at dawn: “once again/for the first time/morning”. Descriptions of sea mists, salt winds and sand bars transport the reader. The second section begins inland and guides the reader along the ground. Bracken, mica and thorns suggest the rough moorlands. The final section shares the first’s air of discovery and the second’s earthiness. The narrator climbs a summit, confirming his sense of self and his relationship to the land. What’s good about this collection is how the form is based on the narrator’s sense of direction. Clark is very aware of where his narrator is going: “you are not where/you are not there/ahead of the given/in continual revelation”. His use of second person also creates a sense of freedom and distance. Space, pace and wild beauty are on the reader’s mind throughout this tantalising collection. TM

The House of the Mosque

Kader Abdolah

CANONGATE, £12.99 pp400, ISBN 9781847672407

Iranian-born Abdolah has set his novel towards the end of the era of the Shah and the beginning of the rise in power of the ayatollahs, a beguiling tale of people struggling with the political context they find themselves caught in. Aqa Jaan’s family live in the house behind the mosque, where his brother, Alsaberi, is imam. We see his daughter, Sadiq, married off to a handsome young trainee imam named Khalkhal (remarkably, given they’ve only met him for five minutes). Radical and far more militant than Alsaberi, his sexual coldness makes Sadiq unhappy, and when Alsaberi dies, Khalkhal gets what he really wants: the position of imam in Alsaberi’s mosque. Abdolah shows the clash of cultures (Alsaberi’s son wants to watch the moon landings on TV, not go to prayers) in a family setting, where he also portrays the intimate moments that matter: Alsaberi’s widow, Zinat, finally experiences the kind of sexual satisfaction that her sister-in-law takes for granted, after the death of her husband, and the wickedly disrespectful Nosrat sneaks women into the mosque for sex. There is a healthy irreverence here, a recognition of the joy that life can bring, in spite of religious rules and fears. LM

To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon Richard Shelton

Atlantic, £18.99 pp288 ISBN 9781843547846

To Sea and Back explores the fresh and salt water lives of Atlantic salmon. Richard Shelton, research director of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, combines both natural history and memoir in his discussion of this migratory fish. The narration begins under water as Shelton describes the plight of a grilse (a salmon which is returning to its spawning grounds after just one year in the sea). The presence of fishermen, the mating rituals between cock and hen fish, and the young fish’s return to the sea are richly described. Shelton also uncovers the salmon’s hidden ‘talents’: how they remember scents and what they tell us about the state of our rivers and oceans. As chairman of Buckland Society, Shelton also provides information about Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland, who had a taste for fried field mice and whose research on salmon behaviour was influential. Though Shelton’s chapters can feel randomly organised, his enthusiasm for the sea and its inhabitants is boundless. TM

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed

Mary Heimann

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, £25 pp432, ISBN 9780300141474

This dauntingly detailed history of Czechoslovakia is largely meant for scholars and students rather than for the general reader, but its controversial argument may pull in those who want a more demanding read. It’s Heimann’s contention that Czechoslovakia, far from being the plucky victim of Nazism and Stalinism that suffered after 1968’s ‘Prague Spring’, actually colluded in its own victimisation, and in certain cases, such as the transportation of Jews and the incarceration of gypsies, pre-empted the Nazis. To explain how a country which appears liberal and cultured one minute, before passing anti-Semitic laws the next, she traces Czechoslovakia’s history back through its fluctuating borders and myriad peoples. She discovers there what she believes is a fierce and chauvinistic nationalism. This she blames for many of the political decisions the artificial state of Czechoslovakia (created after the First World War by its victors) took during the twentieth century. A lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, Heimann shows the complexity and confusion of Czechoslovakia, its conflicting loyalties and bloody rivalries, while also breaking a few national myths. LM


Richard Price

CARCANET, £9.95 pp96 ISBN 9781847770103

Unanswered love is the underlying theme in Richard Price’s Rays. Doubt and obsession brought on by desire is conveyed through Price’s fragmented and syncopated forms. His heavily metaphorical language can move swiftly or at glacier pace, depending on the content. The collection opens with an evocative piece about insomnia. Repetition of “the thought – the thought – thought” conveys the slow, painful passing of time, as do the asterisks separating each brief, worried verse. Another poem, ‘little but often’, discusses miscommunication in relationships. Composed in alphabet form, each letter is the start of two couplets. A is for “absolute beginner, a little shy/asked directions – so did I”, which leads to the bewailing Q: “quested for you – ultimate, ultimate prize/is it wrong to lust and long? my saint, is it wise?”. Price’s greatest strength is his ability to improvise. He creates a medley of voices in his version of the canzone (medieval Italian ballad). ‘Melancholy Plumber’ is a playful song full of rhymes, jazzy rhythms and underlined words. ‘Two halves of nothing’ features succinct yet emotive verses and a charming chorus. These poems, and many others, illustrate Price’s talents. TM


Susan Irvine

QUERCUS, £12.99 pp320, ISBN 9781847249555

This collection of short stories focuses, as the title suggests, on the body, but not just the human body. It’s also about a body of work, a body of writing or art. Irvine has a sense of humour about the absurd needs and wants of the human body, especially when owned by a thirty-something woman, but she also understands the body’s limitations. In ‘Late’, a woman can’t stop and help a dog that some boys are trying to drown, or take time for a stricken friend, because she’s “got a novel to write”. In ‘Stories’, the legacy of parents, the stories that they can tell their children, disappear because one side won’t talk or the other side won’t listen. She can be caustic and cynical about the writing ‘industry’, about who becomes famous and who doesn’t, and how meaningless the notion of creativity is when certain lines are crossed. Scottish-born Irvine also likes to write in unusual ways, which largely pays off: straight Q and As, a play on lifestyle surveys and advice books, dialogue-driven narratives, all give her prose an unpredictable yet approachable feel. LM

Peatbogs, Plague And Potatoes: How Climate Change And Geology Shaped Scotland’s History

Emma Wood

LUATH PRESS, £9.99 pp288 ISBN 9781906307370

This book reminds us that climate change is not just a modern phenomenon. Emma Woods traces the effect of climate change from the “very beginning” of the lands now known as Scotland to 1860 when subsistence agriculture was being displaced by industrialisation. Her intention is to provide readers with “tools of understanding” which go beyond the time-span and territorial emphasis of her study and are applicable to the latest global climate challenge. This is no minor ambition but Woods is up to the challenge. Beginning with prehistory and the arrivals of humans and farming, she moves on to the effects of environment on human population and, finally, human effects on the environment. In the course of this broad sweep, she demonstrates how Bronze Age downpours and cold temperatures affected fertility and the Little Ice Age, which started in the fourteenth century, induced poverty and migration. And she reminds us that “natural Scotland” so beloved of tourist brochures is not natural at all, but the product of a complex mix of the effect of climate on vegetation, clearances (both of people and woodland), and farming. Even our animals are the end of a long story of extinction and introduction with the native auroch and wild boar gone and the pheasant and the domestic rabbit drafted in. TM

East Fortune

James Runcie

BLOOMSBURY, £7.99 pp256, ISBN 9781408800867

East Fortune’s premise is an interesting one: while driving home one night, Jack Henderson hits a young man who leaps out in front of his car. The young man dies, but Jack can’t help feeling responsible, and so he attends the funeral, where he meets the man’s girlfriend, Polish student Krystyna. Jack is alone, estranged from his wife, and unsure of people. But this story doesn’t go where you think it might. What looks like becoming an affair between two people drawn together by tragedy takes a different turn, and the book goes on to also explore the lives of Jack’s brothers: his younger, adulterous sibling, Douglas, and the eldest and steadiest of the three, Angus. Krystyna is already pregnant by her dead lover, and Jack’s father is dying: this is not so much a tale of illicit passion as one of family obligations and the gathering courage to face life, something Jack has never been good at. Matters come to a head when the three brothers make their annual visit to their parents’ home in East Fortune. Runcie is a sensitive writer, occasionally a little ponderous, but good at intimacy and the agony of not knowing when, or how, to begin again. LM

Cancer Party

Andrew Raymond Drennan

CARGO, £6.99 pp255 ISBN 9780956308306

This debut novel is one of the first offerings from Cargo, a Glasgow-based publisher committed to showcasing new talent. Hailing from Paisley, Andrew Raymond Drennan is also the founding editor of The Crowhurst Review, a cultural and political blog. Predictably, his first novel has a political tilt. Set in 1997 following the victory of New Labour, Dren-nan describes a circle of teens who hang out on the steps of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. The novel centres on Adam, a bookish young man who recently lost his mother to cancer, and whose father spends most of his time in the local pub. Adam looks for guidance in his English professor, and is dumbfounded when his mentor takes his own life. This event plunges Adam into a downward spiral of drink, drugs and depression. Cancer Party suffers from an unfortunate title and lacks characterisation. It has much in common with Trainspotting, but does not share Irvine Welsh’s gritty strength. Drennan’s main man is dreary and immature, and his mob of GOMA misfits are a weak supporting act. What Drennan did get right is the Glasgow weather: “rain poured down in fat greasy drops like chip


From this Issue

Donne Deal

by Cairns Craig

In Broonland

by Christopher Harvie

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