A note on bad reviews

I recently attended a panel discussion about going and receiving criticism. The panel consisted of writers, reviewers, and art critics. It was an hour-long showering of insightful opinions and ideas that I had to note down and mull over. As I mulled over, an incredible urge to write them down gnawed my brain.

One of the points that a writer of over 30 books, brought up is that in this age of social media, writing as an art has taken a massive turn. People can now share their opinions with the greater world even as they watch a movie, read a book, or wander through an art exhibition.

And that got me thinking.

From being a slow, iterative process like a stewing stump of steak, creating art has now become quicker, like pre-packaged chicken caesar salad, to offer instant gratification for souls so eager to tweet out their amusing reactions to a book as early as five pages in.

Since writers and other artists are aware of the instantaneous effects that the audience’s opinions will have on their work, they tend to take safer strides in their writing. Afraid of being criticised by people who don’t see what they see, artists adjust their art to satisfy the audience that happens to see their work. As a result, art becomes tailored for a specific audience, instead of reflecting the artist’s being.

Bad reviews and harsh criticism isn’t always about the artwork. In most cases, especially in today’s social media-powered world, adverse reactions come from people who didn’t necessarily enjoy the work. This also means that the art hasn’t reached those who would enjoy and appreciate it. When put that way, any review becomes mildly questionable. Sure, this reader hated the book. But there may well be other readers who’d love the book but haven’t read or reviewed it yet.

That’s a good reason not to rely too much on reviews.

St. John’s Wort, a review

St. John's Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin. Published by Animal Heart Press.

It’s hard to say what Alexus imagined when she titled this book, St. John’s Wort. It’s the name of a European medicinal shrub known for treating depression. Like most of the world, if you consider the book at face value, you’ll think it’s therapeutic, that it calms and elevates your experiences. 

It does. 

However, as you read through the poems, over and over again, to make sure you don’t miss a beat or the depth of meaning folded neatly in between lines and stanzas, you’ll realise that Mayo Clinic was perhaps right. As one of the top possible side effects of St. John’s wort (the shrub), it lists agitation. Which is what you feel when you’ve read these poems.

Alexus doesn’t look at the world around her and burst into flowery language. Instead, her poems are deliberate. Each line, each syllable rings with meaning, and whether or not you directly relate to it, you feel what she sees, and you see what she feels.

Imagery is for the ear as much as it is for the eye, you learn as she describes in Laughter,

“I know God laughed
when night bathed tabletop-
tabletop cradled the New York Times, a pound cake. I sang carols over the brushed, high-hat hiss of a Vanilla Coke can.”

Alexus’s poetry isn’t simple. Layers upon layers of complexity lie in each poem, and she makes you work to reap the sweet benefits of the sadness lingering in those hard words. 

“When I learned my father had an aneurysm, I thought about the day his brother had the aneurysm.
I thought about Plath, then Hughes
then about how suddenly I needed to buy pudding
from the grocery store.”

When referencing a father dying of aneurysm, not everyone draws a parallel with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“, where she confesses struggling to forgive her father’s involvement in the Holocaust and his lack of self-care that resulted in a gradual demise. Alexus cleverly matches the Plath reference with the seemingly related Hughes, while instead, with a subtle streak, alluding to pulmonary artery aneurysms, a rare autoimmune disease first described by British physicians Hughes and Stovin.

Good poetry resounds though your being, leaving blotches of reality, like ink on paper, marking you for life. This collection of poems takes it further—you have to marvel at Alexus’s wordliness, the way she’s melded poetry with dark reality, and the way she’s dejargoned medicine, revealing it in bits, like droplets on whiskey, just enough to hit you with a boldness that momentarily disarms you.

It’s not, however, a book you need to pair with a high-edition dictionary—although a nice Riesling surely complements. Scattered throughout the book, in snippets that speak the truth as it is, are poems so simple and so pristine that you can’t help but pause to inhale the beauty of words.

“What among us won’t, one day,
Be turned inside out?”

She asks in such tepidity that it strikes you, slices through your pretence, as intense as hot knife through cold butter.

Alexus ends that poem, Year of the Rabbit Hole, hinting at self-help, while artfully voiding her voice of the unworthiness that comes with such books.

This collection is a chain, flaunting a range of topics, all bound by the string of tragedy. Every poem is an ode to an incident in life—sometimes personal, often not—leaving you with a shudder, questioning you, and enticing you to question the world you see.


Musings from reading St. John’s Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin and published by Animal Heart Press.

Set me Free

Salvatore Striano quote from Set me Free

I haven’t met a Shakespeare fan I didn’t like. 

Dreamy fierceness oozes from his words like a tube of toothpaste, and make readers stick like mosquitoes on an oil plate.

And when two mosquitoes meet on oil plate, what else would they share than their love for wit that landed them there in the first place? 

It was with that curiosity that I picked up Set me Free by Salvatore Striano. The title itself wasn’t any different from the thousands that line the library aisle. It was the sub headline of the book that forced my feet to retreat and my hand to reach out: The story of how Shakespeare saved a life.

At that moment, I knew I had to read it.

Life got in the way, many times, slowing down my progress. And yet, I persisted—the deadline loomed and I didn’t want to be that person who extends a library book because they were too busy not reading.

I read in the bus, I read walking around the lake, I read in bed at night sipping black coffee.

This tale come from behind bars. It’s the story of a high-security, long-sentence serving prisoner in Italy. The narrator, Sasà—the prisoner himself—tells how he’s been a frequent visitor to jails since he was seven, walking us through various parts of his life leading up to the present. And all the while, he explains the realities of prison life, the solitude and hopelessness that hugs the air, and the spite that separates groups.

What’s Shakespeare doing in a place like this?

Saving souls, of course.

The narrator goes on to illustrate how one accidental play they put on opened the vault to an under-appreciated realm of sonnets and theatre. He reads Shakespeare, and with every play he finishes, Sasà feels himself glow and grow as a person. And in the end, the book closes with a hint of how even inside prison, lessons from good literature change and free people of their darkest despairs.

It’s a well-told short book.

However, at many instances while reading this book, I felt a tinge of irritation scratch the surface of my patience. For there are pages in the book that function, not as part of the story, but as the author’s opinion and observation of The Tempest. I scoffed, remembering CliffNotes. The narrator does this a lot—there’re chunks of references, poetic verses, and lengthy explanations of how and why Prospero forgives his enemies in the end. Sasà even argues with a fellow prisoner, who plays Prospero, for doing the character injustice.

As I read on, though, my annoyance melted. I grew intrigued at the narrator. For he’d internalised Shakespearean characters so much that he began identifying their real-world counterparts.

As readers, we see the plays help him discover his feelings towards the people in his life. His wife was like Miranda—loyal and pure. An older cellmate, a mentor and guide was Prospero—a father-like figure in jail. And he, the narrator, himself was Ariel. It becomes more than a role in a play, and we see how Sasà lets Ariel and other Shakespearean characters influence his own behaviour. Like an earthworm tossing out the dirt to let a breath of fresh air down the ground, these fictional men wade in and out of Sasà’s consciousness, picking out hatred and sadness, and replacing them with gardening, writing, and composure.

This is a small book. With a big takeaway. 

The more I recall incidents in the book, the more I understand the impact of these plays on the narrator. From being a thief, drugger, and gangster, he emerges as a poet, and a rather philosophical actor.

This is a good book. Give it a read.

Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.

The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street.