GAZA. Sadly, not fiction.

REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Atef-Abu Saif

israel-uav-butterfly
Israel-uav-butterfly

Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.

Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.

During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.

A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS), Nevada (NV), during exercise DESERT RESCUE XI. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). The exercise is a joint service Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise hosted by the Naval Strike and Warfare Center, designed to simulate downed aircrews, enabling CSAR related missions to experiment with new techniques in realistic scenarios.
A Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)

How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.

If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.

The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.

Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.

Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”.  Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.

Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity.  gazangameIt takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.

If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise.  Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.

Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)
The Difficult Lesson William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.

To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.

Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.

(c) 2015 All of these blog posts are the copyright of Rosalind Minett. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission, or without crediting me as the original author and providing a link to the original article on this website.

Confused identity

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An emergence from tragedy

This is the first of my reviews of self-published or very small press fiction. In fact, it is not to be published for another few weeks, but I think you will want to put this on your wishlist.

I read Tracey Scott-Townsend’s first book, The Last Time I saw Marion, and was impressed by the quality of writing and unique storyline. When I received Another Rebecca I wondered if the quality would remain, but I wasn’t disappointed.

The title suggests that we are in for a retake at Manderley, but no. This is not a Du Maurier sequel. The other Rebecca is a reformation of her mother, who has the same name. She now calls herself Bex to differentiate from the girl she once was, and sadly, is no more.

The novel opens on a dreamy sequence that is a time slip. Rebecca flits from hospital into a fantastic and erotic adventure, but it doesn’t last long. When we return to the present time, it is clear why Rebecca needs (and deserves) to escape reality.

She lives in a miserable and increasingly crisis-laden home, abandoned by father, caring for an alcoholic mother.

There are three voices: the girl, Rebecca, her mother, Bex and Jack, her seemingly errant father. The language is similar for the two parents, whereas Rebecca has gained more education and maturity despite being a young person.

The alcoholic mother whinges her way to disaster, yet in the chapters in her voice we find the remains of what could have been a nice person. The disgusting state she has got herself into isn’t minimized but the background story, built up slowly, shows her jagged path to destruction.

This author is skilled at setting a conflict from which the story can flow. We soon learn that Jack is caught up in a no-win situation that was caused by his kindness, not his neglect. It is easy to sympathise with his position, torn between competing emotional forces.

Our identification is with the Rebecca whose future is before her. The mystery surrounds and is a part of her, interacting with the art that inspires and possesses her.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes more complex and the fantasy Rebecca began with permeates the theme in a new way. The significance of the title comes into its own. Finally, the tangled threads of these three characters’ story reach their conclusion, making for a thoroughly satisfying read.

This is a thoughtful, well-structured novel with good characterisation. The life-style and thought-processes of the alcoholic are credible, as is the good-heartedness, yet ineffectiveness of the husband. Scott-Townsend has not made the mistake of painting her characters black and white. The positives and weaknesses are carefully revealed.

There are some lyrical descriptions of scenes that add to the pleasure of reading this interesting story. It should please readers of fantasy as well as those who enjoy tales of family conflict.

 

Small drama, great writing

 Review of A Distant Father by Antonio SKÁRMETA

Los_Caimanes_Chile
Los Caimanes, Chile

 

I like to follow a kind of diet in my reading. You can gorge on too many books in the same genre and regret it. I had just finished the dark indeed, Dark Places, and felt in need of a total change, an irrigation if you like. A Distant Father provided just that, and not in clubs.clubToo often in UK and US the highly rated book is high drama, exploding on the senses as if only extremes of behaviour or events will capture our attention. Skarmeta, this prize-winning Chilean author, quietly writes a story that immerses itself in our imagination. The young man returns to his village where the clock has stopped at ten past three, stepping out of his train carriage, his teaching diploma in his battered suitcase. He is aching to display it to his adored father — who gets into the carriage as the son gets out, and stays away. Why? He is so loved by son and wife, who mPASAPORTE_OFICIAL_CHILENO_(2013)ourn his absence.

However, his friend the miller explains that he has stayed so long when there is almost nothing to keep a grown man in the small village.

Even so, the young man decides to stay despite the lack of opportunity, despite the poverty. He teaches the children, the miller provides bread, the other males leave for the nearest city. This is where our hero goes to lose his virginity but not his soul. In that city he begins to learn some of the mysteries that surround his father’s absence, the pain experienced by each individual involved.

He continues his journey making a deep difference to those in his life. He has a bereft, hardworking mother, a student who wants to become an adult via the brothel and whose sisters pay him much attention. There develops an ethical tension around conflicting desires.

Chile_topo_en

At the end, he enables his student to take his geography prize of a globe (the ‘world’) into (and for) his future. This great metaphor is not all, for the beauty of the story is the way the young man brings good to everyone by an unexpected, but perfect solution to the set of problems – even if the clock remains at ten past three.

It is not high drama but everyday and small ones that turn out to have profound impact on the reader’s understanding.

I loved this book, its clear picture of rural Chile, and for the simplicity and beauty of its writing. I loved the presentation by Other Press,a small hardback with transparent cover, a joy to read and which added to my enjoyment. It is rare to read a book twice and for it to remain looking new. The result is for the purchaser to keep it and value it, and not to pass it casually on, as we would with a paperback.Unknown

John Cullen’s translation is effortless and we would only know it is a translation because we have no novels of this nature in our culture. And that’s a great shame.

 

Antonio Skármeta is a Chilean author who wrote the novel that inspired the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie, Il Postino: The Postman. His fiction has received dozens of awards and has been translated into nearly thirty languages. In 2011 his novel The Days of the Rainbow won the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa. His play El Plebiscito was the basis for the Oscar-nominated film No.

REVIEWS: Oyster A boy with potential

Recent reviews

oyster_tiniest

A Brilliant Short Story
By Sheila M. Belshaw (South Africa)

An incredibly insightful look at the machinations of a boy so intellectually damaged that he cannot fit into normal society. Only a writer with a deep knowledge of the human psyche could carry off something as profoundly moving as this story is. The voice is amazingly real and I found myself following his twisted thoughts and seeing exactly where he was coming from, and at the same time feeling dreadfully sorry for him.
On top of all that, the story is beautifully written, so that nowhere does it not flow as though from the pen of a superb writer.

 

And from Austria, By C.R.Putsche

Oyster. A boy with potential By Rosalind Minett

This is an outstanding short story that I managed to devour in just one sitting. Rarely does an author so courageously expose truths, realities and day-to-day struggles of a boy who finds it difficult to fit in to society.

Jake tells us his disturbing story from a first person narrative which gives the reader a real insight in to his tangled thoughts and feelings that you can somehow sympathise with him and understand his unbalanced mind, while nervously anticipating what he will do next. Jake has quite the back story, as he comes from a dysfunctional family who put his safety, health and wellbeing at risk which results in him being moved from one adoptive family to another before he ends up in the Home and yet another Home before he commits his greatest atrocity in his short life so far.

Make no mistake this book is a real frightener, albeit a book of fiction and a major credit to Rosalind Minett who knows her stuff when it comes to the workings of an unbalanced mind besides having a literal talent to depicts things of an unnatural nature.

These are two of the 5* reviews on Amazon.

The review is also on this review site, as shown below this post.

http://walkerputsche.wordpress.com

Catherine Rose Putsche Book Blog

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00OQTA1FK/ref=cm_cr_ryp_prd_ttl_sol_0

Oyster
A boy with potential
By Rosalind Minett
This is an outstanding short story that I managed to devour in just one sitting. Rarely does an author so courageously expose truths, realities and day-to-day struggles of a boy who finds it difficult to fit in to society.
Jake tells us his disturbing story from a first person narrative which gives the reader a real insight in to his tangled thoughts and feelings that you can somehow sympathise with him and understand his unbalanced mind, while nervously anticipating what he will do next. Jake has quite the back story, as he comes from a dysfunctional family who put his safety, health and wellbeing at risk which results in him being moved from one adoptive family to another before he ends up in the Home and yet another Home before he commits his greatest atrocity in his short life so far.

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Short Story Winners

Review of the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2014

Ken Elkes

cover

 

I suppose that once a long list of good stories becomes a short list of the best, the final ranking is always personal rather than definitive. However, choosing from this short list must have been pure pleasure. From the winner to the brave and successful one-page story writer, there are no duds in the anthology. I review seven.

The artist for the excellent and imaginative cover of this anthology, Elinor Nash, also gained first prize with The Ghost Boy. A young accident victim retains an understanding of emotions and a strange insightful sensitivity although few other functions, Nash uses the 3rd person narrative voice to display Jake’s thoughts. He hears surrounding domestic sounds in colour (synaesthesia) “lemon yellow whooshes” and “the indigo velvet spiral of the drill”. He is painfully aware of the effect of his changed life upon his family. The imagination involved in perceiving this tragedy from the victim’s point of view probably nailed this story as the winner.

I really enjoyed Roisin O’Donnell’s, Under the Jasmine Tree, commended, because of the several levels of meaning. This story presented the reader with an original topic although the theme of reunion between mother and adult child, long separated is not entirely new. Requited but fated love is signalled by the description of the loved-one’s voice “clear as water and rocked with the rhythms of the sea” that contrasts later with it “rough as sea-spray” because he’s choked by what he’s done, what he’s caused and by his vocation. The sad acceptance of her situation is portrayed with due weight, her final decision symbolised by the permeating perfume of Jasmine.

Another commended story was ‘It’s a Girl’ by Lisa Harding. This was an even heavier theme, the trapped immigrant finding that begging is more successful with a puppy than a baby. This woman without adequate means of communication has a life of misery doled out by her keeper. Well written but a doleful tale.

Two stories used the well-worn theme of the holocaust. Cleverly written, but again very depressing, was Anne Corlett, the local prize winner’s story, The Language of Birds. The main character, beleaguered by her past, maintains her heavy lie and turns her painful thoughts to the sound of bird song. Each song represents another aspect of the story and leads to a conclusion that seems only fit.

The Crust, by Mona Porte, has a Jewish painter irritated at his father for allowing the Nazis to steal his paintings. The family meet the awful fate of Jews and the painter is reduced to starvation in a camp. For me, this was the weakest story because too much was told through dialogue as if readers had not come across this topic before. However, the use of the crust as an irritant, on several levels, was clever as was the twist at the end.

The third prize winner, Alex Hammond, had a more direct approach with No Man’s Land. A boy in Spain is making his own replica of the bunkers and dugouts, but needs help in making mud given the dryness in Spain. He appears to be more in tune with the dreadfulness of the battlefield until the end of the story makes the situation clear. I thought this fresh, competent writing with no wasting of words.

Lastly, the second prize winner,

with A Beautiful Thing, Kit de Waal, Unknown

gained my admiration for writing something uplifting. It’s my belief that this is harder than writing tragedy. The story twists the reader’s expectation in a new direction. I loved the detail of the expensive spats leading to a brave foray into new territory, with unexpected and heart-warming results. The style of writing reminded me of Marquez. I’d read this author’s work again.

Flash Fiction

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Review of Eating My Words: 2014

THE NATIONAL FLASH FICTION DAY ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Callum Kerr
Angela Readman
Amy McKelden

One of the beauties of an anthology of flash fiction is that it gives exposure to such a large number of different authors. It was good to see this, rather than many entries by a few authors. Furthermore, the anthology included a section of micro-fiction entries, a form requiring even more skill if a reader’s involvement is to be engaged.

I reviewed last year’s anthology, Scraps, ScrapsBkand approached the present one with happy anticipation. I didn’t have the advantage of seeing the foreword – I only had the e-book.

This year’s title is appealing and apt. It refers to the theme set the writers – The Senses. There was a wide variety in how this was interpreted, and a degree of variety in the quality of writing.

The opening story was totally enchanting in its reversal of perceptions of the rat. With a good arc and subtle references, Becky Tipper’s story set a promising tone for the book.

At the end of the book the winners of the micro-fiction competition displayed the economy of words against the ingenuity of concept.

In the remainder, the following stories pleased me particularly. Different readers will have different preferences, but those stories that feel complete in the read surely master the genre. It doesn’t have to be a surprise ending, but it does need to make sense of the beginning and/or display a clear concept. This blog emphasises the importance of character in writing.  In flash fiction, a character must make an immediate impact.

The imagery in Tasty – a story about pornography – works well, and the conclusion is both believable and restorative. The concept of ‘unfinished stories’ in Dress Sense ensured that the issue of loss and stasis would resonate after the read. This was a sensitive piece as was the much longer story by Sarah Hilary. She paired two unlikely characters and set them forth for an imagined future.

There were several sad reads, and a wry one, Show Don’t Tell, which made me smile. Nik Perring’s story was even more wry. A girl with an addiction to giving up and her boyfriend’s understandable responses suggested two interesting characters who would hold their own in a longer story, but nevertheless the piece had a satisfying conclusion. A wider smile still for What We Do In Our Sleep. It really pays to consider the ridiculous sometimes, for it can illustrate a point – in this case, hypochondria – more clearly than a set of descriptions. Tino Prinzi uses dialogue well and wittily here.

I did balk at some hefty wordiness (“feculent metastatic lesions”) in Seven Breaths, but the psychology of the piece was well understood. Another insightful piece, more about coming to fruition than coming of age, was Launch Pad. It launches the reader into a vivid classroom scene and slyly comments on adult expectations. Handle with Care was itself beautifully handled, displaying sensitivity and poignancy in a piece that explores a child’s revulsion against cruelty.

Michael Marshall Smith totally encapsulated the theme of The Senses in his story, Half-Life, with a very clever plotline. I admired this, as I did the well-written Chekhov’s Gun, for imaginative use of the theme.

Eating      EATING MY WORDS 

It is hard to pick out some stories for mention when there are many that make the purchase of this anthology worthwhile. Death, love, lust, thwarted ambition – all are aspects of the human condition that these writers consider. All the more surprising, then, to read about swallowed kittens, chemically induced sensation removal and the beauty of being an oyster.

Long live the flash fiction genre.

Writing persistence

Leonid_Pasternak_001
Leonid Pasternak

 

I’ve never read any Stephen King novels because I don’t like the horror or dystopia genres, but now I shall, starting with The Stand, (the novel he rates as his best.)

Why?

I just finished his biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which reveals Stephen King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. Such a guide soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. The first half of the book is less about writing than about Stephen King’s early life, hardships, and above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before the time when he can prioritise his writing. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel).

‘This is such a nice guy,’ you find yourself thinking, ‘I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why.’ That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. Essentially, what he says about writing comes in the second half. It is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.fountainpenpaper

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes and despair that their organisation and acquisition of techniques will never be sufficient.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing, getting the story down ‘as it comes’, ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters, similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  His stories all stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. Add to this the imagination to latch on to a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing. What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money or intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

This book cleared my mind and stopped the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.

dyslexia

It’s not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this.

However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It’s changed me from avoiding his novels to seeking them out.