Paperback book reviews: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, The Empire of Necessity, by Greg Grandin and more

Overwhelmed: How to Work Love and Play by Brigid Schulte, Ruby by Cynthia Bond American, Innovations by Rivka Galchen

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart - Fourth Estate, £7.99

When George Barker, the poet and partner of Elizabeth Smart, as well as the father of her four children, critiqued the manuscript of her prose poem, he told her he wanted her to make it the best it could be. “This is merely a matter of running your hand over the body of the book and ascertaining whether or not its (sic) got feet legs genitals (my god has it got genitals) breast head etc”.

Barker understood straight away, and not just because Smart’s work was partially about her relationship with him. She started it before she met him, but her involvement with the then married Barker forced it into a terrible and brutal bloom. The brilliance of her metaphors, which he rightly assessed as the “unit” of the poem, is that they are relentlessly sensual and fierce. How else to describe Smart’s depiction of her capture of Barker, and what she has done to his wife: “On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red, seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief?”

Yann Martel’s brief introduction to this new edition, published on the 70th anniversary of its appearance in print, tells us disappointingly little, but does at least remind us that its theme is love, and points to the Second World War as an important feature. Love for Smart was vicious and cruel but it was also mythic and timeless and as Martel says, entwined the art and the life irrevocably in her. Few writers have ever captured the full honesty of what passion means as shockingly and as piercingly as Smart. Today, its force still strikes us hard in the face, a beautiful and bloody blow.

The Empire of Necessity, by Greg Grandin - One World, £9.99

Grandin takes the single occasion of the Tryal slave ship – which in 1805 was overtaken by its human cargo who demanded that the captain sail them back to Africa – and extrapolates the full horror of the slave trade from it in accessible, often electrifying detail. Many may not have been directly involved in capturing Africans and loading them on to ships, but millions were involved indirectly, and Grandin takes to task those who celebrated the “Age of Reason” while aiding its opposite, especially Amasa Delano. Delano was an abolitionist who happened across the Tryal after its occupation and who betrayed his own principles. Fooled by the slaves who pretended to still be cargo, he showed he thought them incapable of fooling anybody, even though the insurrection leaders could read and write. With nods to Melville, who based his novella Benito Cereno on the event, Grandin shows the concessions even abolitionists made to the slave trade.

Overwhelmed: How to Work Love and Play, by Brigid Schulte - Bloomsbury, £8.99

Schulte correctly attests to the exhaustion working mothers feel and resolves to do something about it. The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in a flexible work and home life, but Schulte takes a long time to set out her stall. The solutions she posits, by looking at countries such as Denmark, involve resisting the “cult of intensive motherhood”, where women engage in “mommy wars” involving competitive baking and cleaning. Work practices are changing, she argues, as women realise the “ideal worker” situation is killing them. But women’s private care of children, and how they behave at home, is still fixated on an intractable ideal of perfection.

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond - Two Roads, £7.99

Bond’s story is powerful in content and mysterious in form. It stars Ephram Jennings and Ruby Bell, the girl he has grown up loving and who fled to New York after their small Texan town of Liberty abused her mother’s family, and abused her in turn. Now she has returned to face the past. Magical realism has often taken on board the violent and the depraved, and Bond fits into the genre superbly well. This book is often challenging, not least because of its restlessness, its shifting of perspective and refusal to let you get a grip on either Ephram himself, or Ruby, as real people. Some will find Bond’s approach too intentionally obscuring but her debut is nothing less than notable.

American  Innovations, by Rivka Galchen - Fourth Estate, £8.99

Galchen’s short stories can be inventive and appealing, but too often suggest a theoretical or philosophical basis which can override the human aspect. One suspects she knows this: in each of these 10 stories she begins with a human situation (a girl’s crush on an older offender and drug addict, an unhappy wife stuck at home), and in all but two, with the first-person perspective. Such beginnings suggest intimacy, which is important when so many of these stories are strange, twisting, unfamiliar ways of depicting ordinary life. It makes Galchen an interesting read but occasionally a cold one, where the dips into theory threaten to take us away from the human dilemma at the story’s heart.

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