“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Elison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.

FICTION

If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.

 

Non-Fiction

My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.

 

Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!

 

 

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“Cat Person,” Marlene Dietrich, and Schlubbiness

The most talked about short story of 2017–or at least of December 2017–was a New Yorker story by entitled “Cat Person.” It was discussed in hallways and on-line, on commuter trains and in classrooms. In fact, even the photo accompanying the story in the magazine’s pages went viral and has been subjected to much analysis in itself.

 

CatPerson

The photo for “Cat Person”  (Photograph by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker)

 

To sum the story up, Margot, a young twenty-something college student meets Robert, an older man in the movie theater where she sells refreshments. After a second encounter, they begin texting each other and her initial hesitancy morphs into a realistic and charming internal battle of should-I-shouldn’t I.

The texting in the story is clever and does not feel forced. The turmoil that the young woman goes through is believable and sweet. And the man himself is a lovable bear.

It’s when they finally do get together when she returns to college from winter break that the story fails for me. Robert shows himself to be a bit of a “schlub.”  He is well meaning, but he is clumsy with himself and with her, and when it comes to their sole sexual escapade, he is both maladroit and ignorant.

Her condescension and abandonment of him finally forces him into petty meanness.

All of this reminds me of the early Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel.  Made in 1930 (in both a German and English version) by Joseph Von Sternberg, the film features Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola and Emil Jannings (in his first talking film) as Immanuel Rath, an elderly literature professor who becomes smitten with Lola who sings and dances at the eponymous cabaret “The Blue Angel.” While he has initially come to the cabaret to chase his students from such entertainments, he falls deeper and deeper for the sultry Lola. And as he falls for her, the orderly professor becomes more and more ridiculous and more and more an object of fun to Lola and her companions.

In the end, there is heartbreak.

It is there that I see the similarities. Neither the antagonist in “Cat Person” or Professor Rath in The Blue Angel are bad people. They are simply out of their element and ignorant as to how to cope. They are ordinary people in their respective worlds, but they become “schlubs” in the worlds of college romance and Berlin nightlife, respectfully–older men out of touch with the changing world around them

It is easier to empathize with Rath–Dietrich’s character Lola seems cruel and heartless much of the time–but Robert can also be seen as sympathetic. In “Cat Person,” Margot is also mean-spirited and self-centered. Her treatment of Robert–both during their date and after–is cold, perhaps undeservedly so.

But then 2017 is different than 1930, and Margot’s intuition may be pointing her in the right direction.

Book Review: Slipping by John Toomey

Sometime in late March, I jotted down the names of three books that I was interested in. “Jotted” down was the wrong word–I “entered” them onto the “NOTES” feature on my iPhone. The three were Himself by Jess Kidd, Eggshells by Caitriona Lally and Slipping by John Toomey.

In late May, I went on AMAZON to order the first book, Himself, and AMAZON suggested that I might also be interested in two other books. They were the two other titles that I had written down on my phone. Now, I know it’s easy being paranoid in these technologically, dystopic times–but nevertheless it was eerie.

However, AMAZON was right. All three satisfied my reading needs.

Toomey’s Slipping is part of the Irish Literary Series published by the Dalkey Press (from

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Book cover of U.S. edition of   John Toomey’s Slipping

whom one can usually find a gem) and it is masterful in its plotting, its narration, and its style.

Albert Johnson is a middle-aged, high-school English teacher in a small village. He is dissatisfied with the path his life has taken, disgusted with the students who sit in front of him, and disparaging of most of the colleagues who teach with him. He also blames his wife for most of this.

And he saw a way out.

When the novel begins, Albert Johnson is in a psychiatric hospital for having killed his wife. Through his psychiatrist, Johnson hires Charles Vaughan, a local writer, to write his story, initially giving him a tape that explains what he did.

Obviously, this isn’t a murder mystery; we know who did it. Rather, it is an examination of storytelling itself, with multiple narrators and shifting points of view.

To research the story, Charlie Vaughan has the tapes Johnson has provided, (against the advice of his psychiatrist), the testimony of colleagues, of the arresting officer, and a problematic student who stumbled upon the scene. He also interviews Johnson’s adult daughter. A son wants nothing to do with Johnson or Vaughan.

The story Vaughan cobbles together, however, is sketchy and unsatisfying, despite Johnson’s own philosophical ruminations about what drove him to murder. Vaughan believes there is something missing, something that is not being said.

It is in the final section where some of these gaps are filled in, where the make-up of Johnson’s mind is more clearly illuminated.

Riveting is too clichéd a word, but it fits here. The novel moves quickly, moving us through Albert Johnson’s workday, through his fantasy life, through his years of married life. We see his dissatisfaction and his delusions. And we see his deliberateness.

Toomey, who has written two previous novels, Sleepwalker and Huddleston Road, is an English teacher in Dublin and his account of a day in the life of Albert Johnson is

JohnToomey

John Toomey (from RTE website. Couldn’t find photo credit. Contact me if you know.)

humorously realistic and frighteningly real. But this single school day serves as only a backdrop to the destructive thoughts that have been swirling in Johnson’s mind for years…and which lead to his horrific outburst.

Book Review: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally… poignant hilarity

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book as much as Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells.

Eggshells

Nor can I remember a character who amused, entertained and wrenched my heart as much as Vivian, the eccentric young woman who gives us a tour of Dublin and of her unique wit and creative mind.

Vivian is unusual. So much so that when she was young her parents told her that she was not of this world and had been left by the fairies. And to be sure, Vivian has never much felt that she fits in, that she belongs to this world. So now, as a young woman, she spends her time searching Dublin for portals that will take her to that other world. She searches in the small vents built into the shelves of Trinity College Library, into the electric panel in front of the Gate Theater, in the ivy covered house on D’Olier Stree, through the small door in a department store on Grafton Street. But of course to no avail.

And her wanderings around Dublin City–with more than a jaunty nod to that other writer of peripatetic Dubliners, James Joyce–are a playful, magical tour of the city filled with word lists and wit, double entendres and non sequitors.

However, Vivian is very much alone in this world. Her parents are dead, her sister, who is also named Vivian, is repulsed and confused by her eccentricity, and she is living in the house that her dead great-aunt bequeathed to her, bordered on either side by neighbors who question her mental state.

Being lonely, she advertises for a friend, a friend named Penelope. Her reasoning is she wants to ask this Penelope why her name doesn’t rhyme with “antelope.” Plus she feels good about anyone who has three “Es” in her name.

Here is her advert that she tapes onto a tree:

WANTED: Friend Called Penelope
Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say.
Good Sense of Humor Not Required
Because My Laugh Is a Work in Progress.
Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
Phone Vivian.

And such a friend appears: A middle-aged Penelope who paints cats in different costumes and who has her own satchel of issues. On their second visit together–a visit filled with tea and a large amount of cookies–Vivian learns that Penelope is forty-nine years old. (In her innocence, she had guessed she was sixty.) Penelope’s age worries her since one of the reasons she would like to have a friend is so that someone would go to her funeral. And in Vivian’s mind, Penelope might die before her…so she suggests a carrot rather than a biscuit improve her new friend’s health.

A sign of how much I am enjoying a book is often measured by how many times I read out passages to the people I am around. (It is an annoying habit, I am sure.) And I have read out so many passages of Eggshells to other people that some of them probably feel they don’t need to read it. Usually it happens when I have also been laughing out loud. And laughter happened throughout.

Vivian’s wonderful mind is filled with a logic that is both skewered and sound. Of course, a corn kernel might feel lonely off the cob, lemons might feel better scattered over Lemon Street, and the taxi at Ferryman’s Crossing (with a wife named Sharon which reminds her of Charon) might be able to take her across the river to Hades.

And it is this confluence of slanted logic and the real world on which the humor is built. To a large man, whom she believes might be a leprechaun, she asks if he takes “growth hormones.” For the social-services agent who comes to see if she is actively hunting for a job, she wears a hunter’s outfit. (And startles him mightily when she surprises him with a toy gun.) To the pest on the bus who badgers her for twenty euros, she offers him all that she has with her: lemons.

But my examples hardly capture the humor, for they are missing Vivian’s voice which is filled with innocence and faith and hope.

With Eggshells, Caitriona Lally has written a wondrous first novel filled with boisterous word play, hilarious oddities, charming narrative and an unforgettable protagonist. It is

Caitriona Lally

Caitriona Lally

a magical romp through Dublin, guided by a lonely but hopeful and inventive young woman.

Eggshells is the work of an important new voice in fiction, a voice that I am greatly looking forward to hearing again soon.

 

 

 

Book Review: Himself by Jess Kidd

It was pure coincidence that I read two books in a row that were populated with ghosts. (Not my “genre” of choice.) And odder still that the second one (Artful by Ali Smith) was a book of non-fiction, literary criticism in the form of four lectures.

But Himself by Jess Kidd is an out and out ghost story. Or maybe it’s a murder mystery that just

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

happens to have many ghosts milling about and assisting the solution. Or perhaps it’s simply that the two “detectives” have the ability to see dead people all over the place.

Your main man, Mahony–an outsider who is drop-dead handsome with bedeviling eyes and a “bad-boy” aura–walks through the woods and sees the dead everywhere. A suicide twists in a tree. A little girl with bashed-in skull befriends and walks with him. The residents of the local churchyard visit him en masse as he sits there sneaking a smoke.

And his partner, the nonagenarian, Mrs. Cauley, who describes herself as “Miss Marple with balls,” also is accompanied by various persons from the other side, including a loyal ex-lover, Johnny,  and a good priest, Father Jack, who can offer some insight into the murder.

When he was an infant, Mahony’s mother was murdered brutally in the first pages of the novel. As the murderer was preparing a grave for her, the infant was whisked away and ended up across the country in a Dublin orphanage. Some two-and-a-half decades later and spurred on by a newly discovered letter from the orphanage, Mahony returns to the insulated and isolated Mayo village from where his mother disappeared. He–and Mrs. Cauley–believe she was murdered, while the village insists that she caught a train and left town with her illegitimate child.

Set against a small-town background of fear and secrets and guilt and prejudice, the novel is the story of Mahony and Cauley’s investigation and the truth of his mother’s disappearances. And yet, there is so much more going on.

Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd (Author photo © Travis McBride)

Jess Kidd has created a cast of colorful and oddball characters to populate the little village of Mulderrig. And she has added more than a bit of humor. For instance here is the Widow Farelly consoling the mean-spirited priest who took Father Jack’s place:

“Did he ever regret his stance on this matter?”
“I believe he did in the end, Father.”
“But yet the town loved him?”
“Ah the town will be in your pocket soon enough, Father. It’s just a case of them getting used to you. How long have you been with us now?”
“Twenty -six years.”

But her strong point is the lush, beautiful writing. Whether it is the landscape of County Mayo or the towering stacks of books in Miss Cauley’s bedroom. Here is a sample:

And the trees still hold strong. Their canopies drinking every soft grey sky and their roots spreading down deep in the dark, nuzzling clutches of old bones and fingering lost coins. They throw their branches up in wild dances whenever a storm comes in off the bay. And the wind howls right through them, to where the forest ends and the open land begins and the mountains rise up.

Some might criticize certain stereotypes–the intolerant priest, the acidly old widow, the mysterious earth mother–but Kidd gets away with them; they are comforting and necessary in this insulated village mystery. And rather than distracting, the allusions to J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World are entertaining. Both deal with an outsider appearing in an isolated Mayo town who beguiles most of the populace, and the similarities of characters names are amusing. But it doesn’t weaken the story or the writing.

Himself is a wonderful read. But is more than that–it is the announcement of a new writer with a marvelous imagination and a brilliant talent with words.

It is someone I will keep looking for.

Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Autumn by Ali Smith

It’s been nearly six months since I last wrote a blog post. 2017 has not been fun. Keeping up with scandals and nominations, violence and presidential tweets, breaking news and old skeletons, incriminations and analyses, insults, retractions and lies has felt like a full time job.

And it’s exhausting.

Though it hasn’t been that I have not been busy–I have read more already this year than in a long time. It’s just that sitting down and putting down my thoughts on this blog seemed so pointless, so self-centered. And god knows the times call for less self-involvement and a lot more outward action.

But here I am again. Because I know that that too is important.

In Issue 221 of The Paris Review (Summer 2017), I read a interview with the Scottish writer, Ali Smith. The conversation was intelligent, thoughtful and enticing.

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Ali Smith (Photo: Antonio Olmos)

So, I went out immediately and bought two books: Artful (2013) and Autumn (2016). (I had read her novel Accidental several years back, was floored by its creativity and beauty, but for some reason never followed up on more.)

Artful, on the surface, is made up of the four lectures on literary criticism that Smith was ask to deliver at Oxford. It is also, at the same time, a ghost story, a love story, and a novel–a combination that only Ali Smith would attempt and could pull-off. It is an extraordinary feat–the criticism is sparkling (I have underlined passages and dog-eared pages) and the narrative is engrossing and engaging.

The novel Autumn, however, is the more current, and is what I so much needed to read, in these “interesting days.” And again, it is magical.

Daniel Gluck is an old man and he is dying. He is 101 years old. Housed in the

Autumn book cover

Book Cover for Autumn

Maltings Care Providers institution, he is visited often by Elisabeth Demand, the young woman who has been his friend since she was thirteen, some twenty years ago. She is now an adjunct instructor of Art History–a subject he inspired in her as he taught her, as a young girl, how to see beyond surfaces and think and question all that she witnesses.

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Scandal-63 by Pauline Boty

The remembered scenes of their past, innocent relationship are wonderful and inspiring and hopeful. Daniel is a wonderful and creative teacher and a fine companion for the young Elisabeth. He introduces her to Chaplin, to Keats, and to Plath.

More importantly, he introduces her to the British POP ART artist, Pauline Boty. It is she, a forgotten artist of the 1960s whose work captured the zeitgeist of the day–from Bob Dylan to Christine Keeler–whom Elisabeth writes her doctoral thesis on.

(And the scandal of Christine Keeler and the machinations of the two governments involved with her, sorely reflect the tenor of our own times. It is capturing this scandal that Boty is perhaps best remembered for.)

But now Daniel is dying and it is the summer of 2016, after the Brexit vote, and the UK is in turmoil. Elisabeth’s mother puts in best when she says:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
Autumn (
page 56-57)

Ali Smith  is writing in 2016 England but it very much could be here, now.

And that is what makes it so hopeful. For Daniel’s lessons and Elisabeth’s understanding of them underscore the importance and ultimate permanence of ART in turbulent times. For we learn that governments explode and implode, that pendulums swing one way and then the other, that movements and hatreds and despots come and go. But ART remains.

Daniel and Elisabeth’s relationship–a relationship with a 68 year age difference–is one that is based on love and trust and hope and acceptance.

And that, at least, is a bright light in these dark times.

Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien…there are wolves among the lambs.

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On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.

However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.

In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.

It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs:  A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.

One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.

But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.

And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)

His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.

But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)

Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.

The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London.  She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.

Until she faces her tormentor.

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Edna O’Brien at the Irish Book Awards

Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.

On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.

The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.

 

Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.