It’s all about those books

The clutch of books that started my year, and a very special event:

Let’s start with the event, though, just in case all those doomsayers are right about attention spans. A week tomorrow, that’s Thursday 26th February 2015, Bookseller Crow will be hosting a very special event, launching the UK publication of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. What you need to know about this book, from the mouths of three men I greatly admire:

“If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try to foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it.”   JON MCGREGOR

“I’ve just read The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury. FUCKING HELL. It is INCREDIBLE. Ben Fountain levels of brilliance.”   SAM JORDISON

“This is very special. One of the finest writers in America… Many things are described as once in a lifetime, but this one genuinely is.”   JONATHAN MAIN

The last is referring to the event as once in a lifetime – Jonathan has been effusive about Tom Drury in person, and that enthusiasm obviously rubbed off on the peeps over at Old Street Publishing who are responsible for the new UK publishing of Drury’s trilogy. So, what are you waiting for? Book. It’s free.

Now, onto the books. Finished in this order…

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH – RICHARD FLANAGAN. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just that it didn’t grip me. A dramatic love affair fizzles into a scene like ships passing in the night; hero status becomes a gauze obscuring a person; war elicits honour, and thereafter men are stripped of purpose. So much of the book pits life, in all its chaotic permissiveness, with the exacting conditions of conflict – and life leaves the protagonist floundering, bereft of his purpose to be an example to his men – to hold it together so that they have a chance to.

THE BRIDGE – IAIN BANKS. I was being provocative when I opened bookclub saying that The Narrow Road… and The Bridge were essentially the same book. But the themes – how people respond to arresting trauma; the different guises of the self; the vagaries of reality – are surprisingly similar. The reading experience, however, is not. The Bridge is imaginative and undermining: just as we begin to get a handle on a world, it mutates and challenges our assumptions. It’s part ridiculous, part seductive and ineffably vital.

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE – MURIEL SPARK. This short, stylish novel is a curious mix of domestic drama and symbolic prose. Featuring a host of characters, and stamped firmly in the late 1950s, the story begins and ends with a wedding. What happens in between is attributed by the community to the impact that ‘Art man’ Dougle Douglas has on those he meets. Or is that Douglas Dougle? There’s a con that is hilarious, and characters that are deftly drawn and compelling – but the novel works best for me as a metaphor for ‘cold feet’, having no reference point for the reality that infuses the ballad.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION – JENNY OFFILL. A powerful, compact and punchy story about the texture of love and the nature of holding together a monogamous relationship. It was close to the bone – suggesting that a deeply reflective disposition does not for contentment make. It was also slippery, seemingly an expression of mutability: passages that had meant one thing as I read them seemed to mean something else if I came back to them. This book is definitely one to be experienced, rather than related.

NOWHERE ENDING SKY – MARLEN HAUSHOFER. Given to me with a note of ‘I’ve been reading the LRB for three years, and I finally found something I think you will like’, Nowhere Ending Sky didn’t disappoint. It’s a dense and evocative hymn to a self-proclaimed unruly child, growing up in rural Austria. It paints a vivid picture of a girl with an active imagination and a tensile bond with nature – one who makes friends with the inanimate. Glorious and terrifying, ending as it does with the precipice of pubescence.

THIS SHOULD BE WRITTEN IN THE PRESENT TENSE – HELLE HELLE. Another compact and crafted tale of a woman at odds with her life, but utterly different in texture to Dept. of Speculation. Dorte is a drifter, who has convinced herself and others that she is studying at university. But Dorte is without drive, and life blows her this way and that. Interspersed with her days alone in a flat outside Copenhagen, we learn about her past and begin to assess her present as lovelorn.

PLAINSONG – KENT HARUF. A stunning, moving depiction of a small-town US community told through the lens of four sets of characters: Guthrie – whose wife is ailing and ultimately absent; Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s young sons; Victoria – a senior at high school, whose Mother kicks her out when she learns she is pregnant; The MacPhersons – cattle farmers and brothers who have lived together for fifty years since their parents died. The book presents a journey for all of them – sometimes gentle, sometimes wrenching – which carries the reader right into the heart of the town.

BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER’S SMILE – ALICE WALKER. Cementing Walker’s reputation as one of my all time favourite writers is this tale of an estranged family. Positing an unashamed connection with our sexuality as one of the core components of strength and self-belief, the story contrasts the life of two daughters – one denied sexual expression of a deeply felt affection; the other denied a relationship with her father. It has incredible sex scenes, ghosts and a host of observations about a wholesome spiritual life. Phenomenal.

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION – BEN LERNER. It took me a while to work out this was fiction, which changed my reading of it in a fascinating and as yet inexplicable way: self-doubt in an actual person seems endearing, but the same in a fictional character? Questionable. Anyway, that weirdness aside, I think it’s a commendable exploration of the torture of creation, and the elevation of soul, spirit and intellect (with all the problems that brings) in the consideration and production of art. I understand completely why Auster is quoted on the back, but I also observe that my appetite for intellectual gymnastics is not what it once was. What I did love about it, though, was the way the narrative dwelled in the gaps between languages, between tongues, between motivations. Every thing is up for grabs…

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