Another batch of nine books that have accompanied me though the winter – and seeing them lined up makes me not a little proud that there are two works in translation, a host of small presses, a work of non-fiction, a collection of short stories and both a novel heartily recommended and a novel received as a gift.
FRANCES AND BERNARD – CARLENE BAUER. As soon as I’d finished this book, I wanted to read it again. I picked it up from the library a few hours after Andy Miller recommended it, and was immediately enthralled. Epistolary in nature, it perfectly captures the intense and seductive power of the letter as a vessel for feelings and meditations on the complexity of life. Frances and Bernard are writers, and the exquisite agony of their vocation is explored, as well as deep interrogations of faith and love. Frances and Bernard – as characters, as a pitch-perfect experience – will stay with me forever. Thank you, Andy, for a superb recommendation.
H IS FOR HAWK – HELEN MACDONALD. The themes – losing a father, hawking – seemed to make this the perfect birthday gift for my Dad, but when he started asking questions, I decided I should read it as he did. It’s a tremendously potent and surprisingly wild account of Helen dealing with the sudden death of her father, and deciding, in those early weeks, to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, it’s a tale of grief, but it’s also a tale about what separates us from the wild: how remote and yet incredibly close it is. Elegantly crafted and vital.
THE END OF VANDALISM – TOM DRURY. I was uneasy about reading this so soon after Plainsong – because on the surface they inhabit a similar world. But the resonance is totally different: The End of Vandalism charms and tickles, it seduces and it strays. The characters that people Grouse County are fallible and touchingly human and their laughter, misunderstandings and misfortunes mean they go on living after the reading ends. I can’t wait for Hunts in Dreams, which comes out in July, with an introduction by Yiyun Li.
MAYBE THIS TIME – ALOIS HOTSCHNIG. An altogether unsettling collection of short stories that seem to pierce the veneer of society and expose the cogs beneath: all broken toothed, disconnected, spun raw. That this collection was published as part of the theme ‘Male Dilemma: the Quest for Intimacy’ is no surprise, though the peculiar sense of being somehow untethered from the world applied just as well to me. It can hardly be described as a pleasurable read, but it was certainly haunting – both in the feeling it evoked, and in the way each sentence seems to linger, creating a shadow of itself.
GOLD – DAN RHODES. A touching antidote to facing that feeling of a dearth of belonging is this tale about a woman of habit, holidaying, as she does every year, on the East Coast. We meet the regulars in the local pub – those that have come to welcome her over the years, though they still don’t know her name. It’s a light and lovely tale of friendship and love.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND – ELENA FERRANTE. This book, without doubt, contains the most pile-driving ending sentiment that I’ve ever read – almost as though the entire four hundred odd pages were building to this one fiendish moment. It’s expansive and compelling, drawing the reader in to a complex world of childhood friendships, of scholarly competition, of puberty, of poverty, of industry and of the very particular socio-political context of Napoli re-establishing itself after World War II. But the book really sings in the details, skipping a beautiful line between the weight of the personal and the scope of the political. Emboldened by the success of gift that was ‘Nowhere ending sky’, this was another gift from Mr LRB-Reader.
ORYX AND CRAKE – MARGARET ATWOOD. I thought I’d read this, some years ago. I couldn’t find it in by book journals, which stretch back to 2003. The only thing I remembered were the pigoons. I concluded I must just have heard about it. But now, some weeks after finishing it, the details once again fade from memory: maybe that’s just the way this one goes. The story is sobering if only because the future it presents is so close to being possible. We may even be walking that path now, 12 years after it was first published. If so, we’re fucked.
10:04 – BEN LERNER. Where ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ fooled me into thinking it was non-fiction, 10:04 is more overt in its side-switching between reality and fiction. It questions the notion of ‘living through history’ and the way we recompile our experience of an historic event after the fact. For that, it’s interesting. It’s also fascinating in the way it portrays Lerner – as a man with anything but aplomb, and yet that’s what the writing has, in buckets. Lerner, I’m learning, is a master at undermining the very thing he is setting up, and that enigmatic agency makes him impossible to ignore.
FRANCIS PLUG HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR – PAUL EWEN. Having gotten so close to reading the entire list of Booker Prize winners, I thought I might feel a touch of empathy with Francis Plug. Plug, though, is an utterly unique creation: you won’t know anybody like him. Hapless, ceaselessly inebriated and endearingly optimistic about his novel, Plug attempts to understand the phenomenon of the modern writer, public figure. What do we learn: that not all writers should be public figures. It’s funny and excruciating and subtly clever in a way that rewards those who have trodden that same bookish journey.