Line ’em up, knock ’em down

Some fantastic books in the third clutch of the year – and a little bit of book club naughtiness to boot. If books were like bowling pins, quite a few of these would just keep standing no matter what you threw at them.

WHITE HUNGER – AKI OLLIKAINEN. The first of Peirene’s current series ‘Chance Encounters’ is this Finnish tale of a family trying to survive the seemingly country-wide famine. For, everyone that the family meet are desperately hungry – so hungry in fact that their humanity seems threatened. The family work their way to a desperate end, whilst those better off struggle to understand that goodness is easy when your stomach is sated.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS – MIRIAM TOEWS. Blimey. If I tell you this is a story about two sisters – one intent on ending her life, the other intent on saving he sister – you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds depressing. That it is, in no small measure, joyous is testament to the astonishing power of Toews prose. Full of the very essence of what makes us human, and indeed what makes it hard to be human, All My Puny Sorrows is vibrant, warm and surprisingly comic.

NOSTROMO – JOSEPH CONRAD. Yes, I was dreading it. Yes, my friend and I made a ‘cheat’s plan’ to reading it (to save face at book club). But no, I hadn’t expected the plan to add to, rather than detract from, the book. Read about the tag-team adventure.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO – JUNOT DIAZ. What a book. In rude style, Diaz tells us Oscar’s story – tracing back to the fortunes of his grandparents, covering the dearth of love from which he suffers – from different points of view. The distinct voices are fresh and fantastic. The albatross (Oscar’s virginity) cleverly exposes what it means to be a dominican male. And the way the story is anchored by references to fantasy fiction (LOTR especially) made me giddy with pleasure. Spectacular.

CHATTERING – LOUISE STERN. An impulse purchase (see ‘When I shop elsewhere I feel unfaithful‘) and a stunning surprise is this collection of short stories. What ties them together is a sense of disconnection – sometimes as an overt consequence of a language barrier (many of the stories oscillate around characters that are hearing-impaired), but more often as a subtle discord that seems to resonate off the page. It made me think about how the ways in which we communicate shape our personalities – and made me yearn for other selves that I could inhabit through other languages.

ALI SMITH’S SUPERSONIC SEVENTIES – ALI SMITH. My first taste of Smith in a skinny pamphlet, and what a way to whet an appetite. Sparkling, lucid, containing yearning and shot through with hope – I need more of that kind of prose in my life.

STATION ELEVEN – EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL. Mandel’s tale is about a post-apocalyptic society: one in which a pandemic has drastically reduced the population and decimated society as know to Westerners. It has warmth, optimism (the central action follows a theatrical troupe that tour from village to village) and a host of interesting characters. If Oryx and Crake is the definitive pandemic disaster story, then Station Eleven is its fluffy we-won’t-reject-our-humanity counterpart.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT – ELENA FERRANTE. A brutal novel about a woman staring into the abyss after her husband leaves her and their two children. A hurricane of emotion, and a finely wrought unravelling vie for supremacy, and the fallout affects Olga’s children, her dog and her downstairs neighbour. I still wince when I think about it, about how close it seemed to bring me to the brink even as observer.

THE POLISH BOXER – EDUARDO HALFON. Tonal similarities between Halfon and Diaz might just be a symptom of proximity, but both take an obvious joy in prose that is sexy and cheeky. The Polish Boxer skips a line between fact and fiction, between reality and representation. But in spite of its intellectual prowess, it’s a highly readable, emotionally engaging collection of linked stories that explores what we seek in fiction, and the way it helps us to connect and make meaning in our lives.

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