Fourth gear


HERE AND NOW: LETTERS 2008-2011 – PAUL AUSTER & J. M. COETZEE. I bought this for a friend: he’s into Coetzee, and I had a thing for Auster in my younger days. I was curious about whether it might illuminate our friendship. It didn’t land as I expected (we both wanted Paul’s easy manner, but felt we actually embodied John’s argumentative spirit) but it was an interesting collection of letters with wide-ranging subjects – especially on the nature of friendship.

1Q84 (vol 1&2) – HARUKI MURAKAMI. Lordy. Sentence by sentence, this book was torture. I read it for hefty book club, and was the only person who came to discuss it that hadn’t been compelled to read the final installment of the trilogy (I say final. There is rumour of a fourth). So the language was clumsy, but my main criticism was the strange apathy and bizarre passivity of the main characters Aomame and Tengo. Apparently, this is a phenomenon widely observed in Japan, so forgive me (or don’t) my cultural ignorance. I found it utterly incomprehensible, which got in the way of what might have been an interesting story. Also, ‘we held hands at ten years old and have never loved anybody else’? FFS.

ALL INVOLVED – RYAN GATTIS. Glory be, a novel that not only blew Murakami out of the water, but that would restore anyone’s faith in fiction. All Involved is fucking epic. Set over the six days of the ’92 LA riots, it serves up 17 successive first-person accounts of the black hole of mayhem that opened up whilst the emergency services were stretched thin and largely distracted. The lawlessness seems to go without saying, and the characters – ‘those that just know how it is’ – are either determined to keep a low profile, or seize the opportunity to settle some scores. It is vital, compelling, heart-rending and exquisitely poetic about love, faith and the cities that surround us as cradle and grave. Go listen to him read Ernesto and try telling me that your heart isn’t thumping. Oh, and next time you want my attention? The name’s B-Dawg.

FACES IN THE CROWD – VALERIA LUISELLI. Tricky one, this. I love Luiselli’s command and bravura – employed to great effect in her collection of essays ‘Sidewalks’ – but here, it disarmed me. The story bobs and weaves, tying up writer, narrator and fictional (is he?) subject as a series of beings that have glimpses of one another on subways and sidewalks. The characters become ghosts, and it may have been suggestion, but I felt like one myself when I finished this slim book.

INFINITE HOME – KATHLEEN ALCOTT. What a corker! A charming, edifying and unforgettable story about a confluence of misfits in a Brooklyn brownstone. Infinite Home deals with a plethora of socially difficult conditions – dementia, Williams syndrome, agoraphobia, technophobia, new physical impairment and the fall from (wealthy) grace – upon which, lovingly grafted, are exceptionally mesmerising characters. Alcott’s sentences are, in the words of bookseller Jonathan Main, to die for. One of my favourites:

Paulie asked Claudia, who said, “Friendships are more like oceans than rivers. There are high tides and low tides but not a steady rush. You’re up against a lot of currents, not just one.” Paulie was wordless at that, so Claudia said, “Sometimes people have a hard time looking out of themselves and need to just be alone and listen to all the conversations in their head.”

BARTLEBY & CO. – ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS. Bonkers, and brilliant: a book of footnotes, a book with a ‘missing text’ that playfully investigates the phenomenon of Bartlebyism – the ‘art’ of saying no. Sontag says it best: ‘The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a ‘means’ to something that can perhaps only be achieved by abandoning art’.

THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD – ANTHONY TREVELYAN. I described this, in the breathless moment of finishing it, as an arabian riptide, pulling the reader along for the ride. Starting as the familiar tale of the assistant in thrall to an overbearing boss, The Weightless World wrong-footed me at every turn, challenging every assumption I made about what kind of story it was. The depiction of India is on the nose, and the focal point of an ‘anti-gravity machine’ is a magical vortex that it’s impossible to avoid getting sucked into.

NOW AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH – SUSANA MOREIRA MARQUES tr. JULIA SANCHES. This book softly treads through the valley of death, charting Moreira Marques’ response to a palliative care village in Portugal. What is most striking about it is the way the writer casts off what she expects to find, and dwells with those for whom death is not the end: those who are left behind.

THE CREATIVE HABIT – TWYLA THARP. This book is not without its tips and trick for a creative life (project boxes helped me enormously six years ago when I started this book), but what’s memorable about it is what a fantastically dedicated and determined artist Twyla Tharp is. I’d want her on my team, any day!

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