More books read

Vanquishing the Man Booker winners and a Peirene binge feature in the Autumn 2015 batch of nine – and for the delay in posting, I can only blame moving country.

THE FAMISHED ROAD – BEN OKRI: Imagine a dream that keeps morphing and changing, over the course of a fevered, endless night and you’ll about have the measure of The Famished Road. I probably didn’t get it. I know two people who’ve read it – one liked it, the other kept tight lipped whenever I mentioned it. I am still astonished that I finished it.

READER FOR HIRE – RAYMOND JEAN: If you agree that the power of reading is at least in part seductive, then Reader for Hire is a fun adventure about how one reader gets enveloped into the lives of her listeners. If you don’t agree, then the story could be bamboozling, bordering on upsetting. I really enjoyed the reflected intimacy between reader and listener, but found the story overall lacking in depth.

UNDER THE TRIPOLI SKY – KAMAL BEN HAMEDA: An enigmatic, revealing tale that dwells in the temporary confidences and acceptance bestowed on a boy before he starts to stretch towards manhood. A view of a changing culture from ‘under the skirt tails’. Imbued with a sense of melancholy about what may soon be forbidden and with perplexity about why and how people behave as they do.

PORTRAIT OF THE MOTHER AS A YOUNG WOMAN – FRIEDRICH CHRISTIAN DELIUS: This seems to me to be the ultimate portrayal of a moment in time and left me with an affection for Rome that I hadn’t felt when I visited. The observations are tender and the young woman at the centre of it draws the gaze.

HOW TO BE BOTH – ALI SMITH: My copy started with George, who is swimming in the death of her mother. Instantly likeable, compelling and all the more real for her analytical approach to porn, her conversations with her dead mother, her wringing of her own lexicon to suit her new environment – utterly intoxicating. The historical section that follows is light-hearted and breathes magic and play into an era depicted so heavily in fresco. The protagonist becomes something she isn’t, and lives it to great consequence. A long solitary walk in the damp mountain plains could stop my heart bursting. Monumental.

MORE TREES TO CLIMB – BEN MOOR: The title story of this three story collection is the one that captures the charm of Moor’s brand of storytelling whimsy, it centring around tree-climbing championships. Not having experienced these stories in their original form of live performance, I can’t speak to how well they translate, but the stories definitely stand to be read, and the linguistic gymnastics and penchant for the fantastical are evident.

THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE – PATRICK NESS: This is the kind of book that makes me feel a bit more hopeful for the next generation, because it depicts same-sex, first sex, depression, eating disorders and OCD without being about any of those things. It’s an engaging story that’s also super smart: it took me longer to realise that the italicised chapter intros were happening elsewhere in the town than I care to admit!

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS – MAX PORTER: I can only superlatively gush about this novel, the likes of which you will never have seen before. A hybrid between novel and poem, it’s a document of grief and about how we weave our losses into the fabric of our lives enough that we can carry on. But it isn’t mawkish at all: it’s charming and funny and gross and slippery and honest and wacky and on-the-nail and diverting and playful. Above all playful. Because isn’t that what we do when we lose the very thing that anchors us to the world? We play at living, until we remember how to. READ IT. But not, as Bookseller Crow says, on an e-reader.

SAINT MAZIE – JAMI ATTENBERG: To say this is a smart blend of diary and third person accounts that depicts Manhattan through the start of the 20th century is to not even get close to why it’s GREAT. Mazie’s voice is wholly original and invites deep affection and trust; her situation is fascinating and complex and her approach to it a mixture of the duty-bound and the frivolous. The way that areas of town and even particular buildings add to the cast of characters induces awe. The story so expertly avoids painting Mazie’s charitable actions sentimentally that we should all read it, because you don’t have to be a saint to do good.

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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.