A summer batch

Books I’ve read whilst the sun has (largely) been shining…

PLAYTHINGS – ALEX PHEBY: A mesmerising and compelling story about Paul Schreber, and aspects of his madness hitherto overlooked. Pheby has crafted the story so finely that the suffered unreality of Schreber can be observed at enough of a distance that the fantasy doesn’t overwhelm the senses. The environment is painted vividly – both the present and the remembered childhood – leading my mind to work overtime trying to line up cause and effect. Unsettling in the extreme and yet utterly captivating. I think my second read will be even more intoxicating!

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT – KENT HARUF: Simply lovely. A story of finding love in advancing years – platonic, romantic and neighbourly. A story about taking chances, and speaking your mind. A story about acceptance and tenderness. Read it, then read how the book came into being. It’ll warm the cockles.

LETTERS HOME – ADICHIE, MILLER, SHAMSIE & TSIOLKAS: Four epistolary shorts, later turned into plays. I didn’t understand the final set of letters, between Eve and her Son, except as an exercise in cruelty. Adichie’s correspondents come to life economically, with a suppressed longing and a reverberating affection. Miller’s investigative missives express friendship, loyalty and a sense of ‘what you ought to know’. Shamsie’s soldier-writers remember shared experiences and hope to bridge the gap of time and space between them, whilst a gap of understanding widens. A smart and affecting collection.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE – ANTHONY DOERR: On the Prez’s summer reading list, no less. It’s a book that’s surprisingly spry for its size, despite the weight of its luminous prose. It is perhaps slightly too beautiful, slightly too neat at the end, but it’s still admirable: the marvel that is radio – invisible waves sharing sounds and thoughts; the blindness of Marie-Laure illuminating the blindness of many other characters; the sumptuous care and dedication between father and daughter. Maybe the problem with all the light, though, is that it seems to float away, as if into the sky.

HUNTS IN DREAMS – TOM DRURY: Concentrating on Charles (Tiny) Darling – the least captivating character from The End of Vandalism for me – Hunts in Dreams spans a single weekend and orbits the Darling family. There’s a wonderful balance between individual preoccupations and the strange bonds that tie families together, and the relationships are painted evenly with both love and strife being textured and nuanced. Drury employs his signature humour in the chapter about goat husbandry to sublime effect.

DIVISION STREET – HELEN MORT: This book of poetry will henceforth go wherever I go. It’s my time – 1980s/90s, my place – Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and captures a sensitivity and bravery that I aspire to. There’s a subtlety and an earnestness that coats everything, and Mort’s blend of awareness and sense of openness means she’s a lass you’d want to furnish with a pint in a cosy Peak District pub.

LEARNING TO TALK – HILARY MANTEL: A terrific companion piece to Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel takes us back to childhood and adolescence, to northern towns and open doors. The texture of it is what I love – texture that’s slightly abrasive, or smooth in the way a scab stretches over broken skin. Like Division Street, it speaks to me of things familiar…

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS – GOHRING GABRIELSEN: Possibly my favourite Peirene yet. Two sisters – warlike, worn-down – share the same house. From the perspective of the sickly and cared-for sister we witness a life of toil and external pressures that the narrator skews into formidable plots. Revealing the epitome of desperate isolation – being dependent, being ‘head’-ridden – the story nonetheless revels in spirit, verve and not a little spite. Potent!

AMERICANAH – CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Pitching this as a love story, when the interaction between the two lovers amounts to less than 20% of the book is a bit of a stretch, but maybe I should take that up with the blurb writer. Adichie prose is elegant, and her characters are terrifically opinionated. I’d have liked more material from the blog that the main character writes about coming to realise she is black.

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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.

They come in nines…

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.