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!

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.