The last lot of 2015

The end of the year seems an arbitrary but not insignificant marker in the continuum of life, so I realise that I’m putting undue pressure on, but I’m a finisher. After a year of these kinds of round ups, maybe it’s time for a change of tack…

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK – DORIS LESSING: After stalling with The Good Terrorist, I was surprised to find an early hook. Perhaps it helped that the main character was so easy to identify with, and that the formal challenge of shifting gear as notebooks were traversed was enthralling and stimulating. It’s certainly an ambitious novel, that undermines as it upholds – rangy, intelligent and simply compelling.

THE BREAKERS – CLAUDIE GALLAY: A moody, enigmatic and almost entirely riveting story about a woman transported to the rough edge of the French coast for reasons that become clear – especially after she meets another soul turned up to grieve. A tense read, a ‘coming-to-terms’, and a mystery that’s not so much thrilling as it is dark. The things that make it memorable – the porbeagle, the children and an escape to Paris – are beautiful spots of light in the darkness.

THE FOUNDLING BOY – MICHEL DEON: After a terrific beginning, with cheeky asides from the writer (by far the strongest part of the book), the story of a boy growing up in Normandy just before the second world war dwindles into a romp around with a confidence trickster. Not that it started altogether earnestly, but it seemed to have a bit more weight than it ultimately delivered. Shan’t read the next one…

PACIFIC – TOM DRURY: Another terrific installment of Grouse County, as different again from The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams. Drury just cooks up the tastiest, most plate-licking of all literary dishes that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished. You can simply never have enough Drury. Question is, am I brave enough the enter The Driftless Area when my heart is in Grouse County?

UNDER MAJOR DOMO MINOR – PATRICK DE WITT: Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help but recall the story I heard about de Witt assessing his writing through the haze of dope. This story lacks the charm of The Sisters Brothers, though it has its fair share of capers and quirk. Whereas Eli is captivating from the start, Lucy takes a bit of warming up, and in the end, his story just wasn’t enough to have me rooting for him. Damned expectations, I say.

THE DRIVER’S SEAT – MURIEL SPARK: What a sharp knife Spark’s writing is, and what a story The Driver’s Seat. The protagonist is a perplexing oddball, going on a bewildering holiday. She’s looking for someone, someone that will complete her fantasy – or destiny – to make this the holiday to end all holidays. A shapeshifter, the character becomes different things in different company, and she drives exchanges with companions wilfully, almost maniacally. The man she ultimately fixes her gaze on has no chance. The backdrop of student riots serves as a poignant reflection of the woman’s self obsession, which leads to her self destruction. Chilling.

THE WOLF BORDER – SARAH HALL: Hall has thrilled me in the past with her almost feral characters, and Rachel begins that way, too: she’s a warden of a pack of wolves in Canada who is enticed to return to the Lake District to manage an ambitious project of re-wilding. Conceiving days before she leaves Canada, Rachel’s story is two-fold: becoming a mother; and getting to grips with hostility that is more political than natural. The setting and the characters sparkle in true Hall style, but the story pulls its punches so that the jeopardy remains too far away to be a threat.

DROWN – JUNOT DIAZ: Diaz’s spell over me holds. Drown is full of stories about people playing against their own character, dealing with hardship and turmoil that is as much internal as it is circumstantial – and yet expertly questioning the extent to which the environment makes the man. Drown is tender, and hones in on critical, formative moments. It also revels in the relationships between daily decisions and long-term situations, making the reader wonder when lightning actually strikes. Fucking glorious.

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP – MARIE KONDO: Some books have a ‘time’ and this book’s time is now, following the painful process I’ve been through of emptying my London flat and condensing my belongings into the size of a shipment. In this mindset – ‘what else can go?’ – Kondo’s book makes great sense. That it is the only thing I’ve ever read to make me question whether I want to keep all my thousands of books is comment enough.

Advertisements

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.

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.

It’s all about those books

The clutch of books that started my year, and a very special event:

Let’s start with the event, though, just in case all those doomsayers are right about attention spans. A week tomorrow, that’s Thursday 26th February 2015, Bookseller Crow will be hosting a very special event, launching the UK publication of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. What you need to know about this book, from the mouths of three men I greatly admire:

“If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try to foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it.”   JON MCGREGOR

“I’ve just read The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury. FUCKING HELL. It is INCREDIBLE. Ben Fountain levels of brilliance.”   SAM JORDISON

“This is very special. One of the finest writers in America… Many things are described as once in a lifetime, but this one genuinely is.”   JONATHAN MAIN

The last is referring to the event as once in a lifetime – Jonathan has been effusive about Tom Drury in person, and that enthusiasm obviously rubbed off on the peeps over at Old Street Publishing who are responsible for the new UK publishing of Drury’s trilogy. So, what are you waiting for? Book. It’s free.

Now, onto the books. Finished in this order…

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH – RICHARD FLANAGAN. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just that it didn’t grip me. A dramatic love affair fizzles into a scene like ships passing in the night; hero status becomes a gauze obscuring a person; war elicits honour, and thereafter men are stripped of purpose. So much of the book pits life, in all its chaotic permissiveness, with the exacting conditions of conflict – and life leaves the protagonist floundering, bereft of his purpose to be an example to his men – to hold it together so that they have a chance to.

THE BRIDGE – IAIN BANKS. I was being provocative when I opened bookclub saying that The Narrow Road… and The Bridge were essentially the same book. But the themes – how people respond to arresting trauma; the different guises of the self; the vagaries of reality – are surprisingly similar. The reading experience, however, is not. The Bridge is imaginative and undermining: just as we begin to get a handle on a world, it mutates and challenges our assumptions. It’s part ridiculous, part seductive and ineffably vital.

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE – MURIEL SPARK. This short, stylish novel is a curious mix of domestic drama and symbolic prose. Featuring a host of characters, and stamped firmly in the late 1950s, the story begins and ends with a wedding. What happens in between is attributed by the community to the impact that ‘Art man’ Dougle Douglas has on those he meets. Or is that Douglas Dougle? There’s a con that is hilarious, and characters that are deftly drawn and compelling – but the novel works best for me as a metaphor for ‘cold feet’, having no reference point for the reality that infuses the ballad.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION – JENNY OFFILL. A powerful, compact and punchy story about the texture of love and the nature of holding together a monogamous relationship. It was close to the bone – suggesting that a deeply reflective disposition does not for contentment make. It was also slippery, seemingly an expression of mutability: passages that had meant one thing as I read them seemed to mean something else if I came back to them. This book is definitely one to be experienced, rather than related.

NOWHERE ENDING SKY – MARLEN HAUSHOFER. Given to me with a note of ‘I’ve been reading the LRB for three years, and I finally found something I think you will like’, Nowhere Ending Sky didn’t disappoint. It’s a dense and evocative hymn to a self-proclaimed unruly child, growing up in rural Austria. It paints a vivid picture of a girl with an active imagination and a tensile bond with nature – one who makes friends with the inanimate. Glorious and terrifying, ending as it does with the precipice of pubescence.

THIS SHOULD BE WRITTEN IN THE PRESENT TENSE – HELLE HELLE. Another compact and crafted tale of a woman at odds with her life, but utterly different in texture to Dept. of Speculation. Dorte is a drifter, who has convinced herself and others that she is studying at university. But Dorte is without drive, and life blows her this way and that. Interspersed with her days alone in a flat outside Copenhagen, we learn about her past and begin to assess her present as lovelorn.

PLAINSONG – KENT HARUF. A stunning, moving depiction of a small-town US community told through the lens of four sets of characters: Guthrie – whose wife is ailing and ultimately absent; Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s young sons; Victoria – a senior at high school, whose Mother kicks her out when she learns she is pregnant; The MacPhersons – cattle farmers and brothers who have lived together for fifty years since their parents died. The book presents a journey for all of them – sometimes gentle, sometimes wrenching – which carries the reader right into the heart of the town.

BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER’S SMILE – ALICE WALKER. Cementing Walker’s reputation as one of my all time favourite writers is this tale of an estranged family. Positing an unashamed connection with our sexuality as one of the core components of strength and self-belief, the story contrasts the life of two daughters – one denied sexual expression of a deeply felt affection; the other denied a relationship with her father. It has incredible sex scenes, ghosts and a host of observations about a wholesome spiritual life. Phenomenal.

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION – BEN LERNER. It took me a while to work out this was fiction, which changed my reading of it in a fascinating and as yet inexplicable way: self-doubt in an actual person seems endearing, but the same in a fictional character? Questionable. Anyway, that weirdness aside, I think it’s a commendable exploration of the torture of creation, and the elevation of soul, spirit and intellect (with all the problems that brings) in the consideration and production of art. I understand completely why Auster is quoted on the back, but I also observe that my appetite for intellectual gymnastics is not what it once was. What I did love about it, though, was the way the narrative dwelled in the gaps between languages, between tongues, between motivations. Every thing is up for grabs…