The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s Barley Patch. This is a superb work from one of Australia’s foremost novelists about the art of fiction. The anonymous narrator insists that it is a work of fiction but much of the book is about writing fiction and, in particular, about how images affect both the reader and the writer. The narrator is a former teacher of creative writing and a former author of fiction (he insists on using the term fiction, rather than novel or short story; he is a former writer, as he has given up writing fiction though this is clearly what he is doing in this book.) Referring to his early reading (which tended to be adult rather than children’s works) he shows how images affect him and how he recalls images from the relatively few books he has read that he recalls with pleasure, rather than recalling words or phrases. He insists that imagination does not play a part in his own writing, though readily admits that it does in the writing of others. Despite this somewhat disingenuous comment, he gives us stories and scenes he has recreated from life (even, as he insists, they are all fictitious) and, in particular, a long outline of a book he had been writing but abandoned, which is very much a work of imaginative fiction. Above all, however, this is about the writing life, about the art of fiction, about how life and fiction intertwine and about how images affect us, as readers, as writers and as people. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the art of fiction.
The latest addition to my website is James Barke‘s Major Operation. Barke is a Scottish novelist who has sadly disappeared from view, though Canongate did reissue his Land of the Leal. This novel is set in Depression-era Glasgow and is overtly left-wing. We follow the tale of some ship workers who lose their jobs when the Depression hits and a bourgeois coal broker who loses both his firm and his wife. George Anderson, the coal broker, ends up in a charity hospital, with a duodenal ulcer and inflamed appendix, where he meets several members of the working class and, in particular, Jock MacKelvie. To his surprise, he not only gets to like them but soon becomes close to them and very close to Jock, so much so that he espouses Jock’s socialist views. However, life outside the hospital is still harsh and George struggles. Barke tells an excellent story of Glasgow in the Depression and, while he is certainly is not impartial, and is happy to damn the bourgeoisie, he does have a soft spot for George and his rich cast of characters on both sides of the fence gives us an excellent portrait of Glasgow of the period.
The latest addition to my website is Irenosen Okojie‘s Butterfly Fish. This is a very accomplished and colourful debut novel by a Nigerian-born English writer. It tells the story of Joy Lowon, an English woman of Nigerian origin, while, at the same time, the story of Adeusa, eighth wife of the ruler of Benin (nothing to do with modern-day Benin but located in what is now Nigeria). The two stories run consecutively and are connected by a bronze head, which Adeusa receives from her husband and which Joy inherits from Queenie, her late mother. We follow Joy’s somewhat troubled life in England, her mother’s somewhat troubled life after emigrating from Nigeria to England, her grandfather’s troubled life in pre- and post-independence Nigeria and, of course Adeusa, whose life is also somewhat troubled. In short, all the main characters have their problems, often caused by events in their past, either things they themselves did or things their ancestors did. Okojie tells not only a superbly well-written complex story of intertwining lives but uses a wonderfully colourful language and brings in Nigerian story-telling, myths and strange creatures, all of which make her English-based story more otherworldly. Okojie is clearly going to be an author to watch. The book was published by Jacaranda, a new independent publisher that publishes adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries.
There is a bit of a furore going on at the moment following Janet Maslin’s Cool Books for Hot Summer Days, her summer reading recommendations in the New York Times. (I have often wondered why there should be special beach reading lists. Why can’t you just read the same books you read the rest of the year? I do.) It seems that Maslin’s is all white. Not one single writer of colour. On this side of the pond, even The Independent wrote about it, presumably tired of producing yet another what Labour/the Liberal Democrats need to do to win back votes article. Gawker had a go at Maslin and BookRiot produced an alternative (i.e. non-white) list (of which I have only read one, see cover above left).
I am prompted to blog about this, as I am reading a book by a Nigerian-born English writer whose debut novel will appear next month. She criticised last year’s Man Booker long list for being too white and has also pointed out that Black British writers are not limited to Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, a very valid point. Having recently read books by Nuruddin Farah, Yambo Ouologuem and Alain Mabanckou, I can be reasonably smug about this, though I would be the first to agree this has not always been the case. Maslin has less of an excuse for, as far as I can see, all but one of her selections are from the US. The one exceptions is the only one I have read. According to this article, 37% of the US population is not white and, as the non-white population percentage is increasing and this article is two years old, it may well be even more now, so Maslin has even less of an excuse. Fortunately, I have no plans to read any of the book on Maslin’s list, so I can remain (slightly) smug.
The latest addition to my website is Yuri Andrukhovych‘s Перверзія (Perverzion). This is a wonderful post-modern romp, telling the story of what may be the last week in the life of Stakh Perfetsky, poet, dandy, trickster, performer, traveller and, of course, lover. He is giving a speech at a conference in Venice called The Postcarnival Absurdity of the World:What is on the Horizon? From the very beginning we learn that he may have died, either by jumping into or being pushed into the canal. However, no body has been found. We follow his colourful journey to Venice, driven by a urologist and his wife, Ada Zitrone, whose family, like Sakh, were originally from the fictitious Chortopil (i.e. devil’s town). Ada is to act as his interpreter (and also spies on him). After his death/disappearance, the author has managed to amass a variety of documents, some by Stakh, some by others, which tell what he did in that last week, in particular, what happened at the conference. As a good Ukrainian poet, sex and drink take up much of his time. He also falls in love (with Ada) but is also fearful of death and that someone is after him. Andrukhovych mocks the participants, Venice, Ukrainian politics and Stakh, while telling a funny and thoroughly chaotic story of sex, love, politics, literature and the other finer things of life (and death). The good news is that his Дванадцять обручів looks set to appear in English translation next year as Twelve Circles/
In the Independent today, Alice Jones says that this year is going to be the year of the mega-novel. Jones is not entirely happy with this, and is still struggling with The Luminaries and has given up on Middlemarch. Having read and enjoyed both and also enjoyed A Suitable Boy, which she also mentions, I am looking forward to this. One new novel she does not mention is Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, volume 1, already out weighing in at 880 pages and volume 2, out in October, also weighing in at 880 pages. His House of Leaves, which I have read, was a paltry 709 pages. I plan to get round to volume 1 of The Familiar in the next few weeks and, if I enjoy it, will read volume 2 when it comes out. Unlike Alice Jones, I very much like a good mega-novel though I do not like bad ones such as that five-volume epic by that Norwegian guy and I did not really like that three volume one about the kid who takes on the forces of evil, with the help of Ian McKellen and I have not even looked at GoT, film, TV or book. But give me a good literary one, such as a Donna Tartt novel and I am happy. Good reading this summer, long or short.
The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s The Green Road. Enright is definitely making a claim to be the best living Irish novelist and this novel will only add to her reputation. It tells the story of a contemporary, somewhat (but not too) dysfunctional family, the Madigans, who live in West Clare. At the start of the novel, Pat Madigan is dead and his widow, Rosaleen, is finding it difficult to adapt. The first part, called Leaving, is divided into five sections, one each for Rosaleen and her four children, Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna. As the title says, they are all on the way out, though not necessarily just yet, as the first section is devoted to Hanna, who is twelve in 1980, the period when her section is set. In each section a key but not necessarily life-changing event happens to the protagonist of that section. In Hanna’s section, we learn that her older brother, Dan, has decided to become a priest, to his mother’s horror though Hanna (and Dan’s girlfriend) do not seem overly concerned. By the second section, eleven years later, Dan has given up the priesthood and is dabbling in the New York gay scene. Emmet is in Mali, working for UNICEF, starting and ending a relationship, while Constance is married, caring for her mother and children and facing a lump in her breast. The second part sees them in 2005 reunited, unusually, for Christmas at the family home, which Rosaleen is planning to sell. Inevitably, tensions surface. Enright does a first-class job of dissecting a fairly ordinary Irish family which, by its own admission, has been far from successful, whether financially, professionally, personally or romantically.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Sardines. This is similar to many of his other novels in that we have a brave person, in this case a woman called Medina, who stands up to the brutal repression from the General/President, the tribal system and the old-fashioned and repressive Islamic law. She is well-educated and was a journalist, till she was thrown off her paper and banned by the government from publishing any of her writing, for her criticisms of the President. She lives with her husband, a weak man who called Samater who is appointed Minister of Construction. They have an eight-year old daughter, Ubax, for whom Medina is now translating some of the classics of world literature into Somali. His mother, Idil, an old-fashioned and dominating woman, also lives with them. When Idil wants Ubax circumcised, Medina and Ubax move out, though the house belongs to Medina and not her husband and live in a house belonging to her brother who is abroad. Apart from a couple of plot elements – Medina’s best friend, Sagal, who is a champion swimmer and, if she qualifies for a championship in Budapest, plans to defect, and the Media-Samater relationship – the book is somewhat bitty. Inevitably we see the horrors of life in Somalia, particularly the arbitrary repression of the government, and the opposition to it, which is invariably repressed by the government. However, this is not one of Farah’s best.
The latest addition to my website is Mirta Yáñez‘s Sangra por la herida (Bleeding Wound). This an excellent Cuban novel, narrated by twelve different narrators, most of whom live in the Alamar district of Havana. While the stories are often set in the 1990s, several of the older characters tell their stories from the period before the Revolution and, in particular, in the 1960s. The characters are generally unhappy with their lot. Some of the older ones look back with a certain nostalgia to the past and find life difficult to cope with in contemporary Cuba. One, living in London, is missing her husband who is not with her and has a decidedly ambiguous view of Cuba. The young Daontaon is ambitious and happy to use men for her own ends but is not happy with her job in the Cultural Centre. Martín, a novelist who still lives with his mother, has not written anything worthwhile for ten years and is struggling to write anything but titles. Meanwhile, the Woman who talks to Herself in the Park is seeing an apocalyptic view of Havana. Life is not generally easy, with regular power cuts, difficulties in finding decent food and any rebellion very much frowned upon. The only real plot line concerns a woman who disappears and, when various body parts turn up, wrapped in butcher’s appear in various parts of the city, her French husband is suspected. This is a most enjoyable work, which I can highly recommend. It comes from Cubanabooks, a relatively new small press, devoted to publishing works by Cuban women. Judging by this work, they are going to discover some very interesting authors.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ El mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady). This a wonderfully post-modern novel, following on from Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.), a romp through modern (primarily European and Latin American) literature and narrated by the father of the author of the book in Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.), who is suffering from what he calls literature sickness, i.e. he cannot help seeing everything as though it were literature and not real life. His wife Rosa, who is getting tired of this, often shunts him off to foreign climes (Chile, the Azores, Budapest) but there seems to be no easy cure. All the while, the narrator tells us of his problems (and, to a lesser degree, the problems of his son, who has writer’s block) while, at the same time, giving us a tour of mainly twentieth century literature. Various authors, some dead, some alive, actually appear in the book, and we get quotes, aphorisms, stories and portraits of many of these, while the narrator struggles to adapt to real life, a struggle which ultimately fails. It is witty, lively, thoroughly inventive and a joy to read. It is also available in English.