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The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

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Chuck Palahniuk recommended her in his series of essays on Litreactor and his course on writing. When I happened upon this at the library, it was one of those quiet surprises that make me thrill inside. A happy coincidence that I intend to pay forward by reviewing it here.

Hempel’s short fiction, taken individually, are starbursts of delight. Spare, elegaic sentence structure, a mastery of theme, a comfort with the ambiguity and delight of life’s nuances and all of it achingly sweet for it’s brevity. There were stories that made me achingly sad afterwards, wistful and melancholy but without shame for it. She crafts sentence of genuine beauty, some of which haunted me even as I read them.

The likes of Hempel should be better known than they are. There’s so much nourishment and beauty in this book that it should be on prescription. Reading a collected work allows you the pleasure of seeing her pursue different themes and subjects, tackling difficult subjects and finding the raw, bleeding core of humanity within them.

We’re blessed to have Amy Hempel. Read her if you can.

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Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

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Synopsis:

Jimmy Luntz owes money to a man called Juarez. Trouble is, Juarez isn’t the most patient of men. And when he gets bored of waiting, he sends someone round to collect. Luntz doesn’t actually plan to shoot the guy, but the way he sees it, it’s shoot or be shot. Either way, though, Luntz is out of his league, and he knows it: nobody messes with Juarez — or, at least, nobody messes with Juarez and lives to tell the tale. Against all the odds, however, it seems that somebody up there is looking out for Luntz, if only he can keep his cool.

With it’s spare, haunted prose, a plot that moves like a pitbull on crank and an elastic band tied around it’s balls and a line in damaged losers who’d probably be successful if they could get past their own bullshit, Johnson has written a powerful and swift read.

It has lashings of amusing Americana, it understands the sexual allure of damage and self destruction, Johnson shows the humanity of these people who consider themselves damned by their actions or good, simply by the virtue of justifying their actions to themselves and forgetting the particularly bad ones.

Noir is a genre that is gleefully subversive, iconoclastic in that the authorities are corrupt or incompetent, that a man’s word isn’t worth shit if a better option comes along and that the heroes are merely those not quite as steeped in horror and degradation.

For all that though, Johnson makes the characters engaging and empathetic. I think the best noir holds up a broken mirror and lets us see who we could be, if we really put our minds to fucking things up. Johnson does that. It’s not the repressed poetry of an MFA working out their father issues, it’s terse and mean storytelling but one that understands the poetry of broken bones and bullets.  Nobody Move is entertaining, engaging and has the sweet brevity of a kiss with a stranger. Except this one might lead to you waking up in a bathtub of crushed ice and a note to call 911 as you feel for stitches in the small of your back.

The book has beautiful women, dangerous men and when it’s done, you can close the book and go do some charitable work or eat something healthy to make yourself feel better about it. But you’ll find yourself thinking about it long after it’s over.

 

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Devil In The White City by Erik Larson

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Synopsis:

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and its amazing ‘White City’ was one of the wonders of the world. This is the incredible story of its realization, and of the two men whose fates it linked: one was an architect, the other a serial killer.

The architect was Daniel H. Burnham, the driving force behind the White City, the massive, visionary landscape of white buildings set in a wonderland of canals and gardens. The killer was H. H. Holmes, a handsome doctor with striking blue eyes. He used the attraction of the great fair – and his own devilish charms – to lure scores of young women to their deaths. While Burnham overcame politics, infighting, personality clashes and Chicago’s infamous weather to transform the swamps of Jackson Park into the greatest show on Earth, Holmes built his own edifice just west of the fairground. He called it the World’s Fair Hotel. In reality it was a torture palace, a gas chamber, a crematorium.

These two disparate but driven men together with a remarkable supporting cast of colourful characters, including as Buffalo Bill, George Ferris, Thomas Edison and some of the 27 million others who converged on the dazzling spectacle of the White City, are brought to life in this mesmerizing, murderous tale of the legendary Fair that transformed America and set it on course for the twentieth century.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It moved between the bold and swiftly realised plan to build the epic White City through to the genuinely unnerving scenes where Holmes gratifies and finances himself through his interactions with his victims. He kills for many reasons, most of all convenience. Larson tells a compelling story, peppered with amusing anecdotes, big events and some of history’s most interesting people crossed paths for an interesting time in American history.

It’s an exciting and engaging book. Well worth your time. It never runs dry, and he finds the poetry of industry and makes it work to establish the effort and scale of work involved, and at such a breakneck pace. It carries within it, the sweep of history, told with detail and robust confidence, set against the malign, arachnid actions that carry the poetic horror of Thomas Harris. It’s a wonderful marriage of style, subject and structure. Worthy and never forgetting to move and entertain. Larson manages a massive cast, huge events and sets it all in the crown of a point where America truly began to compete, if not dominate in terms of it’s industrial standing. His clarity and sparing prose are perfectly poised to allow the events their own power. He does what great writing does, get out of the way and let you become privy to the machinations of men and events.

I grew up, being British, with a disconnected view of the American Dream. Larson articulates it beautifully, as a land of great opportunity. He shows us that said opportunities can be either horrific or honorific and I guarantee you will not come away from this book feeling indifferent. I loved it, being equal parts appalled and enamoured. It is being adapted for film, but read the book and see what happened for yourself. It was a great and terrible time, and Larson takes us there, shows us and tells us a bloody good story in the meantime. I will be reading more of his work, particularly the book about the Lusitania, Dead Wake, which seems a perfect fit for his style and approach.

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The Tortilla Curtain by T C Boyle

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Synopsis:

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. From the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

I’ve read a few of Boyle’s books, he’s a consummate craftsman, comfortable and capable in the ambiguities of human discourse and interaction. Here, he applies that same skill and insight to the contentious issue of illegal immigration, race relations and the exploitation of migrant labour.

Delaney’s pretensions are a fantastic device and chapter by chapter, Boyle shows us the duplicity within him, how his idealism has feet of clay and that makes him unpleasantly involving. His justifications, his faux activism are shown and woven into the story to a perfect pitch. On the surface, he has a perfect life but as the book continues, he reveals himself to be odious and cowardly, but Boyle does not do him a disservice, in fact, he feels compellingly real and his actions are fascinating in light of how he sees himself versus how he actually is.

The migrant couple, Candido and Amercia, are noble in their suffering, striving to thrive through a gauntlet of ostracism, brutal poverty, exploitation and recrimination. Their scenes are upsetting without being vulgar. Boyle resists the romanticism of the migrant, and through his careful examination and observation, he shows us what they go through to get here, the primitive living conditions that they offer and how easily they become the apogee for racial prejudice and economic uncertainty. You can taste the despair, like grit between your teeth. Boyle resists the romantic impulse in favour of a deeper truth and an appreciation for the chaos of modern life, the small decisions and the grand passions that in lesser hands, would have devolved into doggerel or polemic. The time spent reading was an exercise in empathy and appreciation, even if it was not a happy book, it was profound and beautiful on every level.

Boyle has a lengthy body of work, he is a moving target in literature, and he evolves as he goes. The Tortilla Curtain is not an easy read, but it is beautiful, impassioned and elegant. He avoids the trite and the simplistic in favour of something richer and more involving. Pull it back and see for yourself, because you may learn something interesting about yourself.

 

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Goat Mountain by David Vann

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Synopis:

In David Vann’s searing novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy is eager to make his first kill at his family’s annual deer hunt. But all is not as it should be. His father discovers a poacher on the land, a 640-acre ranch in Northern California, and shows him to the boy through the scope of his rifle. With this simple gesture, tragedy erupts, shattering lives irrevocably.

Set over the course of one hot and hellish weekend, Goat Mountain is the story of a family struggling to contend with a terrible crime and its repercussions. David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel that explores our most primal urges and beliefs, the bonds of blood and religion that define and secure us, and the consequences of our actions – what we owe for what we’ve done.

Goat Mountain is based around a single act of violence before it becomes an extrapolation, an examination of the inherent violence within man. Vann frames it as a discussion that uses the phrasing of the Bible, an appreciation and respect for the natural violence of the world to examine the internal lives and sets atop startling turns of how three men and a boy react to said action. In places, it has a ponderous, almost clumsy turn of phrase but it suits the book and in context, it works really well.

Vann has always understood the spasmodic nature of violence, the archetypal power of the hunt and here, the limited focus serves the story well. With writing, you are always having things happen to move a story forward and externally, not a lot happens but using perception, allegory and parable, Vann throws a lot of ideas out there that all find their target. The writing has a creepy, intense, almost supernatural quality to it. He communicates florid and hallucinogenic scenes using really sparse language. The stoicism of the characters becomes meditative and what little is said, matters because it is so carefully deployed.

The book has the power of old obsessions revisited with new perspectives, it is a hymn, a ballad, a folk tale of a book but told with the understanding that comes from distance. What background there is, is communicated in a smattering of sentences, and yet that is enough to suggest both a troubled past and a horrible fate. David Vann shows that a few details are enough, and when he has the white heat of the narrative to play with, he shows the characters far more effectively than fat slabs of exposition.

It is both ugly and beautiful. He does not stint on any part of the hunting process, the reactions to the incident all feel entirely genuine and he speaks to a malevolent acceptance of horror that unnerves far more than any zombie apocalypse. Although it is not on the almost numbing scale of Blood Meridian in terms of capacity, by choosing a single action, he shows himself equal to McCarthy in execution. I finished the book feeling overwhelmed and numbed, relieved that it was over and sad for seeing that blank space beneath the final line.

I’ve seen films as intense, but never felt that I would return to them, but Goat Mountain is a tough place to forget, and I can see myself returning here again.

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Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

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Synopsis:

Roy is still young when his father, a failed dentist and hapless fisherman, puts a .44 magnum to his head and commits suicide on the deck of his beloved boat. Throughout his life, Roy returns to that moment, gripped by its memory and the shadow it casts over his small-town boyhood, describing with poignant, mercurial wit his parents’ woeful marriage and inevitable divorce, their kindnesses and weaknesses, the absurd and comic turning-points of his past. Finally, in Legend of a Suicide, Roy lays his father’s ghost to rest. But not before he exacts a gruelling, exhilarating revenge.

Vann explores the wound of paternal suicide and it’s resonance across time. In a collection of short stories that share theme, setting and characters he shows us Roy and the impact of his father’s suicide on him. The changes in perspective between stories are a little jarring, and the central story, as incredible as it is, is jarred by the way that it is structured.

For all that, it reaches incredible heights, delivering a central set piece that starts off poignant and then descends into a pitch black nightmare where you are not spared from the inexorable logic of Vann’s crisp plotting and beatific prose. It was his first book and it held within it, the promise that bloomed in Dirt and Caribou Island, a melange of careful observation, exquisite, unsparing prose and a deep understanding of blood, dirt, landscape, self deception and familial agony.

He does not write comfortable books but there is within him, a greatness that marks him out. He has the nervy insight of Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood and he harkens to the spare unstinting chilly beauty of Cormac McCarthy. It’s fascinating to read later books by an author and then see the first book where the author is developing their style and craft. Vann is great, and everything I have read points to a writer who is continuing to come up with startling and powerful literature.  Legend Of A Suicide speaks to the wound that the missing or departed father leaves in a child, the unanswered questions, the unfulfilled destinies, the hopes and the unspoken dreams.

Books like these aren’t comfortable, but they matter. Life is ugly, cruel and lacks logic or justice, but against that are moments or periods of joy and wonder that make the whole ride worth it. Literature is a way to make sense of it all, a limited perspective using a method that seems almost antiquated but continues to thrive and develop. More people are reading than ever, even if the last publishing bump was adult colouring books and celebrity biographies, then at least there is space for the likes of Vann, not only to publish but also to continue to publish. Give him some consideration, he’s doing spectacular work. I’m close to finishing Goat Mountain and it’s stunning, entirely worthy work and a continued evolution of his craft and focus.

 

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Dirt by David Vann

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Synopsis:

Twenty-two-year-old Galen is a New Age believer on a warpath towards transcendence. He lives with his emotionally dependent mother in a secluded house, surviving on old family money that his Aunt Helen and cousin Jennifer are determined to get their hands on. Galen doesn’t know who his father is, his abusive grandfather is dead, and his grandmother is losing her memory. When the family takes a trip to an old cabin in the Sierras, tensions crescendo. Caught in a compromising position, Galen will discover the shocking truth of just how far he will go to attain what it is he craves.

This is an uncomfortable, intense book that is a slow, deliberate descent into insanity and horror, an examination of the cyclical nature of familial abuse and pain, the delusions and self deceptions that mark a small family. Galen, being the only male in the family serves as both a work in progress and an apogee for familial sins that are alluded to but never wholly defined.

For all of it’s discomfort, it is beautifully written, has a reality to it particularly in the covert accusations that simmer then explode into rancour and recrimination. Galen’s relationship with Jennifer has a deranged eroticism that captures the savage beauty of sexual dynamics, a tender fury that, in it’s consummation, serves as the engine of the third act, which is an unrelenting descent into utter horror.

Now, in lesser hands, this could have served as an exercise in literary masochism but Vann exercises just enough restraint to capture the dissonant beauty of it all. Galen’s adoption of new age principles, his dreams are mentioned and then used to reveal the fallacies and contradictions. We go into Galen’s hell, but Vann never lets us forget that the devil has feet of clay.

The last act, around 100 pages or so, is unremitting, staying with a stream of consciousness style that captures the mumbling, deceptive rationalisations of Galen and the things that he does. He finds a form of spiritual practice, but with each shovelful of dirt, he is simply digging himself into a point of no return.

For all of the ugliness, the sensuality and beauty is thrown into relief by the careful sentence structure, the way that Vann shows us how families can be perfect engines of horror and pain. The unresolved conflicts in this family lead to horrific conclusions and actions, but nothing here feels forced. Vann puts these people together, hints at what made them this way and then sits back, allows us to watch them tear one another apart. The title is metaphor but entirely appropriate and although this is my first book by David Vann, it will not be my last.

 

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The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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Synopsis:

The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko’s English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that things can change in a day, that lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river…

Sometimes a book has exquisite, beautiful language but loses it’s way in terms of story, or a book can have a solid, engaging story with prosaic language or leaden dialogue. This book has both, capturing a time and a place outside of my realm of experience.

Which is always what I love about literature, it’s an opportunity to explore the world and minds of people who’ve never existed but feel as real to you as actual people. Roy delivers a story that is simultaneously epic and intimate, populated with characters who could veer into parody but never manage it, their emotions and motives driving the story to a riveting and heart breaking conclusion. It is a hymn about love, the denial of it and the damage that it can cause, the caste system and how it corrodes progress and interaction. It interests me, the caste system because it’s an observation of Grant Morrison that we have more of one in England than we publicly admit to.

The writing is delightful, poignant and beautiful, it’s funny, knows when to delve into the micro details of the world on the page and when to draw back in it’s pacing. This book really does sing and I am sad that I won’t get to read it for the first time again. Some books make your soul ache in a good way, and this was one of them. You can be drunk on words and here I am, describing to you something that suited my  palate but may not suit yours. Regardless, pour yourself a glass of this and drink deep.

 

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

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Claire North has produced a considered, cerebral work that manages to evoke the disconnection of relative immortality and shows a consideration and depth that marks her out as an author worth watching. She takes a fascinating and original concept and follows it’s logic through to a compelling and moving conclusion. She embraces the strangeness of her setting but never forgets that the best stories embody both concept and emotion within them.

Harry August is born and dies in the same body and circumstances, each time recalling the memories of his previous incarnation. His realisation draws him to a society of similarly endowed individuals, rendered both relatable and alien by the considered words of North.  Then he discovers that, in a very real sense, that time is running out for him. He’s drawn into a vicious and deadly rivalry with an unknown opponent. I will not reveal more, because I don’t want to deny you the pleasure that I had, of dipping into this cool lake of a book without any foreknowledge of the beauty that you will experience.

The book uses exposition and research in an assured manner, giving large amounts of details without dragging down the story. It has the sweep of an epic story but manages to feel intimate and humane at the same time in the way that Harry encounters, adjusts and comes to defend the unique individuals that have lived lifetimes with recollection of them.

In it’s third act, North creates an atmosphere of tension and desperation that reminds me of Nick Harkaway’s invention mingled with the delicacy and warm consideration of Neil Gaiman. North is, with her first book, demonstrating a skill and invention that should draw her an audience. She’s got me along for whatever she does next, and I hope that you will pick this book up because it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read in a while and all the better for it. A beautiful, gorgeous book that left me sad and elated by it’s ending.

 

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Idiopathy by Sam Byers

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I have just finished Idiopathy, it was incredible. Laugh out loud funny, that would swoop into these moments of painful honesty about people. That Katherine and Daniel were so narcissistic and dissembling, yet Byers showed their humanity and their injury. Nathan’s scenes with his parents brought tears to my eyes and I feel sad that I won’t have the experience of reading it again. Nothing was spelled out, and he has this incredible eye for the targets that he chose and it was a genuinely moving and exciting book. It was powerful and compelling that in the hands of a lesser talent, could have devolved into bitterness but Byers managed to maintain that perfect balance of humanity, black humour and story.
I hope he is working on something new, because I want to be able to make space for him on my shelf. I borrowed Idiopathy from the library but I am going to buy it so that I can reread it.
The pain and the insight that draws out the pain work well together, leavened by moments of caustic insight that made me laugh out loud. It’s a beautiful book and worth your time, if you’ve ever fallen in or out of love, if you’ve ever been disappointed your parents or been disappointed by them, if you’ve hated and loved someone at the same time. If you wonder how narcissistic you are, then realise that it’s a narcissistic thought in and of itself. If you work in an office and wonder at the inane things your colleagues think and talk about, then read Idiopathy.