February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.
A short passage from Denis Johnson’s incredible novella about the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer living among the land in early twentieth century America. The prose in this book is among the finest I’ve ever read, and the dreamlike vignettes that Johnson uses to depict the minor victories and multiple struggles Grainier endures are intricately and beautifully constructed.
February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The opening passage from Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. It’s a fast-moving, compact book full of guns, pretty dames and a smooth-talking private eye named Phillip Marlowe. An iconic example of noir fiction, it’s worth a read for the wisecracks alone.
February 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
With his lunch in his hand, Gus followed the guy along a narrow trail that wound through the scrub and the trees and eventually opened up onto the edge of a precipice that faced north, overlooking a small, empty bay and beyond that the coastline stretching off into the distance and the vast blue ocean sparkling and rippling all the way to the horizon. It caught him somewhat off guard to find this place so close to where he’d been working, and for a moment he just stood there taking it in.
A passage from a recent story entitled ‘The Cusp’.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
He felt the guilt of inaction, of simply waiting while his life went to waste. No one was worth the gift of his life, no one could possibly be worth that. It belonged to him alone, and he did not deserve it either, because he was letting it waste. It was getting away from him and he made no effort to stop it. He did not know how.
A quote from Leonard Gardner’s short novel, Fat City, which depicts the gritty, desperate lives of two boxers in depression-era California. Sparse, bleak, and at the same time beautiful, it is a moving and memorable piece of American realism. Word has it, too, that it is one of contemporary author Denis Johnson’s favourite books.
January 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops.
His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it. Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.
This quote, taken from William Maxwell’s astonishing novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, stuck out to me as the most powerful quote from — without a doubt — the most powerful novel I have read in quite some time. A beautifully sorrowful and nostalgic book about childhood, at only one hundred and thirty-something pages long, I would urge everyone to read it if they get the chance.
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
I turned around again and started shooting gooks. They were blowing holes through the wires with bangalor torpedoes. A man I took to be one of our own jumped into the trench and jabbed Gerber in the back with a bayonet. Singh saw it happening as I did and reached up on top of the trench where he had set his .45, picked it up, turned, and fired the gun in the man’s face. Because the man was wearing a helmet, the concussive effect of the round blew his face away. Gerber was lucky. He was wearing his flak jacket and the soldier had only made an arm thrust with the bayonet. If he had followed through with a full body thrust, he could have buried it into the hilt.
An absolutely captivating passage from Thom Jones’ story, ‘Break On Through’, taken from his first collection of short stories, The Pugilist at Rest. The scenes in the book which depict the madness and destruction of the Vietnam War, as this story does, are compelling and unforgettable. I highly recommend getting yourself a copy.
December 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
After reading so much good stuff last year, by comparison, 2013 was a little underwhelming. Not that I read any less books, or any less feverishly, but rather, a lot of what I did read was at times disappointing. But that’s not to say it was all bad. Among the let-downs were still some absolute gems, and once again I’ve compiled a list of my top five reads for the past twelve months. If you come across these books in 2014, take it from me, you’ve got a pretty good year ahead of you.
5. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
This short story collection came to me late in the year, after a luckless stint of mediocre novels and short story collections. And thank god it did, because the opening story blew my hair back. I was once again reminded of the power of good short fiction, of how original and compelling the form can be. Saunders situates his stories in a satirical, absurd world, where humorous situations regularly collide with dark themes and violent events. Ghosts, whacky theme parks, and machines that can download one’s memories all inhabit his strange vision of contemporary America, so it goes without saying that CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is both a disturbing and highly entertaining read. One thing that really struck me about it was how simple and uncomplicated the language is. The author has an uncanny grasp on the modern American idiom, and he employs it so well that the characters often spring to life, fully formed, within the very first sentence. My personal favourites were: ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’, ‘Isabelle’ and ‘The 400-Pound CEO’.
4. Drown by Junot Diaz
This book, another short story collection (yes, I read a lot of them this year), has the kind of energy you would often associate with the debut album of a rapper desperate to escape life in the hood. And like a lot of hip hop, Drown is gritty, streetwise, and confronting. Reading these stories, you really get the feeling that Diaz just had to get them out on paper, that he had no other choice. And it’s this quality I was so drawn to. Set between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, the stories all revolve around Yunior (Diaz’s thinly-veiled alter-ego), and his experiences growing up in both the lower-class neighbourhoods of America and the slums of his native Santo Domingo. Drug use, underage sex, and family upheavals all feature heavily throughout the book, along with a tone that is grim yet delicate, and writing that is at times extremely minimalist. However, what really gives this collection its life force is the unrelenting pulse of youth that underpins each and every story. Keep an eye out for: ‘Ysrael’, ‘Aurora’, ‘Drown’ and ‘Edison, New Jersey’.
3. The Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones
The best short story collection I read all year, hands down. These stories — about the Vietnam War, about boxing, about cancer and Schopenhauer and The Doors, among other things — come at you with both fists raised and a whole lot of nerve. They’re not perfect stories by any means (sometimes the flaws in grammar, tense, etc. makes you wonder what the editor was doing), but they have genuine power and energy. They are stories that needed to be told and, more importantly, should be read. It’s clear Jones is at his best when he is in the headspace of someone ultra-masculine and mentally disturbed, and for this reason, I can’t speak highly enough of Part 1 of The Pugilist At Rest. While there are many strong stories in the book (‘Silhouettes’, ‘I Want To Live!’, and ‘Rocket Man’ to name just a few), the three stories that make up this section are without a doubt some of the best I’ve read. All dealing with the effects of the Vietnam War on young American marines, they are so captivatingly raw and unrelenting that it’s almost impossible not to consume them in a single sitting. ‘Break On Through’, for me, is the absolute highlight of an already memorable collection.
2. Ask the Dust by John Fante
While the other books on this list are all fairly contemporary, Ask the Dust was first published in 1939, and is somewhat of a cult classic. For good reason, too. Following the experiences of young Italian-American writer, Arturo Bandini, as he struggles to get by in depression-era Los Angeles, it is a sweet, touching, and often hilarious novel. In fact, many consider it to be one of the finest books written about life in LA. Apparently much of it is autobiographical, and you definitely get the feeling that Fante knows the world of his protagonist intimately, from the living in cheap hotels, to the manic desperation of wanting to be recognised for one’s art. His evocations of the city’s landscape and the surrounding desert are particularly beautiful, as well. On top of this, for a novel less than 200 pages long, it is quite a moving love story.
1. Distant Star by Roberto Bolano
Yes, for the second year in a row, my favourite book of the past twelve months is by the late Chilean author, Roberto Bolano. However, unlike The Savage Detectives last year, Distant Star is not an epic, sprawling affair full of riotous youthful energy and aching nostalgia, but rather a quiet, haunting novel dealing with violence and poetry in Chile in the time of the Pinochet regime. Recounted by an unnamed narrator, it is concerned with (among other typical Bolano digressions) the movements of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, a young right-wing Chilean who attempts his own poetry revolution by partaking in sky-writing, torture, photography and murder. Thematically dark, and as always, set in a world rooted deeply in literature, it was for me a sparse, thoughtful book that stayed in my mind long after I’d finished it. The pacing was immaculately controlled, and the descriptions of the Chilean and Spanish landscapes were vivid and well depicted. If you’re after a compact, intelligent read that is both eerie and beautiful, Distant Star is worth every moment of your time.