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Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

A man who likes horses
and fishing...
Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the reading process active rather than passive. Or something. I'll find the quote and post a link to it when I get five minutes. Everett does that too (only with less monsters). Here we see a man who can fix anything, even the human body, hounded out of town and standing on the bridge - what next? A wrangler must transport a horse back home at twilight but it's afraid of the dark and all he's got is a torch - what to do? A man escapes a mental hospital but sits on a porch across the street to watch the police and ambulances roll up - why? An old man moves a car that is blocking his dumpsters only to be pursued by the police and shot by his friend the pharmacist. Does he die? Damned if I know, but that's the essential tug and twist of short stories, when masterfully crafted. 

A man I have more time for than sense, Kurt Vonnegut, writes the same way - everything drives the narrative forward, and there's always a twist. In the introduction to Look At The Birdie, Sidney Offit relates a time Vonnegut reviewed the life of a departed friend: "No children. No books. Few friends. She seemed to know what she was doing." That is achingly brilliant, brief Hemingway-esque life in four sentences micro fiction. Everett uses a few more words but lives and their stories are as emphatically created, nearly always with a protagonist of whom I have severe writer's envy - someone with firm convictions, strong morals and strength enough to maintain them both. Plus, in most cases, something about horses and fly-fishing.

If you're a fan of Everett, then you don't need convincing, except it might be worth noting that this is more Cutting Lisa than Glyph but then when writing is as good as this, it doesn't really matter if you're a baby with an IQ near 200 or buying up real estate to stop the developers. If you're not, you should be.

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What Readers Are Reading

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a …

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…