July 1, 2013 by markstani
As you may have noticed, my reviews have been scarce in recent months: partly due to other commitments, and partly due to the need for a little re-evaluation on my part: the blog almost seemed to run away with itself and lead me to places I didn’t feel all that interested in going.
These three or so months of pretty much blog-free reading have taught me a fair bit more about my true tastes. I haven’t felt obliged to wade through stuff simply in the name of a ‘world fiction’ blog, and as such I’ve homed in on three fairly distinct categories of favourite: the American so-called ‘rural noir’ of Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, and more latterly Donald Ray Pollock and who-knows-how-many largely undiscovered but utterly brilliant short story writers; Asian (in particular Indian and Arabic) fiction; and classic Russian/Soviet stuff, which seems to be especially in vogue at the moment.
I intend to review some of these in greater depth in due course, but here goes with a quick flick through some of my recent favourites:
The best book I’ve read so far this year is Andrei Makine’s Brief Loves That Live Forever (pub. MacLehose Press): a stunning short story collection set in the Soviet Union’s crumbling Brezhnev era, they’re gut-wrenchingly beautiful and exhilaratingly defiant. Makine resists the common fault with such tales of laying it on too thick. These are simple paeans to the power of love. I opened the package at the start of a long train ride and read the whole thing in one sitting.
The thing I like about most Arabic fiction is its raw and often apocalyptic feel, and it doesn’t come much more testing than Abdo Khal’s Throwing Sparks, a brutal satire of wealth and corruption in Jeddah, in which a young urchin called Tarek dreams of entering the opulent palace built close by, and soon finds himself swirled up in an awful exploitative hell. Published by Bloomsbury Qatar, it was initially slated to come out late last year [I was sent a proof copy], but its publication date has been put back. I’m not sure of the reason, but I just hope they have the nerve to push through with it, because it’s a really powerful book.
As far as down-and-dirty US noir goes, I don’t think it comes any better than Pollock’s Knockemstiff, which remains one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. But I’ve also (ridiculously belatedly) discovered McCarthy, whose Child Of God is a pitch-dark backwoods tale of an increasingly deranged outcast you can’t help cheering on, and the equally bleak and dysfunctional Twilight by William Gay, which I reviewed on Goodreads here.
I loved Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, a crazy, riotous tale of a bunch of psychopaths trawling the country en route to a major bare-knuckle tournament where winner-takes-all and the losers are lucky just to get out alive: much as I also enjoyed Bill’s short short collection Crimes In Southern Indiana, I felt the sheer momentum of Donnybrook’s plot gave it the edge.
Bargain of the year so far? Scott McClanahan’s experimental short story collection Stories V is currently priced under £2 as an e-book on Amazon: he’s a thrillingly astute observer of the tiny dysfunctionalities of everyday life. His follow-up, the recently released novel-in-stories Crapalachia is a moving and often hilarious account of growing up in a less-than-ordinary family unit way out in the sticks.
I liked the fast-paced, pulp-ish feel of Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women Of Juarez, and also engaged quite well with Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon A River, even if it did occasionally stray too close to sentimentality.
Finishing on the American theme, Ed Conover’s first-hand account of hobo life, Rolling Nowhere was a surprisingly riveting and thankfully non-gratuitous account of an often all too romantically painted-up sub-culture.
And finally, Tarun Tejpal’s The Story Of My Assassins, which I tried so desperately to love, but in the end just fell short of embracing. A writer delves deep into the back-stories of the six assassins who have been sent to kill him. The back-stories are stunning: what clogs the book up is the unnecessarily complicated and sometimes tiresome bits in between.