Sunday 30 July 2017

BOOKS@VOLUME #34  (29.7.17)

Our latest newsletter, including our reviews and recommendations, events, competitions, and a selection of the week's most interesting new releases.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything."
This week's Book of the Week is Arundhati Roy's long-anticipated second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

>> Read an extract

>> And another extract

>> A strange and frightening dream

>> Fiction and politics. 

>> Roy returns to fiction, in fury

>> Interviewed on Democracy Now

>> "Black ants, pink crumbs."

>> The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997.

>> Can she win it again this year? 

>> Chatting with Rushdie (1997).

>> Other books by Roy

>> Why Roy thinks India is a corporate upper-caste state

Book-related games and activities that are enjoyable ways to introduce children to concepts and story telling structures. A favourite at VOLUME isStory Box. The box contains 20 double-sided puzzle pieces that can be arranged (and re-arranged) to make wordless fairy tales. The illustrations are playful and clever allowing for different interpretations depending on the nieghbouring cards. An array of characters from gnomes and brave children to kings, witches (who may or may not be friendly) and wolves, against backdrops of farms, forests and mountains where people live in humble homes, majestic castles and forest trees give children an endless array of possible stories. My favourite cards include the wolf flavouring the tied-down gnome with salt and pepper, the strange giant pink rabbit who is busily nibbling away at the palace, the princess on her moped in the night-time forest, and gnomes lamenting some catastrophe, their boxes of tissues well in use. Sturdy, and with plenty of story-telling possibilities: ideal for 3-to-6-year-olds.                                       {STELLA}

Animals at Home is a matching card game for young children. 27 animals nee to find their homes. This great for small children - they are introduced to a variety of animals, some of which will be familiar (horse, bee, mouse), others perhaps new to them (beaver, platypus, mole). All the cards remain face up and the matching begins. Where does the beaver live? Who goes home to the cave? The illustrations are bright and clear and the text is restricted to nouns. There are clues in the colour backgrounds - you're right when the background colour matches. To make the game a little more challenging it can be a matching memory game with all the cards turned face down. Sturdy cardboard pieces are just the right size for little hands.

For children who love animals, Amazing Animal Facts is brilliant. This is produced in book form as well as a boxed file set. The box contains 50 postcards (25 different animal fact cards, so one of each can be posted) that can be coloured in and sent as postcards or kept as information file cards. The file box is segmented into five categories; Sea, Forest, Field, Jungle and Sky, with 5 different animals apiece. The Blue Whale fact card tells us that its heart is as big as a car and that it has a belly button, that the Sloth is so slow that it grows green algae on its fur, and that flies are deaf, poop every 5 minutes, and that a group of flies is called a business. Wonderfully designed, with intriguing facts perfect for young enquiring minds (and plenty for adults to learn too)!                   {STELLA}

Hood by Alison Kinney {Reviewed by THOMAS}
A hood divides the world into the two most unequal possible parts. A hood obfuscates the face of the wearer, the face that would otherwise declare, “this is a person, this is an individual.” A hood declares that whoever is present is not present, that here stands a non-person. A hood makes its wearer into both a cypher and a vector. The hood declares that what is done by a hood wearer is not done by any person in particular but by a transpersonal force, or that what is done to a hood wearer is not done by any person in particular but by a transpersonal force. A hood privileges either the wearer or everyone present but the wearer, depending on who has the say on the hood. The hood privileges power, either the power of the mass over the wearer or the power of the wearer as apart from the mass. The hood is an ambivalent text, a rampart in the struggle between the individual and the circumstance. Whether the hood is worn by the individual or by the agent or agents of the circumstance determines and is determined by the characteristics of power. The experiences of whoever is within the hood and whoever is outside the hood are always at odds. The hood makes protection and vulnerability into antagonists. The hood depersonalises the relations of power. The hood pretends that although what is happening is happening, either it is not happening to an actual person or it is not being enacted by an actual person, but not both. The struggle over who does and who does not wear the hood is the struggle over who will be vulnerable and who will be protected, but vulnerability is not inherent in either hood wearing or non-hood wearing and protection is not inherent in either hood wearing or non-hood wearing. Vulnerability and protection are negotiated ad hoc across the hem of the hood. Vulnerability and protection are determined by who decides who wears the hood rather than by who wears the hood or by who does not wear the hood. The anonymity of the hood allows power to be exerted which without the hood would not be able to be exerted, but either the wielder or the victim of that power could be wearing the hood. The hood itself is only a disjunction, a border, a division, a territory cleared of individual presence, or beyond which the declaration of individual presence has been withheld. Kinney’s book, from the excellent ‘Object Lessons’ series, is full of surprises and interesting perspectives, of moments when you realise that you hadn’t thought much about something or perhaps had thought about it wrongly. She treats the hood throughout history, particularly modern American history, as worn by monks, judges, penitents, inquisitors (or not), the Grim Reaper (or not), the Ku Klux Klan (or not), by torturers, the tortured, executioners (or not), the executed, by criminals, by youth, by activists, and by those who wear hoods for religious reasons. She illuminates the wielding and suffering of anonymised power by concentrating on the concealment that enables the anonymisation of this power. I have not worn a hood since I was a child and wore a windbreaker, but this book makes me curious to do so again. To be present anonymously, to displace my volume in society, has a certain appeal, possibly an unhealthy appeal. You could also wear a hood to keep warm.

Friday 28 July 2017

These books have just arrived and are already lining up for a space on your shelf. 
Our Future is in the Air by Tim Corballis           $30
When the Soviets circulated images of 9/11 they had got by the use of time machines, the Twin Towers were never built, jet travel was abandoned and history veered off course. Time travel was made illegal, but it went underground and became the recourse of criminals, bankers and activists. It is 1975, and in New Zealand a few people are taking tentative steps (so to call them) into the future (so to call it).
>> Not perhaps quite as you remember 1975
Sky High: Jean Batten's incredible flying adventures by David Hill and Phoebe Morris          $25
In 1934 Batten flew from England to Australia and in 1936 from  England to New Zealand. What was it like up there all alone?
>> "One of the greatest flights in history."

Rooms of One's Own: 50 places that made literary history by Adrian Mourby       $28
How does the place where writing takes place affect what is written there? What can we learn about a book by visiting there? Mourby visits fifty rooms in which fifty writers wrote fifty books, and compares the locations with what ended up on the page.  

Two Stories by Virginia Woolf and Mark Haddon      $26
Published to mark the centenary of the first Hogarth Press printing, Woolf's original story 'The Mark on the Wall' is here paired with a new story by Haddon. All the pleasures and production qualities of the original have been retained. 
Love of Country: A Hebridean journey by Madeleine Bunting       $28
The far-flung Hebrides lie on the outer edge not just of Britain, but of Europe. Bunting's finely written insular psychogeography explores the relationship of the land not only to the people who have lived on it or visited it, but to those for whom it forms an island for the mind. 
"Bunting's crisp and luminous prose is the ideal medium to capture the ambiguities and dichotomies of the landscape; between ever-shifting sea and unfathomably old rock; between tradition and modernity; between wilderness and depopulation; between feudal subsistence and aristocratic profligacy." - The Scotsman
St Petersburg: Three centuries of murderous desire by Jonathan Miles        $38
"Of all cities St Petersburg is most like a novel. Conceived in the mind of a Tsar like a writer might give birth to a book,it has never ceased to be relentlessly dramatic, as if being like a novel is its destiny. Miles tells the tale magnificently." - Peter Pomerantsev

Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor         $38
A wonderfully unrelenting indictment of colonialism and the damage it did to what had been a thriving country. Two centuries of British rule devastated the economy, violated human rights, and introduced institutions and infrastructure that enabled Britain to thrive at India's expense. 
Letters from a Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake         $40
Lost in the frozen polar wastes, an explorer huddles in his shelter, typing, with frozen fingers, the story of his lonely, extraordinary exploits, preparing to send the story to the nephew he has never seen. With his only companion, the tortoise-like mutant Jackson, the Uncle has gone in search of his ambition and his destiny: the awesome and mysterious White Lion. A wonderful facsimile edition of Peake's fully illustrated, weirdly weird tale. 

Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell      $38
Under the house the earth moves according to its geological time, while upon it the lives and times of humans move by different rhythms. One house is the place where these forces interact. Farrell's new novel is a sort of counterpart to The Villa on the Edge of the Empire
Farewell to the Horse: The final century of our relationship by Ulrich Raulff          $65
"Any reader interested in horses, history, art, literature or language will love this book, and be stunned by its scope and stylish intellect. This is about the end of a relationship between man and horse that Raulff likens to the dissolution of an idiosyncratic workers’ union, and what is thrilling is that the horse becomes a subtext – a new way of considering history via the stable door. The book is beautifully and idiosyncratically illustrated, in keeping with the text." - Guardian

Making Trouble: life and politics by Lynne Segal      $27
What happens when angry young rebels become wary older women, ageing in a leaner, meaner time: a time which exalts only the 'new', in a ruling orthodoxy daily disparaging all it portrays as the 'old'? Delving into her own life and those of others who left their mark on it, Segal tracks through time to consider her generation of female dreamers, what formed them, how they left their mark on the world, where they are now in times when pessimism seems never far from what remains of public life.
War and the Death of News: Reflections of a grade B reporter by Martin Bell        $37
From Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq, Bell has witnessed great changes both in the way wars are fought but even more in the way war is reported. He has seen the truth degraded and sanitised and groomed with specific audiences in mind. Is there a place for journalism in a 'post-truth', social media-saturated world? 
Blind Spot by Teju Cole       $45
In Known and Strange Things we learned of Cole's interest in the practices of photography, and in Blind Spot we can see what he sees from behind his camera. The results are impressive, and will add another dimension to your understanding of this interesting author. 
The Book of Circles: Visualising sphere of knowledge by Manuel Lima        $80
Since the most ancient times, Humans have chosen to organise information in circles. This profoundly illustrated book surveys the various types of circular device through history and around the world. 
Stalin's Meteorologist by Oliver Rolin         $40
Why was meteorologist Alexey Wangenheim, who had been hailed by Stalin as a national hero, arrested in 1934 and sent off to a gulag? How did an innocent man get caught up in state paranoia? 

Shadowless by Hasan Ali Toptas        $40
When a barber disappears from an Anatolian village over night and appears in a bar in a town far away, unable to explain how he got there, reality develops a fracture that has widening implications. 
“A poetic masterpiece of world literature. Toptas is an oriental Kafka, enriched with the literary achievements of Islamic mysticism” –  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Granta 140: The Mind         $28
We know how the brain works, but do we understand the mind? In an age when we are finally taking mental health as seriously as physical health, this issue of Granta explores the conscious self: how it perceives, judges and lives in the world. 
A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield's Wellington by Redmer Yska         $40
"It's not enough to say I immensely enjoyed A Strange Beautiful Excitement; it's simply splendid." - Fiona Kidman
"The best account I have ever read of Wellington and Karori as they were in Mansfield's day. Vivid and vigorous, it is a pleasure to read." - K.M. biographer Kathleen Jones
Reading the Rocks: How Victorian geologists discovered the secrets of life by Brenda Maddox      $36
Was it a coincidence that geology has a pivotal science in an age of social and political repositioning? Maddox introduces us to the diverse range of geologists who kept focussed during the geology vs. Genesis showdown. 

The Guggenheim Mystery ('London Eye' #2) by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd          $18
"I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works. Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth millions of pounds. Perhaps that's because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else's. But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft - and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it."
The sequel to Dowd's The London Eye Mystery

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill          $33
Two writers begin to realise that they are each other's fictional creations. Eeek. 
The Zoo by Christopher Wilson         $28
There are certain things that Yuri Zipit knows: that being Stalin's official food-taster requires him to drink too much vodka for a 12-year-old, and that you do not have to be an elephantologist to see that the great leader is dying. Just because his mind is damaged, this does not mean Yuri doesn't notice what goes on at state banquets. Perhaps this politics business is not too difficult after all... 
"A wonderfully inventive and slyly constructed novel, horrifying, horribly funny, and disgracefully entertaining." - John Banville
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci       $35
"How to Be a Stoic proves many things: that the ancient school of Stoicism is superbly relevant to our times; that profound wisdom can be delivered in lively, breezy prose; and that Massimo Pigliucci is uniquely gifted at translating philosophy into terms helpful for alleviating and elevating the lives of many." - Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Travels with my Sketchbook by Chris Riddell        $40
A visual diary of Riddell's two years as Children's Laureate, including his travels around Britain and the development of his various illustrative projects. 

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann       $40
Walter Urban and Friedich 'Fiete' Caroli work side by side as hands on a dairy farm in northern Germany. By 1945, it seems the War's worst atrocities are over. When they are forced to 'volunteer' for the SS, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict which is drawing to a desperate, bloody close. Walter is put to work as a driver for a supply unit of the Waffen-SS, while Fiete is sent to the front. When the senseless bloodshed leads Fiete to desert, only to be captured and sentenced to death, the friends are reunited under catastrophic circumstances. In a few days the war will be over, millions of innocents will be dead, and the survivors must find a way to live with its legacy.
"In this masterpiece, Ralf Rothmann manages the seemingly impossible. He describes the guilt of their fathers' generation from the viewpoint of the post-War generation without betraying it to a moralising know-it-all attitude." - Badische Zeitung 
"In contemporary German literature, there is nothing that can be compared to this book." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez     $22
A political cartoonist who finds his convictions tested when a traumatic past event returns to haunt him.
"One of the most original voices of Latin American literature." - Mario Vargas Llosa

Why does the animal world display such a range of characteristics that are superfluous to, and even hazardous to, individual survival? Is there an extent to which sexual selection is an evolutionary force over and above natural selection. If there is a criterion of beauty in mate selection, where does this criterion come from and what purposes does it serve? 

Pig/Pork: Archaeology, zoology, edibility by Pia Spry-Marques     $37
Pigs have been intimately involved in human culture since Palaeolithic  times. How has this relationship shaped both pigs and humans? 
The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales        $26
The Regional Office's female assassins protect the world from evil forces, but is it under threat from within? A crazed, fast-paced piece of hyperkinetic cyberpunk.

Mezcal: The history, craft and cocktails of the world's ultimate artisanal spirit by Emma Janzen        $33
Probably it is time to introduce yourself to  the smoky flavourful spirit distilled from any of fifty varieties of agave in nine Mexican states. The procedure of distillation is so involved and labour-intensive that the possibilities for artisanal variation are immense. 
The House that Flew Away by Davide Cali and Catarina Sobral       $28
What do you do when you are on your way home and you see your house suddenly fly away?
The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor        $33
Hares are small animals with many predators but they have no burrow or tunnel to shelter them from danger. They survive by a combination of two skills honed to unimaginable extremes: hiding in plain sight, and running fast. This handsome book deals in detail with hares, both as they are, both biochemically and behaviourally, and as they are imagined in art, mythology and legend. 

Thursday 27 July 2017

A few books currently in stock notable for containing stories often considerably less than a page long. 

Fullblood Arabian and The Teeth of the Comb by Osama Alomar
Unless he has been incarcerated or deported by the current US administration, Osama Alomar is working as a taxi driver in New York. Before moving to the US as a refugee, he was an acclaimed author in Syria, especially as a practitioner of al-qisa al-qasira jiddan (very short short stories). The two collections of his that we have in English translation place him somewhere in a rough triangle apexed by the fables of Aesop, the personification tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (albeit an ‘Omar Khayyam’ arising from a world of state-sponsored torture and media-fuelled anti-Arab prejudice). These micro-fables, few longer than a few sentences, rail against injustice, are socially and politically most acute at the point where they are seemingly most ludicrous, and acknowledge despair without being without hope. A man climbs out of a narrow metal tunnel to find himself emerging from the gun barrel now pointed at his chest, a rubbish bag becomes swollen with pride at finding itself at the top of the heap of rubbish bags, a man finds a question mark in his eye when looking in the mirror. The stories often have an aphoristic feel, and are fables in that they do not intimate any further story lying beyond them (compared, for instance, with Sarah Manguso’s 500 Arguments, which are like the nuggets sieved out of novels).
The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard
“The courtroom correspondent is the closest of all to human misery and its absurdity and can endure the experience only for a short time, and certainly not his whole life, without going crazy. The probable, the improbable, even the unbelievable, the most unbelievable are paraded before him every day in the courtroom, and, because he has to earn his bread by reporting on actual or alleged but in any case shameful crimes, he is no longer surprised by anything at all.” Bernhard’s brief spell as a crime reporter before becoming an author was the ideal preparation for the writing of these 104 one-page stories, which, in the perfect deadpan style of journalism or of jokes, record the miseries, cruelties and disasters that fester beneath the surfaces of human lives, surfaces that open from time to time to receive more hurt and then close over again until they can be contained no longer and make the news, so to speak, overwriting the lives with 'stories'. The book contains 26 murders, 18 suicides (Austria’s national pastimes, according to Bernhard, are committing suicide and resisting committing suicide (it could be said that much of Bernhard’s writing arises from a sublimation of his own inclination towards this pastime)) and six other painful deaths, but these only as the mechanisms by which the unresolved and unresolvable tragedies beneath the mundanity of lives manifest themselves and turn those lives inside out so that the tragedy is on the outside and the mundanity is revealed at the core. Accidents lead to tragedies, ill intentions lead to tragedies, good intentions also lead to tragedies. Nothing is made better or repaired or created in accidents. Although this book is structurally unlike any of his others, Bernhard’s perfect sentences, with their nested clauses-within-clauses, with their fugual repetitions, with their self-mocking pedantry, with their sudden shifts of tone as they respond to their terrain, explore in miniature the material more fully developed in his novels. Different facets of authenticity (‘authenticity’) arise from the plots and from the details, set against each other, as are the tragic and the quotidian, to comic effect. It is this ambivalence, this at-once-one-thing-and-its-opposite, this at-once-intimacy-and-distance, this at-once-sympathy-and-hatred that makes all Bernhard’s work so revelatory. Whether telling of the voice imitator incapable of imitating his own voice, ‘newspaper’ accounts of the attribution, misattribution, malattribution and nonattribution of guilt, first person plural anecdotes of persons met when travelling, second-hand reports of the statements of others, such as the dancer who cannot dance if thinking about dancing, the stories are free from narrators able to initiate either action or response. Many of the stories appear to have arisen from actual events (Bernhard was a devoted reader of newspapers in cafes), sometimes distorted or reshaped, reality both observed and denied, such as the account of the burns suffered by Bernhard’s here unnamed friend Ingeborg Bachmann, recognisable despite the ‘incorrect’ facts in the story. Part of the reason for this is the impossible relationship between reality and language, between experience and its representation, between proceedings and reportage. Each makes demands of its other but each moves too differently to conform. What is known and what is said are always in conflict in even the most seemingly straightforward account, even though their trajectories may be twinned. One story here tells of a playwright who, just like Bernhard, had great success “because he was honest enough to pretend [sic] that his comedies were always tragedies and his tragedies comedies,” because, at base, he hated the theatre altogether.
The Collected Stories and Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis
The narrower the aperture, the greater the depth of field. Many of Lydia Davis’s stories are little more than a detail or an image or a wry observation presented without a misplaced word or superfluous comma, precise enough to suggest that great slabs of life hinge about her words, without these slabs being fiction as such. Perhaps the distinction between actuality and fiction is too coarse to be relevant to such literature of the infra-ordinary and should be left to the literatures of the ordinary (for which this distinction is constantly contestable if ultimately unimportant) and of the extra-ordinary (for which it is pre-established in the effective contract between author and reader). Thrifty with her language, characterisation and narrative to the point of asceticism, Davis’s work attains a whittled acuity subtle enough to glance off the surfaces they address without (generally) becoming embedded in them. Davis is a master of the concise, the precise and the incisive: each sentence she writes is a scalpel wielded at the life of the emotions, removing scar tissue and all the while exposing the operations of minds under pressure and the inner gravel of ordinary life. 
Calamities by Rene Gladman
I began the day remembering, or what for me passes for remembering, or at least attempting to perform what passes for me for remembering, the book I had just read, a torrent of short essays written by Renee Gladman, each of which begins with, I began the day. The essays, or what pass for Gladman as essays, start out being about not very much, small ordinary particulars of Gladman’s life, or small observations such as a poet might make about the ordinary particulars of life, but really they are not so much about these things as they are about the writing about these things, that is to say about the relationship of a writer to her experience and to her work and about her trying to decide what sort of relationship there might be, both actually and ideally, between this experience of hers and this work. The essays that start out being about not very much end up being about even less or rather more, depending on your point of view, depending on whether you think the universals that open from particulars lie within them or beyond them. Gladman is concerned not so much with the signified, or even with the signifier, as she is with the act of signification, the act of conduction which causes, or allows, a spark to sometimes leap across. Gladman’s touch is light, and she constructs some beautiful sentences, and the sparks leap often, and she usually avoids being precious. In the final, numbered, section of the book, Gladman ties the compositional knot as tight as it can be tied, removing content almost entirely from her writing other than the act itself of writing. “I was a body and it was a page, and we both had our proverbial blankness.” What is her relationship to the text she produces, irrespective of the content of that text? “ I didn’t know whether at some point in my past, perhaps at the very moment that I set out to write, the page had fallen out of me or I had risen out of it.” She relates her prolonged rigours in attempting to find the essence, so to call it, of writing, to reduce writing to the irreducible, the making of a mark, the drawing of writing. “Language was beautiful exposed; it was like a live wire set loose, a hot wire, burning, leaving a trace. The wire was a line, but because it was electrified it wouldn’t lie still: it thrashed, it burned, it curled and uncurled around itself. … I was amazed that I was talking about wires when really I was talking about prose.” I’m not sure that the making of a mark is the irreducible essence of writing, but it is the irreducible essence of something, something which may perhaps be taken for some aspect of writing, at least in the physical sense. But maybe this is what Gladman is trying to isolate and understand, or to split, the duality between content and form, literature’s version of the mind-body problem (or, rather, the mind-body calamity). Although writing is all her art, Gladman wants to reach the limits of this art, of narrative, of words, of the act of writing, “writing so as not to write, so to find the limit (that last line) beyond which the body is free to roam outside once more.”
Newspaper by Édouard Levé
Édouard Levé and I drew our first breaths almost simultaneously, and we have been similarly concerned with the problematics of authorial presence in (or absence from) texts, although Levé concluded his struggles in this regard by killing himself immediately after delivering the manuscript for his novel Suicide in 2007. In Newspaper (first published in French in 2004), Levé succeeds in removing himself from the text almost entirely. Though presented as a book, the work takes the form of a newspaper, divided into the standard various sections, complete with articles, advertisements and so forth, from which all specificity has been removed (names, places, currencies, dates, identities), leaving only the patterns of information and the linguistic structures which support them. Shorn of referents, a newspaper is shown to be not so much outward-looking as inward-looking, a portrait of the obsessions and underlying anxieties of the society of which it is an organ. Subjects are shown to be incidental to stories, created and consumed by them. I am pretty sure I remember some of the stories here so treated and I suspect Levé has been rigorous throughout in his experiment upon written media (he achieved something similar in his photographic practice (in Actualitésand Quotidien (2001-2003)) by restaging press photographs using anonymised actors and a blank backdrop). It is only in the ‘Arts’ section that some slight residue of the personal can perhaps be detected, some indication that for Levé at that time the arts still slightly resisted the personally obliterative interchangeability that had engulfed the rest of existence.
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” states Manguso in one of the 300 aphorisms and ‘arguments’ (as in ‘the argument of the story’ rather than a disputation) that comprise this enjoyable little book. Indeed the whole does feel as if it bears some relation to another considerably longer but nonexistent text, either as a reader’s quotings or marginalia, or as a writer’s folder of sentences-to-use-sometime or jottings towards a novel she has not yet written (“To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say that it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were once whole but are no longer”). Many of the aphorisms are pithy and self-contained, often dealing with awkwardness and degrees of experiential dysphoria (so to call it), and other passages, none of which are more than a few sentences long, are distillates or subsubsections of stories that are not further recorded but which can be felt to pivot on these few sentences. Some of the ‘arguments’ reveal unexpected aspects of universal experiences (“When the worst comes to pass, the first feeling is relief” or “Hating is an act of respect” or “Vocation and ambition are different but ambition doesn’t know the difference”) and others are lighter, more particular (and, I'm afraid, a few do belong on calendars on the walls of dentists’ waiting rooms). Some of the arguments are just singular observations: “The boy realises that if he can feed a toy dog a cracker, he can just as easily feed a toy train a cracker” or “Many bird names are onomatopoeic - they name themselves. Fish, on the other hand, have to float there and take what they get.” To read the whole book is to feel the spaces and stories that form the invisible backdrop for these scattered points of light, and the reader is left with a residue similar to that with which you are left having read a whole novel.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
“We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us but because it draws us after it,” wrote Goethe. Maggie Nelson’s book, comprised of 240 short numbered, mostly beautifully written passages, describes her life-long affinity for and attraction to (what she calls ‘love’ for) the colour blue in all its literal and figurative senses, along with describing a period of mourning after the end of an intense relationship (also called ‘love’). She is, she says, not interested in learning “what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.” To this end, and with the assistance of a range of co-opted “blue correspondents” reporting from art, literature and history, she intimates a field of nuanced responses to the colour blue, even though subjective colour response is almost impossible to communicate. Indeed, blue’s attraction is almost its absence of meaning, or its relief from meaning. “Blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. It leads neither towards justice nor away from it.” More than colour, blue is also merely colour, altering the cast of whatever it is seen upon. Although she attempts to draw correlations between the two (“I have found myself wondering if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue, for example, or letting a particularly potent person inside you, could alter you irrevocably, just to have seen or felt it. In which case, how does one know when, or how, to refuse? How to recover?”), there is an apparently unbridgeable gap in Nelson’s life, at least in the period treated in this book, between, on the one side, her intellectual passions and, on the other, her physical passions, between, as she would term it, thinking and fucking. Each side yearns towards the other, but encounters only the seductively nullifying colour of the void between them: blue.
This Is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson
What do you report when you become uncertain of the facts, of the notion of truth and of the purpose of writing? What can you understand of yourself when you are uncertain how or if your memories can be correlated with known 'facts'? Is your idea of yourself anything other than the sum of your memories? Lara Pawson was for some years a journalist for the BBC and other media during the civil wars in Angola, and on the Ivory Coast. In this book, her experiences of societies in trauma, and her idealism for making the 'truth' known, are fragmented (as memory is always fragmented) and mixed with memory fragments of her childhood and of her relationships with the various people she encountered before, during and after the period of heightened awareness provided by war. It is this intermeshing of shared and personal perspectives, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes contradicting each other, always crossing over and back over the rift that separates the individual and her world, that makes this book such a fascinating description of a life. By constantly looking outwards, Pawson has conjured a portrait of the person who looks outwards, and a remarkable depiction of the act of looking outwards. Every word contributes to this pointillist self-portrait, and the reader hangs therefore on every word.
Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Dane Williams
If it is necessary to move out to the very edge of ourselves, to the part of ourselves that is least ourselves, to be near another person, another person who has also moved out to the very edge of themselves, to the part of themselves that is least themselves, in order to be near us, what value can there be in any communication that takes place, if any communication can take place, between parties who are therefore almost strangers even to themselves? Diane Williams’ short, energetic, hugely disorienting short stories pass as sal volatile through the fug of relationships, defamiliarising the ordinary elements of everyday lives to expose the sad, ludicrous, hopeless topographies of what passes for existence. This is not a nihilistic enterprise, however, for Williams has immense sympathies and her stories themselves demonstrate the possibility of connection through the very act of delineating its impossibility. With the finest of needles, the most ordinary of details, Williams picks out the unacknowledged, unacknowledgeable but familiar hopeless longing that underlies our unreasoned and unreasonable striving for human relations, a longing that makes us more isolated the harder we strive for connection. So much is left unsaid in these stories that they act as foci for the immense unseen weight of their contexts, precisely activating pressure-points on the reader’s sensibilities. These are some of the finest stories you will read.
99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
Joy Williams is a devastating observer of social vacuities, yet shows great sympathy for the ways in which her characters attempt to shore up their dissolving realities, and a sharp eye for the tiny details which form the pivots upon which great weights of existence turn. A few years ago The Visiting Privilege introduced many of us to four decades’ worth of work from the underknown Williams, one of America’s finest short story writers, and 99 Stories of God shows her now becoming even sharper, stranger, more despairing and compassionate. The stories, few more than a page long, many a single paragraph or even a sentence, are each written such sharpness and lightness of touch that they draw blood unexpectedly and without pain. Sparely, flatly written, using the language of the newspaper report or the encyclopedia entry, trimmed utterly of superfluities, the stories read like jokes that make us cry instead of laugh, or like laments that make us laugh instead of cry. Comparison may be made with Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, the scalpel-work of Lydia Davis or the Franz Kafka of the Zurau Aphorisms, but Williams’ sensibilities and turns of phrase are very much her own: she comes upon her subjects at unexpected angles, giving insight into the strangeness hung on the most ordinary of details (and, conversely, making the strangest of details seem necessary and familiar). The 99 stories have the texture of Biblical parables or Aesopian fables but they are not parables or fables due to the indeterminacy of their meanings (unless they are parables or fables which eschew lessons and morals and return the reader instead to the actual). The title of each follows the story and often sits at odds with the reader’s experience of the story, forcing a further realignment of sensibilities. Brevity, sparsity, clarity: these are distillates of novels, tragedies told as jokes, aqua vitae for anyone who reads, observes, thinks or writes.