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Posts Tagged ‘Denis Johnson’

So, we are now 10 days in to the Novellas in November challenge (#NovNov on Twitter) and I’ve been having a smashing time. I’ve surprised myself by finishing 5 novellas already, three new reads and two rereads: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, Ticknor by Sheila Heti, All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I started Ticknor first, but was reading it before bed when I was able to focus more on the narrative and the language, so I actually finished Portuguese Irregular Verbs first because it was a commute read (and had the advantage of being absurd and amusing, which was a good kick-off to the entire endeavour), and finished Light Boxes second (which read very quickly, in part due to the fragmented nature of the narrative). I enjoyed the internal dialogue that Ticknor has with himself (the voice that constructs a narrative in his head and the voice that reveals the inaccuracies in that constructed narrative even as it is being shaped). Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a funny take on the pomposity of academia, and I may continue reading the other novellas in this trilogy (whether I will tackle them this month is unknown). Light Boxes is surreal and strange and basically a vision of my future because up here in the frozen north the idea of an endless February hits a little too close to home. I found the imagery in Light Boxes to be remarkable, almost cinematic at times, and now I can’t wait to read his new book, Crystal Eaters. All My Friends Are Superheroes was a single sitting read one evening, and it was an absolute joy to revisit (having originally read it in 2003) because it is funny and quirky and moving all at once (and of course, it left me pondering what my own superpower might be…). Train Dreams blew me away again (having originally read it in 2012), and I remain stunned that the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2012 did not award the prize to Johnson. This novella is an incredibly tight narrative of one man’s experiences in the northwest U.S. from the late 19th C. to mid-20th C. It is a profoundly moving story that encompasses a wide range of issues from masculinity and racism in America to settlement and the notion of progress.

I’ve really appreciated the sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to finish a book in a couple of short sittings without worrying about getting too far behind on my day-to-day work. From the mid-point of the semester, guilt usually prevents me from picking up anything lengthy, and then I languish without narrative meat to feed on. However, these novellas have satisfied my appetite for stories with humour and emotional heft, without the unrealistic commitment of hours at this busy time. I think everyone should pick up more novellas to have on hand for just such circumstances.

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So, my grand plans for participating in the blogosphere regularly and in earnest this year have gone the way most of my New Year’s resolutions go: absolutely nowhere. In the first week of January I found myself suddenly with 5 jobs, and sadly wasn’t even able to post the last of my 2012 lists. So, because I still have not had time to do proper capsule reviews for my favourite literary reads of the year, I am just going to give you the list. If you trust my judgement, you should definitely pick these up. If you don’t trust my judgement (yet, because it is just a matter of time, really), you should look these titles up and get more feedback. I have no reservations at all in whole-heartedly endorsing every book on this list. They might offer something quite different from one another, but each title is moving and interesting or innovative in its own way. These are the books I would like to force on all my friends:

The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas

Varamo – César Aira

The Following Story – Cees Nooteboom

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Ocean Sea – Alessandro Barrico

The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé

Man in the Holocene – Max Frisch

Circus Bulgaria – Deyan Enev

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

Radio Iris – Anne-Marie Kinney

Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

The Emperor of Paris – C.S. Richardson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche

 

Let me know if you agree. If not, that’s great too, because one of my favourite things about literature is that encourages debate and discussion. Happy reading!

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Continuing the holiday reads recommendations, here are five of my favourite short reads of the year – two short story collections and three novellas. All deal with rather dark subject matter and are fantastic reads.

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Marcel Aymé – The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Pushkin Press): This collection of stories is absolutely brilliant. It belongs alongside the works of Borges, Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar. The stories combine surrealism and biting social satire. Among the denizens you will find in these pages: a man who discovers he suddenly has the ability to walk through walls, a woman who can replicate herself infinitely, young boys dreaming of seven league boots, governments that can legislate leaps forward and backward in time.

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles (Mariner Books): These contemporary tales are drenched in Cornish folklore, and range from the charming to the downright unsettling. Most of the stories are wonderfully dark and incredibly original. For a debut collection of stories, this is rather masterful. If you’re a fan of Panos Karnezis or Karen Russell, these stories will be right up your street. They skillfully blend the fantastic with gritty realism, and are incredibly evocative of place – the wilds of Cornwall and the salt-sea air of its coastline.

Denis Johnson – Train Dreams (Picador): Denis Johnson’s latest novella is entirely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and in all honesty, should have taken the Pulitzer this year. Concentrated, evocative, and moving, the novella contains all of the mythology of the American northwest in its slim binding and at its core stands Robert Grainier, the hero figure – hardworking, taciturn, and touched by tragedy. Johnson weaves incredibly intense episodes from Grainier’s life into a tapestry of the history of the American West. Wonderful single-sitting read.

Chico Buarque – Spilt Milk (Grove Press): Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.

Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive Press): This was my first experience reading Max Frisch, and it definitely won’t be the last. The narrative is interspersed with notes and clippings from the books in the widower Geiser’s house in a Swiss valley. Outside, an epic rainstorm threatens to undermine the very solidity of the landscape with landslides and rockfalls. Inside, Geiser’s mind is undermined by his inability to recollect things he once knew, and he obsessively writes down facts on slips of paper or clips paragraphs out of his books and fastens them to the walls of his house. The narrative is claustrophobic and perfectly suited to its subject matter: an isolated man suffering the indignities of age and senility and trying to find meaning.

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