July Superlatives

Only seven books this month, which is not bad given that I was socializing heavily every weekend bar the first (she says, trying to make herself feel better…) I was rubbish about reviewing them, unfortunately—only managing two, both at the beginning of the month, unsurprisingly—but I gave you a birthday books post and a Man Booker longlist post, so no complaining.

most unnerving: Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners, which is nothing if not deeply, deeply weird. They sort of reminded me of episodes of The Simpsons, in that each one starts with what looks like the major plot, only for something to happen that creates another major plot, and then sometimes another. They’re also quite happy to be a tad incoherent; you can never really pin down a symbol or a message, the way you can even with other fantastical writers like Angela Carter. I liked that, how clearly they’re the product of a particular imagination, which you don’t have to understand.

most poignant: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I wasn’t blown away by her prose style, but it was a sincere and, by the end, deeply sad and lovely memoir. You got an excellent sense of how insanely, effortlessly charismatic she and Robert Mapplethorpe both were, and it’s a pretty good period piece, too, describing the New York art scene of the 1970s which is now gone forever.

most disturbing: Knockemstiff, the second book I reviewed this month, a collection of linked short stories by Donald Ray Pollock. It’s like early Cormac McCarthy, or like Daniel Woodrell, in a category I’ve heard referred to as “grit lit”. There’s a lot of prescription drug abuse, alcoholism, and misery, and a tiny grain of what might be hope right at the very end.

most tidily plotted: There’s a bit of room for interpretation here, since several of the books I read in July had intricate or deeply thought out structures, but Will Cohu’s novel Nothing But Grass spans over a hundred years in the same corner of Lincolnshire countryside, and I loved how cleverly he shows the ramifications of events from generation to generation.

Prose Prize: Again, there’s wiggle room, but Light Years, James Salter’s best-known novel, is a really gorgeously written book. The effect is quite deliberate; he’s writing about people whose lives are beautiful and full of friends and love, but simultaneously empty and lacking in meaning. The sense of light and shadow, of color, of texture, and of luxury, that you get from reading the prose is palpable.

most utterly heartbreaking: I can’t remember now how I came across Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry Blood Dazzler, but I must have heard about it somewhere. It takes as its subject the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, and it ventriloquizes such characters as a dog, an old woman, a drag queen, President Bush, the city, and the hurricane herself. It is the sort of book you have to put down every few pages so that you can look out the window and breathe deeply through your nose and not cry. It’s also a very, very significant testimony to the betrayal of the people of New Orleans by the US Government in the hurricane’s wake, and ought to be read for years to come.

my favorite: This isn’t exactly a category, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, which is also about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on poor Gulf Coast residents. Ward’s protagonist, Esch, is a pregnant fifteen-year-old, and the story is told in the twelve days leading up to the hurricane, during which time Esch’s brother’s prized pit bull, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies, and Esch tells the father of her child. There’s a lot about family relationships, mother-love (Esch’s mother is dead; she’s obsessed with the story of Medea, whom she’s reading about for school) and the elemental—things you can’t fight, like a Category 5 hurricane, or loyalty to a family. It won the National Book Award a few years ago and entirely deserves it; it made an excellent companion read with Blood Dazzler.

up next: I’m currently reading Marlon James’s Booker-longlisted A Brief History of Seven Killings (I was in Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street on Sunday and could not resist). I also have to read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for Shiny—I thought I’d get to that last month, mais non…

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3 thoughts on “July Superlatives

    • Isn’t it incredible? My copy has an interview with Jesmyn Ward in the back. I already liked her, but I REALLY liked her when she said she deliberately chose the Medea story for Esch to be obsessed with, because she didn’t see why these elements of western culture and literature should be considered off-limits to young women and girls of color, or from poor backgrounds. I love how she integrates that with, e.g., the Outkast lyric that serves as an epigraph, how she shows that different cultures don’t have to be diametrically opposed or even opposed at all.

  1. Oh, I was sooo tempted to pick up Magic for Beginners at the bookstore. Had to stop myself from an impulse buy as I’m usually more of a realist fiction fan. But your mini blurb has whet my appetite once again…

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