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Country Noir: My Journey to the Rough South

June 7, 2015 2 comments

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the reading of a particular book as life-changing. Rummaging through a box of a stranger’s discarded books in 2009, my eye was caught by the cover of Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the reading of this, the fiercest and bleakest of ‘country noir’ novels (a term coined by Daniel Woodrell), compelled me to track down and read every book the man had written, which took me through to some time in 2010. Much of Crews’ work falls short of this standard, but some of it is very fine indeed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Crews was my entree into the world of what is often called Southern Gothic literature. Crews, from Bacon County, Georgia, wrote the seminal A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early life, and the various snippets of interviews with him that can be found on youtube make for absorbing and often hilarious viewing. Crews died in 2012, a couple of years after I discovered his work, and it won’t be long before I’m ready to re-read the fifteen or so novels I devoured so eagerly in 2009-10.

 

In 2010 I also read my second Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed immensely (the film is outstanding too). I was less taken in by James Whorton Jr’s novels Approximately Heaven and Frankland, which I felt to be ‘Crews lite’ (to be fair, almost anything Southern could be described as such). Crews spoke reverently of his literary forebear Flannery O’Connor many times, so I obtained the Library of America edition of her complete works, but I wasn’t especially enamoured with her first novel, Wise Blood, and the rest remained unread for the time being. In 2011 I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I found heavy going, but precious little else in this genre. Other than Crews, I hadn’t yet discovered authors I would bond with.

2012 proved to be an important year for me in this regard. As often seems to happen when you so diligently trawl remaindered book piles in newsagents and discount stores, I discovered William Gay (pictured above) quite by accident. I was extremely impressed with his stately prose in The Long Home, Provinces of Night and especially Twilight, and a couple of years later I very much enjoyed his stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Gay died that same year, a month before Harry Crews, but I’ve recently learned that a ‘lost’ novel of his, Little Sister, Death is to be published later this year. Gay saw himself as an acolyte of McCarthy but, initially at least, I preferred the work of the apprentice to that of the master. Gay was born in Tennessee and much of his work is set there. 2012 and 2013 were also the years I read virtually all of Daniel Woodrell (pictured below), starting with Winter’s Bone. I enjoyed pretty much all of Woodrell, but especially Tomato RedThe Death of Sweet Mister and the author’s most recent, The Maid’s Version. Much of Woodrell’s work is set in the Missouri Ozarks, perhaps not Southern in geography but certainly in tenor.

I’d read a couple of novels by Larry Brown (pictured below) previously but, like in the case of McCarthy, I was a little less enthusiastic and seemed to read only one or two of his titles a year. I liked Joe but not Fay, and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally read a Brown novel I fully enjoyed (his first, Dirty Work). By now I’ve read most of Brown, including Jean W. Cash’s biography. His second collection of stories, Big Bad Love, is currently enroute, and I couldn’t get through The Rabbit Factory as it reminded me of Crews’ late and not so amazing work. As mentioned above, Brown saw himself as a follower of Crews (he has an essay on this subject), but when William Gay was first published in 1999, he was seen as a ‘new Larry Brown’ (even though he was considerably older). Brown was the first of these authors to die, far too young, in 2004.

Like I’ve said, I’d been reading Cormac McCarthy on and off for years, starting with The Road in 2008, which I saw more in the context of dystopian fiction at the time. I read the ‘Border Trilogy’ out of sequence (The Crossing in 2012, All the Pretty Horses in 2013 and Cities of the Plain in 2015), and I recently enjoyed Child of God. This leaves me with three of the author’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark and Suttree (enroute), and a couple of recent titles. In many ways, McCarthy is the granddaddy of the writers discussed here, born earliest (1933), published first (1965), and now the oldest (81). In this regard he reminds me of another long-living writer-patriarch, William S. Burroughs, who might himself have had more of a place in this conversation were he not so widely and perhaps incorrectly known as a Beat writer.

And then there’s the rest. By the time of this writing, I’ve managed to read five novels by North Dakota native Larry Watson without enjoying his work very much. I liked Montana, 1948 and Orchard, but found In a Dark TimeSundown, Yellow Moon and American Boy dull and staid. Perhaps it’s because while Watson is certainly a ‘country’ author, he’s by no means Southern? My problem with Ohio born Donald Ray Pollock is somewhat the opposite in that I found his novel The Devil All the Time and collection Knockemstiff too dark and horrible without any kind of redemptive feature at all. Nor did I appreciate the only James Lee Burke novel I have read, The Tin Roof Blowdown (too trashy), although I did like his early collection The Convict and Other Stories. I fully expected to take to the works of New Orleans native Elmore Leonard, but I didn’t think a great deal of Rum Punch or Tishomingo Blues and thus I haven’t yet read further. I’ve read one James Sallis (pictured below) novel, Drive, and I have a further two enroute in Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. I’ve recently read a few of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (especially enjoying ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’) but I wasn’t at all a fan of Philip Meyer’s much hyped American Rust or John Grisham’s A Painted House.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that these authors, with the exception of Flannery O’Connor, are all white American males. It has been a source of some consternation to me for years now that 90% of my influences and literary idols are men, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find females authors I enjoy to the same extent, with the exception of US crime writer Megan Abbott and English literary author Pat Barker. Nor have I failed to notice that most of my influences are American. Of the twenty authors I consider most important to me (only some of them mentioned here), eleven are Americans, six are from the U.K., and the only ‘Australian’ author, Peter Temple, was born in South Africa. What does this mean? Am I a reader and writer out of step with the Australian society around me? Should I pack up and move to the Rough South, or is there a place for me here in country Western Australia?

 

 

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2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.

I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.

2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.

Union Street by Pat Barker

I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.

The Sopranos by Alan Warner

I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.


I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay

I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.

forever wrapped up in books – a new reading list

July 26, 2014 2 comments

I’m up to 51 books read so far in 2014, so I’m on track to match or better the 82 books I read in 2013. I always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but in fact the volume of books I read has actually increased in recent years. Since I started keeping records of every book I read in 2007 (because, you know, wrapped up in books) I seem to read a little more each year than the one previous. 47 books in 2009, 55 in 2010, 66 in 2011, 71 in 2012 and 82 in 2013 – where will it end? At the current rate, I’ll better 2013’s figure by a handful of books, and then onward toward cracking the ton in 2015, I guess.

Books are pretty damn expensive in this country, which is my poor excuse for not really supporting the ailing Australian bookselling industry. If I paid retail price (like, at least $20) for every book I read, I’d be looking at $1600 just for this year, and that’s if I could buy the books I wanted in the stores, which invariably I can’t. Oh yes, I could order them in. What a quaint concept! I remember this from the pre-internet days. But why on Earth should I do the research on a particular book I want, trundle into the bookshop (100 kilometre drive away), ask them to order said book, drive home, wait several weeks or months for them to get the book in, drive 100 km, just to pay retail price, i.e. including the bookseller’s 40% markup? I just don’t do it anymore. On occasion I will buy a book from Dymocks, the only half-decent Aussie bookshop chain left in this country, but invariably it will be from the $5 or $10 discount pile at the front. The other week I scored a copy of Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever from Big W in trade paperback for $19. I had a look in Dymocks afterwards to see if they had it. Nup. And if they had, it would have been $30-33. Sorry, Dymocks will be next to die, following Angus and Robertson and Borders.

Back to a cheerier subject, as in the books on my current reading list. About two weeks ago I ordered 14 books from Better World Books, which I strongly suggest you check out if you aren’t aware of it. Those 14 books cost me $96 in total. Yes, they are secondhand and no, the author won’t receive any royalties. Guess what–I’m an author too (of three novels and several short stories) and I haven’t made a brass razoo out of my writing. And the other day, after picking up a copy of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for $3 in a charity shop, I’ve ordered two more of his for under $20 in total from Book Depository. That’s 16 books for $114 at $7.12 per book. Yes, most of them are secondhand. But therein lies the problem facing the bookselling industry today. If someone like me won’t support the domestic industry here in Australia, then who will? Answer: no one. If books were substantially cheaper here, let’s say $12 per book instead of $20-23, then I’d buy a heap more locally. But I see absolutely no sign of that happening.  And the market wins.

So, let’s have 16:

Auster, Paul – The Invention of Solitude: A Memoir

Barker, Pat –The Man Who Wasn’t There,  Blow Your House Down, Liza’s England

Brown, Larry – On Fire, Dirty Work

Chabon, Michael – Manhood for Amateurs, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Cross, Helen – Secrets She Keeps, Spilt Milk, Black Coffee

Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Raymond, Derek – He Died with His Eyes Open, Dead Man Upright

Whorton, James – Angela Sloan

 

I haven’t read a lot of Auster but I’m trying to persevere with his often dry prose and I have an inkling that I will like his nonfiction. Pat Barker, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine and these three early novels are the only ones I don’t yet own. I’m a bit ambivalent about Larry Brown but again I’m keen to read his nonfiction (On Fire) as well as his first novel. Chabon is another of my favourites and these are the only books of his I don’t own aside from his YA novel Summerland. Helen Cross is an author new to me. I very much enjoyed her My Summer of Love earlier this year. These are her other two novels. Murakami I mentioned above. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels are very grim and harrowing. This is the first and last in the series; I’ve previously read the middle three. And lastly, I’ve previously read James Whorton’s first two novels, so now for the third.

 

Finally, here’s the song that this blog is named after. Happy listening. Feel free to post your own reading lists in the comments, recommendations etc.

 

Listening to audiobooks: Oryx and Crake, Never Let Me Go and Fay

About a month ago I started a new job that involves a hell of a lot of driving, so I thought I’d invest in a cheap mp3 player and some audiobooks. Three novels that I’ve managed to get through so far are Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Larry Brown’s Fay. These novels were chosen mainly because they a) are among the 200+ titles I own in hard copy and haven’t read and b) an audiobook version was available. Normally I have a hard time getting through books that are longer than about 350 pages in length, but on the long drives I actually prefer having something meaty that will last me a while. Hence the next cab off the rank is going to be Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which I just was never going to get around to. Hell, I might even try Gravity’s Rainbow.  What follows are some miniature (read: half-hearted) reviews of all three.

I wanted to like this book, and in some ways, I did. It was a bit slow moving for a post-apocalyptic novel, but the three main characters, Snowman, Crake and Oryx are interesting and well realised. The setting is fairly interesting if a little ‘cookie-cutter’ and there’s a slight sense of Atwood reinventing the wheel, given that she doesn’t consider herself a speculative fiction writer (and yet this is comfortably something we’d call a speculative novel). The thing I really disliked was the utterly bleak vision, not of the future (although that’s pretty darn bleak – but not as bleak as The Road) but of human nature. Atwood seems to be saying that there’s absolutely no hope for any of us or for our civilisation. That may be so, but it it’s true, then why not kill yourself instead of producing a work of art such as this?

Ishiguro’s novel is another that transcends the boundary between genre and literary fiction. That’s all well and good, but I found the first two-thirds of this book very slow moving and basically without consequence. Ishiguro’s art is a subtle one, probably too subtle for my liking, and thus most of the book is basically a tedious description of boarding school life in England in the latter part of the twentieth century. Like Atwood’s novel, this one too centres around three main characters: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. I found that I disliked Ruth intensely as the novel progressed, and that I didn’t like the other two a whole lot more. Never Let Me Go finally does pay off both in terms of the mystery at the heart of the book and also, more importantly, in an emotional sense, but it leaves it pretty late to do so, and had I not been a captive audience in my car, I doubt I’d have finished it.

In the past few years I’ve come to love the genre of Southern Gothic, and thus I was expecting (and am still expecting) to enjoy the work of Larry Brown. Fay just isn’t that crash hot, unfortunately. It may be that it is one of the author’s final works and not really up to scratch. I’ve got Joe here so I’m prepared to give this author another chance. What’s the problem? Basically, Brown seems unable to select detail. He just dumps it in. Thus we have page upon page of mindless description of people getting out their cigarettes and lighters, going to their ice-boxes for beer, drink driving, fucking and general nasty behaviour of all kinds. Not that I dislike reading about this sort of thing. Hell no. Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes is about precisely these things and I adore it. But Fay is bloated, overly long, without any sense of a redeeming moral, and just plain depressing. Shucks.