Saturday, March 03, 2012

Books on my bedside table this week

Here are the books I'm thinking about this week (although I'm not actually reading them all). Salt kindly sent me Pictures from Hopper by my fellow Salt author Neil Campbell, his new collection of short stories. The blurb explains that 'it draws upon the work of the American painter Edward Hopper ... bringing to life a mythical America' and conjuring up characters aching with need in locations as diverse as New York and the Isle of Arran.

I haven't had time to read the new book yet, but at a glance it looks excellent, if anything a development from his great debut Broken Doll. Some of the sentences I've encountered at a quick flick through have stayed with me all week: there's a lyrical style that's yet plain and down-to-earth too, with echoes of Carver, yet all Neil's own too. Take this opening sentence: 'In the touching fall of sunlight the barn on the hillside was given a sybaritic mark that stuck on the souls of the boys.' Doesn't that just make your heart go woozy?  It does mine. Neil's stories are always gritty in sentiment - but again, in a paradoxical way that deeply touches the emotions. It's all in the language, of course, and indications are that these stories are those of a language and story-telling master.

I am actually reading Generation X by Douglas Coupland, since next Wednesday it's the book up for discussion in the book group. I've never read it before, and I don't know why, since we've had the book in the house for years, and isn't it one of those books you really need to have read? Our copy is the early edition we bought when Coupland came to read at Manchester Waterstone's Deansgate. Its pages are laid out with the drawings and definitions of contemporary phrases positioned down the side of the text at strategic points in the story, rather than as footnotes ('CONSENSUS TERRORISM: The process that decides in-office attitudes and behaviour'). It's a lovely thing, a piece of art - which is not at all surprising, of course, since Coupland is also an artist. But what's really capturing me is, once again, the language and the insights - here's a character's description of Toronto: 'a city that when I once visited gave the efficient, ordered feel of the Yellow Pages sprung to life in three dimensions'. And the humanity: the relationships between his three thirtyish characters, friends dropping out to try and find a deeper meaning in life, are touching.

Dynamic prose is a characteristic of all three of the books above. If any writer has a distinctive narrative voice, Vanessa Gebbie - whom I first met when her lively debut story collection Words from a Glass Bubble was published by Salt  - most certainly does. Her first novel The Coward's Tale came from Bloomsbury in November, and I bought my copy above at her launch - a lovely hardback with silver blocking and a woodcut-style illustration which beautifully echoes the tough and demotic yet lyrical prose style and the mosaic Canterbury-Tales character of the story of a Welsh mining town still suffering the bruising legacy of a disaster in the past, the collapse of the ironically named Kindly Light pit. (Naturally, because of the Welsh setting, I bought a copy for my mum, too.) Vanessa also has a highly original and quirky imagination, and the characters' stories - which turn out to be cleverly linked - lift them into a vivid hyper-reality. This month the paperback edition comes out - with a different cover - and I'm delighted that in early April Vanessa will make a stop at this blog on a tour to mark the new publication, so I've been thinking about the book again in readiness for her visit.

Three very different worlds: the poignant psychic and geographical spaces of Neil Campbell's loners and misfits, the bright and brittle irony of Coupland's thirty-somethings in their sun-baked, contemporary-littered California, and the vivid, tactile yet mythic world of Vanessa Gebbie's Welsh Valleys town. Isn't it amazing what books can give you?

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