A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
501 Minutes to Christ: Personal Essays by Poe Ballantine
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Let's get down to it.
For the life of me I cannot get into the groove of Marlon James' Brief History of Seven Killings. I so want to be there, but the patois and the unfamiliar Jamaican history and the what seems like hundreds of characters... I just can't get on that train right now. (This was just picked as one of the ten best books of the year by Publishers Weekly, FYI. James is the coverboy, too.)
I finally finished Soil by Jamie Kornegay - a book I had read 80% of for the Indies Introduce panel & had to drift away from in order to finish the process. Gritty, funny, not-funny, and dark. Elevator pitch: guy tries to start an organic, self-sufficient farm off the grid in rural Mississippi, fails. Wife leaves him. He finds a dead guy in his flooded-out field. Decides to chop up & dispose of the body instead of calling the police. Descends into further madness & bad decisions. Inept sheriff's deputy is a misogynistic pig driving a souped up Mustang called The Boss. Bumbles into the case. Only not really. More like on the fringes of the case. Farmer thinks deputy is on to him. Lies, deception, paranoia, and chaos ensue. This is definitely a novel of obsession - it doesn't matter which of these guys is relating the events to you (they pretty much alternate chapters, with a few from Jay's wife Sandy thrown in) either Jay the crazy farmer/scientist or Danny the deplorable deputy - both are completely insane in their own way & it's good fun watching their storylines crash together on the delta.
I'm still dipping into and out of Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside. (Which I always want to call "The Sea Inside Me." But that sounds like a different movie.) Hoare has a great voice - memoir laced with both English societal history and the history of the land- and seascape themselves. This book feels like an antidote to everything else - a good buffer against dark places like Soil, for example.
I'm also nearing the end of Paul Bogard's The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. It's bothered me in recent years that I can't see the stars above my home. (The fact that this is something that you haven't thought about is at the crux of what this book is about, by the way.) We've gotten to a point in American cities where so much urban light bounces up off the clouds that we live under a perpetual orange twilight. Bogard tackles this issue - which may not feel like an Issue with a capital "I" but seems to be more important to our overall health, happiness, and well-being than we give it credit for. Does artificial light make us sick or even cause cancer? It at least disrupts our natural Circadian rhythms, which can't be good. Imagine what Florence, Italy would be like under pure starlight. Or how much better driving at night would be without all the excess diffuse light from streetlights illuminating every corner of every parking lot in America. Fascinating.
Sweetland by Michael Crummey - who wrote the wonderful Galore, which was a Catapult Notable book in 2011. Sweetland is set in a tiny town on a remote island off the Newfoundland coast whose residents have been offered a removal package worth $100k from the Canadian government. But the catch is that everyone in town must agree to relocation in order for anyone to collect. Moses Sweetland is the lone holdout. Just like in his previous book, Crummey is incredibly adept at transporting the reader - at least this particular reader - to the land of his creation. The walls of my home fade away and the North Atlantic winds howl across the landscape, whipping around the old lighthouse and the rocky outcroppings. Salty, irascible Moses has lived on this island for his entire life, his family were the original founders of the town, and he'll be damned if he's going to be forced to leave now. Eccentric, rugged characters, a starkly beautiful landscape, and some unpredictable narrative twists - good, beautiful stuff.
501 Minutes to Christ - I've written more than once about Poe Ballantine on this here website. About my love for Poe Ballantine. My kneeling at the altar of Poe Ballantine. This collection is more of the same - nearly a direct extension of Things I Like About America, which I read in Week One of this year. From that earlier post I wrote, "These essays are conversational, hilarious, moving, truthful, and beautifully constructed. How he's struggled to get published and noticed all these years is fucking beyond me." I'm sticking to that assessment for this one too. From the title essay:
Outside of a psychotic who attacked me a few months ago (I stuck his head into a snowbank until he promised to leave me alone) and a middle-aged fellow who drives around town shouting obscenities from a riding mower, there is not much happening here in Middlebury, Vermont.
The Book of Strange New Things - indeed. For whatever reason, Michel Faber's publishers decided that calling his new novel "science fiction" was a bad idea - but that's what it is, pretty much straight up. I've plowed through a good portion of this, but I'm not sure I can make it all the way. It's about a Christian missionary who was chosen by a mysterious corporation to leave his wife and planet behind to fly across the universe to establish a spiritual relationship with an alien race on their home world. It's very, very good, but I'm not particularly keen on Christian theology as the cornerstone of the fiction I read. (Once again, reading is a very personal pursuit when you get down to it.) There's obviously more to it than just that - and there's definitely more going on with the "Jesus loving" residents of this planet - but I'm having a hard time with the self-involved, God-enthusiast narrator. But maybe that's the point? I do want to see where the story takes me though - unless it's to church.