Probably the only pleasure of being Really Properly Ill over Christmas was that it gave me time to catch up with my reading. And lots of new books found me thanks to my sister arriving from the States with a suitcase full that I had asked her to pick up for me.
First was Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy, which is a collection of new and old stories spanning twenty years of his career. It includes the wonderful 'Toughest Indian in the World' and 'The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven' both standout stories from his first two collections as well as many pieces that were new to me like the sublime 'Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?' and the funny/tragic 'Indian Country'. These are mostly realist stories of the hardscrabble lives of Native Americans and the inevitable crisis that such an identity presents in modern America. Set mostly in Spokane reservations and Seattle (where Alexie lives) there is a similarity to some of the pieces but the sharp observations about motivation and the portrait of a culture and individuals in crisis is always moving and sharply insightful.
Also in my sisters’ suitcase was The Best of American Non-Required Reading 2012. These annual anthologies are collected from the best material to have been published in 2011/12 across a broad range of print publications and websites, both fiction and non-fiction. And this edition contains an introduction by Ray Bradbury written just before he died. The brainchild of Dave Eggers and edited by a committee of high schoolers and writers who participate in the 826 writing programmes in San Francisco and nationally, these anthologies have become something of an annual treat for me. In this edition the standout pieces were stories by Julie Otsuka and Louise Erdrich, and pieces from Jon Ronson, John Jeremiah Sullivan and George Saunders, but it’s all interesting and even includes two graphic short stories by Nora Krug and Adrian Tomine. The writing is fresh and new and of the highest quality. The whole project begs the question of why we don’t produce something similar in the UK and what it might look like if we did.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers It’s hard to know what to say about this book without heaping further superlatives on the quality of the writing and it's really not surprising that it won the Guardian First Book Award. This is the first really powerful piece of work to emerge from the Iraq war (if there are others worth reading please let me know). Powers did two tours of duty in Iraq in 2004/5 and this short novel is the outcome of that. This is the story of young men pressed up against the surreal ‘theatre’ of war. It gets close, in a physical and lyrical way, to the experience of combat – trippy almost – in a poetic language that is familiar from the Vietnam writings of Tim O’Brien or Tobias Wolff – but this is the story rewritten for our times – the context is the Middle East the characters of this generation. Perhaps war will always produce good writing in that the stakes are so elevated that all (all!) the writing has to do is tell the truth to have some impact, but I came away from this with a visceral, hallucinatory sense of the futility of a war that was supposedly regulated and targeted – as if the chaos of combat can ever be regulatetd or contained – as well as the sheer physical toil of the battlefield. And then there is the discomfort of the reader, of looking at what has been done in our name. This would certainly have made it into my top 10 of last year had I read it in time.