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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

One of my favourite bookseller tasks is recommending books. It’s so cool to enthusiastically share thoughts on ace reads. Of course often people aren’t looking for something that chimes with my tastes, but that’s ok too. I pride myself on being able to match folk with the right books. The thing I find the hardest is when someone asks for a funny read. Humour is subjective and I am often unamused by things people appear to find hilarious. Most of the novels I read are not exactly happy and a request for a light, enjoyable read can stump me when it comes to thinking of something I have genuinely enjoyed. My oft favoured approach is, “This is very popular and is meant to be funny.”

“Dear Committee Members” actually had me laughing out loud, although, somewhat typically of things I admire, there is a darkness too. It’s an epistolary novel (which I’m not that fond of usually) composed entirely of letters of recommendation written by Jason Fitger, a jaded professor of creative writing at a small college in midwest America. His own novels have not brought him the success he once seemed likely to have, his marriage has failed, and he is languishing at the bottom of the college hierarchy. Nonetheless, colleagues and students endlessly request letters of recommendation from him and he turns these into a truly hilarious and bitter art-form.

“My colleague Franklin Kentrell has asked me to recommend him for a Galloway Foundation research and Travel Award. I would have quickly refused with a clear conscience except that Kentrell penned a Galloway recommendation for me a dozen years ago (I did not receive the award), and in his oily, sidewinding way, he trapped me in the corridor this morning, clutched the lapel of my jacket with his untrimmed nails, and suggested that “tit for tat was only fair.”

Kentrell will never survive round #1 in your deliberations; therefore, secure in the knowledge that this letter will soon join thousands of its brethren in a  rolling bin destined for recycling— presumably before it is read—I am comfortable endorsing this application.”

His attempts to help his favourite student, a troubled and broke young man, and repair relations with his exes, add poignancy to the fun, and what at first seems a light read becomes something rather more.

(Thanks to Scott Pack for sending me a copy of this.)

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s short fiction has appeared in many of the literary journals I’ve read over the last eight years or so. She’s editor of the mighty PANK. She writes a wonderful blog. Her non-fiction has appeared in many esteemed publications. She basically rules Twitter with her always interesting observations. She has a very clear, authoritative voice and I have long had a complete writer crush on her. Her collection of essays “Bad Feminist” has just been published in the UK. It’s currently number 13 in the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Roxane Gay is really successful now which is amazing and fabulous and so bloody well deserved. 

A collection of her stories – “Ayiti” – was published in 2011 which I reviewed here. Interestingly the passage I quoted from “Things I Know About Fairytales” features in her debut novel “An Untamed State” which continues exploring the chasm in Haiti between the rich and poor and contrasts it with life in the US. 

Mireille Duval James is a young woman from Haiti who lives in America. She is smart and feisty, an attorney married to an American man, Michael. They have a baby son, Christophe. Returning to Port-au-Prince to visit her wealthy, successful parents, Mireille, Michael and Christophe set off for the beach when their car is surrounded by a group of violent criminals who abduct Mireille, demanding a huge ransom. Her father, Sebastien, refuses to pay, believing that negotiating with the kidnappers can only endanger other members of his family.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

     They held me captive for thirteen days.

     They wanted to break me.

     It was not personal.

     I was not broken.

     This is what I tell myself.

    

What follows is a difficult read. Gay’s powerful prose explores the brutality and violence that is inflicted upon Mireille day after day. I flinched from the words. This is not a book I could look forward to reading. It’s a depiction of a woman being abused in every way imaginable. The first part weaves stories from Mireille and Michael’s relationship with time from her imprisonment. It’s necessary to have the relief the memories of their courtship offer. The second part deals with the aftermath. How does a woman survive such atrocities? Tortured, gang raped, imprisoned, how can Mieille possibly move forwards? 

It’s a novel about family: Mireille’s parents and the compromises her mother makes, her father, her sister, Michael’s parents, their son, Christophe. It’s also about personal endurance, self-preservation, the political implications of poverty, violence, domination, hope and courage.  It’s an impossibly dark read. And very powerful.

When I finished reading I googled to find out more about Port-au-Prince and kidnapping. The UK government issues a warning that they will not negotiate with kidnappers believing, as Mireille’s father does, that it only increases the likelihood of more kidnaps. The BBC warn “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.” 

Horrifying.

 

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

“All My Puny Sorrows” (what an excellent title!) by Miriam Toews is an extraordinary book about two sisters (Elfrieda and Yoli) and their Mennonite family. It’s Yoli’s first person account of how Elf attempts suicide and begs for Yoli’s help to die. What makes it so special is how Toews takes this devastating material and manages to make it consistently witty, genuinely funny, and real. Her own sister committed suicide, as did their father. It’s as if Toews is reporting directly from the frontline of grief. She’s such a talented writer that she’s somehow managed to form this tragic raw material into an incredible novel.

It is full of so many great lines that I highlighted huge chunks of the book. From incidental throwaways such as this:

“I hope she doesn’t have an eating disorder. I’ve read that eating disorders are often the fault of overbearing mothers, but I’m so underbearing it’s not even funny. Maybe she’s imagined an overbearing mother to compensate for my lack of bearing and it’s this imaginary pushy mother that’s caused her to have an eating disorder. She doesn’t have an eating disorder, not really. I shouldn’t try to blame something that doesn’t even exist on an imagined imaginary mother.”

To criticisms of the medical staff on the psychiatric ward for their lack of attention to Elf as she refused to obey their directions:

“Nurses in cardio are far more playful and friendly than they are in psych.
If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.”

Yoli always feels spot on. I imagine she’d be the best wise-cracking stoic friend a gal could have. How she and her mother endure is wonderfully life-affirming. 


This is my book of the year. Yeah, already. I honestly doubt anything else can make me feel this way. From the perfect title, the perfect cover, to the perfect prose it’s all astonishingly good.

Read it! Read it! Read it!

 

 

Smash Lits with Lee Rourke

1. What would your superhero power be?

Invisibility – I’d ruin David Cameron’s life with it.

2. You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

No pattern. A dark hue.

3. What is your default pub drink?

Beer/red wine winter. Cider/larger/rose summer. Beer if I had one choice all year round.

4. Who would play Jon Michaels in the film of Vulgar Things?

I dunno. Don’t much like actors.

5. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

IMG_4947

Tofu. See below.

6. Have you ever had a nickname?

The rather unoriginal ‘Bacon’ at school (Rourke rhymes with Pork). And a few others.

7. Do flowers scream when you pick them?

No, they howl.

8. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Henry*. Was he called Henry? He had curly hair.

9. Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. The noble Bee.

10. Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No. I was jealous of people who said they did. Still am.

11. What did you do last Saturday night?

I was drinking good wine in France.

12. You hold a dinner party and can only invite writers. Who do you invite?

Writers are boring. It would be boring. I’d cancel.

13. What is your favourite sea?

The Thames Estuary.

14. What is your favourite swear?

Oh, all the Germanic ones.

15. Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Unrequited love’s a bore.

16. What colour is Tuesday?

Black. Like every other day of the week.

17. What makes the wind blow?

Fuck knows!

18. Do you have any recurring dreams?

No. Maybe. Dunno.

19. Will there still be books in the year 3,000?

No, don’t be silly.

20. What question should I have asked you?

My favourite colour. You forgot to ask me my favourite colour!

* He wasn’t really my favourite, just the only one I can remember apart from Kylie and Jason and Toadfish – all of whom I disliked.

Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke

After losing his job, and getting drunk, Jon Michaels finds out that his Uncle Rey has died and is persuaded to travel to Canvey and sort through Rey’s personal effects. Jon stays in his uncle’s caravan and discovers recordings, a telescope, letters – things that fracture everything he’d assumed about his life.

Vulgar Things is an odyssey firmly rooted in and around Southend. Rourke’s landscape is not the familiarly romanticised sea, but rather the bleak beauty of grey waves and scrubland. I’m from Essex myself and my parents now live on the Garrison in Shoeburyness (which gets a brief mention) – Southend is a place I know well and it was refreshing to read a novel set there. It made me realise how unheard that voice is and how far away from the TOWIE stereotype much of Essex actually is. The real Southend can be pretty brutal, incredibly sweary, seedy, grubby, violent – drunks and sex workers mingle with day trippers, old folk, families and school kids. Rourke captures this well as Jon walks back and forth from Canvey to Southend, the repetition of the journey, the landmarks he passes, building into the readers consciousness so we feel we’re walking alongside him.  Alcohol is central to the novel, as is the crackle of violence. Jon’s obsession with a woman he briefly meets is part of a deeper story – his character seemingly doomed to repeat a narrative originally played out by his uncle. The woman is wanted not for who she is but for who he imagines her to be. Even the wide Canvey sky bright with stars and planets transforms from reassuring to dizzying, disconcerting, worrying.

The whole novel has a claustrophobic feel despite the sea and skyscapes. The contained life Uncle Rey led in his tiny caravan bleeds into the present day. Jon visits the local pub “The Lobster Smack”, goes on walks with his trusty stick, obsesses over Laura, watches tapes of his Uncle reading from his novel, recorded in the same caravan, over and over. It feels airless and yet the story itself is compelling and I read on, eagerly trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together.

It’s deeply frustrating to feel my mind battle its own limitations. I knew there were layers to the story that I was missing, intentions that went whoosh over my head. Anyway, there’s a brilliantly illuminating interview over at The Quietus that anyone who is interested should go and read. Smarter folk than me etcetera. (Ah, right, Petrarch & Laura!)

Do come back tomorrow if you are interested in knowing what superhero power Lee Rourke would have and what colour he thinks Tuesdays are (Always asking the tough questions). #SmashLits

 

 

Smash Lits with Tom Vowler

1 How do you organise your book shelves?

Utterly chaotically, anything anywhere, though I have one of those memories that means I know where each one is.

2 What is your favourite cheese?

Peels of parmesan, preferably with a glass of red.

3 You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Something dour, peeling a little.

4 What was your favourite book as a child?

James and the Giant Peach, though curiously I hated fruit.

5 What is your default pub drink?

Pint of real ale, hoppy and golden.

6 What was the last text you sent?

‘About half eight?’

7 Who would play Stephen Briggs in the film of your book?

Shaun Evans – he of the young Morse.

(Ooh, he’d be perfect for the role. Good pick!)

8 Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

IMG_4947

Bacon. You can’t trust words that end in ‘u’.

9 Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

No, but I wish some would.

10 Have you ever written an angry letter to a magazine or “news” paper?

If only there was time.

11 Have you ever woken up laughing?

Only when I sleep naked.

12 Have you ever had your fortune told?

A man in a pub did once say, ‘You’re heading for a beating’.

13 How much money did you spend yesterday?

About £9.

14 Where do you go in your dreams?

The Cornish coast if I’m lucky.

15 What’s your most vivid childhood memory?

The family cat escaping from the car in a strange town.

16 Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Is Charlene still in it?

17 What’s your favourite bird?

Are you referring to my peregrine obsession here?

Originally I was going to ask if you could draw a peregrine…

18 Have you ever seen a ghost?

As an ardent sceptic, I hope not.

19 Who is your writer crush?

Sarah Hall. Her words do something wonderful to me.

20 What question should I have asked you?

That one.

 

Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010, and his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD looking at the role of the editor in fiction. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel. More at www.tomvowler.co.uk

That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

Vowler has a keen eye for nature and roots us in a landscape whose bleakness matches the dark heart of the story. Stephen narrates the opening and closing of this novel, the middle two parts voiced by his mother and father, and through them we explore a devastating crime. Stephen has returned “home” twenty years on to visit with his ill mother. Driving through the village, drinking in the local pub, walking by the river, he is surrounded by people and memories from the past. His stay forces him to confront what happened and the impact it has had on not only his life, but the lives of all who were there. The dreadful crime at the heart of the story is kept from the reader until the end, unfolding gradually in the telling. I found the mother’s voice the most interesting and wished she could have been allowed more light in a life which seemed impossibly harsh.
This exploration of post traumatic stress woven into a compelling story is a real tragedy.

 

vowler

 

Stay tuned for Tom Vowler’s Smash Lits.

 

 

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