Knockemstiff

Donald Ray Pollock

First Sentence:    Nettie Russell died in the spring, and left her grandson, Todd, an old Ford Fairline and a Maxwell House coffee jar with two thousand dollars in it, a fair sum of money in 1973.

This is a collection of short stories all set in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio. It is filled with characters almost too depraved to live in Bohane and yet, somehow, scarily, even more believable. It is from Donald Ray Pollock, a writer I don’t know much about but whose novel  The Devil All The Time is due to be published this month by Harvill Secker. After living with these stories for a few weeks now I’m definitely looking forward to this novel and I’ll be hunting it down when it’s published. These stories are best enjoyed individually and I certainly don’t recommend reading them back to back as it just might just get a little bit too much after a while.  Characters, themes and places often pop up in several different stories making this a complete world you can visit every now and then but not the type of place I recommend you spend a lot of time in. Unless you have an appetite for all the bad things you associate with small town America. This is like the movie Deliverance only harsher and more believable. The writing is excellent throughout, as are the stories and characters and at times they reminded me of darker Willy Vlautin creations. The story getting the ‘first sentence last sentence’ treatment is Schott’s Bridge and it tells the tale of Todd who falls in with the wrong crowd after the death of his grandmother. This is a fine collection of stories with a fully realised world, and Pollock is a writer I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future.

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Running

Jean Echenoz

First Sentence:   The Germans have entered Moravia.

I read this book, small as it is, in a day or two. Like Ravel before it, it seemed to get a lot of positive press coverage so I thought I’d give it a try, (even though Ravel never fully convinced me of its greatness in the first place.) I needn’t have bothered. This is very similar to Ravel; same translator ( Linda Coverdale ), similar size, and similar subject matter; a fictionalised account of a real person. This time it’s Czech runner Emile Zatopek. Granted, it seems like he is a fascinating man, but that does not a good novel make. This may well be a portrait of one man and his art, but in my opinion it just does not engage me as a reader. On any level. Regardless of whether Echenoz is a ‘master prose stylist’ or not, this book along with Ravel, have shown me enough to know I won’t be tempted the next time I read a glowing review of Echenoz’s work. Unless of course I change my mind in the future. Which I quite possibly will. For now though, I’ll pass…

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Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

First Sentence: The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?

Before deciding to read this book it’s good to know that it is part of a trilogy and parts two and three of The Ibis Trilogy, as it is known, have yet to be published. What I’m saying is if you’re the type of person who needs closure in a story maybe you should wait a few years and read them all together, because on its own this book offers little in the way of closure. It is, however, incredibly engrossing. The Ibis is the ship Deeti has the vision of at the beginning of the book and eventually she will go on board this ship (after being rescued from her opium-addicted husband’s funeral pyre by the low-caste Kalua, who will accompany her on her journey). Also joining her on this voyage in the ‘Black Water’ will be; Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French Botanist; Neel, a bankrupt raja who loses his family and everything he owns; Jodu, the son of Paulette’s wet-nurse, and many others. And that’s not even mentioning Serang Ali (leader of the deck hands [or laskars as they are known]), Ah Fatt (dishevelled Chinese opium addict), Zachary Reid (Mulatto son of a Maryland freedwoman) or any of the others already on the Ibis.  Set against the backdrop of the opium wars, opium  itself is practically seeping through every page of this epic. There is one scene which sums it up beautifully, as Deeti ponders an opium seed:

She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.

She then puts the seed in her mouth and says to Kalua:

Here[…], taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.

Opium has, in one way or another, led them all to this place, and when all these characters are thrust together on the same ship we just know a special tale is about to unfold. Their previous lives are insignificant now that the Ibis is their home:

[…]all the old ties were immaterial now that the sea had washed away their past[…]

Yet again Deeti sums it up best when she finally lays eyes on the ship and realises:

[…] her new self, her new life, had been gestating all this while in the belly of this creature, this vessel was the Mother-Father of her new family[…] an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come.

This is the beginning of something epic…

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