Tag Archives: Canongate

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageEven if Ron Rash wasn’t one of my favourite writers I’d have picked this one out of a crowd: its jacket is a thing of beauty, enticing you to pick it up. Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. He’s also a poet, more evident in this new novel than in previous books I’ve read by him. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who finds himself faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion.

Les has a few weeks before he hands over his badge to his young colleague. He’s lived all his life in the mountains, most of them as a sheriff. He’s an accomplished watercolourist, written off as sissy by all but one of his schoolmates and bullied for it. C. J. had also been the butt of a good deal of abuse but seemed to shrug it off effortlessly, heading off to college, marrying and building a career for himself. Now he’s back, working for the local resort and intent on providing the future for his sons that his own parents failed to provide for him. When the river is poisoned with kerosene, killing the trout stock provided for the resort’s guests, the finger is pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land. Becky, the park ranger, with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Faced with what seems to be cast iron evidence, Les is inclined to accept Gerald’s guilt but his instinct tells him otherwise. Far from winding down, it seems that Les must solve a case which will tax his moral framework, reminding him of his past before he can take himself off to his mountain cabin.

The most striking element of Rash’s writing for me is his use of language which seems even more evident in this novel than his others. He punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Les, his tentative relationship with Becky is a ‘wary out-of-step dance’; ‘A man entering his coffin’ he thinks as the freshly meth-addicted Darby walks into his darkened house. In contrast Becky holds ‘sunspill like rain’ in the palm of her hand, sees a slug’s body as ‘a slimy slow lugging’ and admires ‘a black snake’s cast-off stocking’ caught in a tree. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. The Appalachians may be idyllically beautiful but they’re far from untouched by the challenges of modern life: Les and his crew regularly raid houses for the meth that’s decimating the population while Becky struggles with memories of the school massacre that tore apart her childhood, seeking healing in nature. Les’ long experience has taught him to see humanity in shades of grey rather than the black and white that his young successor perceives but Rash leaves us to draw our own conclusions, allowing space for redemption to step in. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why writers drink

Cover imageOlivia Laing’s book opens with a vivid anecdote about two men, both visiting lecturers at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One is a well-established author with many accolades under his belt, the other soon will be. Both of them are in deep trouble: they’re on their way to the liquor store – it’s nine o’clock in the morning and they’re already drunk. The writers are John Cheever and Raymond Carver, two of the six authors through whom Laing chooses to explore the relationship between alcohol and writing. The other four are Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. In her introduction Laing explains that it’s something about which she’s long been curious but that she also has a more personal interest – she grew up in family where alcohol was a problem.

Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, biographies and the writers’ work, Laing examines their problems with drink in forensic detail. She decides that the best way to make sense of her extensive research is to take a trip around the States, following in her subjects’ footsteps. She travels to New York, New Orleans and Key West, then to Port Angeles in the far North West and it is in the passages describing her journey that her own writing sings out. Some of her descriptions of the landscape she travels through are quite lovely, and her observations of fellow passengers are sometimes funny, always astute. She visits a therapist, goes to an AA meeting and delves through medical analyses of alcoholism, weaving her experiences into the lives of her subjects and quoting from their writing extensively. It’s an impressive piece of work written with empathy and insight but I have to confess that towards the end I found myself skipping through some chapters, particularly after reading about John Berryman whose struggles with drink are particularly bleak. The final chapter holds out some hope – Laing begins it by telling us that her mother’s partner, now friend rather than lover, has been sober for twenty-three years and that both Cheever and Carver won their battles, much-needed good news after the two suicides (Hemingway and Berryman), string of broken marriages, ill-health and breakdowns that have come before.

And the title? It’s a reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which one of the characters says ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring’, a nickname for the liquor cabinet named after a brand of bourbon. Laing interprets it as ‘the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.’ Well worth a read but not for the faint-hearted.

Why we need independent publishers

Quercus logoLast week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent  started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent

I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.

I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with theCorsair logo literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.

White Truffles in Winter and The Last Banquet: Two Lip Smacking Novels

Cover image Purely coincidentally, I’ve been reading N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter about the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier alongside Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, set in pre-Revolutionary France. Both are about Frenchmen with a passion for food who love and admire women, both have recipes scattered through them and both men are looking back over eventful lives at a crucial point in history. Kelby’s novel is an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life, his wife desperate to have a dish named after her before she dies, Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Not yet finished it but I’m enjoying it very much.

Escoffier and Jonathan Grimwood’s Jean-Marie d’Aumout would have had much to talk about. We Cover imagefirst meet the five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723: he is enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. Orphaned, he is rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential in his life, and in the world, then marries twice for love – once to a noblewoman he rescues from a wolf, once to a peasant – becomes Manager of the Menagerie for Louis XV, negotiates with Pasquale Pauli on the eve of the Corsican war for independence and is take prisoner, then retires to his chateau where he treats his workers well and pursues his scientific and culinary curiosty, always attended by Tigris, the blind tiger he has reared from a cub. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is. He is the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s encyclopedia, he is a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Having followed the trajectory of the Age of Reason the novel ends in 1790, the year after the Revolution began. Vibrantly original, filled with vividly descriptive passages and with a brilliantly playful cover, The Last Banquet rivals The President’s Hat as my best read of 2013 so far.

Given that the excellent Canongate are Jonathan Grimwood’s publishers it seems appropriate to wish them a happy fortieth birthday. Lots of celebrations planned throughout the rest of the year, apparently, and they’re on the look out for the next generation of storytellers working across all media, from books to film and games – find out more here. You have to be Scottish, though.


What’s in a genre? A reprise

Catching the train home after Philip French’s fascinating Fifty Years as a Film Critic talk on Cover imageSaturday we had ten minutes to spare at the station. I walked into W H Smiths and H gave a barely audible sigh. Now that I’m no longer a reviews editor I think he’d got it into his head that I might get the TBR pile under control.  Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay caught my eye immediately. How could I not know about a new novel from Mr Rash? The Cove was one of the best things I read last year. Along with Kent Haruf, Rash’s pared down, spare prose is right up my alley. I grabbed a copy along with M L Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, paid and headed for the train. Once ensconced, I took a closer look at the book and the penny dropped – it’s a collection of short stories. My turn to sigh this time. I know that there are many readers out there who think that the short story is a superior form to the novel and in terms of skill I can see their point but I struggle to work up the same kind of eager anticipation that I have for a favourite author’s novel. Perhaps it’s because I read too fast so that the stories tend to blur into one another, then I forget them. Or perhaps it’s because I like to be drawn into a narrative and dislike being dumped at the end of ten pages. Whatever it is, I realise it’s my loss, and I have read some excellent collections – Annie Proulx’s Close Range comes to mind as does Polly Sampson’s Perfect Lives. Anyway, the Rash is now on the TBR shelves.

The Forgotten WaltzYesterday I finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, no slouch herself when it comes to short stories. It’s about an affair between a young woman and an older man set in Dublin just before and after the 2008 crash.  The affair follows the usual trajectory – flirtation, passion, living together, disenchantment – which makes it sound like tens of other books you may have read before but Enright’s style is such that Gina Moynihan’s recollection of how she and Seán Valleley came together and apart engages absolutely. She catches the Dublin lilt perfectly so that Gina’s voice sings out. Even the chapter headings are slightly cheesy song titles giving the whole thing a nicely wry, self mocking tone. Wonderful stuff!