Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

traindreamsThe next time you walk into a bookstore, it’s worth remembering that unseen battles have raged over the shelf-space in front of you. Winning the prime, eye-level locations and avoiding the dustier corners requires strategy, charm, the offer of a good lunch and perhaps even hard cash.

The stores themselves, of course, want you believing that here is either what you want, or should want, and so going into London’s largest bookstore last week, I decided to be led. With time-plus-cash in hand, and my cynicism tucked away, I roamed only within a restricted locus near the main entrance. And it was here that I picked up Train Dreams, by Dennis Johnson (Granta, 128). The first thing to remark upon, is size: it’s eye-catchingly small. Continue reading

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

battlebornClaire Vaye Watkins writes as if she scratches her stories from the grit and mining detritus of the Nevada desert she grew up in, then transforms the elemental by gathering language as rich and as natural as the sand or minerals found there like an alchemist. The work is as layered as the often brutal human history of the region, a history she both draws upon and to which she will surely add her own narrative. And like the harsh landscapes and histories that everywhere informs these brilliant stories, when you peer long enough, closely enough, at what seems an empty, heartless place, you not only see its unforgiving beauty within the parched hills and among the tailings castaway after decades of exploitation, you also find glitter among the hardscape, the glint of silver and gold. Like the characters in her story collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 283 pages), the truths Watkins unearths require strong stomachs and strong wills to digest but reward the reader with sparkling prose, hard but achingly accurate portraits of unforgettable characters, and gemstones of hope among the chaos of despair and interior pain. Continue reading

Alien Autopsy: Stories by Pedro Ponce

Pedro Ponce offers eighteen very short stories in this slender volume (Cow Heavy Books, 55 pages). Within the brief space Ponce delegates for himself not much can happen, but these vignettes do manage to develop vigorous fabula-like themes. In each short piece, a subject is opened, then skillfully closed. Continue reading

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss’s astonishing novel The History of Love (W. W. Norton & Company 252 pages), about a manuscript that survives the Holocaust, a flood, broken friendships, a plagiarist, misunderstanding, and obscurity has all the heart and intelligence of the best fiction being published today. Elderly Leo Gursky is afraid of dying unnoticed, and he plans his days so that people will see him and remember him. Among other schemes, he makes a scene in Starbucks and poses nude for a drawing class. Leo wasn’t always this lonely. Decades before, in a small town that was then part of Poland, he fell in love with a girl named Alma. He wrote a book Continue reading