Category Archives: David Vann

Caribou Island – David Vann

You may remember that back in 2009 I read a wonderful debut work (I say work because it was a mix of short stories and a novella and yet some thought was a novel) by the author David Vann. When you read something quite as powerful, moving and shocking as Legend of a Suicide’ then, if you are like me, you can’t wait for the next novel by the author. Yet when ‘Caribou Island’ arrived as an advance proof copy I was worried, would I like his new book as much as the first or could it have suffered the dreaded ‘difficult second novel’ curse?

I was relieved when I finished ‘Caribou Island’ because it was a brilliant read, though I can’t quite say I enjoyed it as with its subject matter to say you enjoyed such a novel might make you sound a bit mad. We meet spouses Irene and Gary both in their mid-fifties and who seem separately rather unhappy and having slight mid-life crises. Irene’s way of coping seems to be the onset of a mysterious disease, doctors say there is nothing wrong and yet she is sure there is and often finds herself unable to get out of bed for the pain. Gary’s answer to his situation is action, though you sometimes wonder if it’s his way of trying to push his wife away, and to build a dream log cabin on the remote island near their home in Alaska. This is no easy task and with the atmospheric and tempestuous backdrop and Vann’s power with a sense of menace behind every page you know you are on a journey that might make for rather uncomfortable reading (not in a gory sense), though you have to read a long anyway.

I was worried with its opening paragraph of a hanging that ‘Caribou Island’ would be very like its predecessor and in some ways it actually is. There is the Alaskan backdrop, the ominous sense throughout, the stunning writing and the feeling at any moment the author could take you to another darker place. I did wonder if Vann had felt safest having the similarities around him moving from collection to novel or if he just hadn’t finished with the subject and its setting yet? Unlike ‘Legends of a Suicide’ when awful things happened (which of course I won’t give away, I wasn’t left shocked. I sort of figured what was coming early on whereas in one scene in ‘Legends’ I actually had to put the book down a while and get my head round it.

Yet ‘Caribou Island’ does beat ‘Legends’ on several points. Rather than a father son relationship, which is seriously lacking in this novel as Gary’s son Mark is rather distant from his family as a whole and would rather do ‘extreme fishing’ or get stoned than spend any time with them, we look instead at the relationships with couples. As well as Gary and Irene we have their daughter Rhoda and her dentist fiancé Jim who isn’t the initial nice guy we might want him to be, and you do want him two as Rhoda seems so nice. I did notice that in all the couples, bar Carl and Monique where with her femme fatale elements and his utter doormat behaviour buck the trend, that men seem to be depicted as utter swine’s whilst women come across more rounded, accommodating and rather dependable. I mean would you cook your fiancé dinner after he’s not spoken to you for two days or maybe help your husband shift logs across a lake in a storm for an isolated cabin you have no desire to live in?

 There is a lot to mull over with ‘Caribou Island’ and much to discuss, so it would make a brilliant book group choice.  David Vann’s writing is top notch, you can feel the atmosphere and sense of place in every page, and he excels in delivering that often hard to get combination of having wonderful description, characterisation and page turning qualities all in one book. Yet, as you might be able to guess and is the only slight flaw for the book, I found it so hard to write about it without comparing it to his previous work. The settings and themes are in some ways so similar. However regardless of that this is a really compelling book, that I know will stay with me and grow on me more and more, it’s certainly one that I would highly recommend you read. 8.5/10

I did wonder if Vann had felt safest having the similarities around him moving from collection to novel or if he just hadn’t finished with the subject and its setting yet? ‘Caribou Island’ has left me with two thoughts first I am hoping his next novel (which I will rush out to read) blows me away by how completely different it is and two that I don’t think I ever want to live near a lake in Alaska, who knows what could befall me?

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Filed under David Vann, Penguin Books, Review

Simon’s Bookish Bits #3

The first bookish bits of 2010 is a bit jam packed, I apologise though it will be worth it. There is a lot of help and recommendations needed today but as a thanks there is a chance of a winning some goodies (ooooh). One thing that there won’t be is any moaning reports on how difficult it is to not buy books as I am saving that for Monday I will be reporting back on that soon enough.

So first up was a bit of a request from one of your favourite non blogging people Granny Savidge Reads, or just Gran, who whilst on the phone the other day asked me if I could post something on the blog. She would love to hear some bookish thoughts from you all about ‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. Now the message was a bit garbled as she was in the middle of stripping the kitchen but I gather that this was a choice at one of the many book groups that she is a member of which got cancelled. So she is now feeling slightly annoyed she can’t discuss it and as I hadn’t read it I couldn’t discuss it with her. If you have reviewed it on your blog leave a link as well as your thoughts and I think Gran will pop by. If they are rave reviews who knows it might go on my wish list.

It seems Gran has been rather snowed in, hence the book group cancellation and so no Blue Flower chat, as I showed you in a picture I am now going to show you again as it links to my next enquiry.

Books based in the snow! Yes, it’s been snowing in the UK if you have somehow managed to miss it. I was listening to the Guardian Books Podcast (this weeks favourite Podcast) was all about snow, when it wasn’t about the Costa winners including the amazing Brooklyn which is Costa Novel of the Year – it must be overall book of the year. Sorry I digressed back to snowy books… Overall I wasn’t too sure of their recommendations;

  • The Snow Tourist – David English
  • Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  • The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
  • Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard – Sara Wheeler
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  • The Call of the Wild – Jack London
  • The Snowman – Raymond Briggs
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – Peter Hoeg
  • The People’s Act of Love – James Meek
  • The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

Though I had heard of some, and of course read The Snowman (though I am not after Christmassy tales) as a child, most I know little or nothing about and so wondered which snow filled books would you recommend to me, would any of the above be on the list? Mine would be ‘Child 44’ by Tom Rob Smith which has some murders in the snow or my most recent snow filled read, and one that I adored, ‘Legend of a Suicide’ by David Vann. Both I have realised are quite dark snow filled books.

Funnily enough this book ties in with a giveaway, the first two of three opportunities to win a copy this marvellous book from the very kind people of Penguin open to you internationally. If you pop a link or your thoughts on ‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald then you will be entered into one draw. Leave recommendations for snow filled reading then you will be entered into another draw for a copy. Do both and you double your chances, you have until the end of Tuesday… Good luck!

P.S I know you would have all joined in without prizes but I do love a good giveaway!

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Filed under David Vann, Dorothy Savidge, Give Away, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penguin Books, Simon's Bookish Bits, Tom Rob Smith

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

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Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

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I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

It seems strange to me that two of the best books I have read in 2009 have been within the last few weeks of it. I am also going to possibly sound like a stuck record when I tell you that my second book review this week is down to Kimbofo once again as she gave me a copy of David Vann’s ‘Legend of a Suicide’ at one of our Book Group meetings after I banged on about how much I wanted to read it on her blog. Though book gifts are always welcome there is then that awkwardness of making sure you read it asap (or in this case within three months of getting it) and then after that what happens if you don’t enjoy it? I wouldn’t know the latter this time luckily as Legend of a Suicide is marvellous, if again another difficult book to capture in words. What is it with these reviews this week, is the end of 2009 testing me?

Legend of a Suicide is less a novel and more a collection of five short stories and one novella sandwiched between them. All the stories here deal with the same subject of a father’s suicide, the effects it has on him and those around him leading up to the event and in the aftermath of it. This is a subject close to the author David Vann’s heart as his father killed himself when he was younger. Though not a work based on his own life the emotions and thoughts are very much in every page of the novel making it quite an affecting book as well as an unsettling one.

Even though each tale is quite different they are all based around Roy and his father or the effects his father has on him and others in varying ways. The first take Ichthyology looks at life through a younger Roy’s eyes as he watches his parents break up and has to deal with it by becoming interested in fish (fish is a theme throughout the book though I am not sure why). However its also an insight to his father and the life he has ended up with that this tale really brings home before the deed in the title is done. Rhoda, the second story, is about Roy’s father’s second wife and the relationship they all have giving you further insight into his life and mind. This tale actually made me laugh quite a lot and seemed darkly comical. The third instalment is also witty; A Legend of Good Men is all about all the men who his mother dates who come and go ‘like the circuses that passed through our town’.

Then comes the novella, we what I think is a novella, in the shape of Sukkwan Island. This tale is so well written and delivers such a punch half way through, I wont say anymore than I had to read the paragraph three times before I could believe what I had just read, that sadly the follow up tales Ketchikan (a tale of his fathers past as Roy revisits) and The Higher Blue (an idealisation of everything) fell a little flatter than they might have. However having said that you need all these isolated tales blanketing the middle novella for it all to work.

Sukkwan Island is just amazing writing, differing from the first person narrative of the rest of the book and written in third person, I don’t think I could put it any other way. It evolves around a year long excursion into the wild for father and son in the Alaskan wilderness. I can see why people have compared him to Cormac McCarthy though I would put this tell as a cross between McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ its remarkable, shocking and breathtaking all at once. I was horrified by it yet fascinated and mesmerised by it all at once. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t put it down.

It’s a remarkable book in so many ways, I think Vann has put all his emotions into it which therefore cannot help but pour out of the page and into the reader which is quite an experience and one that you don’t get too often. Will it make it into my Best of 2009 tomorrow? You will have to wait and see. The only reason that it might not is that I haven’t had long enough away from it to let it all settle (even the unsettling bits) with me yet, but you may very well see it in there. Who else has read this, who really wants to? I can fully recommend it.

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Filed under Books of 2009, David Vann, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books