Mark Doty’s Dog Years is just simply a very beautiful book. It’s beautifully written, beautifully molded. It’s an exciting book because Doty CAN write dogs in such a way that they are totally believable as the animals they are (which relies on close and loving observance), he also makes clear and meaningful human attachment to dogs (which takes introspection and careful autoethnography which doesn’t assume we all have the same kind of relationship with them). He has melded in this book a light touch on politics and cataclysm (he lived through 9/11 in New York and the death of a partner with Aids), relationships with humans and animals, his own career and commitments as a writing teacher and poet, and his homes and travels. Writing plus relationships (with humans, animals and place) plus politics and clear unapologetic sensibilities. The resulting work is seamless, which is so impressive. If I go back to the other books I’ve been reviewing (see Dogs x 3) they all slightly disappoint me because they come down heavily on one aspect of emphasis (fact, science, overly personal, journalism tone, idiosyncratic forgive-me-for-my-style, to be rough on books I have nevertheless liked) but Doty does exactly what I aspire to as a writer who crosses genres — gets the combination so right it’s dazzling but subtle.
Often authors who try to combine different genres of writing resort to fragmentary styles or interlaced chapters which do the one type of writing or concern and then the other and even though this distinction is clear to the reader as an interpretive method, it often feels clunky. Doty has chosen the interleaving method where each chapter is followed by an entr’acte (“between the acts”) in italic. But instead of signalling “here is real life” in non-italic, and here’s the instrospection on it in italic, we get a mixture of all kinds of sidebars which deal in a multitude of interesting details, thoughts and commentary. So as readers it doesn’t feel like we’re taking heavy treads through the book — right foot, left foot — so much as inhabiting a very interesting head — Doty’s — as he makes his way through a multifaceted story of many losses and many gains.
It’s a beautifully constructed book which treats a reader with respect and has an expectation that this reader brings intelligence and humanity to their reading. Now for his poetry…
I’m not enamoured of short stories, they often feel like a cop out: “I couldn’t manage to write a whole novel, so here I wrote 10 000 words instead”. But in the hands of a really good tight writer, wow! So I gotta rave about The Dog by Jack Livings and confess that the only reason I picked it up was because of the dog on the cover. But once you get reading you realise a smart new short story writer has come onto the scene. The Dog has been awarded the 2015 PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize for debut fiction and named Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement.
Although Livings lives in New York and works for Time Inc, the stories in The Dog are all about China — another one of its attractions for me. Continue reading →
Some of the best thinkers and writers I know failed to get their PhDs. One of them is Karen Armstrong whose story of that failure really needs to be read (in the second — or third — of her autobiographies The Spiral Staircase) and another is Ali Smith, whose story of walking away from a doctorate I don’t know quite so well, but am already convinced that like Armstrong it was pivotal to her prolific and idiosyncratic writing career.
I had never heard of Ali Smith until the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference decided to focus on South Africa in 2012 and invited, among others, Antjie Krog and Njabulo Ndebele to speak. Eyjafjallajökull was the precise reason I encountered Ms Smith. The volcano erupted, the South Africans were grounded, and video conferencing had to be resorted to. As a result I was on a site full of fantastic authors talking and eavesdropping from afar. The Ali Smith lecture on Style vs Content (see link below) was completely fantastic and hooked me immediately. Continue reading →
I took H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald off the shelf on a trip to Cape Town because the cover caught my eye. It was part of my setting aside a store of reading for the summer holidays, but later in bed I began to read and then had to stop myself because it’s a book so arresting, so unusual, that I knew if I didn’t stop myself I would rue not giving it the time it deserved by devouring it too quickly.
McDonald is an unusual person and an unusual writer. She’s an academic (at the time of writing in temporary employment at Cambridge) who has had a fascination for falconry and birds of prey since a child. This is not her only book about that ancient art (there is also ), but it was written when she was suffering from a severe case of mourning after the unexpected death of her father, and it binds together that surreal, spiralling state with a sudden desire to train a goshawk, a bird she was wholly unfamiliar with. Continue reading →