Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

My favourite books of the autumn – A selection of mini-reviews. Part 2

It was tough to decide on the final selection of books for my Autumn Favourites. I’ve been reading a lot of great fiction lately, including two excellent short story collections that almost made the list: The Shieling by David Constantine and The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, but since I didn’t love either of these quite as much as the short story collections in Part 1 of my Autumn Favourites, they didn’t make the final cut, interesting and thought-provoking though they are. (For Part 1: Too Many Magpies, An A-Z of Possible Worlds, Short Fiction 3 and The Guv’Nor, please click here.) The final two books are novels, and both of them heavy door-stoppers at that, weighing in at almost 500 and 700 pages respectively.

So without further ado, the final choices for my favourite books of the autumn are:

To Catch The Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming, by Alan Cheuse


Only two days before, at the westernmost reaches of the high plains, we had ridden with Grinnell to the top of a high bluff and witnessed the gathering of the Blackfeet, Piegan and Blood tribes, who had come together for the annual Sun Dance. Hundreds and hundreds of tepees stretched to the horizon, and the sound of thousands of horses rose erratically on the wind.

“My God,” Edward said. “An ocean of Indians!” And sitting atop his horse, he let the reins fall slack and held out his own arms as wide as he could, as if to hold the great gathering of people within his own embrace. “If there were someone, a chief, a god, anyone, to whom I could swear an oath, ” he said in a voice suffused with passion, “I would swear it. I will give my life to all of this!”

This historical ‘faction’ title has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I’m not sure what put me off reading it. Perhaps it was the muted sepia tones of the cover, but what I discovered when I began to read was a truly remarkable tale of adventure. The subject of the novel is the famous photographer, Edward Curtis (pictured left, and if you click on his self-portrait and scroll down you’ll see some of his photographs), who made it his life’s mission to document Native American tribes on film before, as he saw it, they were lost to the world forever. The novel is composed of multiple narrators and POVs, including Curtis’s amanuensis, William Myers, and a Native American warrior, Jimmy Fly-Wing, who each speak with clear and distinct voices of their role in the history being made. Interspersed with the novel are examples of Edward Curtis’s original photographs, now cherished in various collections including the Library of Congress.

One of my favourite scenes was between Edward Curtis and the legendary J. P. Morgan, whom Curtis eventually prevails upon to bankroll his grand project. The tensions between family and career are also vividly depicted. The price of Curtis following his own dreams is a steep one and the reader perceives both the genius and selfishness of a man totally committed to his vision, to the cost of his family and home life. Many people are better off for the work of Edward Curtis, but its maker is driven to disenchantment, despair and near bankruptcy. Curtis’s wife, Clara, takes solace in her children but as the years wear on she feels growing resentment:

The children always called her back, as Hal was doing now, poor, feverish, whimpering boy. Someday, when she had no one to care for, when the children were grown, she might consider walking from the house and never looking back…

This is the best example of the fact/fiction hybrid that I have come across this year and one of the most compelling and beautifully-worked adventure stories. At almost five hundred pages, To Catch The Lightning is not a quick read and it is a book that one wants to savour rather than race through. I knew I had read something truly exceptional when I felt a sense of loss on finishing the book. Gripping, educational and haunting, I can highly recommend To Catch The Lightning.

Self-portrait of Edward S. Curtis reproduced under a Creative Commons license.

Sourcebooks, ISBN: 13 9781402214042, hardback, 492 pages.

Joseph's BoxJoseph’s Box by Suhayl Saadi

She remembered some Indian saying, one of those convenient aphorisms one found in glossy books for the uncomfortably-off, that went something like this:

A woman can be submissive because she has so much to give; she is ever full.

Bull-fucking-shit, in any language. Empty or full, a woman is not a bloody vessel.

Reading Suhayl Saadi is quite an experience. When Two Ravens Press (who published my own first novel, Prince Rupert’s Teardrop) first announced that they were publishing a near-on 700 page paperback for £13.99, I thought they were very brave but possibly a bit mad. Would such a lengthy book sell? Well, it ought to because the story that Joseph’s Box tells is extraordinary.

Joseph’s Box begins with a woman, Zuleikha, fishing a small wooden box out of the River Clyde and from there the narrative cycles through love, loss, sex and adventure, and the action crosses the borders of Scotland, England, Sicily, Pakistan and Trans-Himalaya before coming again to the Clyde. It is an odyssey of a book and the reader journeys along with Zuleikha and her new love, the lute-playing, recently-bereaved Alex, as they open boxes within boxes and follow the strange clues therein.

Joseph’s Box is a luscious, breath-taking novel of massive scope and imagination. It is an erotic, exotic quest story. Boyd Tonkin of the Independent made remarks to the effect that Joseph’s Box might well have been a contender for this year’s Booker Prize had the judges been a tad more adventurous. Joseph’s Box is literary fiction, but it is also fast-paced, plotty, full of twists and turns and puzzles to be deciphered. The exuberant prose style might be OTT for some tastes, but I was overjoyed to see a contemporary writer taking risks by tackling language with a playfulness and inventiveness that seems uncommon in fiction at the moment.

An extract from the blurb:

Drawing on a wide framework of cultural and spiritual reference, uniquely blending contemporary Western literature with Arabo-Persian storytelling, this is an extraordinary and ambitious novel with a visceral sensuality and subtle touches of magical realism, in the vein of Okri, Murakami and Pamuk.

The magical realism, which is open to interpretation (narcotics use is frequent in this story) is beautifully done and adds to the strange, dream-like quality of the prose. As much as it pains me to say it (!) Joseph’s Box is quite possibly the most brilliant novel that Two Ravens Press have ever published. I just hope readers will look past its potentially off-putting vastness and discover its genius.

Two Ravens Press, ISBN-13: 978-1906120443, 670 pages, £13.99, paperback.

Lisa is currently being kicked from within and can think of nothing interesting to say about herself, so will make do with directing you to her swanky website, here.

5 comments on “My favourite books of the autumn – A selection of mini-reviews. Part 2

  1. Jovenus
    December 10, 2009

    Brilliant review. Made me want to go out and buy “Joseph’s box”. You may have just help justified why it’s worth £13.99!

  2. Tom Vowler
    December 10, 2009

    Great stuff, Lisa. You’ve sold ‘Joseph’s Box’ to me utterly.

  3. Kirsty (Other Stories)
    December 10, 2009

    I bought Joseph’s Box while I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year. The lady at the till completely raved about it to me. I really must get around to reading it – thanks for the reminder!

  4. Lisa
    December 10, 2009

    Thanks for the comments. I can see why the lady at the till was raving about Joseph’s Box, Kirsty. It really is a brilliant novel. Jovenus & Tom – hope you enjoy if you do buy it. You certainly get your money’s worth! 🙂

  5. Jackie
    December 11, 2009

    Did you notice how both books were about Indians, though different types?
    I’ve never heard of Edward Curtis & wonder why his work isn’t better known. I’m glad he was able to document so many people & cultures before they were wiped out. Though it’s depressing to think of. The cover is very rich tones, even though it’s old-fashioned. This is one I’d like to read at some point.
    The other looks intriguing too, I like the idea of the story circling around location-wise. I’m a bit hesitant because of the OTT style you mentioned, but I could give it a try.
    Thanks for this autumn banquet of books!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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