Reading Blogblurt Part 4: Abby Geni’s The Last Animal

Source of book: recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (this time I paid RRP)
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I pay close attention to Amazon, but I must admit I don’t think I’ve bought from Amazon. I realise this is the opposite of some people, who are terrestrial browsers and then online purchasers. But I pay close attention to Amazon because my living comes from books and I’m not in a position to ignore the biggest retailer in the world.

But I buy books relatively rarely – I’m fortunate to acquire books quite often without opening my wallet – and I enjoy the process of buying them, which features old-school browsing among physical books in physical book shops and sometimes conversation.

This, by the way, is not about to segue into an anti-ebook rant. At least some of you were starting to dread that the first homage to old-book smell was imminent, right? I am pro ebook. As a writer and reader, why would I not be in favour of technology that makes stories widely and easily available and often at a great price? I have no vessel bias when it comes to how stories arrive in the lives of readers. My own work is available as ebooks, and I am determined to do what I can to build on my toehold in that market, but that’s a story for another day. Or several other days. Oh, the book industry …

[valet passes smelling salts under nose, typing resumes …]

The web is a great source of info about books, but not designed for the kind of browsing I think of when I think of browsing. ‘People who bought this also bought that’ is no help, if they were also buying for grannie, or their two-year-old, or their dad who just can’t read enough about the siege of Stalingrad.

So, I like to visit bookshops, find my way to the shelves that feel most like my spiritual home, and pull a few books out and take a look at them my way, on my terms. Sometimes I’m looking for particular people, sometimes not. On 29 December, I wasn’t.

I’ll triage based on the obvious, such as covers, blurb and blurb quotes, though I’ve had a few books published, and am well versed in the art of selective review quoting on covers. I’m looking at what the commenter has chosen to talk about, rather than how hyperbolic they’ve been. Then I’ll read the first page. If that works for me, I’ll read more, here and there.

If there’s a bookseller in the shop who knows me and knows my tastes, I’ll ask for some tips. I specifically wanted short stories on 29 Dec, and to buy two books for the following week’s holiday reading. I put that to Fiona Stager and she showed me six or so to choose from.

This is why no one comes to me for tips on ‘holiday reading’. I’ve never had the inclination to lighten up my reading for holidays. If I’m reading, I’m reading, and I want it to be great. My kind of great. Watch me while I squeeze myself into quite a narrow niche here. What I love to read most is contemporary short/shortish fiction in the North American style. My book club therefore has one member, and it’s me going, ‘Wow, how great was that? How does that work?’ whenever something smart happens. And then, like every other book club, we eat pizza, drink a couple of glasses of wine and share salacious gossip.

Not that I’m requiring the books to be written by North Americans, but my reading of newly discovered fiction can sometimes be a little skewed towards thirty-year-old Iowa MFA grads with college teaching jobs and no more than two books behind them. I can immediately think of three Australians whose prose style fits my brief though – Tara June Winch, Krissy Kneen and Nam Le (with only one Iowa MFA among them, as far as I’m aware). I am quietly in awe of the sentences these writers manage to put together. They do precisely the things I’ve been talking of for the past couple of days, and that I tried my utmost to do with 2012’s Welcome to Normal.

I said there’d be more on that subject, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Yes, my love of the short stuff had been reawakened a few years ago, and I suddenly had a passion and a feel for it again. In 1999, I’d published Headgames, my second short story collection. Across its eighteen pieces, there was room for comedy, awkwardness, weirdness and maybe poignancy. It was generously received, and I’ve always appreciated that.

It sold 35,898 copies in Australia and New Zealand as a collection, before being sliced and diced and reissued in a variety of ebook ways more recently. It’s my only book sales figure I know for sure, and I know it because my agent added it up to give my publisher so that she could take it into the acquisitions meeting as ammo. A case needed to me made for them to sign up Welcome to Normal.

For one reason or another, they acquiesced, I got to write my collection of stories and novellas, I gave it everything I could, I thought I turned out some of the best writing of my life and the wary people at the acquisitions meeting turned out to be right. Sales were a small fraction of those of Headgames. Don’t ask me how small. Every six months, I shove the statements into the filing cabinet without looking at them and pretend the mail is yet to arrive for the day.

If I knew none of my own books, Welcome to Normal is the one I’d be most likely to read. So, I value every tweet/post/email/review/quote from anyone who got it and told me why it was great for them. And, by the way, brace yourselves for a shift in another direction, and the biggest comedy I’ve written in more than a decade, due out in July, in which I aim to take what I did with 20-something in Zigzag Street/Bachelor Kisses and 30-something in Perfect Skin and do it with 40-something in Analogue Men. Random House let me write a book for me and my niche buddies, so now I owe them something with a few prospects. Fortunately, it’s also a book I wanted to write.

‘But what of Abby Geni’s The Last Animal?’ I hear you ask, now that I’ve thrown the third bucket of cold water over you to rouse you from your me-induced stupor. Fair enough.

Here’s the blurb: ‘The Last Animal by Abby Geni is that rare literary find — a remarkable series of stories unified around one theme: people who use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss, and family life. These are vibrant, weighty stories that herald the arrival of a young writer of surprising feeling and depth.

[massive paragraph follows, making a bold but perhaps crazy attempt to outline each story sketchily]

Unflinching, exciting, ambitious and yet heartfelt, The Last Animal will guide readers through a menagerie of settings and landscapes as it underscores the connection among all living things.’

Do I do themes? Not so much. As a reader do I hang out, even at all, for a book themed on the human-and-natural-world interface? No. I’m seriously nichey, but not in that way. And ‘unflinching’? Isn’t that in just about every second book blurb? I’m up for flinching. Flinching is human and entirely respectable. (Does it look as if I’m saying I’m not prepared to review books, but I’m prepared to review blurbs without rhyme, reason or mercy? Maybe.)

But I’m here for the words on the page, not the words on the flap. And the words on the page were just my thing. She’s smart. A deep thinker who hides the process of thinking but gives you the window you need to glimpse what she’s thought – and you don’t even feel her leading you there. It’s as though you’ve just stumbled upon it. The language is weighed out with great care. These ten stories are stylistically slap bang in the middle of that tradition I’ve talked about, and very well executed.

And, ha, she’s an Iowa MFA grad who teaches at Oberlin, where she got her BA in 2001, suggesting she’s just over thirty. Her publishing CV is this book, plus a few more stories. She’s writing a novel, which I’ll be happy to buy at RRP.

Tomorrow – Part 5: Lucy Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (and perhaps slightly less about me)

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