The Calm After The Storm: Richard Flanagan Wins The 2014 Booker

on Thursday, October 16, 2014
A collective sigh of relief was heard across Bookeringham Palace yesterday as the invading hordes were chased away by a new Commonwealth literary legend. Ok, so he's not that new and, well, he's from that place what the convicts got shipped to but all hail Sir Richard of Tasmania, Lord of Literature.

It's a bit of a sad indictment on my reading habits this year but I've yet to read The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Indeed, I only managed two on the shortlist - Jacobson and Smith - neither of which I felt deserved to win. Granted it's a subjective game of relativity; I might have liked the other four even less. And, as much as it pains me to admit, it's not like I have any say in the outcome. But I'm glad Flanagan won not only because he's an Aussie (which hopefully means we can stop claiming DBC Pierre) or because giving it to a writer from the Commonwealth preserves the parochial charm of the Booker Prize but because, by all accounts, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is a deeply literary novel, a story of love, hardship and survival on the Thai Burma Railway dying WW2. In other words, Flanagan's win represents a return (albeit perhaps only briefly) to the essence of what has always made the Booker a great prize to follow. It also adds a slightly humorous dimension to his being passed over for this year's Miles Franklin. The Narrow Road To The Deep North is sitting on my bookshelf waiting for the next quiet patch in my life... which means I can look forward to reading it sometime in 2017.

The Found Man: Patrick Modiano wins The Nobel Prize for Literature 2014

on Friday, October 10, 2014
Well, that was unexpected. Following the usual predictive malarky that yearly pits Haruki Murakami against Adonis and, for the really hopeful, Phillip Roth, the Nobel Committee has thrown us one from left field by awarding the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature to French writer Patrick Modiano. I don't think he was even on the betting radar. That said, far from being one of the annoyingly obscure or, worse, token laureates, Modiano is quite the deserving recipient. I've only read a couple of his books (I think only four or five exist in English translation, of which maybe two or three are in print) but they were both excellent - intriguing, challenging, deep but strangely accessible. Like the Academy, I'd go for Missing Person as a starting point. It's a slim but weighty novel in which an amnesiac goes in search of the identity he lost during the war. Modiano really grapples with ideas of identity, guilt, complicity and the like in a way very have done before or since. I'd also recommend Search Warrant/Dora Bruder (same book, published under two titles) which is widely regarded as his masterpiece. A fascinating study into the fate of a missing girl deported to Auschwitz that was triggered by a missing person notice in a wartime magazine, it digs deeply into the soul of Occupied France and, more importantly, Modiano himself.

Guess it's back to the drawing board for the punters amongst you. Here's hoping your favourite lives to go another round!

The Invasion That Wasn't: A Short Word About the Man Booker Shortlist

on Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Well, I may be totally off my game this year but I'm glad to see that Team Booker have landed on a well-balanced, readable but still literary shortlist. Sure, it's not the heavy handed litwank of some previous years but thank the paper gods it ain't Annus Rimingtonus either. Needless to say, the fear of the great American deluge seems, at least this time, to have been unfounded. No Hustvedt. No Powers. Hardly the barnstorming some were expecting. Chins will no doubt still wag - where the hell is David Mitchell? - but what would a Booker year be without some nasty snarking?

So, without further ado, here are the contenders:

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour - Joshua Ferris
J - Howard Jacobson
The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
The Lives of Others - Neel Mukherjee
How To Be Both - Ali Smith

The Empire Strikes Back: The Booker Prize Longlist 2014

on Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Rest easy Padawans, Britain has survived the great literary plague. Here is the 2014 Booker Prize long list:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J b Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo by Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

A fair mix of Commonwealth and usurper novels, but a reasonable list overall. I'm particularly excited by the inclusion of Paul Kingsnorth, whose very strange phonetic/Old English novel of the years after 1066 has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of months begging to be picked up. Time to start reading!

Begin the Booker Beguine (Again)

Well, we're just hours away from the announcement of this year's Booker long list and, I can't help but feel, this will be the most hotly debated bunch of books ever. Yep, this year marks the first time that nominees aren't limited to Commonwealth authors but anyone writing in the English language. No doubt you'll recall the big brouhaha when the rules were changed - you'd have been forgiven for thinking the British literary Empire had fallen. Well, we're about to learn how it's going to pan out. Ironically, Team Booker couldn't have chosen a worse (or perhaps better) year to open the floodgates. A quick look at the list of eligible books from just the old Commonwealth countries and I find myself in some sort of book nerd heaven. So many previous winners and nominees have new books - Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Colm Toibin, Phillip Hensher, Sebastian Barry, Nicola Barker, Damon Galgut, Sarah Waters, Edward St Aubyn... hell, even the new Martin Amis looks promising after a run of complete duds. I can't help but smirk at the misfortune of the also-rans who truly ought to be in contention this year but may well miss out thanks to the former colony with the grating accent. On the other hand, whatever the list, we can safely say that literature from the Commonwealth has never looked quite so bloody healthy.

As for my tips... Hmmm... I'd love to see Jesse Ball, Elimear McBride, Darragh McKeon, Phil Klay and Jenny Offill on the list. I suspect Donna Tartt, Joshua Ferris, Dave Eggars or Peter Mathiessen might get a look in. But when the dust settles I'm betting the prize stays in the Commonwealth for at least one more year and I'd say the guy to do that will be David Mitchell. We'll know if I'm even slightly on target in just a few hours.

In, On and For A Book: My Strange Sojourn Into Eli Glasman's The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew

on Wednesday, July 9, 2014
HOLY CRAP. I'M A FICTIONAL CONSTRUCT! Ok, so here's how it went down. A few months back, the lovely folk at Sleepers Publishing sent me a reading copy of the rather peculiarly titled The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman. I'd known about the book for a while - Glasman is someone I see around the traps; we talk writing, he told me he'd be submitting it for publication and was quite rightly very excited when Sleepers took it on.

Fast forward a little bit and there I was ploughing my way through, doing my best impression of an objective reader, when BAM, I appear. Well, sort of. In the scene where some band called Yidcore plays in the courtyard of Melbourne's Orthodox Jewish boys' school, Yeshivah, it is me jumping up and down with the microphone. For the record, that really did happen. It was a Year 12 Muck Up Day prank. The students got us to come in, set up on the asphalt and start playing during class. Kids of all ages started streaming out and before we knew it, classes had been cancelled and there was a crowd of teenage religious kids moshing to a punk band (if only that was the most surreal thing to have happened to us!). Needless to say the scene flew by (it accounts for a single paragraph, but my mum was suitably proud) and I could return to the story. Yes, yes. Enough about me.

This book... what can I say? It's good. Really good. Sure, it's always difficult to read a friend objectively but I am genetically averse to lying, even to friends so when I say I liked it, I really mean it. And not just because of THAT paragraph. From the outset it's clear that Glasman is a talented writer - he's witty, daring and full of heart. The book, about an orthodox Jewish boy in Melbourne coming to terms with his homosexuality, is told with a degree of depth and compassion that ought not be in the wheel house of someone so young. And with Glasman having grown up in the orthodox community, the book also has a level of insight that greatly exceeds anything the casual observer might be able to perceive. There's very little soapboxing - the question of homosexuality in orthodox Judaism is handled without judgement or cheap philosophising. Rather, the full complexity is drawn out in a way that leaves all involved in a dignified space without having to have sacrificed their values or positions. It is a very generous, open and positive portrayal of both young gay men and orthodox Jews.

Leaving aside the flattery of being made into a fictional character, I really recommend Glasman's book. And if you won't take my word for it, just check out the raves on the back cover... Oh... Suddenly, I'm trying to be Shteyngart. How very meta.

2014: The Mid-Year Report

on Monday, June 30, 2014
Chalk it up to a crippling case of blog burn-out following 2013's ridiculous "Review Every Book I Read" challenge. Or it might have been the all-consuming insanity of the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival. Or maybe it's just that I've had to slow down a bit on the reading to make time for my own writing. Yep, for those of you who don't already know, I've jumped out of the frying pan of literary criticism (and, hopefully, witticism) and into the fire. I'm writing a novel. What's more, I've signed with my absolutely favourite publisher, Text Publishing who, assuming I can meet a deadline, will be throwing my labour of love to the wolf pit of arseholes like me (aka readers/reviewers/bloggers/firestarters) some time next year. Whatever the cause, it's been a slow year on Bait For Bookworms. I know. But I haven't forgotten you, my dear fellow LitNerds. There's plenty I want to say. Heck, I've still managed 92 books in the first six months. And though I only reviewed a fraction of them, some were pretty excellent. Viz:

Books Of The Year
What can I say? Jesse Ball just keeps getting better and his latest novel, Silence Once Begun, was the first, and remains the best, thing I have had the joy of reading in 2014. That's not to say there weren't some pretty close contenders. And the fact that David Grossman was the only other familiar name in my list makes it all the more exciting. His novel in dramatic/poetic form, Falling Out Of Time, was a masterpiece of grief, introspection, rage and regeneration. Then there's An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine which bowled me over with its humour, wisdom and litnerd appeal. Jenny Offill renewed my belief in the beauty of ordinary love with her masterpiece in miniature, The Dept. of Speculation, while Hanya Yanagihara shocked me to my moral core with her dense, harrowing and intellectually challenging debut The People Of The Trees. Michel Laub's multi-layered meditation on memory, Diary of the Fall was another highlight, as was the best prison novel I've read in years, The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. And mad props to the batshit crazy Look Who's Back, in which German daredevil Timur Vermes imagine Hitler's return to modern Germany with hilarious (and rather frightening) results.

Books of Previous Years
Five months after reading it, I'm still haunted by Hubert Mingarelli's fantastic little book A Meal In Winter, in which a couple of Nazi soldiers sent from their remote outpost to hunt Jews in the forest are faced with an impossible moral choice. Equally complex and powerful was Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation which could well have been written by one of the European greats in the middle of the twentieth century. I got my first taste of Korean literature with Hwang Sun-Mi's superb Orwellian fable, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly while cult Belgian writer Dmitri Verhulst struck again with his excoriating Christ Comes To Brussels, an hilarious collision of religious obsession, delusion and high comedy. And, in my ever growing attempt to expand my literary horizons, graphic fiction has had a strong showing with Rutu Modan's The Property and Jeff Lamire's Underwater Welder both ending high on my list of favourites.

A Brief Message From My Speakers
I don't usually include music in my mid-year reports but I can't in good conscience ignore the album that has single-handedly got me excited about music again. Canadian abrasive melodic punkers PUP's self-titled album is about as incredible as a debut could ever hope to be. In fact I loved it so much that I didn't download a free torrent but actually dragged my lazy arse to the record store and bought a physical copy. I know. That's crazy talk!

Well, I can't say I know what the rest of this year will bring. I suspect I won't be reading quite as much as I race towards my own deadline, but there's still a bunch of books that have me excited including new ones by Javier Cercas, Aharon Appelfeld, Will Wiles, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Samuel Beckett (ok, so a newly unearthed SB) as well as the rest of Jeff VanderMeer's thus far brilliant Southern Reach Trilogy. I'm also a little late off the mark but hope to get to Pig's Foot by Carlos Acosta, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon and Glow by Ned Beauman. Ah, who am I kidding? I'll be reading just as much. I just won't be sleeping.

Confessions of a Festival Lackey

on Thursday, June 5, 2014
Three days on and I'm finally emerging from the wonderful afterglow of the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival. Over a year in the planning, the two days and one night turned out to be everything we'd hoped for and, to lean on a crappy cliche, more. Eighty writers from Melbourne, interstate and overseas, sixty volunteers and over two thousand tickets sold to sessions. Holy gefilte fish... Having been to a fair few literary festivals in my time, mostly as an avid lit lover/sycophant but more recently as a participant, I have to say this ranks up there with the best. I know, humility isn't my strong point. I could babble on about this for days but I've managed to whittle it down to a few highlights:

Favourite Sessions In Which I Did Not Participate
I went to plenty of really great sessions but three really stood out. Rachael Kohn's live video discussion with living legend Irvin Yalom was a scintillating exchange of ideas between two people of towering intellect, passion and talent. It really kicked the first day off with a bang. Peter and Renata Singer's session on the moral lessons a reader can learn from great literature was also a true delight to behold. Both Peter and Renata are amazing thinkers and I greatly appreciated the depth and substance of their perspectives on a whole range of books I already loved but hadn't quite thought of in moral/ethical terms before. Finally, Dara Horn in conversation with Tali Lavi was not only great fun but also gave the audience fantastic insight to the work (and workings) of one of American literature's young guns. Extra credit to Dara who took a punt on coming out to an inaugural festival that might just as well have tanked but, thanks in part to her, did exactly the opposite.

Session I Wished I'd Seen But Got Waylaid As A Panellist In The Other Room
By all accounts the session on Landscapes: The Sense of Place in Literature was unbelievable. No surprises there; the panel consisted of Linda Jaivin, Dara Horn and Maria Tumarkin and was chaired by Tali Lavi. I also would have loved to have seen the session on Trauma with personal fave Arnold Zable, who has worked with refugee communities and bushfire survivors, and Zeruya Shalev who survived a suicide bombing.

Personal Highlight #1
Who doesn't love crapping on about their favourite books? Heck, I've made an entire blog of it. So my session on Forgotten Gems with Arnold Zable and Renata Singer, chaired by former Jewish Museum director Helen Light was a real thrill. Arnold did Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, Renata did Clarice Lispector's Near To The Wild Heart and I (surprise surprise) did Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks. The audience really got into it too, with everyone jumping up to share their favourite 'forgotten' books. Great fun all round.

Personal Highlight #2
The Festival Hub. Whoever came up with the idea of combining the signing area, book store, coffee shop and general mingling space into one large marquee was a genius. There was a constant buzz as authors, volunteers, punters, booksellers and random strangers who happened to be passing by mingled and soaked up the incredible atmosphere.

Also, being behind the scenes, I got a lot of interesting insights into what it means to organise and participate in one of these beasts. Here, then, is a bit of advice for participants or, as I like to think of them:

Five Commandments For Writers At Festivals
1. Thou Shalt Not Be An Egotistical Douchebag. The best part of MJWF was how wonderfully collegial most of the writers were. They hung out, watched one another's sessions, were happy to talk with eager attendees; basically, did everything to give the fest a great vibe. Of course there were a couple who - despite their relative insignificance when held next to some of the other participants - thought themselves above it all. Reverse kudos to one spectacular douche who ruined his session with boring hagiographical arse-licking then had the audacity to castigate the organisers for failing to give him the respect he (and his subject) deserved. Add to that his disgusting rant against one of his fellow panellists who he (wrongly) accused of undermining him before the session. Bad form from a thoroughly average human.
2. Thou Shalt Remember It's A Festival, Not An Academic Conference. Ok, we get it. You're smart. You know a lot about the subject. But this is a fun gathering of like minded book lovers, not some stuffy university snorefest. By all means engage in a deep, intelligent, robust discussion with your fellow panellists, but don't open with a twenty minute exegesis of the minutiae of your area of interest. Wrong place, wrong time.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be An Overt Advertising Robot. You wrote a book? It's just come out? You want to promote it? No shit! That's why you were invited. And yes, a writers' festival is the perfect vehicle in which to do so. But judging by book sales at the event (and there were A LOT of them), the best kind of promotion was simply participating in an engaging way in whatever panel you happen to be on. People will want to read your book if they like you. Unless you are actually launching said book, there's no need to shove it down their throats.
4. Honour Thy Reader. Writing is a lonely, soul destroying pursuit. We don't get the chance to meet other people, let alone those who actually give half a shit about what we do. Therefore, when the opportunity arises, grab it with both hands, dance with it, hump it like an over-excited puppy, do whatever to seize the moment. Readers love chatting with you. They want to meet you. They want to know that you're a human too. They want to bounce their ideas off you, no matter how batshit crazy some of those ideas might be. This is the opposite of Commandment 1. Act accordingly.
5. Thou Shalt Turn Up. The one big disappointment of the festival was the no show of Israeli superstar (and personal favourite of mine) David Grossman. Apparently there was some miscommunication about the day - he thought it was to be Monday night when it was quite clearly scheduled for Sunday. Not throwing blame anywhere, but if you are a participant, make sure you know exactly when your session is booked and do everything humanly possible to be there. Luckily Sally Warhaft, who was supposed to conduct the interview, instead ran an impromptu session on politics and the media which was very well received by the disappointed crowd. Still, my point stands. Know your time. Be there. Of course, if you are likely to break Commandment 1 (and this most certainly doesn't apply to David Grossman who made an honest mistake and felt terrible about the whole debacle), feel free to ignore this one. You are not wanted. Douchebag.

Don't want to end on a sour note, so here are a couple of my favourite pics.

Irvin Yalom in Conversation with Rachael Kohn

The Festival Hub in Full Swing

Post-Session Selfie With Arnold Zable

Yukkin' It Up With Dara Horn

Neurotica Session with Nathan Serry, Kerri Sackville, Eli Glasman and Raphael Brous

It's Funny 'Cos It's Us with former Supreme Court Justice Howard Nathan, Dave Bloutsein and John Safran.

In-Panel Selfie seemed only fitting for a session called Voices From The Cloud: Internet Writing with Lee Kofman and Michael Gawenda

A carefully chosen excerpt from the festival banner...

Required Reading: Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival

on Monday, May 26, 2014
Less than a week to go before the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival is upon us. If you're from Melbourne or can get down here for the weekend, you are in for a real treat with three nights and two days of amazing sessions. Veritably plutzing with excitement, I've pushed the usual bedside pile to the far edge of the table and plonked a few festival-relevant books in its place. For those looking for a quick primer on what to read before you come (of course you don't have to have read a single thing to enjoy this event), I recommend you hit up a few of the following:

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An extraordinary meditation on grief and loss
The World To Come by Dara Horn: Not her latest but the one that saw her smash it out of the park. An art heist family drama par excellence!
Sea of Many Returns by Arnold Zable: Everyone champions Cafe Scheherezade but for me it is this more recent novel that crystallises Zable's beautifully humane themes. A deeply moving book about exile, displacement and the meaning of home.
My Father's Compass by Howard Goldenberg: By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Goldenberg's memoir is a wonderful read. I guarantee you will never forget THAT bath scene.
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran: A rollicking true-crime adventure by the reigning king of awkward comedy. You just can't make this shit up.
The Poet by Alex Skovron: His session might be about translation, and he is best known for his poetry, but Skovron's novella, The Poet, is his masterpiece. A slim, Kafkaesque work of great style and even greater substance.
Nazi Dreamtime by David Bird: A fascinating study of one of the weirder footnotes of Australian history, Bird looks at the scarily large contingents of Hitler enthusiasts during the war years.
Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman: By now a local (and possibly Australian) classic, Perlman's debut marked the start of a truly shimmering career.

Hopefully that gives you a bit of a start. There are a bunch of other fantastic writers who I have not read but I'm sure you'll also love - Irvin Yalom, Zeruya Shalev, Maria Tumarkin, Linda Jaivan, Andrea Goldsmith and more. Check out the whole program on the festival website and be sure to buy your tickets soon. Sessions are starting to sell out!

Microviews Vol. 51: Five Star Frenzy!

on Wednesday, May 14, 2014
For reasons that some of you already know and will become apparent to the rest of you soon, I've been AWOL for the better part of a month. I'm pretty excited to mark my return with a first for Bait For Bookworms - a Microviews entry featuring five amazing books that scored my ultra-rare five star rating. Most excitingly, three are debuts. Skim through, jot down the names then get your arse to your nearest bookstore. By the time you've finished all five I should have some new entries for you to read.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine
What makes a life worth living? How do you forge a meaningful identity once you have cut yourself off from the wider world? I know, I know. These are precisely the sorts of questions that made me drop out of Philosophy in second year uni. But don't despair. By the grace of Kant (or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or... why am I even pretending to remember which God we were supposed to worship???) Rabih Alammedine brings you the answers you never knew you wanted in what is, without doubt, one of the most joyful reading experiences I've had this year. Aaliya - 72 years old, blue haired, crotchety - sits in her Beirut apartment translating the classics into Arabic; one a year, starting on New Year's Day. It is her singular purpose, to the exclusion of all else. That's not to say she doesn't ponder life outside. She loves her war-torn country even if it kind of pisses her off. But her real love is the piles and piles of books that clog her small living quarters. They are her everything and it's not hard to see why. Aaliya has impeccable taste - Coetzee, Bolano, Saramago, Sebald. To each she gives serious thought, offering up all sorts of opinions and observations. In less deft hands a book of this kind might have been bogged down in stodgy pontification. Not here, though; Aaliya's thoughts are an absolute delight to read. She is funny, feisty and, at times, gleefully acerbic. But this isn't just book porn for the literati. Alammedine keeps the narrative string nice and taut; disaster looms and, eventually, strikes. If you love reading, if you love thinking, if you love a good laugh, if you have even a skerrick of soul, An Unnecessary Woman is the book for you. Seriously, I can't possibly recommend it highly enough.
5 Out of 5 Blue Rinses

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Reduced to its essence, Dept of Speculation is the story of an ordinary marriage. A couple meet, fall in love, get married, run the gamut of typical marital problems (kids, fidelity, ageing) and so forth. That Jenny Offill has managed to craft such a prosaic set of non-events into this sparkling jewel of a novel is nothing short of breathtaking. Dept of Speculation reminds me of another incredible Granta book, Hillel Halkin's Melisande! What Are Dreams? The two share the same sense of quiet warmth that draws you in, messes with your heart then leaves you in a wistful cloud of almost post-coital bliss. Come to think of it, Dept of Speculation has been the missing part of what I now consider my Holy Trinity of books about love. Read Offill, Halkin and Skarmeta's The Postman - all very slim novels that punch well above their physical weight - and you will know all there is to know on the subject. Take that, Rilke!
5 Out of 5 Lost Letters

Diary of The Fall by Michel Laub
Here's a strange case of art imitating life. Many years ago I knocked out my friend's little brother at the kid's barmitzvah. We were spinning him in the air - a manoeuvre know as "the helicopter" - when he lost his grip, flew across the room, and smashed his head on the ground. He spent the night in intensive care. We were encouraged to continue to celebrate in his absence because, well, everything had been paid for and, after all, it was still his barmitzvah. Michel Laub's extraordinary novel begins with a similar event. Joao, who is not Jewish but who wants to fit in with all his Jewish friends, has a thirteenth birthday party modelled around a barmitzvah and, during one of the key dances (another tradition that ignores geographical boundaries - jumping from a chair into a net of waiting arms) is dropped by his friends. This nasty schoolboy prank serves as the catalyst for a considered excavation of assorted memories that the narrator embarks upon many years later when confronting his father's impending descent into the cloud of Alzheimer's. Diary of The Fall is really three sets of memories - the narrator, his father and grandfather. They drift in free flow, each wholly distinct but liable to intersect and overlap as the mercurial narrative unfolds. All of them struggle with their own reality. The narrator fell out with his father after the faux-mitzvah incident and their slow path to reconciliation is key to the book. The father too is locked in an existential battle - with his own illness, with the shadow of the Holocaust that came to define his childhood and with the suicide of his own father. And then there is the grandfather, perhaps Laub's most astounding creation. A survivor of Auschwitz, he keeps a diary of fabrications, through which we come to understand the extent and intractability of his suffering (there is a considerable dose of "He Doth protest Too Much" in his observations about hygiene and order). Laub feeds us in fragments; piling each upon the one before until the weight of the whole becomes almost unbearable. Structurally, it is a fascinating experiment - the pages aren't numbered but the paragraphs are -; one that initially seems slightly disorienting but, in context, comes to make perfect sense. Deftly translated by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, Diary of The Fall is a rare thing of great beauty, engaging and profound. A must read.
5 Out of 5 Repressed Memories

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
For some strange reason, my only reference point for really powerful prison 'literature' is film. The Shawshank Redemption. Sleepers. In The Name of the Father. American History X. I could go on. Now, before the pedants among you start berating me, I know that many of them were books or stories first. But, to me, their real impact was best achieved on the big screen. Here, then, is the game changer. At last I've found a book about the brutality of prison life that punched me in the guts just as hard as any movie I've ever seen. Told through snippets of voices, constructed dreamscapes (or should I say nightmares) of life on death row, Denfeld's debut is a marvel of empathetic storytelling. Centred around a condemned prisoner who, to the astonishment of all around him, wants to abandon his avenues of appeal and just die, it is both a ferocious indictment on the prison system and a profound consideration of the nature of punishment. Desperation, corruption, violence and misery abound, all but snuffing out the tiny glimmers of hope that try to slip through. The effect is claustrophobic, almost suffocating. When you finally catch your breath, you'll be thankful for having read it.
5 Out of 5 Morgan Freemans

The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
After dropping out of Philosophy in uni (see above), I picked up Anthropology to plug the gap in my degree. For the most part it was a horrible, horrible mistake. Sure, the subject is interesting, but the guy who taught it was so fixated on showing off about the brief time he spent on field research forty years beforehand that he didn't really bother to teach us anything of worth. We did, however, get to see photos of his naughty bits, which he paraded proudly alongside those of, um, better endowed island natives. Which leads me to Hanya Yanagahira's excellent debut, The People of The Trees. Based loosely on the case of Daniel Carleton Gadjusak (who discovered kuru), it is the fictional memoir of Nobel Prize winning doctor, anthropologist and, convicted pedophile, Dr. Norton Perina. Early in his career, Perina joins an expedition to Micronesia where he discovers a tribe of people who have chanced upon the fountain of youth. By eating the flesh of a rare turtle, they acquire almost unimaginable longevity (hundreds of years, possibly more). But eternal life comes at a terrible price: turtle flesh causes dementia. Told as Perina's memoir, carefully edited by his sycophantic acolyte Ronald Kubodera, The People In The Trees reads as a fascinating anthropological text. Indeed, there were times I lost myself so deeply in the narrative that I forgot it was fiction. However, behind the gripping tale of scientific discovery, lies a much darker subtext, one that raises some very difficult ethical questions. What are the limits of human experimentation? To what extent may the scientist interfere in the lives of his study subjects? Perina entrenches himself in the islander society and, ultimately, starts bringing its people home where they are essentially locked in glorified cages so their 'purity' is preserved. Also, unsurprisingly, the memoir acts as a self-serving justification by Perina. We know he was convicted of sexually abusing one of the island boys (he adopted over fifty of them and brought them to live with him) but his memoir frames the accusation as the ungrateful rebellion of a particularly problematic child. It is easy to believe him, especially with Kubodera's artful editing. It is not until the very end that we come to understand what really happened. By that time, we already know that Perina and Kubodera have disappeared. Needless to say, your heart will be ripped straight out of your chest.
5 Out Of 5 Bark Canoes