Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 2)

on Tuesday, March 24, 2020
BUT WHERE WAS THE STAND???

Ok, ok. I heard you. And yes, I know how many people see Stephen King's mega-brick as the pinnacle of pandemic literature. Not to mention the BIG BOOK to end all BIG BOOKs. But would you believe that it took me a few minutes to remember whether or not I'd actually read it? And then about ten seconds more to find my review? So without further ado, and with the caveat that I'm actually quite a fan of King's, here's what I wrote back in February, 2013:

Allow me to distill this monster epic to its essence. A moderately scary guy picked up from the cutting room floor of a Cormac McCarthy novel goes to war with my great great grandmother in an America ravaged by a killer flu. Cue Armageddon Americana. The end. Widely considered King's greatest work, The Stand is reasonably engaging but about 800 pages too long. I'm surprised Peter Jackson has resisted making it into a trilogy.

Oh well... back to irregular programming!

I've been thinking a lot about other books that might be worth reading during these strange times. Three more categories sprang to mind overnight (can't say I've been sleeping all that well at the moment). I mean, we may be in this for a long, long time. Might as well try to knock off a few bucket list books while we can.

THE ISOLATED FEW (That Aren't Beckett, Marquez or Murakami)
First, in keeping with the general sense of malaise we've all been feeling, some plague-adjacent novels that deal with themes of isolation, quarantine and loneliness.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. A hugely life affirming, utterly gorgeous novel about a woman who locks herself away during a civil war and translates literary classics into Arabic. It's the book about loneliness and the intrinsic value of life you didn't know you had to read.

Caribou Island by David Vann. Although not focused on a solitary character left alone, this bleak survival story of a couple on the frozen Alaskan plains still manages to plumb the depths of isolation with chilling (sorry) power.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. Speaking of bleak, this story of man versus man versus the brutality of nature is what I like to think of as The Road minus any prospect of redemption.

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. A political prisoner is kept in an underground cell, not much bigger than a grave, for thirteen years. Jelloun's novel is a marvel, pitting the human spirit against extreme, solitary deprivation.

The Door by Magda Szabo Oh how I love this book. While not about isolation as such, it without equal when it comes to questioning how we "other" those we deem to be beneath us.

Anything by Thomas Bernhard. When it comes to misanthropic works of human isolation, few are as unforgiving as the novels of Bernhard. It takes a brave soul to wade into the swamp of his sentences, but if you're game, you'll be greatly rewarded (albeit it a kind of horrific and painful way). Of particular relevance is Frost, Correction, Gargoyles and The Lime Works.

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell The existential dread born of dislocation underpin this splendid novel about obsession and the human need for connection in what ever form one can claw it. Again, not exactly on point, but absolutely extraordinary for what it says about being alone in a strange place.

The Tenant by Roland Topor Another take on the mental collapse brought about by isolation, The Tenant is rightly considered a masterpiece of claustrophobic solitude. Polanski made a good movie of it, but nothing compares with the sheer brilliance and horror of the novel itself. In my all-time Top 5.

LEGENDS OF THE LONG FORM (That Aren't Tolstoy or Joyce)
If there was ever a time to hit those huge classics you've always meant to read, surely it must be now. There are so many to choose from, but these are a few of my favourites.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Granted you'll probably find yourself breaking into song every few scenes, Les Mis is a remarkably readable epic of poverty and revolution in France. I could hardly believe how quickly I raced through its fifty million pages.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Okay so you might sing one or two songs along the way (what is it with classics and their musical adaptations???), but you'll most certainly be enchanted by the windmill-conquering adventures of the lunatic knight and his trusty sidekick. Weighing in at five thousand Les Mises, it'' take you a long while to get through, but I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville A rip roaring adventure and a deeply detailed lesson on flensing in one, Moby Dick could probably have done with a huge edit, but you'll hardly care when you're standing with harpoon ready, sea spray whipping your face, waiting for the white whale to surface.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil A book so stupidly huge that it's usually published in two or three volumes, The Man Without Qualities depicts life amidst the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Sounds gripping, right? Well, believe it or not it is. And the four billion gazillion pages fly by.

The Brothers Ashkenazi by IJ Singer Moving a bit forward in time... you're probably familiar with Isaac Bashevis Singer but not many remember his brother, Israel Joshua, who, in my opinion, was the better writer. This sprawling family saga is about as perfect they get. Another in my all-time Top 10.

Saville by David Storey Thought I'd go out on a limb here and add a forgotten Booker winner to the pile of classics. Storey is hardly spoken of in the same breath as Hugo or Cervantes, but Saville has a decidedly Dickensian air to it and so ought to sit alongside the others.

And the one I haven't read: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. I know a few people who consider this the greatest novel ever written. I'll get to it one day but I'm not sure I have the emotional fortitude to join Grossman on the front right now.

SERIES TO BINGE READ (That Aren't Proust, Powell, Mantel, Kanusgaard or Ferrante)

Netflix and its ilk have made us accustomed to binge watching countless series, one after the other, ad infinitum. Flicking through the various streaming services, I used to be all like, "Arghhhhh, how am I ever going to watch all this?" Now, only a couple of weeks into the pandemic, I'm more like, "Ah, crap. I've watched every episode of every show ever. Give me some books." So if, like me, you like losing yourself in a single world over the course of multiple novels, you might want to check out these.

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy Sure, he's written my favourite post-apocalyptic book of all time, but McCarthy is best known for single-handedly inventing the Western noir. The three novels that make up the Border Trilogy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) are each superb in their own right, but read together they make up an extraordinary feat of narrative bravado, with descriptive splendour and a fair dose of human tenderness to boot.

The Notebook Trilogy by Agota Kristof There's a current of abject brutality that runs through Kristof's chilling masterpiece of children set loose in a land ravaged by war. The three books (The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie) differ stylistically, clearly designed to offer alternative angles on the same theme. It all gets a little confusing in the middle, but when you come out the other side.... hoooo-weeee.... Mind. Blown.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias I'd rate The Infatuations as one of the greatest European novels of the 21st century. Go and read that. But when you're done, it's well worth checking out Marias's three book sequence (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream and Poison, Shadow and Farewell). Steeped in intriguing philosophical concepts, it is also a bloody great adventure with all the undercurrents of crime and international intrigue that make Marias one of the most accessible literary reads.

The History of Bestiality by Jens Bjorneboe If you really want to wallow, Bjorneboe is your guy. He is one of the most confronting and difficult authors I've ever encountered, but spending the time working through his novels (they're actually quite short) is endlessly rewarding. But be warned: the story (likely apocryphal) goes that, when embarking on this trilogy (Moment of Freedom, Powderhouse, and The Silence), Bjorneboe said that by the time he was finished he'd know so much about man's capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man that he would no longer be able to live in this world. When the third one was done, he killed himself.

The Jesus Trilogy by JM Coetzee If I may quote myself from last year: "taken together, the three books (The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and The Death of Jesus) are remarkably enigmatic - but I think Coetzee is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived?" TL;DNR: Just read it.

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett Sometimes all you need is a good laugh, and nobody makes me laugh as heartily or consistently as Pratchett. The Discworld series has about seventy billion books, so they'll keep you occupied and overjoyed throughout. A much needed antidote to these shitty times.

Well, that's about it for my pandemic reading recommendations coverage for now. Hope to see you back here, where I'll be returning to regular programming in the coming days.

Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 1)

on Monday, March 23, 2020
And just like that, the world changed.

Needless to say, the new normal is shit. Who would have thought that in 2020 we'd be locked in our homes, steering clear of one another, anxiously waiting to get a sense of quite how catastrophic this oncoming plague is likely to actually be. Hope resides in a combination of the ancient and the modern: physical isolation and medical science. To that end, sending a huge shout out to all who have tried not to be #COVIDIOTS and, most importantly, the essential workers on the frontline. No doubt this has made us reconsider how we ought to be valuing the different levels of the so-called societal strata.

One thing that has become increasingly apparent is the importance of reading at this time. It is not just a luxury but a damn necessity. To pass time. To stay sane. To be communal, to find new friends while separated from our communities. In the coming days and weeks, I'll try fill this blog with new short reviews and musings to point you in the direction of great reads. But for now, just a couple of recommendation posts, starting with these two lists - Pandemic Reads and Big Books To Live In. And whether you're turning to e-reading, rifling through your piles of unread books or availing yourself of all the wonderful indie bookstores that are staying open and delivering books to your door without you having to partake in any person-to-person contact just remember the new mantra. STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

PANDEMIC READS
For some people this might be cutting it too close. But if you are up for reading how some of the world's finest writers have considered life as we are currently experienced it, look no further than these extraordinary novels.
The Plague by Albert Camus.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Light by Torgny Lindgren
Nemesis by Phillip Roth
The Last Town of Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian
The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Severance by Ling Ma
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

BIG BOOKS TO LIVE IN
If you're more inclined to escape this whole clusterfuck and lose yourself in a great, big book, then here are a few of my absolute favourite 400+ pagers, with links to the ones I've reviewed or discussed on this blog.
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (490 pp, but close enough and too good not to include here)
The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits (525pp)
Europe Central by William T. Vollamn(832pp)
The Tunnel by William H. Gass (652pp)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (848pp)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (639pp)
Underworld by Don Delillo (827pp)
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (662pp)

Might you brave Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming (512pp) before I do? Or might this be the time you finally trudge your way through the holy grail of literary bricks, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace(1077pp)? Whatever you choose, keep up the mantra: STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

And be sure to check back in a couple of days for more book-nerdy tips!

The Battle of the Book Behemoths

on Monday, March 2, 2020
Like just about every other reader on the planet, I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the last instalment in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Unlike many others, I have the somewhat daunting distinction of not having read any of them. Yes, knowing from the outset that it would be told over the course of three books, I decided to wait until they'd all been published then go at them as one. While that sounds kind of piggish and silly (and I admit it is), at least I didn't quite do what a friend of mine did, holding off for all the Knausgaard books to be translated before embarking on them (he even toyed with learning Norwegian as it would probably be quicker). What I hadn't anticipated, of course, is quite how long each book would be. Wolf Hall kicked things off with 675 pages. Bring Up the Bodies was a relative novella at 432. And now... gulp... along comes The Mirror and the Light, which breaks the scales at over 900 pages. So that's about twenty-four billion pages I have ahead of me, in a single sequential stretch.

Not that I'm complaining. It is, however, indicative of a very clear trend: the big book is well and truly back. I say this as I'm halfway through Colm McCann's new novel, Apeirogon (a mind-bending addition to the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule exceptions), which, at 457 pages, is seriously hurting my wrist. Meanwhile, Yaniv Iczkovits's incredible novel, The Slaughterman's Daughter, has also finally found its way to the English-speaking world in what, I must say, is one of the most stunning aesthetic carapaces I've seen in just about forever. That's another 500 pages (every one of which I relished last year when I read it in proof form). And so they keep coming. Just look at my bookshelf!

I have yet to brave Krasznahorkai's brick. And I'm dying to read Tyll, after all the raves it's been getting. So much for my annual tally clocking 200 books. Maybe I need to shift to page counts instead!

The Books That Made Me Vol. 1: I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

on Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mr. Grey was guilty. That much I knew. I stood at the front of the class, near Ms. Rapke's desk, and clutched the cue cards in my sweaty hands. The notes were scrawled in tiny script; I would barely have been able to read them, even if the ink hadn't smudged. Twenty pairs of eyes - tenth graders, precariously hanging from the cliff of childhood, set to fall at any moment; judgemental, cynical - all on me. It had come to this: my closing address.

Three weeks earlier, I begrudgingly picked up the book, fully prepared to hate it. The year was 1991, and Mt Scopus College was still in that late-80s miasma of literary staleness. The texts they forced us to read for English sucked, completely removed from our experience as teens. Indeed, I went back and reread most of them for this blog a few years back, hoping to discover that I was just too immature to appreciate them at the time. I was, after all, a dickhead as a kid. Alas, nope. I was right. They did suck. All of which is to say that I came to this book with close to no expectations, other than having had my interest slightly piqued by something Ms. Rapke said on the first day: At the end, we will be holding a trial. That was it. No details.

So began what has become a lifelong love affair with Robert Cormier's YA masterpiece I Am The Cheese (if you preferred The Chocolate War you are, of course, wrong). It may not be my favourite book of all time, but it's the one that I have read more than any other. I make a point of reading it at least once a year (I'd say I've now read it over thirty times), to remind me what it is like to be awakened to the potential of the novel as a form. It is my personal madeleine, a mnemonic that instantly transports me back to those few weeks in Year 10, but also a revelation: I find something new, something jaw-droppingly brilliant on each new reading. There is little by way of plot description that could do it justice. Adam Farmer is cycling to Rutterberg, Vermont to deliver a parcel to his father. Along the way he encounters various people and landmarks, all slightly eerie and unsettling. Something is not right. Interspersed between the chapters are transcripts of interviews. At first it seems he is undergoing some kind of therapy following a traumatic event. Brint, his interlocutor, is gentle, caring but disturbingly probing. It's as if he has an agenda. As the story progresses we learn that Adam is the only survivor of a car accident that killed his family. And that when it happened they were on the run. Adam's father was a journalist who uncovered and reported on a huge corruption scandal. Organised crime was implicated, but so too was the government. The family went into witness protection. Their handler was a man Adam knew as Mr. Grey. He visited regularly, whisking Adam's father into the basement where they speak in whispers. As Adam pieces together the fragments of his family's past, as his reality begins to drop out from under him, we are also forced to rethink everything we've read. Who is Brint? What is the purpose of these interviews? Could it be that Adam - whose real name we learn towards the middle of the book - might yet be the final victim?

I Am The Cheese is many things: structurally innovative, perfectly plotted, daring (for a book written in 1977, it sure was willing to ask some difficult questions about power) and a lot of fun. It also has a twist that is so astonishing, so deftly executed, that I can't help but think it remains a major cultural influence. I wouldn't be surprised if it was lingering in the backs of the minds of those who wrote The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense and even Fight Club (yes, I know that was Pahlaniuk). I can only imagine how it must have felt back in 1977, when readers didn't routinely question the reliability of their narrators.

Back to the classroom. The trial ran over two English periods, an hour and a half in all. Ms. Rapke was the judge. Other students played the roles of Mr. Grey, Adam and the defence lawyer. Guilt was to be decided by popular vote, in a show-of-hands poll of the rest of the class. I spent days honing my skills, watching Twelve Angry Men, LA Law and, the latest upstart in the world of legal drama, Law & Order. I cross-examined Mr. Grey, who did a barely passable job of inhabiting the character, with a fire this book had ignited in me; one that would carry on for the rest of my school days and ultimately launch me into a legal career, albeit one on the defence side of the criminal law fence. But it was the closing argument that sealed the deal. I had spent so long examining the book, finding the clues and the incriminating evidence that, should you pay close enough attention, is there to be found, that there was no room for doubting that not only was Mr. Grey responsible for the deaths of Adam's parents, but he was also planning to kill Adam. Ms. Rapke put it to the class: Who thought Mr. Grey did it? A brief moment of inaction. Silence. I don't think I could breathe. Then the hands went up. Every single one of them. His fate was sealed. And so was mine.

I read I Am The Cheese again this week and fell in love with it all over again. To think what the right book can awaken in a kid. And the right teacher. How lucky I was to have had Ms. Rapke. And Mrs. Auster, Ms. Swaitlo and Mrs. Jensen, all of whom encouraged my crazy love for the written word. Some of whom read the many extra stories I gave them each Monday after a weekend locked away in my room (me, not my teachers). Some of whom gave me books from their own collections, books they thought I'd like. To think, without them, and without Mr. Cormier, I might have become a corporate lawyer. Perish the thought.

PS Andrew Saffer, if you're reading this, I still have your copy. It was a twenty-eight year loan, yeah?

Microviews Vol. 60: Nelson, Ciment, Vermes,

on Saturday, January 18, 2020
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson has been hovering on my reading periphery for a few years now. So many people I know adore her and her mega-hit, The Argonauts. But it was a personal recommendation from a friend whose taste I greatly respect (and mostly share hehe) that finally got me to pick up one of her books. And holy moly was she right! The Red Parts is, not to put too fine a point on it, a work of genius. Its back story alone deserves an entire book: Nelson had just published a cycle of poems about her murdered aunt, Jane, when she got word that the case had been reopened and an arrest made. It was long believed that, despite significant differences in MO, Jane was killed by John Collins, aka the Michigan Murderer. A chance DNA match, almost 40 years after the fact, proved otherwise. The Red Parts is a breathtaking deconstruction of the trial that followed calling into question the legal process and its players, as well as family lore, memory and criminal responsibility. It is personable, personal and engaging while also being intellectually rigorous and satisfying. Needless to say I’m a convert. I’ve already ordered Bluets.
5 Hooks

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment
In the few years I practised as a criminal lawyer, I was constantly intrigued by jury dynamics. The more I watched them, the deeper the curiosity became, all the more so because I knew that, simply by virtue of having studied and practised law, I was disqualified from ever experiencing it first hand. Gone were my fantasies of pulling a Henry Fonda and swaying eleven of my “peers” to the side of justice. We’re a good few years down the track now but the feeling remains. What the hell goes on back there when “we” can’t see them? For jurors C-2 and F-17 in Jill Ciment’s excellent novel, the answer is simple: lots of sex. Caught up in an affair that is fuelled in equal parts by boredom, the fear of ageing and the simple reality of throwing a bunch of people into a closed, isolated environment, the two take every opportunity to bonk, hoping the others won’t catch on. As it happens, there’s a murder trial going on, too. And what they take to be a private matter is quickly discovered, throwing the whole trial into jeopardy. As tawdry as it all sounds, Ciment is subtle in her execution, and The Body In Question is a surprisingly perceptive study of loneliness, attraction, guilt and social responsibility.
4 Hooks

The Hungry and the Fat by Timur Vermes
Debuts don’t come much more audacious than Timur Vermes’s satirical masterpiece, Look Who’s Back. Inexplicably plonking Hitler back in contemporary Germany and charting his meteoric rise to reality TV superstardom, Vermes managed to stick a mighty big skewer through German politics, the worldwide obsession with celebrity, and the ever-present willingness to disregard morality when it clashes with personal convenience. It’s a bloody funny book, all the more so for how true it all rings. Now, with the considerable weight of expectation on his shoulders, Vermes returns with The Hungry and the Fat, a book that does not pack quite the same punch as his first but still has a lot of uncomfortably funny things to say. Nadeche Hackenbusch - model, TV presenter and queen of the vacuous platitude - has landed in quiet the pickle. Despite great ratings, her white saviour wet dream of a reality TV show, Angel In Adversity is about to be canned. She’s still in Africa’s largest refugee camp and has grown rather fond of her ‘co-stars’. In particular, a certain young chap called Lionel has stolen her heart (and her marriage). Together, they plan the ultimate stunt - to lead the refugees on foot to Germany. It’s positively biblical! Cue apoplexy from all sides. The TV execs scramble to work out how best to follow the exodus. Leaders of countries along the path roll out the heavy defences. German politicians of every shade go into meltdown - can they stop the influx without seeming callous/weak? The people smugglers shift into overdrive. It’s like watching the biggest clusterfuck train wreck unfold in slow motion. The Hungry and the Fat is a big book in both ambition and actual size (it pushes 600 pages), and Vermes gives each narrative enough rope to hang itself in spectacular fashion. I didn’t get the same thrill as I did reading Look Who’s Back, and there was some pretty odd geopolitical commentary towards the end that did not sit well with me, but there is no doubting Vermes’s satirical flair. Could he be the Jonathan Swift of our times?
4 Hooks

2020: A Visual Book Diary Vol. 1

on Thursday, January 9, 2020
I've always struggled to keep track of all the books I read. I used to keep a list but stupidly saved it on a local drive and, when the computer went kaput, it took ten years of reading data with it. Goodreads is a pretty decent way to keep track, but I tend to read a fair few manuscripts and also forget to add a bunch of published books because I'm a) lazy and b) a technophobe. This year, I've decided to hit the issue two ways. Firstly (and obviously), I'm starting the spreadsheet thing again but saving it to my Dropbox. But, let's be honest, there will come a day that I forget to pay for my renewal and I'm going to lose everything again. It's how I roll. Secondly, I thought it might be nice to keep a visual diary of sorts by lining up the books on a shelf as I read them. That way, I can take a pic every couple of months and see how the year is progressing.

So here we go: the 9th of January, five books in, this is the first entry in my visual book diary (ignore the back row - I'm at the dreaded double shelving stage of my book collecting). Yes, it's been a great start. Some reviews coming soon!

2020: A New, Red Dawn

on Monday, January 6, 2020
Of the many ways I'd thought about opening this first post of a reinvigorated blog, this was not one of them: My country is on fire. My city, far from the flames, has been blanketed in smoke. Pictures from some of the burning towns look nothing short of apocalyptic. Hell, even my bayside suburb, usually glorious and vibrant at this time of year, looks like a scene from a disaster movie. Through it all, I've mostly locked myself inside and read. Six days in and I'm onto my sixth book for the year. Like many city folk in Australia, I've felt helpless and despondent. And useless. Until today.

With mad props to Emily Gale, Nova Weetman and others, the Australian (and now international) writing community has mobilised to raise money for the Country Fire Association (the roof body for the volunteer country fire fighters in each state). If you head over to Twitter right now and follow the hashtag #AuthorsForFireys (Fireys is Aussie slang for firefighters), you can see a whole array of amazing items being auctioned off for the cause. There are signed books, manuscript appraisals, AMAs, the chance to have characters named after you in your favourite author's next book, special handmade book-related knick knacks... you name it. Literally every author and book industry person I know is getting involved and it's magnificent. Personally, I've bid on a cartoon portrait of my dog, an original typed draft of a story by Josephine Rowe and the chance to have a ferret in the wonderful RWR McDonald's next book named after me, in honour of my beloved (and much-missed) ferret, Spaekk.

I'm also getting on board with a special package of book related stuff that includes:

- An inscribed copy of The Book of Dirt
- A signed Chinese edition of The Book of Dirt
- A copy of the new Text Classics edition of Arnold Zable's incredible novel Cafe Scheherazade, to which I have written the introduction, signed by Arnold and me
- A curated collection of my Top 5 novels of all time
- Two unpublished short stories
- The first two chapters of my latest work-in-progress (a pretty surreal novella)
Plus I will be matching the winning bid dollar for dollar.

All #AuthorsForFireys auctions run until 11pm AEST on Saturday January 11.

At the moment the highest bid for my lot is at a staggering $700. I genuinely cannot believe it. If you want to get involved, or check out all the other incredible things on offer, be sure to jump on Twitter and search the hashtag.

These are pretty scary, shitty times. But at least I feel a bit better knowing how beautiful and generous the reading and writing community can be. Sending much love, strength and hope to those on the frontline.

Check back soon when I'll be returning to regular programming.

2019 In Review: And The Winner Is...

on Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Well, this is a first. A non-fiction book? Only 80 pages? Who even am I? In what turned out to be a pretty good reading year for me - 129 books (dammit I hate not finishing on a round number) - it was Édouard Louis's tiny gem that stood out from all the others. Sure, it might be short, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for with an abundance of depth, heart and rage. Those familiar with Louis's previous two books will no doubt have expected something incendiary and urgent, but what might surprise readers is just how tender this book is. Gone is the artifice of autofiction. Who Killed My Father is straight-up memoir, which Louis deftly uses to build towards a jaw-dropping J'Accuse-style denouement.

It begins with Louis returning to the dull, depressed town in which he grew up, to visit his dying father. The two have had a fraught relationship; Louis is a prodigiously talented, gay firebrand. His father is thoroughly working class, a product (and victim) of the crushing machinery of French capitalism. For a long time he simply couldn't understand or accept his son. Through reflections on his childhood and teen years, as well as the visit itself, Louis charts the steady decline of a proud man. It is a sad, painful march towards what could be ultimately viewed as a meaningless death.

What might have been a wholly glum undertaking is lifted to the realm of high art by Louis's ability to find courage and dignity in his father's ordinary existence. And, in a transformation that might strikes some readers as surreal as Gregor Samsa's (it's worth noting that this almost reads like a counterpoint to Kafka's Letter To My Father), Louis's dad rises above his unsophisticated prejudices to love his son, and genuinely try to understand him. Louis, in turn, comes to understand and appreciate his father.

All of this alone would have made Who Killed My Father an incredible book. Louis, however, is not satisfied to leave his father's sad fate unaccounted for. And so we are treated to the most ferocious, intellectually satisfying and downright brilliant critique of the French class structure that you're likely to encounter. It's worth noting that the title does not end with a question mark. Louis isn't trying to discover who killed his father. He knows. The book, therefore, is an indictment, and a damning one at that. These are not words. They are lightning bolts. The last few pages had me crying with rage, and sobbing at the pure act of love all I had read represented. There aren't many books I can say changed the way I think about the world. This is one of them.

Happy New Year everyone. Here's hoping 2020 brings our world a little closer to decency, kindness and justice.

2019 In Review: The Final Countdown

on Monday, December 30, 2019
Crack out the sparklers, I'm vertical again. And I'm not sure if it's just the painkillers speaking or just how I always get when it comes to writing down my Top Ten but I feel like jumping up and down on a couch with excitement Tom Cruise style as I announce my favourite books of the year. But, let's face it, I'd probably put my back out again so I'll just sit here and type as usual.

10. The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Have you ever wondered what Hitchcock might have made of Camus or Saramago if given half the chance? Me too! Well, I reckon the answer might lie in Meg Mundell's fantastic new novel, The Trespassers. It's spec fic awesomeness is abundance, where paranoia, claustrophobia and murder run rampant on the high seas and sharp social commentary simmers between the lines. As a highly original take on important issues like refugee policy, xenophobia, environmental degradation and corporate greed, The Trespassers really has it all. An excellent, layered novel that is an absolute ripper to read.

9. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Ferocious, complex and deeply humane, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is an extraordinary work of protest fiction. Shafak has a remarkable ability to empathise with her characters who, for the most part, dwell on the margins of Turkish society. As such, her meditation on the "disposability" of certain classes of people is nothing short of an excoriation. Finishing this book left me bereft, even with the sweet glimmer of beauty at its end. I still think it should have won the Booker.

8. The Parade by Dave Eggers
I blow hot and cold with Eggers. But the moment I saw this on the release horizon I had high hopes. Set in an unidentified, lawless country, it follows two Western contractors hired to clear a path to the capital. It's mostly a record of repartee between two completely unsuited companions, but there is something sinister lying underneath. An urgently modern fable, with lashings of Beckett and Kafka, an undercurrent of Kadare and a fistful of, well, Eggers, it drew me in only to punch me square in the jaw. With my favourite closing paragraph of the year, The Parade is easily Eggers's best work since What Is The What.

7. Bloomland by John Englehardt
Bloomland is a stunningly masterful reckoning of contemporary America. Innovative in the way it is told, perceptive in its understanding of desperation, grief and anger, and unadorned by cheap gimmickery (I'm looking at you, Shriver), I genuinely cannot think of a better novel about the scourge of school shootings than Bloomland.

6. Lanny by Max Porter
Like almost everyone who read Porter's extraordinary debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, I was very excited to see how he'd follow it up. Grief was such a singular work, its style unique and confounding in the best possible way, but it was also short. Could Porter sustain this kind of magic over the length of a novel? In a move that seemed almost tailored to my taste, what he gave us was a folk tale; a fable that deconstructs the form with its own traditional tools. Lanny is a breathtaking work of the imagination, rendered with stylistic gusto.

5. A Devil Comes To Town by Paulo Maurensig
Lampooning the world of writers and writing might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's bloody hard to pull off successfully. I can count on one hand the literary satires that really work - The Information by Martin Amis, um... um... At last I can add a second to the list with this incredibly funny, oddball tale. The conceit itself is a riot: a rural town in which everyone is a writer working on their manuscript, desperately hoping to be published, is visited by the devil in the form of a big city publisher. Petty rivalries spill over, jealousy abounds and each writer demeans him or herself worse than the last. It's absolutely absurd but, dare I say, it's also scarily accurate. Read it and weep with laughter.

4. Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
Goldberg follows up her international bestseller, Bee Season, with this morally complex story of art, motherhood and ambition. Based loosely on a true story, and set against the restrictive social mores of post-War America, it charts the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of photographer Lillian Preston. Goldberg brilliantly presents it as the catalog to a posthumous exhibition at MOMA, annotated with recollections from her friends, lovers, curators and, of course, her daughter, naked childhood photos of whom precipitated the fall. A beautifully challenging, but ultimately redemptive and moving read.

3. The Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
A crushingly sad, yet hugely triumphant finale to Coetzee's Jesus trilogy. I think it took me until about halfway through this third book to finally understand his grand project, and wow is it a deep, existential one. Of course, I may be wrong - taken together, the three books are remarkably enigmatic - but I think he is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived? I'm not entirely certain of his answer, but is clearly the profound fixation of somebody grappling with his own legacy as he reaches his later years. How might he be remembered? By who? And for what purpose? These are vexing questions for someone who, like Coetzee, has made a point of living a moral, activist life. That said, it might do well for anyone who dares wonder if their life was worthwhile to ask the same. Let's just hope that, as Coetzee might be obliquely suggesting, it's not some quixotic folly to suppose we've mattered at all

2. EEG by Daša Drndić
Could this be the most searing swan song ever written? Andreas Ban has failed to kill himself (you may remember Belladonna closing with his apparent suicide), and so his misanthropic disdain has only intensified. Sick, exhausted and pissed off, he continues to rail against everything and everyone he hates, while trying to wrench the faceless, nameless victims - those who history usually forgets - from the abyss of memory. Drndić, who died last year, bids us farewell (read: gives us the middle finger) with a veritable evisceration of our species' propensity for barbarity, brimming with the moral ferocity, dark humour and panoramic history readers have come know and love (or should I say fear?). A dense, unflinching masterpiece.

2019 In Review: Some Books I Loved (Part 2)

on Friday, December 27, 2019
Greetings from the very Tiger Balmy sickbed! Turns out 2019 gave us a great crop of books. I wasn't expecting this list to be so long and I'm not even down to my Top 10. I still hope to read four or five books before the year is out so the list might grow yet. But for now, here's a bunch more books I loved this year.

The Diver's Game by Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball can do no wrong and here he out Attwoods Attwood with a terrifyingly plausible take on an alternative present. For fans, think of it as a companion of sorts to The Curfew.

Doggerland by Ben Smith
I haven't delved into the whole cli-fi thang anywhere near as much as I'd like to, but from my limited experience I have to say, Doggerland is bloody excellent. Bleak, propulsive, frightening and eerily believable, it had an almost Cormac McCarthyesque darkness in the relationship between the three characters. One of very few books that I literally could not put down. Also, I couldn't help but wonder whether this is what Waterworld might have been like if it that steaming shit-heap of a film had actually been good.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
I have a strange obsession with The Disappearances and this is one of the most beautiful and moving stories about that terrible time in Chile's history I've read. Centred around a group of children who remember a classmate who one day stops turning up to school, and the infamous Caso Degollados case, it frames the horrors from a child's perspective, giving the whole thing a wide-eyed clarity that more worldly, jaded narratives simply could not. Gorgeous and chilling.

Halibut On The Moon by David Vann
Several harrowing, soul-crushingly bleak and excruciatingly intense novels down the line, we might just have hit "Peak Vann". Halibut On The Moon sees this master of the existential abyss coming full circle, revisiting the event that inspired his incredible first novel-in-stories, Legend of A Suicide, and shaded all those that followed. Imagining the final few days of his father's life, days that we as readers already know will end in suicide, Vann demonstrates unparalleled insight into a mind tumbling over the edge. That he is able to mine such deeply personal trauma is remarkable. That he does it to such great effect, without melodrama, judgement or self-pity, is truly extraordinary.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
At this point in her career, Deborah Levy really can't do any wrong and this, in my opinion, is her best novel yet. It's high concept sliding doors as historical stocktake. Read it to see just how exciting contemporary literature can be.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Speaking of exciting, this little novel absolutely blew me away with its structural innovation, smashing down the wall between the author and the work they produce. Exquisite Cadavers is a dual narrative. Its primary (imagined) story is about Karim, a Tunisian immigrant, and Maya, his English wife. Struggling to make ends meet, and in the face of constant casual racism, theirs is a love circumscribed by the realities of Brexit-era London. Meanwhile, in the margins, Kandasamy tells her own story of writing the book, giving us a glimpse into the way her own life and observations - particularly of the abysmal treatment of women, political dissidents and minorities in Modi's India - inform Karim and Maya's story. Absolutely astounding.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I was hand sold this by a local bookseller who knows my taste and thought that, even though I don't read a great deal of science fiction, I'd love it. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a series of linked stories about Adriane, an intergalactic explorer who finds a different planet/system in each chapter. Unsurprisingly, each is significantly different and brings new, often morally challenging, considerations to her voyage. What makes the book brilliant though is what's going on in the background. As the stories progress, Chambers drops little hints that things on earth aren't going quite so well and that Adriane just might be the last person alive. A quite ingenious book and an excellent illustration of why it's worth getting to know your local booksellers. Hi Grumpy Swimmer!

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare
It's been a long time between drinks for me when it comes to reading a thriller but I'm pretty damn happy this was the one that broke the drought. Dark, propulsive, sinister and downright great fun.

Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger
We are all familiar with Elie Wiesel the great Holocaust survival novelist, Nobel Laureate and humanitarian activist. Yet Wiesel considered himself first and foremost a teacher. Burger, who was Wiesel's teaching assistant for several years, gives us unparalleled insight into this aspect of the great man's life. It is a deeply moving account of a mentorship that evolves into friendship, full of touching personal reflections and important lessons from a master.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Is it possible for a book to be propelled almost entirely by the quality of its writing? Strip away the lyrical splendour of The Topeka School and you've got the story of a nerdy high school debater and two shitty marriages (his parents and their friends). Ok, I'm being somewhat reductive - there are issues of small town dynamics, the pressure of having "famous" parents (or being that parent), and the genesis of childhood violence - but still... Now, back to the writing. Holy shit, is Ben Lerner the most effortless prose stylist of the modern generation? Seriously, this book could have been about moss growing in a cave and, in his hands, it would still have been better than most of the books I've read this year

Well that just about covers them all. Next up, the Top Ten. But before I do, a quick shout out to two albums that I just discovered and that were too late to make my list of favourites for the year. I'm absolutely loving the new Reaganomics album, The Ageing Punk. A total explosion of fun, even if it does hit a little close to home.

Also, Moon Tiger released Crux back in August and I totally missed it. Thanks to a few Top 10 lists I've been reading over the past few days I went and checked it out. Wow. Think Scurrilous-era Protest the Hero, but a bit more fun and proggy. Definitely one of my best new discoveries of the year. Awe At All Angels has fast become one of my favourite songs of the year.