The End of The Folio Affair

on Saturday, April 18, 2015
Big breath. Big breath.

I realise that I'm a little late to the party here but I've been mulling this over for a couple of weeks now and, hard as it is for me to admit it, I'm just going to have to accept that The Folio Prize and I are never going to be friends. The excitement I felt, the anticipation of the David and Goliath battle with The Booker Prize, the deliriously happy marriage I rushed into. All over.

And... exhale.

You probably already know that the prize was recently awarded to Akhil Sharma for his twelve-year-in-the-making Family Life. William Fiennes, chair of judges, could not have been more laudatory if he tried:

"From a shortlist of which we are enormously proud, Akhil Sharma’s lucid, compassionate, quietly funny account of one family’s life across continents and cultures, emerged as our winner. Family Life is a masterful novel of distilled complexity: about catastrophe and survival; attachment and independence; the tension between selfishness and responsibility. We loved its deceptive simplicity and rare warmth. More than a decade in the writing, this is a work of art that expands with each re-reading and a novel that will endure."

I, on the other hand, bestowed a somewhat different honour upon it last year, when it came in alongside Murakami's latest offering as the equally most overrated book of 2014. You may perhaps recall my little spray:

"I was at a loss to understand the plaudits poured upon Akhil Sharma's slim offering, Family Life. It supposedly took him ten or twelve or twenty (or some other multiple of a ferret's average life span) years to complete and drew heavily from his personal experience of grief and dislocation. Stripped of its forest of laurels it is a fair to middling shrub of a novel about the immigrant experience. I can't help but feel that Sharma has a lot of friends in high places, none of whom could muster the guts to tell him that those umpteen years might have been better spent working on something else."

So what gives, Folio? Last year you gave it to George Saunders for Tenth of December and I bitched and moaned. That too had made my end of year list in 2013, also being named the most overrated book of the year. Am I that far off track? Have I become the accidental predictor of all future Folio Prizes? If so, might I suggest putting some early moolah on Ishiguro? Or maybe third time will be a charm. Just kidding, I'm sure I'll be wildly off mark again.

Microviews Vol. 54: War in Pieces

on Friday, April 17, 2015
Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić
For a country built on waves of immigration, Australian seems oddly lacking in great novels of the immigrant experience. Off hand, there's Pino Bossi's Australia Cane, Arnold Zable's Cafe Scheherezade and The Boat by Nam Le (admittedly not a novel but unquestionably brilliant). And The Arrival by Shaun Tan has to crack a mention, even if it is graphic fiction. Now elbowing its way into the milieu comes A.S. Patrić's debut long-former (he has published short story collections and a novella), Black Rock White City, a book that I am convinced will be held among the greats in years to come. With tight, carefully crafted prose Patrić gives us a story that transcends any particular ethnicity, one that delves deep into the existential conundrum of transplanted life. Jovan and Suzanna are both cleaners; he mops the floor of a bayside hospital while she tidies the homes of the privileged. Back in Serbia, before their lives were destroyed, before their son died, they were part of the literary elite. Highly educated, celebrated. Having fled to Australia, they live out the quiet drudgery of subsistence while coming to terms - if that is even possible - with their shared trauma. Jovan wanders, he throws himself into an essentially meaningless affair. Suzanna exists in a state of constant self-negation, of guilt and blame. And yet, through it all they seem to be navigating a way back to love. Behind the complexity of the relationships, both with each other and those around them, Patrić also weaves a sinister mystery. Someone is daubing the hospital walls with nasty, pointed graffiti. Every letter is an accusation, every phrase a dagger in Jovan's chest. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to discover the identity of this Dr. Graffito (as Jovan calls him) but Patrić is too savvy a writer to allow his book to descend to the level of cheap thriller. The graffiti serves a more poetic purpose: it juxtaposes with Jovan's own poetry in what seems to be a battle for meaning. Black Rock White City is a sparely written book of big ideas. Patrić lays bare the minutiae of the new immigrant's daily struggle with perfect pitch and amazing beauty; the constant mispronunciations, the cultural clashes, the daily sacrifices, the small pleasures. That he dares to do so from the side of a conflict often seen as 'the baddies' makes it all the more powerful. Indeed, Black Rock White City goes to show that simple dichotomies don't work when we talk about war. Everyone is a victim. Lives are ruined. Tragedy does not take sides. And therein lies the knockout blow of this truly wonderful novel: the scars endure, the poison continues to course through the vein, but simple humanity might still triumph.
5 Out of 5 Soapy Buckets

Down To The River by SJ Finn
Brave is the author willing to give considered thought to the great taboos of our times. In Down To The River, SJ Finn turns her insightful gaze to what is, to my mind, the greatest taboo right now: pedophilia. Never fear. This isn't some morally suspect Lolita-lite. Nor is it a heavy-handed piece of judgemental grandstanding. Finn seems more interested in the way the issue affects the various players around it. Rather cleverly, she situates the story in a country town, a perfect fishbowl in which to scratch at society's scabs. Dungower is a typical Victorian backwater. Everyone knows everyone else. Legacies loom large, friendships endure. Unfortunately, so too do grudges and petty rivalries. And that's before the dark secrets bubble to the surface. Enter Jordan Phelps, twice convicted child sex offender, his past kept quiet until he is accused of abusing two local boys. With the tinderbox lit and exploding, the townsfolk spin like a Catherine Wheel, scorching and fizzling in a multitude of colours. Down To The River is, above all, a thoughtful examination of a town in crisis. Phelps is more catalyst than character - he brings out both the best and worst in the townsfolk but otherwise exists on the periphery of the story. Of more concern to Finn is the failing relationship between local journo Joni Miller and her partner Tiff. To them, small town life proves toxic. That Joni is unwittingly tied to Dungower's own child sex scandal, herself a victim of sorts, widens the chasm between them. Down To The River is a sharp and impressively woven novel but there is one jarring caveat. The courtroom scene, when Phelps is finally hauled before a magistrate to face the charges, is strangely inauthentic. Procedurally - speaking as a lawyer - it just doesn't ring true, owing more to American courtroom dramas than actual Australian legal process. It is a peculiar stumble for a book that is otherwise so packed with perceptive truths.
4 Out Of 5 Pitchforks

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner
In the sprawling fields of literature, legends sprout like unchecked weeds. Six months ago, very few people had heard of the inter-war German journalist and author Ernst Haffner. Then word began to leak about a lost classic, recently rediscovered and soon to be translated. That the book, banned and burned by the Nazis, had for so long been forgotten was itself worthy of note. But it is the fate of its author that really got tongues flapping. Sometime in the early 1940s, Ernst Haffer just vanished. What's more, all official records of him also disappeared. For all intents and purposes, Haffner did not exist. With a back story like that, it was hard not to be excited about the release of Blood Brothers. Unfortunately, it was equally hard for the book to live up to the hype. Blood Brothers is a gritty tale of dispossessed youth in Weimar Germany. Thugs, thieves, rent boys, scammers, they do what they can to get by, always striving to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The gang splinters and reconstitutes, some leave to pursue more legitimate paths, others spiral downwards into outright desperation and depravity. It is about as unflattering a portrait any author could paint of one society's seedy underbelly. And that is where Haffner really excelled. Blood Brothers is a tough book; it pulls no punches. It is also rather disjointed and episodic. As a novel I'm not quite sure it works. But as an indictment of a country in decline, a foretelling of horrors to come, it is almost without equal.
3.5 Out Of 5 Picked Pockets

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
Science has never been my thing. Still, I know enough to understand the basics of conditioning. Most monkeys administered a nasty shock will avoid doing whatever they were doing when the jolt hit. Many learn the first time. What gives? you may ask. Well, it turns out that when it comes to reading I rank somewhere below your average rhesus. Last time I tried a Peirene book, the staggeringly bleak heartbreaker By The Sea, I almost needed to be committed. It should have been enough to steer me away from anything else they published. Yet, sub-primate that I am, I picked up Aki Ollikainen's White Hunger despite having read that it was much like Cormac McCarthy's The Road minus the glimmers of hope. Set during a brutal Nordic winter, where crops have failed and people are succumbing to starvation, disease and hypothermia, it tells a tale not dissimilar to McCarthy's book albeit more grounded in historical reality. A young family sets off on foot towards Russia in the hope of finding food. That's about it. They trudge across the frozen wasteland, witnessing the horrible casualties in nature's war against humankind. Readers would do well not to get too attached to anyone - one by one they die sad, horrible deaths. Even the small mercies prove cruel and unforgiving. White Hunger is a harrowing book. It shows us for the insignificant creatures we really are while stripping away the facade of civility. It is, however, also quite brilliant. You will learn more about yourself than you might ever care to know. Just be sure to tuck some money away before you read it. You're going to need a therapist when you're done and Medicare only covers so much of the cost.
4 Out of 5 Frozen Mudcakes

The Drummer Falls Silent: Gunter Grass 1927 - 2015

on Wednesday, April 15, 2015
And so another of the great old guard leaves us.

Much like the death last year of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that of Gunter Grass has me a little torn. First up... The Tin Drum. A true modern classic, no doubt, with the most deliciously malicious dwarf ever to grace the page. I remember studying it in German Literature and being thoroughly enchanted by Oskar's singularly demented worldview. Probably one of the best German reflections on the Nazi scourge I've encountered. Then there are the others: Cat and Mouse and Dog Years (the second and third instalments of the Danzig Trilogy), The Flounder, The Rat. Even Crabwalk, though I suspect that I am one of the few readers who actually liked Grass's attempt at reconciling "classic" and "modern" bigotry.

But then there was Gunter Grass the man. The liar. The curmudgeon. The moral fraud. Sure, he wasn't a misogynist prick like Marquez or a surly arsehole like Saramago but, well, he was a member of the Waffen SS. And that's about as bad as you can get. Perhaps had he come clean early on in the piece, say... you know.. before he won the Nobel Prize, it might have been understandable. Own the shame I say. Indeed, his excuse for involvement, that most young men were conscripted and fought in the war without ideological zeal, makes perfect sense. It's not like he was that Nazi loving scumbag Knut Hamsen. But the underhandedness of his silence has done his legacy untold, everlasting damage.

Still, I will always be thankful to him for Oskar, for making me understand (at least in a tiny sense) the mindset of a people who could so easily be led into moral bankruptcy. Vale, sir. Though I can't rightfully salute you. I'm sure you'd understand.

Little Prize Lost: The Man Booker International Prize 2015

on Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Much has changed in LitPrize world since the folk at Man Booker opened its doors to any novel written in the English language. Most notably, the Folio Prize beat Booker to the punch by a couple of years and, in doing so, made the latter look like the new kid on the block (not to mention a bit of an embarrassing follower). Legions of Booker loyalists, myself included, have also cooled a bit on what was once an annual hysterical lather trying to figure out which novel would kneel before the Queen for an honorary knighthood and which others would have their heads lopped off. Perhaps the most peculiar change, though, is to the status of Booker's little cousin - The Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. Handed out every second year, it was originally concocted to recognise the kind of writer who was not eligible for the regular Booker (i.e. the non-colonised) but whose body of work (as opposed to any individual novel) deserved a right royal huzzah. That's not to say the Queen's subjects were not in the running - both Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Alice Munro (Canada) have won it - but of the five laureates thus far, three fell outside the traditional Booker jurisdiction.

I've often wondered why or how the prize ever got off the ground. It seemed redundant from the get go. Of the many rationales I've enteratined, only one rings really true. Team Booker made the thing up just so that they could give it to the two perpetual Nobel bridesmaids, Ismail Kadare and Philip Roth. Which kind of means they can close it down. Mission Accomplished. Oh well... Still they persist and now they've just announced the ten writers in the running for the 2015 prize. In case you missed it, they are:

César Aira (Argentina)
Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
Mia Couto (Mozambique)
Amitav Ghosh (India)
Fanny Howe (USA)
Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo)
Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)

No points for guessing where my heart lies on this one. I've been routing for Krasznahorkai for the Nobel for umpteen years (mainly because I've given up on Kadare) so it would be gratifying to see him pick up something in the English-speaking world, even if it is a prize as pointless and ill-conceived as this. I just love the idea of sycophantic Booker types trying to make sense of Krasznahorkai's nightmare vision or even wading through the thick primal sludge of his prose. Oh the joy! Of course we all know my form on picking these things. Might as well hand it to César Aira right now. Alas we'll have to wait until May 19. Watch this space.

Microviews Vol. 53: Digging Up The Giant

on Saturday, March 21, 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro is not the kind of writer to be constrained by genre. Over-thinkers can probably find common themes across his ouevre but the rest of us have just enjoyed his wide-ranging, free-wheeling imagination for what it is. Be it classic Victorian, Japanese pastoral, detective, sci-fi or Kafka-like surrealism, each new work was a treat for his now legion of fans. When the lit Gods let it be known late last year that Ishiguro had a new novel in the offing, his first since the staggeringly brilliant Never Let Me Go, the buzz was almost deafening. True to form, it was going to be in a genre he had not yet attempted: fantasy. Gulp. But hey, it's Ishiguro. What could possible go wrong? The Buried Giant was unleashed with all the fanfare of a major literary event. Indeed, aside from the forthcoming Harper Lee novel, I doubt any book this year is going to garner quite as much attention. Alas, to borrow from the medieval vernacular, this dragon turned out to be all smoke and very little fire. Forget the comparisons to Tolkien, Martin (one pundit had it as GOT minus the sex and violence - in other words, not GOT) or even Gaiman. The Buried Giant is a pretty unremarkable picaresque; well-written, mildly engaging but, somewhat ironically, lacking in the magic that has made Ishiguro's previous novels so marvellous. Here's the book in a nutshell: An elderly couple go out in search of the son they haven't seen in years. Along the way they meet a warrior (possibly a double agent) and a kid who join them on their quest. They also bump into Sir Gawain (he of the Green Knight fame), now something of a relic, still hoping to slay the dreaded local dragon. Stuff happens. The end. Of course I'm underplaying the plot here. Plenty goes on in classic picaresque fashion. There are fights and double crosses, gallantry and treachery. But it's all a little ho-hum. That's not to say the book is a failure. Ishiguro's Post-Roman England is well-realised. The Saxons and Britons are at war. Ogres and beasts roam freely. An overbearing mist clouds both perception and memory. Allusions to Dante abound. Yet for all its beauty, The Buried Giant seems to clunk along like the badly oiled armour on poor Gawain.
3 Out Of 5 Knights Who Say "Ni"

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Four books into his career and Tom McCarthy is shaping up to be this generation's JG Ballard. I don't make the comparison lightly. When it comes to the combination of vision, inventiveness, social criticism and experimental gusto only McCarthy comes close to the late, great master. Or maybe he's just Thomas Pynchon in disguise. Stranger things have happened. Whatever, Satin Island continues McCarthy's fascination with the "essence of now" (my term, not his, pardon the quotation marks), this time putting it front and centre. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist engaged by The Company where he has been tasked with writing a study that will distill modern life to its very essence. It's never quite clear what The Company does (only that it has recently won a major account, the Koob-Sassen Project) nor why it has him embark on this peculiar task. Nevertheless, with all the dogged perseverance of his hero Claude Levi-Strauss, U. begins to compile dossiers from snippets of modern existence, looking for links, themes, arcs and, ultimately, meaning. There are meditations on airports, cargo cults of Vanuatu, a parachuting accident that is most likely a murder, email scams... you name it. U.'s task becomes more obsessive as the novel progresses, its manic escalation sweeping the reader up in a world that is expanding and contracting at the same time. It also gets quite funny; so much so that I suspect McCarthy is having a bit of a laugh at our expense. It doesn't matter. He clearly wants us to laugh along with him. And we do. Until we cry.
4 Out Of 5 Broken Hyperlinks

Aquarium by David Vann
Forget the garnish, spices or seasoning. When David Vann decides to feed you your heart on a plate he just rips that fucker out of your chest, chops it a few times with a cleaver and throws it in your face. To my mind Vann is the quintessential modern cartographer of human devastation. That's not to say he hits the mark every time. Dirt seemed shocking for shocking's sake and lacked the emotional depth of Caribou Island or Legend of a Suicide. The staccato prose of Goat Mountain was difficult to navigate (though it was still a brilliant novel). Now comes Aquarium, possibly his most 'conventional' work. Sure, it has moments of horror (well, one prolonged passage) but for the most part it is a warm, quiet tale of a family torn asunder, plagued by the legacy of neglect and abuse, searching desperately for redemption. Caitlyn, the 12-year-old narrator, runs off to the local aquarium each afternoon, hoping to lose herself in the underwater kingdom. She is oblivious to those around her - the staff let her through without paying, the other patrons leave her be. That is until she meets Bob, an old man who seems to share her fascination. The conditioned cynic in me had the guy pegged as a pedophile - his interest was a little too intimate, his pandering to her better understanding slightly creepy. Vann avoids the cheap route, though. Bob is anything but - he is Caitlyn's estranged grandfather, the man who fled the family home when her grandmother was sinking into the depredations of terminal illness, leaving Caitlyn's then teenaged mother Sheri to single handedly carry the burden of care. The combination of abandonment and disease created a monster; Sheri was subjected to the most horrific abuse but was too guilt ridden to even contemplate escaping. When the grandmother died, she left behind a broken girl who would set about punishing everyone she loved. No surprises then that her own marriage collapsed, nor that she denies her daughter anything resembling motherly warmth. Bob's sudden reappearance brings all the simmering tensions to the boil and, predictably, she explodes. It is a cataclysmic collapse with poor Caitlyn alone in the firing line. Vann slips easily back into his comfort zone, visiting horrific torture on the poor girl before seemingly remembering the bigger picture and attempting to salvage a meaningful family drama from the chaos. It makes for a strange fracture; engaging but not altogether convincing.
3.5 Out Of 5 Nurse Sharks

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan
How do we come back from the dark holes into which we are sometimes thrust? It is the sort of question I almost expected Andrew O'Hagan to ask. His last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe joins Martin Amis's Yellow Dog as the most embarrassing dog-titled novel of the past twenty years. Seriously, that book was a... well... dog. O'Hagan's answer, it seems, is to return to familiar grounds, mining the darker corners of everyday existence. The Illuminations is a novel that draws together war, art, memory and tragedy. It also marks something of a return to form. Anne Quirk's mind is succumbing to Alzheimers. She has moments of clarity but she often drifts off to a life from which she walked away, a life of glamour and artistic celebration. Half way around the world, her grandson patrols the hills and villages of Afghanistan, where he is serving as a member of the Royal Western Fusiliers. Anne's quiet existence is suddenly shaken up by news that a young man from their town has died in an 'incident' and, of course, she fears the worst. Thankfully, it isn't Luke but he was there and returns scarred not only by what he saw but also what he did. Their unit was led into a trap, they had no choice but to defend themselves. But they went overboard and it became a massacre. Again, the question: how do we come back from the dark holes? For Luke the answer lies in the Blackpool Illuminations, where he hopes to excavate his grandmother's memories. He can heal only if she does. It is a sweet idea but one that might well also break her. Sometimes we are not ready to face our truths. O'Hagan juggles the dual threads with typical skill and both Luke and Anne's stories are complex, sad and intriguing. In Blackpool Luke learns the truth - it is a melancholy tale of lost love and forgotten dreams (and, in part, The Beatles) - but is also forced to come to terms with his own experience. The Illuminations is a quiet book, not as deep or beautiful as Our Fathers but still a worthy comeback from a pretty nasty fall.
3.5 Out of 5 Clouded Sunsets

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
Death has done more deals in the literary world that Stephen King's agent. Here he is again, collecting an artist's soul for a slice of immortality. Yes, The Sculptor is another riff on the age-old Faustian myth. But don't go wandering off to touch up that portrait in your attic just yet. This sizeable graphic novel is pretty good. The forgettably named David Smith dreams of being a famous sculptor. He gets his 15 minutes pretty early on, or at least it seems like he will. He has a patron. Galleries show interest. One thing leads to the next and... C'mon. It's the art world. He is dumped and forgotten. Wandering the streets feeling sorry for himself, he meets his great uncle, Harry. Lovely. Except that Harry has been dead for ages. This particular iteration is just Death in disguise, coming with a once in a lifetime offer - magical sculpting powers and all the adulation that might entail for a guarantee of only 200 more days of life. Well, you know how artists are. The deal is done and Smith takes to it with gusto, creating fantastic, surreal explosions of sculpture with his bare hands (granted, it's a pretty cool superpower). Only problem: the critics think he stinks. His agent sells him out in favour of a younger trust funder who, it just happens, is the agent's boyfriend. Life goes back to shit. But at least it will end soon, right? Enter the angel, or at least a young lady dressed as an angel as part of a performance art piece. David falls in love instantly. Ahhhhh crap. Young love, the need for immortality and only 198 days to live. Time to make it count. The Sculptor is a beautifully realised work of contemplative graphic fiction. Scott McCloud perfectly captures the artistic temperament and the burning need to "make your mark" that often consumes and destroys the artist. It is also a pretty hilarious roasting of the art world and all its stupid pretensions. Like any 500 page book, The Sculptor kind of drags at times and there are moments of sentimental cliche but they don't detract too much from the work as a whole. That said, I'm not sure it adds a whole lot to the deal-with-death schtick but who really cares? It is a joy to read and a beauty to behold (not to mention a good workout to actually pick up).
3.5 Out of 5 August Rodins (see what I did there?)

Waltz Laughingly with Death: A Short Tribute to My Favourite Guilty Pleasure, Terry Pratchett

on Friday, March 13, 2015
Fuck you, Death. I mean, we were all expecting it. His decline was front page news, his fight against early-onset alzheimer's an inspiration. But still...

I remember picking up Small Gods in an airport umpteen years ago. I needed something light, something entertaining. I'd heard good things about this Pratchett fellow and had a bit of a soft spot for fantasy in my younger days. So I thought sure, why not. Oh man, what a flight that was. I laughed the entire way. Other passengers complained. I might have slapped the guy beside me's thigh. Most importantly, I thought. Hard. That book was not some slight throw-away laugh up. It was serious philosophy. Thoughtful anti-teleological critique. Brilliant satire. A work of imaginative genius and razor sharp wit. From that day on, for many years, I would not board a plane without a book by Terry Pratchett. Sure, my taste evolved to wanky high-brow literature but Terry remained a constant. A reminder that something silly, something hilarious, something batshit crazy could hold its own against the Kafkas, Musils, Walsers and Steinbecks.

Then there was that one time I was walking through Barnes and Noble in Union Square, New York and he brushed past me. Whisper quiet, slight, unassuming. Signature black hat, black shirt, black jeans. Him, not me. I was giddy. Like a little kid. I could not have been a more gelatinous mess had Coetzee walked by. Then this:

No doubt more detailed eulogies will be blogged, more erudite analyses of this master's fine work. But I just felt I'd take up my little corner of this ever-expanding universe to say this: In my world, Terry Pratchett was one heck of a turtle.

A Moment of Frippery (Valentine's Edition)

on Friday, February 13, 2015
I am often accused, quite rightly, of favouring books that tend towards the bleak and macabre. It's how I roll. However, contrary to popular opinion, I do actually have a heart. And it pumps warm blood. Far be it from me to buy into the crass commercialisation of emotion but I thought I might take this opportunity to tip my hat in the direction of tomorrow's festivities and attempt to post something of moderate interest to the lovelorn and desperate. Never fear, whingers. You need not suffer alone. I'm sure you already know the classic tales of love but there's a whole world of amazing novels you have probably yet to discover. Pick up one of these and live (and love) vicariously:

Binu And The Great Wall - Su Tong

Censoring An Iranian Love Story - Shahariar Mandanipour

The Postman - Antonio Skarmeta

Melisande! What Are Dreams? - Hillel Halkin

Contempt - Alberto Moravia (For the Valentine Grinches)

Harping On: The Mockingbird Sings Again

on Wednesday, February 4, 2015
How many authors can boast a perfect publishing record? I've spent the morning running through my list of favourites and, try as I might to name one who hasn't sullied their good name with a stinker, I'm coming up pretty empty. Indeed, the only person who hasn't royal screwed up is Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is a bona fide classic, one of the great American novels. Add to that "Harper Lee the woman" and you have a dead set literary legend. I've long admired her reclusive ways, her stubborn refusal to be drawn into the literary world and, most of all, her hilariously understated oneup(wo)manship of Truman Capote.

For the better part of fifty years Lee has remained an enigma. She hit the news a couple of years back over a nasty legal spat with her former agent who, it seems, pretty much stole the rights and royalties to Mockingbird. But other than that she might as well have been dead. Now she's hit the headlines again. Actually, that would be an understatement. The entire internet has gone into meltdown. Harper Lee is publishing a second novel this year, a sequel (of sorts) to Mockingbird called Go Set A Watchman.

According to pretty much every news source under the sun, Watchman was written before Mockingbird. It is the book Lee presented to her editor as a young, hopeful writer desperate to break into the publishing world. The editor liked it but was particularly enamoured of the flashback scenes - those that dealt with Scout as a child. Lee was told to go back and explore that aspect in greater detail. She came back with the novel we all know and love, nay revere.

So why risk the perfect record? Why now? I have always been in two minds about a 'second' Harper Lee novel. Like any debut of such incredible brilliance, I've yearned to read more. But then, what if it is rubbish? What if she only had one great book in her? I can think of countless great debuts that were followed up by boring, clumsy or just plain bad books.

The press would have us believe that the book is being published because it was only recently rediscovered. Apparently it was attached to an old typescript of Mockingbird. Yet it seems to coincide with a couple of troubling developments in Lee's life. Firstly, there was the legal spat. She ultimately won - the case settled out of court - but it is entirely possible that she is still on struggle street. Secondly, there is some talk that Lee has been steadily slipping towards senility. She is pushing 90 and, given her general shyness, it is hard to gauge the state of her faculties. And then, perhaps most troubling, is the fact that the announcement of this new book comes in the wake of a personal tragedy that has a decidedly professional bearing. As Jezebel reports:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee's estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

That said, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm sure there is a reason Lee's editor rejected it in the first place. It may, at best, be Lee's apprentice novel - the one she wrote while learning to write. Whatever the case, I'll be reading it. I fell in love with the Finches and the townspeople of Maycomb and want to know what became of them. Sure, it may be a crushing disappointment. But then she'll just join my other heroes - Kafka, Steinbeck, Capek, Coetzee - in the halls of fallibility.

Microviews Vol. 52: Love In A Time of Stoners

on Monday, February 2, 2015
Black River by S.M. Hulse
Debut novels don't come much better or more self assured than S.M. Hulse's Black River. In a literary landscape littered with Cormac McCarthy wannabes, Hulse rises above the Western cliches to deliver a crushingly powerful morality tale of memory, pain, revenge and redemption. Having just lost his wife to cancer, Wes Carver is coming home to face his worst nightmare. Bobby Williams, the man who once held him hostage during a prison riot, the man who subjected him to unimaginable torture and robbed him of his greatest love - his ability to play the fiddle - is up for parole. Word has it that Bobby is a changed man. He has found God. Only Wes can stand in the way of his release. Then there's Dennis, Carver's stepson, who once held a gun to his stepfather's head in a fit of rage. As Wes settles back into life in Black River, unsure if it's just a visit or if he's going to stay for the long run, their relationship crackles on the flint edge of a matchbox. They bear the scars of shared trauma, of loss, of uncertainty. And they both brim with paternal love for the wayward kid that works as a saddler on Dennis's farm. Hulse controls the story with the skill of a seasoned master. Carver's suffering - and Williams's brutality - during the riot play out in measured glimpses that pepper the novel like buckshot. And though the parole hearing is the central context for Carver's return, it too plays a pretty minor role. Indeed, there are quite a few 'big events' in the novel, but Hulse doesn't use them for cheap melodrama but, rather, to mine the inner working of her characters' souls. We as readers feel the depth of Carver's pain at what he has lost and, more importantly, what he fears he may never regain. Inevitably, there is redemption but it is the twisted, ambiguous kind. Some might find it frustrating but I thought it the perfect end to a near perfect novel.
5/5 Burning Haystacks

God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger
By most accounts, Haiti is a pretty crappy place to live. Wracked by poverty and corruption, underdeveloped, oppressive; even nature likes to shit on its head. It is an amazing testament to the human spirit, then, that the people have such a beautiful sense of hope and maintain a lively and rich culture. Sadly, of course, very little of it ever seeps out to the wider world. Dimitry Elias Leger's much lauded novel, God Loves Haiti, is one of the few exceptions. Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat all sing its praises. There's a pretty decent groundswell of support from the literary heavyweights, the kind of folk who can make or break a book. No surprise then, that the book is a brief distillation of all that is both good and bad about the country. Set in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake (you may recall Wyclef Jean walking through the rubble proclaiming his intention to run for president), God Loves Haiti centres around the president, his new wife (Natasha) and her lover (Alain). When the earthquake hit, Natasha was boarding a plane to flee her shithole country for Italy, having locked Alain in a cupboard at the presidential palace. It is almost a comic set piece and, to some extent it is rather funny, but it also lays the foundation for some serious national soul searching on Leger's part. How can a person (or a country) rebuild their life when they have been reduced to absolutely nothing? Can you truly know a person until you see their lives stripped bare? Can you escape your true love? Where to for this afflicted but proud country? Unfortunately the book doesn't quite have the depth to answer any of these - Leger seems to have got caught up in the difficult conflict of philosophy versus narrative, with semi-cheesy romantic narrative winning out. As an important contribution from an oft silenced voice, God Loves Haiti is well worth the read. As the compelling, great piece of literature that Diaz et al are claiming, I just wasn't convinced.
3.5 On The Richter Scale

Here by Richard McGuire
It took far too long for me to get over my snobbery and learn to appreciate the literary value of graphic fiction. Yes, haters, it's okay to like comics. Now, reading McGuire's astonishing book Here (it can't quite be called a novel - heck, I really don't know what to call it), I have come to realise something else, something, I dare say, more profound: Some stories can only be told in pictures. Here is the story of a room. Yep. Every two-page spread is of the same spot, mostly a room in a house, though McGuire does trace it back to before the house was built and long into the future when it becomes some weird sci-fi space. Characters from different eras float in and out, appear and reappear, often on the same page. The room changes with the latest design trends. McGuire even manages to work in important historical moments with subtlety and grace. Needless to say I'm doing the book a great disservice in trying to describe it. Words alone cannot do it justice; they just don't capture the fluidity of time or space that is essential to the narrative flow. So I'll just leave it at this: Here is a singular phenomenon and, quite possibly, a game changer in the way stories can be told.
5/5 Creaking Floorboards

Stoner by John Williams
I've had Stoner sitting on my shelf for years collecting dust. It's long been the book I've been meaning to read, the one that slips quietly to the bottom of the pile every time the next best thing comes along. Even the recent frenzy of attention (for those living on Book Mars, Stoner was suddenly rediscovered by every writer under the sun a couple of years ago and held out as the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time) didn't get me to pick it up. Not quite sure, then, what caused me to pack it on my recent trip to Mexico. Possibly the hope of novel attrition - I knew I'd have to get to it once the other books ran out. Or maybe I'd just need something gentle when the inevitable food poisoning struck. So, halfway through my trip, after lifting my face from the puke-splattered toilet bowl, I finally blew off the cobwebs, opened to the first page and... Well, what can I say that hasn't already been said? Stoner is quite possibly the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time. I am a fool for having ignored it. Yes, it's almost whisper quiet and it does a comprehensive hatchet job on your heart but it is one of the most beautiful stories about an ordinary man that I've ever read. William Stoner is a classic meat and 'taters American. Life carries him along - from farm boy to promising college student to tenured academic to tormented husband to besotted father to middle aged nobody etc etc - and then he dies. Pretty humdrum, I know. But Williams portrays Stoner's struggle through everyday life with such beauty, such compassion and such generosity of spirit that you will close the book thinking you've met the most wonderful human being of all time. Truly worthy of every single salivating, hyperbolic rave.
5/5 Fading Inscriptions

2015: The Brick and Mortar Revival

on Friday, January 2, 2015
The sun has risen over Playa Del Carmen and the awful techno music from the nearby beach club continues to pump through the very foundation of my hotel. Needless to say, I've had a fair few waking hours to contemplate any new year's resolutions. For the most part I try to avoid them; I'm still smarting from my 2013 "Review Every Book I Read" Resolution. Sure I did it but at what cost? Resentment! Anxiety! Total blogger burnout!

This year I have only one resolution and it's one that I urge all of you to make as well. 2015 will be the year of bricks and mortar. I will only buy books from actual bookstores. No Amazon. No Book Depository. If the book I'm after is out of print I'm allowed to hit up Abebooks or Alibris but that's it. It's time we did our part to stop these online powerhouses from pillaging our authors and publishers. It might be a little more expensive but it will be worth every cent.