2016 Year In Review: A Short List of Lists (And a Bit of an Announcement)

on Thursday, December 8, 2016
*Tap tap*

Hello?

*Tap tap tap*

Is this thing on?...

(Sound of throat clearing)

Why do I feel like I'm starting from scratch, calling out across an empty auditorium?

I suppose 2016 wasn't quite the grand blogging year I'd anticipated. Nor was it the greatest reading year I've had. A week into December and I'm only at 85 books. Don't think I'll be hitting the ton this time round. Granted, I have a decent excuse for once. I didn't read and I didn't blog because, after seven years of half-arsed effort, I decided 2016 was the year I'd finish my novel. And so I cut myself off from the world and wrote, wrote, wrote until... Holy shit, I actually finished it. Yep, the beast that started with my story Crumbs all those years ago (see sidebar for link) has grown into something quite beyond what I'd intended or imagined. I really didn't think I'd see the day. Nor, I dare say, did my publisher who took a big risk on a long, complex and difficult book at a very early stage and would have been well justified in regretting it by now. But, lo and behold, it is done and we've begun the editorial process which, I have to say, is super exciting and a whole new experience for me.

I'm thrilled now to finally announce that in September 2017 The Book of Dirt will be published by my all-time dream publisher, home of so many of my favourite authors (both local and international), Text Publishing. Of course, the big question now is on which arm will I get their logo tattooed? I'm thinking between the paw prints and the Shalom tatt. Seems fitting.



Ok, so now I've got that out of my system it's time to do what I love to do most - crap on about books I've read. Sure, I might not have updated this blog all that much but I have read a few books and have the usual semi-informed opinions about them. Which means I can close out the year with my usual lists of rants and raves. As always, I'm setting myself a bunch of rolling deadlines to make sure I actually do it. So here goes, the order of lists and the dates on which they'll appear:

December 17: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

December 22: The Shelf of Shame

December 26: The Best of Bridesmaids

December 29: The Final Countdown

December 31: Bait For Bookworms Book of 2016

The Man Booker Prize 2016: A Last Minute Form Guide to the Blah Booker

on Monday, October 24, 2016
In what will no doubt be remembered - if it is remembered at all - as the least exciting literary race in recent times, the ragged drayhorses of the Booker Prize field are now lurching their way to the October 25 finish line. Yes, like Steve Bradbury before them, one will whoosh past the more deserving contenders - some who were long listed, some who were overlooked entirely - to snatch a spanking new doorstop to show off to their friends. Even my most rabid bookish mates have wandered off to more interesting pastures - I think the most anyone I know has read of the shortlist is four. Sucker is me, then. I've read them all. And I'm here to ramble my way through a form guide so you don't have to bother. Let me say at the outset, they're all pretty good books. I just don't see any particularly worthy of something so prestigious as the Booker. Well, except maybe one. But, in the year that the Nobel committee proved that prestige counts for jack shit, someone is going to be pretty bloody pleased that they kicked Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith's arses. So here's my take.

A Literary Safe Space
Booker is notorious for its literary conservatism so, as always, the more traditional type books sit atop the bookmaker's tables as close favourites*. Madeleine Thien is, perhaps surprisingly, outright top of the list at 2/1 with her epic family saga, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It's a big and quite lovely book, riffing on the continuity of family through generations, particularly in the face of violent oppression and major societal change. Set mostly through the transitional Mao/Deng period of China and culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massage of 1989, it does not shy away from the brutality and degradation suffered by the "average" Chinese citizen. To me its greatest strength lay in its complexity - it was quite the moral challenge to make sense of characters who went from victims to collaborators to saviours. Thien is a fine, old school writer and this is sure to satisfy the casual reader. I suppose that makes it the safe choice for Team Booker. It's also the boring one. Deborah Levy gets her second chance at a Booker with Hot Milk, another charming (if creepy) addition to what has become a greatly admirable body of work. There are a lot of people who think she should have won it for Swimming Home but I think this is probably the better book. A daughter takes her ailing mother to a seaside Spanish village in search of miracle cure from a patently quackish doctor. It is a steaming, steamy novel - unsettling in its depiction of the tensions between the two women but even more so in its exploration of sexuality and desire. To me there was a distinctly Muriel Sparkish undertone. Think The Driver's Seat, if you will (there was even a stalkerish observer who intruded on the narrative to make sinister observations). I was waiting for a last minute suckerpunch and, although it never came, I closed the book with a sense of satisfaction and damp, sweaty palms. The bookies have Levy at 3/1. The track record for consolation Bookers has me rating it a decent chance. My love for the underdog (see below) kind of hopes it doesn't.

Barbarians at the Gate
This is the third year in which American novels have been eligible for Booker glory and this time round we have two rather unexpected contenders hobbling along the track. Paul Beatty's decidedly loopy comedy The Sellout has already picked up a fair few accolades (most notably the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award) and found itself on pretty much everyone's Best of 2015 list. Everyone but me, that is. As I said in my end of year wrap up, it's a good book with a genius premise and some truly brilliant comic moments but I couldn't help but feel that it overstayed its welcome. Beatty deserves laudatory attention just for the size of his cojones - it takes some massive ones to write about an African American guy attempting to bring back segregation in his neighbourhood and taking on a slave. He's also has a knack for outright hilarity. Every scene with the guy's inventor father is a comedic gem. There is, of course, a much darker side to the book. The Sellout has proven to be incredibly prescient and even necessary in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the frighteningly regressive racial tensions (hello, Trump and his basket of deplorables - special shoutout to the rednecks). Whether it has the legs to bag a Booker has yet to be seen but to my mind it is objectively the strongest contender. The punting public seems to think otherwise. Beatty is sitting at 6/1. The second American entry is even more unsettling - probably the bleakest novel ever to grace a Booker Prize shortlist and the only work likely to knock Ann Enright's The Gathering from its long standing throne of Booker bleakness. Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen is misery porn at its best. Eileen herself is a stunningly realised character - young, working in a boy's prison, single and brimming with self-loathing, she is equal parts tragedy and repulsive failure. Living with her abusive alcoholic father she dreams of physical intimacy (something that appears to have taken the place of "belonging" in her dreams), with the subject of her feelings shifting from person to person until it lands upon a mysterious new girl who comes to work at her prison and seems oddly obsessed with one particular prisoner. Don't look for redemption in this book. It will crush you like a coackroach and smear the muck of your carapace across a shit-stained toilet cubicle. But don't count it out either. The bookies have it as the rank outsider at 8/1. I think it stands a much better chance than punters seem to credit. You could stand to win quite a bit of money by backing it.

The Best Bet Outsider
Leaving Moshfegh aside, there's one other book that strikes me as The Little Engine That Could of Booker 2016. I was quick to dismiss Graeme Macrae Burnett's His Bloody Project as the token genre nomination, not to mention the token Small Press nomination. Then I read it. Wowee. It's a bloody (excuse the pun) excellent read. Indeed, to me it's the most enjoyable, thought provoking and straight-up good book on the shortlist. Of course, I'm one for historical fiction, but even objectively speaking Burnett's chain-of-voices device really works in depicting the injustice of the old Scottish feudal system. Centred around the confession of a young crofter, Roderick Macrae, who killed the oppressive town constable, Lachlan Broad, and two of Broad's children, Burnett also provides us with newspaper clippings from the day, a psychological report and a chronicle of the trial. The genius of the novel lies in its ultimate opacity - it's never entirely clear why Macrae murdered Broad. Sure, the constable was an evil, vindictive arsehole who picked on Macrae and his father, but there is suggestion of a sexual motive as well, not to mention a few other possibilities. We as readers are left to ponder and, I assure you, ponder you shall. As a snapshot of class injustice and the development of Commonwealth law in the 1800s, His Bloody Project is absolutely spot on. As an historical mystery (whydunnit more than whodunnit), it's my favourite since Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost. As a top quality triumph for independent publishing, it is my absolute favourite on the list. As a potential winner, at 4/1, it's a damn good bet.

And You Thought Novellas Were Contentious
Remember when the literary blogosphere went apeshit about Ian McEwan winning for Amsterdam? Then even more apeshit when On Chesil Beach was shortlisted (hopefully McEwan wasn't taking it personally)? Then Julian Barnes took it with a paltry 160 pages for The Sense of an Ending and the gloves were off. How can a novella win the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? Well, step aside amateurs. If you thought length was an issue, then how about form? It would take a spectacularly generous soul to call David Szalay's All That Man Is a novel. It is, to put it bluntly, nine thematically linked short stories. None of them share characters. None of them cross over on plot. It's just a bunch of geographically dislocated losers meditating on their shitty lives and the mistakes they've made. The stories are good. Really good, in fact. But they do not, in any way I can tell, make up a novel. So here's the question. Do we just give it a leave pass and, like Dylan, say fuck the rules? Does Team Booker crown Szalay king of the novelists and then laugh at us from their crystal palace? The bookmakers give it a 6/1 chance of happening. I'm thinking more about snowflakes and hell.

So there you have it. My 2016 Booker Prize Form Guide. The Cliff Notes Version: It's between Beatty and Burnett, with Levy somewhere in the mix. The Bait For Bookworms Caveat: I've never picked it before.

Place your bets, people.


* All odds are from Ladbrokes as of the morning of Sunday 23 October.

The Nobel Prize 2016: The Fuck You Philip Roth Nobel

on Thursday, October 13, 2016
Ok, well those wacky pranksters at Team Nobel have well and truly punked us all. I was all ready to write how they made an arse out of me for getting the whole date thing wrong then they go and do this: BOB DYLAN! What the actual fuck? Now, I'm a Dylan fan as much as the next guy (I loved him in Pirates of the Caribbean) but, in a world of ever-diminishing giants, why would they give it to the grumpy old troubadour?

If I might put forward a wee theory:

Years ago, the chairman of the Nobel committee totally dissed Philip Roth and American literature in general, proclaiming that the Yanks were all but out of the running. There was, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, something of an outcry. What about McCarthy? Or DeLillo? Or Oates? Or Vollman? or... the list is almost endless. How then to shut up the whingers? Give it to the one guy who has always sat somewhere down the bottom of the betting table but who nobody ever thought stood a genuine chance. It goes to an American of the old guard who isn't Philip Roth. Yes, so far as I can tell, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature was the greatest instance of throwing shade at a single person ever in the history of the prize. It means they don't have to give it to an American for another five or six years, by which time they are counting on Roth having fallen off the perch. Batshit crazy genius!

No doubt there will be a fiery shitstorm in the literary blogosphere. Accusations will be thrown. Questions will be asked. I, of course, only have one question: Will Dylan face the audience when he collects the medal and mumbles his acceptance speech? Recent performances suggest not. At least old Phil won't have to look him in the eye.

Now I'm off to read some Krasznahorkai or Thiong'o. Because in my alternate reality they shared this year's prize. Hoorah!

The Nobel Prize 2016: The One Where I Pick It Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

on Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Now I am by no means Sherlock Holmes (or Hercule Poirot or even, for that matter, Encyclopaedia Brown) but I deduce me a Nobel Prize announcement in the next 48 hours. It is, of course, Nobel week - those seven days where the word holds its collective breath to laud a bunch of people of whom they've never heard for the discovery of things they can't ever hope to understand. The Swedish Academy has already announced the gongs for Medicine and Physics. The Nobel Prize for Literature is a notoriously secretive affair, so much so that they won't even give us the date of the announcement. But one needn't possess the greatest sleuthing faculties to work it out. Check out the website. Medicine: October 3. Physics: October 4. Chemistry: October 5. Peace: October 7... Wait... What? NOTHING ON OCTOBER 6? Wow. I wonder what that could possibly mean! Of course, there's always the chance of a weekend reveal. The Economics Prize isn't announced until October 10, well after anyone's stopped giving a shit. But recent history suggests that the prize for Literature will be announced before the Peace Prize so that really only leaves one day.

With that rant done and dusted I now move to the likely laureate. Recent form has seen me so ridiculously off the mark that you can probably rule out whoever I pick. Same, I dare say goes for the bookies' odds. Yet again Haruki Murakami tops the list with short odds of 4/1, proving that should the Nobel ever come down to a popular vote, the prize will go to a throughly underserving person. Much like it often does already. I like that there is a bona fide cult of Murakami tragics and that they're willing to lose money every year in the vain hope of someone they think is cool and quirky snaring a slice of literary immortality, but come on. Murakami? Seriously? Adunis is up there again. He's a poet. His odds are 6/1. He stands a chance. If he wins I'll put him on the pile next to Transtromer (you know, the one that looks good on a coffee table but will never actually be opened). Interestingly, Philip Roth has made it up the list to come third in the betting. I'd love to see him win - he has pretty much defined American literature for the past 50 years and, now that he has retired, has plenty of time to polish whatever medals he can add to the trophy cabinet. The Academy openly hates Americans though so he's much more likely to be adding another face to his dartboard come Thursday. The rest of the top 10 is comprised of familiar names: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Joyce Carol Oates, Ismail Kadare, Javier Marias, Jon Fosse, Ko Un and John Banville (though, to be fair Antunes, Krasznahorkai and Aria have the same odds as Banville, Un and Fosse).

I'd love to see Krasznahorkai win. The guy is an impenetrable genius. Then there's Kadare. Or Marias. Or Kundera. All brilliant. All unlikely to win now that I've singled them out. In that vein, I choose as my final pick Haruki Murakami. He will definitely win. 100%. You know what that means. No need to thank me.

The Booker Prize 2016: F&*$ The Favourites

on Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Well shiver me timbers and blow me down (and something about a bottle of rum... I could do with one of those). Ian McGuire's Cormac-McCarthy-On-The-High-Seas whaling epic has been scuttled in the harbour. Yep, the Booker Prize shortlist is out and my early pick - not to mention the bookies' favourite - didn't make the cut. Neither did JM Coetzee with his return-to-form The Childhood of Jesus or AL Kennedy with her much-lauded Serious Sweet.

If you haven't seen it yet, the six books vying for Booker glory this year are:

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

I'm in two minds about it all. Might 2017 be the year that Booker broke free of its establishment chains and embraced the exciting underdogs? Or was my first impression when reading the long list right - it is a year that will fade into obscurity? For that matter where's the subcontinent? Where's Africa? Where the bloody hell is Australia?

Of course, I've only read one of the shortlisted books: The Sellout. Beatty has been basking in critical sunshine since its release, already having picked up a fair swag of rave reviews and a trusty old 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. I was only lukewarm on it - the idea of an African American guy trying to reintroduce segregation in his local neighbourhood is pretty funny, and the bits about his batshit crazy father are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the novel outstays its welcome, drawing the joke out that little bit too far to pack a knockout punch. Indeed, it was a Dishonourable Mention in my 2015 Most Overrated Books.

I've just started Graeme Macrae Burnet's novel and so far it's pretty cool. Notably, it continues the recent Booker trend of picking outsiders from genre fiction to sit alongside the more nose-in-the-air, port-swilling literary types. Deborah Levy is a bit of a Booker favourite, with her novel Swimming Home getting much love when it was shortlisted back in 2012. Reviews for Hot Milk have been generally positive (though not the slobbering adulation of the other) and I'm wondering whether Levy might be in line for one of those consolation Bookers a la Ian McEwan who won for Amsterdam when they regretted not having given it to him for his masterpiece, Enduring Love. That's not to say Hot Milk may not be deserving in its own right. I just haven't read it yet. Of the others, Szalay and Thien are unknown quantities and, tempting as it is to make wild and loose predictive pontifications (that's why you come here, right?), I might hold off until I've had the chance to give them a proper go.

That leaves Ottessa Moshfegh, the one contender that really interests me. Team Booker mistakenly bill it as her first novel but she did publish a decent length novella (of the kind for which both McEwan and Barnes won Bookers) called McGlue a couple of years back. The book was gritty, unrelenting and bleak yet still possessed of a strangely humorous undercurrent. If it's any indication of what to expect from Eileen, I suspect we have us a pretty strong dark horse.

It remains to be seen whether this really will be the blah-Booker or something completely refreshing. I'm still smarting that Coetzee and McGuire didn't make it but I suppose I now have reason to read three books I'd hoped to avoid. I can only be pleasantly surprised. I'll report back soon with my usual form guide. Until then... did someone say Nobel?

The Miles Franklin Award 2016: AS Patrić's Black Rock White City

on Friday, August 26, 2016
Huzzah! The curse is lifted.

For years I have damned nominees in all manner of literary prizes to the inglorious abyss. Booker. Nobel. Pulitzer. Boroondara Local Library. In all those and more my "prediction" has turned out to be the kiss of death.

But all that ended tonight. I am no longer the kiss of death. I am not even a good bet. I am a fucking oracle. (Or a fluke, but I prefer words with three syllables.) Yes, AS Patrić just won the Miles Franklin, Australia's most prestigious literary award, for my B4BW Book of 2015, Black Rock White City. Just as I predicted. Before it was even published, no less (I read it in manuscript form when it was still called Life On Crumbs). #humblebrag #notevenslightlyhumble

Now I need not fawn again over how bloody great the novel is. If you want sup on some superlative soup then just check out my original review or my Book of the Year citation. I do, however, want to say that is a massive win for quality Australian literature. Great Australian novels are still being written. And noticed.

So congratulations to Alec and his publisher Transit Lounge for the most deserving Miles Franklin of recent times. Rare is the writer who combines such commitment to the craft of writing, generosity of spirit and goodness of heart with the knack for telling a ripper story. Thanks for giving us Black Rock White City. And, on a personal note, thanks for giving me the faith to once again make wildly loose predictions with a newfound sense of purpose and certainty. I may not always be right, but I will never again be in doubt.

The Booker Prize 2016: The Blah Booker... (The Longlist)

on Saturday, July 30, 2016
Trust the first whiff of LitPrize Silly Season to lure me out from my cyber-cave. Yep, my hyperventilating over the senselessly subjective jockeying for literary immortality (yeah, who could possibly forget such classics as Paul Scott's Staying On or anything by Verner Von Heidenstam?) ought now be considered one of life's certainties along with death, taxes and the crushing disappointment of adulthood. It has, of course, been a cold winter so my arthritic bones have taken a little longer to click into gear than they have in the past (apparently, hitting 40 does that to you), but here I am!



And here is the 2016 Man Booker Prize Longlist.

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK)
David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
Wyl Menmuir (UK) - The Many (Salt)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

Meh.

Many of us had hoped that, once the fear of the American invasion subsided, the competition would be the great apocalyptic battleground of the English Language NovelTM. Or at least the Gladiator Arena. Turns out it's become little more than a kitchen table thumb wrestle. I usually try to talk it up but even the starry-eyed optimist in me can't get overly excited about this year's crop. First up, the absences. I thought Julian Barnes's latest was quite beautiful and worthy of a longlisting, if not something more. Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon must be smarting - I'd put a buck or two on them considering themselves the rightly winners of the first trans-Pacific Booker. Don Delillo probably couldn't care less which, I suppose is a good thing, because that seemed to be his attitude to the second half of his latest novel, Zero K. And then there's Ian McEwan. In steady decline, he might have been hoping that the forthcoming Nutshell would scoop him from the literary doldrums. His omission from Team Booker's love-in does not bode well.

As for the books that did get a nod, I've read only two. Ian McGuire's The North Water was a mostly riveting collision of Conrad, Melville and McCarthy set on a high seas whaler. It's got one of the best McCarthyesque villains of recent times and, for the most part, it rockets along with admirable vigour. Oddly, though, it peters out and leaves the reader - pardon the pun - cold in its lack of resolve. Paul Beatty's book has been the darling of the American literary world for the better part of a year. It's brash, funny and irreverent. Given the recent spilling over of racial tension in that country, it is also very timely. Anyone who imagines a batshit crazy African American guy's attempt to reintroduce segregation into his neighbourhood and then so deftly does so with tongue-firmly in cheek is deserving of attention. There are parts of The Sellout that are jaw-droppingly great. Anything with the unnamed narrator's father had me on the floor laughing. And some of the satirical barbs were inspired genius. But, much like McGuire's book, I was left a little disappointed by the work as a whole. Maybe it was the hype. Or maybe it's just not quite as good as people say.

As for the rest of the field, I'm very keen to see J.M. Coetzee get another nod. The sequel to his uneven but quite interesting The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus looks to be more Kafkaesque in its execution which can only be a good thing. The first half of Childhood was brilliant in its ability to unsettle and disorient the reader before devolving into ploddy straight narrative. If Schooldays maintains the weird without following its predecessor into the narrative quagmire I suspect we're in for quite a treat. I have high hopes for Deborah Levy, too. She is consistently excellent and has been on the Booker radar before. Ditto A.L. Kennedy who very rarely fails to impress. Of the lesser known names, Ottessa Moshfegh stands out in particular. Though the judges seem to think Eileen is her debut, I was greatly impressed by her actual first novel McGlue with its muscular, rowdy and unflinching energy. I'm also quite the fan of any small press book that bucks the typical literary trends so Graeme MacRae Burnett's crime thriller has piqued my interest. As for the others, hmmmm... I'll give as many of them a go as I can but I somehow think that this ain't going to be remembered as Booker's finest years.

So, back into my cave for now. I'll catch you in a couple of weeks for the announcement of the Miles Franklin Award. It's a great field and, of course, I'm backing AS Patrić, but almost any of the contenders are worthy of the award. At least it's a great year for Australian Literary Prizes. At least we've got that!

The Morning After: Some Thoughts on Elie Wiesel's Lesser-Known Works

on Sunday, July 3, 2016
A stark reminder this morning that we are hurtling towards a post-survivor world: Elie Wiesel has died. Like most Jews of my generation, Wiesel's work was my first true engagement with the Holocaust, especially given that my own grandparents couldn't talk about it. I remember reading Night, arguably his masterpiece (I say arguably only because there are three or so other contenders), and being struck not only by the horrors Weisel depicted, the philosophical depth with which he did so or the beautiful simplicity of his language but also by the fact that he was not much older than me when he experienced them. For a twelve or thirteen year old kid it was a revelation; the moment humanity was unmasked and its ugliest face revealed.

Much will be written about Wiesel in the coming days. Eulogies will abound highlighting his Nobel Prize, his ongoing political and social justice activism, his wisdom and his generosity. I look at the famous picture of him in the Buchenwald concentration camp bunk, a sickly, emaciated teen and wonder whether he could have imagined at that moment the intellectual and moral giant he would become on a world scale. Beyond that, there is little I can add.

I did want to spare a thought, though, for his other books, the ones that weren't Night, Dawn or Day (aka The Night Trilogy). For years I've dipped in and out of his work, feeling the need to hear his voice even when it wasn't at its most eloquent or powerful. Wiesel was by no means a perfect writer. I'm not sure he was even a great writer which is not in any way intended to take away from the fact that he was very much an exemplary human being. It is easy to forget that his Nobel was for Peace not Literature. And so there were a fair few misfires: The Sonderberg Case and The Judges stand out as poorly executed, rather far-fetched attempts to revisit familiar themes while The Hostage suffered as a second rate Death And The Maiden (though kind of inverted). Then there was A Mad Desire To Dance... sigh. Read them only for the sake of completeness. I'll personally come and pin your Wiesel Wizard badge to your chest. If, however, you want to read some quite extraordinary works, grab yourself a copy of his play The Trial of God or the not-too-dissimilarly-themed novel The Gates of the Forest. Also quite brilliant were Wiesel's interpretive works, particularly his takes on classic Hassidic tales (Souls On Fire) and biblical stories (Messengers of God). Should you want something slight but rather lovely, I'd also recommend his short meditation on his heart surgery, Open Heart

I doubt we will know another force of goodness and morality like Elie Wiesel for a very long time. His death is a great loss to humanity, to justice and, yes, to literature. There will be, I'm sure, many ways to remember and honour him. For me, though, the best will always be to read him. He might now have fallen silent but his voice will live on.

2016 Midyear Report: The Life of Brian Redux

on Monday, June 27, 2016
Rumours of my cyberdeath have been greatly exaggerated.



That said, I do feel like the old guy from Monty Python's Life of Brian, slumped over John Cleese's shoulder, protesting my glowing health. "I feel happy! I feel happy! Think I might go for a walk." In my case, of course, replace walk with read but the sentiment stands. Yes, while I have hardly been posting here on B4BW, I'm glad to say that I still have been reading, albeit at a greatly reduced pace from previous years. Thus far, I'm sitting on the miserly total of 44 books. Shameful, I know.

Still, there's been a lot to celebrate in my beloved book hole even if I haven't been shouting it from the rooftops. First up, if I may gloat a little, my favourite book of last year, A. S. Patric's Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for Australia's biggest literary prize, The Miles Franklin Award. I'm glad to see the rest of Australia falling over themselves to heap praise on this truly astonishing novel. Aussie lit is clearly in a good place right now - the whole Miles Franklin field is top notch. On the subject of prizes, I was gratified to see a couple of my favourite novels-in-translation from last year shortlisted for the new-look Man Booker International Prize (now given for individual books rather than bodies of work and awarded to authors and their translators). Persoanlly, I'd have loved to see Robert Seethaler win for his exquisite novel in miniature, A Whole Life, or failing that, Jose Eduardo Agualusa's The General Theory of Oblivion. Alas, it went to Han Kang's widely celebrated The Vegetarian about which, you may recall, I was kind of nonplussed but, well, I'm in the minority. So big cheers to her and translator Deborah Smith.

In more personal book news, I got to meet one of my literary heroes - Jesse Ball. I know it's said you should never try to meet the artists you most admire and, for the most part in the past this has turned out to be true (cough cough Gene Simmons cough cough) but this was one time I was pretty stoked to have proved the adage wrong. Ball was just as friendly, charming and complex as I could have hoped. I also had the great privilege of helping organise the second ever Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival which, much to our great relief, turned out to be a huge success. Highlights included our international guests Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg and Elana Sztockman as well as local legends, both Jewish and not, Gail Jones, Joan London, Arnold Zable, Leah Kaminsky, Alan and Elizabeth Finkel, Peter Singer, Mirielle Juchau, Ramona Kowal and many, many more. I moderated a session on the future of the Holocaust novel which almost devolved to fisticuffs and participated in a wonderful poetry panel where I had the opportunity to spruik the little known but totally sublime Jiri Langer (best known as Franz Kafka's Hebrew teacher).

Now, onto the books of the year so far. Once again it looks like the first book I read will be the best. Garth Greenwell's taut, harrowing novel What Belongs To You has refused to dislodge itself from my chest since I wistfully reached its final sentence. Speaking of harrowing, Hanya Yanagihara has a clear successor for punch-in-the-guts novel of the year with Jung Yun's Shelter. The story of an already-damaged Korean American family further destroyed by an act of horrific violence absolutely tore me to shreds. One of the most insightful, painful works of the immigrant experience and the death of the American dream that I've ever read. Ian McIntryre's Melville meets McCarthy meets Conrad novel of whaling on the high seas, The North Water, is another work of beauty and brutality in equal measure that demands your reading attention. Meanwhile, John Wray blew my mind with the most madcap mashup of physics, comedy and complex morality in The Lost Time Accidents. I'm one of the few who didn't love his last book Lowboy but I think I finally get him. A shout out also must go to one of the few books that made me venture outside my Fiction Only rule, Arnold Zable's The Fighter. A biography of sorts in novel form, it tells of one of my city's greatest humans, former boxing champion, social worker and all round magnificent bloke Henry Nissen. And while the book might be about Henry and his brother Leon, to me it was an exquisite devotional hymn to their mother and all women like her who came from foreign lands following the horrors of the Holocaust and tried to build families while battling the most unforgiving of inner-demons.

2016 hasn't been without its disappointments either. After a truly inspired start, Don Delillo's latest, Zero K, plodded off into the narrative wilderness never to return. Ditto Ismail Kadare with A Girl In Exile. I don't know, it seems the all-time greats are sailing off into the literary sunset, still able to come up with an interesting premise but no longer able to steer the ship for the whole course. Perhaps the modern world is too much for their classical sensibilities. I was also a bit let down by two of the more experimental, wacky novels that have been garnering a fair amount of buzz: Alvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death and Manuel Gonzales's The Regional Office is Under Attack. Both were good reads but I was hoping for much, much more.

There's still a heap to look forward to over the coming months: Javier Marias's follow up to The Infatuations, intriguingly titled Thus Bad Begins, Emma Cline's novel of the Manson women, The Girls, Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Moonglow by Michael Chabon, Nutshell by Ian McEwan plus newies by David Eggers, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Donald Ray Pollack and, hoping against hope, Cormac McCarthy. Expect all those end of year lists to be peppered with exciting (and hopefully new) reads.

I'll try to get back on the regular blogging track soon. But until then I repeat: "I'M NOT DEAD YET!"

An Embarrassment of Schnitzels: Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016

on Monday, May 16, 2016
Not sure how two years passed me by but I'm thrilled to say that once again I'm part of the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival this coming week. What started as a bit of a pipe dream around the now-Director's kitchen table exploded into a veritable feast of literary goodness back in 2014. We didn't know what to expect but the massive crowds and rave reviews spoke for themselves - our mix of international and local authors, Jewish and non-Jewish, writing on topics of what I came to realise might have had a Jewish flavour but were of universal interest and relevance, seemed to strike a very loud chord.

It was always intended that the festival would be a once-every-two-years affair but we didn't take the off-year lying down. Two wonderful events - a night with David Mendelssohn in conversation with James Ley and Theatrics (a series of dramatic adaptation of great Jewish short stories) - helped satiate the appetite for literary nourishment that we'd worked up for ourselves. And, of course, we kicked off this year with the fabulous Simon Sebag Montefiore (in conjunction with our friends at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation). Now comes Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016, with its programme packed with even more awesomeness. There are so many session highlights that it'd be an injustice to select only a few but you can check out the entire program and buy your tickets at the MJWF website. I can, however, tell you that we have Israeli rising star Nir Baram, New York favourite Jami Attenberg, intellectual force of nature Elana Sztockman, translator-extraordinaire Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi fame) as well as local stars Arnold Zable, Gail Jones, Joan London, Mireille Juchau, Peter Singer, Alan Finkel and many, many more.



I'm excited to be doing two sessions. The first is called "The H Word" and will be looking at the future of Holocaust writing in a post-survivor world. I'll be moderating a rather formidable panel that includes Nir Baram, Mireille Juchau and Kate Forsyth. Eeeep.

For the second, I will stepping outside my comfort zone in a session called "The Necessary Jewish Poet", where five writers/entertainers/luminaries (and me) have been asked to select and speak about a poet who means something to them. Other than myself, the session features Robert Richter QC, Alex Skovron, Andrea Goldsmith and Evelyn Krape. I have chosen the very obscure Czech poet and mystic Georg Mordechai Langer who, among many claims to (now forgotten) fame, was Kafka's Hebrew teacher. Why I chose him, though... well, you'll have to wait and see (or hear).

I'll also be on The Books and Arts Show on ABC Radio National with Michael Cathcart tomorrow morning (Tuesday, May 17) so that's another tick off the bucket list! If you miss it, you'll be able to catch the podcast here.

The festival kicks off this Saturday night, May 21st, with a Gala Opening Night featuring Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg, Lally Katz, Alan Gold, Gary Abrahams, Grace Halphen, Nadine Davidoff, Lior and more. Be sure to head to the website and buy your tickets ASAP to both the Gala and whatever sessions you wish to attend because they are selling faster than bad semi-erotic S&M fiction!