Death. Taxes. Krasznahorkai: The Man Booker International Prize Gets It Right

on Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Listen carefully. Hear that faint whirring? Yes, that one. It is the sound of Benjamin Franklin spinning furiously in his grave. No doubt you are familiar with Ol' Ben's great saying about the only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Had he been alive today he might have added a few more: Meryl Streep Oscar nominations. Stephen King novels. Conspiracy theories. My complete inability to correctly pick the winner of a major literary prize. But wait! Could it be that the very essence of certainty has been turned on its head? Could we just have been tossed headlong into a stormy sea of doubt? Could the Man Booker International Prize have changed life as we know it? Cue existential crisis.

Today, one of my all time favourite writers, Laszlo Krasznahorkai - a man who is as dense and difficult to read as his name is to say three times fast - was named the 2015 recipient of what I have often said is the most pointless prize going these days. Time to reconsider, methinks. Sure, I like to moan about it as the Diet Dr. Pepper of literary prizes. And, yes, it comes with all the fanfare of a royal procession through Glasgow. But I can't help but feel it is the only one that consistently gets it right. Thus far it has been awarded to well-deserving writers who, for some godforsaken reason, the folk at Nobel overlook in favour of... well... Tomas Transtromer. Just look at the honour roll: Ismail Kadare. Chinua Achebe. Alice Munro. Philip Roth. Lydia Davis. And now, icing on the cake, the truly awesome Krasznahorkai.

To be honest, I'd totally forgotten about the shortlist. Back in March I picked him to win, assumed the worst and moved on with life. Now I get to see what I only thought a dream actually come true: "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!". Come tomorrow, there will be a lot of very confused Booker loyalists sitting on the train scratching their heads. Soon thereafter the trains will be filled with goopy brain matter from said heads exploding. Moral of the story: Walk to work tomorrow.

For those who have yet to experience the near religious enlightenment that comes with picking up one of his books I recommend starting with Satantango. The Devil turns up in a remote village and systematically tears it to pieces. Happy dance (I just added that so you didn't think it too bleak). It's a damned hard read (see what I did there?) and, of course, deeply disturbing but it is about as good a debut as any author has ever written. Follow that up with the most dense, difficult nightmare of a book I've read, The Melancholy of Existence, and you are sure to reach a higher literary plain. You'll also never visit a circus again.

Hopefully I haven't turned you off reading him. The guy is actually quite delightful. I had the absolute pleasure/privilege of seeing him in conversation with Colm Toibin in New York last year and he was funny, charming and really quite cool. Indeed, he seemed the very picture of the thoughtful, classical European novelist. He also read a new short story which was one of the best things I've heard in a long time.

All in all, Krasznahorkai continues to produce perfectly crafted, challenging and unique works that might alienate the lazy reader but will reward those who persist in a way many other writers simply cannot. More works are currently being translated and will published by New Directions in the not-too-distant future. With this win lifting his profile in the English-speaking world you have a few months at best to catch up.

Now if only this could mean Ben was wrong about the other certainties. I need a holiday. And to plan for my 300th birthday.

Rocking The Boat

on Thursday, April 30, 2015
Here's one to confound the haters. For all those who dismiss the literary potential of the graphic form. For all those who think the electronic screen detracts from the reading experience. For all those who think SBS is a waste of the Australian tax dollar.* Yes, haters one and all, you have been PWNED!** Australian multicultural broadcaster SBS has just launched an online graphic adaptation of one of the great Australian short stories of the modern era, Nam Le's The Boat, and it is probably the best thing you are likely to see this year. Check it out HERE. The Boat was already an extraordinary story. But to see it adapted in this way, to see the use of image, sound and movement, achieves what I would have thought impossible: It makes it even better. If you are already a fan I promise you will be delighted by Matt Huynh's astonishing (and stark) creation. If you don't know it, WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? Massive kudos to all the team involved at SBS on this thrilling achievement. You might just have redefined what graphic e-reading can be.***

* And let's be honest. I have been known to fall into the first two categories from time to time.
** OK I tried to speak computer nerd there for a second and clearly made a schmuck of myself.
*** I'm still not buying a Kindlenook-thingamy though.

The Pulitzer Puddlemuck

on Tuesday, April 21, 2015
No seriously... Is there some kind of cosmic literary prank being pulled here?

Hot on the heels of my Folio flip out, Team Pulitzer drop their announcement and, surprise surprise, give the fiction prize to another of the most overrated books of 2014. Yep, in case you haven't heard, this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Anthony Doerr for his WW2 brick of a novel, All The Light We Cannot See. Of course, this isn't the first major plaudit for the book - it sat atop a fair few end of year Best Ofs, most... um... notably the New York Times Notable Books.

As for me, well, I didn't get around to reading it until January so it never made any of my lists. But had I had the chance, no doubt I would have stuck it alongside Akhil Sharma, Haruki Murakami and Ali Smith as one of the most overrated novels of the year. Sure, it's lovely and readable. The chapters fly by in short, sharp succession. The dual plot lines are engaging enough. However, when all was said and done, it struck me as a pretty decent book to read on the plane or beach, not a work of deep substance.

Now, as for the win, I haven't read the other three finalists. There is every possibility that the Doerr is better than Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford, The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami or Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates. And this is hardly the calamity of 2012 when no award was given for fiction because the judges didn't feel anything was particularly worthy (despite having had three pretty excellent books on the shortlist). Still, I am really beginning to doubt my ability to gauge the literary landscape.

Oh well. At least I have still have this little corner of the interwebs to pontificate, whinge, call shenanigans and sing some apparently completely off kilter praises.

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)