Books I Swore I'd Never Read: The February Challenge

on Sunday, January 31, 2010
Last month I began my year of challenges with the somewhat cop-out theme of "Books I Meant to Read Last Year". Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, which I named in my end of 2009 list as the book I thought I would most have enjoyed, turned out to be rather anticlimactic though I'm not sure if that was due to its inability to live up to the massive hype or whether objectively it was just, well, average. On the other hand, I was buoyed by both Eleanor Catton's fantastic debut The Rehearsal as well as Shariar Mandanipour's complex and beautiful Censoring an Iranian Love Story. It wasn't all about 2009 though, with me thoroughly enjoying the latest Bolano, discovering Jakov Lind's lost classic Soul of Wood and being rather underwhelmed by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago's first dalliance with the memoir. Which brings me to February...

I can't begin to tell you how much I've been dreading this month. For years I have conscientiously and actively avoided reading those populist smash hits that have made rich folk out of writers I've always assumed to be talentless hacks. I even fought with the editor of a magazine I was reviewing for because I flatly refused to have anything by Dan Brown in my house, let alone read it. But with age has come wisdom (or, perhaps just doubt). I am now willing to admit that there is an outside chance that I am wrong and the countless millions are right. This book snob is finally stepping up to the plate to confront his possible hypocrisy. Yes, I have always been the first to pontificate on the numerous smash hit novels that I have considered beneath me without ever bothering to read them. Now I figure it's high time I stepped off my literary soapbox and gave them a go. God help me!

For a book to qualify, it must have been a massive hit worldwide, been read by a good percentage of my friends or family and have had me comment upon it disparagingly on numerous occasions to anyone I caught reading or talking about it. I also must never have read the book before (eliminating such 'classics' as Harry Potter). And so without further ado, here are the seven "Books I Swore I'd Never Read".

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

I hope you feel my pain. I assure you, however, that I will read them with an open mind and give honest reviews. Most likely in haiku. Thankfully, February also brings me some exciting new releases which I will no doubt devour between the challenge books. So expect my opinion on newies by Don Delillo, Dan Rhodes, Adam Haslett and Tom Rachman as well as the usual dose of uninvited opinions starting with a musing on the hidden stashes of great authors!

Microviews Vol. 3: Bolano, Moore, Catton

on Saturday, January 23, 2010
January turned out to be a great reading month, both in terms of my 2010 Challenge theme books and the new releases I managed to sneak in between them. Hopefully I've built up sufficient immunity from mindless trash to protect me from February's "Books I Swore I'd Never Read". I'm using Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds as a final booster shot before embarking tomorrow on a novel that conquered the world but never graced my bookshelf... Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Wish me luck...

Until then, here are the last of my January microviews.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
Kudos to whoever is responsible for choosing the publication order of Bolano's work in English. After the epic 2666, it would have been tempting to walk away from the great Chilean if faced with a similarly daunting commitment of time and mental space. So it was that we were given the dark crime stylings of The Skating Rink. Now we get another slim volume, Monsieur Pain, in which Bolano puts his signature spin on the hardboiled noir genre with as much owed to Lovecraft as Chandler. It all starts off simply enough. Monsiuer Pierre Pain, a renowned French mesmerist, is approached by the object of his desire, Madame Reynaud to help cure a terminal case of the hiccups. The victim, Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo is at death's door and his wife is desperate enough to try anything that might help. However, the case quickly takes a sinister turn when Pain finds himself being followed by two mysterious Spaniards and sucked into a world of chicanery, cheating hearts and confounding blasts from the past. It is all rather light hearted and fun, though not devoid of Bolano's flashes of cynicism and philosophising. There are clear tips of the hat to Kafka in the last two chapters with a classic parable (though smartly rendered as a movie) and a mind-bendingly frustrating trek through hospital bureaucracy. But it is the final masterstroke, a cacophony of mini-chapters about each of the main characters, that will have you smirking at just how brilliantly sly Bolano was.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Hype it to the hills, the celebrated scribe of Middle America has returned with another slice of ordinariama. Lorrie Moore is best known for her short stories, which purport to tell us city types how the other three quarters live. Meandering through this perfectly readable but rather unsatisfying tome, it isn't hard to see that the short form is where she feels most comfortable given the episodic nature of this novel. It feels that, having settled upon a workable main character, Moore has strung a series of mostly unrelated stories together in the hope that they may gel to form a convincing whole. Alack! Alack! Tassie is a country girl who moves to the city in an attempt to escape the scripted path laid out before her. To fund her studies she takes a job with aspiring mum Sarah (who wants to get the babysitter in order before the adoption) and her usually absent husband Edward. To the shock of those around, not to mention their own self-satisfied delight, the couple adopt an little African American girl and leave Tassie to pretty much raise her. A nasty episode early in the process awakens the couple to the reality of everyday racism, and causes them to start a support group. Cue the indulgent yammering of the 'racially blind' bourgeoisie. Ho hum. You see, Moore is trying to tackle the 'big' issues: racism, terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I was never wholly convinced, especially by Tassie's voice. It just didn't ring true for a twenty year old, even one stunted by a small town upbringing. Even less convincing were the other young people. Moore writes iGen characters in the way old people imagine they might speak or behave, not the way in which they actually do. As for the yuppies, I couldn't tell whether Moore was mocking them or really thought her lame pun-trains were witty. Maybe I'm too far up my own city backside to get it, but it was all a little patronising for me. Some people ought probably stick to the short story, where they are clearly most suited.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Unlike Lorrie Moore, Eleanor Catton has no problem with authenticity in this exceptional novel set in the aftermath of a high school sex scandal. The Rehearsal was probably the most hyped debut of 2009 and, as such, sat at the bottom of my "Books I Meant To Read Last Year" pile. Let's face it, how many times can you fall for the hype of "literature's brightest new voice" only to be slapped in the face by a rather ordinary reality? Thankfully, I finished the rest of my January stash early, because had I read it when it first came out, The Rehearsal would easily have made my top books of 2009. Through the prism of the forbidden tryst, Catton explores sexuality in many of its boundary-testing guises; longing, fear, lust, jealousy, anger, insecurity and deceit. Mr. Saladin and his 'victim' Victoria appear only briefly, and it is through the effects on those around them that the action plays out. Victoria's sister Isolde struggles with the whispers that surround her and her budding, confused sexuality. Stanley, an aspiring actor at a nearby drama school, tries to learn his craft while coming to terms with the fragile relationship between him and his father. Parents and teachers alike reel and overreact. The other girls in Victoria's year, particularly those in the school jazz band, suffer through embarrassing and often misguided counselling sessions. And all the while, lurking behind the scenes, watching over and manipulating the various players, is the scheming, mysterious and, at times, downright creepy saxophone teacher. Nameless throughout, she draws the disparate strings together, pushing her pawns to nefarious ends. It all explodes in a symphony of destruction, deftly handled by an astonishingly mature Catton. Far be it from me to buy into, or even on-sell hype, but The Rehearsal is possibly the best book I didn't read last year.

On Love and Owls: A Review of "Censoring An Iranian Love Story"

on Friday, January 22, 2010
Pity the non-conforming author in a totalitarian regime, where even the most basic of love stories might lead to serious reprisal. In Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shahariar Mandanipour brilliantly captures the frustration of writing to both appease and subvert the censors, laying bare the absurdity of the country's theocracy and its crushing effect on creativity.

At its most basic the novel tells the story of Dara and Sara, two young students who buck traditional mores and - God help them - fall in love. In a country where contact between a man and woman (assuming they are not husband and wife or blood relatives) can result in physical violence or jail, the two must foster their relationship through clandestine means. They encode love notes in classic novels, meet in internet chat rooms and engineer 'chance encounters' that will not arouse the suspicion of the Campaign Against Social Corruption's roving patrols. All the while, Dara feels the presence of a malevolent shadow watching his every move and, perhaps, intent on ending his life.

From the outset it is clear there is something more than this story of forbidden love. Lines that might result in the book being banned for sexual explicitness or political agitation are struck out (although we, as readers, can still see them). There is also an omnipresent authorial voice, telling those parts of the story that cannot be written, and documenting the ongoing battle with Mr. Petrovich, the chief censor. The layers of this multi-narrative are seamlessly integrated, achieving in a much more artful way that which was attempted by J. M. Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year. Rather than simply being an intellectual experiment as it was in Coetzee's novel, here the device is actually integral to the tale. The result is a wonderfully cerebral celebration of romance and (banned) literature replete with ingeniously interwoven cultural references, from the highbrow (Hedayat's "The Blind Owl", Steinbeck, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, etc) to the rather less sophisticated (James Cameron's Titanic) and even the straight-up wacky (Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, in the interplay between creator and created). For its textual sophistication alone, this book deserves to be read. But Mandanipour is much more than a literary acrobat, and Censoring An Iranian Love Story will no doubt go down as one of the great works of modern Persian writing.

This is... Literary Idol?

on Monday, January 18, 2010
Technology and fads... Is there anything they can't ruin? Video killed the radio star and the internet killed the CD star, all of which I got to witness firsthand in my previous incarnation as a budding punk rocker. My band was always a step behind - when we were signed the single format had been consigned to the scrapheap and so the label tried to launch us with a DVD. Nada. When we started churning out albums, they would sell ok but nothing compared to how much they were burned or downloaded. For the past ten years the industry has been in a terrible downward spiral thanks to two things - technology and the need for instant financial gratification.

It got to the stage that having a record deal meant very little. Anyone could record good quality albums in their home, and even if you got past that, most music was illegally downloaded anyway. In principle I never had a problem with that (apologies to the labels that signed my band along the way). Music as art ought to be shared and I like the idea that somebody might enjoy my songs enough to want to grab them irrespective of the possible consequences (are you listening Lars Ulrich??). So long as a few of those who did so subsequently came to a show or bought a t-shirt, I figured that I still ended up alright.

Of greater concern to the classic music model of nurturing an act and supporting them through a career was the gradual emphasis on letting the public choose who they wanted to make famous as epitomised by shows like American/Australian Idol, X-Factor and other such dross factories. Appealing as it may seem, artistic democracy is a farce. It is nothing short of laziness on the part of record companies who no longer seem keen to go out and find emerging talent the old-fashioned way. These shows are geared to identifying and moulding a quick sell; flashes in the pan that are good to generate an instant buck but that can easily be tossed aside to make way for next year's product. The charts are dominated by a never ending cycle of these industry puppets. Even worse, their contracts are structured such that these poor kids rarely get to see any of the money they generate.

Indications are that the book world may go down a similar path. The Napster-cum-Bittorrent issue is already live, with e-books being easily pirated and downloaded to the various whizzbang reading devices. That means a book that will most likely have taken several years to complete, with several creative minds toiling over its gestation, can be stolen in seconds. Even the legally obtained copies are presenting a problem, with the various online bookstores locked in a price war, each undercutting the other, leading to e-books retailing for well under the production costs for publishers. Advances are down and royalties will no doubt follow suit.

If that wasn't worrying enough, there are also indications that the lit world is succumbing to Idolmania. I was recently included on a group email from an aspiring author who asked me (amongst God knows how many others) to check out his new novel on a site called The site purports to serve a number of purposes. Firstly, it claims to be a literary community, where unpublished writers can upload their manuscripts and have others read and comment on them. In reality, it is just a forum for usually talentless hacks to blow smoke up each other's arses in the hope of having others reciprocate. Secondly, Authonomy claims to be an important step to being published. The site is an initiative by Harper Collins (one of the big guns) who have pretty much devised a way to cut down on manuscript readers and editors (a.k.a costs). The idea is that people upload their books, then pimp out the link to all and sundry in the hope they will have enough hits to reach the Top 5 for that month. Those five successful manuscripts are then read by the the slack folk at Harper Collins. Of course, this "popularity equals publishability" rationale didn't quite work for the music industry. National Youth radio station Triple J used to have a show called Net 50, where the most popular songs, as voted by their website users, would get played each week in a countdown. There was, however, a slight problem. The site was bombarded by requests from bands' street teams, which totally skewed the results. Triple J had to abandon the show. My Authonomy author was hip to this and, in the email, requested that suckers "try to refrain from mentioning my mass-backing scheme" in any on-site comments. I should also point out that "popularity stacking" also killed Myspace. It used to be that record labels would check how many friends a band had to gauge sales potential. Then along came bots and wanton Myspace pimpage, signalling the death of any credibility the site might once have had as a reliable indicator. Check out Authonomy and try to pick the difference. I certainly can't!

Even if Authonomy didn't face similar risks, who is to say what's popular is what ought to be published? I get that publishers are there to make a profit, but they also have a responsibility to foster good writing. It is no surprise that Authonomy is overflowing with novels about lovelorn vampires, secret codes and child wizards. And they are the ones that get read. En masse!

Budding literary authors have enough trouble getting their books in print. If this is the way the industry is going it will only get worse. Again my hope lies in independent publishers and independent bookstores. While the rest of the book world falls under the spell of the technology genie, they will hopefully stay true, continuing to take risks with new and exciting young writers. Otherwise, your reading future will be dictated by whatever Simon Cowell flicked through last time he unfolded his banana lounge, coated himself in coconut oil and sipped a watermelon daiquiri on some Spanish beach. And let's face it, not even Dan Brown wants that!

Microviews Vol. 2: Gappah, Lethem, Goldacre

on Thursday, January 14, 2010
Turns out that I have set the bar a bit low on my monthly reading challenges. We're only halfway through January and I've already finished the six "Books I Meant to Read Last Year". Even allowing for the extras that I wanted to leave time for (the new Saramago popped up out of nowhere and the latest Bolano is in the mail as I write), a target of six is a touch on the pessimistic side. I am, of course, loathe to increase the target going into next month's "Books I Swore I'd Never Read" lest I be forced to give Audrey Niffenegger a go, so perhaps I'll add another two books to this month's challenge instead:

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

With that sorted, here are some more mini-reviews of books from the January list.

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
The short story as a form holds little attraction for me. It's not that I have anything against these little lit-bites, but apart from the masters (Poe, Kafka, Carver, etc) I generally tend to steer clear. I also tend to avoid books with raves by J. M. Coetzee on their cover because, while he is my favourite living author, I have been burnt enough times to seriously question the similarities between his taste in books and my own. However, the sheer volume of praise heaped upon Gappah's collection late last year, including its winning the Guardian First Book award in December, made me push aside my biases and take the plunge. The stories contained in An Elegy For Easterly are the stories of modern Zimbabwe, with its ridiculous inflation, brutally misguided land reclamation and, of course, Robert Mugabe (i.e. corruption and oppression). Like all such collections, it is something of a hodge podge. Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, others are painfully sad and still others are nothing short of infuriating. Pre-existing antipathies aside, I quite enjoyed the tales, with particular standouts including Something Nice From London, The Mupandawana Dancing Champion and Our Man In Geneva Wins a Million Euros. Yet when all was said and done I was left with a feeling eerily similar to the one I felt after I had finished Nam Le's much celebrated collection The Boat. I get it, you are great. Now bring on the novel!

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
I ought to preface this review with two quick caveats. Firstly, I pride myself on being something of a hyper-rationalist and, as such, am inherently cynical. I like to think that my bullshit radar is finely tuned. Secondly, I have spent the greater part of my adult life fending off the 'miracle cures' foisted upon me by my mother, as influenced by whatever has appeared in the latest headline. Combine these caveats and it is not hard to work out that, in my case, Goldacre is preaching to the choir. A psuedoscience sceptic, practising doctor and Guardian columnist, Goldacre sets upon the naturopaths, homeopaths, nutritionists and other such quacks with the simplest of weapons - real science. Nothing is sacred here, from fish oil to brain gym to the 'MMR hoax'. Goldacre dismantles the faux-scientific mythology surrounding these frauds by exposing the charlatonry of their champions and critically evaluating the pathetic experimental designs of the 'tests' used to justify their claims. It's witty, it's righteously angry and it is very, very timely. Although I really enjoyed having the flames of my cynicism fanned, I also had a couple of minor problems with the book. Goldacre spends an inordinate amount of time blowing smoke up the bums of the folk at the Cochrane Institute, which is all very well and good except that one of the glowing quotes on the front cover comes from Iain Chalmers of... well... the Cochrane Library. It is the sort of thing he lambastes others for doing. Secondly, he has done me a personal disservice by making sure none of these 'cures' will ever work for me. You see, some of them actually do help, not for the reasons they claim but because of their placebo effects. The mind is a wonderful healer - just ask anyone who thinks hey've been cured by a homeopathic remedy. Nevertheless, my increased susceptibility to long-term illnesses aside, I cannot recommend Bad Science highly enough. Especially to my mum!

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Conventional wisdom amongst my fellow academics has it that one can tell an exam paper written by a student on performance enhancing drugs (read: speed). They are the ones with explosive verve, hyperactive grandiloquence and a massive overflow of absolute nonsense. Much like that last sentence. There is an air of all those things in Jonathan Lethem's latest which is fitting given that the Chronic of the title is a brand name for marijuana in the novel. And there is a lot of marijuana here. I'm surprised anyone can see the cityscape of New York, to which this book is essentially a bombastic ode, for all the smoke that wafts through these 450 pages. Main guy (though not biggest choofer) Chase Insteadman was once a child star but is now most famous for being the fiancee of "lostronaut" Janice Turnbull, the tragic heroine stuck spinning in a space station without hope of getting home. Chase falls under the spell of certifiable oddball Perkus Tooth and his strangely linked band of high end misfits. Along comes a tiger, terrorising the city (Lethem's version of which boasts some added crater-like architectural postmodern wonders), reality gets all twisted and somewhere down the line it all becomes very weird in a 'what is reality and what is crazy imagined conspiracy?' kinda way. Oh, and did I mention a lot of pot is smoked? There's something about Lethem that leaves me a bit cold. He lacks the narrative excitement of Michael Chabon or the linguistic acrobatics of David Foster Wallace and yet he tries to walk the fine line between those two. Ultimately, however, Chronic City is the literary equivalent of fireworks - spectacular for a moment but then lost in its own cloud of smoke.

A Sad Farewell to The Secretary Saviour

on Wednesday, January 13, 2010
I was greatly saddened this morning to learn of the death of one of literature's great saviours, Hermine "Miep" Gies. While some who rescued great works of literature have become household names (at least in the book world), Gies remained very much in the background, a testament to her immense modesty and integrity. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that the book she saved has had a greater impact in the years since its publication that anything rescued from the flames by, say, Max Brod or anyone like him.

Gies was not part of the Dutch literary clique, did not dine with authors and publishers. She didn't count the glitterati amongst her friends. No, Gies was a humble secretary at the spice firm Opekta run by Otto Frank. When the Nazis rolled into Amsterdam she did not succumb to the ease of complicity, but rather rose above the majority of her compatriots and, along with her husband Jan and colleagues Victor Kluger, Johannes Kleiman and Bep Voskuijl, helped to hide the Franks in the Achterhuis. Gies risked her life daily, cycling between grocers so as not to arouse suspicion while she collected essential supplies to keep the Franks, Van Pelses and Fritz Pepper alive. Throughout that time, young Anne Frank penned the single greatest work of contemporaneous Holocaust literature ever to surface. Heroism truly bred heroism and, in turn, literary genius. When the Nazis finally got wind of the scheme and raided the apartment above the Opekta offices, Gies once again rose to the occasion, gathering up Anne's papers and locking them in a desk drawer. She never read the diary, claiming that even a teenager's privacy was sacred, and only took it out to hand back to Otto after the war. He went on to publish it, initially butchered by the perhaps understandable editorial touch of an overprotective father, and then, later, in full. Diary of A Young Girl has been translated into countless languages, read by millions of people. As a testament to the everyday reality of Nazi oppression it has no equal.

Gies won many accolades for her actions, including recognition as a Righteous Amongst The Nations, the greatest award possible for non-Jews who risked their lives during the war to save Jewish lives. It is a shame that there is not a similar literary prize that could have been bestowed upon her. Hidden heroes of literature are few and far between, and yet it might be argued that they are almost as significant as the authors whose works they save. To think, if only there had been a Miep Gies to save Bruno Schulz's lost masterpiece The Messiah or stop Gogol from tossing his sequel to Dead Souls into the flames at the instigation of a zealous, mad monk. How much richer the world of literature might now be.

Which Way Jose? (A Rant About Repugnant Authors)

on Thursday, January 7, 2010
A couple of years ago, I was browsing in London's wonderful Daunt bookstore when I stumbled across a new novel by one of my favourite authors Jose Saramago. There had been no pre-press. No pomp and ceremony. The novel just appeared in stores, a paperback original. It was a pleasant surprise, all the more so because I was about to catch a flight back to Australia and knew that I would now be in the company of an old friend. As it turned out, Death at Intervals (or, as it is sometimes known, Death With Interruptions) is one of Saramago's greatest works, brimming with pathos, humour and a charming philosophical whimsy. Sitting next to me on the way across the Indian Ocean was an author of note who was visiting my shores for the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I foisted the book upon her and she too loved it. We chatted about all things Saramago for the remaining hours.

The "Unexpected Saramago Phenomenon" happened again this week, with the unexpected appearance of his new memoir Small Memories. Unlike several of his fellow Nobel Laureates (Canetti, Lessing and, in a quirky fictional sense, Coetzee spring to mind here) he has resisted the reflective bug and stuck to producing powerful, life-affirming literary fiction of the highest order... with the exception of a few stumbles - I'm looking at you Seeing, The Cave and The Double (Dostoevsky ought to have his boots licked for that one). Safe to say, overall I love Saramago's work. Blindness, The Stone Raft and Baltasar and Blimunda are modern masterpieces. But here's the thing. Jose Saramago, the person, is by all accounts a repugnant human being. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate that he might most resemble is Knut Hamsun, not only because of their similar love of nature and its wonders, or the fabulist air to their work, but also the unsavoury likelihood that he is a dyed-in-the-wool racist. Hamsun's affinity for Nazi ideology has been well documented. He admired Hitler. He chummed up with Goebbels. His legacy has been tainted accordingly (and let's face it, Hunger isn't THAT good, although Mysteries is...). Saramago is a slightly more complex case. I take no exception to his membership to the Portuguese Communist Party. I like that he is a fearless agitator. I have no problem with his criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, except when he resorts to easy (and uninformed) cliches about modern Nazism. However, I fear that his critical zeal has spilt over into outright anti-Semitism, something I cannot abide. He has made odd statements in the past, but his recent comment when launching his latest novel Cain pretty much sealed the deal for me. After calling the bible a "catalogue of bad morals" (to which, again, I take no exception), he went on to say that "it might offend the Jews but that doesn't really matter to me."

What can I make of the fact that the humanity expressed in the work of one of my favourite writers is not reflected in him as a person? Does this schism add a layer of falsity to his writing? There is a great book on this topic called Intellectuals by Paul Johnson in which the author explores the personal views of some of the greatest writers that have ever lived. Tolstoy was plain scary. Hemingway, Bowles, Mailer and Sartre were misogynist pigs. And don't get me started on Martin Amis (not that he ranks as one of the world's greatest but I needed to stick someone contemporary here). Hamsun was a willing accomplice to Nazism. Brecht was a heartless opportunist and party lackey. Dostoevsky was a drunken gambling fiend whose addiction served to destroy not only him but also those who loved him. Ditto Poe. The list goes on. Does this make them unreadable? Obviously not. As my older brother used to joke, "Do as I say, not as I do". But it does make me read them in a jaded light.

As I worked my way through Small Memories I searched for signs of what made him so contrarian. At 87, one would think that he is well-equipped for critical reflection. But this slight book reveals very little, and will unfortunately go down as one of his minor works. Aside from an older brother who died at age four and a domineering father, there was nothing to glean. I once asked a Portuguese friend what they thought of him. He said that people in his country are torn. He is undoubtedly one of literature's greats but he is well known for being a thoroughly dislikable person. Which is strange... Life has been long and, for the most part, good to Saramago. Oh well, I guess he was just born a douche.

Microviews Vol. 1: Chaon, Claudel, Gaiman

on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
For a book blog, there hasn't been a great deal of talk about particular books on Baitforbookworms. While I love yapping on about issues in the lit world and adding my greatly insignificant two-cents' worth, I figure I ought, every now and then, to throw in some reviews for good measure. Rather than bog you down in deep exegesis (of which, I am the first to admit, I am hardly capable) I'll keep them bite sized. Hence my terrible new moniker "Microviews".

Four days into the new year and I have polished off three of my six listed reads for the month. A pretty good start, if I may say so myself. At this rate, I'll have plenty of time for random reading, including the new memoir by Jose Saramago that I picked up yesterday having not even known one was to be published. More on that another time. For now, however, behold my lame literary pontifications. Be warned, the opinions expressed in the following Microviews may not be the opinions of this author in a day's time.

Await Your Repy by Dan Chaon
There was sufficient buzz about this book in the latter part of last year to suck me into reading an author I had never before had the slightest inclination to broach. For the most part, I'm glad I went there, though I don't think it worth all the wanton salivating that has surrounded it. Await Your Reply is an interesting maze of a novel, complex both in ideas and execution. In rotating order, it tells three stories of people on the run, in search of something - often their own identity - that remains tantalisingly elusive. There is Ryan, who has run away with the man he always believed to be his uncle, but is in fact his father (or maybe not). Teenaged orphan Lucy is running away with her history teacher whose own history might be an elaborate lie. And then there is Miles, searching for his lost paranoid schizophrenic brother Hayden. The three seemingly unrelated narratives slowly weave together in a way that does not quite warrant the term 'ingenious' but is certainly satisfying, and the ending of which packs a sinister punch. Chaon is a little too prone to 'thriller' conventions to really tip this over the edge for me, although he ought to be commended for being one of very few people to tackle those pesky Nigerian e-mail scams in an intelligent, literary manner.

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
I first stumbled upon Claudel several years ago when the dreary cover of his fantastic novel Grey Souls appealed to the misanthrope in me, thus compelling me to pick it up. Claudel is massively underrated in the English speaking world. He is a crime writer in the loosest sense, in that his novels have crime as their set piece, but he uses that as his launching pad into deep philosophical explorations of heavy themes such as post war guilt and responsibility. Brodeck's Report is another magnificent addition in that vein. Of the several men in his small, isolated village that were sent to concentration camps, Brodeck is the only one to survive and return. As was too often the case, those who remained throughout the German occupation harbour the heavy burden of guilt and unspoken complicity, and while they are excited to welcome Brodeck back to their ranks it is on condition that the past remain buried. When the villagers set upon and kill a flamboyant stranger - the Anderer - who has recently arrived in the town, Brodeck is tasked with writing a report about the incident. Flitting between his own harrowing camp experiences, the degradation of which is brilliantly juxtaposed with the mirrored degradation of those who remained, Brodeck reconstructs the time leading up to the murder. Brodeck's Report is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit, and the revelation toward the end is truly astonishing in its artistry. Claudel proves, in a most painful way, that sometimes the receptacle of guilt must be destroyed to cleanse, or rather whitewash, the present.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
After the weight of the Claudel I needed to escape and Neil Gaiman seemed the perfect means. There is little to say about The Graveyard Book that hasn't already been said. Universal raves were well-deserved. This story of a boy raised by ghosts after the murder of his family by the evil man Jack is one of the best young adult novels I've read since I Am The Cheese (still my all-time favourite). Peppered with brilliant cultural references, including ones that even kids might get (take that Muppets!), Gaiman shows that he is unfettered by the bounds of genre or age. I did take minor exception to the neatness of the wrap-up. I just wasn't convinced by the "Jack-of-All-Trades" brotherhood as an explanation for why young Bod was being hunted.It just seemed rushed. However, that hardly diminished my enjoyment of the book, nor did it prevent a lump forming in my throat at the end. I am told there are parallels between this and The Jungle Book, but having read Kipling only as a child I can't really remember enough to see them. Nonetheless, The Graveyard Book shares its charming timelessness. Add my voice to the chorus of raves.

The Starting Line...

on Friday, January 1, 2010
Last night, while everyone else was scrambling to see fireworks, I was frantically attempting to finish my final book for 2009. Having been struck down in the two days beforehand by some serious burns and a nasty bout of 48 Hour Plague, I failed, which was rather fitting given that my designated Year of Classics and Epics was, overall, a rather dismal failure. And so it took me until today to bid a fond farewell to those charming, if a little twee, March sisters. On the upside, I won considerable brownie points for having read Debbie's favourite book of all time even if my sexy new edition of War and Peace continues to sit on my bedside table gathering dust.

A new year means a new challenge, or in my case a series of new challenges. Rather than setting an overarching theme, I have decided to make this a year of monthly themes, starting with the convenient January cop-out of "Books I Really Meant to Read Last Year". Piled high above the Tolstoy, dutifully protecting it from further dusty insult, is a colourful array of books that I hope turn out to be worthy of the raves heaped upon them:

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel
An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I've intentionally kept the list brief to allow for a number of books that I know are due out in January and which I'm greatly looking forward to (Delillo and Bolano in particular). I also want to give myself the opportunity to read other nourishing novels in order to build up my immunity before February's challenge "Books I Swore I'd Never Read".

Full explanation and justification to follow, but let's just say the names Brown and Meyer are going to feature. You'll notice I've made sure to assign that theme to the shortest month. Even I'm not that much of a masochist!