The Top 10 of 2010: Back To The Herd Mentality

on Friday, December 31, 2010
New Year's Eve is upon us and so it is time for me to unveil my favourite ten books of the year. As I've said before it was a rather patchy one for literature. A few great authors released passable but not particularly good books. Many an ordinary debut saw the light of day. Someone even told me that they had lost faith in fiction this year.

As for me, I read a lot of excellent books but very few of them were published in 2010. Indeed, when looking back over the 155 books I managed to get through, there were only 12 that deserved a place on this list. One I cut because, although it was translated for the first time in 2010, it is in fact 58 years old (Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key). The other, Keith Richards's Life, was edged off the list by an arguably greater musical legend.

Overall, it seems comedy was the big winner, taking five of the ten spots. There were also three debut novels, which is always a good sign for things to come. Yet it was a French author of whom I was only peripherally aware who came in at number one. And so, without further ado, I bring you the Bait For Bookworms Top 10 of 2010:

1. Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel. A lowly bureaucratic functionary is sent into a small town to investigate the murder of a mysterious stranger. What he discovers will quite literally take your breath away. Brodeck's Report is one of the most astounding books about wartime guilt and complicity ever written. A murder mystery, artistic meditation and revelation all rolled into one. Simply brilliant.

2. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahariar Mandanipour. This amazing story of two students pursuing their forbidden love through the pages of great Persian and world literature continues to resonate with me eleven months after I first read it. I'm not usually one for romance, but when it came to Sara and Dara I have to admit I swooned! It is also harrowing in its portrayal of life in a totalitarian state. Almost perfect on every level.

3. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. This hilarious debut novel drove a great metal barb through the heart of the pretentious print media world. Documenting the rise and slow demise of a semi-fictional English language newspaper in Rome, its pastiche of journo-stereotypes, some snooty others pitiable, had me laughing out loud, and not only because I recognised half of my friends drowning in the mix.

4. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. A year of heavy reading was topped off by this hilarious celebration of the scientifically absurd. Whether you are a certified brainiac or, like me, a total grognard this is the funniest book that you are likely to encounter in any universe, including this one. In comic terms, it seems there is nothing funnier than a time machine repairman in love.

5. Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes. Britain's king of quirk struck gold again with this deliciously nasty gem. Creepy, hilarious and unexpectedly tender it kept me smiling even while my skin crawled.

6. Nemesis by Philip Roth. These days Roth is as patchy as he is prolific, but this powerful tale of a polio epidemic in 1940's New Jersey really hit the mark. The combination of a decidedly non-Roth protagonist and some brilliant metaphorical social commentary about the economic collapse and the perceived terrorist threat make Nemesis his best book since Indignation.

7. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. This very worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize shone an excoriating light (if there is such a thing) on the triumphs, insecurities and downright absurdities of Diaspora Jewry. High Lit that makes you laugh and cringe at the same time.

8. C by Tom McCarthy. Forget the experimental tag! C was a complex and mesmerising examination of the way in which we communicate from a writer who is shaping up to be one of our generation's greatest commentators. And yes, it had a conventional plot.

9. Solar by Ian McEwan. Sure, it had the cookie-cutter McEwan plot device but this foray into deep science, petty academic jealousies and the indignities of ageing disgracefully was a real winner. I never thought McEwan had it in him to make us laugh. I also thought he was well past his prime. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

10. Just Kids by Patti Smith. Yes, a non-fiction book made it to my Top 10. Who'd a thunk it? This double eulogy for Robert Mapplethorpe and the heyday of New York counterculture is 300-odd pages of pure street prose poetry. The only book that made me cry this year.

So there you have it. An unexpectedly eclectic top ten for my first year of lit-blogging.

Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2011 brings us all a library (being my collective noun for books) of great reads!

Reality Check: My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard

on Thursday, December 30, 2010
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write. Thomas Bernhard, he of the impenetrable yet addictive literary sludge was actually a really funny guy. Laugh out loud, double over, try to catch your breath funny. Not that you would have known it from his novels. Dreary, depressing, sure. But not funny. Turns out it was all a ruse. In this short collection of reflections, Bernhard tells us what he really thought of the various prizes he won. Needless to say, he doesn't hold back and I suspect that pretty much every institution that saw fit to give him an award later came to regret it. Some might brand Bernhard a sore winner, but for me it was refreshing to see a person whose misanthropy could transcend his ego.

There are those, I suppose, who collect accolades
Though others prefer that they went to their graves
Integrity shining not once selling out
Here Bernhard makes quite clear what he was about
Dark and obsessive in print, when loquacious
He's spiteful, sardonic and wholly ungracious!

And yes, i realise I was supposed to read the new Chinua Achebe book for this challenge, but after the great disappointment of the Gunter Grass I felt it was okay to cheat a little and do the old bait and switch. Yet again Bernhard saves the day!

2010: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Sunday, December 26, 2010
Only a few days before I unveil my top 10 for 2010, but in the meantime here are the honourable mentions. I've gone out on a bit of a limb this year and added a couple of less literary categories. My therapist suggested that it would make me seem like a more 'well-rounded' person. Or I'm sure they would have had I actually had a therapist.

Close But No Cigar (The Ones That Almost Made It)

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. A daring and oddly plausible rendering of the Jesus mythos, Pullman pissed off a lot of believers but garnered significant praise from pretty much everyone else.

Light Boxes by Shane Jones. A little gem about a town at war with the month of February, Light Boxes was testament to the oft-underappreciated brilliance of independent publishing.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel. Generally panned by the critics, this much-anticipated follow-up to Life of Pi was a morally complex and enjoyably absurd take on genocide. But for its overly neat ending, I really couldn't see why it was so viciously savaged.

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago. Saramago was always at his best when writing about animals, and this was no exception. A wonderful novel from the late great Nobel curmudgeon.

Books I'm Sure I Would Have Loved Had I Gotten Around to Reading Them

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Supposedly one of the great novels of the Vietnam War, this debut came out of nowhere to universally glowing reviews. A must read sometime later in life...

To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Grossman is one of my favourite Israeli writers, as much for his politics as his stories, and this is supposedly his masterpiece. Hopefully I'll get the chance to read it before he is given the Nobel.

The Wind-Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi. Sci-fi is my guilty pleasure and, if we are to believe the hype, The Wind-Up Girl is the most exciting book to grace the genre in years. Some have gone so far as to dub Bacigalupi the new William Gibson. High praise indeed.

The Soundtrack to my 2010 Downtime (Yep, this is a list of albums, not books)

1. The Gamits - Parts. Reformations are all the go at the moment, and these punk legends did it in style. Can't quite work out what Chris Fogal has been gargling in his downtime, but the new gruffness of his vocals added another dimension of greatness to an already kick-arse band.

2. Foxy Shazam - Foxy Shazam. Plastic, bombastic and goddamned fantastic, Foxy Shazam have the spirit of Freddie Mercury shining down on them in all its sequinned glory.

3. AC4 - AC4. Bite-sized hardcore chunks from the latest incarnation of Refused's Denis Blixen.

4. Smoke or Fire - The Speakeasy. These guys just keep getting better. Neon Light is a strong contender for my favourite song of the year.

5. Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From a Young Man. MSP are a very hit and miss affair, but Postcards saw them in full flight. Catchy, literary and thought provoking guitar pop, an almost complete 180 turn from their last effort, the drudgery that was Journal For Plague Lovers.

Book Podcasts That Helped Me Survive the Long Drives and City Traffic

1. KCRW's Bookworm - Michael Silverblat might have the most annoying nasal voice imaginable, but he can dissect a book like nobody else. It is little wonder the great authors literally line up to be on his show.

2. New York Times Book Review - Editor Sam Tennenhaus fleshes out a select few articles from each edition of the NYTBR. Always interesting listening, no matter how obscure the topic, it is Tannenhaus's rapier wit and willingness to look a gift horse in the mouth (and usually tell it its breath stinks) that makes this an absolute podcasting treasure.

3. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast - Each month a notable writer comes in and reads their favourite short story from The New Yorker short story archive. A brilliant way to rediscover some lost literary masterpieces.

4. Slate's Audio Book Club - I've always avoided joining a book club, but listening to this mob makes it sound kind of fun. They're not all lit wankers either, so the podcast is refreshingly accessible to anyone interested in reading.

5. Book on the Nightstand - Two Random House Reps shoot the breeze in this light-hearted, convivial gabfest. Sometimes it verges on the twee, but for the most part it is an enjoyable escape when you find yourself stuck in traffic.

Well, that's it for the honourable mentions. Stay tuned for the Top 10...

2010: The Shelf of Shame

on Friday, December 24, 2010
Festivus is upon us which means we can count the number of days left in the year on one hand (that is assuming, like a guy I went to school with, you were born with a superfluous finger). I, for one, am getting into the Listmas spirit, looking over my 2010 reading catalog while sipping non-alcoholic egg nog (read: an egg). Rather than doing a strict repeat of last year's lists and lumping you with one massive blog post on December 31, I've decided to break my year in review down into a number of categories. I started a few days ago (unwittingly) with the best books I had read that weren't first published in 2010. Now I want to continue with The Shelf of Shame, the dishonourable mentions for what was a very patchy publishing year.

Most Overrated Books of The Year

Room by Emma Donoghue. It's not that this story of a kid trapped in a shed with his mother was a terrible book but the hysteria that surrounded its release was close on Beatlemania. The execution is fair, the kid is likeable if a little cutesy, but at the end of the day it seemed like a decent concept for a short story or, at best, novella stretched laboriously over 300-odd pages. Its descent into the pits of sentimentality had my gag-reflex working overtime. Maybe if Donoghue had trimmed the schmaltz it would have been better.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. A passably entertaining riff on future love in the great melting pot of Cybermerica, quite a few reviewers went gaga over this, the follow-up to the rather wonderful Absurdistan. I thought it was alright, but Charles Yu did it far better.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. Critics were hailing this as the first great American novel of the decade and the most ingenious artistic representation of Global Financial Crisis we were ever likely to read. The David and Goliath tale of a big-business land grab verged on the cheesy and was annoyingly predictable.

Boxer Beatle by Ned Beauman. A fair few lit snobs were heralding the arrival of a major new talent and, sure, this had many elements that ought to have made it a ripper. But strip away the exuberant cartoonish flair of the writing and you were left with a pretty stock standard Nazi-relic hunting story.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. The other debut over which people went nuts in 2010, Hunt took Winston Churchill's well-documented fight with depression and imagined it, quite literally, as a big black dog. Fantastic premise, but she faltered somewhat in the execution. Don't get me wrong, it was still a good book. But I felt that the secondary romantic plot made the whole thing a bit twee and not really deserving of the adulation it garnered.

Biggest Disappointments

Great House by Nicole Krauss. The History of Love is one of my favourite books of the past 10 years. With this one, I got the feeling Krauss was doing an experimental rehash, but with a cast of characters for whom I didn't particularly care. To put it bluntly, by midway through the book it had completely fizzled. Also, the central premise was done to much better effect almost fifteen years ago by Tibor Fischer in The Collector Collector.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster. This was not a terrible book by any stretch of the imagination but I continue to hold out hope that Auster will recapture his former brilliance and this just did not. A decent pastiche of character sketches in search, to paraphrase Pirandello, of a novel.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. I go weak at the knees for The Good Doctor, and have liked pretty much every novel Galgut has published. But this surreal travelogue was hardly a novel, despite what the Booker committee would have us believe. Three reasonably engaging reminiscences pasted together does not a coherent whole make!

Point Omega by Don Delillo. Ever since the Twin Towers collapsed, Delillo has struggled to recapture his almost prophetic prescience of old. Point Omega started well, and had echoes of White Noise bouncing around between the lines, but it never really went anywhere and ended without any meaningful resolution. Like with Auster, it wasn't a bad book but hardly worthy of the great writer who penned Underworld.

The Box by Gunter Grass. It only managed to slip in at the end, but the sheer laboriousness of this, the latest instalment of Grass's memoirs, made its 150 pages seem like War and Peace. A pointless exercise that shed no new light on the great author's life.

Flat Out Worst Books I Read in 2010

Admittedly none of these were published in 2010, but throughout my year of challenges I forced myself to read some pretty awful books. I shan't dignify them with a blurb, but the top 5 (or is that bottom 5?) were:
1. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
2. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
3. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
4. Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard
5. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

And in case you want to know what was that worst book I read that was published in 2010, well that's easy. Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris. Hands down. A pile of try-hard technocrap. One of the few books I've ever read where I was actually embarrassed for its author.

Agree? Think I'm a totally illiterate moron? Have a couple of your own to add to these lists? Let me know!

Reality Check: Life by Keith Richards

on Wednesday, December 22, 2010
If Patti Smith's book verged on poetic high art, Keith Richards has cranked out its gutter-dwelling, drug-addled little cousin. Which isn't to say that Life isn't also high art, though of a very different kind. It all makes me feel even more inadequate as I continue to lump you with these annoying rhymes. I just don't know how Dr. Seuss lived with himself...

Oh, well, stuff this in your hat:

From somewhere beneath a dark heroin haze
Ol' Keef takes a look back on halcyon days
It's brutal and honest and dripping with swagger
And his sympathy lies with the devil, that's Jagger
Though hefty this book left me scratching my head
After all he's consumed how the hell's he not dead?

Reality Check: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

on Monday, December 20, 2010
I grew up on true crime books. The Stranger Beside Me, Hunting The Devil, The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer. I just couldn't get enough. So obsessed was I that my parents were called into school a number of times so that my teachers could voice their concerns. Most notable was dear Mrs. Begley, who found expressions of extreme violence in my creative writing output. She famously told my mum that "he writes very well, but couldn't he just once write about flowers and hills?" So next story I wrote for her class (hilariously named Writing For Young Authors - the class, not the story!) had someone murdered on a hill and their body sprinkled with flowers.

When it came to putting together the list of books I would attempt for the December Challenge I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to check out what's making it big in the genre these days. Preston and Spezi's investigation into the Monster of Florence serial killings (which, if you like literary trivia, were the inspiration for Thomas Harris's final Hannibal Lecter book) had been getting some serious raves so I thought I'd give it a go.

Pull up your green eggs and ham, folks. Here's what I thought:

Somewhere near Florence in picturesque hills
There lurks a monster who viciously kills
To this day unsolved by detectives inept
These journos turned up on the list of suspects
Point as they might to Sardinian trails
Frustrated, it ends with them chasing their tails

Reality Check: Regions of the Great Heresy by Jerzy Ficowski

He might only have had the chance to crank out two short story collections before being brutally murdered as an act of revenge against his Nazi protector, but Bruno Schulz is one of the towering figures of mid-20th European century literature. I became obsessed with him after seeing a Theatre de Complicite production of Street of Crocodiles and quickly hunted down the two slim volumes, devouring them with a sense of sheer wonder. Surreal, harrowing and completely other-worldly, they are amongst the greatest story cycles ever to be published. In this biographical meditation, Ficowski goes a long way to demystify the enigma that has sprouted from Schulz's unmarked grave.

Or, as Dr. Seuss would put it:

For the pilgrims who flock to the great Kafka's grave
There's another, unmarked and ignored I'm afraid
A disciple now digs and tries to resurrect
To give voice, and give ink and to piece back the flesh
Indignant he holds high his art to the end
A shot in the arm for one shot in the head

Five for 2011

on Sunday, December 19, 2010
Late December always gets me salivating as I look into my crystal ball to see what lies ahead in the world of literature. 2010 proved a very good reading year (though not quite as good as 2009), with several of my favourite writers cranking out excellent new novels. Even better, I discovered a few new names to put on my "Drop Everything And Read" list; I am gagging for something new by Tom Rachman and can't wait to see what Charles Yu does next.

2011 is looking a little quieter but there are still a few books I can't wait to get my hands on. Here's the top 5 as I see them at the moment:

1. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Whether you love him or think he was a pompous, literary masturbator, you cannot deny that DFW's untimely death was a great loss to American literature. His hefty masterwork, Infinite Jest, kept me company throughout the year I was writing my Honours thesis and so I feel forever in his debt and remain ever eager to pick up his latest offering. From what I gather, Pale King looks like another hyperactive skewering of our modern existence, though hopefully it will be sans tennis. Some have been complaining that publishing this unfinished work amounts to exploitation, cashing in on his death with something he never had the chance to properly polish. But who cares if he was only part way through The Pale King when he killed himself? Infinite Jest finished mid-sentence, unresolved, at the end of over a thousand pages and it was still a corker!

2. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. The draw here isn't that it's a new book by JSF but, rather, that it is a re-imagining of and meditation on the work of one my all-time favourite writers, Bruno Schulz. I look forward to seeing what Safran Foer does with the source material but from what I hear it is a mind-bending experiment that actually works. Plus, it is apparently a beautifully packaged volume to boot and I'm a sucker for anything that looks spectacular on my shelf.

3. AnimalInside by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. No book has infuriated me more with its impenetrability than Krasznohorkai's best known novel, The Melancholy of Resistance. It took five false starts before I hit my stride and got through it. However, I like a good literary arm-wrestle and so was quite excited to hear another of his books is being translated and will be released in April. I have no idea what to expect from it, but I know it certainly won't be boring.

4. Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas. Regular readers of B4BW are probably well-aware by now that Vila-Matas's madcap literary treasure hunt, Montano's Malady, was one of my favourite books of the past few years. I think Vila-Matas is the most exciting writer around these days and can't wait to have him bend my mind again with another dose of his absurd jigsaw plotting.

5. Something new from Michael Chabon. No revelations here I'm afraid. But he's been teasing us for a couple of years now, so I'm going to state here that I want 2011 to be the year of the new Chabon. Is that too much to ask?

Not This Year In Review!

on Friday, December 17, 2010
I thought I'd start my end of year roundups with something of a non-list. Or, rather, a list with little relevance to the past twelve months. I figure that it makes no sense to include books that weren't published in 2010 in a "Best of 2010" list, but it would be equally silly of me to ignore them altogether. After all, fair few of my favourite books of 2010 were not published this year.

And so, with less than two weeks to go until we celebrate the arbitrary distinction that is the new year, I bring you my alternative list; my favourite non-2010 books of the year. Obviously I'll exclude everything from my Dog Bite Degustation challenge, seeing as they were my top 10 books of all time and would make this endeavour redundant.

So pretending that we are not really counting from 11, and naming them in no particular order, I loved:

The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton (2009)
The Book of Chameleons - Jose Eduardo Agualusa (2004)
Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (1949)
Saville by David Storey (1976)
Mephisto - Klaus Mann (1936)
The Education of a Stoic - Fernando Pessoa (tr. 2004)
The Cremator - Ladislav Fuks (1967)
Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes(1605)
The Mahabharata (ummm....)
The Behaviour of Moths - Poppy Adams (2008)

Stay tuned for my Best of 2010... Coming soon (most likely on December 30... I'm holding out for a last minute supernova)

Reality Check: The Box by Gunter Grass

I was pretty excited to get my hands on the latest instalment of Gunter Grass's memoirs, even more so because I had heard that this volume was stylistically more interesting, perhaps even with a fictional flourish. Alas, halfway through this short (especially short given the heftiness of Peeling The Onion) curiosity of a book, I was struck by a Solzhenitsyn-inspired Eureka moment. I actually don't really like Gunter Grass. Sure, I waxed lyrical in the past about The Tin Drum but, at the end of the day, he is kind of boring. Sorry Professor Graewe (my fantastic German Literature lecturer of yore), I want to like your hero but I just can't. And not because of his past, I don't really care about that. It's just that his turgid meanderings put me to sleep. I get it, Mr. Grass. You screwed around, had eight kids and wrote books of which you are rather proud. But this added nothing to your canon. When all is said and done, The Box will be a minor footnote, if it even makes it that far.

So without further adieu, here is The Box as rhyming verse.

I've come to believe the Nobel is a curse
For all of its winners grow gradually worse
After great revelations of Wafen SS
Grass comes in again and wants us to assess
Through the lens of his camera, an old fashioned box
This life in eight pieces is slight and a flop

Reality Check: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

on Tuesday, December 14, 2010
It was a simple Cartesian equation. I like Russian literature. Elif Batuman has written a book about "Russian Books and the People Who Read Them". Ergo, I will like this book. And I did. Sort of. Sucked in by a pretty cute premise, I found myself drifting as I waded ever deeper in to its pages. I think this started as a collection of essays, published separately, in various lit rags. That would make sense. This book works if approached in bite-sized chunks. As a whole, I'm less convinced. Anyway, here's the review in three couplets of rhyming verse. Apologies for the extra syllable in the last line. I needed it to get in the godawful Russian literary pun. As I said at the start of this month, I've never claimed to be a poet!

There's something that's rather peculiar you see
About readers of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
Conspiracy theorists and paranoid freaks
How they do Babel on these Chekhovian geeks
It's a glimpse into worlds of high lit and first loves
She's Possessed but I wasn't, when Pushkin came to shove

Reality Check: Just Kids by Patti Smith

on Friday, December 10, 2010
Ok, so I have to say this straight out. However bad I was at haiku or limerick, I am truly appalling at rhyming couplets. But as you know all too well by now, I never let my dignity get in the way of fulfilling a promise, so here is the first instalment of my December reading/poetry challenge. Thankfully, I started with a book that I truly loved. Not knowing all that much about Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, but growing up in awe of the New York cultural scene of the 60's and 70's, I was mesmerised to read about it straight from the horse's mouth (sorry, pathetic pun...). So here you have it, my terrible rhyming couplet review of Patti Smith's wonderful Just Kids.

Many a hymn has been sung to New York
But none of its Lower East Saint Mapplethorpe
From squats to the halls of the Chelsea Hotel
Of great falls and rises the high priestess tells
A tale sometimes tender and other times sordid
Vale to Puck, once rent boy now applauded!

A Bad Case of Listeria (Or Merry Listmas)

on Tuesday, December 7, 2010
And they're off!

Never mind that there is still an entire month left of the year, but with the recent publication of The New York Times 100 Notable Books (50 fiction, 50 non-fiction) Listmania season is officially upon us. Pretty soon our literary presses will be filled with the self-validating pontifications of the book snob elite, deigning which works were worthy of the trees they gave cause to die. It is always an interesting exercise, trying to make sense of who put what where and why. Mutual backscratching is often the go as is inter-list one-upsmanship. And then, of course, there is the great game of trying to nominate the most obscure book possible just to get extra snob cred. I wonder how many high end listers had to cross off this year's National Book Award fiction winner, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, when it won. It must have really hurt, having their sure-fire wanky choice stolen away by so prestigious an institution as the National Book Foundation. Mock them all as I might, I am not unknown to compile lists or, for that matter, succumb to the temptation of throwing on a couple of little known (usually Eastern European) titles. This year I get to double up, with a "Best Of 2010" blog post sometime near the end of this month, and a Year in Review in The Australian Jewish News. Thankfully, I keep a record of every book I read so I will be able to sift through the pile and pluck out some worthy nominees. Suffice to say, neither Twilight nor Eat Pray Love will be making a showing.

As for the NYT list, the usual suspects were there, along with a few nice surprises and a couple of what-the-f*%$s. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came in at the top, with Selected Stories by William Trevor, The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (never heard of it, score one for obscurity cred) and Room by Emma Donoghue rounding out the prestigious Top 5. And yes, you heard me right. Room by Emma "Counting Down Til I'm On Oprah" Donoghue. Cue my loud, bellowing WHAT THE F*%$! Talk about the most horribly overrated book of the year. How on earth could the good folk at the NYT fall for such smoke-and-mirrors pedestrian claptrap? Sure, it was a good idea for a short story but, when stretched out to full length novel, this homage to Hans Fritzl/Natascha Kampush was just cheesy and predictable. Not that my opinion counts, but there were any number of books in the fiction half of the Top 100 that should have received the kudos before Donoghue. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell... any of the other 46 I haven't just mentioned, really.

Anyway, having resigned myself to not receiving my letter from the Queen, I shall now sit back and await the onslaught of lists. And maybe get off my lazy bum and compile my own. Behold, the winner is... Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.........

A Century of Baiting!

on Monday, December 6, 2010
Holy libraries! Not quite sure how I managed to keep this thing going but with this here post, Bait For Bookworms turns 100. Yes, I realise using a post celebrating my 100th post to clock up my 100th post is as ridiculously self-perpetuating as 'the most photographed barn in America' in Don Delillo's White Noise, but hey, like the great man himself and a whole slew of his postmodernist friends would attest, who needs substance when you can peddle sweet-smelling nothing? I had actually intended my 100th post to be about the 150th book I had read this year, but I'm still only on the 148th and have a bunch of crap I want to rattle off NOW DADDY (props to Veruca Salt for that one).

For those of you who have just found this humble blog by way of Sunday Night Safran on Triple J, welcome. If you're just here to see the biblical limericks, click on the August tab on your right and they shall be... um... revealed. I hope you enjoy reading them, even if the tone as written seems lacking without the irreverent joviality of the wonderful Father Bob Maguire. For those who want to hear the interview, you will be able to download the podcast soon at (they usually lag a couple of weeks behind). Needless to say, until you hear a 76 year-old rebel priest recite Genesis in limerick form, you haven't lived!

In other news, I have had much cause to ponder the fate of literary crossover artists since word got out that the 92nd Street Y has offered refunds to those who came to see Steve Martin in conversation with Deborah Solomon at the great New York cultural hub. Far be it from me to diss the venue - my band played there one year when we were touring the States - but seriously what were the audience expecting? Stand-up comedy? Martin was there to promote his new novel, An Object of Beauty which, from all accounts, is a serious and seriously good meditation on the art world. Seems the dirty rotten scoundrels who turned up were two brains short of independent thought and just didn't get what they were in for. They came hoping to witness a Steve Martin laughathon and career retrospective. Instead they got a dose of deep, contemplative literary culture sans a single sombrero. Or Chevy Case. Ouch. Naturally, they reacted the only way disgruntled New Yorkers know how - with a flurry of indignant emails. Rather than standing up for Martin, the folk at 92nd Street Y issued an official apology and offered anyone who was disappointed with the 'show' a $50 refund gift certificate. Never mind that Martin had done the appearance for free. Or that they did not bother to consult him about the audience dissatisfaction before taking their consumer-is-always-right action. Or that the fault really seems to lie with the promotion and organisation of the event - it was clearly in the 92nd Street Y's interests to rely on Martin's reputation to draw a crowd. The comedian, it turns out had the last laugh. Sol Adler, 92nd Street bigwig, has now had to publicly apologise to Martin. Yet happy although the ending may seem, this entire episode suggests a much deeper problem. We, as a pop cultural consuming public, seem to take issue with our heroes stepping outside of the box into which we have stuffed them. Comedians doing serious literature, musicians writing books, actors doing music. We just don't like it. Granted it is often with good reason. Many who try fail dismally. But the fact we don't allow them to soar even when, like Steve Martin, they have produced a work of genuine importance illustrates our limitations, not theirs.

Anyway, enough preaching from my soapbox. Happy 100 y'all. I'm just going to sit back now and await my letter from the Queen.

Reality Check: The December Challenge

on Thursday, December 2, 2010
Forgive me Fyodor, for I have sinned. When I made my new year's resolution to write a literary blog I intended from the outset to quirk it up with absurd challenges that took me out of my reading comfort zone into new, mostly humorous, territory. I started off quite well but, alas, the best of intentions have fallen by the wayside, victim to my penchant for self-indulgence. I wanted to read books I liked. Shoot me.

It's now December and I figure I have but one last chance for redemption. I must tackle the thing I dislike reading more than anything else (except perhaps the crap I had to read for February's Books I Swore I'd Never Read challenge). Yes, in a last ditch attempt to save me from having to admit defeat come December 31, and consequently forcing myself to repeat this whole shebang again next year, I intend to spend a month reading non-fiction. To be fair, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I have built up a respectable pile of mildly interesting looking tomes of truth over the past few years. The fact I get to finally open them, and knock them all over in one month, makes the whole task seem almost bearable.

I know I might be accused of bandwagon-jumping, but I'm starting off with Patti Smith's National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids and will follow it with Elif Batuman's examination of Russian bibliophiles (that is, people who love and obsess over Russian literature, not just anyone from Russia who can read), Possessed. I figure, with those two, I at least have a connection, spurious as it may be: early punk rock and wanky literature are two of my great areas of interest. Next up I'm going to hit something I've meant to read for years, Jerzy Ficowski's biography of and meditation on the criminally under-appreciated Polish writer Bruno Schulz, Regions of The Great Heresy. If the name doesn't ring a bell, wait for Jonathan Safran Foer's next book. I suspect you will find yourself chasing down copies of his two amazing story collections, Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, before you can say Drohobycz. I'll also give my high school obsession with true crime another run with The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. Comic relief shall be provided by Keith Richards and his anti-Jagger bitchfest, Life. And, finally, I'll round out the month with two memoirs by great authors, Gunter Grass and Chinua Achebe.

Now I know what you're thinking. This all sounds a bit too easy for the very last challenge of the year. Don't worry, spanner, meet works. I am going to attempt to review them all in six line verses of rhyming couplets. I don't even really know what that means. Oh, well, I guess it could have been worse. There was always the chance I'd be lumped with haiku again.

Radio Free Bookworms

on Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Nothing literary to report today. I'm gearing up for the December challenge by attempting to get my way through yet another impenetrable Thomas Bernhard book. Man I love him, though he completely does my head in. Anyway, I just wanted to put the word out that Bait For Bookworms is hitting the airwaves on the next episode of Triple J's Sunday Night Safran with John Safran and Father Bob McGuire. We'll be talking all things poetic and biblical, as I revisit the August challenge "Books For Blasphemers" and set myself up for a mighty big shellacking from any of the deities I offended or their followers. So tune in this Sunday night, December 5 from 9PM to hear my fall from grace.