2012: And The Winner Is...

on Monday, December 31, 2012
I'd never heard of the author. The cover design was drab. I had sworn off reading Holocaust-related fiction. Why, then, did I pick up Trieste by Dasa Drndic?

In a year that delivered some pretty great books, none were quite as brilliant as this. Drawing on photographs, biographical snippets, documentary evidence and a multiplicity of innovative narrative techniques, Trieste tells the harrowing story of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian woman caught up in the Nazi machinery as it overruns her country and crushes all that she hold dear. At the start we meet Haya in her twilight years, waiting anxiously for the arrival of a son she long thought dead. It is to be a bittersweet reunion; he is, after all, her son, product of the Lebensborn program, but his very existence reminds her of the horrors of her youth and the man who, despite moments of kindness and decency, was an outright monster. The novel then unfurls into a sprawling account of Haya's desperate struggle to save herself against overwhelming odds.

The emotional and moral complexity of Haya's story demands a great deal from the reader but the effort is well rewarded. Daring in its ambition, ingenious in its structure, Trieste breathes new life into a fairly stagnant genre. One of the Israeli greats (I think it was David Grossman or Amos Oz) once said that the great Holocaust novel has yet to be written. He might still be right, but this is about as close as it we've seen. To my mind, Trieste will now be the benchmark against which all such novels will be judged.

So there you have it. Trieste by Dasa Drndic. A truly worthy winner of Bait For Bookworm's Book of The Year.

2012: A Brief Statistical Interlude

And now for something completely different...

Before announcing my favourite book of 2012 later this afternoon, I thought I'd take a quick statistical look at my year of reading. Needless to say I know nothing about maths or statistics so the more numerically inclined among you will probably laugh at my ineptitude. Oh well, here goes nothing (being neither a number nor a constant so far as I am aware):

Number of Pages Read: 29,087

Longest Book: Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (650 pages)

Shortest Book: Blind Man's Bluff - Aidan Higgins (60 pages)

Average Length of Book: 255 pages

Time Spent Reading (Based on Average Reading Speed of 90 pages an hour): 323 hours or 13.5 days which, in the scheme of things, isn't very long.

So there you go maths nerds. My year in review. Now stay tuned for the 2012 winner of The Bookworm's Book of the Year.

2012: The Final Countdown

on Sunday, December 30, 2012
Let me start with a confession. Try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to read Telegraph Avenue. I say that because I figure you would be expecting to see it somewhere on my list. It isn't. Maybe someday I will read it. Michael Chabon still is one of my favourite writers of all time. And it is about my other great love. Alas...

Other books I ought to have read but didn't (and perhaps would have loved if I actually did) include: Hostage by Elie Wiesel, Accelerated by Bronwen Hruska, Mountains Of The Moon by IJ Kay, Hologram For The King by Dave Eggars, Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie and The Round House by Louise Erdich. Shame on me, I know.

But enough of the jibber jabber. Here are the first nine of my Top 10 for 2012:

10. The Flame Alphabet - Ben Marcus. Why Ben Marcus? Why? After kicking off with the most exciting, mind-bending and straight up breathtaking opening few chapters of the past two decades you went and ruined it all with an expedition up your own sphincter. But I digress. The Flame Alphabet has the best post-apocalyptic set-up of all time. The language of children as a life-threatening disease? Genius. Parents fleeing their own kids, rejecting the societal norm of protection and nurture to save their own arses? Spectacular. A rip roaring adventure that manages to channel both JG Ballard and Cormac McCarthy, yet told in a perfectly unique voice? I bow at your feet. And, just when you think you've found the best book ever, it all falls apart? Oh why, Ben Marcus. Seriously, why? (But you still make my Top 10)

9. The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vasquez. With this, his third novel, Columbian Vasquez firmly stakes his claim as one of South America's most important writers. Once again he mines the dark edges of his country's history in a tale of a young couple swept up in Escobar's emerging drug cartel. A novel about naivety, sacrifice, betrayal and the violence that sometimes puts paid to even the most innocent of intentions. Moving, yet brutal.

8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain. I'm not quite as convinced as everyone else that this is Catch-22 of the Iraq War, but it is undoubtedly an exuberant satirical roast of all that gung-ho, celebrity-obsessed, politically-absurd America holds dear. Just the image of a bunch of befuddled Marines being whisked back home and made to parade around the country at football matches and ticker tape parades before being plonked back in the war zone was enough to bring on a smirk. The absurdity of it all would have me splitting my sides if it weren't so damn tragic.

7. A tie. This Is Life - Dan Rhodes and What In God's Name - Simon Rich. I was juggling which of these would go higher on my list before taking the easy way out (and allowing myself to crib an extra book into my top 10) and declaring a tie. Rhodes continues to dish out the quirky charm in this ode to serendipity and the pretentiousness of the art world. Never before has a naked man shitting in front of an audience seemed so funny. Equally enjoyable was Simon Rich's novel about the almost-destruction of mankind. God has lost faith in his creations and decides to wipe out the world (he wants to concentrate on opening an asian fusion restaurant in heaven instead) but two lowly angels make it their mission to prove there is hope for humanity. The only problem - they must make the two most socially awkward people you have ever seen fall in love. It's cheesy and kind of loopy, but the gags work, making What In God's Name the most pleasurable read of the year for me.

6. Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander. Speaking of funny, this one takes the cake. A completely batshit crazy story of a neurotic city Jew escaping to the country only to find Anne Frank alive, old, cranky and living in his attic. She pisses in the heating ducts, bangs on the ceiling, does her level best to drive him nuts... That is when she isn't desperately trying to write a sequel to her worldwide bestselling first book. You know the one. Auslander skewers so many of contemporary Jewry's holy cows that he might as well open his own Kosher abbatoir. Insanely hilarious!

5. The Fall of The Stone City - Ismail Kadare. I thought he was dead. Or at least I thought his talent had dried up. Whatever, Kadare's latest is among his best (and that's really saying something). When Hitler's army rolls into Albania, the first town it hits is Gjirokaster. The invaders expect the red carpet treatment. Instead they get bullets. The city looks set for destruction but a mysterious meeting between the local doctor and the German commander changes its fate. For years afterwards the locals debate what happened that night. In saving the city did the good doctor betray its people? Told in whispers and spurts of rumour, this amazing novel challenges concepts of loyalty, friendship and national identity.

4. We Are What We Pretend To Be - Kurt Vonnegut. For a bloke who carked it half a decade ago, Vonnegut sure is prolific. Six books in five years, two of them in 2012. Most living writers would be jealous. Just to rub salt into the wound, We Are What We Pretend To Be is the best thing he's done since he died. Consisting of two previously unpublished novellas, one from the very beginning of his career and one from the very end, it just proves that Vonnegut was a bloody genius from go to woe. And don't worry if you're not a fan of his usual whacky hijinks - the first novella owes more to John Steinbeck than Spike Milligan. As for the second... Holy crap that guy was nuts.

3. Melisande! What Are Dreams? - Hillel Halkin. You don't spend a lifetime translating the great Yiddish and Hebrew masters without having some of their brilliance rub off on you. And sure, it might take you seventy three years, but when you do put out that first novel it's probably going to be a killer. This melencholic story of a marriage in decline is one of the most tender meditations on the nature of human relations that I have ever read. Sad yet uplifting, perceptive yet innocent, Halkin's belated debut is one that will linger in your heart as much as your mind.

2. The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers. I should put it out there that any of my top four books could have been number one, so close was the competition. I toyed with putting Kevin Powers's stunning debut at the very top but for reasons that will become clear tomorrow it was just pipped at the post. The Yellow Birds is the kind of literary revelation that heralds a new messiah. Powers draws on his own life as a poet and active soldier to craft a riveting tale of one man's struggle to come to terms with the death of his friend during service in Iraq. Not a single war cliche pollutes the perfect prose. The emotion is raw, the anger palpable, the depth of humanity staggering. If you are not torn apart by this novel, you have no soul.

Check back tomorrow for my Oh So Surprising Number One.

2012: The "Best of" Bridesmaids

on Saturday, December 29, 2012
Never before have I had such a hard time whittling my list down to ten books. In any other year, a few of these Bridesmaids would have made the Top 10 but, as they used to say in Vaudeville, timing is everything. Didn't help Vaudeville and didn't really help these books either, but you should still check them out.

Building Stories by Chris Ware. It is hard not to be overwhelmed and awestruck by the magnitude of Ware's achievement in this behemoth of a graphic novel. Told over fourteen different pieces (mini-strips, books, broadsheets, pamphlets etc), and all packaged up in a huge board game-sized box, Building Stories is a series of interlinked tales set around a downtrodden Chicago apartment block and its mostly sad inhabitants. In terms of narrative, it is a mobius strip, with no instructions on intended order of reading (I just went from smallest to largest), though I suspect it doesn't really matter. Think Armistead Maupin or George Perec minced together with gravel and a hint of whimsy and you get the idea. Extra props for the brilliant Branford The Bee sequences.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo. Forget Slumdog Millionaire, this is the real deal. Boo lived in the Mumbai Slum of Annawadi for three years, coming to truly understand its social mechanics and, more importantly, gaining the trust of its inhabitants. The result is a beautifully rendered portrait of life in a place where desperation and injustice do battle with beauty and hope. Sure, these people's circumstances might be awful, but their stories are universal - ordinary people trying to better their lot, negotiate everyday life and maintain a basic level of human dignity. A magnificent work of narrative non-fiction.

Las Vegas For Vegans - A. S. Patric. A collection of stories so varied in tone, style and inventive flourish that the only thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common. Great literary acrobatics from this Melbourne local who is quickly becoming one of the heavy hitters around town.

The Fifty Year Sword - Mark Z. Danielewski. Get over the gimmick! This is a beautifully produced piece of old-fashioned storytelling disguised as experimental fiction. Short, cool and fun (once you get the hang of how to read it).

Care of Wooden Floors - Will Wiles. A comedy of absurd and increasingly horrifying errors marred only by its lame denouement this was one of the great surprises of 2012. The unnamed narrator arrives in an unnamed European city, charged with looking after his incredibly anal friend's apartment. Instructional notes are left on almost every surface and implement but one stands out above all the others - take care of the wooden floors. It's not hard to guess what happens, but the avalanche of disasters that follow are what really makes this great. Whether read as farce or a novel of displacement (not unlike Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole), it is a resounding success.

A Few Flower Girls: The Devil In Silver by Victor Lavalle, The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw, Sorry, Please, Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu.

Where Was The Boom? There Was Supposed To Be An Almighty Boom!

on Friday, December 28, 2012
Never fear, I haven't forgotten. Just trying to cram in two extra books that might make my lists. It's going to be a busy last three days of the year here on Bait For Bookworms, I promise.

2012: Secondary Stars And Other Satellites

on Sunday, December 23, 2012
The real countdown begins on Thursday (when Louie and I have a few days of batching to fill) but before I get stuck into it, and to allow myself those crucial extra four days to read my five remaining books, here, as always, are the Secondary Stars and Other Satellites, my best of everything else for 2012.(Note: This is an edited version with the addition of twos albums in my top "10")


The Devil All The Time - Donald Ray Pollack (2011). Delivering on the promise of his breakthrough short story collection Knockemstiff, Pollack's debut novel is part John Steinbeck, part Nick Cave, with the assured punch of a man who has lived rough and real. A testament to the late bloomer.

Purgatory - Tomas Eloy Martinez (2011). Probably the best book about The Disappearances that i have ever read, Purgatory is a moving examination of national identity in times of crisis. Beautiful, wistful and brutal.

The Family Carnovsky - I. J. Singer (1969). OK, it's no Brothers Askenazi, but it's still the better Singer at the top of his game. A powerful tale of assimilation and destruction set between fin de siecle Germany and the onset of World War 2.

My Life in CIA - Harry Mathews (2005). Hilarious memoir by the only American member of the Oulipo group, My Life In CIA recounts the time Mathews pretended to be a CIA agent simply because all his friends in Paris already assumed he was. Literary loopiness at its best.

Beside The Sea - Veronique Olmi (2002). The saddest, most harrowing book I read this year, Beside The Sea will crush your heart, mince it, feed it to wild boars, kill the boars, burn them on a spit and feed what's left to a crocodile. Then it will skin the crocodile for boots. Yeah, it's beautiful but holy crap, the sheer awfulness of it all could destroy even the most sturdy of readers.


KCRW Bookworm. My man crush on Michael Silverblat continues. The guy has to be the most well-read person on the planet, and to listen to him really immerse himself in a book in the presence of its author is a true privilege. In other words, he is the James Wood of the audiolit world, but without the massive arsehole tendencies.

Literary Disco - A slightly slicker Bookrageous with three fellow booknerds yacking it up in an engaging, enjoyable hour of random bookishness.

BBC's A Good Read. Two random celebrities (some from the land of literature, some theatre, some politics, etc etc) and the host recommend a 'good read' each then set about either blowing smoke up one another's arses or diplomatically stabbing one another in the throat.

The New York Times Book Review. Still the best weekly wrap up of what's going on in the literary world. News, reviews and the most important chart around.

Judge John Hodgman. The cases are real. The decisions are final (and wonderfully ridiculous). Welcome to the court of Judge John Hodgman. Comedy geek extraordinaire Hodgman plays Judge Judy in real life cases and makes a total mockery of justice.


It's been a pretty great year for music and I couldn't, in good conscience, whittle my list down to just ten top releases. So here's my baker's dozen, in which I kind of cheat even more and shove a few together as ties:

13. Ty Segall - Twins: The new messiah of surf rock dropped a chronically catchy, distortion soaked album of consistent greatness. This weirdo is poised for huge things.

12. Locked Down - Dr. John: He may be around 150 years old by now, but the old rocking bluesy jazzman (can't really lock him down - pardon the pun - to a readily definable genre) still has the kinda balls anyone a tenth of his age would envy. Revolution has to be one of the songs of the year.

11. A three way tie: NOFX - Self Entitled, Propagandhi - Failed States, Bad Brains - Into The Future. Ah, it's my teenage years all tied up in a neat package. None of these records were amazing, but all were very good. Propagandhi was a bit samey, NOFX had some killer tracks but a bit of filler, and Bad Brains... well that was the most infuriating record of the year; moments of absolute brilliance and then some absolute crap.

10. Public Enemy - Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamps: It's been a while since I listened to these guys, but this was a welcome return to form. Angry, smart, suprising and damn catchy. Unfortunately, their second album of the year, The Evil Empire of Everything, didn't quite live up to this one. PE, Green Day, listen here. One album a year please. That's it.

9. Another tie. Future of the Left - The Plot Against Common Sense and Toys That Kill - Fambly 42: FOTL bring you another serve of abrasive chaos just to remind you that they are the masters of the form. I preferred Travels With Myself and Others, but this was still pretty great. As for Toys That Kill, it's been a long time between drinks but this is speedy pop punk perfection from probably the most underrated bunch of champions in the biz. Get it if you even slightly like yourself.

8. fun. - Some Nights: Go f&^% yourselves, cred police. I totally fell for this throwback to bombastic Freddie Mercury opera pop. Wonderfully tender commercial perfection.

7. Classics of Love - Classics of Love: Jesse Michaels returns with his best work since Operation Ivy. Actually, I think this is even better than Op Ivy. There, I said it.

6. Not On Tour - All This Time: Most unexpected album of the year. Israeli speed punksters with kick-arse female vox deliver the best thing to come out of that region since hummus.

5. Frenzal Rhomb - Smoko In The Pet Food Factory: I always enjoy these Aussie legends, but it seems they've been back on the funny juice because Smoko... really is the best thing they've done since Meet The Family. The fact they've finally gone to an amazing studio and don't sound like they've recorded in an underwater outhouse didn't hurt either.

4. Burning Love - Rotten Thing To Say: Dirty, rocky, punky awesomeness from a band I hadn't even heard of before I downloaded this album on a whim. Trust me, you've got to get some Burning Love in your ears.

3. White Lung - Sorry. Can't believe I forgot this on the original post. Amazing, buzzsaw punk record from one of the most exciting bands around at the moment. It's fast, ferocious and femme fronted - a killer combination.

2. Pennywise - All Or Nothing: The dinosaurs return with a new lease on life thanks to the best pipes in the business, new singer Zoli Teglas. Sure, it just sounds like an awesome Ignite album but what's not to love about that? I was dismayed to hear they've since booted Zoli in favour of bringing Jim back into the fold. Back to the graveyard, I guess.

1. Morning Glory - Poets Were My Heroes: There are plenty of great heroin records out there but this would have to be the most beautiful one I've ever encountered. Part recovery diary, part hymn to hope, Poets Were My Heroes left me emotionally spent, but with a new appreciation of the fragility of life. While Stza continues to be a self-centred douchebag deserving of every fist a fan throws his way, his Leftover Crack bandmate Ezra Kire has triumphed with true grace. An easy winner for me.

2012: The New Year's Aspiration Scorecard

on Wednesday, December 19, 2012
I really don't know why I bother setting goals for myself each year; I clearly do very little to achieve them. This year was no exception. I completely disregarded them all in favour of a characteristically lassaiz faire approach to reading and writing. I'm almost reluctant to write this entry, but if I won't whip my own back with stinging nettles, who will?

1. Read Less, Write More. Not a complete failure. At 120-odd books and still counting, I'm down on my usual average so that's something. I also did a fair amount of writing albeit not quite as much as I'd hoped. My self-imposed deadline of September 30 flew by without so much as an ink splotch but I am making progress (more tortoise than hare-like, it seems). Looking back, 2012 will be remembered as a year cushily spent resting on my laurels. My two published stories enjoyed quite a prolonged life - publication in The Age, Best Australian Stories 2012 and Award Winning Australian Writing 2012, licensing by the ABC to be read as a radio program, participation in my first ever writers' festival, public readings, etc - and I was quite happy to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Alas, the fire has now been reduced to its last few embers (or ash, to be more precise) so 2013 is going to have to be a much more productive one if I don't want to feel totally stagnant this time next year. But there I go putting the cart before the horse again...

2. Stop Being Such A Lit Wanker. Genre fiction and graphic novels didn't exactly feature heavily on my 2012 reading list but I did make a fairly decent showing of trying to read a bit more of them. For the most part they were enjoyable (special props to Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain and, yes, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) so there may still be hope for me yet. Don't hold your breath though. I'm still a total wanker.

3. Smell The Roses. End-of-year rush aside (I'm trying to rip through ten more books before NYE), I think I did a pretty decent job. And even though I'd like to credit a concerted effort on my part to stick to at least one of my New Years Aspirations, I simply cannot. Any success on this particular point stemmed from serendipity, not design. I read as I usually read. Sometimes it was slower, sometimes faster. A busier law calendar certainly contributed, as did my 2012 tendency to travel whenever the opportunity arose. So great success, but not thanks to me.

4. Tangible Aspirations: War and Peace, Sartre's Roads To Freedom, Lev Grossman, Gaiman's American Gods. Here's where I really set myself up for failure. Nope, nope, nope and nope. Holy crap, those nettles sting!

5. Lose 95 Kilos and Exist in A Vacuum. Strangely, I didn't do too badly on this one. I did lose a few kilos and, by becoming ever more hermit-like, existed somewhat in a vacuum (at least so far as my friends were concerned). So bravo me. Successful at the one NY Aspiration that was totally absurd.

Well, that about wraps it up for another year of predictable stumbles. Of course I'll come up with new ones for 2013, but I'm thinking it might be more prescient to set the bar much lower so I can smash it out of the park. Read 25 books? Write half a chapter? Take Louie for three walks? Yeah, I think I can do that.

Be sure to check back over the next ten days as I unveil all my picks of 2012. It's been a great reading year, so I have hell of a lot to say about some truly remarkable books!

2012: The Shelf of Shame

on Sunday, December 16, 2012
You know the drill. Before I go singing the praises of the truly remarkable books that came out this year I must first clear my throat of the phlegm. And so it is with green, mucilaginous glee that I bring you 2012's Shelf of Shame.

Sometimes the shepherds of literary culture lead us into apoplectic anticipation by pulling the wool over our eyes. Time to give the sheep a fringe:

HHhH by Laurent Binet. Sometime in March, I began to hear whispers about a revolutionary work of historical fiction that had won every prize under the sun in France and was about to take over the rest of the literary world. Those of us interested in Holocaust fiction trembled with anticipation, occasionally stopping to wipe the saliva from our shoes. When it finally arrived, HHhH proved to be a crushing disappointment. Hardly a revelation of any kind, it was a simple piece of documentary storytelling (not unlike a Wikipedia entry) with the odd intrusion of a very annoying knob putting in his two cents about the writing process.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Critics went nuts for this. Readers lined up in droves to heap the stars on their online reviews. I, however, saw stasis, not progress. Yes, Diaz is an exciting voice in fiction, but he is starting to sound a little monotonous. I ended up wanting to push Yunior under a train.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Don't crucify me. I believed the hype. One of the great minds of modern times honestly and defiantly reflects on his descent into the abyss. This could have been so great but, when all was said and done, Hitchens found the one topic against which he could rage but on which he seemed to have little true insight. Mortality certainly had moments of epiphany, but they were drowned in a swamp of confusion. Remember Hitchens for everything else he wrote. Let this be just a footnote.

2012 was a bumper year for expectations. Quite a few of my favourite authors published new works. Some came through. Others... well:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: Many readers thought Sweet Tooth a return to form after the disappointing Solar (which, it seems, I am the only person to have liked). Strangely devoid of the familiar McEwan formula - catastrophic event befalls ordinary person - this one revisited the mindfuck device he used in Atonement, albeit in a classic 70s MI5 spy context. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice. Sweet Tooth is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a little lazy and ultimately unsatisfying.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel. Holy shit I was excited about this. Claudel, the author of my favourite novel of the past five years, returned with a book that promised to be part Kafka part Calvino (and, I suppose, part Claudel). Instead, The Investigation turned out to be a self-conscious meta wankfest that wasn't a patch on either of the aforementioned authors and did very little to further Claudel in my estimation. As I said in my review, only one person ever did the Kafka thing well and he died of TB back in June 1924.

Dirt by David Vann. To my mind, Vann has positioned himself to become the true heir to Cormac McCarthy. Equally bleak and nihilistic, with enough originality to avoid simply being dismissed as sycophantic fan fiction, both his debut story collection and first novel absolutely blew me away. This Oedipal mess had its moments but for the most part was an exercise in losing control. I'll allow him this misstep on the basis of "difficult second album syndrome", but I expect far better in the future.

Dishonourable Mentions:
Stonemouth by Iain Banks. Someone please tell me why I still expect good books from this guy.
Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. This time the joke is on him. Ho hum farce of a middling order.
Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Following all the buzz, I'm not sure what I expected. It was not, however, this amalgamation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Dan Brown.

50 Covers of Grey
Yes, yes. Tawdriness is the new Twilight. But must every book that involves fisting and gerbils have the same bloody cover (metaphorically speaking)? I smell a cynical cash-grab aimed squarely at bored housewives. As I said to one bookseller after he sold an E.L. James novel to an ageing tennis mum, "Now imagine her reading that in the bath while masturbating."

It's a tie between We All Fall Down by Peter Barry and Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

You may recall Peter Barry from last year's list. No, not the shelf of shame. The top ten. His debut, I Hate Martin Amis Et Al was one of the most refreshing, hilarious, gutsy novels I have read. This, however, shared none of those qualities. I'm not sure whether We All Fall Down was sitting in his bottom drawer and pounced upon by the publisher after the unexpected hit of Amis, or whether he quickly cobbled it together in the hope of keeping up the momentum he had suddenly generated, but whatever the reason someone should have nipped it in the bud. We All Fall Down is a boring, turgid, indulgent waste of trees.

If only I could say such lovely things about Martin Amis's latest disaster. Subtitled A State Of The Nation Novel, Lionel Asbo was merely a vehicle for Amis to toss nerf pebbles from his crystal palace at his distorted idea of England. And what a tosser he was! Neither funny nor excoriating, this was about as useless a novel as I could imagine. I'll always love The Information but oh how the mighty can fall. Now I'm with Peter Barry. I too hate Martin Amis.

2012: The Countdowns Begin

on Saturday, December 15, 2012
2012 has been a bumper year for literature and though I didn't get to read as many books as I had hoped, and missed out on a few in particular that I suspect I would have liked, I still got through almost 120 which gives me a decent pool from which to draw my end of year lists.

To counter my ever-growing penchant for procrastination, I'm setting out a timeline for the rest of the year. I'm spacing them out as much as possibly to allow me to get through the last few books before finalising my top ten. So, assuming I can actually stick to a deadline (first time for everything), this is how it will go:

Sunday 16 December: The Shelf of Shame

Wednesday 19 December: The New Year's Aspirations Report Card

Sunday 23 December: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

Thursday 27 December: The "Best Of" Bridesmaids

Saturday 29 December: The Final Countdown

Sunday 30 December: 2012 Book Of The Year

The Worm Goes Wireless (and National)

Just a quick one to let you know that my story, The Prisoner of Babel, will be read on ABC Radio National Sunday Story tomorrow (Sunday, December 16) at 2.30pm. I'm super excited that it was chosen, a little nervous to hear it and still a tiny bit hopeful that it might be read by James Earl Jones (even though I know it will not). Check out the feature on the ABC here, where I think you will also be able to download it as a podcast.

For those of you who want to read it in print form, it was published in The Sleepers Almanac Vol. 7 which you can check out here.

The End Of The Year As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

on Tuesday, December 11, 2012
After a fairly long absence, I'm glad to report that I am well and truly back on board and frantically compiling my end of year lists. Prepare yourselves people. The Mayans were wrong. There is no escaping the deluge of sanctimonious literary judgement that is about to ensue!

Philip Roth: Bring Out Yer Dead ("He's not dead yet...")

on Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Only last week I was having a chat with someone in a bookstore about authors due a new novel. Coetzee sprang to mind. Haven't heard from him for a while (though, I have since found out there is once called The Childhood of Jesus in the offing). Then there's Cormac McCarthy's who has the unenviable task of following up the single greatest literary work of the late 20th century. I'm also ready for newies from Delillo and Doctorow, as well as lesser names who thus far have only produced a single, great book: Salvadore Plascencia, Ferenc Karinthy, Rivka Galchen and Tirdad Zolghadr.

Naturally, the conversation drifted to the great master Philip Roth who, prior to 2011, had been churning out a book a year and lately has seemed to have fallen silent. We mused over the prospect of another fine late-career work. If his most recent book, Nemesis, was anything to go by, there was still a lot to look forward to.

Alas, Roth's silence has now been broken, but not in the way I had hoped. As I'm sure you've heard, he announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine (as translated by Google Translate). In the pithy style of his last few books, he summed it up in two words. "I'm done."

Roth hasn't exactly made any secret of his struggles with his own mortality. Books like Exit Ghost, Everyman and The Humbling were all cloaked in the shroud of death, be it literal or metaphorical. Ironically, much like Don Delillo, when faced with the cataclysm he had for so long foreseen, Roth wasn't up to the task. Death bogged down those novels, and it was only when he broke free from it that he produced masterpieces such as Indignation, Nemesis and The Plot Against America.

It is weird to think of writing as a career like any other. Authors don't just 'retire' in the usual sense. Some stop writing out of necessity - Gabriel Garcia Marquez's dementia put an end to his output, even the prolific Bryce Courtenay called it quits after being diagnosed with terminal cancer - but for the most part, great writers keep working until death. I guess Roth doesn't agree. He hasn't been well of late, but I doubt he has reached a stage that he is no longer able to write. For him it was clearly a choice. Having read over his own work from end to beginning, he is now happy to rest on his laurels, knowing that he did not waste his life (if I might be so bold as to paraphrase him). Talk about an understatement!

Sunrise On The New Avenue

on Sunday, November 4, 2012
Naysayers and e-traitors, step aside! I have visited the latest kid on the block and can confidently assure you that that bricks and mortar book selling is alive, well and in very good hands thanks to Chris and his team at The Avenue Bookstore. Any tears you might still be shedding over the loss of the much-loved Sunflower can now be flicked away with glee thanks to the arrival of The Avenue's sister store in Elsternwick. Fans of the original Avenue will instantly feel at home - it's as if Chris took a shrink ray and transplanted the result into the somewhat smaller Glenhuntly Road space. Indeed, there is something surreal about walking around the site of a shop in which I practically used to live only to find it replaced by a midget replica of my other literary home. Initial headspin aside, I love what they've done with place!

I'm glad to see that The Avenue Bookstore Elsternwick has retained all the things that made Sunflower so great (including, but not limited to, the city's best Judaica section and some of the amazing staff). Add to that everything we know and love about The Avenue Bookstore Albert Park and we've all been gifted with one hell of a great store that, while small, still packs a serious literary punch.

It was a gutsy move on Chris's part, not only to expand his golden fiefdom but to do so on what amounts to the Melbourne Jewish community's ancient literary burial ground. Thankfully for all involved it has paid off. The Avenue Bookstore Elsternwick is a fresh, vibrant little shop sure to please old Sunflowers and new visitors alike. Moreover, it might coax a few of you e-tragics and Book Depositors away from your screens and into a good ol' fashioned bookstore. Don't resist the call. Your soul will thank you for it.

Microviews Vol. 19: Powers, Danielewski, Olmi

on Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
It begins with a beautifully brutal line. "The war tried to kill us in the spring." So simple, and yet completely devastating. The riff goes on. "While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire." Holy shit!!! Right? I don't even know how to describe The Yellow Birds in a way that could possibly do it any justice. At its most basic, it is the story of John Bartle, a young soldier stationed in a small Iraqi frontline town who, it becomes apparent, has been complicit in a moment of horror that subsequently destroys him. It is the story of youth betrayed, friendships forged and sorely tested, sacrifices made against one's will. It is an angry prose poem about the way in which war ruins lives, literally and metaphorically. No surprises that Powers himself is a returned soldier, having been stationed in the very town he writes about here. That he also happens to be an accomplished poet won't shock anyone either. Every observation is crisp and original. The tension is almost unbearable. Indeed, there is not a single misstep in the entire book. I expect that The Yellow Birds will go down as the great novel of the Iraq War, and one of the greatest war novels ever written right up there with All Quiet On The Western Front, The Naked and The Dead, For Whom The Bell Tolls and, more recently, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. If I'm wrong, court martial me!

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
When House of Leaves was unleashed back in 2000, the hipster chorus went into overdrive to herald the coming of the new messiah. Granted, it was a very cool book - absurd, creepy and endlessly inventive - but it set a ridiculously high bar that Danielewski was always going to struggle to meet. His follow-up, Only Revolutions, was a decent effort but, once the smoke had cleared and the mirrors were shattered, it turned out to be little more than a conventional love story. Then there was silence. Long, unremarkable silence. Until now, with the release of The Fifty Year Sword. Oh wait, no, don't be fooled lit-nerds. The Fifty Year Sword was actually first published in 2005, a year before Only Revolutions. You just haven't heard of it (unless you are a total MZD fanatic) because it came out in a tiny print run in the Netherlands, had a second run a year later, and then disappeared. Only now do we 'regular folk' get let in on the whole schtick. And schtick it is. The Fifty Year Sword is another reasonably entertaining work (this time a short fable) scrambled up to resemble a stylistic extravaganza (albeit one already visited in HoL). Purportedly cobbled together from the recollection of five characters, each one adds to the narrative in his or her own voice, indicated by different coloured quotation marks. The wankery gets tiring soon enough, and we learn to just read it straight as if it were a regular story. Lovers of good, old fashioned fables will be glad to hear that what lies behind the facade is actually quite good. Five orphans, drawn in by a story teller, who recounts what eerily resembles Monty Python's Quest for The Holy Grail, with a tinge of Kafka's Before The Law (the hero chooses the sword that has always lain in wait for him) and lashing of Edgar Allan Poe to round it out. It is fun and absurd, presented in a stunning pock-marked package, with gorgeous stitched illustrations to boot. Sure, it ain't no House of Leaves, but as some sorbet between great novels (yeah, I'm still holding out hope) it will do just fine.

Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi
In all my years of reading I have never come across a book as thoroughly depressing or horrifying as Veronique Olmi's short novel Beside The Sea. Rendered in a voice so convincing, so maudlin, so devoid of hope, it is the confession of a young mother who has taken her two young sons to a seaside town in order to kill them. There are no fancy tricks here, just the crushingly pained words of a woman who has been failed by the system and sees no alternative but to snuff out their little lives. There are moments in which the light creeps in - she wants to make this last trip as much fun as she can for the boys - but they are soon closed off as she struggles to cope with even the most basic of tasks and gets angry at her sons for just being kids. Beside The Sea is a damning indictment on the many facets of a system that can let someone slip through the cracks - from doctors whose incompetence borders on malpractice to child welfare workers who fail to properly identify the glaring risks. The mother herself carries some responsibility too; she stops taking her medicine and refuses to avail herself of the help on offer. Although it is clear from the first page how this book will end, Olmi reserves a small sting in the tail that will break whatever little pieces of your heart are left when you finally get there. Beside The Sea is a magnificent achievement, the likes of which you are unlikely to ever encounter again. And for that you will be very thankful.

Another Booker On The Mantel-piece

on Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, news that Hilary Mantel just won the 2012 Booker Prize for Bring Up The Bodies has reached me as I float 39,000 feet above the sea on my way back home. I can't say the win was a surprise but it most certainly was a relief. For the second year running Team Booker have salvaged the dignity of the prize by plucking the only worthy winner from a very ordinary shortlist (yeah, you heard me, Will Self!). Granted I haven't read Bring Up The Bodies, and I didn't much like Wolf Hall, but I can certainly see why her epic Cromwell series garners such adulation from readers and prize-givers alike. Mantel's Tudor England is brilliantly realised, perhaps better than any other historical period I have ever seen in literary fiction. The spectacular marriage of historical fidelity and imagination is, to my mind, without parallel. That I didn't like the first and probably won't read the second (ah, who am I kidding? I'll fold eventually, just like I did with Wolf Hall three years on) is more just a matter of personal taste. This little bookworm don't dig the Tudors.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be excited about the outcome. Mantel is the first woman to win the prize twice, rounding out Booker's Holy Trinity alongside the very worthy J. M. Coetzee and the rather flukey Peter Carey. She is also the first person to win it for consecutive books, an especially noteworthy achievement given the short time between the wins. Take into account the gargantuan size of the both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and your jaw should be copping a few grazes as it drags along the floor. Of course there is still one more instalment to come so you might want to head down to your local bookie and place a few bucks on the hatrick today before they suspend all bets on a near certainty.

Kafka and Cat Piss: The Suit-Case Closes (See What I Did There?)

Never before has so much legal wrangling been done over something so comprehensively soaked in cat piss. Then again, never before has the holy grail smelled so damn awful. But this ain't any ol' grail we're talking about here folks. This is Franz Kafka's suitcase (well, Max Brod's to be precise, but you get my drift); the one stuffed full of notes and manuscripts including, one would hope, lost novels and stories. The one left to languish in the Tel Aviv apartment of some crazy cat lady. The one caught up in the biggest Jewish custody battle since Kramer vs Kramer.

Almost three years after I first blogged about it (and five years since the fight actually began), the Israeli Supreme Court has handed down a definitive verdict in the tussle between Israel's National Library and the two daughters of Max Brod's secretary, Esther Hoffe who, you might recall, claimed that it was given to their mother as a gift to dispose of as she desired. Apparently, that included being allowed to sell the original manuscript of The Trial for personal gain to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Shit, if I knew it was going to go for a mere $2 million, I would have sold all my organs to science and snapped it up myself!

Anyway, back in February 2010, the court ordered that the two parties come to an arrangement so that the contents could be made available to scholars and rabid fans alike. I was excited. I waited. And I waited. And I waited. Nada. The legal mud wrestle continued in earnest. Now, thank God, sanity has prevailed. Eva Hoffe, the one surviving daughter, has had the thing forcibly snatched away and been slapped with a $25,000-odd bill for legal costs. Ironically, she will likely have to dip into her pool of blood money (or ink money, as it were) to pay it. I'll leave the last word to Judge Kupelman:

"This case, complicated by passions, was argued in court for quite a long time across seas, lands, and times. Not every day, and most definitely not as a matter of routine, does the opportunity befall a judge to delve into the depth of history as it unfolds before him in piecemeal fashion... [This trial has provided] a window into the lives, desires, frustrations and the souls of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.... Due to the strict requirements of proof required, I do not believe that the plaintiffs have met the requirements... the gift was never carried out to completion... One can determine that the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts... I hope that the inheritance of the late Brod will finally find its place according to the wishes of the deceased."

Which just goes to show, where there's a forged will there still might be a way.

Nobel Prize 2012: Mo Yan (About 30 Puns Resisted)

on Friday, October 12, 2012
Well, the bookies weren't too far off.

This year's Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the chinese writer Mo Yan for his "hallucinatory realism [that] merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." In other words, the guy is pretty much everything I love in a writer. No rant from me on this one. The committee got it right.

If you're wondering where to start, check out the short story collection Shifu, You'll Do Anything For a Laugh or, if you want to plunge in the deep end, hit up Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Either way, you won't be disappointed. Nobody dissects the absurdities of Chinese society better than this guy.

In the meantime, I guess Bob Dylan and Phillip Roth will have to commiserate together over a few cold ones at the local sports bar...

Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon Bookend Begin-Again

on Wednesday, October 10, 2012
If the five or so books that have been published since he kicked the bucket are anything to go by, Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007 was only a minor inconvenience. While other dead writers have been happy to rest on their celestial laurels, the great crackpot-with-a-conscience has managed to remain timely, exciting and very, very funny.

Now Vanguard Press has brought us a glorious little tome that bookends his career and proves that from beginning to end he was almost without peer. We Are What We Pretend To Be contains two previously unpublished short works: Vonnegut's first novella that was turned down for publication in 1950, and the first few chapters of a novel he was working on at the time of his death.

The novella, Basic Training, tells the story of Haley Brandon, a young man sent to work on the decaying farm owned by his uncle, an authoritarian ex-army man known only as The General. The farm is run like a training camp, heavily regimented and unforgivingly brutal. Haley falls in with The General's daughters and another farmhand, Mr. Banghart who, it soon becomes clear, is absolutely nuts. When Haley and the farmhand accidentally blow up The General's car, they flee to the city where things take a turn for the worse. Banghart finally loses it, kills someone, and swears to return to the farm to kill The General. Haley runs back to try to stop him. What follows is a tense, tautly rendered game of cat and mouse. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that Basic Training is some kind of thriller. It may be thrilling, but it is a dark, bleak tale of desperation that unsettles just as much as it excites. Even the love story subplot is cold and unrequited.

Many Vonnegut devotees will be surprised by Basic Training. Surprised that it was written by Vonnegut at all - it shares a lot more with the harsh realism of Steinbeck, or even Cormac McCarthy, than anything else he went on to write. Surprised with the quality of the writing so early in his career. But, most of all, surprised that it was turned down for publication. Even putting my Vonnegut sycophancy aside, it is one of the best short works that I have ever read. The redemptive ending might be a little clumsy, but it does not diminish the work as a whole. Any author would be happy to have just written this and then been hit by a train.

Fans will be a lot more familiar with the vibe of the novel-in-progress If God Were Alive Today. It is a fun park ride of linguistic verve, full of wacky gags and cultural jabs, with Vonnegut using his washed-up comedian protagonist Gil Berman as a conduit to stick it to pretty much anything he goddamned wants to. If God Were Alive Today is presented here as a novella, but it is clearly unfinished and no doubt would have been a great full length novel had Vonnegut lived a bit longer. Berman's total meltdown and pathetic attempts to get his life back on track must have really resonated with a writer feeling his own physical decline and i would have loved to see how Vonnegut resolved it. It is sad, it is angry and it is funny (though often in an embarrassing Dad joke kind of way). In other words, it is crazy Kurt as his absolute best.

Leonard Cohen Was Right!

on Sunday, October 7, 2012
Rejoice, fellow booknerds. My whingefest is over!

Just when I was ready to give up on this city, I happened upon the one crack that, to borrow from my favourite troubadour, lets the light in. Sure, I had to drive forty minutes to get there. And it is a second hand bookstore not a cool indie that peddles new, exciting literature. But salvation is salvation and I, for one, am damn happy about it.

Motte & Bailey in Ann Arbor is the kind of place that makes you believe in the magic of labyrinths. The sheer magnitude of the collection and the way it is 'organised' is enough to make the Collyer brothers seem like minimalists. Books occupy every conceivable space, including the cashier island in the middle. Walk one way, trip over books. Walk the other, they fall on your head. This was true heavenly clutter.

To add to my joy, the owner is a burly grizzly bear who knows every single item in his stock. He loves to chat books and was pleased to find this customer starving for such reparte. We bonded over our mutual love for E. L. Doctorow, laughed with disdain at Chuck Palahniuk and hedged our collective bets on David Foster Wallace.

I walked out totally reinvigorated, with a signed first addition of Doctorow's Book of Daniel to boot. It even steeled me up to visit a Barnes & Noble the next day where they didn't have a single book on my shopping list but did have a new Kurt Vonnegut book containing the late, great madman's first and last works. It is one of the best things I've read all year. All of this thanks to Motte & Bailey.

This is the sound of elation...

Nobel 2012: A Harpoon to Murakami's Heart

on Saturday, October 6, 2012
Step aside Murakami, there's a new (old) horse in town.

Seems Japan's best export since whaling has fallen from favour with the Nobel punters after leading the race for the past few months. We're only a week away from the big announcement and craggy Irish master (not to mention perennial Booker bridesmaid) William Trevor has firmed up as the new favourite. I hadn't considered him before - usually I'm waving the flag for either Ismail Kadare, Lazlo Krasznahorkai, Margaret Atwood or William H. Gass - but Trevor would be a very worthy winner. His short stories are stunning, and his longer works are always compelling and beautifully rendered.

As I went to write this I was surprised to find that betting has been suspended on the Ladbrokes site. However, the list still stands so you haven't missed out on seeing who sits near the top. Unsurprising Spoiler Alert!!! It includes Mo Yan, Cees Nootebom, Adonis, Tom Stoppard and, of course, Bob Dylan. From this we can learn only one thing: there is almost no chance of the prize going to any of them. Oh yeah, and don't hold your breath for Philip Roth either.

So who will it be? I'm putting some sly bucks on E. L. James... That'd give the prize a good rogering. Or were they reserving the Peace Prize for her?

A Postcard From Purgatory

on Thursday, October 4, 2012
The abandoned husk of a Borders megastore languishes beside the highway, a sad portent of things once to come, now a grim reality.

Wait, let me start again.

It has been six days, four hours and twenty eight minutes since I last visited a bookstore; the longest I have ever gone without. My worst nightmare has come true. I am in a city with no literary soul. If once there was one, it has long since been exorcised. For this weary traveller, Detroit exemplifies the worst possible outcome of late 90s scorched earth commercial expansion - the establishment of huge barns that crushed the small indie sellers and then, when economic clouds began to stir, closed down leaving entire areas bereft of books. It's quite astounding. There are pretty much no bookstores to be found unless you are willing to turn to one of the great "white knights" of middle America, Barnes & Noble (which still has a strong, albeit soulless presence) or just give up altogether and hit Amazon. It is a sad, sad state of affairs.

Yet a bit of research suggests that all is not completely lost. There are a couple around if I'm willing to drive for a while. I guess I have no choice. But I won't have the joy of walking along any random street and stumbling upon a trove of hidden bookish treasure. God I love Melbourne.

This is the sound of a reader in despair.

Booker Prize 2012: The Shortlist Short Shrift

on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Well, team Booker have just announced the shortlist and I'm feeling a strange sense of deja vu. Just like last year, there seems to be one clearly deserving book and five underwhelming pieces of padding to fill the remaining spaces. Unlike last year, though, I don't have Stella Rimington to blame. What ever will I do?

For those who have yet to see the announcement, the six books in the running are:

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Umbrella by Will Self
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Yes, yes. I know what you're thinking. I was the first in to bat for the long list and now I've snubbed my nose at its distilled mutant cousin. I can't explain it either. I suppose the more time the list had to sink in, the more blasé I became about it. I never considered it exciting, just sufficiently literary to merit Booker consideration. Alas, I am going to eat my words and cross the floor. I'm with Stella. There's no point in making it 'literary' if it's just plain boring.

Needless to say the safe money would be on Mantel. She is a class (well, a good number of classes) above anyone else on this list. Also, given that Bring Up the Bodies is book two in a trilogy that began with the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, it'd be cool if she bagged it to set up the greatest cliffhanger in the history of the prize. Sure, we might have to wait a couple of years, but at least there's a chance it might get interesting again. Ah, who am I kidding?

Onto the rest of the list... Edgy tomes from subcontinental writers seem to have good Booker form so Narcopolis may well turn out to be this year's White Tiger. Plus, Jeet shares a surname with the dude from Soundgarden. That's got to count for something. Will Self is in the habit of bitching about Booker's relevance or lack thereof so maybe the panel will see the great comic potential in giving him the nod. It certainly won't hurt Self to eat his words; he's looking a bit thin these days. As for the others, I don't have much to say. I quite liked Eng's last book but am in no rush to read this one, Deborah Levy has never been on my radar and Alison Moore's book is a debut. Remember what happens when a debut wins the Booker? D.B.C. Pierre. That's what. I now use him as a verb. Pejoratively.

I'm not going to a hazard a guess this time round. I'm always wrong. But if they don't give it to ol' Hilary, so are they!

Microviews Vol. 18: Patric, Kadare, Diaz

on Monday, September 10, 2012
Las Vegas For Vegans by A.S. Patric
A.S. Patric is the sort of Aussie writer who need only rest his pen against a page and someone will throw an award his way. He's bagged both the Ned Kelly and the Booranga and been published in pretty much every reputable lit mag in the country. It's little surprise then that Las Vegas For Vegans, his second collection of short stories, is brimming with skilfully crafted nuggets of imagination and panache. Patric easily flits across genres, which means that there is a story or five for everyone in the collection (there are 33 in all which, for a book that's only 220 pages, is quite an achievement). It also means there'll be a few you're bound not to like. For my taste, Patric is at his best when he spins off into the surreal (UnSubstance, Guns and Coffee and The River), though his speculative forays (Elysium Zen, Ana Schrodinger, Fragments of a Signal) and edgy suburbiana (The Manx Heart, The Boys) also hooked me in. Like all short story collections, Las Vegas For Vegans is a little uneven but at least it shows that Patric is not afraid of taking risks. An exciting book from a writer well worth checking out.

The Fall Of The Stone City by Ismail Kadare
Reading Ismail Kadare has always been a little like playing broken telephone. Most of the English translations were taken from the French which, in turn, had been taken from the original Albanian. This meant that it was often difficult to gauge whether the shortcomings of any particular work (often manifesting as clumsy prose) could be attributed to the author or the translator. Thank the literary gods then for John Hodgson, who has cut out the French middle man once again and given us the fourth of Kadare's novels to be translated directly from Albanian to English. The Fall of The Stone City is a breathtaking piece of fiction, brief in pages but immense in power. For the most part it is the story of Gjirokaster, a town situated near the German border. When the Nazis invade, local partisans deal them an unexpected blow and the people of Gjirokaster await a fierce retribution that never comes. Conjecture abounds, until it becomes apparent that they have been saved thanks to an extravagant party thrown for the German invaders by local dignitary Doctor Gurameto. Years after the war, those who cowered in their homes while the party raged try to make sense of what happened. Was Gurameto a hero or a traitor? Did he sacrifice the partisans to save the town? Gurameto's fate is ultimately tied to that of the city itself; it is tragic and bitter, but it is also symbolic of a country at war with itself.
(With thanks to Evan for setting me straight about Kadare's translations)

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
After stepping aside to allow Oscar Wao some time in the spotlight, Junot Diaz's original hero (or anti-hero) Yunior is back in what might be considered a sequel to his game-changing debut, Drown. Like that book, This Is How You Lose Her is a series of linked short stories that charts the wise-arse Dominican immigrant kid and his family as they make sense of life in America. It is full of the same machismo, the same Spanglish acrobatics, the same dashed hopes, the same.. well, that's the problem. This Is How You Lose Her is too much of the same. No matter how energetic and original Diaz might be, this collection lacks the diversity of voice or tone to lift it above mere repetition of his earlier work. There are funny moments, and currents of deep pathos (the death of Yunior's brother is particularly moving) but they seem to be drowning (pardon the pun) in a sea of beige. I'd have done better to reread The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Sunflower Update: Three Week Reprieve

on Sunday, September 2, 2012
Just a quick one to let you all know that Sunflower Bookstore will remain open for 3 more weeks because the builders couldn't start on time (they're totally renovating the shop before it opens as The Avenue Elsternwick). That means for three weeks there will exist in Melbourne the greatest bookstore ever known to man, a store that will be spoken of in liturgical texts and literary legend alike, known to its followers as The Avenueflower. Ok, I might have made that up. But it will be awesome. Be sure to head on down to hang out with your old Sunflower friends and, if you didn't get the chance on Saturday, meet the folks who will soon be your new best book buddies at The Avenue Elsternwick.

CORRECTION: So apparently it is technically now trading as The Avenue Bookstore Elsternwick. I still intend of referring to it as the The Avenueflower until the new fitout is complete.

The Sunflower Sets

on Thursday, August 30, 2012
In a couple of days Sunflower Bookshop, one of my favourite places to hang out, will be closing its doors for the last time. To me, Sunflower has always felt like a cultural and literary home. It represented everything that's great about independent book selling - thoughtful buying, dependable recommendations, a welcoming ambience and, most of all, truly wonderful staff. In the confines of a relatively small space, Zev and Margaret managed to create a massive local hub of literary life. Authors and readers alike could often be found wandering around, perusing the shelves, talking with one another like old friends. I couldn't begin to count the hours I spent there just chewing the fat with whoever was willing to put up with my diatribes. Best of all, the staff really cared about the customers. They got to know their tastes, listened to concerns, were happy to take recommendations as well as give them. When I won The Age competition they proudly stuck the story up on the wall, directly opposite their shrine of Elliot Perlman clippings. A year on, it's still there.

Thankfully all is not lost. For those not yet in the know, the space has been bought by one of my other favourite lit-hubs, The Avenue Bookstore and will be reopening under that moniker in just over a month. As sad as I am to lose Sunflower, I am relieved that it has been acquired by the only shop that can do the area justice. If you are not already an Avenue devotee, I urge you to give them your full support when they open their doors in Glenhuntly Road. There's a reason they consistently win the Best Independent Bookstore at the Australian Booksellers Association Awards. From what I understand, Chris and his fantastic team will be bringing The Avenue vibe to Elsternwick but maintaining the Jewish connection of Sunflower. To my mind, it's win win.

I am told that Sunflower will stay open on Saturday with a mix of current staff and some new faces from The Avenue, so if you haven't had your chance to say goodbye and would also like the opportunity to meet Chris I recommend you get down there. I'm sure you will realise straight away that your reading future is in very safe hands.

And so it is with the odd combination of a heavy heart and great excitement that I say farewell to one of the greatest independent bookstores ever to grace our fine city. Thanks to all those, past and present - Zev, Margaret, Faye, Steven (apparently my mortal enemy), Dierdre, Vivienne, Elissa, Maya, Michelle and all the other wonderful people - who have graced its carpeted (and, after the flood, wooden) floors. I am indebted to you for more than I can express here and wish you only amazing things in your futures. At last you can read for pleasure. Enjoy!

Mea Culpa: In Drndic's Defence

on Wednesday, August 29, 2012
When I sit down to write a review, I don't for a second imagine that the authors of those books read or care about what I write. Indeed last weekend, at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, I opined the vacuum in which we bloggers exist. We struggle to find readers at all, let alone people at the coal face of making literature. So it was both gratifying and, dare I say, awe inspiring to find among this morning's crop of emails one from Dasa Drndic, author of Trieste. You might recall that in my review I discussed the controversy regarding accusations of plagiarism that have been levelled against her. I tried to grapple with the question of whether (or how much) this lessened the value of what is, undoubtedly, an incredible book. After considerable consternation, I concluded that it didn't matter all that much. Trieste was just as glorious a novel whether or not some of it had been appropriated. Nevertheless, Dasa Drndic wanted to set me straight and I am very glad she did. I was wrong and failed to do her justice.

I won't attempt to paraphrase her. Rather you should read the email for yourself. In a world where online spats between reviewers and writers have become disturbingly commonplace, I think Drndic's email exemplifies the way in which an author who disagrees with a review ought to engage with its writer. I commend Dasa Drndic for her grace and, moreover, thank her for her interest.

Dasa Drndic calling. Thank you for understanding my book.

Before I say something about the supposed plagiarism of "Trieste", here is an excerpt from the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo on Gabriel García Márquez winning the lawsuit for a similar "accusation":

" While Márquez has long admitted his book was inspired by Palencia's family history and the murder of Chimento, the author argued that the names and the rest of the book's plot were the fruits of his own imagination." (Similar case with "Trieste", except that I use historical documents, photographs, parts from trials of accused WW II criminals, none of which have anything to do with THE FAMILY whose story I have allegedly "copied")

"In its ruling on Tuesday, the court agreed. 'Hundreds of literary, artistic, and cinematographic works have had as their central story facts from real life, which have been adapted to the creator's perspective, without this being an impediment to [the author's right] to claim economic rights over them.'(In "my case" no one demanded any economic rights, but rather moral satisfaction, which both pleased and distressed me.)

"The court also dismissed Palencia's demand to be credited as a co-author. 'Mr Miguel Reyes Palencia could never have told the story as the writer Gabriel García Márquez did, and could never have employed the literary language that was actually used. The work is characterised by its originality.'

Speaking to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Márquez's lawyer, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, celebrated the verdict.

'This ruling is important, because it helps enhance the central thesis, which is valid for literature and art in general, that what matters is the way it presents an object of reality, not reality itself. It's like a woman who poses for a painter [but] then demands half the copyright. She owns her body but the work itself belongs to the painter,' he said."

Some of the facts on which my 480 page novel is based I found on the web in the form of a 16 page linear presentation of events connected to the experiences of a certain family during WW II. There was no copyright restriction to this material, which, by the way, this whole copyright business, will hopefully one day be transformed into a copyleft strategy. When the book went into print I did not think it necessary to mention this fact, but the following editions will carry an explanatory note which will hopefully make THE FAMILY feel better.

Palimpsests, fragments (remember Walter Benjamin), quotations - are the core of modern and post-modern literature. Or, shall we, perhaps, dive more fervently into the pond of flat, linear, saccharine prose and poetry, into shallow constructions called fiction, into fast and easy reading, so compatible with fast eating and fast sexing. And slower and slower thinking.

à la vôtre!

And so I now recommend Trieste without any reservation. It is, to my mind, the standard bearer for post-survivor Holocaust literature and deserves to be read by anyone who cares about humanity, history or reading.

A New Age Dawns

on Monday, August 20, 2012
Having won the thing last year, I figure I ought to spruik The Age Short Story Competition 2012 which has just started accepting entries.

When the whole Gina Rinehart shitstorm was raging, I was worried that the comp might have gone the way of the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, but thankfully my fears have turned out to be unfounded and it's back for another round. Entries close on September 28, so get your pens to the paper (or start polishing up some of your favourite oldies) now. You can check out all the details here.

Microviews Vol. 17: Yu, Drndic, Claudel

on Friday, August 17, 2012
Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu
The moment I put down Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, I was so eager to read more from him that I hunted down an old hardcover of his first short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and paid some exorbitant price to have it shipped to my door via express post. Unfortunately, I was bitterly disappointed. It had all the mathematical geekery of the novel but none of the humour. When I saw that his next book would be another collection, I was in two minds. Perhaps he had learnt from How To Live... and would pull out bite sized pieces of everything that made that book so great. Or maybe he would just disappear up the black hole of his arse again. Thankfully, for the most part, he has done the former. Sorry Please Thank You is an excellent chaser, full of wonderful moments of physics-based, hyper intelligent hilarity (with a heart). Highlights include Standard Loneliness Package, in which emotions are outsourced to Indian call centres, Note To Self, where Yu converses with his multiple selves from parallel universes, Yeoman, in which the protagonist joins a space exploration team only to discover that every person who has held the position before him has died an absurd death (in fact it is part of the job description) and Adult Contemporary, a story about literally buying the life you think you want to lead. Sorry Please Thank You is not without its duds, but if you've been hanging out for another dose of Yu's quirky sensibility you won't be disappointed by it.

Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Well here's one hell of a conundrum. Trieste is, without a doubt, the best book I've read this year. It has also become apparent (and subsequently admitted) that some of it was plagiarised from the memoir of an Italian Jewish woman who survived the little known San Sabba concentration camp. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a breathtaking examination of an often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Starting in almost Thomas Mann style - an old woman sitting alone, surrounded by old photos, awaiting the arrival of a son she hasn't seen in sixty years - Trieste quickly descends into a bleak, unrelenting and obsessive account of complicity, fear and loss. I'm not sure where the plagiarism ends and Drndic's 'imagination' begins, but the story of Haya Tedeschi's relationship with the Nazi monster Kurt Franz and the confiscation of their son as part of the Lebernsborn program is both harrowing and tragic. Yet, it is the structure of the book that lifts it above most other great Holocaust literature. Drndic draws on photographs, maps, Nazi documents and transcripts from the Nuremberg trials, seamlessly weaving them into the narrative. At times, the documentary elements are used to staggering effect. One chapter is just a list of the nine thousand Italian Jews killed during the war. To her credit, this multiplicity of devices works well; there is a strange poetry to their points of collision. Irrespective of the plagiarism controversy, Trieste is a book that demands attention. It will leave you emotionally and intellectually spent, but as the fog clears you will come to appreciate that you have been in the presence of true brilliance.

CORRECTION: The author contacted me to point out a number of issues with this review. You can read her entire message here. Just to say that the allegation of plagiarism has quite flimsy foundations. To the extent that any true story has been used as inspiration (a very common occurrence in literature), it does not amount to anything untoward. I now happily fall on my sword and unequivocally label Trieste a masterpiece.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
Any author that self-consciously tries to emulate the great Franz Kafka is bound to fail. Only one person ever did Kafka and that was Kafka. Alas, they keep trying and, I'm afraid to say, the author of one of my favourite novels of all time has fallen victim to - if I might borrow from Achmat Dangor - Kafka's Curse. The Investigation concerns an unnamed man - The Investigator - who turns up in an unnamed place - The Town - to investigate a series of suicides at some unnamed company - um, The Enterprise. You get the point. He is thwarted at every turn by a series of similarly unnamed characters, all identified only by their function. Shades of Beckett bounce around the narrative, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the actual investigation is very much playing second fiddle to a weird existential circle jerk (assuming one person can constitute a circle). It kind of makes for enjoyable frippery, but take away the smoke and mirrors and all we are left with is unsatisfying pastiche.

Steppin' Out On A Slow Canoe

on Monday, August 13, 2012
If you're in Melbourne and looking for something to do this Friday night, come and support independent Australian writing at the Slow Canoe Reading in Abbotsford. It's a great monthly affair, having hosted a slew of exciting local writerly peeps, and this time round will be the scene of my second-ever public reading. I haven't decided whether to air a new story or a segment from my book, but either way it'll be something totally new and exclusive to the night. Hope to see you there!!

Booker 2012: Longshots and Hitlists

on Thursday, July 26, 2012
Well, I stayed up until two o'clock last night frantically refreshing the Booker Prize homepage in the hope that the judges would see fit to let me sleep before the sun reared its ugly head on the horizon. Needless to say they didn't and so I fell asleep and dreamed of Booker glory for any number of dead mid 19th Century authors before Louie roused me from my nonsensical slumber at four o'clock to alert me that the list was up. Well, actually, he just needed a poop, but I like to think he had me in mind as well.

Following last year's debacle, I'm glad to see that Booker chair Sir Peter Stothard has managed to wrangle some semblance of respectability back for the prize, putting forward a well-balanced list of high-lit and intelligent popular fiction, old stalwarts and young upstarts. I'm sure much will be made of the notable absences (Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Carey, Zadie Smith and, of course, J. K. Rowling), but piffle to all that. It's a good bunch of books. I'm especially pleased to learn that Andre Brink has a new novel in the offing (it comes out in September) and that he might finally get himself a Booker gong. God knows he deserves one! Also quite pleased to see Will Self and Ned Beauman get a nod. Anyway, here's the list for those of you who live on Book Mars:

The Yips by Nicola Barker
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Philida by André Brink
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Skios by Michael Frayn
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Umbrella by Will Self
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Communion Town by Sam Thompson

It's probably too early to pick a winner, but the safe money would have to be on Mantel, Barker or Frayn. However, I'll keep flying the flag for Beauman and Brink. Whatever the outcome, it's looking like Booker is back on track.

Begin the Booker Beguine (Again)

on Saturday, July 21, 2012
Time to slip on your dancing shoes for another year of prize picks and punch-ups. The folk at Man Booker have just released the 'key dates' for this year, which means it's the beginning of my favourite book season. In fact, we only have a few days to wait until the Longlist is announced. Come Wednseday the bickering can begin about who should be shortlisted, who should win, who was left off and whether Hilary Mantel can win back to back Bookers for two consecutive novels, the second being a sequel to the first.

The field of contenders is packed with heavy hitters this year: Peter Carey could be in line for his third, Ian McEwan, John Banville, Nadine Gordimer, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker or James Kelman could win a second, and Martin Amis, Zadie Smith or Will Self could finally bag their first. Also present is a slew of other almost-winners: John Lanchester, Lawrence Norfolk, Mark Haddon, Nicola Barker, Michele Roberts and Simon Mawer. And I'm glad to see Australia has fielded a number of viable options with Kate Grenville, Elliot Perlman, Alex Miller, Jon Bauer, Chris Womersley and Anna Funder. Personally, I'd love to see it go to one of the newer kids on the block, such as Ned Beauman, Will Wyles or Lloyd Shepherd though I'd also want to put a sentimental vote in for Dan Rhodes with his beautifully whimsical This is Life?

This all might be a moot point, overshadowed by the great behemoth on the horizon. Following seven Booker snubs J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter squillionaire, is finally releasing her first book for adult readers which might just mean that the panel are ready to deem her sufficiently 'literary' for their consideration. Could this be the gold watch to end all gold watches?

Head to the recently refurbished Booker site on Wednesday to see the Longlist.

The shortlist will be announced on September 11.

The winner will be announced on October 16.

Reckon you can read the entire Booker Dozen by then?

And The Winner is... Syd-ah-Ney (Jewish Writers Festival)

on Sunday, July 15, 2012
Two years ago I schlepped up to Sydney to play the role of drooling fanboy at The Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I sat in on a number of fascinating panel presentations and had the chance to mingle with a bunch of great Australian and international authors including Peter Manseau (author of the fantastic Songs For The Butcher's Daughter), Steve Toltz, Morris Gleitzman and more. I still recall with great fondness the panel with Siegmund Siegreich, newly-published octogenarian author of The Thirty Six in conversation with Australia's finest fabulist Arnold Zable. The depth of insight on the nature of Holocaust memory was astounding, as was the warmth between these two wonderful artists. There was also a tinge of sadness - I had worked for quite a while to get the great Czech author Arnost Lustig to come, and was to host a discussion with him at the Melbourne Jewish Museum about the responsibility of third generation authors when it comes to fiction and the Holocaust. Unfortunately Lustig cancelled in the eleventh hour due to poor health, and died a few months later. His was a great loss.

Fast forward two years and I'm heading to the festival again (it only runs every second year). The 2012 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival will take place on August 25-28 and boasts an amazing lineup: Tom Segev, Elliot Perlman, Anna Funder, Mark Dapin, Danny Katz, Austen Tayshus, Ita Buttrose, Michael Gawenda and many more. Check out the full list here.

In a weird twist of fate, I'm not just a fanboy this time, but also a presenter. I am thrilled to tell you that I will be participating in two panels, one about short stories and one about blogging (hopefully that's not too meta for my brain as I write this here).

So check it out. This is the link to the short stories panel, entitled Does Size Matter?. It is with Arnold Zable and chaired by Amy Matthews. For those of you who live on Mars, Arnold is a wonderful writer of both short and longer form fiction and non-fiction. His new book, Violin Lessons is very well worth you reading. I'm sure he will have lots to say about the craft, and I can only hope to add something of value on the side.

The second panel is called Opinionated and Online, and features Meiron Lees, Loren Suntup with Lauren Finn in the chair. These folk are serious bloggers, so it will be fun to be the self-indulgent, hermit-like scribbler in the corner. Perhaps I'm there to answer why people bother writing what few people want to read. That gives me a month and a bit to come up with an intelligent-sounding answer!

Anyway, I urge all you Sydneysiders to purchase tickets ASAP for what I am certain will be a wonderful festival. If you live elsewhere and can get to Sydney in August, I think you'll be very glad you did. Hopefully I'll see you all there. In the meantime, have a good laugh at my festival profile!

The Decline Of The Patriarch

on Saturday, July 7, 2012
Having watched the sad decline of some beautiful minds first hand, I was dismayed to read today that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winning pioneer of the magical realist movement and author of a couple of my favourite novels (No-one Writes To The Colonel, The Autumn of The Patriarch) is now suffering from the late stages of dementia. According to his brother Jaime, Gabriel is doing well but experiences frequent memory lapses.

Speaking at the Inquisition Museum in Cartagena, Jaime said, "Dementia runs in our family and he's now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death... Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells and accelerated the process."

That Marquez had the condition was hardly a secret. Writers don't just 'retire' for no good reason. Nevertheless, his legion of fans have continued to cling to the hope that they might still see some more books before Marquez dropped off the scene altogether. That doesn't seem to be on the cards anymore. Asked about the next two instalments of his autobiography (the first being 2002's Living To Tell The Tale), Jaime said, "Unfortunately, I don't think that'll be possible, but I hope I'm wrong."

Looks like it will be a sad, quiet end to the Patriarch.

My Very Own Book Club!

on Thursday, July 5, 2012
Writing, so it is said, is a lonely pursuit. For the most part I agree, but when I looked up from my desk today, it occurred to me that I am keeping some pretty enjoyable company here in this little library of mine. Turns out, 210 posts down the line, they want to say hello.(And I swear I'm not suffering from cabin fever)

First is old Don, picked up at a tacky Barcelona souvenir store near my hotel. I thought he was made of metal but he broke in transit and I saw that, beneath his shiny armour is cheap, flimsy plaster. Unintentionally fitting, methinks.

The latest addition to my circle of friends is the elusive scented bookworm. He smells like flowers and seems to enjoy Bernard Malamud. Need I say more?

Then there is Huld, my amazing Czech marionette. He seems to creep people out when they see him perched above the door as they walk in, but I like the way he watches over me with that serious face of his. Extra points for getting the reference.

And then, of course, there is Louie. When things go to shit, and the words just won't come out, he is always there with a wagging tail and a ball ready to take my mind off it all. Even better, when inspiration hits, he is happy to curl up at my feet and keep them warm. If I ever get this thing finished, it will be thanks to him.

Another Reason To Miss Maurice Sendak

on Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Ok, other than that whole "writing Where The Wild Things Are" schtick, he said this about digital publishing:

"I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I'll be dead, I won't give a shit."

He's right. Now he is and he doesn't.


2012: The Mid-Year Report

Time, I have come to learn, is inversely proportional to productivity and, in that respect, Einstein's ghost has taken a massive dump on my head this year. July? Already? How did that happen? Guess I ought to look back at my New Year's Aspirations and see how I've fared. *gulp*

New Year Revisited

1. Write More Than I Read: Well it certainly has been a slow reading year. In fact, had it not been for two long haul flights and one crazy reading weekend, I'd have been lucky to crack the half ton. Six months saw me get through a measly 56 books; well below my yearly average. That said, I'm glad to report that I have spent a fair amount of my non-reading time writing, though you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you could see what's left of my manuscript. Having cut 60,000 words some time in April, I'm currently at a net loss but, hopefully, it's all for the better. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

2. Stop Being Such a Lit-Wanker: I set out to read less high brow literature this year and while there were a few brief moments of mass market enjoyment they were very much in the minority. Oh well. I'd hate for you to think I had stopped being a total knob.

3. Smell the Roses: Read slower? Me? No chance. I'm just reading less in the same furious bursts.

4. The Tangible Aspirations: Well this one is easy. War and Peace? Nope. Road To Freedom? Nope. Lev Grossman? Nope. American Gods? Nope.

5. Lose 95 Kilos and Exist in a Vacuum: Again, nope. Still here. And heavier than ever!

So far, not so good. *cough cough*

Moving right along...

Top 5 of 2012 (So far)
Hopefully this is just a function of my not having read enough this year, but I can't even scrape together five books that I would be willing to hold out as raveworthy. So, without further ado, here's my top 4:

1. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Another completely impenetrable work of intellectual gymnastics by the master. A downtrodden village somewhere in Hungary is turned upside down by the arrival of the devil. Petty rivalries flare, ruin looms. Satantango is horribly bleak but, as a work of literature, totally invigorating.
2. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. Woody Allen type moves to rural America to escape his Jewish neuroses only to discover Anne Frank hiding out out in his new attic. It is as hilarious as it sounds, and Auslander manages to sustain the dark comedy throughout. Elderly, mean-spiritied Frank - desperately trying to write a sequel to her first book - is a brilliantly realised creation.
3. This Is Life by Dan Rhodes. Another charming, quirky book from England's most underrated writer. Not unlike The Family Fang, it lampoons the idiocy of the art world, but in a way so gentle and warm-hearted that even the most strident defender of "art" will be willing to come along for the ride.
4. Melisande! What Are Dreams? by Hillel Halkin. A lifetime of translating the works of great Yiddish and Hebrew writers has clearly taught Halkin how fiction works. His debut is a measured, beautifully crafted and often poetic look at the failure of a marriage. In many ways it reminded me of the greatest love letter ever written, Andre Gorz's Letter to D. Indeed, after that book, it has the second best declaration of love I have ever read: "If I had a thousand lives to live, I'd want them all to be with you." Awwwwwww.

Top 5 Of Every Year But 2012
Now this I can do with a little more confidence.

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollack. Stark, brutal and sure-footed debut by another possible heir to the Cormac McCarthy throne.
Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez: To my mind the best book on the Central American disappearances. A woman enters a cafe and is shocked to see the husband she thought killed thirty years earlier. Thus begins Martinez's final novel, a painful exploration of the schisms that still tear at his country's heart.
The Family Carnovsky by I. J. Singer. I was slightly disappointed with Yoshe Kalb, so was overjoyed to see Singer in top form on this one. Another intergenerational saga, it never quite reaches the lofty heights of The Brothers Ashkenazi but still towers above most novels written today.
My Life In CIA by Harry Matthews: As the only American member of the Oulipo group, Matthews' life was as absurd as his writing. This memoir of a single year in France, where everyone was convinced he was a CIA agent so he decided to play along is a short work of wacky genius. Well worth checking this guy out if you've never heard of him.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: How did I miss this as a kid? With his rampant punning, mathematical hijinks and total capitulation to the ridiculous, Juster is the modern incarnation of Lewis Carroll (except he didn't write to mack on a twelve year old girl. But I digress...). If your parents also denied you this wonderful pleasure, drop everything now and go buy a copy. Then hide it from your kids. Balance will return to the universe.

Half A Crystal Ball
So what's left for 2012? Plenty of promising books are on the horizon, so hopefully there will be enough to fill out a top ten come December 31st. I'm still going to be writing more than I read - Goddammit I need to finish this frigging book - but I will crack the ton, and I still have a firm belief that I will find one book to add to my favourites of all time. So who will it be? Ian McEwan? Philippe Claudel? Michael Chabon? Or someone I've never even heard of? Pressure's on, folks!

A Small Tribute To Some Literary Giants

on Sunday, June 10, 2012
It's shaping up to be a sad year for literature.

Having just read that Barry Unsworth died, I realise that we've lost three writers who, if you will pardon the pun, bookmarked significant developmental stages in my reading/writing life.

First, of course, was Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are. I still remember sitting on the huge caterpillar pillow in my primary school library, sailing off to the world of Max and the wild things, oblivious to the other kids or teachers around me. Although I might not have truly understood the book at the time, it encouraged me to disappear into my own imagination and actively engage with the people and things I met there. I dare say it was also the precursor to my tenth grade Creative Writing teacher calling my parents in to discuss my "very fertile, but rather disturbing" mind.

Like many teens I gravitated toward dystopias, thanks in part to the great Ray Bradbury. Cormier's I Am The Cheese might have pipped it at the post, but Fahrenheit 451, with its world of banned books (take it as allegory for censorship or, as Bradbury himself claimed, the destructive force of mindless entertainments on reading) played an important part in opening my eyes to the subversive potential of the written word.

Barry Unsworth played a much more subtle role in my life, and not through any of his more celebrated works. Losing Nelson, Unsworth's tale of a lonely old man playing with his army figurines in a dark basement, taught me the importance of quiet beauty in literature, and showed me that a microcosm filled with compassion and empathy (the whole book takes place in his flat) can be just as weighty as a multi-generational, multi-national epic. In my humble opinion, it should have won him a second Booker.

Sendak, Bradbury, Unsworth and, of course Carlos Fuentes. Mortal men, it turns out, but immortal artists.