Rocking The Boat

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

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

The Pulitzer Puddlemuck

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

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

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

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

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

The End of The Folio Affair

on Saturday, April 18, 2015
Big breath. Big breath.

I realise that I'm a little late to the party here but I've been mulling this over for a couple of weeks now and, hard as it is for me to admit it, I'm just going to have to accept that The Folio Prize and I are never going to be friends. The excitement I felt, the anticipation of the David and Goliath battle with The Booker Prize, the deliriously happy marriage I rushed into. All over.

And... exhale.

You probably already know that the prize was recently awarded to Akhil Sharma for his twelve-year-in-the-making Family Life. William Fiennes, chair of judges, could not have been more laudatory if he tried:

"From a shortlist of which we are enormously proud, Akhil Sharma’s lucid, compassionate, quietly funny account of one family’s life across continents and cultures, emerged as our winner. Family Life is a masterful novel of distilled complexity: about catastrophe and survival; attachment and independence; the tension between selfishness and responsibility. We loved its deceptive simplicity and rare warmth. More than a decade in the writing, this is a work of art that expands with each re-reading and a novel that will endure."

I, on the other hand, bestowed a somewhat different honour upon it last year, when it came in alongside Murakami's latest offering as the equally most overrated book of 2014. You may perhaps recall my little spray:

"I was at a loss to understand the plaudits poured upon Akhil Sharma's slim offering, Family Life. It supposedly took him ten or twelve or twenty (or some other multiple of a ferret's average life span) years to complete and drew heavily from his personal experience of grief and dislocation. Stripped of its forest of laurels it is a fair to middling shrub of a novel about the immigrant experience. I can't help but feel that Sharma has a lot of friends in high places, none of whom could muster the guts to tell him that those umpteen years might have been better spent working on something else."

So what gives, Folio? Last year you gave it to George Saunders for Tenth of December and I bitched and moaned. That too had made my end of year list in 2013, also being named the most overrated book of the year. Am I that far off track? Have I become the accidental predictor of all future Folio Prizes? If so, might I suggest putting some early moolah on Ishiguro? Or maybe third time will be a charm. Just kidding, I'm sure I'll be wildly off mark again.

Microviews Vol. 54: War in Pieces

on Friday, April 17, 2015
Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić
For a country built on waves of immigration, Australian seems oddly lacking in great novels of the immigrant experience. Off hand, there's Pino Bossi's Australia Cane, Arnold Zable's Cafe Scheherezade and The Boat by Nam Le (admittedly not a novel but unquestionably brilliant). And The Arrival by Shaun Tan has to crack a mention, even if it is graphic fiction. Now elbowing its way into the milieu comes A.S. Patrić's debut long-former (he has published short story collections and a novella), Black Rock White City, a book that I am convinced will be held among the greats in years to come. With tight, carefully crafted prose Patrić gives us a story that transcends any particular ethnicity, one that delves deep into the existential conundrum of transplanted life. Jovan and Suzana are both cleaners; he mops the floor of a bayside hospital while she tidies the homes of the privileged. Back in Serbia, before their lives were destroyed, before their children died, they were part of the literary elite. Highly educated, celebrated. Having fled to Australia, they live out the quiet drudgery of subsistence while coming to terms - if that is even possible - with their shared trauma. Jovan wanders, he throws himself into an essentially meaningless affair. Suzana exists in a state of constant self-negation, of guilt and blame. And yet, through it all they seem to be navigating a way back to love. Behind the complexity of the relationships, both with each other and those around them, Patrić also weaves a sinister mystery. Someone is daubing the hospital walls with nasty, pointed graffiti. Every letter is an accusation, every phrase a dagger in Jovan's chest. It is easy to get caught up in the desire to discover the identity of this Dr. Graffito (as Jovan calls him) but Patrić is too savvy a writer to allow his book to descend to the level of cheap thriller. The graffiti serves a more poetic purpose: it juxtaposes with Jovan's own poetry in what seems to be a battle for meaning. Black Rock White City is a sparely written book of big ideas. Patrić lays bare the minutiae of the new immigrant's daily struggle with perfect pitch and amazing beauty; the constant mispronunciations, the cultural clashes, the daily sacrifices, the small pleasures. That he dares to do so from the side of a conflict often seen as 'the baddies' makes it all the more powerful. Indeed, Black Rock White City goes to show that simple dichotomies don't work when we talk about war. Everyone is a victim. Lives are ruined. Tragedy does not take sides. And therein lies the knockout blow of this truly wonderful novel: the scars endure, the poison continues to course through the vein, but simple humanity might still triumph.
5 Out of 5 Soapy Buckets

Down To The River by SJ Finn
Brave is the author willing to give considered thought to the great taboos of our times. In Down To The River, SJ Finn turns her insightful gaze to what is, to my mind, the greatest taboo right now: pedophilia. Never fear. This isn't some morally suspect Lolita-lite. Nor is it a heavy-handed piece of judgemental grandstanding. Finn seems more interested in the way the issue affects the various players around it. Rather cleverly, she situates the story in a country town, a perfect fishbowl in which to scratch at society's scabs. Dungower is a typical Victorian backwater. Everyone knows everyone else. Legacies loom large, friendships endure. Unfortunately, so too do grudges and petty rivalries. And that's before the dark secrets bubble to the surface. Enter Jordan Phelps, twice convicted child sex offender, his past kept quiet until he is accused of abusing two local boys. With the tinderbox lit and exploding, the townsfolk spin like a Catherine Wheel, scorching and fizzling in a multitude of colours. Down To The River is, above all, a thoughtful examination of a town in crisis. Phelps is more catalyst than character - he brings out both the best and worst in the townsfolk but otherwise exists on the periphery of the story. Of more concern to Finn is the failing relationship between local journo Joni Miller and her partner Tiff. To them, small town life proves toxic. That Joni is unwittingly tied to Dungower's own child sex scandal, herself a victim of sorts, widens the chasm between them. Down To The River is a sharp and impressively woven novel but there is one jarring caveat. The courtroom scene, when Phelps is finally hauled before a magistrate to face the charges, is strangely inauthentic. Procedurally - speaking as a lawyer - it just doesn't ring true, owing more to American courtroom dramas than actual Australian legal process. It is a peculiar stumble for a book that is otherwise so packed with perceptive truths.
4 Out Of 5 Pitchforks

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner
In the sprawling fields of literature, legends sprout like unchecked weeds. Six months ago, very few people had heard of the inter-war German journalist and author Ernst Haffner. Then word began to leak about a lost classic, recently rediscovered and soon to be translated. That the book, banned and burned by the Nazis, had for so long been forgotten was itself worthy of note. But it is the fate of its author that really got tongues flapping. Sometime in the early 1940s, Ernst Haffer just vanished. What's more, all official records of him also disappeared. For all intents and purposes, Haffner did not exist. With a back story like that, it was hard not to be excited about the release of Blood Brothers. Unfortunately, it was equally hard for the book to live up to the hype. Blood Brothers is a gritty tale of dispossessed youth in Weimar Germany. Thugs, thieves, rent boys, scammers, they do what they can to get by, always striving to stay one step ahead of the authorities. The gang splinters and reconstitutes, some leave to pursue more legitimate paths, others spiral downwards into outright desperation and depravity. It is about as unflattering a portrait any author could paint of one society's seedy underbelly. And that is where Haffner really excelled. Blood Brothers is a tough book; it pulls no punches. It is also rather disjointed and episodic. As a novel I'm not quite sure it works. But as an indictment of a country in decline, a foretelling of horrors to come, it is almost without equal.
3.5 Out Of 5 Picked Pockets

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
Science has never been my thing. Still, I know enough to understand the basics of conditioning. Most monkeys administered a nasty shock will avoid doing whatever they were doing when the jolt hit. Many learn the first time. What gives? you may ask. Well, it turns out that when it comes to reading I rank somewhere below your average rhesus. Last time I tried a Peirene book, the staggeringly bleak heartbreaker By The Sea, I almost needed to be committed. It should have been enough to steer me away from anything else they published. Yet, sub-primate that I am, I picked up Aki Ollikainen's White Hunger despite having read that it was much like Cormac McCarthy's The Road minus the glimmers of hope. Set during a brutal Nordic winter, where crops have failed and people are succumbing to starvation, disease and hypothermia, it tells a tale not dissimilar to McCarthy's book albeit more grounded in historical reality. A young family sets off on foot towards Russia in the hope of finding food. That's about it. They trudge across the frozen wasteland, witnessing the horrible casualties in nature's war against humankind. Readers would do well not to get too attached to anyone - one by one they die sad, horrible deaths. Even the small mercies prove cruel and unforgiving. White Hunger is a harrowing book. It shows us for the insignificant creatures we really are while stripping away the facade of civility. It is, however, also quite brilliant. You will learn more about yourself than you might ever care to know. Just be sure to tuck some money away before you read it. You're going to need a therapist when you're done and Medicare only covers so much of the cost.
4 Out of 5 Frozen Mudcakes

The Drummer Falls Silent: Gunter Grass 1927 - 2015

on Wednesday, April 15, 2015
And so another of the great old guard leaves us.

Much like the death last year of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that of Gunter Grass has me a little torn. First up... The Tin Drum. A true modern classic, no doubt, with the most deliciously malicious dwarf ever to grace the page. I remember studying it in German Literature and being thoroughly enchanted by Oskar's singularly demented worldview. Probably one of the best German reflections on the Nazi scourge I've encountered. Then there are the others: Cat and Mouse and Dog Years (the second and third instalments of the Danzig Trilogy), The Flounder, The Rat. Even Crabwalk, though I suspect that I am one of the few readers who actually liked Grass's attempt at reconciling "classic" and "modern" bigotry.

But then there was Gunter Grass the man. The liar. The curmudgeon. The moral fraud. Sure, he wasn't a misogynist prick like Marquez or a surly arsehole like Saramago but, well, he was a member of the Waffen SS. And that's about as bad as you can get. Perhaps had he come clean early on in the piece, say... you know.. before he won the Nobel Prize, it might have been understandable. Own the shame I say. Indeed, his excuse for involvement, that most young men were conscripted and fought in the war without ideological zeal, makes perfect sense. It's not like he was that Nazi loving scumbag Knut Hamsen. But the underhandedness of his silence has done his legacy untold, everlasting damage.

Still, I will always be thankful to him for Oskar, for making me understand (at least in a tiny sense) the mindset of a people who could so easily be led into moral bankruptcy. Vale, sir. Though I can't rightfully salute you. I'm sure you'd understand.