2016 Midyear Report: The Life of Brian Redux

on Monday, June 27, 2016
Rumours of my cyberdeath have been greatly exaggerated.

That said, I do feel like the old guy from Monty Python's Life of Brian, slumped over John Cleese's shoulder, protesting my glowing health. "I feel happy! I feel happy! Think I might go for a walk." In my case, of course, replace walk with read but the sentiment stands. Yes, while I have hardly been posting here on B4BW, I'm glad to say that I still have been reading, albeit at a greatly reduced pace from previous years. Thus far, I'm sitting on the miserly total of 44 books. Shameful, I know.

Still, there's been a lot to celebrate in my beloved book hole even if I haven't been shouting it from the rooftops. First up, if I may gloat a little, my favourite book of last year, A. S. Patric's Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for Australia's biggest literary prize, The Miles Franklin Award. I'm glad to see the rest of Australia falling over themselves to heap praise on this truly astonishing novel. Aussie lit is clearly in a good place right now - the whole Miles Franklin field is top notch. On the subject of prizes, I was gratified to see a couple of my favourite novels-in-translation from last year shortlisted for the new-look Man Booker International Prize (now given for individual books rather than bodies of work and awarded to authors and their translators). Persoanlly, I'd have loved to see Robert Seethaler win for his exquisite novel in miniature, A Whole Life, or failing that, Jose Eduardo Agualusa's The General Theory of Oblivion. Alas, it went to Han Kang's widely celebrated The Vegetarian about which, you may recall, I was kind of nonplussed but, well, I'm in the minority. So big cheers to her and translator Deborah Smith.

In more personal book news, I got to meet one of my literary heroes - Jesse Ball. I know it's said you should never try to meet the artists you most admire and, for the most part in the past this has turned out to be true (cough cough Gene Simmons cough cough) but this was one time I was pretty stoked to have proved the adage wrong. Ball was just as friendly, charming and complex as I could have hoped. I also had the great privilege of helping organise the second ever Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival which, much to our great relief, turned out to be a huge success. Highlights included our international guests Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg and Elana Sztockman as well as local legends, both Jewish and not, Gail Jones, Joan London, Arnold Zable, Leah Kaminsky, Alan and Elizabeth Finkel, Peter Singer, Mirielle Juchau, Ramona Kowal and many, many more. I moderated a session on the future of the Holocaust novel which almost devolved to fisticuffs and participated in a wonderful poetry panel where I had the opportunity to spruik the little known but totally sublime Jiri Langer (best known as Franz Kafka's Hebrew teacher).

Now, onto the books of the year so far. Once again it looks like the first book I read will be the best. Garth Greenwell's taut, harrowing novel What Belongs To You has refused to dislodge itself from my chest since I wistfully reached its final sentence. Speaking of harrowing, Hanya Yanagihara has a clear successor for punch-in-the-guts novel of the year with Jung Yun's Shelter. The story of an already-damaged Korean American family further destroyed by an act of horrific violence absolutely tore me to shreds. One of the most insightful, painful works of the immigrant experience and the death of the American dream that I've ever read. Ian McIntryre's Melville meets McCarthy meets Conrad novel of whaling on the high seas, The North Water, is another work of beauty and brutality in equal measure that demands your reading attention. Meanwhile, John Wray blew my mind with the most madcap mashup of physics, comedy and complex morality in The Lost Time Accidents. I'm one of the few who didn't love his last book Lowboy but I think I finally get him. A shout out also must go to one of the few books that made me venture outside my Fiction Only rule, Arnold Zable's The Fighter. A biography of sorts in novel form, it tells of one of my city's greatest humans, former boxing champion, social worker and all round magnificent bloke Henry Nissen. And while the book might be about Henry and his brother Leon, to me it was an exquisite devotional hymn to their mother and all women like her who came from foreign lands following the horrors of the Holocaust and tried to build families while battling the most unforgiving of inner-demons.

2016 hasn't been without its disappointments either. After a truly inspired start, Don Delillo's latest, Zero K, plodded off into the narrative wilderness never to return. Ditto Ismail Kadare with A Girl In Exile. I don't know, it seems the all-time greats are sailing off into the literary sunset, still able to come up with an interesting premise but no longer able to steer the ship for the whole course. Perhaps the modern world is too much for their classical sensibilities. I was also a bit let down by two of the more experimental, wacky novels that have been garnering a fair amount of buzz: Alvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death and Manuel Gonzales's The Regional Office is Under Attack. Both were good reads but I was hoping for much, much more.

There's still a heap to look forward to over the coming months: Javier Marias's follow up to The Infatuations, intriguingly titled Thus Bad Begins, Emma Cline's novel of the Manson women, The Girls, Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Moonglow by Michael Chabon, Nutshell by Ian McEwan plus newies by David Eggers, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Donald Ray Pollack and, hoping against hope, Cormac McCarthy. Expect all those end of year lists to be peppered with exciting (and hopefully new) reads.

I'll try to get back on the regular blogging track soon. But until then I repeat: "I'M NOT DEAD YET!"


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