Another 18 Books Under 180 Pages

on Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Well, that escalated quickly. Thanks for the amazing repsonse to my first novella post. Almost two thousand views. Jeebus! It actually got me excited about blogging again, not to mention madly ferreting through my collection, trying to find other novellas that I remember loving. I've also been reading a bunch of short books that have long languished as slim spines on a shelf, peeking out from between those that dwarf them. I'm averaging two to three a day... An absolute joy during these shitty times!

Anyway, as promised, here's the next set of 18 books under 180 pages that you should get your pandemic-fogged brains around. I dare say I think this one is even better.

The opening salvo in what is probably my favourite trilogy of all time (Jens Bjorneboe's History of Bestiality comes a close second), The Notebook is a spare, harrowing tale of debasement and despair. Set in a small Hungarian village towards the end of World War 2, it is the story of twin boys who are willing to do literally anything, not only to survive, but to get ahead. That their brand of evil stems, above all, from the moral vacuum created by war makes The Notebook all the more horrific.

Carrère is best known for his brilliant works of narrative non-fiction but, for my money, Class Trip is his finest moment. A father takes his son for a two-week school getaway in the mountains. Soon after the kid is dropped off, one of his classmates goes missing. This is psychological terror at its absolute best.

I'm a sucker for a great crime thriller and The Murder Farm is one I go back to time and time again. A family and their maidservant are found murdered on their farm in rural Germany. Through a chain of voices, snippets, documents and unsettling religious rants, Schenkel leaves it to the reader to piece together the genuinely shocking truth.

It is quite unfortunate that Fuks is all but forgotten these days. As a chronicler of the absurdity of life, mostly through the prism of WW2, he is without compare and, frankly, we'd all do well to read him right now. The Cremator is both charming and terrifying, a salutory warning about the ease with which a well-meaning functionary can slide into brutality. The titular Mr Kopfrkingl is always certain that he is doing good - freeing souls from the shackles of this world - even when his cremations extend to the living.

Ocampo's writing is often overshadowed by her marriage to Adolfo Bioy Casares and friendship with Borges, but she was bloody great in her own right. This wonderfully surreal novella matches almost anything written by the aforementioned "superstars" - a boy is tricked by the devil into entering a painting of a strange tower. Once inside, he too begins to paint, only to find his creations spring to life.

I have Tobias McCorkell to thank for introducing me to this forgotten Australaian gem. Discomforting and hallucinatory, to say the least, Julia Paradise is a story of obsession and perversion set amongst the Australian expats in 1920s Shanghai.

Imagine a summer camp - American style - where all the campers are recent suicides. It's an afterlife with a difference. And it's where Mordy finds himself immediately after death. When he learns his ex-girlfriend is also there, he sets off to find her and rekindle the romance. Yeah, it's weird and sad and should probably come with a trigger warning, but it's also oddly sweet and comforting.

I'm a recent convert to the astonishing beauty of Neuman's writing and, I have to say, I'm very glad to have discovered him during this pandemic. He really is a master of curious empathy and this short novel serves as a perfect distillation of his literary depth: a dying man takes his young son on a roadtrip in an attempt to create one special memory before he dies. While they're away, the mother, left at home, attempts to come to terms with her grief-induced infedility. Through the interspersed perspectives of the boy, the father and the mother, Talking To Ourselves is a richly melancholic meditation on the importance of the small things we most take for granted in life.

It's almost impossible to describe the experience of reading Adolphsen. I was hard-pressed to choose between Machine and The Brummstein but I think it is the former's manic unpredictability that sealed it for me. A mad, mind-bending collision of fragmentary moments that, taken together, make the reader question the line between fate and chance. It's the butterfly effect on speed. And acid. And mushrooms.

Presented as a highly innovative dual narrative, Exquisite Cadavers is mostly about Karim, a Tunisian immigrant, and Maya, his English wife. Struggling to make ends meet, and in the face of constant casual racism, theirs is a love circumscribed by the realities of Brexit-era London. Meanwhile, in the margins, Kandasamy tells her own story of writing the book, giving us a glimpse into the way her own life and observations - particularly of the abysmal treatment of women, political dissidents and minorities in Modi's India - inform Karim and Maya's story. A work of rare genius.

Scenes of an ordinary domestic life slowly unravel to paint the portrait of a man who manipulates and viciously abuses his children. We see it from the perspective of the younger boy, at first wholly in awe of the father who rescued him from a mother he is told was dangerous and neglectful. It's all great fun, and life in a new town seems like a lark, but then the cracks begin to show.

Until I got to thinking about the novellas I love, I'd forgotten quite how incredible this one is. A writer is hired by his friend to proofread the testimony of survivors of decades old massacres in an unnamed South American country. The friend works for the church. Problem is, the more the writer reads, the more he is convinced of the church's complicity in the old regime's crimes. A document of relentless brutality that reads like an indictment of our collective silence.

Okay, so this barely scrapes in as a novella. At best it's a long short story, but it was published as a stand alone volume so I'm claiming it here. Address Unknown is an absloutely ingenoius epistolary tale in which the reader's initial disgust and frustration at the injustice of life under Nazi rule (and the deceitful duplicity and opportunism of "friends" in crisis) is turned into a weird sense of triumph at the revenge-as-redemption twist. I don't want to give too much away but do yourself a favour and spend half an hour reading this.

For me, this is the crown jewel of Israeli literature. It was also the first book to truly question the foundational narrative of the state itself. A young soldier takes part in the clearing of a Palestinian village during the War of Independence. It is, in reality, a massacre, one that the powers that be take great pains to cover up. In its wake, the soldier undergoes a personal moral reckoning that ultimately destroys him. That Khirbet Khizeh was written by an Israeli politician is almost unthinkable thse days.

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 something Cormac McCarthy might conjure. 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. Just one warning: don't get too attached to anyone in this book.

Set free after fifteen years in the dank prison of a repressive regime, the narrator yearns for his lost love - a politician's daughter with whom he spent one moment of intimacy in his father's orchards. It is what sustained him through his suffering and what fuels his recovery. Hobbs is, I believe, a poet and this reads almost like a prose poem. Every sentence radiates with beauty and longing, even in the face of great pain and loss.

In what has to be one of the most audacious experiments I've encountered in recent times, Kamel Daoud has sought to reclaim the unnamed Arab murdered by Mersault in Albert Camus's classic L'Etranger and, in giving him a name and life story, not only engage directly with the original novel but also explore issues of identity, colonialism and the ownership of narrative.

I honestly can't even begin to count the ways I love this book. It is the sweetest, quirkiest, most charming and funny little book I think I've ever read. A lovelorn guy who lives in a world of superheroes sits next to his wife (The Perfectionist whose ex, The Hypno, has convinced her he is invisible and inaudible) on a plane, trying to convince her that he exists. Full of whimsy and sweetness, without ever slipping into cliché, this is the kind of book that will make you feel good about life. And fuck knows we all need that right now.

18 Books Under 180 Pages

on Thursday, September 24, 2020
I had big plans for 2020. Get this blog going again. Make a decent start on my next book. Read some great big bricks that I've been putting off for years. Chew through any others that are released along the way. Now, I sit at my desk staring at my TBR shelf, physically repulsed by the spines of Charlie Kaufman's Antkind, Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckeim's Homecoming, David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue and Alex Pheby's Mordew. Holy shit I want to read them. Especially the Pheby. But the brain fog brought on by the pandemic and all the crappiness associated with it has laid waste to my (admittedly optimistic) plans. And so, like many others, I have been reading short books. Lots of them. Not that I'm complaining.

There's been a lot of chatter on the socials about which novellas people should be reading. Lithub put out a great list. And I loved Caustic Cover Critic's 50 Short Excellent Books You Can Read in One Hit in Isolation. So, jumping on the bandwagon, here's a bunch of novellas I love. I've tried to mostly stick to books that have flown under the radar. Also, I'll probably make a series of these. My novella shelf is jam packed and double stacked!

Based on a true story, Eat Him If You Like is a deliciously savage rumination on political unrest, mob rule and collective guilt. The deputy mayor of a small French village goes to market to buy a pig for his poor neighbour. But when one villager mistakenly "hears" him make a pro-Prussian comment, the villagers are enraged. Swept up in a frenzy, they kill and eat the hapless poli. Needless to say, it's not hard to find contemporary parallels.

A crushing portrait of life in Communist Poland, The Graveyard tells of a hapless factory worker systematically destroyed by the faceless powers that be after he drunkenly abuses a policeman.

Drndić called Doppelgänger her "ugly little book" and, while she may be right, it also distills everything that was great about her into two strangely-linked stories. It starts with two old people masturbating one another through their adult diapers on a park bench and ends with a man suiciding by slamming his head against the steel doors of a rhino enclosure. In between, we get all the ugliness of 20th century European history. A perfect, sickening gem.

In the ashes of what was once a forest, a failed writer encounters inhabitants called Garbagemen who are sorting through the detritus of a destroyed civilisation and arranging discarded mannequins into obtuse poses. This is horror at its most existential.

Rendered in a voice so convincing, so maudlin, so devoid of hope, Beside The Sea 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. The single most devastating book I've ever read.

I can relate to no character in modern literature more than Hanta, the tragic wastepaper compacter who narrates this novel. Although his job is to collect and crush discarded books, he is also a saviour of greater works, pulling them from the trash piles and stuffing them in his bag to take home. His little house is crumbling under the weight of all the books, but his love for literature far exceeds his sense of self-preservation. One of my favourite books about the love of books.

The whole city goes into conniptions when word leaks out that Jesus is back and he's coming to Brussels. Verhulst's book is an hilarious excoriation of our celebrity/religion/consumer obsessed society.

A "righteous gentile" is bitterly disappointed when the Jew he is hiding in the attic dies, meaning that he will not be able to reap the glory. Plus there's the small issue of disposing of the body. A sharp satire on the limits of altruism.

A gorgeous novella that makes high art of Somerset Maugham's scraps, The Fish Girl will draw you in gently before plunging a thousand daggers into your soul. A hugely deserving winner of the wonderful Viva La Novella prize a few years ago.

The third book in the consistently brilliant "Kingdom" trilogy of linked novellas, Klaus Klump tells the story of a man devoid of values bumbling his way through a bleakly amoral world. Cold, exististential brilliance. I also recommend Tavares's Neighborhood cycle as an intidote - it's bloody hilarious and absurd.

Rare is the book that can so profoundly move me in so few pages. A Whole Life is the story of a very ordinary man, a cripple carving out an unremarkable existence in the Austrian Alps, who is swept up as a bit player in historical moments of the 20th century. I really can't speak highly enough of its subtle, radiant beauty.

Ok, I'm sort of cheating here. Pink Mist is a novella, but it's in the form of a prose poem. Still, as a searing indictment on the sheer horror and futility of war I can think of few equals. I think I cried multiple times. Absolutely magnificent.

Children leave their homes en masse to find the Holy Land, but are instead tricked and sold to slave traders. Those familiar with this medieval legend will somehow still find themselves horrified by Schwob's masterful, dreamlike retelling. Reads like a fable forced through a mincer. I mean that as a compliment.

The devil, posing as a publisher, turns up in a town full of aspiring writers. Nastiness, petty jealousy and all-round hilarity follow. A pitch perfect fable that is eminently relatable while maintaining that other-worldliness that is the hallmark of the form. Every writer should read this.

The narrator is mistakenly identified by a weird Belarussian cabal, as the man who 'saved' Terezin and made it a popular destination for Holocaust tourists. Hoping to build a monument of their own, they kidnap him and set him on the task of popularising The Devil's Workshop, the 'ultimate' house of horrors. A short, absurdist fairytale, Topol's book hilariously lampoons its subject while giving pause for serious thought about the boundaries of respectable commemoration.

Crime fiction doesn't get much better than this masterpiece of amorality. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Bernard finds himself free from society's shackles. What follows can only be described as a rampage of depravity.

What was it that Tolstoy said about families? Well the one at the centre of Mad Shadows must be the most singularly miserable, unlikeable family of all time. A thoroughly nasty, unpleasant, misanthropic delight. I loved it!

Beautifully-crafted, thoughtful, and elegiac, this gorgeous novella has big and profound things to say about ageing, creativity and the nature of love through time that greatly belies its brevity. Another Viva La Novella prize triumph.

Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 2)

on Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ok, ok. I heard you. And yes, I know how many people see Stephen King's mega-brick as the pinnacle of pandemic literature. Not to mention the BIG BOOK to end all BIG BOOKs. But would you believe that it took me a few minutes to remember whether or not I'd actually read it? And then about ten seconds more to find my review? So without further ado, and with the caveat that I'm actually quite a fan of King's, here's what I wrote back in February, 2013:

Allow me to distill this monster epic to its essence. A moderately scary guy picked up from the cutting room floor of a Cormac McCarthy novel goes to war with my great great grandmother in an America ravaged by a killer flu. Cue Armageddon Americana. The end. Widely considered King's greatest work, The Stand is reasonably engaging but about 800 pages too long. I'm surprised Peter Jackson has resisted making it into a trilogy.

Oh well... back to irregular programming!

I've been thinking a lot about other books that might be worth reading during these strange times. Three more categories sprang to mind overnight (can't say I've been sleeping all that well at the moment). I mean, we may be in this for a long, long time. Might as well try to knock off a few bucket list books while we can.

THE ISOLATED FEW (That Aren't Beckett, Marquez or Murakami)
First, in keeping with the general sense of malaise we've all been feeling, some plague-adjacent novels that deal with themes of isolation, quarantine and loneliness.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. A hugely life affirming, utterly gorgeous novel about a woman who locks herself away during a civil war and translates literary classics into Arabic. It's the book about loneliness and the intrinsic value of life you didn't know you had to read.

Caribou Island by David Vann. Although not focused on a solitary character left alone, this bleak survival story of a couple on the frozen Alaskan plains still manages to plumb the depths of isolation with chilling (sorry) power.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. Speaking of bleak, this story of man versus man versus the brutality of nature is what I like to think of as The Road minus any prospect of redemption.

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. A political prisoner is kept in an underground cell, not much bigger than a grave, for thirteen years. Jelloun's novel is a marvel, pitting the human spirit against extreme, solitary deprivation.

The Door by Magda Szabo Oh how I love this book. While not about isolation as such, it without equal when it comes to questioning how we "other" those we deem to be beneath us.

Anything by Thomas Bernhard. When it comes to misanthropic works of human isolation, few are as unforgiving as the novels of Bernhard. It takes a brave soul to wade into the swamp of his sentences, but if you're game, you'll be greatly rewarded (albeit it a kind of horrific and painful way). Of particular relevance is Frost, Correction, Gargoyles and The Lime Works.

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell The existential dread born of dislocation underpin this splendid novel about obsession and the human need for connection in what ever form one can claw it. Again, not exactly on point, but absolutely extraordinary for what it says about being alone in a strange place.

The Tenant by Roland Topor Another take on the mental collapse brought about by isolation, The Tenant is rightly considered a masterpiece of claustrophobic solitude. Polanski made a good movie of it, but nothing compares with the sheer brilliance and horror of the novel itself. In my all-time Top 5.

LEGENDS OF THE LONG FORM (That Aren't Tolstoy or Joyce)
If there was ever a time to hit those huge classics you've always meant to read, surely it must be now. There are so many to choose from, but these are a few of my favourites.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Granted you'll probably find yourself breaking into song every few scenes, Les Mis is a remarkably readable epic of poverty and revolution in France. I could hardly believe how quickly I raced through its fifty million pages.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Okay so you might sing one or two songs along the way (what is it with classics and their musical adaptations???), but you'll most certainly be enchanted by the windmill-conquering adventures of the lunatic knight and his trusty sidekick. Weighing in at five thousand Les Mises, it'' take you a long while to get through, but I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville A rip roaring adventure and a deeply detailed lesson on flensing in one, Moby Dick could probably have done with a huge edit, but you'll hardly care when you're standing with harpoon ready, sea spray whipping your face, waiting for the white whale to surface.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil A book so stupidly huge that it's usually published in two or three volumes, The Man Without Qualities depicts life amidst the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Sounds gripping, right? Well, believe it or not it is. And the four billion gazillion pages fly by.

The Brothers Ashkenazi by IJ Singer Moving a bit forward in time... you're probably familiar with Isaac Bashevis Singer but not many remember his brother, Israel Joshua, who, in my opinion, was the better writer. This sprawling family saga is about as perfect they get. Another in my all-time Top 10.

Saville by David Storey Thought I'd go out on a limb here and add a forgotten Booker winner to the pile of classics. Storey is hardly spoken of in the same breath as Hugo or Cervantes, but Saville has a decidedly Dickensian air to it and so ought to sit alongside the others.

And the one I haven't read: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. I know a few people who consider this the greatest novel ever written. I'll get to it one day but I'm not sure I have the emotional fortitude to join Grossman on the front right now.

SERIES TO BINGE READ (That Aren't Proust, Powell, Mantel, Kanusgaard or Ferrante)

Netflix and its ilk have made us accustomed to binge watching countless series, one after the other, ad infinitum. Flicking through the various streaming services, I used to be all like, "Arghhhhh, how am I ever going to watch all this?" Now, only a couple of weeks into the pandemic, I'm more like, "Ah, crap. I've watched every episode of every show ever. Give me some books." So if, like me, you like losing yourself in a single world over the course of multiple novels, you might want to check out these.

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy Sure, he's written my favourite post-apocalyptic book of all time, but McCarthy is best known for single-handedly inventing the Western noir. The three novels that make up the Border Trilogy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) are each superb in their own right, but read together they make up an extraordinary feat of narrative bravado, with descriptive splendour and a fair dose of human tenderness to boot.

The Notebook Trilogy by Agota Kristof There's a current of abject brutality that runs through Kristof's chilling masterpiece of children set loose in a land ravaged by war. The three books (The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie) differ stylistically, clearly designed to offer alternative angles on the same theme. It all gets a little confusing in the middle, but when you come out the other side.... hoooo-weeee.... Mind. Blown.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias I'd rate The Infatuations as one of the greatest European novels of the 21st century. Go and read that. But when you're done, it's well worth checking out Marias's three book sequence (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream and Poison, Shadow and Farewell). Steeped in intriguing philosophical concepts, it is also a bloody great adventure with all the undercurrents of crime and international intrigue that make Marias one of the most accessible literary reads.

The History of Bestiality by Jens Bjorneboe If you really want to wallow, Bjorneboe is your guy. He is one of the most confronting and difficult authors I've ever encountered, but spending the time working through his novels (they're actually quite short) is endlessly rewarding. But be warned: the story (likely apocryphal) goes that, when embarking on this trilogy (Moment of Freedom, Powderhouse, and The Silence), Bjorneboe said that by the time he was finished he'd know so much about man's capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man that he would no longer be able to live in this world. When the third one was done, he killed himself.

The Jesus Trilogy by JM Coetzee If I may quote myself from last year: "taken together, the three books (The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and The Death of Jesus) are remarkably enigmatic - but I think Coetzee is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived?" TL;DNR: Just read it.

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett Sometimes all you need is a good laugh, and nobody makes me laugh as heartily or consistently as Pratchett. The Discworld series has about seventy billion books, so they'll keep you occupied and overjoyed throughout. A much needed antidote to these shitty times.

Well, that's about it for my pandemic reading recommendations coverage for now. Hope to see you back here, where I'll be returning to regular programming in the coming days.

Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 1)

on Monday, March 23, 2020
And just like that, the world changed.

Needless to say, the new normal is shit. Who would have thought that in 2020 we'd be locked in our homes, steering clear of one another, anxiously waiting to get a sense of quite how catastrophic this oncoming plague is likely to actually be. Hope resides in a combination of the ancient and the modern: physical isolation and medical science. To that end, sending a huge shout out to all who have tried not to be #COVIDIOTS and, most importantly, the essential workers on the frontline. No doubt this has made us reconsider how we ought to be valuing the different levels of the so-called societal strata.

One thing that has become increasingly apparent is the importance of reading at this time. It is not just a luxury but a damn necessity. To pass time. To stay sane. To be communal, to find new friends while separated from our communities. In the coming days and weeks, I'll try fill this blog with new short reviews and musings to point you in the direction of great reads. But for now, just a couple of recommendation posts, starting with these two lists - Pandemic Reads and Big Books To Live In. And whether you're turning to e-reading, rifling through your piles of unread books or availing yourself of all the wonderful indie bookstores that are staying open and delivering books to your door without you having to partake in any person-to-person contact just remember the new mantra. STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

For some people this might be cutting it too close. But if you are up for reading how some of the world's finest writers have considered life as we are currently experienced it, look no further than these extraordinary novels.
The Plague by Albert Camus.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Light by Torgny Lindgren
Nemesis by Phillip Roth
The Last Town of Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian
The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Severance by Ling Ma
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

If you're more inclined to escape this whole clusterfuck and lose yourself in a great, big book, then here are a few of my absolute favourite 400+ pagers, with links to the ones I've reviewed or discussed on this blog.
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (490 pp, but close enough and too good not to include here)
The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits (525pp)
Europe Central by William T. Vollamn(832pp)
The Tunnel by William H. Gass (652pp)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (848pp)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (639pp)
Underworld by Don Delillo (827pp)
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (662pp)

Might you brave Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming (512pp) before I do? Or might this be the time you finally trudge your way through the holy grail of literary bricks, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace(1077pp)? Whatever you choose, keep up the mantra: STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

And be sure to check back in a couple of days for more book-nerdy tips!

The Battle of the Book Behemoths

on Monday, March 2, 2020
Like just about every other reader on the planet, I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the last instalment in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Unlike many others, I have the somewhat daunting distinction of not having read any of them. Yes, knowing from the outset that it would be told over the course of three books, I decided to wait until they'd all been published then go at them as one. While that sounds kind of piggish and silly (and I admit it is), at least I didn't quite do what a friend of mine did, holding off for all the Knausgaard books to be translated before embarking on them (he even toyed with learning Norwegian as it would probably be quicker). What I hadn't anticipated, of course, is quite how long each book would be. Wolf Hall kicked things off with 675 pages. Bring Up the Bodies was a relative novella at 432. And now... gulp... along comes The Mirror and the Light, which breaks the scales at over 900 pages. So that's about twenty-four billion pages I have ahead of me, in a single sequential stretch.

Not that I'm complaining. It is, however, indicative of a very clear trend: the big book is well and truly back. I say this as I'm halfway through Colm McCann's new novel, Apeirogon (a mind-bending addition to the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule exceptions), which, at 457 pages, is seriously hurting my wrist. Meanwhile, Yaniv Iczkovits's incredible novel, The Slaughterman's Daughter, has also finally found its way to the English-speaking world in what, I must say, is one of the most stunning aesthetic carapaces I've seen in just about forever. That's another 500 pages (every one of which I relished last year when I read it in proof form). And so they keep coming. Just look at my bookshelf!

I have yet to brave Krasznahorkai's brick. And I'm dying to read Tyll, after all the raves it's been getting. So much for my annual tally clocking 200 books. Maybe I need to shift to page counts instead!

The Books That Made Me Vol. 1: I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

on Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mr. Grey was guilty. That much I knew. I stood at the front of the class, near Ms. Rapke's desk, and clutched the cue cards in my sweaty hands. The notes were scrawled in tiny script; I would barely have been able to read them, even if the ink hadn't smudged. Twenty pairs of eyes - tenth graders, precariously hanging from the cliff of childhood, set to fall at any moment; judgemental, cynical - all on me. It had come to this: my closing address.

Three weeks earlier, I begrudgingly picked up the book, fully prepared to hate it. The year was 1991, and Mt Scopus College was still in that late-80s miasma of literary staleness. The texts they forced us to read for English sucked, completely removed from our experience as teens. Indeed, I went back and reread most of them for this blog a few years back, hoping to discover that I was just too immature to appreciate them at the time. I was, after all, a dickhead as a kid. Alas, nope. I was right. They did suck. All of which is to say that I came to this book with close to no expectations, other than having had my interest slightly piqued by something Ms. Rapke said on the first day: At the end, we will be holding a trial. That was it. No details.

So began what has become a lifelong love affair with Robert Cormier's YA masterpiece I Am The Cheese (if you preferred The Chocolate War you are, of course, wrong). It may not be my favourite book of all time, but it's the one that I have read more than any other. I make a point of reading it at least once a year (I'd say I've now read it over thirty times), to remind me what it is like to be awakened to the potential of the novel as a form. It is my personal madeleine, a mnemonic that instantly transports me back to those few weeks in Year 10, but also a revelation: I find something new, something jaw-droppingly brilliant on each new reading. There is little by way of plot description that could do it justice. Adam Farmer is cycling to Rutterberg, Vermont to deliver a parcel to his father. Along the way he encounters various people and landmarks, all slightly eerie and unsettling. Something is not right. Interspersed between the chapters are transcripts of interviews. At first it seems he is undergoing some kind of therapy following a traumatic event. Brint, his interlocutor, is gentle, caring but disturbingly probing. It's as if he has an agenda. As the story progresses we learn that Adam is the only survivor of a car accident that killed his family. And that when it happened they were on the run. Adam's father was a journalist who uncovered and reported on a huge corruption scandal. Organised crime was implicated, but so too was the government. The family went into witness protection. Their handler was a man Adam knew as Mr. Grey. He visited regularly, whisking Adam's father into the basement where they speak in whispers. As Adam pieces together the fragments of his family's past, as his reality begins to drop out from under him, we are also forced to rethink everything we've read. Who is Brint? What is the purpose of these interviews? Could it be that Adam - whose real name we learn towards the middle of the book - might yet be the final victim?

I Am The Cheese is many things: structurally innovative, perfectly plotted, daring (for a book written in 1977, it sure was willing to ask some difficult questions about power) and a lot of fun. It also has a twist that is so astonishing, so deftly executed, that I can't help but think it remains a major cultural influence. I wouldn't be surprised if it was lingering in the backs of the minds of those who wrote The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense and even Fight Club (yes, I know that was Pahlaniuk). I can only imagine how it must have felt back in 1977, when readers didn't routinely question the reliability of their narrators.

Back to the classroom. The trial ran over two English periods, an hour and a half in all. Ms. Rapke was the judge. Other students played the roles of Mr. Grey, Adam and the defence lawyer. Guilt was to be decided by popular vote, in a show-of-hands poll of the rest of the class. I spent days honing my skills, watching Twelve Angry Men, LA Law and, the latest upstart in the world of legal drama, Law & Order. I cross-examined Mr. Grey, who did a barely passable job of inhabiting the character, with a fire this book had ignited in me; one that would carry on for the rest of my school days and ultimately launch me into a legal career, albeit one on the defence side of the criminal law fence. But it was the closing argument that sealed the deal. I had spent so long examining the book, finding the clues and the incriminating evidence that, should you pay close enough attention, is there to be found, that there was no room for doubting that not only was Mr. Grey responsible for the deaths of Adam's parents, but he was also planning to kill Adam. Ms. Rapke put it to the class: Who thought Mr. Grey did it? A brief moment of inaction. Silence. I don't think I could breathe. Then the hands went up. Every single one of them. His fate was sealed. And so was mine.

I read I Am The Cheese again this week and fell in love with it all over again. To think what the right book can awaken in a kid. And the right teacher. How lucky I was to have had Ms. Rapke. And Mrs. Auster, Ms. Swaitlo and Mrs. Jensen, all of whom encouraged my crazy love for the written word. Some of whom read the many extra stories I gave them each Monday after a weekend locked away in my room (me, not my teachers). Some of whom gave me books from their own collections, books they thought I'd like. To think, without them, and without Mr. Cormier, I might have become a corporate lawyer. Perish the thought.

PS Andrew Saffer, if you're reading this, I still have your copy. It was a twenty-eight year loan, yeah?

Microviews Vol. 60: Nelson, Ciment, Vermes,

on Saturday, January 18, 2020
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson has been hovering on my reading periphery for a few years now. So many people I know adore her and her mega-hit, The Argonauts. But it was a personal recommendation from a friend whose taste I greatly respect (and mostly share hehe) that finally got me to pick up one of her books. And holy moly was she right! The Red Parts is, not to put too fine a point on it, a work of genius. Its back story alone deserves an entire book: Nelson had just published a cycle of poems about her murdered aunt, Jane, when she got word that the case had been reopened and an arrest made. It was long believed that, despite significant differences in MO, Jane was killed by John Collins, aka the Michigan Murderer. A chance DNA match, almost 40 years after the fact, proved otherwise. The Red Parts is a breathtaking deconstruction of the trial that followed calling into question the legal process and its players, as well as family lore, memory and criminal responsibility. It is personable, personal and engaging while also being intellectually rigorous and satisfying. Needless to say I’m a convert. I’ve already ordered Bluets.
5 Hooks

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment
In the few years I practised as a criminal lawyer, I was constantly intrigued by jury dynamics. The more I watched them, the deeper the curiosity became, all the more so because I knew that, simply by virtue of having studied and practised law, I was disqualified from ever experiencing it first hand. Gone were my fantasies of pulling a Henry Fonda and swaying eleven of my “peers” to the side of justice. We’re a good few years down the track now but the feeling remains. What the hell goes on back there when “we” can’t see them? For jurors C-2 and F-17 in Jill Ciment’s excellent novel, the answer is simple: lots of sex. Caught up in an affair that is fuelled in equal parts by boredom, the fear of ageing and the simple reality of throwing a bunch of people into a closed, isolated environment, the two take every opportunity to bonk, hoping the others won’t catch on. As it happens, there’s a murder trial going on, too. And what they take to be a private matter is quickly discovered, throwing the whole trial into jeopardy. As tawdry as it all sounds, Ciment is subtle in her execution, and The Body In Question is a surprisingly perceptive study of loneliness, attraction, guilt and social responsibility.
4 Hooks

The Hungry and the Fat by Timur Vermes
Debuts don’t come much more audacious than Timur Vermes’s satirical masterpiece, Look Who’s Back. Inexplicably plonking Hitler back in contemporary Germany and charting his meteoric rise to reality TV superstardom, Vermes managed to stick a mighty big skewer through German politics, the worldwide obsession with celebrity, and the ever-present willingness to disregard morality when it clashes with personal convenience. It’s a bloody funny book, all the more so for how true it all rings. Now, with the considerable weight of expectation on his shoulders, Vermes returns with The Hungry and the Fat, a book that does not pack quite the same punch as his first but still has a lot of uncomfortably funny things to say. Nadeche Hackenbusch - model, TV presenter and queen of the vacuous platitude - has landed in quiet the pickle. Despite great ratings, her white saviour wet dream of a reality TV show, Angel In Adversity is about to be canned. She’s still in Africa’s largest refugee camp and has grown rather fond of her ‘co-stars’. In particular, a certain young chap called Lionel has stolen her heart (and her marriage). Together, they plan the ultimate stunt - to lead the refugees on foot to Germany. It’s positively biblical! Cue apoplexy from all sides. The TV execs scramble to work out how best to follow the exodus. Leaders of countries along the path roll out the heavy defences. German politicians of every shade go into meltdown - can they stop the influx without seeming callous/weak? The people smugglers shift into overdrive. It’s like watching the biggest clusterfuck train wreck unfold in slow motion. The Hungry and the Fat is a big book in both ambition and actual size (it pushes 600 pages), and Vermes gives each narrative enough rope to hang itself in spectacular fashion. I didn’t get the same thrill as I did reading Look Who’s Back, and there was some pretty odd geopolitical commentary towards the end that did not sit well with me, but there is no doubting Vermes’s satirical flair. Could he be the Jonathan Swift of our times?
4 Hooks

2020: A Visual Book Diary Vol. 1

on Thursday, January 9, 2020
I've always struggled to keep track of all the books I read. I used to keep a list but stupidly saved it on a local drive and, when the computer went kaput, it took ten years of reading data with it. Goodreads is a pretty decent way to keep track, but I tend to read a fair few manuscripts and also forget to add a bunch of published books because I'm a) lazy and b) a technophobe. This year, I've decided to hit the issue two ways. Firstly (and obviously), I'm starting the spreadsheet thing again but saving it to my Dropbox. But, let's be honest, there will come a day that I forget to pay for my renewal and I'm going to lose everything again. It's how I roll. Secondly, I thought it might be nice to keep a visual diary of sorts by lining up the books on a shelf as I read them. That way, I can take a pic every couple of months and see how the year is progressing.

So here we go: the 9th of January, five books in, this is the first entry in my visual book diary (ignore the back row - I'm at the dreaded double shelving stage of my book collecting). Yes, it's been a great start. Some reviews coming soon!

2020: A New, Red Dawn

on Monday, January 6, 2020
Of the many ways I'd thought about opening this first post of a reinvigorated blog, this was not one of them: My country is on fire. My city, far from the flames, has been blanketed in smoke. Pictures from some of the burning towns look nothing short of apocalyptic. Hell, even my bayside suburb, usually glorious and vibrant at this time of year, looks like a scene from a disaster movie. Through it all, I've mostly locked myself inside and read. Six days in and I'm onto my sixth book for the year. Like many city folk in Australia, I've felt helpless and despondent. And useless. Until today.

With mad props to Emily Gale, Nova Weetman and others, the Australian (and now international) writing community has mobilised to raise money for the Country Fire Association (the roof body for the volunteer country fire fighters in each state). If you head over to Twitter right now and follow the hashtag #AuthorsForFireys (Fireys is Aussie slang for firefighters), you can see a whole array of amazing items being auctioned off for the cause. There are signed books, manuscript appraisals, AMAs, the chance to have characters named after you in your favourite author's next book, special handmade book-related knick knacks... you name it. Literally every author and book industry person I know is getting involved and it's magnificent. Personally, I've bid on a cartoon portrait of my dog, an original typed draft of a story by Josephine Rowe and the chance to have a ferret in the wonderful RWR McDonald's next book named after me, in honour of my beloved (and much-missed) ferret, Spaekk.

I'm also getting on board with a special package of book related stuff that includes:

- An inscribed copy of The Book of Dirt
- A signed Chinese edition of The Book of Dirt
- A copy of the new Text Classics edition of Arnold Zable's incredible novel Cafe Scheherazade, to which I have written the introduction, signed by Arnold and me
- A curated collection of my Top 5 novels of all time
- Two unpublished short stories
- The first two chapters of my latest work-in-progress (a pretty surreal novella)
Plus I will be matching the winning bid dollar for dollar.

All #AuthorsForFireys auctions run until 11pm AEST on Saturday January 11.

At the moment the highest bid for my lot is at a staggering $700. I genuinely cannot believe it. If you want to get involved, or check out all the other incredible things on offer, be sure to jump on Twitter and search the hashtag.

These are pretty scary, shitty times. But at least I feel a bit better knowing how beautiful and generous the reading and writing community can be. Sending much love, strength and hope to those on the frontline.

Check back soon when I'll be returning to regular programming.