Microviews Vol. 61: A Bookcase of Curiosities

on Thursday, January 21, 2021
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
Back in 2013, Ayad Akhtar found himself at the centre of quite the political shitstorm. Conservative pundits were up in arms about his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, in which one its characters, a Muslim, admitted to having felt a "blush of pride" when the planes hit the towers. That one line was tinder for the close-minded right wingers who gleefully missed the entire point and came at him with proverbial pitchforks. The question of what it means to be Muslim in post-911 America also lies at the heart of Homeland Elegies, though Akhtar revisits it in an altogether different way. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a perfectly-executed book of autofiction. Akhtar draws on moments of his own life (with which some readers will be familiar) and seamlessly inserts invented characters and events that flesh out the complicated relationship he has with the country in which he was born but that has since made him "other". So seamless are these insertions, that it took for me to look up a key person in the story to realise he only existed on the page. Akhtar is unrelenting in his self-examination, demonstrating remarkable courage and insight while grappling with feelings of belonging, anger, grief and hope. In so doing, he lays bear the structural and institutional racism that has always existed but that has ramped up to breaking point under Trump's disastrous presidency. That he does so concurrently with an underlying thread of filial investigation - he is as much coming to terms with his father's failings as he is his country's and his own - serves to add a layer of humanity and warmth that (I hope) breaks down the wall of otherness to some readers. Structured episodically in linked narrative essays - elegies, really - that come together to make an astonishing whole, Homeland Elegies is truly a book for our time, one that everyone should read.

Tell Me Lies by JP Pomare
It's easy to dismiss me as some kind of wanky literary snob. God knows I give enough ammunition. So it might come as some surprise that I love myself a good thriller and, when it comes to finding the best ones, JP Pomare has fast become my go-to. That guy knows how to plot. Tell Me Lies started off as a audio short. It was never intended to appear in book form. Alas, the commercial gods demand what the commercial gods demand and so, following the stellar success of the excellent In The Clearing, and to satiate the salivating masses anxiously awaiting The Last Guests, we have something that is, to paraphrase Britney, not a novella but not yet a novel. It starts off unassuming enough - psychologist Margot Scott sees a bunch of clients, including a new kid referred to her by an old colleague. The kid is witty and charming and very, very handsome. He's also inappropriately flirty. It all seems a bit harmless until BAM a molotov cocktail is thrown through her window. Could it be one of her clients? Could it be him? And what is the dark secret Margot is desperate to hide? Kicked into high gear, Tell Me Lies is a ripper thriller, full of unexpected twists, thorny moral quandries and deft psychological mindfuckery. And that last page... Whoah...

Three-Fifths by John Vercher
Speaking of genre fiction, here's one that really hit me in the feels. Hand sold to me by a bookseller friend who is rarely effusive about books and usually leans towards the more traditionally literary end of the fictional spectrum, I bought it without so much as reading the blurb. Three Fifths is a crime novel of sorts. It is also a moving family drama, a story of friendship gone awry and, most importantly, a disturbing snapshot of contemporary America. Bobby works a dead-end job at a local diner. His best friend turns up one day, fresh out of jail. They have not seen one another in three years and, it's fair to say, Aaron is a changed man. Once a scrawny, comic-book loving geek, he in now a buff, tattooed neo-Nazi. A minor altercation with a couple of black kids quickly escalates, and ends with Aaron smashing one of them in the face with a brick, ultimately killing him. It is violent and shocking and, for Bobby, utterly terrifying. Because, other than being made complicit in a terrible crime, Bobby has a much bigger problem. Though he presents as white, his father is black. While the fallout from the crime remains central to the story, it is the examination of racial identity that really lies at the heart of this book. The whole thing careens out of control, towards an horrific, inevitable end. It's ugly and heart-rending. But holy crap it's good. Talk about putting yourself on the map with your debut!

Hole's Live Through This by Anwyn Crawford
For all the notoriety that surrounds her, it's easy to forget quite how incredible Courtney Love really is. Sure, she's been eclipsed in the collective cultural memory by her husband, and is often spitefully (and wrongly) blamed for his death, but one listen to 1994's Live Through This and you will be left in no doubt that she is a superstar in her own right, capable of writing a tune that could kick the arse of pretty much anything Kurt ever did. Hell, even he thought so! Anwyn Crawford's brilliant cultural history of Hole's masterpiece is a must, not only for fans of the band, but anyone even vaguely interested in a musical movement that came to define a decade. Through personal reflection, interview, critical analysis and sharp observation of the cultural milieu, Crawford takes you deep inside the multiplicity of forces that came together in a perfect storm to create what remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Plus, it got me listening to Live Through This on repeat, with a new appreciation, maybe even an understanding, of one of the most complex, controversial and downright impressive figures in the history of contemporary music. Couldn't possibly ask for more than that!

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa
A spot of bookshop serendipity landed this gem in my hands after a very obscure customer order came to naught, leaving it languishing on a shelf in bayside Melbourne. Well, thanks random shitty customer who doesn't respect small indie bookstores! Your dickery is my windfall. Okay, maybe not the most easy or pleasant winfall I've ever had, but I'm still pretty glad I got it. In A Country For Dying, Abdellah Taïa explores the seedy underside of Parisian life through two Arab prostitutes, Zahira and Zannouba, as they make sense of, and find dignity and agency in their lives. Zahira is in the twilight of her career and submits to ever-greater degradations. Little does she know that her former lover Allal has followed her from Morocco with murderous intent. Zannouba, formerly a gay Iranian revolutionary, battles with her identity as she prepares for gender confirmation surgery. Their stories unfurl in an almost Scheherezade-like fashion, with multiple time slips, fables, reminiscences and diversions. It can all be a bit disorientating at times, but you best let it envelope you. Taïa is constructing a tapestry of contemporary immigrant life, one in which the dream of refuge becomes a waking nightmare. Which isn't to say the story is lost to horror. The hope and decency with which he imbues Zahira and Zannouba - not to mention pockets of humour - lifts the novel above the bleak misery of its premise, and transforms it into something deeply moving.


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