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.

Visible Men: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr

on Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like many avid readers, I spent much of 2020 in a slump, barely able to concentrate on anything even remotely demanding. Every now and then I hit upon a book that stoked the reading flame but those moments were few and far between. To that end, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr was always going to be a litmus test of sorts - had I regained the presence of mind to commit to a 450-page, deeply literary book of big ideas with a large cast of characters, multiple time shifts and a complex storyline? That question, it turns out, is not easy to answer.

To get one thing out of the way first, I'll say this: while it may be a debut, The Prophets is, I'm quite convinced, a masterpiece. I'm not just throwing the term around. It's Toni Morrison/James Baldwin level masterpiece, with echoes of more contemporary greats like Colson Whitehead, and an added overlay of brilliantly-realised gay romance. Having said that, I couldn't quite give myself over to it - a fault that no doubt lies squarely with me and not the book.

The Prophets is historical fiction at its very best; a striking and fresh take on the slave narrative, the like of which I've not read before. At its heart lies the love story between Samuel and Isiah, two young slaves who work the cotton fields of the Elizabeth Plantation (or Empty, as it's known to the slaves). They find solace from the gruelling work and soul-crushing unfairness of their lives in one another's arms. Theirs is a raw, passionate kind of love, played out each night in the so-called Fucking Place. It sustains them, and brings us, as readers, a sense of respite from the relentless injustice heaped upon them. Robert Jones Jr is unflinching in his description of sex and yet, much like Garth Greenwell, it never seems gratuitous. Rather, it functions as a kind of lifeblood to the narrative itself; there is propulsive energy driving a sense of hope. The ultimate expression of otherwise unattainable freedom.

Samuel and Isiah's relationship is something of an open secret. Numerous people have seen them, and come to understand why they have yet to sire future generations of slaves, as is expected by the plantation's owner, Paul Halifax. Paul fancies himself a magnanimous owner; he aspires to treat his slaves better than his father did. But he is beholden to the prevailing mores and, really, any gestures toward decency are acts of self-delusion. Just like those before him, he rapes the women, resorts to extreme corporal punishment (albeit through proxies to keep his hands clean) and trades slaves he deems unproductive with little care for their established familial or communal bonds. He is thoroughly detestable but is not the catalyst for disater. That honour goes to Paul's son, Timothy, who learns of Samuel and Isiah's secret and sees in it a chance to satiate his own desires away from his parents' gaze. From the first time he invites Isiah to his room to sit for a portrait, a new sense of foreboding insinuates its way into an already very tense narrative. It will not end well. And it doesn't.

There are many things that set The Prophets apart from the pack. Robert Jones Jr writes achingly good prose. Every sentence radiates beauty, even when he is describing the most horrific events. He is also daring with form. The Prophets communes with spirits and ancestors as much as it exists in the historical present. There are voices, much like a greek chorus, that pipe up from time to time with etheral premonitions and commentary. Jones takes us to Africa in the time before centuries-old kingdoms are decimated by missionaries and slavers, where history informs our understanding of the deep bonds between those living on the plantation, not to mention a different perspective on sexuality and gender. Perhaps what stood out most to me was the generosity with which Jones writes and inhabits his characters. There are many, many people we get to know, and all seem important and necessary. Jones portrays them with depth, curiosity, humanity and a fullness I would usually expect to only be found in the central characters of a book, let alone one this big. He writes men well. He writes women well. Irrespective of any markers of identity, he writes as if he respects them as people with a story to tell. There are no easy moral signposts, either. Seemingly good people do bad things, and vice versa. Even viewed within its context, you will be challenged by much of what you read. Which isn't to say the book does not positively bristle with moral indignation and righteous anger. Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire.

The Prophets may take as its waypoints aspects with which many readers will be familiar, but it builds on them in surprising and engaging ways. It is epic and ambitious, finely-wrought and devastating. It just might be one of the great American novels of the 21st century. If only I'd been in the headspace to properly appreciate it.

The Brighter Horizon: KLARA AND THE SUN by KAZUO ISHIGURO

on Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Let's face it. The Nobel Prize is, more often than not, a curse. When JM Coetzee - probably my favourite living author - won in 2003, it took him a couple of novels to recover. Not that Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year were terrible books, but they certainly were unremarkable by Coetzee's standards. I'd also argue that Summertime and The Childhood of Jesus, whilst steps in the right direction, were no great shakes eaither. It wasn't until The Schooldays of Jesus that he was back on form. And that was 2016. His Nobel was celebrating its bar mitzvah. Coetzee is not alone. Many other authors are either squashed into slience, or fart out works decidedly unworthy of their newfound status. Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Patrick Modiano, Peter Handke (here's hoping)... Oh, and stop kidding yourself. You only pretended to like Dylan's last two albums (*fight me*). Which brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel laureate. A bit over three years after he won, and six after his last (and weakest) novel, we get Klara and the Sun.


For those trying to avoid spoiler's in the lead-up to Klara's March release, I'll give you the potted summary first: it's good. Very good. Fans of Never Let Me Go will find themselves in familiar territory, though this is a more complex and meditative work of speculative fiction. Though I think I still preferred Never Let Me Go (I say think because I'm still kind of processing Klara), I can confidently say that Ishiguro has bucked the Nobel curse. Sure, it's no Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World but it's a thoroughly enjoyable, consistently intriguing read that had me contemplating some very big, uncomfortable questions.

From hereon in, beware. There will be minor spoilers. That said, I'll try to keep it a little vague, if only because I couldn't hope to capture all the novel has to offer. Also, I don't want to ruin the experience of watching its many, many ethical dimensions play out on the page. Still, don't say I didn't warn you.

Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), advanced robot technology created to serve as a companion to lonely (or spoiled) children. AFs are both trend and necessity. When the novel opens, we meet Klara in the front window of a store, where she stands on display with fellow AF Rosa, observing the world, taking in the sun, and hoping to be picked out by a passing child. After some weeks, the two are taken from the window to make way for the newer B3 models that have just arrived. Klara and Rosa have been superceded, and are relegated to the back room bargain bin. Eventually Rosa is sold and Klara is alone. Enter Josie, a shy and sickly child who instantly falls for Klara. Her mother wants a B3, but Josie won't be swayed.

As soon as Josie brings Klara home, we get the sense that things are amiss. The reader, like Klara, is dropped into an unsettling world of shifting perceptual planes, a cruel and dangerous social strata system, and a family tenuously held together by what feels, more than anything else, like existential dread. Of course it's hard to know whether to trust Klara's narration - she is, after all, a robot learning to be part of a family.

Still, there are enough objective markers to know something is not right. The house is kept by an overly officious robot, Melania Housekeeper (yeah, I laughed). Josie's best friend, Rick, who has not been "lifted" (it takes a while to work out what that means) is ridiculed and bullied at an "interaction meeting" with other children. Mother regularly schleps Josie to the city to sit for a portrait with the very creepy Mr Capaldi. Each time he focuses on a single body part, and she is never allowed to see how it is progressing. There's also a downright bizarre outing to Morgan's Falls, where Mother has Klara perform a number of what, at first, we take as demeaning tasks but that come to have a much more sinister, tragic meaning. Klara, too, develops some pretty intense obsessions: with the sun, with a nearby barn and, most importantly, with a machine that spews Pollution through its three funnels.

Underpinning all of these things, and the story as a whole, is Josie's failing health. She is not just sick. She is dying, as did her sister before her. When Klara's purpose is finally revealed by Mother, it is as profound as it is horrific. Sure, there wasn't quite the cataclysmic gut-punch of Never Let Me Go, but that hardly seemed the point. Ishiguro renders the twist intentionally unremarkable; the signs are there for the reader to see and what is revealed feels like the final piece of a smartly constructed puzzle. It doesn't force us to reconsider all we've read but, rather, to engage with Ishiguro's central theme: the human essence.

Much like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death. Klara, in a perpetual state of received revelation, is a useful avatar, all the more so because of her inherent unreliability. She is honest and forthright, but necessarily naive. It's kind of great and fun, but to a certain extent, is also the novel's greatest weakness - I found myself thoroughly confused a number of times and, to be honest, there are a few things I still don't get, even after having chewed it over for a couple of days.

Klara and the Sun also lacks the tightness of Never Let Me Go. For a novel so jam-packed with fantastic, genuinely original ideas it felt a little wooly at its edges. There are minor subplots that struck me as underdeveloped and unexplored (the AF resistance movement springs to mind here). There also lulls; they are few and far between but their presence was very much noticed. Maybe it is the novel's reliance on set pieces that caused the connective tissue to visibly strain. Not that it greatly mattered. Sure, I felt as if I was limping through some parts, but it always came good. Indeed, the closing section is one of the most moving things I've read in a long time.

Stripped of use, immobile and with failing circuitry that cast her memories into doubt, Klara is found in an AF junkyard by the manager who first sold her to Josie. They discuss the purpose and worth of her existence and decide that it was good. She fared better than Rosa. But to what end? She exists, an individual, in perpetuity. Forgotten and discarded in a world that might be wholly populated by successive generations of Artificial Friends. Perhaps these ideas of life, of individuality and worth, are all lies we tell ourselves when we reach the end. Because, really, what other choice do we have?

2020 In Review: And The Winner Is....

on Thursday, December 31, 2020
Before you come at me with your pitchforks and torches, let me preface what I'm doing here with a couple of caveats. Firstly, it's 2020 and, frankly, given what we've all been through, I figure anything goes. There are no rules anymore. Except maybe stay the F at home or, if you have to go out, keep two metres apart and wear a friggin' mask. Seriously, it works. Other than that, it's a free for all. Secondly, as you will see, time played some weird tricks on me with what books I chose as the winners. Yeah, yeah. There are two. But one of the books I read as an Advanced Reading Copy in 2019 and mentioned it in passing here on the blog this time last year. The other, while published already in the UK, won't be out in Australia until March 2021. So don't @ me. I love these books and I stopped caring about time somewhere around April. Enough waffling.

Without further ado, I am pleased to say that my Bait for Bookworms Book of the Year is, for the first time ever, a tie.

THE SLAUGHTERMAN'S DAUGHTER by YANIV ICZKOVITS and DOG ISLAND by PHILIPPE CLAUDEL.


I was first sucked in by the jacket design. Not the one you see here, but the one gracing the ARC. Having seen it floating about social media, I became oddly obsessed, despite knowing nothing about the book itself. In a strange serendipitous twist, Katharina from Maclehose was visiting Melbourne late last year and brought a copy with her. She had no idea I'd been coveting it for months, and handed it over, assuring me I'd love it. Talk about an understatement! The Slaughterman’s Daughter was the delightful throwback to the golden era of Yiddish storytelling that I didn't know I needed. An exuberant, joyous romp set in the Pale of Settlement during the time of the last Tsar, it tips its crisped streimel to the likes of Sholem Aleichem, IL Peretz and Mendele Mocher Sforim, yet maintains its own identity as a thoroughly modern and relevant work of literature. The story is bonkers, yet beautiful, a thrilling adventure and thoughtful treatment of issues that transcend time. Fanny Kesimann, the eponymous daughter of the local kosher slaughterman, is Hell-bent on freeing her sister from her status as an agunah (chained wife). Roping in the local eccentric, Fanny sets off on a madcap quest to hunt down her sister’s wayward husband only to fall foul of the Tsar’s secret police when she kills a gang of brigands who try to rob her. It’s hilarious and frenetic and everything I could have wished for to escape these difficult pandemic-drenched times. Oh, and for the pedants out there, I read it again in March and loved it even more.



Long-time readers of this blog, if there are any, might recall my fawning adulation for Philippe Claudel's Brodeck's Report. When it comes to novels about the collective complicity and guilt of civilians in World War Two, there is none better. Ten years to the day since I named it my favourite book of 2010, Claudel finds his way back to the top of my list with the absolutely astonishing Dog Island. Told in the form of a fable, the novel opens with three bodies washing ashore on the beach of the titular island, somehwere in the Mediterranean. Rather than investigate, the locals move quickly to toss the bodies into the island's smouldering volcano and go on with their lives. However, much like in Poe's Telltale Heart, dastardly secrets have a way of seeping out. It is the local teacher, an outsider, who begins to shake the tree. Those harbouring guilt are quick to snap back, accusing him of the most terrible crimes. When a stranger appears in town, apparently to prosecute the teacher's case, things take a turn for the decidely strange. I'm being intentionally oblique here. To give too much away would spoil the cataclysmic impact of what Claudel achieves through this story. Dog Island is literature as moral compass, a savage indictment on the state of our response to contemporary humanitarian crises. Like Brodeck, it explores complicity and the lengths we might to go to assuage our guilt for opportunistic depradations. In a world where people to continue to flee persecution and violence, where they risk their lives and those of their families to reach safe harbour, where they fall victim to callous smugglers or indifferent governments, Dog Island is an absolutely essential read.

And so ends another year. No matter hor you fared in 2020, I wish you all a better 2021, with health, happiness and great reading. I know I say it every year, but I plan to be back here more frequently. Fingers crossed another global catastrophe doesn't put paid to that plan!

2020 In Review: The Final Countdown

on Tuesday, December 29, 2020
One hundred and forty one books. Many of them great.

Here are the ones I loved the most. (Well, all except my favourite.)

10. Nikolai the Perfect by Jim McIntyre
Some books are just worth the wait. Jim McIntyre has been working on Nikolai the Perfect for almost thirty years. It has, to say the least, trodden a difficult path to publication, despite having been a runner-up in the Unpublished Manuscript category of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards a few years back. How there wasn't a bidding war over this stunning novel will always be beyond me. A story of dislocation, disposession and long-held family secrets, Nikolai the Perfect is the kind of literature that just doesn't get written anymore. It is classical in the truest sense; lush with lyrical beauty, a finely-crafted pleasure to read. Despite being hailed by both Jane Harper and Toni Jordan in The Age Summer Reading special, the pandemic has meant that Nikolai has flown a bit under the radar. McIntyre has yet to get the recognition he so richly deserves. Still, I suspect time will be kind to Nikolai. This is the kind of slow burn book that will simply refuse to be ignored.

9. Weather by Jenny Offill
Like many fans of Offill's masterpiece in miniature, Dept of Speculation, I've been champing at the bit to get my eyes back on her sentences. And while Weather didn't have anywhere near the cataclysmic power of its predecessor, it was sharp and smart in a different (but still satisfying) way. Ultimately, it struck me as a novel of observational fragments that, when its various threads are pulled together, worked as a State of the Planet address (with a particular focus on the moral decay of America under Trump). In the days following the Biden/Harris victory, I found myself thinking of Offill, hoping that she had found not only comfort and relief, but also a skerrick of hope for what might lie ahead.

8. Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Following on from her extraordinary novella, The Fish Girl, Mirandi Riwoe returns with a brillaint slice of historical fiction that has already won a stack of prizes and, for my money, must be the hot favourite to win next year's Miles Franklin Award. Stone Sky Gold Mountain is everything I'd hoped for and more! I'd never given much thought to the Chinese experience during Australia's Gold Rush; back at school it was a footnote, an afterthought. Here, Riwoe places it front and centre to staggering effect. Siblings Ying and Lai Yue find themselves on the goldfields of Queensland, but soon their paths diverge in vastly different but equally challenging ways. Dreams of fortune are unceremoniously dashed on the altar of racism and injustice. There is decency to be found, but mostly in characters who also exist on the fringes and whose futures are similarly bleak. Riwoe bring great moral force to a gripping, immensely readable tale. No wonder it's struck gold with readers. #SorryNotSorry

7. The Watermill by Arnold Zable
A beautiful, engaging amalgam of reportage, storytelling and meditative thought about the power of art in the aftermath of atrocity. Zable takes us across the globe, to four sites of collective national trauma, and, through a cast of remarkable people he met in his travels, helps us understand a depth of common humanity that we might easily overlook when so wholly engrossed in the particulars of our own loss. It’s heartbreaking and immensely powerful but ultimately life-affirming - precisely what we've all come to love about Zable’s extraordinary body of work.

6. Peace Talks by Tim Finch
I picked up this novel on a whim - I liked the cover; it had a gentle, enticing aura. Little could I have expected such a profoundly moving story of grief and hope, delivered through the unlikely vehicle of a peace negotiator trying to come to terms with the brutal murder of his wife. Finch's juxtaposition of Edvard's high stakes work and his melancholy considerations of what might become of his life has a consistent bittersweetness that speaks important truths without ramming them down the reader's throat. A thoughtful, thought-provoking gem.

5. Pew by Catherine Lacey
What a delightfully strange and unsettling book this is! Lacey takes a well-worn premise (stranger appears in small town, trouble ensues), and fashions of it a compelling exploration of identity, belonging, guilt and community. With echoes of Shirley Jackson, Jordan Peele and any number of classic, dark fables (think: The Brothers Grimm), Pew is a timely little novel that is astonishing in its beauty and depth.

4. Late Sonata by Bryan Walpert
Seizure Online's Viva La Novella Prize has unearthed some absolutely astounding little books over the years. I have relished novellas from the likes of Jane Rawson, Marlee Jane Ward, Avi Duckor-Jones, Mirandi Riwoe and heaps more, so much so that I make it a habit of buying every winner without even bothering to check if it's going to be my kind of thing. Well, with no disrespect to the previous winners, this year might just have served up my all-time favourite. Bryan Walpert is, so far as I can tell, highly regarded as a poet. Reading Late Sonata it is not hard to see why. The gorgeous flow of his prose is veritably musical; perfectly fitting Late Sonata's subject matter. Stephen, an ageing novelist, attempts to finish his wife's manuscript on Beethoven's Sonata 30 op Cit 109. She, an acclaimed academic, is disappearing into the mists of dementia. While sorting through her notes, he stumbles across various clues about an affair she had that forces him to reconsider not only their marriage, but also his paternity of their late son, and his lifelong friendship with his best friend. Setting Stephen's tortured quest against his own novel-in-progress about an experimental treatment to reverse ageing, Late Sonata is a little book with very big things to say about music, memory, love and the dark complexity of life. It is the only book I read twice in 2020.

3. Fracture by Andrés Neuman
You know how we all have that one book we've been meaning to read forever? When Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century was published to great acclaim back in 2012, I picked it up in harcover with every intention of ripping through it post haste. Fast forward eight years and, well, here we are with it still languishing on my shelf. Not Fracture. It never even made it to my shelf. After reading a glowing review in The Guardian, I rushed out to buy it and took it to a nearby cafe. I was instantly hooked. Within the first few pages, I was frantically scribbling passages into my notebook. Then it escalated to photographing entire pages and posting them to Twitter. I never do that kind of thing! Fracture is an exquisite book; the experience of reading it not unlike giving yourself over to graceful meditative transcedence. It is, at least on its surface, the story of Mr. Watanabe, a survivor of both atomic bombs in Japan, who makes a pilgramage of sorts to Fukushima following the 2011 disaster at the nuclear power plant. Of course, that kind of reductive description does the book a great disservice - it is, at heart, a kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary life, one lived precariously in a perpetual state of an uncertaintly not of one's own making. Structurally ingenious - it is mostly related through the reflections of former lovers - Fracture manages to capture and make bearable the existential horror of our times. I read it at the start of Melbourne's second lockdown, when life seemed particularly bleak and scary. Neuman's depth of humanity, his ability to plumb the depths of existence and find goodness within, gave me much solace. Needless to say, Traveller of the Century is now at the top of my Summer reading list.

2. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Hilariously indignant, gorgeous, heartbreaking... Brilliant. A perfectly-pitched dose of acerbic satire aimed at the casual, institutionalised racism in the entertainment industry. Of course, the barbs could easily be transposed to any industry and it’s not a far stretch to see the racism directed towards other minorities reflected in the main character’s experience. Willis Wu hopes to break into Hollywood but, no matter how far he seems to reach, he is only ever a variation of “Asian Man”. The glass ceiling is infuriating but the book itself is an absolute scream. Once again Yu proves himself to be among America’s best comedy writers and, quite possibly, a contemporary successor to Jonathan Swift.

2020 In Review: The Best of the Rest

on Monday, December 28, 2020
Have I mentioned that 2020 was a bloody excellent year for books? I mean, holy crap, it was the worst year for just about everything else but when it came to the books that sustained us through this clusterfuck pandemic lockdown life we really scored big. More than ever I've suffered a crushing dose of existential literary angst trying to narrow my favourites down to ten (spoiler alert: I've cheated). Having finally settled on which books I want to include, I thought I had to do an extra post about the ones I wish I could have included. In an alternate universe, all these books would have been in my Top Ten for 2020. They are that great. Then again, in an alternate universe I'd be at crowded punk shows in a New York basement without fearing for my life (I'm talking Covid, not, ya know, the usual crowded punk shows in a New York basement fear). So, here you go. These were the best of the rest of the 141 books I read in 2020:

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson
Unrelentingly brutal, rife with injustice and rage, and yet brimming with compassion, hope and beauty, Nardi Simpson's magnificent debut absolutely floored me. Stitched together with rich threads of Aboriginal mythology (realised beautifully with magical-realist flourish), this multi-generational saga is hefty in both size and substance, full of memorable characters and powerful set-pieces. And, strange as it feels to say it, I don't think I've ever felt so warmly invited into aspects of Aboriginal culture, made not only witness but welcome participant. I loved every page of Song of the Crocodile but, moreover, felt grateful to Simpson for all that I came to learn and appreciate through the wonder of her storytelling.

Ghost Species by James Bradley
Some writers are just a class above. With Ghost Species, Bradley proves himself once again to be one of them. Here his deep dive into ecological catastrophe continues but mostly in subtle undercurrent. Centre stage is a perfectly-honed speculative meditation on human evolution: what if we could reboot humanity by cloning a neanderthal from DNA? It is an immensely satisfying thrill ride of a novel both intellectually and in terms of pure entertainment. In a crowded literary landscape, Ghost Species is an astonishing masterwork of speculative fiction - plausible, utterly compelling and, as it progresses, eerily prophetic.

The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross
Sometimes a book comes along with a premise so hilarious, so audacious and so up your alley that you kick yourself for not thinking of it first. Well, kick I did, but I'm glad Gross was the one to conjure this small Polish village lost to time, suddenly discovered and introduced to the modern world, because oy did I love reading this book. Of course, there were the expected stranger-in-a-strange-land gags (I could kind of imagine Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks tag-teaming on bits of it), but Gross took the idea to some very interesting, unpredictable places. With generous schmears of shmutz and shmaltz, Gross struck a fine balance of the hilarious, sacriligious and thought-provoking!

The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss
Speaking of an audacious premise, Strauss's latest novel was about as uproariously chutzpadik as they come: an act of autofiction melded with an imagined affair between the author's grandfather, Isadore Strauss, and America's darling, Lucille Ball. In a year that we mostly felt shit about our lives, The Queen of Tuesday had me smiling more often than any other book I read. Strauss conjured TV's golden era with such love and gusto, and peppered his narrative with so many joyously sly sleights of hand, that I bought into his crazy conceit with absolute conviction. I also had the great privilege (and thorough enjoyment) of interviewing Darin for Detroit Jewish Book Fair.


At Night's End by Nir Baram
I've been a fan of Baram's writing since Good People, his first novel to be translated into English. Those familiar with his books might be accustomed to a certain bluster or swagger and so, like me, will be taken aback - in a suprisingly pleasant way - by the introspective air of At Night's End. This is a pained and deeply personal book, one in which Baram lays bare his soul in the wake of his best friend's suicide. In it, an author wakes up in an unfamiliar city, dishevelled, confused, desperate. Trying to work out what's happened, he suspects the answer might lie in the fate of his best childhood friend. He soon slips down the rabbit hole of fractured memory as he reflects on his younger days, and the bond the two shared. There's a lot to unpack in this novel but, ultimately, At Night's End will have you questioning the foundational myths of your carefully curated identity.

The Silence by Don Delillo
The weight of technology seems to be sitting heavily on many of our great writers because, recently, a fair few books have been pondering the question of what would happen if all technology that we've come to rely on just suddenly stopped. Delillo's slim take has a man on a plane, hoping to get back in time for a sports match, when the cataclysm goes down. The plane crash lands and he survives. It is a story in two parts, the first vintage Delillo at his prophetic best, the second a disaster of confused monologues. I just went with the theme and pretended the printing press failed at the end of Part One.

When We Cease To Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
Probably the strangest book I read this year, When We Cease To Understand the World is neither novel nor a collection of stories nor essays nor... Shit, I don't know what it was. Whatever. In it Labatut imagines many of the greatest physicists caught up in the spell of their discoveries. The writing is explosive, the collision of creativity and intellectual rigour devastantingly brilliant. I still can't work out what to make of it, nor could I distinguish between fact and fiction (my scientific literacy is... um... a little lacking) but I can say without reservation that this is a work of strange and singular genius.

Thanks for reading. Hope to see you tomorrow when I begin my final countdown.

2020 In Review: Strewth It's Been a Ripper Year For Aussie Lit

on Saturday, December 26, 2020
I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but it’d be remiss of me not to make a special post about Australian books this year because HOLY SHIT it’s been an amazing one for Aussie literature. I read more from here than any previous year and even then I didn’t get to all the ones I had on my pile.

Particularly exciting was how many of my favourite books were debuts. It really stung to think how all these ace new writers didn’t get the chance to properly celebrate their efforts with proper launches, festival appearances etc. If it’s any consolation, I hope you know that you were read and loved and gave us a hell of a lot of happiness and respite through a time of collective trauma. To that end, I started the Apocalypse Zoom Book Club with JP Pomare and we revelled in discussing a bunch of Aussie debuts. Big shout out to all who joined - it was such an ace group and I really looked forward to our virtual hangs every month. As for the books, I especially want to sing the praises of:

- Madeleine Watts for her brilliant, confronting and technically ingenious novel, The Inland Sea. I was left in awe of the power of her central metaphor and the multiplicity of ways she brought it to bear on some of our most pressing issues.
- Imbi Neeme for her thoroughly enjoyable and warm novel, The Spill, that deftly examined the complexities of family and the fallibility of memory.
- Laura Jean Mackay for her mind-bending, magical-realist, plague novel, The Animals in That Country. Has there ever been more audaciously wacky pairing than Jean and her trusty dingo, Sue? And those whales... those whales.

As for more established writers, I was very lucky to blurb a few books and I stand by my love for them. So big shout outs to:
- Robbie Arnott for his truly wondrous The Rain Heron. The image of a bird made from water set against a strange war continues to haunt me.
- Patrick Allington, whose awesome dystopia, Rise & Shine was so brilliantly realised; dark, quirky and thoroughly intriguing. Plus its plague (or ecological catastrophe) made me feel a little better about ours.
- Elizabeth Tan who returned with a second collection of surreal stories that struck me more as premonitions than imaginative fireworks. Smart Ovens For Lonely People had me constantly marvelling at what Tan is able to achieve with the short form.

There were also a bunch of books I actually went out and bought (shock horror), and that gave me much joy to read. I loved Kate Mildenhall’s highly original, feminist spin on the contemporary dystopia, The Mother Fault. Riffing on the likes of Margaret Attwood and Doris Lessing, Mildenhall crafted something entirely her own, a cracking adventure with a lot of food for thought. Kristen Krauth brought me back to my music days with Almost A Mirror, an elegy for (and tribute to) Melbourne’s late-80s rock scene. Every sentence seemed infused with the stench of two day old beer and sticky, grime-filled carpet. Was like heaven to me. Most people don’t expect it of me, but I love a great thriller, particularly if it plays tricks with my brain. To that end, in the space of two books, JP Pomare has become a reliable go-to for me. I always know that I’m going to get a satisfying dose of smart thrills and In The Clearing certainly didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think I liked it even more than Call Me Evie.

I’ll be talking about some other Aussie books as I head towards my Top Ten Books of 2020 so be sure to check back in the coming days. Until then, let’s hear it for Aussie Lit. Can’t think of a time it’s been in a better state!

2020 In Review: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Thursday, December 24, 2020
Well, 2020 was certainly... something. All my lofty ambitions to finally get the trusty blog up and running again fell to shit like all my plans. All OUR plans. Hell, I couldn't even bring myself to read between March and sometime around July. As it is, I've only managed 141 books for the year which isn't terrible but isn't exactly great either.

On the upside, it's been an unusually great year for new fiction and, once I got back into the swing of it, I read some extraordinary books. I'm glad to say that's particulalrly been the case with Australian fiction. I feel we're in some kind of golden era and, holy moly, this year might well have been its apex.

So here we are at the end. We might be exhausted, limping... nay, dragging our way to the finish line. But we made it. And so, once again, I bring you a series of posts where I wax lyrical (read: pontificate) about the things I've loved. Starting, as always, with the odd socks.

BEST BOOKS PUBLISHED BEFORE 2020
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Maggie 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. Not only the first book I read this year, but also one of the best.

Naamah by Sarah Blake
Noah's Ark gets a queer, feminist, magical realist retelling in Sarah Blake's extraordinary debut novel. Naamah is such a brilliant engagement with the traditional text; it challenges narrative convention - questioning silences, amplifying forgotten or ignored voices - in an incredibly intelligent way without ever sacrificing readability. At times it is quite confronting, and the time shifts and magical flourishes might not be to everyone's taste, but if you are willing to give yourself over to what Blake has set out to do you will find it infinitely rewarding. I also had the chance to chat with Sarah about her book, thanks to the good folks at Detroit Jewish Book Fair.


The Possession by Annie Ernaux
An intense, passionate and often creepy novella set in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Obsession fuels the dissection of life after love, when the narrator learns that her ex has taken a new lover.

Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo
A small, wonderfully loopy romp through the world of Poe and Borges by way of a locked room murder mystery. Oftentimes hilarious, but brushed with swathes of philosophical and literary insight, this was one of the most enjoyable little books I've read in a long time. Oh, and I was kicking myself that I didn't pick the murderer!

The Topless Tower by Sylvina Ocampo
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.

THE SHELF OF SHAME
In a year that saw so many great books being published, I simply couldn't read them all. So here it is once again, my Shelf of Shame. The books I really wish I'd had the chance to read but didn't have the time. Needless to say, all is not lost. A fair few have made the jump to my summer reading pile. But, until then I hang my head and prostrate myself before these wonderful writers, hoping that they can forgive me.

BEST COVERS OF 2020








THE SOUNDTRACK TO MY DOWNTIME
With 2020 being such a dumpster-fire shitshow of a year, it was one hell of a relief that it also happened to be a really great one for music. I had less time than I'd have liked to listen given how much I was stuck at home (I do have a toddler, after all), but here are the albums that really did it for me. Including my number one which, it is fair to say, is my favourite album in many, many years.

20. RED CITY RADIO/BOSTON MANOR/PROTEST THE HERO/TOUCHÉ AMORE
I'll kick this off by cheating. Four excellent albums from four dependable bands.
19. BAD NERVES - BAD NERVES
If you like your fuzz punk with a touch of the Ramones and a dash of FIDLAR, these British upstarts are your new favourite band.
18. SPARTA - TRUST THE RIVER
Jim Ward may never shake off his At The Drive In past but, for me, it's his time fronting indie rockers Sparta for which he should really be championed. What a great album, even if it kind of flew under the radar.
17. PHOEBE BRIDGERS - PUNISHER
2020 was the year Bridgers really came into her own. Equal parts sweet and haunting, with an urgent, dark undercurrent.
16. BROADWAY CALLS - SAD IN THE CITY
I've never been much of a fan, but these guys delivered a surprisingly buoyant slab of punkish rock that found its way onto my speakers far more than I'd have expected.
15. FIONA APPLE - FETCH THE BOLTCUTTERS
Complex. Difficult. Intense. Obtuse. Brilliant. Amazing. Holy shit.
14. WAR ON WOMEN - WONDERFUL HELL
There's righteous musical anger and then there's War On Women. An absolutely incedniary album of fight songs that tackle some very difficult subjects with perfectly juxtaposed grace and rage.
13. I AM THE AVALANCHE - DIVE
Vinnie Caruana can do no wrong in my books and while no IATA album has lived up to the debut, Dive is a very welcome addition to an almost flawless catalog of honest, humane, working-class punk rock.
12. CUSTARD - RESPECT ALL LIFEFORMS
I've become accustomed to hearing Dave McCormack's voice as Bluey, so it was refreshing to hear it again where I first came to love it. A typically enjoyable, quirky indie pop album by these Aussie legends.
11. SCREECHING WEASEL - SOME FREAKS OF ATAVISM
The jury is still out on Ben Weasel but there's no denying that when he's on fire he is on fire. And right now he's on fucking fire. Some Freaks... is quite possibly my favourite album of his BoogedaBoogedaBoogeda. Yeah, it's that good.
10. BAD OPERATION - BAD OPERATION
Horns and Hammonds abound in this glorious throwback to the golden age of two-tone ska.


9. ILLUMINATI HOTTIES - Free I.H.
I somehow missed the boat on Illuminati Hotties when they put out Kiss Yr Frenemies, but this new album totally sucked me in with its irresistably jagged electicism.


8. THE HOMELESS GOSPEL CHOIR - THIS LAND IS YOUR LANDFILL
Derek Zanetti, the angsty troubadour of the broken American Dream, is back with full band and a quiver of songs that somehow weaponise despondence and melancholy to deadly effect. Don't get me wrong, these songs simmer with hope and even a little joy, but damn they'll do a number on your heart along the way.


7. TABARNAK - SHIRIM TABARNAK
Every time I smugly think I've nailed conversational Hebrew, an album like this comes along and laughs in my face. And while I might not have the slightest clue what they're singing about half the time, Tabarnak's joyous party punk was my go to album for smiles in a year that seemed hell bent on denying me any.


6. AMERICAN FAIL - AMERICAN FAIL
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. If that's true then NOFX ought to feel pretty darn flattered at the moment. American Fail, a 22 song medley in 20 minutes (it's really one song subdivided into chapters), nods so blatantly, so frequently, so furiously to NOFX's masterpiece The Decline, I'm surprised it doesn't have whiplash. That said, it's incredible in its own right, almost providing a thematic and historical update to its predecessor.


5. BOB MOULD - BLUE HEARTS
Umpteen years on and the former Husker Dü frontman and all-round punk legend is still raging. Granted he has lots to rage about right now, but Blue Hearts finds Mould completely reinvigorated and writing some of th catchiest hooks of what is an already stellar career. Forget Dylan and Springsteen, this was the old codger with the most to say in 2020.


4. THE LAWRENCE ARMS - SKELETON COAST
I'm pretty sure these guys are actually incapable of doing wrong but I wasn't expecting an album this bloody great. Skeleton Coast is TLA doing what they do best - honest, catchy, heartfelt punk that captures life in all its roller coaster vicissitudes.


3. THE LEMON TWIGS - SONGS FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC
You know what? There just isn't enough bombast in contemporary rock. So all hail The Lemon Twigs with their flamboyantly, excessively retro greatness. Think Bowie meets Supertramp meets Queen meets early Kiss or Alice Cooper. It's absurd but holy crap it's great.


2. JEFF ROSENSTOCK - NO DREAM
Oh, Jeff Rosenstock. There's nobody quite as prolifically, consistently awesome as you. NO DREAM is fast and funny and warm and silly and thoughtful and just about everything I want in an album. Keep doing you, my friend. Keep doing you.


1. SPANISH LOVE SONGS - BRAVE FACES EVERYONE
This year I almost didn't write a list. Not because there weren't a bunch of good albums that came out, not because I didn't get a lot of listening pleasure from a whole ton of great bands, but because back in January an album was released that instantly captured the moment then went on to define the entire year. No matter what new release came along to briefly grab my attention, I always came back to Spanish Love Songs' unassailable masterpiece, Brave Faces Everyone. Capturing the despondence, melancholy and defeatism of an entire generation with poetry worthy of the greats, and finding the perfect music to not only carry but enhance the message, Brave Faces Everyone is one of the greatest, most honest and heartfelt acts of artistic expression in any form this year. It's also the best album I've heard in about a decade. Very few albums can lay claim to being era-defining. To me, this is.

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 NOTEBOOK by ÁGOTA KRISTÓF
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.

CLASS TRIP by EMMANUEL CARRÈRE
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.

THE MURDER FARM by ANDREA MARIA SCHENKEL
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.

THE CREMATOR by LADISLAV FUKS
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.

THE TOPLESS TOWER by SILVINA OCAMPO
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.

JULIA PARADISE by ROD JONES
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.

KNELLER'S HAPPY CAMPERS by ETGAR KERET
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.

TALKING TO OURSELVES by ANDRÉS NEUMAN
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.

MACHINE by PETER ADOLPHSEN
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.

EXQUISITE CADAVERS by MEENA KANDASAMY
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.

ONE OF THE BOYS by DANIEL MAGARIEL
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.

SENSELESSNESS by HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA
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.

ADDRESS UNKNOWN by KATHERINE KRESSMAN TAYLOR
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.

KHIRBET KHIZEH by S. YIZHAR
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.

WHITE HUNGER by AKI OLLIKAINEN
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.

IN THE ORCHARDS, THE SWALLOWS by PETER HOBBS
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.

THE MEURSAULT INVESTIGATION by KAMEL DAOUD
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.

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE SUPERHEROES by ANDREW KAUFMAN
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!

EAT HIM IF YOU LIKE by JEAN TEULE
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.


THE GRAVEYARD by MAREK HŁASKO
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.


DOPPELGÄNGER by DAŠA DRNDIĆ
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.


THE TIDINGS OF THE TREES by WOLFGANG HILBIG
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.


BESIDE THE SEA by VERONIQUE OLMI
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.


TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE by BOHUMIL HRABAL
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.


CHRIST'S ENTRY INTO BRUSSELS by DIMITRI VERHULST
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.


COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY by HANS KEILSON
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.


THE FISH GIRL by MIRANDI RIWOE
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.


KLAUS KLUMP: A MAN by GONÇALO M. TAVARES
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.


A WHOLE LIFE by ROBERT SEETHALER
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.


PINK MIST by OWEN SHEARS
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.


THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE by MARCEL SCHWOB
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.


A DEVIL COMES TO TOWN by PAULO MAURENSIG
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 DEVIL'S WORKSHOP by JACHYM TOPOL
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.


THE A26 by PASCAL GARNIER
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.


MAD SHADOWS by MARIE-CLAIRE BLAIS
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!


LATE SONATA by BRYAN WALPERT
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.