The Top 10 of 2010: Back To The Herd Mentality

on Friday, December 31, 2010
New Year's Eve is upon us and so it is time for me to unveil my favourite ten books of the year. As I've said before it was a rather patchy one for literature. A few great authors released passable but not particularly good books. Many an ordinary debut saw the light of day. Someone even told me that they had lost faith in fiction this year.

As for me, I read a lot of excellent books but very few of them were published in 2010. Indeed, when looking back over the 155 books I managed to get through, there were only 12 that deserved a place on this list. One I cut because, although it was translated for the first time in 2010, it is in fact 58 years old (Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key). The other, Keith Richards's Life, was edged off the list by an arguably greater musical legend.

Overall, it seems comedy was the big winner, taking five of the ten spots. There were also three debut novels, which is always a good sign for things to come. Yet it was a French author of whom I was only peripherally aware who came in at number one. And so, without further ado, I bring you the Bait For Bookworms Top 10 of 2010:

1. Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel. A lowly bureaucratic functionary is sent into a small town to investigate the murder of a mysterious stranger. What he discovers will quite literally take your breath away. Brodeck's Report is one of the most astounding books about wartime guilt and complicity ever written. A murder mystery, artistic meditation and revelation all rolled into one. Simply brilliant.

2. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahariar Mandanipour. This amazing story of two students pursuing their forbidden love through the pages of great Persian and world literature continues to resonate with me eleven months after I first read it. I'm not usually one for romance, but when it came to Sara and Dara I have to admit I swooned! It is also harrowing in its portrayal of life in a totalitarian state. Almost perfect on every level.

3. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. This hilarious debut novel drove a great metal barb through the heart of the pretentious print media world. Documenting the rise and slow demise of a semi-fictional English language newspaper in Rome, its pastiche of journo-stereotypes, some snooty others pitiable, had me laughing out loud, and not only because I recognised half of my friends drowning in the mix.

4. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. A year of heavy reading was topped off by this hilarious celebration of the scientifically absurd. Whether you are a certified brainiac or, like me, a total grognard this is the funniest book that you are likely to encounter in any universe, including this one. In comic terms, it seems there is nothing funnier than a time machine repairman in love.

5. Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes. Britain's king of quirk struck gold again with this deliciously nasty gem. Creepy, hilarious and unexpectedly tender it kept me smiling even while my skin crawled.

6. Nemesis by Philip Roth. These days Roth is as patchy as he is prolific, but this powerful tale of a polio epidemic in 1940's New Jersey really hit the mark. The combination of a decidedly non-Roth protagonist and some brilliant metaphorical social commentary about the economic collapse and the perceived terrorist threat make Nemesis his best book since Indignation.

7. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. This very worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize shone an excoriating light (if there is such a thing) on the triumphs, insecurities and downright absurdities of Diaspora Jewry. High Lit that makes you laugh and cringe at the same time.

8. C by Tom McCarthy. Forget the experimental tag! C was a complex and mesmerising examination of the way in which we communicate from a writer who is shaping up to be one of our generation's greatest commentators. And yes, it had a conventional plot.

9. Solar by Ian McEwan. Sure, it had the cookie-cutter McEwan plot device but this foray into deep science, petty academic jealousies and the indignities of ageing disgracefully was a real winner. I never thought McEwan had it in him to make us laugh. I also thought he was well past his prime. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

10. Just Kids by Patti Smith. Yes, a non-fiction book made it to my Top 10. Who'd a thunk it? This double eulogy for Robert Mapplethorpe and the heyday of New York counterculture is 300-odd pages of pure street prose poetry. The only book that made me cry this year.

So there you have it. An unexpectedly eclectic top ten for my first year of lit-blogging.

Happy New Year! Here's hoping 2011 brings us all a library (being my collective noun for books) of great reads!

Reality Check: My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard

on Thursday, December 30, 2010
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write. Thomas Bernhard, he of the impenetrable yet addictive literary sludge was actually a really funny guy. Laugh out loud, double over, try to catch your breath funny. Not that you would have known it from his novels. Dreary, depressing, sure. But not funny. Turns out it was all a ruse. In this short collection of reflections, Bernhard tells us what he really thought of the various prizes he won. Needless to say, he doesn't hold back and I suspect that pretty much every institution that saw fit to give him an award later came to regret it. Some might brand Bernhard a sore winner, but for me it was refreshing to see a person whose misanthropy could transcend his ego.

There are those, I suppose, who collect accolades
Though others prefer that they went to their graves
Integrity shining not once selling out
Here Bernhard makes quite clear what he was about
Dark and obsessive in print, when loquacious
He's spiteful, sardonic and wholly ungracious!

And yes, i realise I was supposed to read the new Chinua Achebe book for this challenge, but after the great disappointment of the Gunter Grass I felt it was okay to cheat a little and do the old bait and switch. Yet again Bernhard saves the day!

2010: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Sunday, December 26, 2010
Only a few days before I unveil my top 10 for 2010, but in the meantime here are the honourable mentions. I've gone out on a bit of a limb this year and added a couple of less literary categories. My therapist suggested that it would make me seem like a more 'well-rounded' person. Or I'm sure they would have had I actually had a therapist.

Close But No Cigar (The Ones That Almost Made It)

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. A daring and oddly plausible rendering of the Jesus mythos, Pullman pissed off a lot of believers but garnered significant praise from pretty much everyone else.

Light Boxes by Shane Jones. A little gem about a town at war with the month of February, Light Boxes was testament to the oft-underappreciated brilliance of independent publishing.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel. Generally panned by the critics, this much-anticipated follow-up to Life of Pi was a morally complex and enjoyably absurd take on genocide. But for its overly neat ending, I really couldn't see why it was so viciously savaged.

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago. Saramago was always at his best when writing about animals, and this was no exception. A wonderful novel from the late great Nobel curmudgeon.

Books I'm Sure I Would Have Loved Had I Gotten Around to Reading Them

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Supposedly one of the great novels of the Vietnam War, this debut came out of nowhere to universally glowing reviews. A must read sometime later in life...

To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Grossman is one of my favourite Israeli writers, as much for his politics as his stories, and this is supposedly his masterpiece. Hopefully I'll get the chance to read it before he is given the Nobel.

The Wind-Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi. Sci-fi is my guilty pleasure and, if we are to believe the hype, The Wind-Up Girl is the most exciting book to grace the genre in years. Some have gone so far as to dub Bacigalupi the new William Gibson. High praise indeed.

The Soundtrack to my 2010 Downtime (Yep, this is a list of albums, not books)

1. The Gamits - Parts. Reformations are all the go at the moment, and these punk legends did it in style. Can't quite work out what Chris Fogal has been gargling in his downtime, but the new gruffness of his vocals added another dimension of greatness to an already kick-arse band.

2. Foxy Shazam - Foxy Shazam. Plastic, bombastic and goddamned fantastic, Foxy Shazam have the spirit of Freddie Mercury shining down on them in all its sequinned glory.

3. AC4 - AC4. Bite-sized hardcore chunks from the latest incarnation of Refused's Denis Blixen.

4. Smoke or Fire - The Speakeasy. These guys just keep getting better. Neon Light is a strong contender for my favourite song of the year.

5. Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From a Young Man. MSP are a very hit and miss affair, but Postcards saw them in full flight. Catchy, literary and thought provoking guitar pop, an almost complete 180 turn from their last effort, the drudgery that was Journal For Plague Lovers.

Book Podcasts That Helped Me Survive the Long Drives and City Traffic

1. KCRW's Bookworm - Michael Silverblat might have the most annoying nasal voice imaginable, but he can dissect a book like nobody else. It is little wonder the great authors literally line up to be on his show.

2. New York Times Book Review - Editor Sam Tennenhaus fleshes out a select few articles from each edition of the NYTBR. Always interesting listening, no matter how obscure the topic, it is Tannenhaus's rapier wit and willingness to look a gift horse in the mouth (and usually tell it its breath stinks) that makes this an absolute podcasting treasure.

3. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast - Each month a notable writer comes in and reads their favourite short story from The New Yorker short story archive. A brilliant way to rediscover some lost literary masterpieces.

4. Slate's Audio Book Club - I've always avoided joining a book club, but listening to this mob makes it sound kind of fun. They're not all lit wankers either, so the podcast is refreshingly accessible to anyone interested in reading.

5. Book on the Nightstand - Two Random House Reps shoot the breeze in this light-hearted, convivial gabfest. Sometimes it verges on the twee, but for the most part it is an enjoyable escape when you find yourself stuck in traffic.

Well, that's it for the honourable mentions. Stay tuned for the Top 10...

2010: The Shelf of Shame

on Friday, December 24, 2010
Festivus is upon us which means we can count the number of days left in the year on one hand (that is assuming, like a guy I went to school with, you were born with a superfluous finger). I, for one, am getting into the Listmas spirit, looking over my 2010 reading catalog while sipping non-alcoholic egg nog (read: an egg). Rather than doing a strict repeat of last year's lists and lumping you with one massive blog post on December 31, I've decided to break my year in review down into a number of categories. I started a few days ago (unwittingly) with the best books I had read that weren't first published in 2010. Now I want to continue with The Shelf of Shame, the dishonourable mentions for what was a very patchy publishing year.

Most Overrated Books of The Year

Room by Emma Donoghue. It's not that this story of a kid trapped in a shed with his mother was a terrible book but the hysteria that surrounded its release was close on Beatlemania. The execution is fair, the kid is likeable if a little cutesy, but at the end of the day it seemed like a decent concept for a short story or, at best, novella stretched laboriously over 300-odd pages. Its descent into the pits of sentimentality had my gag-reflex working overtime. Maybe if Donoghue had trimmed the schmaltz it would have been better.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. A passably entertaining riff on future love in the great melting pot of Cybermerica, quite a few reviewers went gaga over this, the follow-up to the rather wonderful Absurdistan. I thought it was alright, but Charles Yu did it far better.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. Critics were hailing this as the first great American novel of the decade and the most ingenious artistic representation of Global Financial Crisis we were ever likely to read. The David and Goliath tale of a big-business land grab verged on the cheesy and was annoyingly predictable.

Boxer Beatle by Ned Beauman. A fair few lit snobs were heralding the arrival of a major new talent and, sure, this had many elements that ought to have made it a ripper. But strip away the exuberant cartoonish flair of the writing and you were left with a pretty stock standard Nazi-relic hunting story.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. The other debut over which people went nuts in 2010, Hunt took Winston Churchill's well-documented fight with depression and imagined it, quite literally, as a big black dog. Fantastic premise, but she faltered somewhat in the execution. Don't get me wrong, it was still a good book. But I felt that the secondary romantic plot made the whole thing a bit twee and not really deserving of the adulation it garnered.

Biggest Disappointments

Great House by Nicole Krauss. The History of Love is one of my favourite books of the past 10 years. With this one, I got the feeling Krauss was doing an experimental rehash, but with a cast of characters for whom I didn't particularly care. To put it bluntly, by midway through the book it had completely fizzled. Also, the central premise was done to much better effect almost fifteen years ago by Tibor Fischer in The Collector Collector.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster. This was not a terrible book by any stretch of the imagination but I continue to hold out hope that Auster will recapture his former brilliance and this just did not. A decent pastiche of character sketches in search, to paraphrase Pirandello, of a novel.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. I go weak at the knees for The Good Doctor, and have liked pretty much every novel Galgut has published. But this surreal travelogue was hardly a novel, despite what the Booker committee would have us believe. Three reasonably engaging reminiscences pasted together does not a coherent whole make!

Point Omega by Don Delillo. Ever since the Twin Towers collapsed, Delillo has struggled to recapture his almost prophetic prescience of old. Point Omega started well, and had echoes of White Noise bouncing around between the lines, but it never really went anywhere and ended without any meaningful resolution. Like with Auster, it wasn't a bad book but hardly worthy of the great writer who penned Underworld.

The Box by Gunter Grass. It only managed to slip in at the end, but the sheer laboriousness of this, the latest instalment of Grass's memoirs, made its 150 pages seem like War and Peace. A pointless exercise that shed no new light on the great author's life.

Flat Out Worst Books I Read in 2010

Admittedly none of these were published in 2010, but throughout my year of challenges I forced myself to read some pretty awful books. I shan't dignify them with a blurb, but the top 5 (or is that bottom 5?) were:
1. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
2. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
3. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
4. Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard
5. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

And in case you want to know what was that worst book I read that was published in 2010, well that's easy. Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris. Hands down. A pile of try-hard technocrap. One of the few books I've ever read where I was actually embarrassed for its author.

Agree? Think I'm a totally illiterate moron? Have a couple of your own to add to these lists? Let me know!

Reality Check: Life by Keith Richards

on Wednesday, December 22, 2010
If Patti Smith's book verged on poetic high art, Keith Richards has cranked out its gutter-dwelling, drug-addled little cousin. Which isn't to say that Life isn't also high art, though of a very different kind. It all makes me feel even more inadequate as I continue to lump you with these annoying rhymes. I just don't know how Dr. Seuss lived with himself...

Oh, well, stuff this in your hat:

From somewhere beneath a dark heroin haze
Ol' Keef takes a look back on halcyon days
It's brutal and honest and dripping with swagger
And his sympathy lies with the devil, that's Jagger
Though hefty this book left me scratching my head
After all he's consumed how the hell's he not dead?

Reality Check: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

on Monday, December 20, 2010
I grew up on true crime books. The Stranger Beside Me, Hunting The Devil, The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer. I just couldn't get enough. So obsessed was I that my parents were called into school a number of times so that my teachers could voice their concerns. Most notable was dear Mrs. Begley, who found expressions of extreme violence in my creative writing output. She famously told my mum that "he writes very well, but couldn't he just once write about flowers and hills?" So next story I wrote for her class (hilariously named Writing For Young Authors - the class, not the story!) had someone murdered on a hill and their body sprinkled with flowers.

When it came to putting together the list of books I would attempt for the December Challenge I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to check out what's making it big in the genre these days. Preston and Spezi's investigation into the Monster of Florence serial killings (which, if you like literary trivia, were the inspiration for Thomas Harris's final Hannibal Lecter book) had been getting some serious raves so I thought I'd give it a go.

Pull up your green eggs and ham, folks. Here's what I thought:

Somewhere near Florence in picturesque hills
There lurks a monster who viciously kills
To this day unsolved by detectives inept
These journos turned up on the list of suspects
Point as they might to Sardinian trails
Frustrated, it ends with them chasing their tails

Reality Check: Regions of the Great Heresy by Jerzy Ficowski

He might only have had the chance to crank out two short story collections before being brutally murdered as an act of revenge against his Nazi protector, but Bruno Schulz is one of the towering figures of mid-20th European century literature. I became obsessed with him after seeing a Theatre de Complicite production of Street of Crocodiles and quickly hunted down the two slim volumes, devouring them with a sense of sheer wonder. Surreal, harrowing and completely other-worldly, they are amongst the greatest story cycles ever to be published. In this biographical meditation, Ficowski goes a long way to demystify the enigma that has sprouted from Schulz's unmarked grave.

Or, as Dr. Seuss would put it:

For the pilgrims who flock to the great Kafka's grave
There's another, unmarked and ignored I'm afraid
A disciple now digs and tries to resurrect
To give voice, and give ink and to piece back the flesh
Indignant he holds high his art to the end
A shot in the arm for one shot in the head

Five for 2011

on Sunday, December 19, 2010
Late December always gets me salivating as I look into my crystal ball to see what lies ahead in the world of literature. 2010 proved a very good reading year (though not quite as good as 2009), with several of my favourite writers cranking out excellent new novels. Even better, I discovered a few new names to put on my "Drop Everything And Read" list; I am gagging for something new by Tom Rachman and can't wait to see what Charles Yu does next.

2011 is looking a little quieter but there are still a few books I can't wait to get my hands on. Here's the top 5 as I see them at the moment:

1. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Whether you love him or think he was a pompous, literary masturbator, you cannot deny that DFW's untimely death was a great loss to American literature. His hefty masterwork, Infinite Jest, kept me company throughout the year I was writing my Honours thesis and so I feel forever in his debt and remain ever eager to pick up his latest offering. From what I gather, Pale King looks like another hyperactive skewering of our modern existence, though hopefully it will be sans tennis. Some have been complaining that publishing this unfinished work amounts to exploitation, cashing in on his death with something he never had the chance to properly polish. But who cares if he was only part way through The Pale King when he killed himself? Infinite Jest finished mid-sentence, unresolved, at the end of over a thousand pages and it was still a corker!

2. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. The draw here isn't that it's a new book by JSF but, rather, that it is a re-imagining of and meditation on the work of one my all-time favourite writers, Bruno Schulz. I look forward to seeing what Safran Foer does with the source material but from what I hear it is a mind-bending experiment that actually works. Plus, it is apparently a beautifully packaged volume to boot and I'm a sucker for anything that looks spectacular on my shelf.

3. AnimalInside by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. No book has infuriated me more with its impenetrability than Krasznohorkai's best known novel, The Melancholy of Resistance. It took five false starts before I hit my stride and got through it. However, I like a good literary arm-wrestle and so was quite excited to hear another of his books is being translated and will be released in April. I have no idea what to expect from it, but I know it certainly won't be boring.

4. Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas. Regular readers of B4BW are probably well-aware by now that Vila-Matas's madcap literary treasure hunt, Montano's Malady, was one of my favourite books of the past few years. I think Vila-Matas is the most exciting writer around these days and can't wait to have him bend my mind again with another dose of his absurd jigsaw plotting.

5. Something new from Michael Chabon. No revelations here I'm afraid. But he's been teasing us for a couple of years now, so I'm going to state here that I want 2011 to be the year of the new Chabon. Is that too much to ask?

Not This Year In Review!

on Friday, December 17, 2010
I thought I'd start my end of year roundups with something of a non-list. Or, rather, a list with little relevance to the past twelve months. I figure that it makes no sense to include books that weren't published in 2010 in a "Best of 2010" list, but it would be equally silly of me to ignore them altogether. After all, fair few of my favourite books of 2010 were not published this year.

And so, with less than two weeks to go until we celebrate the arbitrary distinction that is the new year, I bring you my alternative list; my favourite non-2010 books of the year. Obviously I'll exclude everything from my Dog Bite Degustation challenge, seeing as they were my top 10 books of all time and would make this endeavour redundant.

So pretending that we are not really counting from 11, and naming them in no particular order, I loved:

The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton (2009)
The Book of Chameleons - Jose Eduardo Agualusa (2004)
Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (1949)
Saville by David Storey (1976)
Mephisto - Klaus Mann (1936)
The Education of a Stoic - Fernando Pessoa (tr. 2004)
The Cremator - Ladislav Fuks (1967)
Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes(1605)
The Mahabharata (ummm....)
The Behaviour of Moths - Poppy Adams (2008)

Stay tuned for my Best of 2010... Coming soon (most likely on December 30... I'm holding out for a last minute supernova)

Reality Check: The Box by Gunter Grass

I was pretty excited to get my hands on the latest instalment of Gunter Grass's memoirs, even more so because I had heard that this volume was stylistically more interesting, perhaps even with a fictional flourish. Alas, halfway through this short (especially short given the heftiness of Peeling The Onion) curiosity of a book, I was struck by a Solzhenitsyn-inspired Eureka moment. I actually don't really like Gunter Grass. Sure, I waxed lyrical in the past about The Tin Drum but, at the end of the day, he is kind of boring. Sorry Professor Graewe (my fantastic German Literature lecturer of yore), I want to like your hero but I just can't. And not because of his past, I don't really care about that. It's just that his turgid meanderings put me to sleep. I get it, Mr. Grass. You screwed around, had eight kids and wrote books of which you are rather proud. But this added nothing to your canon. When all is said and done, The Box will be a minor footnote, if it even makes it that far.

So without further adieu, here is The Box as rhyming verse.

I've come to believe the Nobel is a curse
For all of its winners grow gradually worse
After great revelations of Wafen SS
Grass comes in again and wants us to assess
Through the lens of his camera, an old fashioned box
This life in eight pieces is slight and a flop

Reality Check: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

on Tuesday, December 14, 2010
It was a simple Cartesian equation. I like Russian literature. Elif Batuman has written a book about "Russian Books and the People Who Read Them". Ergo, I will like this book. And I did. Sort of. Sucked in by a pretty cute premise, I found myself drifting as I waded ever deeper in to its pages. I think this started as a collection of essays, published separately, in various lit rags. That would make sense. This book works if approached in bite-sized chunks. As a whole, I'm less convinced. Anyway, here's the review in three couplets of rhyming verse. Apologies for the extra syllable in the last line. I needed it to get in the godawful Russian literary pun. As I said at the start of this month, I've never claimed to be a poet!

There's something that's rather peculiar you see
About readers of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
Conspiracy theorists and paranoid freaks
How they do Babel on these Chekhovian geeks
It's a glimpse into worlds of high lit and first loves
She's Possessed but I wasn't, when Pushkin came to shove

Reality Check: Just Kids by Patti Smith

on Friday, December 10, 2010
Ok, so I have to say this straight out. However bad I was at haiku or limerick, I am truly appalling at rhyming couplets. But as you know all too well by now, I never let my dignity get in the way of fulfilling a promise, so here is the first instalment of my December reading/poetry challenge. Thankfully, I started with a book that I truly loved. Not knowing all that much about Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, but growing up in awe of the New York cultural scene of the 60's and 70's, I was mesmerised to read about it straight from the horse's mouth (sorry, pathetic pun...). So here you have it, my terrible rhyming couplet review of Patti Smith's wonderful Just Kids.

Many a hymn has been sung to New York
But none of its Lower East Saint Mapplethorpe
From squats to the halls of the Chelsea Hotel
Of great falls and rises the high priestess tells
A tale sometimes tender and other times sordid
Vale to Puck, once rent boy now applauded!

A Bad Case of Listeria (Or Merry Listmas)

on Tuesday, December 7, 2010
And they're off!

Never mind that there is still an entire month left of the year, but with the recent publication of The New York Times 100 Notable Books (50 fiction, 50 non-fiction) Listmania season is officially upon us. Pretty soon our literary presses will be filled with the self-validating pontifications of the book snob elite, deigning which works were worthy of the trees they gave cause to die. It is always an interesting exercise, trying to make sense of who put what where and why. Mutual backscratching is often the go as is inter-list one-upsmanship. And then, of course, there is the great game of trying to nominate the most obscure book possible just to get extra snob cred. I wonder how many high end listers had to cross off this year's National Book Award fiction winner, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, when it won. It must have really hurt, having their sure-fire wanky choice stolen away by so prestigious an institution as the National Book Foundation. Mock them all as I might, I am not unknown to compile lists or, for that matter, succumb to the temptation of throwing on a couple of little known (usually Eastern European) titles. This year I get to double up, with a "Best Of 2010" blog post sometime near the end of this month, and a Year in Review in The Australian Jewish News. Thankfully, I keep a record of every book I read so I will be able to sift through the pile and pluck out some worthy nominees. Suffice to say, neither Twilight nor Eat Pray Love will be making a showing.

As for the NYT list, the usual suspects were there, along with a few nice surprises and a couple of what-the-f*%$s. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came in at the top, with Selected Stories by William Trevor, The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (never heard of it, score one for obscurity cred) and Room by Emma Donoghue rounding out the prestigious Top 5. And yes, you heard me right. Room by Emma "Counting Down Til I'm On Oprah" Donoghue. Cue my loud, bellowing WHAT THE F*%$! Talk about the most horribly overrated book of the year. How on earth could the good folk at the NYT fall for such smoke-and-mirrors pedestrian claptrap? Sure, it was a good idea for a short story but, when stretched out to full length novel, this homage to Hans Fritzl/Natascha Kampush was just cheesy and predictable. Not that my opinion counts, but there were any number of books in the fiction half of the Top 100 that should have received the kudos before Donoghue. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell... any of the other 46 I haven't just mentioned, really.

Anyway, having resigned myself to not receiving my letter from the Queen, I shall now sit back and await the onslaught of lists. And maybe get off my lazy bum and compile my own. Behold, the winner is... Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.........

A Century of Baiting!

on Monday, December 6, 2010
Holy libraries! Not quite sure how I managed to keep this thing going but with this here post, Bait For Bookworms turns 100. Yes, I realise using a post celebrating my 100th post to clock up my 100th post is as ridiculously self-perpetuating as 'the most photographed barn in America' in Don Delillo's White Noise, but hey, like the great man himself and a whole slew of his postmodernist friends would attest, who needs substance when you can peddle sweet-smelling nothing? I had actually intended my 100th post to be about the 150th book I had read this year, but I'm still only on the 148th and have a bunch of crap I want to rattle off NOW DADDY (props to Veruca Salt for that one).

For those of you who have just found this humble blog by way of Sunday Night Safran on Triple J, welcome. If you're just here to see the biblical limericks, click on the August tab on your right and they shall be... um... revealed. I hope you enjoy reading them, even if the tone as written seems lacking without the irreverent joviality of the wonderful Father Bob Maguire. For those who want to hear the interview, you will be able to download the podcast soon at (they usually lag a couple of weeks behind). Needless to say, until you hear a 76 year-old rebel priest recite Genesis in limerick form, you haven't lived!

In other news, I have had much cause to ponder the fate of literary crossover artists since word got out that the 92nd Street Y has offered refunds to those who came to see Steve Martin in conversation with Deborah Solomon at the great New York cultural hub. Far be it from me to diss the venue - my band played there one year when we were touring the States - but seriously what were the audience expecting? Stand-up comedy? Martin was there to promote his new novel, An Object of Beauty which, from all accounts, is a serious and seriously good meditation on the art world. Seems the dirty rotten scoundrels who turned up were two brains short of independent thought and just didn't get what they were in for. They came hoping to witness a Steve Martin laughathon and career retrospective. Instead they got a dose of deep, contemplative literary culture sans a single sombrero. Or Chevy Case. Ouch. Naturally, they reacted the only way disgruntled New Yorkers know how - with a flurry of indignant emails. Rather than standing up for Martin, the folk at 92nd Street Y issued an official apology and offered anyone who was disappointed with the 'show' a $50 refund gift certificate. Never mind that Martin had done the appearance for free. Or that they did not bother to consult him about the audience dissatisfaction before taking their consumer-is-always-right action. Or that the fault really seems to lie with the promotion and organisation of the event - it was clearly in the 92nd Street Y's interests to rely on Martin's reputation to draw a crowd. The comedian, it turns out had the last laugh. Sol Adler, 92nd Street bigwig, has now had to publicly apologise to Martin. Yet happy although the ending may seem, this entire episode suggests a much deeper problem. We, as a pop cultural consuming public, seem to take issue with our heroes stepping outside of the box into which we have stuffed them. Comedians doing serious literature, musicians writing books, actors doing music. We just don't like it. Granted it is often with good reason. Many who try fail dismally. But the fact we don't allow them to soar even when, like Steve Martin, they have produced a work of genuine importance illustrates our limitations, not theirs.

Anyway, enough preaching from my soapbox. Happy 100 y'all. I'm just going to sit back now and await my letter from the Queen.

Reality Check: The December Challenge

on Thursday, December 2, 2010
Forgive me Fyodor, for I have sinned. When I made my new year's resolution to write a literary blog I intended from the outset to quirk it up with absurd challenges that took me out of my reading comfort zone into new, mostly humorous, territory. I started off quite well but, alas, the best of intentions have fallen by the wayside, victim to my penchant for self-indulgence. I wanted to read books I liked. Shoot me.

It's now December and I figure I have but one last chance for redemption. I must tackle the thing I dislike reading more than anything else (except perhaps the crap I had to read for February's Books I Swore I'd Never Read challenge). Yes, in a last ditch attempt to save me from having to admit defeat come December 31, and consequently forcing myself to repeat this whole shebang again next year, I intend to spend a month reading non-fiction. To be fair, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I have built up a respectable pile of mildly interesting looking tomes of truth over the past few years. The fact I get to finally open them, and knock them all over in one month, makes the whole task seem almost bearable.

I know I might be accused of bandwagon-jumping, but I'm starting off with Patti Smith's National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids and will follow it with Elif Batuman's examination of Russian bibliophiles (that is, people who love and obsess over Russian literature, not just anyone from Russia who can read), Possessed. I figure, with those two, I at least have a connection, spurious as it may be: early punk rock and wanky literature are two of my great areas of interest. Next up I'm going to hit something I've meant to read for years, Jerzy Ficowski's biography of and meditation on the criminally under-appreciated Polish writer Bruno Schulz, Regions of The Great Heresy. If the name doesn't ring a bell, wait for Jonathan Safran Foer's next book. I suspect you will find yourself chasing down copies of his two amazing story collections, Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, before you can say Drohobycz. I'll also give my high school obsession with true crime another run with The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. Comic relief shall be provided by Keith Richards and his anti-Jagger bitchfest, Life. And, finally, I'll round out the month with two memoirs by great authors, Gunter Grass and Chinua Achebe.

Now I know what you're thinking. This all sounds a bit too easy for the very last challenge of the year. Don't worry, spanner, meet works. I am going to attempt to review them all in six line verses of rhyming couplets. I don't even really know what that means. Oh, well, I guess it could have been worse. There was always the chance I'd be lumped with haiku again.

Radio Free Bookworms

on Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Nothing literary to report today. I'm gearing up for the December challenge by attempting to get my way through yet another impenetrable Thomas Bernhard book. Man I love him, though he completely does my head in. Anyway, I just wanted to put the word out that Bait For Bookworms is hitting the airwaves on the next episode of Triple J's Sunday Night Safran with John Safran and Father Bob McGuire. We'll be talking all things poetic and biblical, as I revisit the August challenge "Books For Blasphemers" and set myself up for a mighty big shellacking from any of the deities I offended or their followers. So tune in this Sunday night, December 5 from 9PM to hear my fall from grace.

Geek-gasm: Charles Yu's How To Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe

on Monday, November 29, 2010
Hoorah for the nerds!

My end of year reading slump is over and it is all thanks to the most outlandishly geektastic novel I think I've ever read. Imagine The Big Bang Theory scripted by the love child of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller (which, in this book's universe isn't altogether impossible) and you might get just a smidgeon of a sense of Charles Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely in A Science Fictional Universe.

Set in Minor Universe 31, which is an awful lot like our universe except that the laws of physics were only 93% installed (the universe is a program, geddit??), it follows the absurd, mind-bending loops in space and time of one Charles Yu (got to love this current trend of naming one's protagonist after oneself), Time Machine Repairman and nostalgic loser. Most of his friends exist either as hypotheses or computer programs, except for his parents, who probably did exist at some point and his future self, who is destined to kill him, ad infinitum. How To Live Safely... is absolutely riotous, even for those of us who flunked tenth grade science and don't understand the first thing about physics. The techno stuff is just brilliant, especially given that Yu made the majority of it up, but the real paradoxes he confronts are handled so lightly that the grognards out there can be eased into the vortex. Even I, whose entire left side of the brain is non-functional, found myself pondering the nature of time loops and multiverses.

Those of you who I have managed to scare off thus far should crawl, nay sprint, back without caution. For what makes this book really shoot beyond the stratosphere (sorry, this nerd thing is infectious) is its tender exploration of a child's need to live up to the expectation of his parents. At heart, How to Live Safely... is about the ever changing nature of the relationship between father and son, particularly as the son attains adulthood and comes to understand his father as a man rather than a god. Yu's recognition and ultimate forgiving of his father's failings has a universal resonance beyond the laughs and scientific gimmickry that permeate the rest of the novel.

The fact that I have chosen to review this, after having eschewed the proper 'review' on this blog for so long ought to tell you something. But if you still need it spelled out, here you go. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, whether you are the sort of person who hangs out in comic shops fantasising about banging a Martian babe, or a lover of deep, lyrical yet funny literature. Or anything in between. Or either side. Whatever. Just read it!

Meanwhile, I'm off to find where I put my Pocket Hadron Super Collider...

Reality Hunger? No Thanks... I'm Full!

on Tuesday, November 23, 2010
A strange thing has begun happening on my bedside table. Other than the discovery of food scraps of unknown origin or age and the attendant biological bi-products thereof, I have noticed another possibly unwelcome fungus intruding on my book pile. Somehow, and I really can't account for this, there seem to a number of... I can barely bring myself to say it... non-fiction books creeping their way in.

At first I didn't pay them any heed. Patti Smith's Just Kids seemed a decent addition to any respectable library. Next came two of my favourite African writers' memoirs - Andre Brink's A Fork In The Road and Chinua Achebe's Education of A British Protected Child. Three non-fiction titles by my bed? Something was indeed afoot and, before I could say eukaryotic outbreak of epidemic proportions, two cultural figures whom I greatly revere, albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum, released books. First came Keith Richards with his widely-acclaimed Life, followed closely by The Box, the next work in Gunther Grass's autobiographical series.

It was all getting rather ominous. Something had to be done. I quickly rushed out and bought some more novels and piled them on top of the non-fiction works, most of whose spines I had turned to face the wall anyway. But any inkling I might have had that the tide had been successfully stemmed was shot to Hell when my brother gave me Blood Lands by Timothy Snyder, a book about Europe under the twin menace of Hitler and Stalin which might just prove invaluable in my own work. So what am I to do? I have already read one book of non-fiction this year (this of course depends on how you choose define the biblical texts), which is one more than I usually attempt. Do I finally give in and allow the levee to break? Dare I try becoming a more well-rounded person? Damn them all! Reality, as they say, is for those who can't handle novels (well, they actually say drugs, but grant me the liberty to paraphrase here). Or do I have before me the ultimate year-ending challenge? Ah, what the heck. It's gotta be better than Twilight!

Reading Rehab...

on Monday, November 15, 2010
2010 has turned out to be a rather slack year in terms of reading for me. Only a month and a half to go and I've only managed to get through 140 books thus far. I'll be lucky to hit 160 by New Year's Eve. There have been some pretty good ones along the way - Elizabeth Catton's The Rehearsal, Dan Rhodes's Little Hands Clapping, Philip Roth's Nemesis, Tom McCarthy's C and Fernando Pessoa's Education of a Stoic spring to mind - but nothing has absolutely blown me away since I read Philippe Claudel's incredible Brodeck's Report in January.

Now it seems an end of year malaise has well and truly set in. The new Auster (nice character sketches, where was the novel?) and Krauss (same rabbit, different hat, less spectacular the second time round) left me feeling luke warm, and even Rebecca Hunt's much-hyped "magical realist" novel about depression, Mr. Chartwell failed to really deliver. So I need a new hit. Badly. I am cruising towards book 150 and I want to be absolutely bowled over. Are there any books left in this world that I have not yet read that are capable of giving me that literary jolt? Or have I inadvertently subjected myself to years of aversion therapy by reading so incessantly? Anyone out there got a suggestion? Please...

Ban this Blog!

on Thursday, November 11, 2010
In my recent slackness, I managed to miss Banned Books Week by more than a month. Shame on me. Shout as I do from rooftops about the importance of literary culture, it seems I'm actually the sort who would stand by in silence while books get thrown into the bonfire. But don't come goose stepping to my door with a bag of marshmallows just yet. A recent episode at my old high school has given me the opportunity to wax lyrical on the subject. Better late than never!

As some people in Melbourne may know, Rabbi Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus College refused to allow Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati to be stocked in the school library because it paints Jewish orthodoxy in a rather unflattering light and essentially encourages people to turn away from religious observance. Oy gevalt! In his own words, Kennard argues that "Dancing in the Dark, a polemic which gives an inaccurate, one-sided and fanatically negative presentation of Jewish life, with a clear agenda of disengaging young Jews from Judaism, is not a book that is appropriate, in my judgement, to be in the library of a Jewish school." A rather extreme interpretation of Bavati's story or thesis, but he is entitled to his opinion.

The move, however, seems to have backfired. By shining the spotlight on the novel in this way, Rabbi Kennard ensured that pretty much every kid, including the ones who never read, would go out and buy it. Um... Mazal Tov? Needless to say, sales of the book have skyrocketed. Personally, I have never understood the rationale for banning books. That kind of crap doesn't even fly in fascist states. For every edict silencing an author, there is a samizdat distribution network to give them back their voice. Not that Bavati needed underground support. Dancing In The Dark is freely available from any local bookstore. Don't get me wrong. I understand why some books might not reach the shelves of a school library - hardcore pornography, graphic depictions of violence, propagation of hate thought... If kids really want that sort of stuff, they shouldn't be getting it from the library. They should be hitting up their school computer labs! Or downloading it to their iPhones and showing it to each other at the back of the playground.

Now, here's the weird thing. I'm usually a big fan of Rabbi Kennard. He's a great guy, very learned, a fantastic administrator and, from all reports, an inspirational educator. Indeed, I credit him with almost single-handedly saving the school from its previous decline. Which is why I'm so dismayed that he has gone down this path. He claims his actions did not amount to a 'ban' as such, but that is really a semantic argument. A rose by any other name still makes me sneeze in Spring. If the school takes issue with the viewpoint expressed in Bavati's book, then encourage the kids to read it and discuss it in an environment that promotes free, critical thought. Isn't that the very essence of education? Banning the book was an unfortunate misstep that I hope Rabbi Kennard will see fit to rectify.

Oh, and as an aside, I find it rather amusing that Robyn Bavati can now hold her book up alongside such esteemed classics as Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (a personal favourite of mine), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and that bastion of out and out depravity, Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants. I'm guessing Ms. Bavati won't be donating any of her royalties to the Mount Scopus College Annual Appeal... though she might want to flick a few bucks Kennard's way for the publicity!

The November Non-Challenge: Books I'm Reading Instead of The Books That Changed The World

on Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Way back in January, when I was plotting out monthly challenges, I had intended The Books That Changed The World to immediately follow Books For Blasphemers. I wanted to wade through all the major works that have helped shape this crazy world we live in. For better or for worse. In the list I had J. S. Mill's On Liberty, Marx's The Communist Manifesto, Mao's Little Red Book, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Darwin's Origin of The Species, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Greer's The Female Eunuch. I had yet to decide on a poetic form with which to review them, my two favourites having been taken up by the Biblical texts (limerick) and the Books I Swore I'd Never Read (haiku). Perhaps a few sonnets were in order. Then it occurred to me. Hadn't I suffered enough for your entertainment? I read Eat Pray Love for fuck's sake! Plus, did I really want to go out and buy Hitler's paranoid rantings? I'd be too ashamed to do it in person, even more so than that time I bought The Celestine Prophecy. Or Twilight. Ordering it online would put me on some CIA watch list. Again. I get arrested at airports enough as it is. While I was being consumed by existential kvetching, the pile of books I was excited to read continued to grow, and I came to realise that I needed to abandon the whole challenge approach altogether. And so I bring you a very loose theme for November, Books I'm Reading Instead of The Books That Changed The World. Yeah, it's wordy but I like the sound of it. I've already knocked over the new Auster and Krauss novels (more to come on them soon). Don Quixote straddled the October/November divide. I'm about to start the new Bernhard Schlink. And any day now I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi, which I am very chuffed to see is back in print, shall find its way to my mailbox. I haven't decided what else will make the list this month but hey, I like to live dangerously. In a room. In the corner. With a book.

The Melancholy of Persistence (Or Bookish OCD)

on Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Yesterday's post got me thinking. Although I have no intention of abandoning poor Don Quixote, that swaying tower of new releases continues to tempt me.

Which leads me to a question. Is it ever okay not to finish a book? People often speak of the 100 page rule. If you aren't well and truly sucked in by the time you hit triple digits, give up. I suppose it is a perfectly functional approach to reading, but it only really applies to a certain breed of books. It presupposes a need for 'enjoyment'. It also doesn't allow for subtlety, for those books that set about weaving their magic at a more glacial pace. I can think of a whole slew of books that I have loved but that didn't 'click' until the end. The brilliance lay in the final chapter. Or paragraph. Or sentence.

Whatever the case may be, it is all rather irrelevant to me. I suffer from what someone once called Obsessive Conclusion Disorder (though I find Obsessive Conclusive Disorder linguistically funnier), an almost pathological need to finish any book I start. I can count on a single hand the books I have begun only to put down without finishing. The Brothers Karamazov, but only because I left my copy on a plane and, by the time I got around to buying another, was already a slave to whatever it was I was reading next. In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward by Solz... You get the point. That guy is impenetrable! And then there was The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I started it once. Twice. Probably six times, before forcibly trudging my way through it. And hating it. It made Solzhenitsyn look like Beatrix Potter. I totally should have chucked that sludge to the side.

So, why the compulsion? What would I lose by putting down a book that I am not enjoying? I've done it a few times and lived to tell the tale. Perhaps, I enjoy a challenge. Sluggish books may well be my Everest. Maybe I approach books like I approached my law degree. By the time I considered dropping it, I was too far gone. It made more sense to just suck it in and finish the bloody thing. Or perhaps, I just don't want to admit failure. There are only so many books in the world. With an annual uptake of about 200 a year, I am doing my darndest to read them all. I am, however, willing to admit (reluctantly, and only in whispers) that it would be impossible to do so, and therefore I pride myself on being able to pick the good ones.

Obsessive Conclusion Disorder is playing havoc with my reading life. Maybe I need to go see my local librarian, lie down on the trolley and talk these things through. Maybe I can wean myself onto the idea of discarding unfinished books, starting with some of the dross I am given to review, and then moving on to selective missteps. But only when I am able to count the books I have started, got the flavour of, and then closed before the end amongst my annual reading catalogue will I be truly cured. Ah, who am I kidding? That ain't gonna happen. Time to jump back on Rocinante and joust with livestock, for beyond the field, on the sunny Spanish horizon, I think I spy Paul Auster.

Drop Everything and Read!

on Tuesday, October 26, 2010
What on Earth was I thinking? Don Quixote? In October? I've always meant to read Cervantes's great tale of the knight errant, but holy crap it's massive! I set aside last year to read the big classics, the tomes, but I could only get through so many. So while Melville, Hugo and Musil got a guernsey, Cervantes didn't make the cut. I've found it difficult to rev myself up about big books since then. There are just so many smaller ones I'd rather tackle. Let's face it. What can you say in nine-hundred pages that can't be said more succinctly in three?

My recent trip to Toledo, and purchase of a metal Quixote statuette pushed me over the edge. I could hardly place the thing in my library without having read the book. I'd look like a schmuck. So I prepared myself for two weeks of committed reading (far removed from my usual literary promiscuity), and dived in. Glad to say I'm loving it. But by the time the gallant madman was charging his first windmill, I received a package with Nicole Krauss's latest novel inside. Plus Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink. Then, just as Don Quixote attacked a flock of sheep (an hilarious scene, I know), I happened upon the new Paul Auster novel in my local bookstore, a month before I thought it was due to be published. It was sitting alongside the latest from Mister Pip author Lloyd Jones. Yes, it's October. The month of big releases. Which means now I don't know what I should do.

I have very little self-control and even less patience. There are some authors for whom I will drop whatever I am doing, even take days off work, to read their latest work the day it is released. J. M. Coetzee is the main one. Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy as well. Jose Saramago while he was still alive. And Paul Auster, though I have grown a little wary of his later output. There are also times when a particular book, whether I have read the author before or not, actually causes me to salivate. Right now, there is an ever-growing stack of such novels, including a couple by the authors I just mentioned, tilting perilously in my direction. I am at serious risk of physical harm from the imminent collapse of my bedside book tower. So do I drop Don Quixote halfway though? Do I do the unthinkable and put down a book without finishing it? Sure, I might intend to go back but we all know I won't. Such existential angst. I don't know if I can bear it. For now I'll persist, but I am beginning to think that turning a blind eye to the excitement I feel for the books released this month, the ones poking their tongues out at me from their colourful spines, would be like doffing my brass barber's bucket at a fair maiden in the field. Truly mad!

The Finkler Answer

on Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Damn I wish I would have placed a bet! I wanted Howard Jacobson to win. I thought he deserved to win. I even believed he stood a chance of winning. But after my little Mister Pip experience, I shied away from coughing up the dough. Damn you Lloyd Jones. You have lost me money again!!!

The haters are already out slagging off The Finkler Question. "How," asked one bookselling Tweeter (or is that Twit?), "am I going to sell this to my customers?" Yes, those poms must be quaking in their boots at the prospect of having to convince a goyishe general public to buy such a niche (on the surface) Yiddische novel. Never mind that Jacobson is, after Philip Roth, the best chronicler of modern Jewish life writing today. Or that The Finkler Question is not just a Jewish book, but a very English one too and, as such, can be appreciated equally on both levels. Indeed, you don't even have to 'get' the 'Jewish thing' to love (and laugh with) this book. Jacobson is the modern master of the complex literary joke. He has proven that time and time again. The Finkler Question takes it to a new level. It is an hilarious comedy of (bad) manners and an acerbic commentary on what it means to be an English 'man' today.

It was fantastic to see that Booker judges saw fit to award the prize to one of only two deserving novels on the shortlist. And that they weren't afraid to bestow such an honour on what is, in essence, a comic novel.

I really wish I was in England right now, just to watch those dour Brits trudge into their local Waterstone's and begrudgingly buy The Finkler Question expecting to hate it... They're in for a rude, if oddly riotous, surprise!

The Book Most Travelled

on Monday, October 11, 2010
One of the most exciting aspects of travel for me is choosing what book I want to read on the plane. And by book, I mean books. And by books, I mean at least ten. I try to make a point of mixing genres and always have a couple of 'light-reading' alternatives or, as I liked to call them, literary sorbet jammed between the wanky highbrow stuff. There is only so much I like my brain taxed at thirty nine thousand feet. My sorbet flavour of choice is usually Terry Pratchett or some cheap airport noir. However, a few trips ago I decided to take it up a notch and go for a slightly more sophisticated sci-fi alternative. Usually that would mean Stanislaw Lem or Iain M. Banks. But quite a few of my bookish friends were raving about China Mieville's The City and The City so I thought I'd give it a go.

Oh well, you know what they say about best laid plans. If books could rack up frequent flyer points, my copy of The City and The City would be eligible for a free trip to Bali by now. Business class. I'm not sure how it would look with its pages braided, but I think that poor piece of pulp deserves a holiday. From the humble Avenue Bookstore in Melbourne, I have schlepped it to Israel twice, Spain twice, England, Jordan, Lizard Island and Thailand. It is now with me in Bangkok. Again.

I have no excuse for not having read it on any of those long haul trips. But I do have an explanation. I err on the side of caution, lest I be left for hours with nary a paragraph to skim and so I always carry more than I could possibly hope to read. Plus, if I pass a bookstore on my travels, I invariably buy a few extras. But it ends now. I have depleted my supply and, for once, gone zen and resisted the temptation to top up. Yes, I still have nine hours of flying to go and only one thing to read. Try as it might to hide behind the Peter Carey, Orson Welles, Fernando Pessoa, Klaus Mann, Howard Jacobson, Salman Rushide, Filip Florian and Hansjorg Schertenleib in my backpack, it won't escape this time. No siree. When I get home tomorrow, I will finally have read The City and The City. And the minute I walk through the door I'll make a beeline for my bookshelf and put it out to pasture where it can live out a relatively undisturbed life. Really, it's the least I can do.

The Regurgitated Read: Booker Prize Edition

on Sunday, October 10, 2010
Well, we're only days away from the biggest announcement in the Commonwealth literary world. Who will win this year's prestigious and occasionally relevant Man Booker Prize? As I've said before I'm hopeless at picking these things and pretty much gave up even trying after sinking 200 bucks on Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip a few years back. In lieu of making an ass of myself again, I've decided to give you a quick potted summary of each of the shortlisted novels so that, come the big announcement, you can pretend to know what you're on about. You are probably familiar with John Crace's Digested Read in The Guardian, so here I give you its cheaper step-cousin, The Regurgitated Read. Because we all know it's not about whether or not you've actually read the winner, but whether you are able to make a few pithy, disparaging comments about it in polite company! So here you go, I've taken one (or six) for the team!

ROOM by EMMA DONOGHUE. Supposedly 'triggered' by Austria's horrible Hans Fritzl case (though really more akin to Natascha Kampusch), Room is a brilliantly realised, razor-sharp short story puffed out to novel length for the Oprah crowd. And how they are lapping it up! Five year old Jack has never been outside the garden shed that nasty Old Nick has used as a dungeon since kidnapping the tyke's mum. He knows every item in the singular and the outside world as mere fantasy. Cue a whole host of harrowing moments (when Jack is made to hide in 'cupboard' while the villain rapes his mum), plenty of pathos and oodles of cutesy cheese. It's smart, it's topical and there's a fair chance it's going to win. Poor Austria won't have had it stuck to them so royally since the Anschluss.

PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA by PETER CAREY. I should declare straight out that I don't particularly like Peter Carey. Yeah, yeah Tall Poppy Syndrome blah blah balh. Get stuffed. My lawnmower calls it like it is. The History of The Kelly Gang was pretty great, but other than that I generally find him cringeworthy (I'm talking to you My Life As A Fake... and Theft... and Bliss... and His Illegal Self... and.... snore!). Anyway, it looks like he's also hopped on the 'inspired by a true story' bandwagon. Again. Actually I suspect Carey drives it. But while Donoghue barely had to slide into her Delorian, Carey has zipped back to the Nineteenth century for some fancy riffing on that great experiment of freedom, America as viewed through the eyes of a thinly veiled Alexis de Tocqueville. The master and servant relationship gets a good once or twice over, as do the fledgling institutions of the New World. But when all is said and done, Olivier is a whining French prat and Parrot reads like an attempt to out-Dickens Dickens, making this rather hefty book kind of slim in terms of substance.

THE LONG SONG by ANDREA LEVY. I have loved Andrea Levy since hearing her read from Small Island a couple of years ago. Talk about bringing a book to life. So I was pretty excited when I got my hands on this gorgeously packaged follow-up. I was raving about it on this very blog before I had even read past the first chapter. Um... Let me try to say this while maintaining my dignity. The Long Song is great if you liked Small Island but could never be stuffed reading Roots by Alex Haley. As a slave narrative it ticks all the boxes - beatings, rapes, backbreaking labour and families torn apart. It also focuses on a little explored - at least in terms of fiction - episode, the Jamaican Slave rebellion that was brutally quashed by colonial forces. But for all that, it reads a little hollow. Levy's gentle touch doesn't quite allow the degradation to reach what I felt would have, in reality, been its realistic endpoint.

THE FINKLER QUESTION by HOWARD JACOBSON. Jacobson is England's answer to gefilte fish. Or Philip Roth. An entity so Jewish that I suspect Manischewitz courses through his veins. After lurking rather brilliantly in the shadows for a while now, he has finally hit his stride with this spectacularly funny snapshot of modern Jewish Diaspora life. Take two self-loathing Jews, intent on doing everything they can to be cosmopolitan goys, and one goy wishing he was a Jew and you have a recipe for hilarious disaster. Not since Portnoy's Complaint has a book so perfectly captured what it means to be 'Jewish' in a particular time and place. And, to Jacobson's credit, he didn't need to have Sam Finkler jacking off with some luke-warm chopped liver to get a laugh. For my money this should win, but we all know what my money's worth!

IN A STRANGE ROOM by DAMON GALGUT. Ok, so let's get this clear. Galgut, who I have loved since The Good Doctor and who I think was criminally overlooked for The Impostor, writes three short travelogue memoirs, publishes them in The Paris Review (or some similar rag) and then cobbles them together as a collection and manages to score a Booker nomination? Some furious back peddling has seen the wanky literati set claim that In A Strange Room explores the border between fact and fiction, memoir and imagination. I call shenanigans on them all. It's an alright book. The story about his friend's suicide is incredibly affecting. But doll it up in whatever hyperbole you want, this is not a novel. I want Galgut to win a Booker, but giving it to him for this would be like giving it to John Banville for The Sea. Oh...

C by TOM McCARTHY. Ladbrokes have just suspended betting on the Booker because some schmuck dropped 15K on this to win. Nice. It seems said canny punter has seen through the 'experimental' bulldust and recognised C for the excellent novel (yes, there I said it, NOVEL - get it through your heads, it's a pretty conventional novel) that it is. For all the fancy shmancy hype that surrounds McCarthy, he is a damn fine writer of extremely engaging books. This vibrant, almost explosive allegory for the proliferation of new media dwarfs all the other books on the list in terms of intellectual vigour and pure imaginative gymnastics. Why McCarthy doesn't receive the same adulation as Dave Eggars is beyond me. They are two sides of the same coin. McCarthy is the side that writes well.

So where does this leave us? I'd love McCarthy or Jacobson to win. Their books are by far the most deserving. Which, of course, means Carey actually will. Because we all know that he deserves a third before McEwan, Rushdie or just about anyone else good gets a second. Or just give it to Donoghue. For Oprah's sake!

Once Again Roth Is a Llosa

on Friday, October 8, 2010
The folks at the Swedish Academy sure love their South Americans. As you would all know by now, Mario Vargas Llosa, got the nod this year and joins such hallowed company as Elfreide Jelinek, Johannes Jensen and Henrik Pontoppidan in the Nobel Pantheon. All jokes aside, it was a relief to see a familiar name even if he wasn't one of the writers I was gunning for. At least people won't be raising their eyebrows and asking, "Who?" this time around. Not to take anything away from Herta Muller or J.M.G. Le Clezio - I think they are both wonderful, if somewhat obscure, writers - but Llosa's books are widely available around the world and many 'general' readers will have read at least one of them. I, reader of pretty much everyone ever, have read two: The Feast of The Goat and Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter. And I enjoyed them immensely. Which means that I'm not complaining about this year's choice. Indeed, for the first time in a long while, I can say that the Academy has picked a 'people's laureate'. Llosa is not some stuffy intellectual. His writing is accessible to readers of all levels which sure makes for a nice change.

What then is to be made of the eternal Nobel bridesmaid, Philip Roth? The poor bastard is still writing brilliant novels. Indeed, Nemesis is among the best in his later canon. But here's the thing. He is at no risk of being forgotten. He will be read long after he has died and, frankly, does not need an accolade like the Nobel Prize to ensure his literary immortality. Once he reaches that great library in the sky, he'll be able to pull up a chair alongside James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, Jorge Louis Borges and Marcel Proust - all of whom were denied the Swedish gong - and flick snotballs at Saint-John Perse. Who? Exactly! Until then, I guess it's time he donated that dusty tuxedo to his local thrift shop.

Writers I Want To Win The Nobel

on Thursday, October 7, 2010
Only seventeen hours to go before my annual dose of literary disappointment. Here are a bunch of people that, despite the ousting of the Eurocentric douche Horace Engdahl, will be robbed yet again when the announcement is made:

Philip Roth
Peter Shaffer
Alberto Manguel
Antonio Skarmeta
Harry Mulisch
Elias Khoury
Cormac McCarthy
E.L. Doctorow
Andre Brink
Michel Tournier
Aharon Appelfeld
David Grossman
David Mamet

Oh well. Here's hoping I've at least heard of this year's laureate.

Nobel Prize-a-Palooza!

on Saturday, October 2, 2010
So word has it that the Swedish Academy has picked the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature and will be announcing it next week. Does this mean Philip Roth should be dragging the floppy-lapelled suit that he bought 30 years ago out of the closet, giving it its annual dusting and pinning it on a cork board called hope? Or will Ismail Kadare pip him at the post before he drops off the perch? I really am at a loss to pick it. That, and I have been proven wrong every year since Coetzee (and let's face it, I only picked him because I had been doing so for the ten years leading up to 2003). I didn't mind Herta Muller last year, but I hope they haven't gone searching up the snooty arse of literature (where most of the more obscure authors hide) to find a worthy recipient. For what it's worth - my useless vote goes to Peter Shaffer.

Anyone else care to guess?

Back To Basics: Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky

on Saturday, September 25, 2010
It's been almost five years since the literary supernova that was Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished masterpiece Suite Francaise, and the steady flow of novels by this once forgotten Frenchwoman shows no signs of abating. Every six months it seems we are hit with a new translation, each one a literary gem in its own right. How Nemirovsky could have disappeared into the ether for so long is quite beyond me but at least she is now back in her rightful place in the literary pantheon.

Personally, I have always been a bigger fan of her miniatures than the bombastic epic that heralded her return. Nemirovsky had an incredible ability to draw out the pettiness of everyday life in less than two-hundred pages. To wit, David Golder, which copped a good deal of flack for being borderline anti-Semitic. Suspect politics aside (I, for one feel the anti-Semitic reading is probably an erroneous one), I can't think of a better portrait of the detestably weak nouveau riche. Now, in a similarly devastating vein, comes Jezebel, probably the most disturbing portrait of vanity gone awry you are ever likely to read. I realise this is a massive call. Oscar Wilde would spin in his grave. Or shut me down with a pithy aside. But Jezebel towers over The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yep, I said it.

Never before have I been so moved to despise a lead character as much as Gladys Eysenach. As the novel opens, this faux-sophisticate is on trial for the murder of a young man, presumed to be her lover. An initial surreal swirl of courtroom drama gives way to the story of Eysenach's decline, marked by selfishness and a vanity so consuming that it literally destroys all around her. Eysenach is petrified of ageing, but even more so of people knowing that she is ageing. At sixty she is said to look thirty. She takes lovers half her age. She gives away a son at birth, and forces a daughter to become party to her lies. It is a damning portrait Nemirovsky paints, one inspired, or so it was said at the time of publication, by her own mother.

There is an element of mystery about the identity of the murdered lover, but Nemirovsky is less concerned about writing some sort of whydunnit than she is in exploring the psyche of this awful woman. Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that the tears Eysenach sheds in the courtroom at the start of the book aren't born of remorse or guilt for murdering her own son, but a realisation that her age will finally be unveiled. I suspect Jezebel may draw criticism for misogyny just as David Golder did for anti-Semitism, ruminating as it does on what Nemirovsky sees as a stereotypical feminine trait, but to so accuse would be missing the point of the book. Jezebel is a character study beyond par and, in my humble opinion, Nemirovsky's best book.

On Second Thought: Avoiding the Booker Bookie

on Wednesday, September 15, 2010
David Mitchell must be swimming laps in a pool of tears right now. Yes, much to the dismay of his legions of fans (and, I dare say a fair few punters), he was omitted from the Booker Prize shortlist and so will have to line up again next time for his little slice of literary immortality. Turns out the safe money was not on him. When the list was announced a couple of weeks ago, the litosphere went nuts. Meanwhile, I was chilling out in my secret cave, trying to be zen with bookish news, resisting the compulsion to add my two cents. I'm usually the king of knee-jerk reactions but I'm glad I held back this time. It's given me a chance to think about the shortlist - to not sound like the sort of idiot who would rush to his local bookie and place $200 on Mister Pip to win in 2007. Or, practically hand the award to David Mitchell the second his new book is published. Ahem... Anyway, blog confessional therapy aside, I have to say it's a pretty good list. The books this year are, well, readable. It has been a strong year for literature and even though I might not agree with all the inclusions, I'm happy to see compelling literary fiction in such healthy form. Thus far I have only read Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, and am three quarters of the way through Emma Donoghue's Room. The other four are on my nightstand, giving the rest of my September a bit of purpose. Seeing as I read the entire shortlist every year, I feel I ought to thank the judges. There are no overly long dirges. Galgut aside, they are novels in the traditional sense (yep, even Tom McCarthy). Slice my thumb with a pice of paper, there's even some comedy to be found here (and I'm back to harbouring a not-so-secret wish that Howard Jacobson wins). Peter Carey can go juggle his two previous Booker Prizes as far as I'm concerned because, good a writer as he may be, he does not deserve a third before the likes of Rushdie or Coetzee. C'mon folks - hand it over to Jacobson or Andrea Levy already and stop my kvetching!

The Books That Made Me (...and a Driving Lesson)

on Saturday, September 11, 2010
Is there no end to my nerdy bookishness? As if spending every spare minute reading wasn't enough, I've taken to listening to literary podcasts while I drive. Ok, so to be honest I first tried reading while I drive, which worked for a while until I cruised through a red red light late one night and got taken out by a drunk driver. Not my finest moment. Thankfully everyone was ok. It did, however, force me to rethink my driving habits, and so I discovered the magic of the book podcast (I have yet to make the leap to Audiobooks. I'll save that for when my diabetes sends me blind).

Now, I'm not going to harp on here about the various podcasts I listen to - I'll save that for another day - but I do want to make special mention of The Guardian's new pod-series "Books That Made Me". In each episode, an author of note nominates the five or six books that have most influenced them, not just as writers, but as people. There have only been three episodes thus far, but the series has already proven a little treasure trove of literary trivia, whimsy and, at times, deep artistic reflection. The authors profiled, China Mieville, Michael Rosen and Penelope Lively, have all picked an interesting array of works, some well-known, others painfully obscure; some of which I've wanted to hunt down and others that have just brought a befuddled smirk to my face.

Somehow I doubt that The Guardian is ever likely to approach me for my list, so I've decided to give it a go here on Bait For Bookworms. It's a difficult task. It doesn't mean picking my favourite books. I spent a whole month recounting those when I started off writing this blog. No, these are books that, at various stages of my life, have really shaped my greater worldview, or set me on a particular path. So dear readers, Kindle addicts and editors of The Guardian newspaper, here are the books that made this bookworm:

1. The Encyclopaedia Brown Series. Damn that Brown kid was smart. I guess with a name like Encyclopaedia he was never going to be a muscly, steroid-munching jock. For primary school me he was the perfect companion, helping me pass the friendless playtimes while teaching me that the search for truth and justice could be an intellectual joyride; the perfect fodder for the a kid destined for a career in public criminal defence.

2. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier. The only one of my 'favourite' books to make the list, I Am The Cheese still blows me away every time I read it. It shattered my cosy, private school view of how the world worked and taught me to question authority. It also kick started my love of 'mindfuck' novels. It was a small step from Cormier to Kafka, Perec and Beckett.

3. Cahoots Macbeth by Tom Stoppard. Back in high school, I played the part of the Inspector in a production of this brilliant play and managed to win the Best Actor award in the House Play Competition. Go me! Stoppard's tale of an underground Czech theatre group secretly putting on plays in defiance of the oppressive Communist rule not only gave my love of theatre a serious jab of adrenalin, but also got me thinking about the transcendent power of creative art, the importance of artistic freedom and the peculiar (and funny) nature of language.

4. The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe/In The Penal Settlement by Franz Kafka/Bontshe The Silent by I.L. Peretz. Ok, I'm cheating. Rather than nominating a single book, I want to put in three amazing short stories. As examples of the form they stand above anything else I've read. As introductions to three great writers, they are quite simply perfect. Each is an emotional uppercut in its own right - distilled lessons about justice, consequences and humility. They say more in a few pages than the vast majority of books I've suffered through in the past thirty-odd years.

5. Baddenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld doesn't catalogue the horrors of the Nazi machine, preferring his stories to inhabit the margins and silences. Baddenheim 1939, set in a snooty health spa just as the transports to the East were beginning, is all the more powerful for its evocation of denial and the ominous atmosphere of dread that pervades even the most frivolous activities. It is Holocaust literature of the most refined, devastating variety.

6. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. Throughout my twenties I searched high and low for a rational explanation of organised religion. Turns out there isn't one but hey, if you want a good religious satire, you have to check out Small Gods. It is a brilliant spin on the whole 'higher being' schitck and remains the most logical religious text I've ever encountered.

Comment or E me the books that made you...