At Last a Landing: The Mile High Book Club

on Friday, April 30, 2010
Twelve and a half hours, four books and a restless attempt at sleep later, the plane touches down and we taxi to what I assume must be the furthest gate from the main drag of Singapore's Changi airport. It is 8pm and 39 degrees outside. The air-bridge is like a sauna as Debbie, me and six hundred of our newest friends are squeezed through the metal snake like tepid toothpaste. We spew into the airport's outer suburbs and begin the walk. Travelator after travelator passes beneath our feet. In any other circumstance I would grumpily be cursing under my breath but, to be frank, my legs quite enjoy the stretch. Those folks at Airbus might have gone all out with First and Business classes on the fancy new A380 but economy is still a sardine can within a sardine can.

Terminal 2 will be our home home for the next couple of hours. Debbie is keen on getting a massage. I want to eat and hit the book store. The April challenge ends here, at the eighth airport, and I am eager to see what book will round out The Mile High Book Club. As we reach shoppalisation, I unsubtly make a beeline for the bright lights of Hot Off The Press. There, next to the calculators and travel pillows is the Top 10, where book number eight is... God help me, it's Michael Crichton's swashbuckling crappaganza Pirate Latitudes. Oh, this is just unfair. I feel the urge to cheat again but Debbie makes me stick to the rules. I check out the non-fiction bestsellers but number eight is some rules of business manifesto that strikes me as even worse an option. So Michael "Even-Haunts-Me-From-the-Grave" Crichton it is.

Deflated, I buy the book and head to the food hall where we gorge ourselves on a thali plate at the only vegetarian restaurant around. Surprisingly very yum. We still have over an hour so Debbie heads to the massage place and, despite the kindly offers by a gaggle of Singaporean masseuses to ply me with free tea, I go for a wander. Only a few minutes in I see what could only be a mirage... An oasis in my hour of need... A second bookstore. Unaffiliated with the first. It is Times Newslink. The sign is less garish. The shelves seem better ordered. I can't help but think it appears to be a respectable bookstore. And it has a chart. A Top 10 that bears no relation to Hot Off The Press's. A warm feeling washes over me, and I am quite sure it is neither the blood unclogging after a long flight or the curry attacking my autoimmune system. It is pure, unadulterated relief. For there, at number eight is Harlen Coben's new crime thriller, Caught. Coben may not be great literature, but he is never dull and, for the first time in the entire challenge, the perfect airplane read.

One last mini-review to bring me home...

Even at his worst, Harlen Coben is great fun to read. The stories fly by, there's always enough suspense to keep you interested and you can rest assured that your grey matter will not be taxed. Caught, Coben's latest tale of murder, revenge and a mysterious conspiracy to bring down a bunch of high-flying college roommates twenty years on will not go down as one of his better books, but it sure beats anything by Michael Crichton. Opening with an excellent "To Catch a Predator"-style sting, it quickly ties in a slew of middle-America's criminal obsessions - pedophilia, evil big business, political scandal and, of course, internet crime - as tabloid TV reporter Wendy Tynes seeks redemption for what appears to be a terrible mistake. Caught ultimately coagulates into a mushy suspense stew, well beneath Coben's usual mastery, but it is still reasonably enjoyable to wade through on a long haul flight home.

And so I bid farewell to a great holiday; six countries, eight airports, seventeen books and, of course, The Mile High Book Club.

Book Smuggling for Beginners: The Mile High Book Club

on Wednesday, April 28, 2010
If there's more to London than the bookstores around Piccadilly it'd be news to me. I spend five glorious days denuding the shelves of Hatchards, Foyles, Blackwell's and Waterstones. When I can't get into the city I head across to the local Daunt Bookstore on Hampstead Heath. For once I am constrained by luggage allowances because I forgot to organise excess in advance. So, you may ask, how many books constitute 20 kilograms? Allowing for the pesky clothes, medication and other assorted junk that takes up precious space in my suitcase, the answer is not many. Luckily, Debbie has some room left in her's and I figure I can stuff my carry-on with hardcovers and the folk at Singapore Airlines will be none the wiser. I end up with somewhere in the vicinity of 50 books of which 25 or so go into my suitcase, 10 go into Debbie's and the remaining fifteen go into my backpack.

Weigh-in at Heathrow is another nerve-damaging event. The lady at the counter is very business-like and seems immune to my weary traveller act. It doesn't help that we are very late in arriving. There seems to be a theme this trip. Anyway, my suitcase comes in at 23 kilos. I'm ready for a dressing down. But in some strange moment of sheer wonder, the dark clouds of my airport luck finally part and she just smiles, slaps on the destination sticker and sends my little library on its merry way. I have survived the first test, even if my shoulder is slowly dislocating under the weight of my contraband stash.

I am sweating like a drug mule as we pass through security. What if they see through (no pun intended) my book smuggling activities? Should I have wrapped them in condoms and swallowed them? And it certainly doesn't help that I look like a terrorist. By this stage, Debbie is just laughing at me.

Of course, we sail through without incident. I dart straight to W.H. Smith and am glad to see, seven airports into The Mile High Book Club challenge, a bestseller list. With numbers. I'd almost forgotten what one looked like.

I had always held out high hopes for the airport at London. It was, I figured, the only place I was almost guaranteed to find a piece of decent literature in the Top 10. But oh how the Book Gods mock me. For there at number seven, laughing at me and poking out its paper tongue, was a book I had seriously hoped to avoid reading... Blueyedboy by Joanne Harris.

An explanation (and, for what its worth, a review)

You may remember the sickening confection that was Joanne Harris's Chocolat. You may, like me, still be haunted (not in the good way) by images of Johnny Depp (whom I usually love) doing strange things with melted chocolate on a nude woman's belly. Suffice to say I detested it. I am diabetic, and it seems my intolerance to all things sweet extends even to the literary world. When I picked up Blueeyedboy - wow, cool, she fused those words together, how very 'now' - little was I to know that I had in my hands a desert of another kind. Cheese. And not the yummy French stuff. God knows why someone would try write another 'evil child' book. It was done to perfection by Doris Lessing in The Fifth Child and William March in The Bad Seed. Those are the benchmarks against which your book will be judged if you so much as think of writing on the topic. That, however, is only part of why this hackneyed festival of lameness dies so embarrassingly between the dust jackets. By telling the story through entries on a web journal, Harris committed cardinal sin number one of modern writing. Old people should not try to be 'young' unless they have properly immersed themselves in and understood youth culture. And even then, be very VERY careful! Harris's attempt to be young and cool was just trite. The whole webalogue was so far from believable that I was left wondering why some editor somewhere along the line didn't tell her that this should have been left to die in the top drawer. Or, even better, the kindling pile. Even Blueeyedboy's one redeeming feature - the relationship between Blueeyedboy and his abusive mother - seemed second rate following the brilliance of Poppy Adams's The Behaviour of Moths. On every level this book fails. Thanks a lot Heathrow. Now I'm also lactose intolerant!

This Book Might Be a Bomb: The Mile High Book Club

on Tuesday, April 27, 2010
For a breed of obnoxiously pushy people with a very 'here and now' attitude, Israelis apparently have no sense of urgency. Debbie and I wake up at stupid o' clock and throw on whatever is on top of our suitcases before rushing to the lobby. Not surprisingly, it is empty but for a small cluster of pilots and flight attendants who are busy invading the spectacularly inadequate breakfast bar. Orange juice and butter. No bread. I check out and ask the concierge how long the 'free shuttle' will be. He is coming, I am assured. Five minutes pass. Then another ten. I go back to the concierge. He is on the way. But the concierge will call just to be sure. Unfortunately for my poor frayed nerves I understand the entire Hebrew conversation that follows. "Good morning Udi, where are you? ... Did you maybe forget something this morning? .... Yes, they are waiting in the lobby... Well you will need to send somebody... Yes they missed the plane yesterday and they don't want to miss it again today... Ok, but quickly." He turns to me with a smile. "The driver said he is around the corner."

Another ten minutes pass before the doorbell rings, by which time the speed at which the blood is shooting through my body could probably power a small hydroelectric plant. The concierge smiles obsequiously at me and states the obvious. "He is here". We rush to the airport which, considering it is five in the morning, is already in full swing. As is the norm at Ben Gurion, we wait in a ridiculously long line so that we can be asked personal and silly questions by a far-too-friendly security guard.

Guard - What is the purpose of your trip?

Me - Holidays.

Guard - Do you have family in Israel?

Debbie - My sister.

Guard - What is her name?

Me (in my head... if only I had the guts to really say it) - Aviva. Why, do you know her?

Yadda yadda yadda. Until the famous line that any regular traveler to the region can recite by heart. "I am asking you this because someone might have given you something that to you looks alright but is in fact a bomb."

Somehow we make it through, despite the fact that my bleary eyes, three-day-old stubble and slurry speech make me look like I've spent the last five years working my way up the Al Qaida hierarchy. The rest of the check-in procedure is a relative breeze and we make our way to the departure hall with... get this... two hours to spare. I grab a brekky borekka and head to Steimatsky. It is bigger than the one in the arrivals area but similarly chaotic. There are no top 10 lists to be found, forcing me to do a repeat performance of yesterday's schtick. Again I am met with bemusement and a dismissive finger pointed towards one of the tables. "Any of those could be for you."

That's it. I'm cheating. I'm choosing a book I want to read. In the absence of anything even resembling a ranking system I can pick any book and consider it number 6. Heck, i shouldn't even be back at this stupid airport. So stuff Israel. Stuff Ben Gurion. Stuff Steimatsky. And stuff the technical intricacies of The Mile Book Club. My eye immediately fell on a book I have been meaning to read since I saw it on the counter of a friend's house back in Melbourne. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs.

Only one thing left to say about the Israel trip. Damn it, I know I'll be back! With that in mind I settle into my almost comfortable seat on British Airways and get reading.

A micro-review...

Here's the problem with great ideas. Sometimes they ought just be left laying in a hammock in a person's head. The Year of Living Biblically is a perfect example. In his cute little quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible, Jacobs slaughters the metaphorical horse in the first couple of chapters and then kicks its carcass around for another 300 pages. Not that there aren't a few flashes of what should have been. Some of the gags work. And yes, when followed literally, a lot of the Bible does seem pretty wacky. But as a whole, this quest is played for an odd mix of cheap laughs and cheaper tears. As a lapsed, somewhat returning, Jew, Jacobs makes many of the same mistakes Daniel Mendelsohn made in his equally overrated work of nostalgic pap, The Lost. His basic understanding of both the religion and the customs is so fundamentally flawed that it is almost embarrassing for anyone other than those who know equally little to read. Also, given the enormity of the task, it all seems greatly pared down for mass consumption. He grabs at a law, acts it out and moves on. Pithy comments aside, he gives short shrift to his experience. Which, to be fair, is not unlike the way many of the zealots who Jacobs lampoons approach religion. I get the feeling, however, this was not the point, leaving me to wonder, at the end of the day, if there ever was one.

Reading in the Dark: The Mile High Book Club

on Saturday, April 24, 2010
Free wi-fi access is a luxury at most airports. In Israel, it's a necessity. The internet, it turns out, is more helpful and personable than any Israeli airport staff. I come back from Steimatsky to the news that Debbie has managed to find and book us both flights and accommodation. It ain't cheap but that's what travel insurance is for. We trudge back out to the taxi rank for the fourth time tonight and head to the closest thing Ben Gurion has to an airport hotel - some weirdly funky designer specimen plonked in the middle of a crappy shopping mall fifteen minutes away. The only other building in 'town' is, rather fittingly, a hospital.

I am too worked up to sleep. I need to unwind. Debbie's head hits the pillow and she's out. We need to wake up in four hours to catch the British Airways fight to london. We are going to be there two and a half hours early. We will be standing at the airport doors when they open, like desperate shoppers at a boxing day sale. I lock myself in the bathroom with David Grossman.

I've never been inclined to read much Israeli literature. Other than Aharon Appelfeld, who I absolutely adore, Etgar Keret, who I find somewhat overrated, and some Amos Oz, my relationship with Israeli authors is remarkably equivocal. David Grossman has always been of peripheral interest to me. I've meant to read him - his novels look interesting - I just haven't ever gotten around to it. I guess Writing In The Dark, a slim collection of essays on literature and politics, seems an unlikely place to start. Firstly, it is non-fiction, which I generally try to avoid. Secondly, the cover is hopelessly dreary, a twee black and white photo of the author sitting on a wooden chair with his hands intertwined over his crossed legs. Thankfully, the rules of The Mile High Book Club forced me to press on because this little book proved to be the antidote to all that I had experienced in the preceding five hours.

Another review.

David Grossman is a refreshing, courageous voice of reason who deserves to rise above the cacophony that is Israeli political discourse. He is neither apologist nor kowtower. He has a passionate love for his country, and a desire for it to take its place amongst the moral leaders of the world. His disappointment is palpable, but so is his sense of hope. He also possesses a perspective that I think many of his compatriots have lost. As he so beautifully puts it in the essay The Desire To Be Gisella, "I fear that after decades of spending most of our energies, our thoughts and attention and inventiveness, our blood and our life and our financial means, on protecting our external borders, fortifying and safeguarding them more and more - after all this we may be very close to becoming like a suit of armour that no longer contains a knight, no longer contains a human." Grossman ought to know. He lost a son in the 2005 war with Lebanon. Unlike S. Yizhar, whose incredible novella Khirbet Khizeh seems intent on shaking the complacent arrogance of many in the Diaspora, Grossman has a much wider, contemplative agenda. He does not throw blame around like mud, letting it stick on whomever it falls. Rather, he gathers inequities of the past, committed by both sides, and uses it to form bricks. Writing In The Dark is a must read for anyone remotely interested in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, irrespective of political leaning.

I close Grossman's book and head to bed for what I hope will be two hours of peaceful sleep. You know, now that I think about it, I don't half mind this country.

Zen and the Art of Israeli Airport Security: The Mile High Book Club

on Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Great. I missed the plane. And almost got myself arrested at Ben Gurion airport. I blame EasyJet. The ticket says to be there by 7.35. Granted, Debbie and I got on the wrong train, ended up in Lod, had to go back to square one and get on the right train to the airport. That's not the point. We rushed to get our bags from the luggage storage room in Terminal 3, which is really just a room full of suitcases strewn around the place watched over by a bored, fresh-outta-the-army girl with nose piercings and an over-exaggerated gum chewing action. We sprinted to catch the shuttle to Terminal 1 but, of course, we didn't know when it was next scheduled to come and only had 25 minutes to spare so we were forced to catch a taxi driven by a nasty extortionist who clearly revels in the pain of panicked travellers. Twenty bucks later we ran into the Check-In area at 7.20 - cutting it fine but still 15 minutes in the black - only to be confronted by... a near empty terminal. A swarm of security guards stood at the start of what should have been the queue.

"Why you here?" demanded the fat, bald, surly one.

"We need to check in."

"You are too late. It closed."

"But the ticket says it closes at 7.35. It is only 7.20."

"They close fifteen minutes ago. Nobody here. You missed your plane."

"But it says..."

"Not my problem. Go away."

"Can we speak to someone?"

"This is Israel. You have to be here 3 hours before the flight."

"But the ticket says..."

"Not my problem. Call the airline. Go away."

"Who do we call? We don't have a number."

"It's not my problem. Go away we are closed."

Etc. Etc.

As we got increasingly angry I fronted the guard with a less than intelligent (even for me) outburst. "We're asking for help. You are the sort of stupid asshole who gives Israelis a bad name around the world." Big mistake. We, um, 'leave' the terminal and are forced to take another, slightly less extortionate taxi to Terminal 3. Thankfully, the lady at information tries to help us but EasyJet don't want a bar of it even when airport staff tell them that they did not follow the guidelines printed on their own tickets. One of the younger security guards from Terminal 1 comes up and apologises to us for the behaviour of her colleague and wishes us luck. But there is no luck to be had. Debbie is forced to look for flights to London on my computer while I, helpful as ever, head to the bookstore.

Steimatsky has no top 10 list for English books. Indeed, the section is in total disarray. I head over to the girl behind the counter and ask her for a good book by an Israeli author that is quite popular but not too popular. "If you had a list, it would be somewhere around number 5." She looked at me like I had asked her for a bacon and cheese burger, but soon recovered and gave me her recommendation.

Which is how book number 5 in my fifth airport for the April Book Challenge The Mile High Book Club has turned out to be Writing In The Dark by David Grossman.

(NB There was no bookstore at airport number 4 - Eilat - so according to the rules I had to skip that number.)

The Bookish Bedroom Behaviour of Ben Gurion: The Mile High Book Club

on Monday, April 19, 2010
The not-very-well-disguised Royal Jordanian sky marshall was excited to read the tattoo across my right wrist. "Salaam, very nice," he said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "Peace". I was relieved. There's always something slightly worrying about getting a language you don't speak or read etched into your skin forever. How many people have succumbed to that idiotic craze of tattooing individual Chinese or Japanese characters on bits of their body only to find out what they thought said "Serenity" in fact read "Starbucks"? I then held up my left wrist. Shalom. In Hebrew. The sky marshall mumbled something unintelligible and walked away.

I settled into my seat with The Behaviour of Moths, intent on getting at least a start on it in the thirty-five minutes from Aman to Tel Aviv. Seventy pages later we landed and I had to put it on hold, although by that time I was well and truly immersed.

The following eight days in Israel were stuffed almost as full as my stomach after... well... eight days in Israel. But it wasn't all sabich and shakshukah (actually, given it was Passover for the first week there, I could only get proper, decent food on the final day. Rest assured I made up for it). Obviously, Exodus-related shenanigans took up the first few days. Whilst munching on perforated cardboard, I spent the majority of the time in awe of the first edition of Nineteen Eighty Four just sitting inconspicuously on the bookshelf of the apartment in which Debbie and I were staying. I mean, who doesn't have one in their home, right? The second half of the trip was spent in Eilat, lazing on banana lounges at an hilariously Miami-esque resort, complete with giant, central, moated pool. Oh, and annoying, loud, obnoxious Israelis who seemed to think that mid-90's euro-beats blasting out of their crappy oversized speakers was just what every other guest at the hotel would enjoy listening to. I digress. On the way from Jerusalem to Eilat we stopped at Ben Gurion's desert escape (aka my dream home). It's a little wooden shack in the middle of nowhere; a gaggle of tiny rooms arranged around a giant library. While everyone else marvelled at the sleeping arrangements (elven David and his wife had separate shluf-quarters - some say it was because he didn't want her to stay awake while he worked into the wee hours of the morning, others just smirk and point out that it clearly was his shag pad), I took photos of the library from every possible angle and screamed at various children who got in the way of my shot.

Eilat proved a reading boon for me. I finally conquered The Magic Mountain, before devouring Amos Oz's gorgeous little fable Suddenly From The Depths of the Forest. Next, I was morally confounded by Willem Frederick Herman's The Darkroom of Damocles which has perhaps the weirdest assertion ever on its blurb: "It is the very impossibility of ascertaining the "right" side and the "wrong" side - the moral issue of the Second World War in a nutshell - that makes Herman's novel as breathtaking now as when it was written.". WTF??? Which British National Party dunderhead let that one through to the keeper? I caught my breath only to have it ripped right back out of me (in a much more pleasant way)by the unexpected dazzling beauty of The Behaviour of Moths.

Another brief review.

Gotta hand it to those Jordanians. They sure know how to propel a damn good book up the airport bestseller list. I had seen The Behaviour of Moths on the recommended table of my local bookstore for months but never thought to pick it up. More the fool was I! It has been a long while since I've been so wholly consumed by a classic gothic tragedy. And though I've never been one for audio books, I couldn't help but hear my grandmother's voice as Ginny recounted her strange tale of a family torn asunder by badly-kept secrets. It made for a truly haunting experience. Locked away in the old family mansion, surrounded by the moths that she has devoted her entire life to studying, Ginny finally welcomes back her 'little' sister Vivien after forty-three years of city life. From the outset it is clear the two have issues to resolve, a lifetime of compounded grudges. Ginny is one of the best unwittingly unreliable narrators I've ever read. She is the perfect product of her time and circumstance, ravaged by the brutal abuse of a violent, drunken mother, but forced to conceal both her injuries and, more importantly, their cause from the people of their judgemental, God-fearing provincial town. Vivien's return completely unhinges Ginny. Turns out the family wasn't so blind after all and, indeed, might just have been forced to take extreme steps to protect her. It all becomes too much for the unfortunate recluse, her life shown up as a pathetic lie, and so she is compelled to exact revenge. If you found V. C. Andrews or early Ian McEwan dark, you ain't seen nothing. Get your hands on this book - a thriller with serious literary flair.

What Would Peter Andre Do?: The Mile High Book Club

on Thursday, April 15, 2010
Just moments after I landed at Aman airport, I knew I was in some sort of magical dreamland. There, with its bright sign glaring in my eyes at the crack of dawn was my own private Mecca... Shawarmarama! Yes, a fast food airport 'restaurant' dedicated to the finest snack the Middle East has to offer. I love how they manage to make it all catchy consumer buzzwordy and am almost tempted to put my vegetarianism on hold to try the tender lamb goodness. But I didn't come here to snack. I came here to book shop! (Well, actually, to be precise I came here because this was the cheapest way to get to Israel - business class on Royal Jordanian costs less than economy on El Al. And the flight attendants aren't abusive, steroid-infused, overbuffed, ex-army schmucks who would just as soon krav maga your face as give you week old chickpeas.)

It is almost as if the Jordanian gods of literature provision foresaw my Mile High Book Club challenge, calling their airport shop "Top 10 Books Cafe". The name, however, presented something of a problem. Each block of shelves had a bold sign with the words "Top 10 Books". There was no actual numbering so, given that Aman was my third airport, I had to use Middle Eastern logic to work out which book was at number three. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular form of reasoning, allow me to explain. As I have learnt from far too many visits to falafel stalls in Israel, the only logic to Middle Eastern consumerism is that there is no logic. Anything and everything is fair game. Pushing in line, grabbing random salads, shouting at other customers... it's all good. And there is still no guarantee you will end up getting what you want.

So there I stood in front of the most prominent shelf, surveying the rather random assortment of books on display. I figure numbers one and two were the two titles stacked on the top shelf. Second shelf, by the same logic, contained books three and four. Now, I'm not sure whether Jordan reads from right to left like Israel, or left to right. The two books on offer were Katie Price's latest ghostwritten blockbuster Paradise or Poppy Adams's Costa nominated debut, The Behaviour of Moths. As I pondered such promising alternatives I asked myself the one question any self-respecting Aussie would ask: What would Peter Andre do? Well, that made things rather easy. Katie Price (aka super skank Jordan)is Andre's ex-wife and their split has been anything but amicable. Indeed, Katie made Aussie Pete cry on British TV. On that basis alone I refuse to read a word that she has written, even if the only part of the book she actually did pen was her name (and even that I'm somewhat doubtful about).

I grabbed Poppy Adams's book and took it to the cashier. Gazing forlornly over his shoulder at Shawarmarama I handed over my dinars. And somehow ended getting a spinach and feta pastry thrown into the bargain.

So, book number three at the third airport: The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

Bustin' Caps in Bangkok: The Mile High Book Club

on Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Last time I flew Thai Airways, I was headed to Israel to tour with the band. We were typically boisterous, no doubt annoying to all those around us, and it was a great trip. When it came to booking this flight I insisted flying Thai again because, if nothing else, I remember the food being great. And so it was that Debbie and I boarded the plane to begin our journey. For the first step in my April challenge, The Mile High Book Club, I had my airport copy of the latest Underbelly stuffed in my backpack wedged somewhere between Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a sheath of unread correspondence and my pharmacy-worthy stash of medications. Being the nervous character that I am, I was dreading flying into a danger zone. Things had been hotting up with the red-shirts. I called my travel agent a few days beforehand and asked what my chances of getting to Thailand safely were. "Oh, you'll have no problem getting there," he replied. "I just can't vouch for your safety once you've landed". Great. I don't sleep on airplanes as it is. Buckle me up and bring on the chow. But the food was crap. I've become a vegetarian since that last time I flew. Back then it was some yummy prawn/fish curry thing. This time, unidentifiable stuff in Clag sauce. At least I had some ass-kickin', cap-bustin' Aussie gangsta expose to cheer me up. Until...

A review of sorts.

Three things I won't dispute.

1.The first Underbelly was genius because there had really been a crazy gang war in Melbourne. Alphonse Gangitano was shot dead two doors up from my grandparents. Mick Gatto killed Andrew "Benji" Veniamin around the corner from where I work. And Victor Pierce was shot dead in his car outside the supermarket two minutes from my place. Goddammit I was a major player! Like most of Melbourne's population I was downloading copies of the TV series from torrent sites because it wasn't allowed to be aired in this town lest it prejudice a jury in some ongoing court cases.

2.The second Underbelly was kind of cool. I spent much of my childhood up on the Victorian/New South Welsh border and I knew that it had been the mafia hub for much of the 1980's. I even knew some of the colourful characters, though not in their drug dealing, cement shoe fitting capacities. I was not fussed either way by Matthew Newton's ass.

3. King's Cross is filthy place and has, on a number of occasions, made for interesting literary fodder.

So here's the thing. Underbelly: The Golden Mile probably should have been good. It probably should have been exciting. And it most certainly should have been more than a pastiche of vaguely interesting tabloid pieces. Andrew Rule and John Silvester have unfortunately become complacent. Lazy even. They know their book will sell whatever trash they fill it with. Heck, there is a built-in 12 week advertising campaign, with the latest TV series airing as I write. Yet, whereas the first two Underbelly books were coherent tales, this is just an episodic hodge podge. I can't help but feel they wrote each chapter as an independent article, perhaps intending it for sale to the highest bidding newspaper. Incidents are often repeated. As are explanations of who each key player was. Either the authors think their readers are idiots, or... um.. Nope, that's it. Arguably the biggest problem with this book is that it was beaten to the punch almost fifteen years ago by the amazing series Blue Murder. Many of the episodes contained in The Golden Mile were much more grippingly dealt with in a TV show that, rather like the first Underbelly series, was banned in its home state. As I put the book down I wanted to pop a cap in its ass. Told you I was a major player!

I spent a great couple of days lazing in Bangkok. Didn't see any protests, though apparently a couple of bombs went off while we were there. Survived a brutal thai massage as well as several fantastic meals at street hawker stalls (there's something eminently enjoyable about being the only white guy in a cavern full of feasting thai people). And I managed to wade through the majority of The Magic Mountain. It all came to an end too quickly, and off we trudged back to the airport. Straight to the bookstore. Where Number 2 on the chart was...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo!!!! Yes. A free pass. Having already read it I could skip this one in the challenge and read something of my own choosing instead. I had Simon Lelic's Rupture in my backpack. Time to head off to Jordan.

Howler Monkeys and the Holocaust: Yann Martel's "Beatrice and Virgil"

on Tuesday, April 13, 2010
For years rumours have been doing the rounds about Yann Martel's "Holocaust book". I remember listening to an interview in which he discussed the difficulty of tackling the subject as a non-Jew. Credibility was always going to be an issue. As was the risk of causing large-scale offence where none was intended. The speculation surrounding the book in the lit world was quite interesting too. Last I heard, though to be fair this must have been around 2005, Martel intended to tackle the subject through allegory, using a monkey and a donkey as his protagonists. It was a proposition that must have had his publishers quaking in their boots, especially following the phenomenal success of his Booker Prize winning mush-fest Life of Pi. They had already scrambled to republish his first, fairly underwhelming novel Self and then quickly followed it with a collection of short stories. But in reality everyone was hanging out for whatever would come next. And there was a lot of hanging. Eight years to be precise. And for what? A bleak, dire Holocaust book about a monkey?

It takes considerably large cojones to alienate the throngs of feel-good nostalgia junkies who have bought first class tickets on your gravy train. Indeed, one could easily be tempted to pin a bravery award on Martel's jacket and send him on his merry way. However, Beatrice and Virgil is not just a brave book but a sublimely successful one. It isn't a Holocaust book in the traditional sense of the term, but rather a meditation on ownership of representations of the Holocaust. Now that most survivors have died it is, not to put too fine a point on it, the most morally complex and crucial question facing anyone who wishes to tackle the topic.

The book starts with the ponderings of Henry, a successful, prize winning author (um... thin veils people, thin veils) who spends five years writing a Holocaust book only to have it rejected by his publishers. So that accounts for five of the eight years, methinks. Henry is pathetically thin-skinned and pretty much gives away writing, opting to take his wife (and, later, kid) to an unnamed city where he can live in relative anonymity. Ever the gracious soul, he continues to answer fan letters from around the world that are sent to him via his publisher. Which is how he happens upon a segment from a strange script sent to him by an even stranger man. The script screams Beckett with its insular absurdity - Virgil and Beatrice discuss the nature of a pear. Also included in the package is a short story by Flaubert and a note from the sender requesting help. As luck (and authorial convenience) would have it, the sender lives in the same city as Henry and so, rather than sending one of his usual missives, Henry trudges off to the address on the envelope. The place is a taxidermy shop (as it should be in any good disturbing horror-esque work), owned by a reclusive, curmudgeonly old man. Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist explains, are an ass and howler monkey respectively. They are right there, stuffed, in the shop. The play isn't about anything. But he needs Henry to help him complete it. Why Henry? Well, of course, his big prize-winning book was about animals. He understood them. It is the second time disbelief must be suspended - why on earth would Henry agree to help this nutjob? For whatever reason, he does.

Slowly, the taxidermist reads sections of the play to Henry. It continues on its Godot-like way, but with a menacing undercurrent that Henry is sure hints at the Holocaust. Henry's wife, on the other hand, thinks Henry sees the Holocaust in everything. The topic is holding his entire life up. This time, however, Henry is right. Beatrice and Virgil's epic journey along "a shirt with stripes" is an act of escape. They have witnessed horrors. Or been victims of horrors. Perhaps, even perpetrators. They are trying to find a new language to discuss their experience. Here, Martel enters the realm of deep philosophical meditation. Who is this taxidermist that increasingly relies on Henry to write the play which answers the very question Henry had tried to ask in his rejected novel? Who can tell the story and in what form? Suddenly, a new character is thrust into the midst. It is a dead body. It has been there the whole time. Right under Beatrice and Virgil's noses as they pondered the various absurdities of life. Where did it come from? There is a backstory that the taxidermist hasn't revealed to Henry. Does this make the representation false? Or does it merely force Henry (and the reader) to recast all that has come before in a new light?

The last quarter of the novel takes an unexpectedly brutal turn. Violence, Martel suggests, will win. Or self-negate. Those left behind can only ponder the imponderable. Martel closes the book with twelve moral conundrums. They will force you to doubt yourself, who you are and how you live the story of your life. I'm sure that many of those who loved Life of Pi will give up on Beatrice and Virgil well before they come to the end. It is a great shame. Though terribly self-conscious in the literary sense, this is by far the better book.

The Mile High Book Club: The April Book Challenge

on Tuesday, April 6, 2010
This month my ongoing quest to force myself into uncomfortable literary terrain takes an unforeseen turn skywards. Indeed, circumstance, rather than a desire for humour or self-abasement, dictates the April theme. I shall be embarking on considerable overseas travel and I don't greatly fancy schlepping piles of books around the world. I do, however, still need to feed my addiction. It is only natural, therefore, that I subject myself to a month of airplane reads; those books one buys at airports, intended for travellers. and the readers of which we tend to snub our noses at in self-righteous mirth. That said, I am always intrigued by airport bookstore bestseller lists. One would assume that they would be replete with works of mindless escapism, and yet there is considerable diversity between countries. Sure, they always have Dan Brown/Steig Larrson/JK Rowling peppered throughout, but other than the obvious few, I am constantly surprised by the weighting towards regional gems. And so for April I am subjecting myself to the will of the international travelling masses with my challenge The Mile High Book Club. At each airport I will buy a book in the bestseller list. I will not, however, have the choice of which book I buy. Rather, at the first airport I will buy the book at number one, at the second it will be the book at number two and so forth. The only flexibility will be in whether it is in the fiction or non-fiction list.

Given that we are already a week into April, I have already begun the challenge. In Melbourne, as I set off on my travels with a backpack empty but for my almost-finished copy of The Magic Mountain, I headed straight to the shop and elbowed my way to the chart shelves. There, at number one on the fiction list, was Lee Childs's latest. I cringed. It looked big. I had sort of hoped to get away with short books so that I could squeeze in as many books of my own choosing in between. I darted around the other side, to the non-fiction shelf and there, like a gift from Alfonse Gangitano himself, was the third book in the Underbelly series, The Golden Mile. If the other two were anything to go by, Silvester and Rule's latest would be another chunk of quintessential gutter Australiana. What better send-off could I get. I grabbed the book, proudly marched to the counter, paid and stuffed it in my backpack. And so the adventure begins...

The Number One Book at the First Airport: Underbelly: The Golden Mile by John Silvester and Andrew Rule.

On Doublespeak, Lies and Literature

on Monday, April 5, 2010
So much for the power of inertia. March has sailed by and my posting has come to a grinding halt. Alas all is not lost. I completed the month's task of "Books I've Always Lied About Having Read" with a splash of added aplomb. As I made my through the list I found myself pondering other literary lies I have told, which led me to include another couple of books: Bulgakov's classic, The Master and Margarita, Paul Auster's debut The New York Trilogy and Thomas Mann's epic masterpiece The Magic Mountain. I also managed to sneak in a couple of non-list related books - Ian McEwan's new novel Solar, Friedrich Durrenmatt's creepy play The Visit and, for the sake of pure guilty pleasure, Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.

For the most part the March challenge gave me faith in my lit-radar. Although hailed as classics, many of the books I've lied about having read really weren't all that great. I was underwhelmed by authors and books I have previously trumpeted to the heavens in attempts to save (or gain) face - Adiche, Zusak, Bulgakov and, at the risk of doing the blog equivalent of when Jerry Seinfeld made out during a screening of Schindler's List, Anne Frank's diary. I don't intend to review them all here, but for what it's worth I want to wrap up a month of inactive blogging with a few brief thoughts on some books I now can truthfully say that I have read.

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
Forgive me Eric Arthur Blair, for I have sinned. Although I did rather enjoy your quackingly good fable of despotic swine I, for no reason I can rightly identify, always avoided your much-heralded speculative masterpiece. Indeed, I even went so far as to read the Russian precursor that you are said to have plagiarised and then, finding it frightfully boring, proclaimed at every possible opportunity a haughty certainty that I possessed some sort of hidden key to your creative inadequacy. Whenever I whinged about Zamyatin, I was invariably met with the question, "Yeah but have you read Orwell?". At which point, to my everlasting shame I would lie. "Yes, and Zamyatin was better." By the time that stupid TV show came and stole your name, I knew the snowball had reached avalanche proportions. I could not in good conscience walk into any bookstore and purchase the novel without feeling like a teenager in a porno store buying pictures of four-legged loving. All the while I was decrying the shameless commodification and misappropriation of the title - it was like portraits of Kafka on crockery in Prague or Che Guevara t-shirts hanging in the windows of designer stores. But I was wrong and, I will go so far as to say, an idiot. Nineteen Eighty Four is amazing. Sure, you might have pilfered the idea from a Russian sci-fi hack but you were so much the better writer that he almost ought to be apologising to you. Zamatyn has all the flair of a Siberian sleet storm. You took his unrelenting drudgery and taught us all a lesson. And that ending... genius! This book, more than any other I read during the March challenge taught me that not only can pride sometimes be swallowed, but on the rarest of occasions it even taste good!

The Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger
A few weeks after Salinger died, I wrote about the hullabaloo surrounding the contents of his safe. I pondered the possibility of a lost novel or some more short stories, trumpeting the superiority of the latter over the one example we have of the former. I implied I had read all his meagre published works. It was something I was to do time and again over the weeks that followed, in all sorts of situations. During rehearsals for a play I was in, one of the other cast members came up to me and asked whether I had read Catcher In The Rye. I said that I had. "Isn't it the greatest book ever?," she followed. "Well, it's alright. Good. But hardly the best ever," I replied. God forbid anyone might have read an iconic book that I have not! Especially one that was suddenly back in the headlines. So much has been written and said about Catcher in The Rye that I assumed I knew enough simply through cultural osmosis. Now, having actually read the book I wish I could go back in time to when that fellow cast member proclaimed it the best ever and reply, "No!" It's pretty good. It's perfectly readable. And I'm sure it was dynamite at the time of its publication. But let's face it, Holden isn't some poster boy for disaffected youth. He's an annoying whinger, running away from a serious family tragedy who needs a good slap in the face with a wet, flaccid mullet. Take me to the fishmonger, Salinger acolytes!

The Dirt by Motley Crue
In my touring days, while everyone else was smoking weed, getting drunk or snorting blow off any available shiny surface, I would always be sitting in the corner reading. Sure, I had my vices, but my addiction was strictly of a literary kind. Occasionally, when supplies had run low and some poor schmuck was sent off to the bottleshop/pimp/dealer for a top up, people would try to make conversation with me to pass the time. I learned very early on in the piece that punk rock musicians as a whole had only ever read one book and that book was The Dirt by Motley Crue. Almost every conversation which began with "Whatchareeden?" turned to the glam rockers' exploits within three minutes. Now, if I was embarrassed that non-readers had read Catcher in The Rye and I hadn't, imagine my crushing shame whenever some drunken idiot with snot dribbling down their nose, pants half-fallen down and breath reeking of so many spirits that I suspected their mouth might have contained one of Dante's rings of Hell, could rattle off episode after memorable episode from the glorious rock n' roller's bible which I had never even bothered to skim. Thankfully these recurrent conversations caused me to know most of the stories and so pretty soon I could hold my own in any conversation that arose. But nothing prepared me for actually reading this testament to depravity. The Dirt is every bit as jaw-droppingly disgusting as legend would have it. And I mean that in the best possible way. How the members of that band are still alive is nothing short of astonishing. And I can safely say to everyone who I ever shared a backstage area with, we were all pretenders. And nobody else will ever be able to rise to the throne because Motley Crue well and truly trashed the palace. It may not be literature, but The Dirt is a true revelation.