Books That Bullied Me at School: The Moral Sledgehammers

on Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Sometime fairly early on in my school captaincy, I was called into the headmaster's office and given a stern dressing down over my tendency to speak my mind on contentious political issues (mainly relating to Israel) at community gatherings. As a representative of the school, he said, I was expected to tow the party line of unequivocal support. Criticism, to put it crudely, was for the anti-Semites. "The solution is simple," I remember him saying. "Just shut your mouth." It was a peculiar position for the school to take given that, over the previous twelve-odd years, Mt Scopus had done its level best to instil in me a strong sense of, and passion for, social justice. Yet, the flaming of our moral consciences was an uneven affair, something I have only come to realise in retrospect. And nowhere is it better laid out than in the two English texts set (I think in Years 10 and 11, though I'm not sure), Montana 1948 and Let The Circle Be Unbroken.

Like many of the novels I have revisited for the Books That Bullied Me At School challenge, I remember only scant details. However, I clearly recall the searing effect both these books had on my young mind. In fact, if any single scene stands out from any book I read back at school it is the one of Cousin Bud, in Mildred Taylor's Let The Circle Be Unbroken, being set upon by the gang of white youths and forced to undress in front of his teenage daughter. It was the first time that I bore witness, outside the context of the Holocaust, to a man being completely stripped of his dignity and it caused me to have what probably remains my most visceral reaction to a book ever. Anger wrestled with despair. I wanted to reach into Taylor's world and tear those hooligans' hearts out.

I purposely left this category until last because I remember having loved both these books and wanted to end the challenge on a high. I'm glad to say that I was not disappointed. Both stand up brilliantly. Montana 1948, Larry Watson's devastating examination of rural American bigotry seen through the eyes of a small town sheriff's son is a coming-of-age novel where maturity is heralded by an earth shattering slap in the face. Little Davey, however, is merely a bystander - it his father, Wesley, for whom one feels sorry. He is essentially a good man who finds himself in an untenable position. Having cast aside his lofty dreams of a legal career to follow in the family tradition of becoming sheriff, he is trying to make the best of a disappointing life. It is an uneventful affair until it becomes apparent that Wes's brother, the prodigal son, war hero and now local doctor, has been raping young Indian women in town and on the nearby reservation. When one of them (who coincidentally is Davey's nanny) threatens to speak out, he murders her and Wes is forced to choose between family and justice, neither of which are forgiving mistresses. In what I consider to be something of a cop out on Watson's part, the choice is ultimately made for him, but he is destroyed nonetheless. It is a powerful message for a mid-teen mind - paternalism towards 'natives' only goes so far and it doesn't take much to strip away the veneer of civility and show the true colour of colonial brutality.

Let The Circle Be Unbroken is even more caustic in its indictment of institutionalised racism. From the show trial at its beginning, where a black teenager is put to death for a crime he didn't commit, to the hatchet job on Cousin Bud's dignity, it pulls no punches. Yet The Colour Purple this ain't. What our teachers failed to bring to our attention was the ghost of Upton Sinclair that marches proudly between almost every line. Indeed, Let The Circle Be Unbroken reminded me more of The Jungle than anything by Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, with its harrowing depictions of the trampling on workers' rights and violent suppression of any attempts to unionise. This was post-Depression deep south USA, where the economy was still in the dumps. The New Deal was a farce. The story of Stanley setting out to find work only to be ruthlessly exploited in the sugar fields was every bit as heartbreaking as when Cassie is dragged away from the "Whites Only' drinking fountain or Mrs. Annie Lee is mocked at the town hall when she tries to register to vote. On rereading Let The Circle Be Unbroken I now see that Mildred Taylor was so much more than my teachers ever gave her credit for. It was an opportunity lost, or at least only partly realised.

So here's the thing. Both these books were great but to a school for Jewish Australians, a decent proportion of whom came from South Africa, they were only subtle hints; allusions to injustices that had been done 'over there'. Where were the books of S. Yizhar or David Grossman? What about Coetzee, or Gordimer or Brink? And where were Gary Crew, Xavier Herbert or even Thomas Keneally to set us on the path of righting the wrongs done to indigenous Australians? Apparently the lesson of social justice needed to be taught without recourse to anything that might cut too close to the bone.

It is as if we were all dragged into the headmaster's office that day...

Books That Bullied Me at School: The Shrimps on the Barbie

on Friday, June 25, 2010
There was a long, blue corduroy cushion that stretched half the length of my primary school library. It was known to all as The Bookworm, for its body lay coiled in an "S" shape and some thoughtful biddy had stitched a grinning cartoon face to one end. Each week, from Grade 2 until Grade 6, my class would be led past the Mechano-esque steel racks to take our seats on The Bookworm and have the latest kid-lit phenomenon read to us by our teacher. I always made sure I sat in the middle. I was petrified the thing would spin around and, with viper like swiftness, eat me. For others it was more bed than seat. And then there were those for whom The Bookworm was a glorified tissue, as they eagerly picked their noses and wiped it in the corduroy valleys. It was upon this mucous wasteland that I was first introduced to the wonders of Australian literature.

One day, rather than taking her usual seat up the front, our teacher wheeled across a TV and inserted a video into the bulky box of a player. We were overjoyed - our primary teachers invariably had one of two annoying habits when they read to us. They spoke in either a monotonous drone or with patronising zeal. Equally torturous. But on that fateful day the wonder of television, something that many of us weren't allowed to watch too often at home, had come to our rescue. The film was Storm Boy and I was in awe. The gorgeous story of a young boy struggling to reconcile his quiet life with the expectations of society, and Mr. Percival, a pelican the boy rescues after its mother is shot, can still choke me up after almost twenty-five years. That day I think I single handedly soaked The Bookworm with my tears. Whatever, it needed a wash anyway. I immediately hit the Mechano shelves and grabbed the novel by Colin Thiele, astounded that something so close to home could have such a profound effect on me.

Why, oh why, then did Mt Scopus have to go and ruin it all? I wish I could say it all came crashing down with a thunderous bang, but in reality my Year 7 Australian English text tumbled like the proverbial tree in the forest with no-one around to hear. I was at dinner a few nights ago, a reunion of sorts, when the conversation turned to this blog. Yes, I even bore my friends with this crap in the real world. Anyway, a friend piped up, "What about Arkie Gerhardt?" It was an epiphany for him. The rest of us around the table had no idea what he was talking about. He then went on to describe Simon French's All We Know to a wall of blank faces. "You must add it to your list. Find it." Thanks to an internet call-out, and an old friend who apparently hordes school books even more fanatically then me, I was able to revisit this chunk of literary beige for The Books That Bullied Me at School challenge. In telling you here, I also serve to remind myself. All We Know is a thoroughly unremarkable book. There is nothing that makes it especially Australian. Worse still, it plays to every terrible pre-teen cliche imaginable - the broken home, the onset of puberty, sibling rivalry, bullying, the transition to high school, childhood cliques... you name it! And the saccharine sweet message of holding onto your memories (represented here by Arkie's love of photography), but growing beyond them made me want to jab my insulin pen into the front cover. I wish I could tell you what it was about but, well, it ain't about jack. It is a slice of everyday life that could well have taken place in any city at any time in the past three decades. To be fair, Simon French is a great Australian children's author. It's just a shame our teachers had to go and spoil him for us by giving us his one real dud.

The cultural cringe must have set in for both students and teachers alike, for it wasn't until Year 11 that we were given another Australian book to study. This time it was Ruth Park's much-loved The Harp In The South which, as I recall, was met with general indifference. It left very little of a mark on me. I remember the unwanted pregnancies. I remember twelve and a half Plymouth Street, Surry Hills. And, most of all, I remember the kindly shopkeeper Lick Jimmy, if only because we used to relish the mocking transliteration of his speech. It really spoke to the close-minded intolerances of sixteen year-old children. But I can't remember a great deal more. When I set out to reread it for this month's challenge, I went in with an open mind, fully aware that I might just have been too immature to appreciate it. Turns out I was right, sort of. The Harp In The South is a Dickensian slice of old Australiana, with all the nastiness, bigotry and glorious political incorrectness that such a sobriquet implies. Unfortunately, it often verges on the hackneyed and has aged badly. As an historical text, both in terms of what Australian writing used to be and how working class Sydney folk once got about, it remains of some interest but it certainly won't go down as the great Australian novel. Even my grandmother would cringe at some of its cheesier passages.

By the time I hit Year 12, I had developed a violent aversion to Australian literature. It certainly didn't help that I was eagerly engrossing myself in a Czech heritage to which I had only just found an entree. His name is Karel Capek. Check him out if you get the chance. Back at school, I was set to do myself one of the great disservices of my life; I was to pay the shortest of shrifts to George Johnston's classic novel of Depression-era Melbourne, My Brother Jack. And it would not be until this week, some fifteen years later, that I would realise my mistake. With neither the bland universality of All We Know or the parochial tweeness of Harp In The South, this Miles Franklin winning masterpiece brims with a gritty, hopeful Australian spirit. Far from making me hide with embarrassment in the corner, its local Melbourne setting anchors it in a way that seems both relevant and meaningful to my life. Davey Meredith, Johnston's thinly-veiled alter ego, is a divining rod for the blood that coursed through my home town between the wars. His brother Jack embodies the gruff but good hearted Australian masculine ideal - the soldier, the tinker, the rebel, the family man. As Davey ascends the journalistic ladder, allowing him to escape the ravages of the Depression, Jack does it tougher, but always with a no-nonsense persistence. The prose is worldly but distinctly Australian, elegantly woven like the back streets of Melbourne. I was a fool to snub my nose at this exceptional book all those years ago, poisoned by arrogance and destined to ignore Australian literature for almost a decade. And now a crisis... have I similarly misjudged Bryce Courtenay? Thanks a lot Arkie Gerhardt!

At Interval, A Death: Jose Saramago 1922 - 2010

on Saturday, June 19, 2010
Jose Saramago, the great porcupine of modern literature, has died and I'm not quite sure how to feel. I have written previously about my struggle to separate the man from his work. He was cantankerous, opinionated and, unfortunately, ill-informed on a number of issues with which he chose to so passionately engage. While I kind of admire the first two traits in a public intellectual (and in fact share his left leaning ways), the third produced some cringeworthy moments that peppered the latter part of his life. Why, then, do I choose to be wilfully blind to these personal inadequacies? I like to think it's because he never let his politics seep into what he wrote. He might have been an angry man off the page, but between those covers he was more akin to the great fabulists of yesteryear. His books are humane, warmhearted, quirky and challenging and will undoubtedly stand tall long after everyone has forgotten what a total shit he was.

I am embarrassed to admit that my first encounter with Saramago was in 1998, when he won the Nobel Prize. I make a point of reading at least one book by each year's winner, a practise that for the most part has seen me throw my hands up in exasperation at the crap those numbskulls at the Swedish Academy choose to recognise (Elfriede Jelinek anyone?). But when it came to Saramago I instantly fell in love. I adored Blindness, even if it borrowed a little too heavily from Camus's The Plague, and felt I had to read as much as I could by this wonderful writer. Luckily, Saramago was prolific and became ever more so as he got older. Barely a year would pass without a new novel appearing which, for me, was a cause for celebration. I ordered each one long in advance and would drop whatever I was reading the day it arrived. Even as I write, I have The Elephant's Journey on order and can't wait until it is released in September. Naturally, Saramago suffered the usual post-Nobel slump, churning out a few lesser works (The Cave, The Double, Seeing), but seemed to have just regained his powers. His most recently translated novel, 2005's Death At Intervals, was as good as anything he produced in his early days.

This year has already seen the publication of two non-fiction books. I wrote about Small Memories, Saramago's disappointing memoir of his youth, a few months back. Sitting on my bookshelf is the other work, an assortment of brief, reflective, polemic musings called The Notebook which I am scared to start. I have no desire to confront his prickly all-too-human quills again. Thankfully, I won't be forced to read The Notebook as his last will and testament. He has two novels that have yet to be released in translation, the aforementioned The Elephant's Journey and Cain (which, upon its publication in Portugal massively irked the local clergy, and caused a furore that would have been funny had Saramago not thrown in some spiteful anti-Semitic comments in his attempt to defend the book). There are also another ten or so early works that never appeared in English and that I hope come out - one each year - so that I might have the privilege of continuing to hear his gentle voice. It's sad he's gone, but at least he can no longer piss me off.

Books That Bullied Me at School: The Weepies

Some kids are born with a love of books. Others, well... not so much. While my brother karate-kicked, sprinted and race-walked his way through childhood, I was, according to Mum, perfectly happy just sitting in a corner with my face buried in the latest Encyclopaedia Brown or Agatha Christie. Frankly, I remember it differently. Sure, I might have read a few books, but I spent most of my time dressing up as a superhero or ninja and making D-grade home movies (often musicals) with my equally nerdy friends. Hopes of Hollywood were dashed, however, when I raided mum's closet and dressed up as Frank N' Furter only to have Dad refuse to film my full re-enactment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Apparently there was such a thing as too far, even back then. Well, I guess I'll just stick with mum's version. For my literary dignity's sake.

So, as I was saying... I was a voracious reader as a kid. No question. I greedily devoured anything and everything I could lay my grubby little mitts on. It's all I ever did, irrespective of what those grainy Hi-8 videos might show. By the time I reached high school I fancied myself a proper bookworm, not like the other schmoes in my class, and was insulted by the dross my teacher expected me to read. I cared so little about our Year 7 text that, when I got to writing the list for this month's Books That Bullied Me At School challenge, I came up totally blank and had to leave it out. Even when my friend Ariel reminded me that it was Betsy Byars's little known (and long-out-of-print) novel The House of Wings, I can't say it rang any bells. "You know," he said, "the one about the boy and his grandfather and the crane. Sappy crap. Nothing happens." It was only when I received a second-hand copy from Abebooks and saw the cover that it began to seem vaguely familiar.

Turns out there was good reason for my having suppressed any memory of this flailing flapper. The book is lamer than the stupid blind crane at its heart. The plot is pretty much exactly as Ariel remembered it. Except he forgot to mention that it happens over the course of a single day and is about as plausible as any twelve year old child actually liking it. The injured bird as metaphor for a grandson's love is clunky. Both the crane's survival and Sammy's backflip in the face of abandonment by his parents beggar belief. Betsy Byars doesn't seem to regard a child's resentment and anger as legitimate and allows emotional bait and switch to easily win them over. The message, I think, is that adults know best and kids should fall in line. Classic paternalistic propaganda. Here's the thing. Those educational bureaucrats sitting in their cubic zirconia palaces have a responsibility to find age-appropriate books that challenge kids who already read and convince those that don't that reading is a worthwhile pastime. The House of Wings does neither. It is a twee, weepy and insultingly simplistic piece of twaddle with a bratty kid I seriously wanted to throttle, a grandfather I hoped would die and a crane that belonged in a soup. With celery.

No wonder I so vehemently resisted Mrs. Auster's attempts to get me to read the Year 8 text, Bridge To Terabithia. Only one year down and Mt Scopus already didn't have a great track record when it came to recommending books. At home I was ripping into Stephen King and Dean Koontz and had no interest in some charming tale of childhood friendship between outcast kids who resort to inventing imaginary kingdoms. Unless, of course, the kids would be set upon by giant flesh-eating spiders and the kingdom turned out to be one of Dante's circles of Hell. I don't remember if Mrs. Auster resorted to bribery or blackmail but I did eventually read the damn book (an official term coined by Daniel Day-Lewis in our Year 12 visual text, My Left Foot). And so it was that, in 1989, a thirteen year old Bram ended up crying the entire way through a winter's night as a young friendship was formed and then tragically lost in a swollen creek. I turned up to class with my tail between my legs and admitted that the book was okay. It was my greatest high school defeat.

Since that day Bridge to Terabithia has twice experienced a resurgence in popular kiddie culture. The first was obliquely, in the 1992 film My Girl starring a very cute Anna Chlumsky and an as-yet-unspoiled-by-Michael Jackson Macaulay Culkin. It wasn't a literal adaptation of Katherine Paterson's book, but it was close enough for me to see the derivation. Then, a couple of years ago they actually made a proper film of the novel, complete with tacky CG effects. I never saw it, partly because I was afraid of sobbing in a cinema full of kids, but from what I heard, Lord of The Rings it certainly was not.

As I dredged through the dark recesses of my brain for the various Books That Bullied Me at School, Bridge To Terabithia proved one of the few fond memories. I was hoping that, like I Am The Cheese, it would stand the tests of time and maturity. It didn't. In fact I struggled to find what had moved me so greatly when I was a kid. Okay, so the outcast kids find solace in one another. And they get a little puppy that they seem to think is like Falkor from The Neverending Story. Their confidence grows and they strike back against the school bully, only to find out that she is suffering far more than them. It is all very touching. And then the girl drowns. Sweet. Like treacle. But hardly a timeless classic.

Which leads me to the last of my so-called weepies, a book that has also been butchered in film (the horrible Richard Gere pukefest Sommersby) and on stage (The House of Martin Guerre). I might not have forgotten about it in the same way as I did The House of Wings, but I certainly didn't remember Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre in any substantive way. Otherwise it wouldn't have ended up in this category. Based on a true story from the 1600's, the novel tells of Bertrande de Rols whose husband goes off to war, disappears for five years, and then returns a changed man. New Martin takes on almost saintly proportions, suddenly becoming an attentive husband and father, responsible townsman and all-round good guy. There is, however, one slight problem. As Bertrande suspects, new Martin might not really be her husband at all. Oops.

I wish I had ignored the way it was taught - a story of romance and torn loyalties - because on rereading this novel I was absolutely blown away. The impostor Arnaud du Tilh is one of the greatest cads of all time. He is a dirtier, more rotten scoundrel than both Michael Caine and Steve Martin combined. Far from weeping, Arnaud had me laughing out loud at his magnificent chutzpah. Sure, he was a petty criminal, but he was a darn side nicer than the original Martin who, in my humble opinion, could have done with a lancing in the nuts. One could hardly blame Bertrande for ignoring her suspicions for three years. And what a horrible price her conscience paid when, in a great travesty of justice, Arnaud was executed. The Wife of Martin Guerre really goes to show that a kid's opinion of a set school text will depend greatly on the way in which it is taught and that that sometimes the interpretation dictated by those who set the curriculum is severely limited. And to think, I might actually have enjoyed studying for my final English exams. At last, a tear.

Books That Bullied Me at School: The Plays

on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
About half way through year 10, my friend and old bandmate Alon Raskin got booted out of English during a heated pubescent debate on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Unlike me, whose time spent outside Mrs. Ben David's Hebrew classroom was arguably deserved (I had thrown a desk at a student who was bullying me, though I maintain that being referred to repeatedly as "that creature outside the door" was a little harsh), Alon's great sin was recognising that, as another friend recently put it, Old Will was a dirty, dirty boy. Yes, in a conservative Jewish school he dared suggest to an even more conservative (and ageing) Catholic teacher that Portia's comment to Brutus "upon my knees I charm you" was a reference to oral sex. The old marm was furious, turned bright red and gave Alon his marching orders. That's pretty much all I remember about the play that introduced me to Stratford-upon-Avon's great bard.

At that time I was enamoured of the 'idea' of theatre. Since entering high school I had longed to play a role in the school musical and just before the Alon incident had finally realised my dream... albeit in an underwhelming fashion. True, I had already been a stagehand in Years 8 and 9, handing props to nerve-addled acne factories before they treaded the boards to soak up the adulation of their grandparents. But now I had sort of hit the big time. Okay, I was hoping for a lead role in year 10 (the first year I was allowed to be on stage) but was still chuffed to be cast as Tree Number 4 in Babes in Arms. After all, I had one line. I was a star. My grandparents thought I was awesome.

Back in ancient Rome, however, I was struggling with Julius and his backstabbing friends. Not to mention the frontstabbing ones. As I said, I don't remember a great deal about the play other than the quotes that are firmly entrenched in popular culture - "Et tu, Brute?" and the like. Or the ones we fat people use to taunt those with a more svelte build - "Yond Cassius has a mean and hungry look... such men are dangerous". And, of course, the ones that have been plucked from the play's page and bludgeoned by many a father of the groom/bar mitzvah boy - "Friends, Romans, Countrymen; Lend me your ears..." which is, without fail followed by a pause and then, "I promise to give them back in a few minutes (chortle chortle)." I didn't know what to expect when I decided to read it again in June's Books That Bullied Me At School challenge. I sort of expected to be nonplussed, to see it as a speedbump on my road to Macbeth. I even tried to leave it off my list. However, I'm glad to say that that I delved back in to this greatly underrated Shakespeare tragedy. It was immense and unexpected pleasure that I lost myself in the rhythm of the words and the dastardly political intrigue of the plot.

We might have picked over every sparkling word of Julius Caesar at school but for some reason nobody thought to point out a rather important message behind the shenanigans - it is a powerful moral philosophical tract on democracy. Those who partook in the plot to kill Caesar did so, for the most part, with noble motives. There were some petty jealousies assuaged and past wrongs righted, but the senators killed him for the good of Rome. Brutus was not the villain my teacher made us believe, but a complex, tortured soul who loved his country and came to realise that it was damned whatever happened. And seeing as we stopped studying it at the conclusion of Antony's address at Caesar's funeral, we missed the misfortune that was visited upon each of them in turn. Oh, and for what it's worth, Alon was right. Portia totally blew Brutus to stop him from leaving on that fateful night.

The following year, my acting career was to reach its pinnacle. I got the comic lead in our school production of Anything Goes. I won the best actor award in the school house play competition for my portrayal of Inspector in Tom Stoppard's Cahoots Macbeth. Suddenly there was more to stagecraft that learning to tap. I loved Stoppard. I loved Peter Shaffer's Equus. Heck, I suddenly even loved Shakespeare. Especially the ones I hadn't read.

The Year 11 dramatic text was Macbeth and I came to it with a sense of all-knowing smugness that I flaunted wantonly to my classmates. Looking back, I remember loving it (the play that is, though also the smugness). All that crap about witchcraft, murder and stain removal really floated my boat, so I was really looking forward to going back for this month's challenge... and... you guessed it. I feel a bit let down. From the early line "Is this a dagger which I see before me", it really just goes to prove that if your only tool is something sharp, all your problems will seem best solved with a good stabbin'. It also doesn't speak well of women in general - I might be reading it wrong but it seems overly misogynistic what with the females either being badgering psychotic harpies or witches. On the flipside, in this post Masterchef world, it does have some pretty kick ass recipes though I don't know how easy it is to find a dragon's tooth or the liver of a blaspheming Jew these days. I don't mean to sound flippant, or to say it isn't still really good but I just did not enjoy it as much as Julius Caesar. I guess that's what fifteen years of perching atop a pedestal does for a play.

Unless, of course, that play is Arthur Miller's incredible masterwork The Crucible. I certainly remember having loved it when we studied it in Year 12, but I had forgotten just how phenomenal it was until I reread it for this challenge. I would not be exaggerating if I were to posit that The Crucible played a pivotal role in forming my passion for social justice. I was already swinging fairly severely to the left, but Arthur Miller harnessed all those thoughts that were exploding in different directions from my teenage brain and channelled them in a way I don't think I could have on my own. Now, in our age of paranoia about terrorism, it ought once again to be a canonical text. No single piece of literature warns so headily against the tyranny of coarse idealogical zealotry, whether it be religious or political or whatever. The Crucible is peopled with small minds running amok, townsfolk who feast on their newfound ability to destroy their enemies, no matter how petty the source of acrimony. Opportunism is rampant. And, of course, the weak crumble first, are victimised, but the monster grows until it consumes the most pure of heart. Miller was commenting on McCarthyism but the themes can equally be carried across to any of the great 'scares'. Few quotes can be as damning for our times as that of the poor, misguided Reverend Hale, instigator and later panicked retractor of the witchcraft craze: "Beware Goody Proctor - cleave to no faith when faith brings blood". It is a call for compassion and level-headedness, to be shouted at the top of one's lungs and directed at both sides.

I am glad The Crucible exceeded my expectations. It almost makes up for my theatrical fall from grace in Year 12. Sure, I had two lead roles in the school musical (Daddy Brubek and Vittorio Vidal in Sweet Charity) but my return to the house plays as Everyman was met with stony indifference by the judge, Pip Mushin. I could not be awarded the "Best Actor" trophy because, as he told the audience at the prize giving ceremony, he had also once played Everyman and he had done it so much better. I did, however, get a "Special Mention". Well, sixteen years later he gets a special mention here. Schmuck. Revenge, as someone apparently once said, is a dish best served cold...

The June Challenge: Books That Bullied Me At School

on Wednesday, June 2, 2010
One of the greatest joys of last month's stupidly titled challenge was revisiting Robert Cormier's young adult classic I Am The Cheese. Sixteen odd years (and about as many rereads) after having first been forced to study it in Year 9, it not only stands the test of time but actually gets better with age. Wish I could say the same for all the other crap they shoved down my throat at school. Insipid weepies, hokey dramas, parochial Australian claptrap... My skin crawls just thinking about them. But what if, and this is just a thought, what if I was wrong? Perhaps I never gave them a chance, caught up as I was in pointless teenage rebellion. I always knew better. The books I was reading at home were infinitely smarter, deeper, more enjoyable, (fill in your own hyperbolic exultation here) than their supposed 'classics'. Plus, everyone knows that there is no better way to ruin a good book than forcing a kid to overanalyse it.

Having hopefully descended from the lofty pretensions of my youth, I figure it's time to go back and read the books I studied in high school and judge them on their merits. Thus, the theme for June: Books That Bullied Me At School. Rather than review each book on its own, I will put them into vaguely thematic groups: The Tear Jerkers, The Plays, The Moral Sledgehammers and The Shrimps on the Barbie. This not only saves me from writing (and you from reading) too many stupid forced flippancies, but will also give me the chance to go back to some more general topics that have been playing on my mind of late.

Anyway, here's what they made kids read at Mt. Scopus Memorial College between the years of 1988 and 1993:

The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The House of Wings by Betsy Byars (if I can find a copy!)
Julius Caeser by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Let The Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor
Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
The Harp In The South by Ruth Park
My Brother Jack by George Johnston

Special thanks go to Elissa for suggesting the theme for this month. Guess it's time to pull out the old school blazer and get reading...

Lists Are For Suckers: A Recap

on Tuesday, June 1, 2010
When I set out at the beginning of May to read through my top twelve books of all time, I suggested that lists of this nature were inherently arbitrary and ridiculous. Turns out I was right. Of the twelve, only eight or nine really stood the test of time and, of those, very few stayed in the same place on the list. The Solzhenitsyn, Ungar and Bjorneboe books, whilst still being excellent, were disappointing. I think I liked what they represented, which I'm a little embarrassed to admit was, above all else, a tangible manifestation of my literary arrogance (much like the obscure Sound of Music inspired title I gave the challenge). The only real regret I have is that I didn't get to reread a few other books that I know I loved and that would probably have made it into the top ten. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, War With The Newts by Karel Capek, Baddenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld, Contempt by Alberto Moravia... There are so many that spring to mind.

So here, following a fantastic month of wanky self-indulgence, is my new top ten list of all-time:

1. The Trial by Franz Kafka
2. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier
3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
4. The Assault by Harry Mulisch
5. The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
6. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
7. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
8. The Postman by Antonio Skarmeta
9. Waiting For The Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
10. War With The Newts by Karel Capek (which arses its way in because I've pulled the other three from my list and it was the next in line)

I have also been asked to write a list of non-highbrow books for those who don't want to disappear further up their own arses with the turn of every page. As it was put to me, these are great books to read on the train on the way to work that aren't going to tax your grey matter and can be put down when you reach your stop. I feel it is my duty to stem the tide of Twilight and Dan Brown readers who seem to gather in hordes on our public transportation system. So, for those who asked, here's a top 10 of books that provide simple, unadulterated enjoyment without insulting the reader's intelligence (though some do verge on the lit-snobbish):

1. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
2. Misery by Stephen King
3. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
4. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
5. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
6. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
7. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
8. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
9. The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel
10. Binu and The Great Wall by Su Tong

I could go on listing forever but I'm keen to get started on the June challenge. See you tomorrow.

Dog Bite Degustation: Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"

Somewhere at the back of my closet lies a box full of old comics. G.I. Joe. Mad Magazine. Special Forces. Hardly a goldmine, but a yellowing stack of nostalgia nonetheless. My brother has a similar pile stashed away somewhere, though thanks to his keen sense of investment potential, it is both more extensive and, with the passing of the years, more expensive than mine. It's funny that we never threw them away. When we were kids we would go to America each summer to visit dad's family. The comic shops of LA were always a holiday highlight. I would make a mad dash for whatever crazy, gun-toting action dude was flavour of the month while Justin, far more discerning than I, would carefully sort through the racks, picking the ones that he knew would grow exponentially in value. Suffice to say the thrill for me was immediate and fleeting, so much so that I only have one clear memory of our comic book expeditions. Once we got stuck in a store for over an hour because the fattest guy I've ever seen got wedged in the doorway and had to be pried out by the fire department.

I was fortunate to be a kid on the tail end of the golden age of the comic book. It is a form that, in its simple manifestation, is dead, replaced by much more sophisticated, dark graphic novels and serials. Had I not still harboured a secret crush on those crappily-drawn mags at the back of my closet I probably would have passed over Michael Chabon's spectacular celebration of the men (and, to a lesser extent, women) whose artistic flair and vivd imaginations brought visual storytelling to a whole new level. You see, at the time it was published I was on strike against American literature. I didn't think there were any fresh voices worth listening to. A friend of mine handed me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and demanded that I read it. The book, he said, was about comics. And Nazi busting. And the Golem. Pretty much three of my great childhood loves. It was also nearly seven hundred pages long. Ouch. But he had never given me a bum steer when it came to books so I decided to don my old mask, cape and tights and take the plunge.

I would have never thought a book about the nerdiest literary indulgence would capture my heart in the way Kavaier & Clay did. The story of the two cousins, one typically American and the other very much a stranger in a strange land is beautifully sentimental without being trite, is exciting without descending into pulp and is courageous without ever preaching. I love Chabon's idea that tragedy and longing might inspire one of the great characters of that first amazing wave of comic book heroes. The dark undercurrent of Joe Kavalier hoping to rescue his family from the concentration camps, and the subsequent exploration of survivors guilt serve as a perfect foil for the bombastic adventure of his and Sam Clay's meteoric rise to stardom. Ditto, Clay's struggle with his sexuality at a time when being gay could spell the end of one's career. Clearly this book is about a lot more than cartoons, though the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of post-War popular culture shines through on many a page, sometimes a bit too brightly.

Michael Chabon almost single-handedly carries the torch passed on by the likes of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and even Isaac Bashevis Singer. His writing is unmistakably Jewish, with its juxtaposition of wise-ass humour and almost unbearable heartbreak but he is much more than a nasally voice from the Upper West Side. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay captures all that is great about the American cultural spirit - its pioneering drive, its sense of adventure and its multi-cultural effervescence. I demolished the six-hundred and fifty pages in two sittings. If I didn't need to go to work it would have been one.

I have had to stuff the mask, cape and tights back in my closet, atop that box of comic books, but I can't help but feel chuffed that I finished the Dog Bite Degustation challenge with a reading effort worthy of, well, The Escapist.