A Further Guide To Productive Time-Wasting

on Wednesday, March 27, 2013
While I'm busy doing shout outs, I figure I should throw one in the direction of Flavorwire (despite their use of the bastardised American spelling of flavour). Lately, they've been posting fantastic lit-related stuff, making for a splendid way to pass those few minutes between finishing one book and starting the next. Two in particular stand out:

For those of us fascinated by the early lives of our favourite authors, this series of childhood/teen photos is a must. Some give a strong indication of the subject's future (Samuel Beckett, Flannery O'Connor, Martin Amis), some are just plain wacky (Allen Ginsberg, Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood) and some... well... I'll just say that Toni Morrison and Mary Karr were absolutely stunning in their younger years! Now I figure I can trawl Awkward Family Photos and find my next favourite author.

If you've ever dreamed of learning from the greats, you will be intrigued to read some recollections from those who actually did. Students of Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace, W. G. Sebald and a whole bunch more reminisce about the good (and sometimes bad) ol' school days here. Just be sure to leave your green eyes at the door. (I should confess here that I strongly considered relocating to Adelaide when J.M. Coetzee moved there in 2002. The only thing that stopped me was finding out that he wasn't taking undergraduate students. Tempted as I was to be one of those fawning sycophants that chased him around campus, I suspected I'd be edging dangerously close to stalking so I left it be. A shame, really.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Audiobooks

Very rarely do I link to another blog or website, but I just found the coolest (read: nerdiest) thing on the whole Interwebs and needed to spread the word. If you're like me and you live for literature and music then you have to check out Christophe Gowans's absolutely awesome page The Record Books. Basically, it's a bunch of classic albums re-imagined as books. You only get the front covers but, even so, it's inspired brilliance. My personal favourites: Horses by Patti Smith, Surfer Rosa by The Pixies, Bad by Michael Jackson and Master of Puppets by Metallica. The only downside? The hours you'll waste cursing that these books don't actually exist!

Microviews Vol. 27: A Fine Crop of Cephalopods

on Sunday, March 24, 2013
The Seige In The Room by Miquel Bauca
Well spank me with a paprika-spiced octopus, but I simply couldn't warm to this collection of three novellas from the great rebel of Catalan literature. Starting with the completely impenetrable Carrer Masala, which got a whole heap of awards from people too afraid to admit they didn't understand what the crap was going on, it becomes mildly more readable with The Old Man and The Warden (I was particularly partial to Bauca's inversion of the captor/captive relationship in the latter). Alas, it is all word soup, and not the yummy stuff I found travelling through Spain.
2.5 Out Of 5 Salt Cod Croquettes

Harvest by Jim Crace
Like the Galilean of his amazing early novel Quarantine, Crace has spent a fair while lost in the metaphorical desert. Watching his literary decline was painful for this fanboy, so I was overjoyed to find that Harvest heralds not only a return to form but, arguably, a giant step forward. Crace charts the collapse of a small agrarian town so beautifully, so richly, that I truly felt invested in the plight of the struggling townsfolk. Full of petty rivalries, shifting allegiances, and acts of shameful violence (the treatment of three outsiders is particularly disturbing), Crace lays bare the darkest corners of human existence and shows its ultimate futility in the face of progress. Perhaps only Umberto Eco is capable of similarly immersive prose that perfectly captures time and place. A wonderful book and definite early contender for Book of the Year.
5 Out Of 5 Wild Boars

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divny
Any book that kicks off with a crotchety diatribe about the Dewey Decimal System is alright by me! From there on it's part history, part eulogy, part call to arms as a lowly librarian (she wanted to be a school teacher but failed the entrance exam) spews her monologue at an unsuspecting patron. Don't expect the sweetness the cover suggests - Divny's novella is bitter and indignant - but there is enough cheeky humour to offset what otherwise might just come across as nasty. A fun, minor amusement.
3 Out Of 5 Overdue Fines

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
There's no Judas, no Last Supper, not even an Immaculate Conception to be found in Toibin's sober retelling of the Jesus story. In a break from apocryphal tradition, Toibin has Mary (Mother, not Magdalene) reflect critically on the events leading up to the crucifixion. Angered by the ragtag bunch of misfits who call themselves Jesus's disciples, she dismisses their glorification of his 'miracles' with quite rational explanations. Ultimately, however, Mary is left to play the role of spectator, watching in despair as her son gets swept up in mass hysteria. To her he wasn't the messiah, nor a very naughty boy. He was just a decent kid who came to believe his own hype. I think I read somewhere what comes after pride...
4 Out Of 1 Loaves of Bread (see what I did there?)

Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! by Stephan Mendel-Enk
Judging from the puffery on the back cover, Mendel-Enk is Sweden's younger, flashier Philip Roth with a dashing of Woody Allen (and, I suppose, a bit less raw liver). Well, Woody need not rack up another neurosis. This tale of a dysfunctional Jewish family in Sweden, told from the perspective of its barmitzvah age nebbish, has moments of grace and pathos, even a couple of laughs, but there is nothing to lift it above the deluge of urban Jewish slice-of-life novels littering the contemporary landscape.
2.5 Out Of 5 Whinging Portnoys

Chinua Achebe: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

on Saturday, March 23, 2013
I was very saddened this morning to hear of the death of Chinua Achebe. Often called the grandfather of African literature (a descriptor that I find insulting, but never mind), he was undoubtedly one of the main players in bringing writing from that part of the world into the popular reading consciousness. I have only read two of his works - Things Fall Apart (of course) and A Man Of The People. Both were amazing. It is sad that it will take his death for me to delve further into the back catalogue. Luckily I have several more of his books on my shelf, including the last one published in his lifetime, a memoir of the Nigerian Civil War.

Although he never won a Nobel Prize, Achebe did win the second ever Man Booker International Prize. It might seem only a small consolation, but there is a strong case to be made for the International Booker being more meaningful given that it routinely picks much more deserving candidates than its Swedish counterpart (Ismail Kadare and Philip Roth, both of whom ought to have won the Nobel by now, have also been recipients).

Achebe was one of the last in a generation of great writers. Sad to say we are losing them faster than we are producing 'replacements'. His contribution to world literature cannot be understated, and at only 82, I suspect he still had much to tell us. Rumour has it there is still a novella to come. I hope that's right. I'm not quite ready to say goodbye.

The Great Genre Wormhole (A Missive From Where The Sun Don't Shine)

on Tuesday, March 19, 2013
I can't seem to shake the spectre of Genre-ary. Following a month of reading (and mostly being disappointed by) genre fiction, including some of the great canonical texts, I was left to ponder wether I have disappeared so far up some literary wormhole (that was the clean version) that I can no longer appreciate anything with a discernible plot. Or am I right to think that, while there are many wonderful, enjoyable distractions to be found out there, there are very few truly great genre novels?

I was speaking with a friend about this the other day, and he suggested that the great genre novels are merely great novels that happen to be situated within a genre. I'm not sure whether he was right, or whether we are such lit wankers that we are willing to accept disingenuous quasi-logic like that just to prove ourselves right.

To that end, I thought I might have a go at naming some of what I consider to be really top notch novels from a bunch of different genres. I'll leave it to you to decide whether their essence is in genre or whether it does a disservice to their greatness to tar them with the genre brush. I should add, this by no means purports to be a definitive list. It's just a few books that sprung to mind. Also, there is considerable overlap between the categories so my labels might not tally with your own. Whatever. Load up your tomatoes, folks. Here I go:

Favourite Sci-Fi
The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem (or pretty much any number of Lem books), Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and The Bridge by Iain Banks
Favourite Fantasy
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Favourite Mystery
An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears, Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell and And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Favourite Thriller
Fatherland by Robert Harris, The Silence of The Lambs by Thomas Harris and The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Favourite Crime
American Tabloid by James Ellroy, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and Along Came A Spider by James Patterson (yes, I went there!)
Favourite Horror
Misery by Stephen King, Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe and The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Favourite Romance
The Postman by Antonio Skarmeta (I know that's cheating)
Favourite Humour/Comedy
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh and The Princess Bride by William Goldman

And just outside the bounds of genre, but still on topic:
Favourite Biography/Autobiography
The Nightmare of Reason by Ernst Pawel and Damned To Fame by James Knowlson
Favourite Narrative Non-Fiction
The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester and Them by Jon Ronson
Favourite True Crime
Hunting The Devil by Richard Lourie and The Killer Beside Me by Ann Rule
Favourite Young Adult
I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

I'm also open to suggestions... and pasta recipes.

Microviews Vol. 26: The Watercolour Blurse

on Monday, March 18, 2013
Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman
Despite being Canadian, Kaufman is, to me, the American Dan Rhodes. Same charm, but with saccharine taking the place of the great Brit's malice. This tale of five siblings, each blursed at birth (given a blessing that manifests as a curse), is quirky enough but its charm wears thin as it devolves into a fairly standard road trip narrative. Turns out the brilliance of All My Friends Are Superheroes is proving Kaufman's own personal blurse.
3.5 out of 5 Little White Cars

Adam In Eden by Carlos Fuentes
Dirty political deeds lie at the heart of Fuentes's second last book, published three years before he died. Two Adams (the narrator and his arch nemesis) vie for political power and there is almost no low to which they are not willing to stoop. I missed the supposed comedy, but Fuentes certainly provides a disturbingly bleak insight into the rusted cogs of Mexican politics. A disenchanted, despairing novel.
3.5 out of 5 Mouldy Tacos

The Making Of... by Brecht Evens
My first foray into graphic fiction for 2013, The Making Of... is a brilliant lampooning of the art world rendered in stunning watercolour. Hack artist Pieterjan believes the hype when he is touted as a major star at a small town art festival. Ego inflated, he decides to build a giant garden gnome as the festival's centrepiece with disastrous results. Hilarious and tragic, if it weren't so damn bang on.
4 out of 5 Papa Smurfs

Exercises In Style by Raymond Queneau
In turns obsessive and absurd, Queneau's experimental masterpiece gets a new translation and expansion for its 65th anniversary. For those not in the know, it is the ultimate in style over substance; a brief, silly story told in over a hundred different ways. This edition includes Queneau's 1958 additional exercises plus a bunch of previously unpublished retellings. Icing on the cake - some of his modern disciples have a go at exercises of their own. Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Enrique Vila-Matas and Jesse Ball not only do justice to the master, but bring something excitingly contemporary to the party.
4.5 out of 5 Crowded Buses

First Novel by Nicholas Royle
At first I thought it a conventional campus novel but odd schisms cracked open the narrative to reveal a masterstroke of metafiction. Paul teaches a university course on first novels, having never progressed beyond his own. Adept at appropriating lives, he finds himself the victim of appropriation when one of his students hands in a story that eerily echoes his own past. Problem is, it suggests all sorts of horrible things: infidelity, acrimony and murder. An explosion of narrative threads sends Royle into stream of consciousness overdrive, but he manages to retain control and draws them back together in an act of literary acrobatics that must be read to be believed. One of my favourite books of the year thus far.
4.5 out of 5 Fight Clubs

Microviews Vol.25: Not Too Micro, Definitely View-y.

on Saturday, March 9, 2013
I'm don't know how I managed to read seven books this week (including the Coetzee, reviewed in full yesterday), but here goes:

Vlad by Carlos Fuentes
This playful novella that sees the great Count Dracula hiding out in Mexico is tighter, scarier, smarter and far less shmultzy than Stoker's tedious original. Such a shame that death beat Fuentes to a Nobel Prize. Even his minor dalliances were masterpieces.
4 out of 5 Dripping Fangs

The A26 by Pascal Garnier
Of the three Garniers I have read this year, this is by far the best (and that's saying something!). In The A26 he manages to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock with a tale so dark and twisted that I was generally frightened and repulsed throughout. Freed from the shackles of morality by a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Bernard finally gives in to his murderous desires. And he isn't even the most screwed up person in the novel. His sister, Yolande, is Mrs. Haversham, Irene Wournos and the Wicked Witch of the West rolled into one. Scarred by a romantic act of wartime complicity gone terribly wrong, she stays hidden in her decaying house progressively getting more deranged by the minute. Needless to say, nothing here ends well. This is one disturbingly brilliant little novel!
4.5 Out of 5 Rear Windows

The Neighborhood by Goncarlo M. Tavares
Saramago was so in awe of this guy's talent that he went on record as wanting to punch him in the face. Fair call, I say. The Neighbourhood is the first appearance in English of Tavares's wonderful Misters series, collecting six of the ten novellas thus far written (with another twenty nine apparently in the offing). Each one is a masterstroke of literary ventriloquism, using the style of each of the Misters (Calvino, Walser etc) to explore ideas of time, space, power and existence. The Neighbourhood is a sheer playground of delights and I, for one, can't wait to meets its other inhabitants.
4.5 out of 5 Cosmicomics

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Hamid returns with a peculiar novel of aspiration and corruption set in contemporary India. Presented as a self-help book, I couldn't get past the structural trickery that was a little too reminiscent of Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire) to differentiate it from the slew of better works on the same topic. There are moments that invited righteous indignation and even resigned tenderness, but like the business plan at the book's heart, it was all smoke and mirrors.
2.5 Out of 5 Beautiful Forevers

Digging People Up For Coal by Meredith Fletcher
I've yet to decide whether books I'm forced to read for work/research count but, in the meantime, a promise is a promise. Fascinating history of Yallourn, the SEC's short-lived fiefdom in Gippsland, which was set up to provide electricity to Melbourne. Having never previously given thought to the concept of a 'company town', this book is hauntingly Orwellian.
3 out of 5 Coal Mines

Jerusalam by Goncalo M. Tavares
First English taste of Tavares's other major project, a series of novels known collectively as The Kingdom, shows a much darker, less playful side to this amazing writer. A greatly diverse cast of (mostly unlikeable) characters, linked only by their previous association with the Georg Rosenberg Mental Asylum, find their lives once again on a collision course. A gripping, powerful exploration of the seamier side of humanity that, I suspect, packs an even greater punch when read in conjunction with the other books in the series.
4 out of 5 Cuckoo's Nests

J. M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus: Not Quite The Second Coming (But Pretty Damn Close)

on Friday, March 8, 2013
Since moving to Australia in 2002, prize magnet and notorious recluse J. M. Coetzee has been struggling with (and, for the most part, succumbing to) the artistic dampening that comes with contented hermitude. While he remains my favourite living writer, even I have to admit that his post-South African output has been of a different class altogether to novels such as The Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting For The Barbarians and Disgrace. Both Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man were middling dalliances of drudgery, while Diary of A Bad Year was a fascinating experiment, but hardly a raging success. It wasn't until 2009's Summertime, the final instalment in his autobiographical trilogy, that I could discern signs of a resurrection. It's ironic then, that the book that should properly herald his return is titled The Childhood of Jesus.

Released in Australia today, The Childhood of Jesus is Coetzee at his elusive, spare and philosophically challenging best. Time and place are of little consequence - we are told not where the story takes place (our only clue is that it is an island and its language is Spanish) nor when. Even the names of the main characters aren't their own - they have been assigned by a processing centre upon arrival. It is not clear whether they are refugees or immigrants. This all-pervading sense of dislocation gives the novel a brilliantly unsettling atmosphere; the island is Coetzee's own spin on utopia, but is distinctly dystopian.

The novel begins as Simon and his young charge David (the boy, we are told, is not his son, nor his grandson, but Simon is responsible for him nonetheless) arrive in the city of Novilla, having left the processing centre after several weeks of acclimatisation. Their initial goal is to find shelter, food and, in Simon's case, employment but it soon becomes clear that Simon has a much more important task in mind. He wants to find the boy's mother. As he makes clear from the outset, he does not know who he is searching for, but he will recognise her when he sees her. What follows is a semi-picaresque (no surprises that Don Quixote gets a few doffs of the cap), where man and boy learn the strange ways of a new home that proves both welcoming and hostile in equal measures.

Although comparisons with Kafka are inevitable - The Castle is clearly a reference point - I sensed a much less likely literary forebear hiding in the wings. Simon and David's cryptic conversations about the basics of life and society reminded me of the dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Similar elipsese, similar parlance. Apparently there are also parallels to be drawn with The New Testament (title aside, Jesus doesn't get an actual look in) but I'll leave those to the theologians among you. What I can say is that Coetzee revisits some familiar territory - questions of identity, ethical living (the episode with the dray horse is particularly touching), fear of the other and the purpose of telling stories - but has the benefit of age and distance to bring a new, even deeper spin to them.

When I first read the blurb on The Childhood of Jesus, I thought that Coetzee had finally found his new great injustice against which to rally. Living in Adelaide, he can hardly be impervious to the disgraceful treatment of refugees in this country. Having now read the book, I'm not quite convinced that it was anything more than a catalyst, if it was even that. Either way, something must have been getting his goat, because this novel shows that the The World's Greatest Author (In Anticipation of A Return To Form)TM has finally bucked the Nobel curse and found his feet in his new home. That's not to say the novel isn't without its problems. It is a tad overcooked and might have done well with a little excision (not that I envy the person who must suggest this to a notoriously difficult man). But as a return to form, as a novel of complex ideas, it is a definite success. Sure, it may not quite be at the standard of his classics, but The Childhood of Jesus is certainly worthy of Coetzee's reputation and your time.

4 out of 5 Nobel Prizes

Hanging Out The Shingle

on Thursday, March 7, 2013

(Just got my hands on the new Coetzee)

See you in a few hours...

Microviews Vol. 24: Woody Guthrie In Space

on Friday, March 1, 2013
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By by Georges Simenon
Remember that film Falling Down where everyman worker bee Michael Douglas has the meltdown to end all meltdowns? Well this is the stylised French version from the 1950s, complete with sex, murder and occasional good manners. A mesmerising portrayal of a man's descent into his own personal hell (not to be confused with Paris).
4 out of 5 Catherine Zeta-Joneses

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
I'm generally a sucker for novels about the Pinochet era, but this quiet, warm novella by Zambra lacks the emotional kick in the guts I crave from works of its kind. Questions of complicity versus complacency play out in this reflection on a thoroughly misunderstood childhood crush. A good, but vaguely unsatisfying, piece.
3 out of 5 Military Coups

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
This recently discovered novel by folk hero, champion of the downtrodden and troubadour extraordinaire, Guthrie is pretty much exactly what you would expect. A lyrical, though not wholly successful, hymn to those who scraped at the bottom of the dustbowl. Life takes swipe after swipe at a proud share-cropping couple whose only dream is to buy a small piece of land on which to build an adobe home. Think a less accomplished Steinbeck or Sinclair, with the added bonus of long descriptions of the protagonist's penis and you'll have some idea of what you're in for.
3.5 out of 5 Rolls In The Hay

The Explorer by James Smythe
Five astronauts on a mission to go further into space than anyone has ever gone before. Path to glory or suicide mission? From the outset it is clear that there is something very wrong here. No need for HAL. The humans are dangerous enough. The Explorer is a slow burn of a novel, with some straggeringly smart twists. Get on it and rejoice, fellow nerds!
4 out of 5 Space Odysseys

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Maybe I'm just too thick to get it, but I don't see what all the fuss is about. Saunders is a fine writer and there are flashes of brilliance in his latest collection of short stories (Home and Escape From Spiderhead spring to mind), but taken as a whole it doesn't add up to much. Disjointed po-mo posturing that flits a feather across the toes of the self-involved literati set while leaving the rest of us out in the cold. You may now line up to take shots at me.
2.5 out of 5 Infinite Jests