First World Reading Problems Vol. 1: Translation Constipation

on Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Translation Constipation (n): The anxious but seemingly fruitless wait for newly translated works by your favourite authors to be released into the swishing toilet of public consumption.

Without a doubt, my reading discovery of 2013 has been Goncalo M. Tavares. The guy is everything I look for in an author; funny, intelligent and mind-meltingly original. After the braingasm that was The Neighbourhood, I jumped headfirst into his Kingdom series, starting with Jerusalem and then moving straight on to Joseph Walser's Machine. It seemed each book I read was better than the last. But then something awful happened. I came to the end of the trail. As I reached for Learning To Pray In The Age of Technology, I realised that it was the last of Tavares's books available in translation.

Cue the neuroses, the night sweats.

I put the book back down, afraid to find myself bereft of such literary gold. Ever the resourceful guy, I went straight to the website for Dalkey Archives to investigate. The Kingdom series is made up of four books; the three I mentioned and another called Klaus Klump: A Man. Leaving aside how absolutely awesome a book called Klaus Klump just has to be, I thought it logical that Dalkey would be set to release it any day now. I mean, who would leave a brother hanging like that? I'll tell you who. Dalkey Archives. Clicking through the forthcoming titles page I saw a whole lot of hullabaloo being made of Desmond Hogan and Alvaro Enrigue but there's sweet nada about Tavares. It's an outrage, I tell you!

I vaguely recall feeling similar frustration with Hans Fallada and Irene Nemirovsky but, for as long as I was loving their work, there always seemed to be another title in the offing. I also know that a number of other non-English-speaking authors that I love have works yet to be translated: Enrique Vila-Matas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, even Saramago. So why such an extreme reaction when it comes to Tavares? Because the guy is literary crack cocaine and I'm damn well addicted, that's why. Not just Pepsi Max 1.25 litres a day addicted, either. I'm talking beat up a nun, mug a girl scout, rub myself against broken glass addicted.

Please Dalkey Archive... Just Klaus Klump. Then I won't annoy you again. Until the bats come calling again in my poor empty warehouse of a brain... We all know there's another 13 instalments of The Neighbourhood you have yet to release. Don't do it for me. Do it for that sweet, innocent nun.

Microviews Vol. 30: Kids Under Water

on Sunday, April 28, 2013
Sorry for the delay, peeps, but this time I have a cracker excuse. With a deadline looming and absolutely no progress to speak of, I decided to shut out the world and write the young adult novel I'd been contracted to finish by May. That meant no reading, no blogging (but still a fair amount of procrastination). It all paid off in the end. I managed to churn the darn thing out in five days. If you notice a slight skewing of these reviews towards children's or YA lit (50% in fact), let's just say I was required to do some research because holy mother of crap, writing for kids is hard!

So Much To Tell You by John Marsden
Marsden may be the God of Australian kids' lit, but these were some pretty humble beginnings. Yeah, yeah, I get that it was a sensation at the time but this tale of a girl scarred and made mute by an acid attack has not aged particularly well. Or maybe I'm just not a 12 year old girl. Wait, nope... Definitely am a 12 year old girl.
3 Out Of 5 Lesser Cormiers

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Granted I'm no expert, but this may well be the greatest children's book ever written. A magnificent triumph of storytelling through words and image it is part graphic novel (the charcoal sketches are simply stunning), part classic fable and all jaw-droppingly brilliant. Hugo's journey from petty thief to cinematic saviour is touching without being twee. Even the kids' lit conventions, many of which Selznick happily adopts, seem fresh and fitting in the context of the story. It also doesn't hurt that this book is one of the most beautiful physical objects I now own.
5 Out Of 5 Trips To The Moon

Parvana by Deborah Ellis
Still on the kids' lit train, this one is about a young girl in Afghanistan under the Taliban. When her father is arrested, Parvana is forced to dress as a boy and head to the market to keep food on her family's table. I have no doubt that, as a teaching tool, this book is quite powerful. Ellis does not shy away from the more brutal aspects of life under a repressive regime. However, there's a certain hollowness to it all when one considers what has become of the country since the book was first published.
3 Out Of 5 Dusty Chadors

The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain
Francois Mitterand's hat changes hands (well, heads) and changes the lives of those who wear it. Essentially, it's Tibor Fischer's The Collector Collector but with a black, felt Homburg instead of a vase. Note to authors: You might want to wait a little longer before trying to rip off a minor classic, even if you have that good ole je ne sais quoi French charm!
2.5 Out Of 5 Flakes of Dandruff

Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
There's something about Nathaniel Rich that really appeals to me. Both his debut, The Mayor's Tongue, and this, his sophomore effort, have oozed quirk and good humour but still hit hard. This time round a slick opportunist builds a killer operation around selling catastrophe insurance to big New York business. This is the ultimate in used-car salesmanship. Unfortunately for him, he isn't quite prepared for catastrophe when it actually hits - a massive storm that completely floods the city, biblical style. Rich's rendering of a city submerged is brilliant, and the misfortune of our unlucky catastrophist grows increasingly absurd and hilarious as survivors come to see him as some sort of messiah-like prophet. A smart, satirical wet-willy for the climate change generation.
4 Out Of 5 Noah's Arks

Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst
Problemski Hotel is the nickname given to a Belgian asylum centre by its desperate, eternally hopefully but ultimately defeated denizens. Running the gamut of degradations, some humorous (one guy's attempts to find a Belgian wife) to horrific (the murder of a baby conceived by rape), Verhulst has crafted a fine, prescient and important novel for our troubled times. This ought to be required reading for every cold-hearted politician hoping to use human misery for political capital.
4 Out Of 5 Abbot Proof Fences (Sorry, that probably doesn't make much sense outside of Australia)

Pulitzer's Play For The Nobel Peace Prize

on Tuesday, April 16, 2013
In what I can only guess is a valiant attempt to avert nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction has gone to Adam Johnson for The Orphan Master's Son, an epic novel about life under Kim Jong Il's rule. Given they didn't see fit to even give the gong in 2012, it is only fitting that this year it should come with such noble intentions. I mean, after slapping David Foster Wallace in his cold, hard face and teasing Denis Johnson about the size of his... um... novella, you better do the literary equivalent of resurrecting Mother Teresa if you don't want to be chased down the street with pitchforks and torches.

The shortlist of three was rounded out by Eowyn Ivey for The Snow Child and Nathan Englander for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, meaning it is the second time in as many days that the great Holocaust diarist was sullied by popular culture (that is, of course, if you could call Justin Bieber culture).

The big question now is whether Kim Jong-Un will take the bait. Daddy isn't exactly painted in soft pastel in The Orphan Master's Son, but North Korean censorship laws prohibit any criticism of the Great LeaderTM so chances are the version he sees will be greatly abridged and nothing like the original. Now we just have to hope that Dennis Bloody Rodman doesn't swan in to the country again to read the unedited version to Un at bedtime. Come to think of it, can Dennis Rodman even read? Crisis averted!

Microviews Vol. 29: Grumplestiltskin Strikes Again

on Saturday, April 13, 2013
It's probably just the post-Infatuations slump, but nothing really seems to be grabbing me at the moment. In fact, had it not been for my new DEAR author, Goncalo Tavares, I'd have put this down as one of the least inspiring reading weeks in recent memory. Yep, Tavares aside, it was pretty ordinary. Ho hum. At least I cracked the half ton for the year. April 14 and I've knocked over (not to mention reviewed) fifty-three books!

My Name Was Judas by CK Stead
Between Jose Saramago, Colm Toibin, Jim Crace and CK Stead, we could almost construct a Third Testament. Here the most maligned bloke in history gets to put in his two cents (or should that be silver coins?) and while it is generally compelling and challenges some troubling theological assumptions, it ain't a patch on Toibin's Mary. For addicts of apocrypha only...
3 Out Of 5 Traitor's Kisses

Julia by Otto De Kat
I am throwing down the gauntlet and calling shenanigans on the endless deluge of Holocaust fiction that follows the same narrative trajectory: guy falls for girl, evil Nazi regime drives guy and girl apart, guy looks back as an old man wondering what happened, guy finds out by some strange coincidence that girl was actually spy/resistance fighter/heroine and had to sacrifice her true love for the greater good. Sure, Julia is a lovely example of this story, but seriously folks...
3 Out Of 5 Coded Letters

Donnybrook by Frank Bill
If you can get through the depraved brutality of the first three pages of this novel, you're doing well. Persevere and you're in for one hell of a bourbon-fuelled clusterfuck of violence. Set in the lead-up to a three-day bare knuckle tournament, Donnybrook follows a cast of the most insane, unlikeable, desperate gutter dwellers as they double, triple and quadruple cross one another for the love of drugs and money. It ain't subtle, but it's pretty darn fun.
3.5 Out Of 5 Speedballs

Joseph Walser's Machine by Goncalo M. Tavares
I'm not sure of the order in which Tavares's Kingdom series is supposed to be read, but this is my second of the four (of which only three are available in translation). Jerusalem was a great spin on noir, not to mention a cool iteration of Soul Asylum's best song, String Of Pearls, but it pales next to the brilliance of Joseph Walser's Machine. The more I read of him, the more Tavares reminds me of Georges Perec with his constant innovation and experimentation, albeit without the wacky impenetrability. JSM is a perplexing riff on the concept of routine, with Tavares throwing slight changes to the perfectly ordered world that Walser - an archetypal pathetic functionary - has constructed for himself. Tavares's point is clear - routine destroys the human soul. Having experienced this wonderful little novel, I'm inclined to agree.
4.5 Out Of 5 Closely Watched Clocks

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Is it just me or are we drowning in heavily workshopped, MFA-spawned, middle-American, slice of Jewish family life novels? At the risk of being sniped from crystal palaces, I'm just going to go ahead and say that I've stopped caring about these semi-dysfunctional families and their first world problems. Attenberg brings an interesting structural spin to The Middlesteins - the chapters follow the weight gain of the morbidly obese matriarch Edie and the resulting familial disintegration - but this could be any of a number of recent works from the Critically Approved Literature factory. It is a lovely book, to be sure, but at some point even the best attended circle jerk must come to an end.
3.5 Out of 5 Gilbert Grapes

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: My Very Own Royal Rumble

I am nothing if not a keen prize-spotter, so you will not be surprised to read that I am drooling over my desk at the announcement of the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This time round, it's an embarrassment of riches with no less than four of the six being favourites of mine. If you haven't had a chance to catch up on the titles, those that have made the cut are:

Fall Of The Stone City by Ismail Kadare (Albanian)
Trieste by Dasa Drndic (Croation)
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (Spanish)
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch)
Bundu by Chris Barnard (Afrikaans)
Traveller Of The Century by Andres Neuman (Spanish)

Granted I haven't read two of them (and I hadn't even heard of Bundu) but I will still unequivocally state that this is one of the best prize shortlists I've come across in years. Choosing a winner for me would be kind of like choosing between my children. Kadare really came back into his own with Fall Of The Stone City. Dublinesque was not my favourite Vila-Matas (that goes to Montano's Malady) but the guy is amazing even when not in full flight. The Detour is a deeply haunting novel, well worth a gong or seven. However, it almost goes without saying, that I will be crossing my fingers, toes, eyes and nostrils for Dasa Drndic. Trieste was by far my favourite novel of 2012 and deserves an abundance of prizes, not to mention an extremely wide readership. In my humble opinion, it is the standard bearer for Holocaust literature as we approach the post-survivor era and ought to be recognised as such. To be fair, I intend to read the other two novels before the prize is announced on 20 May, but I doubt my position will change.

Well, there you go. Turns out it isn't so hard to choose between your children!

The Infatuations by Javier Marias: The Best Book Dostoevsky Didn't Write

on Saturday, April 6, 2013
I'm just going to go ahead and put it out there. Javier Marias is the greatest novelist of our time. If that wasn't enough I'm going to go one step further. He is the only true heir to the great writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His books to date have carried echoes of the classics but this one puts one of my favourites front and centre. So here you go. The Infatuations is our generation's Crime And Punishment (with strong undertones of Macbeth). Its depth, complexity and intense profundity has not seen an equal in one hundred and fifty years.

The story is, at first, engagingly simple. Maria Dolz goes to a cafe each morning and becomes, well, infatuated with a seemingly perfect couple who are also regulars. She is, therefore, shocked when she learns that the man has been brutally stabbed to death in the street in what seems to be the random act of a madman. After a while she befriends the man's widow, and soon thereafter, her late husband's best friend. A strange love triangle forms, with ever shifting, increasingly more disturbing contours. It slowly dawns on Maria that, far from a random act of violence, this was a well-planned, well-executed murder and, in a round about way, she has become part of the plot.

Although it starts off with an act of terrible brutality, the majority of the novel is spent pondering important philosophical questions relating to the moment of death, the legacy of mourning, the nature and elasticity of love, and the shifting fidelities of friendship. It is also a meditation on the purpose of literature from someone who understands it better than most. With deftness that borders on perfection, Marias forces his reader to continue answering the same questions over and over again, each time with one minor difference in the premise. This is manipulation of the highest order; just when you think you have a handle on what's really going on, he throws a jaw-dropping curveball.

The Infatuations is an endlessly rewarding novel. I could drone on for hours about its superb intricacies but I don't want to spoil it. I also don't want to take any more of the time you should be spending with your face buried in this true modern masterpiece. Seriously, stop wasting your life. Step away from your computer now and get this book.

5 Out Of 5 Damn Spots

Microviews Vol. 28: The Pharoah's Elk

on Friday, April 5, 2013
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
For the first two parts of this memoir, Barnes had me scratching my head. I knew Levels Of Life was supposed to be about the death of his wife, so the whole time I was trying to work out why I needed an entire history of ballooning and photography before she gets so much as a mention. I'm still not sold on the metaphor (though it is beautiful and poetic in its execution), but I'm glad to say that Barnes won me over in the third part, a brilliant piece of reflective anger and bitterness by a man still deeply in love. This will not make you feel warm and fuzzy or otherwise cause you to think more comfortably about death. Quite the opposite. It is, however, a must read for anyone who has wanted to punch the well-meaning sympathy brigade in the nose.
4 Out Of 5 Fading Daguerreotypes

Doppler by Erlend Loe
This darkly humorous novel posits Norway's answer to the Unabomber rejecting society and shacking up in the mountains with a baby elk. Solitude, however, ain't what it's cracked up to be, especially when others want in on his personal rebellion. Doppler is a misanthrope's delight spoiled only by its heavy-handedness on the anti-consumerism diatribes.
3.5 Out Of 5 Venison Steaks

That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim
This slim Egyptian classic, long-banned under Nasser's rule, is remarkable if only for its description of a society that has had its cajones unceremoniously lopped off. Much like Ibrahim himself, the narrator is released from prison and attempts to adjust to life outside. Far from the rough and tumble hotbed of dissent, Cairo seems to have lost its will to fight. A fascinating study in post-traumatic ennui.
3.5 Out Of 5 Terse Sphinxes, Aye (sorry, couldn't resist)

The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell
Kentucky-fried brutality, incest and murder reign supreme in this disturbing tale of some very backward hickfolk. It never quite reaches the depravity of Cormac McCarthy at his best, but it's still engaging enough when you're not swallowing back the vomit.
3.5 Out Of 5 Teeth

The Bridge's Edge: The Sad End of Iain Banks

on Thursday, April 4, 2013
Ok, so I know what you're thinking. Here goes the bloody Bookworm again, whinging about an author he used to love but who has fallen from grace. Just another orgy of schedenfreude from a cranky lit-snob. And while you may be right that I have been disappointed by the last few novels from Iain Banks (at least the non-scifi ones), I'm not here to kneecap him for it. Rather, I want to share a few thoughts on my former favourite author, and long time member of the DEAR list, who has just announced that his forthcoming novel, The Quarry, will be his last as he has been diagnosed with late-stage inoperable gall-bladder cancer. Far be it from me to eulogise someone before they die, but I think Banks's announcement deserves a little reflection.

Back in my university days, I held two books up as my favourites of all time. They remains so - The Trial by Franz Kafka and I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier. To me, those two books manipulated my sense of reality and confidence in both narrator and narrative more than anything I had encountered before or since. I made it my number one university quest (as opposed to say, studying or attending lectures) to find more works that could truly cause my brain to melt in blissful despair. I tried Calvino. I tried Ballard. I tried Vonnegut. Loved them all, too. Yet none of them quite fried the grey matter like Kafka or Cormier. Then my friend Ariel handed me a book that he thought might just do the trick. It was The Bridge by Iain Banks. Most people fawn over The Wasp Factory, he told me, but this is the one you have to read. I did. He was right. The Bridge remains up there in my holy trinity of mindblowing literature.

I devoured the rest of Banks's work and, while he seemed kind of hit and miss (hits: Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass, Complicity, Feersum Endjinn, The Crow Road; misses: Espedair Street, Canal Dreams), I began to await each new book with embarrassing excitement. I never really got into the Culture novels (or pretty much any of the ones he put out as Iain M. Banks) because I don't read much science fiction, but I am told the world he has created is one of the best ever.

Then came Whit, which I saw as the beginning of his creative end. The novels that followed were also patchy, but the best among them were barely as good as his previous misses. A couple, I would go so far to say, were atrocious (I'm looking at you The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth). Yet I have never given up. Iain Banks is responsible just as much as Kafka or Cormier for shaping the way I read and write. Along with the announcement of his illness, Banks spoke of his next and last novel, The Quarry. It seems promising, if not a return to form. I honestly hope that it is great; that he goes out with a massive bang. It is the very least he deserves. His will be a tragic loss for me and the world of literature.