Microviews Vol. 41: Zen and the Art of Clusterf*&king

on Wednesday, September 25, 2013
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Scenes of horror and wonder play off one another in this greatly uneven story of Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl forced to seek refuge in America. It begins with sass and aplomb. Darling's voice is excitingly fresh; a mix of child like awe and hilarious cynicism. For as long as she remains in Africa, We Need New Names is quite simply astounding. Granted the chapters do seem a bit like set pieces - the eviction of a white family from their home by marauding Nationalist thugs, a church service with a horrifying revelation, her father's death from AIDS, the influx of new refugees - but Bulawayo's deft touch ensures that each one is utterly compelling. Unfortunately, the wheels fall off when Darling reaches Destroyedmichygen (Detroit). The set pieces continue but it is typical stranger-in-a-strange-land fare; there is hardly enough to sustain any momentum. There is one chapter that bucks the trend, however. A rolling thunder of prose perfection, it lays bare the immigrant experience across generations like never before. Seriously, it's a revelation. As for the book as a whole, well... Lesser works than this have won the Booker Prize. But then again, so have much greater.
3.5 Out Of 5 Guavas

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
A gentle serenity pervades Ozecki's latest book which, I guess, should be no surprise given that she is a Zen Buddhist priest in her spare time. You'll be pretty thankful it's there, though, because this story of a young Japanese girl navigating a pretty unforgiving world tends towards the devastating both on the personal and global levels. Once a spoiled Dotcom kid in California, Nao is back in Tokyo, contending with the worst a young girl could ever face: poverty, relentless bullying, a suicidal father and, ultimately, sexual slavery. In an effort to save her, Nao's parents send the girl to spend the summer in a monastery with her 104 year old great grandmother, Jiko. The two hit it off well enough but it is in the diary of Nao's great uncle, a kamikaze pilot after whom her father was named, that Nao finds true salvation. It is unfortunate that the beauty of these relationships has instructional undertones - it is as if Ozecki is using the book to "enlighten" the reader about Zen Buddhism. Sure, it's a pretty palatable world view, and one that a lot more people could do with accepting, but it takes away from the work as a novel. Nao's story is told through entries in a diary that has been found washed up in Canada months after the 2011 tsunami. It is juxtaposed with the story of the woman who finds it, an author called Ruth (very meta!). Cue some philosophising about the creative process and racoons. I actually found Ruth's story fairly benign and it wasn't until the end, when I realised said philosophising was a pretext for some pretty crazy existential acrobatics, that I even saw a purpose in its being there. It all makes for a fascinating thought experiment, but had Ozecki just stuck to telling Nao's story, it would have made for a much more satisfying book.
3.5 Out Of 5 Cats In A Box

Goat Mountain by David Vann
It begins and ends in cataclysm, and what lies between those two moments is so harrowing that your mouth will dry up, your chest will constrict and you will find yourself desperately reaching for your childhood comfort blankie. True to form David Vann brings us to the edge of human experience in this tale of a hunting trip gone horribly wrong. Taken on his first moose hunt by his father, grandfather and family friend, the 11-year-old narrator is hoping to kill a three point buck. It is a family rite of passage. The group arrive at Goat Mountain, a massive Californian Ranch, full of bravado and testosterone. All is set for a great trip until they spot a poacher on their land. The father looks through his rifle scope, gets the others to look too. At last it reaches the hands of the boy. He looks. He fires. All shit breaks loose. Rather than report the killing, they collect the body and continue on the hunt. Sound nuts? That's not the half of it. Debate rages, edges fray, tempers flare. Vann plumbs the depths of masculinity and family bonds in what I can only describe as a slightly more bleak Deliverance narrative. The sparse staccato prose might be off-putting for some, but holy crap, if you can stomach it Goat Mountain will blow you away. Literally.
4.5 Out Of 5 Stuck Pigs

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
Poor Daniel Woodrell. Had Cormac McCarthy never existed the guy would probably have inhabited the same legendary space in literary culture. That's not to say he hasn't enjoyed considerable success. Winter's Bone struck a chord worldwide but let's face it, it was hardly Blood Meridian or The Road. Based on true events, The Maid's Version is another dark and complex tale told in typical Woodrell fashion. Alma thinks she knows what really happened the night forty two people, including her sister, were killed in an explosion at the local dancehall. There have always been theories - plenty of people wanted the place gone - but Alma knows better. She knows the big secret, the one about her sister and the rich banker, Arthur Glencross. The Maid's Version is the kind of book you can rip through in a single sitting but, engaging as it is at the time (there's a pretty cool Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels aspect to the resolution) it's not one that will stay with you for very long.
3 Out Of 5 Liaisons Dangereuses

La Vida Doble by Arturo Fontaine
Surprise, surprise regular Bookworms. I've found myself another one about The Dirty War. But before you roll your eyes and skip over this review, I promise you that La Vida Doble is unique. I don't think I've seen such a complex psychological study of devotion and betrayal undertaken with such poetic beauty. High praise of this order comes, however, with a disclaimer: La Vida Doble also has one of the most brutal depictions of torture and degradation you're ever likely to encounter. The first thirty pages will crush your soul (and, for the weaker of stomach, have you kneeling in front of the toilet). Fontaine employs a crafty ruse to reel us in: we are introduced to Lorena as an old woman, living out her final days in a Swedish nursing home. We are instantly invited to warm to her. But as she recounts her story of life, rebellion and, in the end, complicity under the Pinochet regime, even the most compassionate of readers will find their moral compass spinning like a ceiling fan. Sucked into the violent struggle for freedom, she partakes in a bungled robbery and is captured by the police. Incredibly, she resists the horrific torture to which she is subjected but when the threats turn to her daughter she finally succumbs. Fontaine renders this crisis of political faith with great insight and vigour, avoiding the obvious temptation to pass some sort of judgement. That, dear readers, is up to us. It is easy to condemn Lorena/Irene but what wouldn't you do to save your child?
4 Out Of 5 Sympathetic Turncoats

Microviews Vol. 40: Who Likes Short Shorts?

on Saturday, September 21, 2013
Sick of everyone whinging about the end of publishing as we know it? Well then small Aussie press, Finlay Lloyd, have the answer for you with their new series , Finlay Lloyd Shorts. This initiative is one of the most exciting things going right now: rising literary stars given sixty pages to create fully realised works. In the first crop there's graphic fiction, novellas and poetry, all presented as beautiful single volumes that will restore your faith in the physical manifestation of the written word. To celebrate their imminent release, I thought I'd devote an entire Microviews post to checking them out.

Anxiety Soup by Tara Mokhtari
I was glad to find a few poems in Tara Mokhtari's collection that even a neanderthal like me can understand and enjoy. Dear Stevie, an homage to a poet's failed suicide and consequent legacy, tugs and stings in equal measure. Poems about cats, awkward post-youth and even more awkward short romances also hit the mark. I suspect if I could actually appreciate poetry I'd be raving.
3 Out Of 5 Rhyming Quintuplets

The Dark Days of Matty Lang by Wayne Strudwick
Matty Lang has survived a car crash that killed is girlfriend and left his best friend in a coma. Struggling with the physical and emotional trauma, he desperately grasps at flashes of memory to piece the events of the night back together. A taut, melancholic narrative that builds to a truly heartbreaking crescendo, The Dark Days of Matty Lang is a mini-marvel.
4 Out Of 5 Fender Benders

Nothing Ventured by Natalia Zajaz
Back at school I had a friend who was always penning clumsily sketched but perfectly observed comics of everyday life. He wasn't a fine artist by any stretch, but it didn't matter. The true art was in the storytelling. Reading Natalia Zajaz's collection of wickedly funny short graphic stories sends me right back to those days. Minus the wedgies, of course.
3.5 Out of 5 Wandering Doodles

Bruno Kramzer by A.S. Patric
Patric follows up last year's stellar collection Las Vegas For Vegans with this deliciously nasty yet warm hearted tale of a professional rogue in crisis. Poor Bruno Kramzer's missions aren't quite going to plan, he's got family problems and his old friends are falling on hard times. As he sets off on one hilarious caper after another, Patric drops ever more unsubtle hints that it is all leading somewhere intriguingly familiar. You'll smile when the realisation hits; turns out Patric is to Kafka what Stoppard was to Shakespeare.
4.5 Out Of 5 Pernicious Pranks

NY by Mandy Ord
A very cool microfiction set to pictures about a pop culture obsessed, awkwardly paranoid graphic novelist finding her feet in the big apple. The charcoal-style etchings are a treat, the story telling tight with flashes of surreal charm. A brief but delightful book.
4 Out Of 5 Falling Apples

Microviews Vol. 39: Apocalypse New Zealand

on Thursday, September 19, 2013
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
After her stunning debut, The Rehearsal, it was clear that Eleanor Catton was destined for big things. What I didn't expect, however, was that she would deliver so bloody literally. The Luminaries is a big book; in size, scope, ambition and enjoyability. I may be wrong, but to my mind it is the first great (did I mention it's huge?) New Zealand western epic. Any attempt to summarise the plot would fail to do it justice. Suffice to say it centres on a cunning gold prospecting scam, murders real and imagined, a decent dash of opium, vengeance and, oddly, astrology. There's also a villain to rival anything Cormac McCarthy has thrown our way, though the extent of his villainy becomes less clear cut as the book progresses. Catton demonstrates a master's ability to control a large and varied cast of characters and plot lines, allowing the many threads to shoot off into the distance before drawing them back together to create a gorgeously complex tapestry. And though I don't have enough of a handle on astrology to really get the allusions, the zodiac wheel is an ingenious device to bring the story full circle and keep you guessing long after you think you've figured it all out. The Luminaries is a rich, rollicking tale that can be enjoyed by casual readers and Litsnobs alike and a very worthy contender for this year's Booker Prize.
4 Out Of 5 Ample Aquarians

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Right now my head and heart are at war. I love Margaret Atwood. Very few writers have managed to be as consistently good, diverse and wildly daring as she. Her post-Apocalyptic trilogy, to which Maddaddam is the conclusion, is a masterwork of invention and execution. The world she has created is incredible (though I did have one minor quibble with the anachronistic use of 'modern' terms). Almost no conceivable aspect is left unrealised. Yet (and it's a big yet!), I just haven't been able to warm to any of the three books. I don't mean to disparage; it's a personal thing. Maddaddam wraps up the story of Oryx, Crake, God's Gardeners and all their associated minions with real gusto. There's a killer cat and mouse chase as the various clans join up to fight a common enemy. There's much greater clarity about what caused the whole "waterless flood". And what Atwood has to say about creation myths (not to mention how she says it) is not only a joy but, in my opinion, the greatest strength of the book. And yet... I wish I could explain it. My head is jumping around, doing backflips, waving pompoms. My heart, on the other hand, is off to grab a beer.
3.5 Out Of 5 Spliced Genes

Life With A Star by Jiri Weil
Jiri Weil is one of the unsung heroes of Czech literature. Those who know his work love him. Indeed, Philip Roth spends three pages raving in his forward to this edition. Life With A Star is one of two Weil books available in English and while the other, Mendelssohn Is On The Roof, is by far the funnier and more accessible, Life With A Star is a powerful novel that stands alongside Mr. Theodore Mundstock as one of the greatest portraits of Czech life under Nazi occupation. Josef Roubicek is a bank clerk, a minor bureaucrat, who finds himself cast aside when his country is annexed. By virtue of a clerical error, he is left off the transports to Terezin and so he spends his days working for the Jewish community, haplessly trying to help those he meets and obsessing over a stray cat. Shifting between moments of spite (Josef prematurely smashes everything in his apartment so the Nazis won't be able to loot it when they deport him), paranoia (he is constantly waiting for the error to be rectified) and hope, Life With A Star is a deeply humane, slightly surreal and unexpectedly funny take on what it's like to live as a non-person.
5 Out Of 5 Iron Tracks

The Counselor by Cormac McCarthy
Not a novel but a screenplay, The Counselor is a small serve of sorbet for those of us anxiously awaiting McCarthy's follow-up to The Road. Thankfully, he has interspersed a good deal of descriptive prose between the dialogue to satiate our cravings but don't get too excited; it will hardly leave you feeling satisfied. The story is pretty straightforward: a lawyer gets caught up in a major drug deal only to find himself way out of his depth. In many ways, The Counselor is reminiscent of No Country For Old Men (which to me read like a script anyway); it's a sassy crime caper with razor sharp dialogue (aside from a few cringeworthy moments), extreme violence and a bunch of morally dubious, thoroughly unlikeable characters. It's and engaging enough read but there's nothing earth shattering to be found. Indeed, you might want to wait for the movie. That's clearly how the great man intended for you to experience it.
3.5 Out Of 5 Drug Mules

Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
Wiesel takes us to the very edge of life again, this time in an entirely different context. Open Heart is a short account of the Nobel laureate's recent brush with a more prosaic death: heart surgery. Needless to say, he has ramped up his sentimentality with age and this has lots of sickly sweet passages about his wife, son, grandkids and friends (he certainly isn't averse to name dropping). The book's true strength, however, lies in its more philosophical moments; as ever Wiesel is reflective and insightful about the big questions - life, death and religion. A minor work, but a lovely read.
3.5 Out Of 5 Scalpels

Booker's War Of Undependence

on Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It's like the War of Independence never happened!

At some point between me jumping on a plane in Melbourne and surfacing two days later from a jet lagged haze in Detroit, word had begun to get out that, as of next year, the Booker Prize would be welcoming entries from American authors. I have yet to see an official announcement, but BookNerd Universe is going nuts over the whole caper. Is it a brilliant move of Machiavellian literary colonialism or the desperate gasp of a prize fearing for its very identity? After all, Booker's long standing position as the "literary person's literary prize" took a serious beating after Rimingtongate and now stands to lose the mantle (or is that Mantel?) to the spanking new Folio Prize. I thought they'd answered their critics well with the announcement of an extraordinarily solid, if somewhat predictable, shortlist last week but they still seems to be bobbing up and down in the water, waving their hands in panic.

Opinions are strongly divided. On one hand there are those who welcome the move. It could, if Team Booker play their cards right, make the prize the undisputed top accolade for novels written in the English language. American fiction isn't quite the powerhouse it once was, so the playing field is fairly level. I, for one, am intrigued to see what would make a "Best of English Language" shortlist. I mean, think about it. Geographical borders seem silly these days. Two of the shortlisted writers for this year's Booker call America home. Isn't it high time we broke down the artifice?

On the other hand, there's something charming about a Commonwealth writing prize (as opposed to the Commonwealth writing prizes). America has annoyingly insular prizes coming out of the wazoo (The Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc) so why shouldn't the rest of the English speaking world keep one for themselves? This is like those stupid free trade agreements where only one side believes in free trade. The Booker ought to be literature's tariff! Furthermore, there's something je ne sais quoi about the Booker's current character that would be diluted with the introduction of American literature. Or, rather, there is something particular about American lit that I'm quite glad not to see in the Booker mix. Call it naval gazing self-consciousness, muscular self-assuredness or whatever; it's seldom found in the kind of works that get a Booker nod and I'm quite happy for it to stay that way. Oh, and isn't there already a Man Booker International Prize? Granted it is more like the Nobel, aimed at recognising the entire body of an author's work (especially those that seem to be ignored by the Swedish Academy) but still, wasn't that free-trade enough for the haters?

I'm sure this will continue to play out over the coming months (or years if it actually happens), but for now let's keep our eyes on the prize. Literally. Call me a cynic, but the timing could not have been worse. We have six books we should be talking about right now. Let's not take the limelight away from them.

Note: Less than an hour after I posted this, Booker made it official. See the full statement here

Booker Prize 2013: My Shortlist Scorecard (And Some Further Thoughts)

on Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Brace yourselves book nerds, the Booker shortlist has just been announced. Vying for literary immortality this year are:

Harvest by Jim Crace
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki

Which means I picked a whopping 3 of them. That's 50%. Only eight percent less than my final exam mark for Constitutional Law. Go me!

As for the list, I don't have a great deal to say. It's strong but it's also quite safe. Team Booker have opted for the heavy hitters (Crace, Toibin, Lahiri and Ozecki) and steered clear of anything resembling experimentalism. No debuts. No balls. At least I won't have to suffer through the more twee titles that stumbled their way onto the long list. And Catton should make next week's long haul plane trip a bit more bearable. Carrying it, on the other hand, won't be much fun, especially if it falls on my head from the overhead compartment. As for the other three, I'll knock them over on the way back.

The prize is awarded on October 15. Stay tuned for my form guide. As usual, it will probably be wrong.

The Booker Shortlist: A Guesstimation Guide

Less than twenty four hours to go before the unveiling of this year's Booker Prize shortlist and I'm embarrassingly behind on my annual quest to read all thirteen contenders. Thus far I've done four and bought three others. To be honest, I just haven't been that inspired. I will, of course, read through the shortlist when it is announced but I'm secretly hoping that will only mean three or, at a stretch, four more because, frankly, I have a massive pile of non-Booker novels next to my bed that I would much prefer to get stuck into. Also, I'm worried about my poor dog. He keeps pushing against the tower with his nose and it's only a matter of time before the whole thing comes tumbling down on his head.

Needless to say I'm in no position to pre-empt tomorrow's announcement. For all I know, nearly every one of the books I haven't read is a true masterpiece. After all, they beat out the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Roddy Doyle, Margaret Atwood and David Peace to get to the final thirteen. What I can do, however, is hazard a few predictions based on the trends of previous years. I have read almost everything on the past six Booker long lists and have come to realise that those that do make the cut tend to fall into certain categories. Ditto the ones that miss out. So, knowing almost nothing about the majority of the books that stand to be included, here's my completely hypothetical shortlist breakdown:

The Sure Bet That Won't Win
In 2007 I put a hundred bucks on Mister Pip before the long list was even announced. I think I got odds of about 100 to 1. As each Booker step progressed - the long list, the shortlist - the odds tightened and I went from planning a fancy dinner to trawling real estate websites to find a nice looking tropical island. By the morning of the announcement, it was neck and neck between Lloyd Jones and Ian McEwan. Countless suckers had caught on to my brilliant prediction and were only getting 3 to 1. Then came the great moment: The Booker Prize 2007 goes to... Anne Enright for The Gathering. WHAT??? I still maintain that Jones was robbed. So do many other people. That's not to say The Gathering wasn't a wonderful (albeit bleak) novel. It's just that Mister Pip is one of those once in a lifetime, want to caress, cuddle, marry and grow old together books. This year, the sure bet would have to be Jim Crace. Harvest is a marvel. It also sits atop the Ladbrokes list at 3/1. Everyone wants it to win, not only because it objectively deserves to but also because we all love Jim Crace. The guy is retiring and has earned his gold watch. Moreover, we can give it to him without the slight embarrassment of knowing this particular book didn't deserve it (hello Ian McEwan and John Banville). All of which is to say, Harvest will be on the shortlist. It should win the prize. It probably won't.

The Unworthy Consolation Candidate
Staying on the topic, remember Let The Great World Spin? That book was awesome. I still consider it THE Great American Novel of the post-9/11 era. Never mind that it was written by an Irish guy or that it was ignored by Team Booker despite the fact it won the National Book Award across the Atlantic. Segue to that same Irish guy's follow up; a pretty ploddy affair utilising the very tricks that made Let the Great World Spin so incredible but to a much lesser effect... It's called TransAtlantic. It may well get on to the list. It just might win. It shouldn't.

The Controversial Inclusion
Team Booker loves a good argument. In the past, litnerds have gone bare knuckle over two main issues: how long a book ought to be to qualify as a novel (Sense of An Ending, On Chesil Beach) and whether an experimental book which isn't all that fictional can still be considered a work of fiction (Summertime, In A Strange Room). This year we a double dose of the first and an entirely new one to boot. As I've noted in a previous post, The Testament of Mary is one hundred and twelve pages. The Spinning Heart is one hundred and sixty. Having read them, it wouldn't surprise me if one or both of them ended up being shortlisted. Toibin's novel is just brilliant, while Ryan's is the sort of downtrodden outsider fiction (with a bit of experimental form thrown in for good measure) that prize givers love. No doubt traditionalists will be chomping on their monocles tomorrow. Ditto if The Kills makes it. A veritable doorstop, it is supposedly best experienced in electronic form, with supplementary online material adding to the experience. A prize for an e-book? What ever will they think of next?

The Rank Outsider
Remember The Clothes On Their Backs? What about The Dark Room? Swimming Home? There's always one that, no matter how good it is, we all forget the day after they hand out the prize. Contenders this year include Alison MacLeod's Unexploded, Charlotte Mendelson's Almost English and Eve Harris's The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. You can almost be certain that one of them will make the shortlist.

The Colonial Contender
Whether it be Australia, India, Canada or South Africa, Team Booker loves its colonies. The more exotic, the better. This year we have long listed novels from England-via-Malaysia (Five Star Billionaire), America-via-India (The Lowland), America-via-Zimbabwe (We Need New Names) and trusty old New Zealand (The Luminaries). It's likely that more than one of these will make the shortlist, but at the very least I'd be putting my money on New Zealand.

The Brick
Back in the days when I'd read the entire long list, there was nothing I hated more than 'the brick'. Darkmans, Wolf Hall, A Fraction of The Whole. You get the picture. This year we get two: The Kills at 1024 pages and The Luminaries at 832. I have a funny feeling both will be on the list. At least they look good.

The Whizzbang Debut
Got to have a debut to shake things up and cripple a writer with performance anxiety for the rest of their career. This time we have a choice of Donal Ryan, NoViolet Bulawayo and Eve Harris. Right now Harris is at the bottom of the Ladbrokes table at 14 to 1. Almost guarantees her a spot I'd say.

The Criminally Overlooked
And, of course, there will be one book that absolutely should be on the list but isn't. In the past we've had Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan, Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie and Schopenhauer's Telescope by Gerard Donovan. This year there are three that it would be a crime to leave off: Harvest, The Testament of Mary and The Luminaries. No doubt one will fall by the wayside.

Ok, so on the basis of all that opinionated crap, and using absolutely nonsensical algorithms (i.e. complete guesswork), my picks for tomorrow's Booker Prize Shortlist are:

Harvest by Jim Crace
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Kills by Richard House
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
A Tale For Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
With my floating seventh being The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Based on my previous form when it comes to these things, I look forward to seeing how completely off the mark I am! To be honest, I'll be happy with 50%.

See you tomorrow.

Microviews Vol. 38: Hearts Of Darkness

on Saturday, September 7, 2013
Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll
So it turns out that, contrary to all the hooplah of the past few years, Norway isn't just good at crime fiction. They also do serious literature which, I guess, is a relief for those of us who don't give two dragons about a girl's shitty tattoo. Turning the metafiction meter up to 11, Gaute Heivoll (or a fictional simulacrum thereof) returns to his hometown to investigate a series of arson attacks that took place in the year he was born. It might sound a bit crimey (got to suck those Nesboites in somehow), but there is no who, how or whydunnit to be found here. Instead we get a deep meditation on alienation, obsession and fatherhood in rural Norway that courses along with the tension of a thriller, yet possesses the smarts of pocket protector. It's a wonderfully complex novel that just might be the bridge between Stieg Larsson and Karl Ove Knausgaard. (Spoiler Alert: It has nothing to do with Larsson. I just want people who like that crap to read decent literature)
4 Out Of 5 Tindersticks

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
A narrative jigsaw of sorts, The Spinning Heart forces the reader to piece together its tale of murder, kidnapping and economic collapse through the various (and varied) voices of the folk who inhabit a small Irish town. Thankfully the book is short; Ryan clearly knows he is asking his readers to wade through literary quicksand. That is to say, it's hard going, but it certainly sucks you in!
3.5 Out of 5 Potato Chips

Indian Nocturne by Antonio Tabucchi
The ghost of Joseph Conrad haunts this creepy little novel in which a man searches for his lost friend in the dark slums of India. Propelled forward by a series of unsettling encounters he is, it seems, always one step behind the elusive Xavier. As he ventues from a run down brothel, to a medical clinic to a truly screwed up cult headquarters the clues trickle in and you begin to doubt the very essence of the quest. This is Tabucchi at his most esoteric, unexpected best.
4 Out Of 5 Corpulent Kurtzes

The Plains by Gerald Murnane
Smart money has long held Murnane to be Australia's best chance for a Nobel and yet I've never had any inclination to read him. Call it cultural cringe or general disinterest but it took the insistent - and I'm talking years - hucking from a friend to get me to begrudgeingy pick this up and give him a go. Well... egg (and bacon) on my face! The Plains is unlike any Australian book I've read. A man ventures into the wide expanse of nothingness to research a film that he hopes to one day make. He collects the stories of those who live on the land, gradually being drawn in until he is a slave to some overbearing collective consciousness. The obvious parallel is Kafka's castle; the film is something that will probably never be finished. But the filmmaker's complete assimilation into his hostile environs is a fascinating thing to behold.
4 Out Of 5 Cattle Stations

Psalm 44 by Danilo Kis
A short harrowing novel set in the women's barracks at Auschwitz in the final days of the war. Several women plot their escape in the hope of saving the baby that was born against all odds in the camp. Kis's brilliance lies in his choice to steer clear of the atrocities we usually associate with Holocaust novels. But for one absolutely horrific passage towards the end it is a riveting jailbreak narrative, punctuated with a mixture of hope, despair and love as the new mother pines after the child's father, a young doctor who saved her life from the clutches of Dr. Nietzsche (a thinly veiled Mengele). Hard to believe this was Kis's first book, written when he was only twenty five.
4.5 Out Of 5 Steve McQueens