2014: And The Winner Is...

on Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This time last year, while most people were getting drunk and waiting for fireworks to light up the night sky, I was sitting at home, on my couch, with a copy of Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun on my lap. It was an exercise in self-control, nay self-abnegation, unprecedented in my 37 years (mainly because I've never bothered to delay gratification in the past). There was, however, method to my madness. Although the novel was not scheduled to be released for another month and, moreover, I had received my copy three weeks before, I knew that if I read it before the strike of twelve on the first of January I would have to count it as a book read in 2013. Which meant it would miss out on this year's list if it proved to be as good as I was hoping. I've made no secret of my love for Ball. He is the most exciting young writer at work today. His previous novel, The Curfew, was my Book of 2011. Now signed on with a big publisher (or at least an imprint thereof) and with his first work in hardcover, there was a hell of a lot riding on Silence Once Begun.

Cue past the countdown, the clock chimed twelve, and I cracked open the cover. And read. And read. And read. Until the sun rose and I closed the book in a state of transcendental bliss. Not only had Ball delivered, but he had done so in spectacular fashion. This story of a man who confesses to a series of disappearances then remains totally silent throughout his arrest, trial and execution is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. It might seem absurd but absurdity is Ball's stock-in-trade. He makes dreamscapes seem totally normal and the further he leads us down the rabbit hole the more we become willing to give ourselves over to him. Testing the limits of reliability, the voices in Silence Once Begun resonate with utter conviction and persuasiveness so that, by the end, we know very little other than that Oda Sotatsu is innocent and the crimes were not even what they seemed. We are left to shake our fists at a system that runs on its own steam towards the destruction of anyone who slips among the cogs.

Silence Once Begun is, in my opinion, a watershed moment not only in Ball's career but in contemporary literature. I posed the question in my initial review: Is it possible that I read the best book of 2014 on the very first day of the year? The answer is yes. A very resounding yes.

2014: By Which I Mean 2015

on Tuesday, December 30, 2014
A day to spare means I have time for a quick peek over the horizon at what 2015 has in store. Seems it's already shaping up to be one hell of a year with new books from literary titans Kazuo Ishiguro (The Buried Giant), Toni Morrison (God Help The Child), Milan Kundera (The Festival of Insignificance) and Mario Vargas Llosa (The Discreet Hero). On a more personal note, I'm hanging out for the latest from Dasa Drndic (Leica Format) and Jesse Ball (A Cure For Suicide), as well as Tom McCarthy (Satin Island) and, sadly, the first posthumous release from Kent Haruf (Our Souls At Night). Australian literature is getting an exciting kick in the butt with debut novels from A.S. Patric (Black Rock, White City) and Miles Allinson (The Fever of Animals) while SJ Finn is back with her second book (Down to the River). So all in all a promising forecast for our reading futures.

2014: The Final Countdown

on Monday, December 29, 2014
The sun is setting on yet another year and, as always, the pile of books I'd intended to read rests forlornly on my bedside table, their pages withering with lost hope. Here at the pointy end, where I rattle off the books I loved most, where I make high faultin' claims based on highly subjective criteria, I humbly apologise to these (probably) great works:

Redeployment by Phil Klay
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
10:04 by Ben Lerner
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

But enough of the jibber jabber. It's time we got to the almighty list.

The Top 10 of 2014: From 10 to 2

10. The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. I still bristle with indignation when I think of the injustices that play out in Denfeld's stunning debut novel. It's like The Shawshank Redemption but without the redemption and a hell of a lot more shanking. (See my full review here)

9. Ludwig's Room by Alois Hotschnig. Kurt inherits his great uncle's country house and goes through the one door he was never allowed to open as a child. Cue the flood of awful truths about his family's involvement in the operation of a nearby concentration camp during the war and the desperate attempts to bury the evidence afterwards. A ghost story of sorts, where everyone in town turns out to be a Nazi poltergeist.

8. Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub. A gorgeous and structurally brilliant meditation on the fragility of memory, Diary of The Fall centres around the fallout from a childish prank that has repercussions well beyond the children involved. The grandfather's diary of fabrications stands as one of the best narrative devices I've come across in recent years. (See my full review here)

7. The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. A frightful collision of groundbreaking science and moral ambiguity in this tale based on the Nobel laureate who discovered kuru. How much can we forgive a genius, especially if he turns out to be a monster? Critics might have gone nuts for Lily King's Euphoria, but this was the year's best book about the perils of anthropology (not to mention humanity). (See my full review here)

6. The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. It beggars belief that the guy who wrote the truly awful Yellow Dog and almost-as-awful Lionel Asbo, the guy who anyone with good sense or taste gave up on a decade ago, managed to pull off one of the most remarkable books of 2014. A Holocaust novel like none other I've read, it brings the everyday operation of Auschwitz to life with droll humour and impeccably observed detail. A high wire act of humanised horror.

5. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. An ordinary marriage plays out in gorgeously crafted nuggets of prose. To see a life reduced like this makes me understand how diamonds are formed. (See my full review here)

4. Falling Out of Time by David Grossman. Grossman revisits the grief of losing a child with this splendid take on the Orpheus myth. Surreal, dark and immensely powerful, Falling Out of Time moved me more than any other book this year. (See my full review here)

3. Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes. Hitler wakes up in modern Germany and becomes a reality TV star. Totally bonkers. Bloody hilarious. And absolutely perfect. (See my full review here)

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Step one: Watch this video. Step two: Read An Unnecessary Woman. Step three: Thank me profusely. An hilarious, life affirming celebration of all things bookish set against a backdrop of turmoil, war and personal loss. (See my full review here)

Which, of course, leaves only one. Check back on Wednesday for the Bait For Bookworms Book of 2014.

2014: "Best Of" Bridesmaids

on Sunday, December 28, 2014
Well, there are only three days left until the end of the year and short of me inhabiting the body of Bill Murray and reliving them on an endless loop I'm going to have to bite the bullet and make some decisions. I had nineteen books in contention for the top ten and, though I failed year ten maths, I still managed to work out that nine had to go. Thankfully, I always allow myself a safety net so that the also-rans get a look in. You will no doubt remember them in the years to come, just like you remember who came second in every sporting contest, or who ran for political office against George H. W. Bush or who came third in the fourth season of Austalian Idol. Or second. Or first. Anyway, here are the books that very almost reached my top ten of 2014:

A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano. Somewhere in literary heaven I suspect there's a drinking game being played by Roberto Bolano and Irene Nemirovsky. Every time a publisher manages to squeeze another book out of their rotting corpse they down a tequila and run around the table with their pants around their ankles. I'm not sure who is winning but, fair to say, they are both totally smashed, on the floor, with ghost puke dribbling from their mouths. Bolano's posthumous output (so to speak) has been pretty patchy but A Little Lumpen Novelita stands as one of his best. It simmers with all the seediness, melancholy and straight out action that I tend to love about his stronger books. Better yet, it ends well before it wears out its welcome (Hello 2666 and The Savage Detectives). You can almost smell the smoke and hear the frantic clatter of his typewriter.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. It was an audacious stunt that really ought to have failed. Three books released over the space of a single year - hard sci-fi nerdgasms positioned for readers of literary fiction. The first, Annihilation, was a creepy delight; the tale of a doomed expedition into the mysterious Area X, where nature has begun to reclaim what we humans have destroyed. The second novel, Authority, was less successful and dragged a little but the world VanderMeer had created was so mesmerising that I was willing to forgive the book's weaknesses. Thankfully, Acceptance proved a return to form, providing many answers but leaving the reader to ponder our collective path to mutual destruction. With echoes of Lem's Solaris and Margaret Attwood at her best, VanderMeer showed us the literary heights to which genre fiction can sometimes soar.

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle. I'm not a rabid Mountain Goats fan but I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up lead singer Darnielle's debut novel. A surprising work from someone his age (it reads like it was written by a twenty something), Wolf In White Van is a hymn to the golden era of gaming - you know, the pen and paper, D&D, pre-Playstation variety. Sean Phillips is a beautifully rounded, tragic character and though I wasn't entirely convinced by the novel's ending I loved the interplay of Phillips's real and imagined worlds. A tender elegy to loneliness and displacement.

Young Gods by Katherine Faw Morris. When an author chooses to have their publicity shot with a fuck-off monster of a dog you know you're in for a rough ride. When that author happens to be a sweet as pie blonde youngster like Faw Morris you can bet it's time to double down and reach for the biscuits. Young Gods is a brutal knife fight of a novel, fuelled by drugs, booze, bile and double-wides. A suckerpunch debut by a very promising writer. Now get that dog away from me.

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. Graham Greene storms Africa in this fast-paced political thriller with serious literary chops. It's the kind of thing we take for granted from Johnson but that doesn't make it any less of a ripper.

A few flower girls: Wherewithal by Philip Schultz, The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris and Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer.

2014: The Shelf of Shame

on Tuesday, December 23, 2014
2014 saw many wonderful books take root and flourish but, as always, there were a fair few weeds popping up around the garden. So it is, fellow Bookworms, that we strap on our collective garden gloves, grab our secateurs and jump in for some good ol' hack n' slash.

Most Overrated Books of 2014

Brace yourself, Murakami sycophants because I'm going to say it: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was far and away the most overhyped book of 2014. The anticipation before its release was Jonestown level feverish. I'll admit to having been swept up in the hoopla, too. Oh yes, I was waiting for this biblical revelation. Then it hit and... well... Okay, it was perfectly pleasant; fun, quirky, kind of cute. It had many of the classic Murakami magic tricks. But when all is said and done it wasn't a patch on The Wild Sheep Chase or Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Indeed, this one had the suspicious aftertaste of Kool Aid.

I was at a loss to understand the plaudits poured upon Akhil Sharma's slim offering, Family Life. It supposedly took him ten or twelve or twenty (or some other multiple of a ferret's average life span) years to complete and drew heavily from his personal experience of grief and dislocation. Stripped of its forest of laurels it is a fair to middling shrub of a novel about about the immigrant experience. I can't help but feel that Sharma has a lot of friends in high places, none of whom could muster the guts to tell him that those umpteen years might have been better spent working on something else.

One other book that rolled around in a well-oiled orgy of love was Ali Smith's How To Be Both. Critics and readers alike were falling over themselves to praise its structural innovation, sly narrative experimentation and ingenious mirroring of two different eras. To be fair, it's not hard to be swept up in Ali-mania. Her writing is absolutely stunning and this book was no exception. Still, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. Another pretty good book put on some unreachable pedestal by those who probably eat a teaspoon of caviar and claim they are full. Or maybe I was just too dumb to get it.

Dishonourable Mentions: Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea proved that great authors can choke in unfamiliar surrounds. Sci-fi was not his friend. Also, Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise was good but a little too self-consciously po-faced for my liking.

Biggest Disappointments of 2014
I suppose these are really personal disappointments because I was so excited for these books when I first heard of their impending release and then... *sigh*...

American Innovations by Rivkah Galchen. Okay, seriously: How incredible was Galchen's novel, Atmospheric Disturbances? From the moment I put it down I have been chomping at the bit for something new, something sparkling, something splendiferous from this bright young star. Enter American Innovations. Never mind that it's a collection of stories. That could have been just as exciting. But these show little of the imaginative pizazz that made Atmospheric Disturbances one of my favourite novels of the past ten years. Maybe it was just sorbet. Maybe there's something exceptional waiting in the wings. Another novel to knock me off my feet. Here's hoping.

Consumed by David Cronenberg. I was intrigued when I heard Cronenberg had written a novel. That it was said to lean heavily on JG Ballard, whose iconic masterpiece, Crash, Cronenberg had made into a film filled me with an underlying sense of dread. Still, I kept the faith. It might be good, right? Alas, no. There's "leaning on" and there's straight up imitation. When your model is someone as distinctive and singularly brilliant as Ballard you don't stand much of a chance. And so we end up with this: Fan fiction from a deranged fan.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers. Yellow Birds still stands as my all-time favourite war novel. Three years on and I still shiver when I think about it. When I saw that Powers would be following it up with a collection of poetry I was cautiously optimistic. I don't usually go for the form - I'm fairly convinced I just don't understand it - but I trusted in Powers (he is, first and foremost, a poet) and, I heartily reassured myself, one of my other favourites war books, Pink Mist, happens to be an extended poem. Alas, it all went over my head and it has been consigned to the shelf of books I'm glad to own but will probably never pick up again. At least it makes me look more cultured.

I'm not quite sure why I still hold out hope for Ian McEwan. His glory days are clearly well behind him. Solar was a momentary blip of light (sorry) but otherwise it has all been drab greyness from this former master. The Children Act was, however, a new low - a plodding, workmanlike novel of family law that lacked any of the taut plotting, intrigue, danger, excitement or insight that made Black Dogs, Enduring Love or Atonement such modern classics. I'd have to put it alongside Saturday as his weakest novel to date, but at least that had a brilliantly frightening villain. If it weren't for the fact that Martin Amis, who seemed to be on a similar career trajectory, published one of his finest novels to date this year, I'd give up on McEwan altogether.

Dishonourable Mentions: He's always hit or miss, but I'd still hoped for something better from Dave Eggars. Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? was a particularly lame effort at a State Of The World novel. And then there was Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer. Oh how I've longed for something even half as amazing as The Good Doctor. The Imposter was pretty good but this one, while lush and 'classic' in style, was just kind of boring.

2014 Trainwreck of the Year
Oh how the mighty fall. Or stumble. Or at least stub their big toes. Long time readers may recall my unhealthy love for Tom Rachman's hilariously brilliant debut, The Imperfectionists. Not quite a novel, but more than a collection of short stories, it deftly skewered the world of wanky international journalism with its perfectly pitched sketches of all those involved with a failing newspaper. To my mind, it was almost a perfect book. Sad to report that the exact opposite must be said of his follow-up, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. A meandering mess, with no discernible direction it pained me to plod through the whole thing. I'm still trying to work out what the hell it was actually about but then I am reminded that I just don't care and go back to my Rachman shrine, kneel before the last flickering embers and pray that this, not the other, was an aberration.

2014: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Friday, December 19, 2014

Of the measly 160-odd books I read this year (I'm still going - don't want to tap out just yet), 79 came from the cold, distant past. You know, 2013 and those forgotten years that preceded it. A few of the books were pretty damn excellent and, had I read them in the year they were actually published, I'm sure they would have been contenders for end of year honours. Then again, had I read the ones that came out before I was born in the year they were published, I'd have seriously screwed up the space/time continuum. You can thank me later. Or earlier. Mind blown.

A Meal In Winter - Hubert Mingarelli (2013). Sparse, piercing and entirely gripping, this story of two war-weary Nazis sent to find a Jew in the forest was in the top 3 books I read this year. Sure to set your moral compass spinning wildly out of control, it is an absolute masterpiece in miniature.

Christ's Entry Into Brussels - Dimitri Verhulst (2011) I've always liked Verhuslt - his sense of the absurd is second to none and he is not afraid to shove something sharp and pointy into the neck of our collective stupidity. This novel is by far his most enjoyable; an hilarious excoriation of our celebrity/religion/consumer obsessed society. The whole city goes into conniptions when word leaks out that Jesus is back and he's coming to Brussels. Yep, as crazy as it sounds.

Visitation - Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). A dense, difficult fable centred around a small town and the fate of its various denizens during the Holocaust. Kind of in the vein of Aharon Appelfeld - the horror lurks mostly in the background - it is an incredible portrait of a decimated Europe. Oh, and the writing is just sublime.

The Graveyard - Marek Hlasko (1956) A crushing portrait of life in Communist Poland, The Graveyard tells of a hapless factory worker systematically destroyed by the faceless powers that be after he drunkenly abuses a policeman. And you thought Kafka could kill you with bureaucracy!

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death - Otto Dov Kulka (2013) A bit of a departure for me, this isn't a novel but rather a survivor's deeply philosophical account of his time in the Czech Family Camp, a small sector of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp. To my mind it ranks up there with the very best of them - think Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel or Viktor Frankl.

Special Mentions to The Property by Rutu Modan, Underwater Welder by Jeff Lamire, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang and In The Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs.


Holy paintballs there were some amazing book designs this year. Much like the vinyl resurgence in music, it's clear that publishers are giving a lot more thought to the book as physical object so that readers want to own them instead of just downloading some crappy digitised simulacrum. To that end, three books really stood out. Haruki Murakami's The Strange Library was a gorgeous experiment - the marriage of art and words. To my mind it was far better than the other overhyped thing he published this year. My other two standouts are more conventional in their format but they were just so beautiful that I had to have them on my shelves. So props to Jane Rawson for A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists (also, best title of the year) and Wittgenstein's Nephew by Lars Iyer. Also, a quick nod to the beauties that were Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle, Leaving The Sea by Ben Marcus and The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.


Alright, I officially give up on trying to make Top 10 lists when it comes to music. Sure, 2014 might not have been the greatest year but there were still a bunch of top notch standouts and it would be unfair to jettison them for the sake of some End of Year OCD. And yes there were some absolute stinkers from the likes of Steel Panther, The Pixies and Pennywise, but they were more than made up for by these great specimens of sound:

21. The Orwells - Disgraceland
20. Morning Glory - War Psalms
19. Hostage Calm - Die On Stage
18. The Copyrights - Report
17. Cheap Girls - Famous Graves
16. Shihad - FVEY
15. Smith Street Band - Throw Me In The River
14. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Christmas Island
13. Lagwagon - Hang
12. Linkin Park - The Hunting Party (Yes, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it is really good)
11. The Shell Corporation - Mandrake

And for the top 10 (oh well, OCD wins out in the end):

10. Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Maybe it was the return of Ric Ocasek, maybe my defences have been battered down by the cavalcade of mediocrity since The Green Album but somehow Weezer managed to pull out something that doesn't disgrace their name. In fact, it's rather excellent. Catchy buzz pop at its geeky best.

9. Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Educatiom, Education & War. So get this - a band I've never really cared for puts out a concept album (something I've also never cared for) about the drudgery of work (about which, you guessed it, I really don't care for) and it turns out to be an absolute stunner. There's hope for Kasabian yet. Just kidding.

8. White Lung - Deep Fantasy. I've never understood why these girls (and guy) continue to fly under the radar. Fast, gutsy, fun and ferocious. Twenty something of the best minutes you'll spend with your ears.

7. RX Bandits - Gemini, Her Majesty. After a long hiatus these guys storm back with what I'd say is their second best album ever. Dreamy punk reggae as it's supposed to be done. Stargazer is a serious contender for song of the year.

6. Mastodon - Once More Round The Sun. Yeah, yeah, I'm ridiculously late to board this particular ship but I'll happily swim behind if I must because this is the most ball-crunchingly, monstrous punch in the ear I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a long time. The melodies are stupidly catchy despite the incredible density of everything else going on around them. Seriously, this album made me want to go wrestle bears.

5. Johnny Marr - Playland. While Morrisey was busy being a total douchebag, his old Smiths bandmate quietly dropped a masterpiece of guitar pop. Simple, great songs played with heart and vigour. And humility.

4. World/Inferno Friendship Society - This Packed Funeral. Gogol Bordello might get all the attention when it comes to folk punk, but these guys have been bashing it out just as long and arguably more consistently. Never before have they reached this level of madcap artistry though - a concept album based around the funeral of a woman who reminded me a great deal of Cabaret's Elsie from Chelsea. A dark, celebratory symphony.

3. A tie. Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World and ANTEMASQUE - ANTEMASQUE. I know this is cheating but I love these albums equally and for the same reason. Thumpingly good dirty garage rock from gods of the alt-punk scene. Granted, Omar and Cedric could fart in a jar and I'd think it was a masterpiece but seeing them edge away from the more chaotic style of their former bands was a pure joy to behold. And as for DFA, well who'd have thought they would up the ante like this? Two truly exceptional records.

2. Dragonforce - Maximum Overload. Three albums and one singer after THAT song, Dragonforce have finally come into their own with this orgy of speed metal excess. My fist was in the air so much that I hardly had time to reach down and pick my jaw off the floor. Technical brilliance backed with perfect song writing, this is quite simply the most enjoyable album of the year.

1. PUP - PUP. I can't remember the last time I was this exited by a new band. Listening to PUP feels an awful lot like the time I first heard Guns N' Roses in 1987 or Nirvana in 1991. In other words, a game changer for my music life. Abrasive, jangled, buzzsaw pop genius, this is the best album of the last 5 years, hands down.

2014: A Short List of Lists

on Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Ok, so let's see if I still remember how this thing works.

Testing. Testing. Is this on?

To put it mildly, I've been a little slack this year. Heck, I let the whole blog go to the dogs. To be honest, I haven't even read that much. About 160 books. Blah. What's worse, the few books I did read in the second half of 2014 didn't really inspire me to write. Now I'm frantically playing December catch up in the hope of coming out with a half-decent end of year list.

To wit, here's a list of dates on which I intend to post various End of Year Musings. You'll note it's weighted towards the end of the month to give me a chance to do some last minute cramming. Next year, I hope to be back in the full swing of it, but for now here's what you have to look forward to over the next two and a half weeks.

December 19: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

December 23: The Shelf of Shame

December 28: Best of Bridesmaids

December 29: The Final Countdown

December 31: B4BW Book Of The Year

See you in four days!

The Calm After The Storm: Richard Flanagan Wins The 2014 Booker

on Thursday, October 16, 2014
A collective sigh of relief was heard across Bookeringham Palace yesterday as the invading hordes were chased away by a new Commonwealth literary legend. Ok, so he's not that new and, well, he's from that place what the convicts got shipped to but all hail Sir Richard of Tasmania, Lord of Literature.

It's a bit of a sad indictment on my reading habits this year but I've yet to read The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Indeed, I only managed two on the shortlist - Jacobson and Smith - neither of which I felt deserved to win. Granted it's a subjective game of relativity; I might have liked the other four even less. And, as much as it pains me to admit, it's not like I have any say in the outcome. But I'm glad Flanagan won not only because he's an Aussie (which hopefully means we can stop claiming DBC Pierre) or because giving it to a writer from the Commonwealth preserves the parochial charm of the Booker Prize but because, by all accounts, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is a deeply literary novel, a story of love, hardship and survival on the Thai Burma Railway dying WW2. In other words, Flanagan's win represents a return (albeit perhaps only briefly) to the essence of what has always made the Booker a great prize to follow. It also adds a slightly humorous dimension to his being passed over for this year's Miles Franklin. The Narrow Road To The Deep North is sitting on my bookshelf waiting for the next quiet patch in my life... which means I can look forward to reading it sometime in 2017.

The Found Man: Patrick Modiano wins The Nobel Prize for Literature 2014

on Friday, October 10, 2014
Well, that was unexpected. Following the usual predictive malarky that yearly pits Haruki Murakami against Adonis and, for the really hopeful, Phillip Roth, the Nobel Committee has thrown us one from left field by awarding the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature to French writer Patrick Modiano. I don't think he was even on the betting radar. That said, far from being one of the annoyingly obscure or, worse, token laureates, Modiano is quite the deserving recipient. I've only read a couple of his books (I think only four or five exist in English translation, of which maybe two or three are in print) but they were both excellent - intriguing, challenging, deep but strangely accessible. Like the Academy, I'd go for Missing Person as a starting point. It's a slim but weighty novel in which an amnesiac goes in search of the identity he lost during the war. Modiano really grapples with ideas of identity, guilt, complicity and the like in a way very have done before or since. I'd also recommend Search Warrant/Dora Bruder (same book, published under two titles) which is widely regarded as his masterpiece. A fascinating study into the fate of a missing girl deported to Auschwitz that was triggered by a missing person notice in a wartime magazine, it digs deeply into the soul of Occupied France and, more importantly, Modiano himself.

Guess it's back to the drawing board for the punters amongst you. Here's hoping your favourite lives to go another round!

The Invasion That Wasn't: A Short Word About the Man Booker Shortlist

on Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Well, I may be totally off my game this year but I'm glad to see that Team Booker have landed on a well-balanced, readable but still literary shortlist. Sure, it's not the heavy handed litwank of some previous years but thank the paper gods it ain't Annus Rimingtonus either. Needless to say, the fear of the great American deluge seems, at least this time, to have been unfounded. No Hustvedt. No Powers. Hardly the barnstorming some were expecting. Chins will no doubt still wag - where the hell is David Mitchell? - but what would a Booker year be without some nasty snarking?

So, without further ado, here are the contenders:

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour - Joshua Ferris
J - Howard Jacobson
The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
The Lives of Others - Neel Mukherjee
How To Be Both - Ali Smith

The Empire Strikes Back: The Booker Prize Longlist 2014

on Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Rest easy Padawans, Britain has survived the great literary plague. Here is the 2014 Booker Prize long list:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J b Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo by Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

A fair mix of Commonwealth and usurper novels, but a reasonable list overall. I'm particularly excited by the inclusion of Paul Kingsnorth, whose very strange phonetic/Old English novel of the years after 1066 has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of months begging to be picked up. Time to start reading!

Begin the Booker Beguine (Again)

Well, we're just hours away from the announcement of this year's Booker long list and, I can't help but feel, this will be the most hotly debated bunch of books ever. Yep, this year marks the first time that nominees aren't limited to Commonwealth authors but anyone writing in the English language. No doubt you'll recall the big brouhaha when the rules were changed - you'd have been forgiven for thinking the British literary Empire had fallen. Well, we're about to learn how it's going to pan out. Ironically, Team Booker couldn't have chosen a worse (or perhaps better) year to open the floodgates. A quick look at the list of eligible books from just the old Commonwealth countries and I find myself in some sort of book nerd heaven. So many previous winners and nominees have new books - Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Colm Toibin, Phillip Hensher, Sebastian Barry, Nicola Barker, Damon Galgut, Sarah Waters, Edward St Aubyn... hell, even the new Martin Amis looks promising after a run of complete duds. I can't help but smirk at the misfortune of the also-rans who truly ought to be in contention this year but may well miss out thanks to the former colony with the grating accent. On the other hand, whatever the list, we can safely say that literature from the Commonwealth has never looked quite so bloody healthy.

As for my tips... Hmmm... I'd love to see Jesse Ball, Elimear McBride, Darragh McKeon, Phil Klay and Jenny Offill on the list. I suspect Donna Tartt, Joshua Ferris, Dave Eggars or Peter Mathiessen might get a look in. But when the dust settles I'm betting the prize stays in the Commonwealth for at least one more year and I'd say the guy to do that will be David Mitchell. We'll know if I'm even slightly on target in just a few hours.

In, On and For A Book: My Strange Sojourn Into Eli Glasman's The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew

on Wednesday, July 9, 2014
HOLY CRAP. I'M A FICTIONAL CONSTRUCT! Ok, so here's how it went down. A few months back, the lovely folk at Sleepers Publishing sent me a reading copy of the rather peculiarly titled The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew by Eli Glasman. I'd known about the book for a while - Glasman is someone I see around the traps; we talk writing, he told me he'd be submitting it for publication and was quite rightly very excited when Sleepers took it on.

Fast forward a little bit and there I was ploughing my way through, doing my best impression of an objective reader, when BAM, I appear. Well, sort of. In the scene where some band called Yidcore plays in the courtyard of Melbourne's Orthodox Jewish boys' school, Yeshivah, it is me jumping up and down with the microphone. For the record, that really did happen. It was a Year 12 Muck Up Day prank. The students got us to come in, set up on the asphalt and start playing during class. Kids of all ages started streaming out and before we knew it, classes had been cancelled and there was a crowd of teenage religious kids moshing to a punk band (if only that was the most surreal thing to have happened to us!). Needless to say the scene flew by (it accounts for a single paragraph, but my mum was suitably proud) and I could return to the story. Yes, yes. Enough about me.

This book... what can I say? It's good. Really good. Sure, it's always difficult to read a friend objectively but I am genetically averse to lying, even to friends so when I say I liked it, I really mean it. And not just because of THAT paragraph. From the outset it's clear that Glasman is a talented writer - he's witty, daring and full of heart. The book, about an orthodox Jewish boy in Melbourne coming to terms with his homosexuality, is told with a degree of depth and compassion that ought not be in the wheel house of someone so young. And with Glasman having grown up in the orthodox community, the book also has a level of insight that greatly exceeds anything the casual observer might be able to perceive. There's very little soapboxing - the question of homosexuality in orthodox Judaism is handled without judgement or cheap philosophising. Rather, the full complexity is drawn out in a way that leaves all involved in a dignified space without having to have sacrificed their values or positions. It is a very generous, open and positive portrayal of both young gay men and orthodox Jews.

Leaving aside the flattery of being made into a fictional character, I really recommend Glasman's book. And if you won't take my word for it, just check out the raves on the back cover... Oh... Suddenly, I'm trying to be Shteyngart. How very meta.

2014: The Mid-Year Report

on Monday, June 30, 2014
Chalk it up to a crippling case of blog burn-out following 2013's ridiculous "Review Every Book I Read" challenge. Or it might have been the all-consuming insanity of the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival. Or maybe it's just that I've had to slow down a bit on the reading to make time for my own writing. Yep, for those of you who don't already know, I've jumped out of the frying pan of literary criticism (and, hopefully, witticism) and into the fire. I'm writing a novel. What's more, I've signed with my absolutely favourite publisher, Text Publishing who, assuming I can meet a deadline, will be throwing my labour of love to the wolf pit of arseholes like me (aka readers/reviewers/bloggers/firestarters) some time next year. Whatever the cause, it's been a slow year on Bait For Bookworms. I know. But I haven't forgotten you, my dear fellow LitNerds. There's plenty I want to say. Heck, I've still managed 92 books in the first six months. And though I only reviewed a fraction of them, some were pretty excellent. Viz:

Books Of The Year
What can I say? Jesse Ball just keeps getting better and his latest novel, Silence Once Begun, was the first, and remains the best, thing I have had the joy of reading in 2014. That's not to say there weren't some pretty close contenders. And the fact that David Grossman was the only other familiar name in my list makes it all the more exciting. His novel in dramatic/poetic form, Falling Out Of Time, was a masterpiece of grief, introspection, rage and regeneration. Then there's An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine which bowled me over with its humour, wisdom and litnerd appeal. Jenny Offill renewed my belief in the beauty of ordinary love with her masterpiece in miniature, The Dept. of Speculation, while Hanya Yanagihara shocked me to my moral core with her dense, harrowing and intellectually challenging debut The People Of The Trees. Michel Laub's multi-layered meditation on memory, Diary of the Fall was another highlight, as was the best prison novel I've read in years, The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. And mad props to the batshit crazy Look Who's Back, in which German daredevil Timur Vermes imagine Hitler's return to modern Germany with hilarious (and rather frightening) results.

Books of Previous Years
Five months after reading it, I'm still haunted by Hubert Mingarelli's fantastic little book A Meal In Winter, in which a couple of Nazi soldiers sent from their remote outpost to hunt Jews in the forest are faced with an impossible moral choice. Equally complex and powerful was Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation which could well have been written by one of the European greats in the middle of the twentieth century. I got my first taste of Korean literature with Hwang Sun-Mi's superb Orwellian fable, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly while cult Belgian writer Dmitri Verhulst struck again with his excoriating Christ Comes To Brussels, an hilarious collision of religious obsession, delusion and high comedy. And, in my ever growing attempt to expand my literary horizons, graphic fiction has had a strong showing with Rutu Modan's The Property and Jeff Lamire's Underwater Welder both ending high on my list of favourites.

A Brief Message From My Speakers
I don't usually include music in my mid-year reports but I can't in good conscience ignore the album that has single-handedly got me excited about music again. Canadian abrasive melodic punkers PUP's self-titled album is about as incredible as a debut could ever hope to be. In fact I loved it so much that I didn't download a free torrent but actually dragged my lazy arse to the record store and bought a physical copy. I know. That's crazy talk!

Well, I can't say I know what the rest of this year will bring. I suspect I won't be reading quite as much as I race towards my own deadline, but there's still a bunch of books that have me excited including new ones by Javier Cercas, Aharon Appelfeld, Will Wiles, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Samuel Beckett (ok, so a newly unearthed SB) as well as the rest of Jeff VanderMeer's thus far brilliant Southern Reach Trilogy. I'm also a little late off the mark but hope to get to Pig's Foot by Carlos Acosta, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon and Glow by Ned Beauman. Ah, who am I kidding? I'll be reading just as much. I just won't be sleeping.

Confessions of a Festival Lackey

on Thursday, June 5, 2014
Three days on and I'm finally emerging from the wonderful afterglow of the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival. Over a year in the planning, the two days and one night turned out to be everything we'd hoped for and, to lean on a crappy cliche, more. Eighty writers from Melbourne, interstate and overseas, sixty volunteers and over two thousand tickets sold to sessions. Holy gefilte fish... Having been to a fair few literary festivals in my time, mostly as an avid lit lover/sycophant but more recently as a participant, I have to say this ranks up there with the best. I know, humility isn't my strong point. I could babble on about this for days but I've managed to whittle it down to a few highlights:

Favourite Sessions In Which I Did Not Participate
I went to plenty of really great sessions but three really stood out. Rachael Kohn's live video discussion with living legend Irvin Yalom was a scintillating exchange of ideas between two people of towering intellect, passion and talent. It really kicked the first day off with a bang. Peter and Renata Singer's session on the moral lessons a reader can learn from great literature was also a true delight to behold. Both Peter and Renata are amazing thinkers and I greatly appreciated the depth and substance of their perspectives on a whole range of books I already loved but hadn't quite thought of in moral/ethical terms before. Finally, Dara Horn in conversation with Tali Lavi was not only great fun but also gave the audience fantastic insight to the work (and workings) of one of American literature's young guns. Extra credit to Dara who took a punt on coming out to an inaugural festival that might just as well have tanked but, thanks in part to her, did exactly the opposite.

Session I Wished I'd Seen But Got Waylaid As A Panellist In The Other Room
By all accounts the session on Landscapes: The Sense of Place in Literature was unbelievable. No surprises there; the panel consisted of Linda Jaivin, Dara Horn and Maria Tumarkin and was chaired by Tali Lavi. I also would have loved to have seen the session on Trauma with personal fave Arnold Zable, who has worked with refugee communities and bushfire survivors, and Zeruya Shalev who survived a suicide bombing.

Personal Highlight #1
Who doesn't love crapping on about their favourite books? Heck, I've made an entire blog of it. So my session on Forgotten Gems with Arnold Zable and Renata Singer, chaired by former Jewish Museum director Helen Light was a real thrill. Arnold did Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, Renata did Clarice Lispector's Near To The Wild Heart and I (surprise surprise) did Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks. The audience really got into it too, with everyone jumping up to share their favourite 'forgotten' books. Great fun all round.

Personal Highlight #2
The Festival Hub. Whoever came up with the idea of combining the signing area, book store, coffee shop and general mingling space into one large marquee was a genius. There was a constant buzz as authors, volunteers, punters, booksellers and random strangers who happened to be passing by mingled and soaked up the incredible atmosphere.

Also, being behind the scenes, I got a lot of interesting insights into what it means to organise and participate in one of these beasts. Here, then, is a bit of advice for participants or, as I like to think of them:

Five Commandments For Writers At Festivals
1. Thou Shalt Not Be An Egotistical Douchebag. The best part of MJWF was how wonderfully collegial most of the writers were. They hung out, watched one another's sessions, were happy to talk with eager attendees; basically, did everything to give the fest a great vibe. Of course there were a couple who - despite their relative insignificance when held next to some of the other participants - thought themselves above it all. Reverse kudos to one spectacular douche who ruined his session with boring hagiographical arse-licking then had the audacity to castigate the organisers for failing to give him the respect he (and his subject) deserved. Add to that his disgusting rant against one of his fellow panellists who he (wrongly) accused of undermining him before the session. Bad form from a thoroughly average human.
2. Thou Shalt Remember It's A Festival, Not An Academic Conference. Ok, we get it. You're smart. You know a lot about the subject. But this is a fun gathering of like minded book lovers, not some stuffy university snorefest. By all means engage in a deep, intelligent, robust discussion with your fellow panellists, but don't open with a twenty minute exegesis of the minutiae of your area of interest. Wrong place, wrong time.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be An Overt Advertising Robot. You wrote a book? It's just come out? You want to promote it? No shit! That's why you were invited. And yes, a writers' festival is the perfect vehicle in which to do so. But judging by book sales at the event (and there were A LOT of them), the best kind of promotion was simply participating in an engaging way in whatever panel you happen to be on. People will want to read your book if they like you. Unless you are actually launching said book, there's no need to shove it down their throats.
4. Honour Thy Reader. Writing is a lonely, soul destroying pursuit. We don't get the chance to meet other people, let alone those who actually give half a shit about what we do. Therefore, when the opportunity arises, grab it with both hands, dance with it, hump it like an over-excited puppy, do whatever to seize the moment. Readers love chatting with you. They want to meet you. They want to know that you're a human too. They want to bounce their ideas off you, no matter how batshit crazy some of those ideas might be. This is the opposite of Commandment 1. Act accordingly.
5. Thou Shalt Turn Up. The one big disappointment of the festival was the no show of Israeli superstar (and personal favourite of mine) David Grossman. Apparently there was some miscommunication about the day - he thought it was to be Monday night when it was quite clearly scheduled for Sunday. Not throwing blame anywhere, but if you are a participant, make sure you know exactly when your session is booked and do everything humanly possible to be there. Luckily Sally Warhaft, who was supposed to conduct the interview, instead ran an impromptu session on politics and the media which was very well received by the disappointed crowd. Still, my point stands. Know your time. Be there. Of course, if you are likely to break Commandment 1 (and this most certainly doesn't apply to David Grossman who made an honest mistake and felt terrible about the whole debacle), feel free to ignore this one. You are not wanted. Douchebag.

Don't want to end on a sour note, so here are a couple of my favourite pics.

Irvin Yalom in Conversation with Rachael Kohn

The Festival Hub in Full Swing

Post-Session Selfie With Arnold Zable

Yukkin' It Up With Dara Horn

Neurotica Session with Nathan Serry, Kerri Sackville, Eli Glasman and Raphael Brous

It's Funny 'Cos It's Us with former Supreme Court Justice Howard Nathan, Dave Bloutsein and John Safran.

In-Panel Selfie seemed only fitting for a session called Voices From The Cloud: Internet Writing with Lee Kofman and Michael Gawenda

A carefully chosen excerpt from the festival banner...

Required Reading: Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival

on Monday, May 26, 2014
Less than a week to go before the inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival is upon us. If you're from Melbourne or can get down here for the weekend, you are in for a real treat with three nights and two days of amazing sessions. Veritably plutzing with excitement, I've pushed the usual bedside pile to the far edge of the table and plonked a few festival-relevant books in its place. For those looking for a quick primer on what to read before you come (of course you don't have to have read a single thing to enjoy this event), I recommend you hit up a few of the following:

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An extraordinary meditation on grief and loss
The World To Come by Dara Horn: Not her latest but the one that saw her smash it out of the park. An art heist family drama par excellence!
Sea of Many Returns by Arnold Zable: Everyone champions Cafe Scheherezade but for me it is this more recent novel that crystallises Zable's beautifully humane themes. A deeply moving book about exile, displacement and the meaning of home.
My Father's Compass by Howard Goldenberg: By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Goldenberg's memoir is a wonderful read. I guarantee you will never forget THAT bath scene.
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran: A rollicking true-crime adventure by the reigning king of awkward comedy. You just can't make this shit up.
The Poet by Alex Skovron: His session might be about translation, and he is best known for his poetry, but Skovron's novella, The Poet, is his masterpiece. A slim, Kafkaesque work of great style and even greater substance.
Nazi Dreamtime by David Bird: A fascinating study of one of the weirder footnotes of Australian history, Bird looks at the scarily large contingents of Hitler enthusiasts during the war years.
Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman: By now a local (and possibly Australian) classic, Perlman's debut marked the start of a truly shimmering career.

Hopefully that gives you a bit of a start. There are a bunch of other fantastic writers who I have not read but I'm sure you'll also love - Irvin Yalom, Zeruya Shalev, Maria Tumarkin, Linda Jaivan, Andrea Goldsmith and more. Check out the whole program on the festival website and be sure to buy your tickets soon. Sessions are starting to sell out!

Microviews Vol. 51: Five Star Frenzy!

on Wednesday, May 14, 2014
For reasons that some of you already know and will become apparent to the rest of you soon, I've been AWOL for the better part of a month. I'm pretty excited to mark my return with a first for Bait For Bookworms - a Microviews entry featuring five amazing books that scored my ultra-rare five star rating. Most excitingly, three are debuts. Skim through, jot down the names then get your arse to your nearest bookstore. By the time you've finished all five I should have some new entries for you to read.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alammedine
What makes a life worth living? How do you forge a meaningful identity once you have cut yourself off from the wider world? I know, I know. These are precisely the sorts of questions that made me drop out of Philosophy in second year uni. But don't despair. By the grace of Kant (or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard or... why am I even pretending to remember which God we were supposed to worship???) Rabih Alammedine brings you the answers you never knew you wanted in what is, without doubt, one of the most joyful reading experiences I've had this year. Aaliya - 72 years old, blue haired, crotchety - sits in her Beirut apartment translating the classics into Arabic; one a year, starting on New Year's Day. It is her singular purpose, to the exclusion of all else. That's not to say she doesn't ponder life outside. She loves her war-torn country even if it kind of pisses her off. But her real love is the piles and piles of books that clog her small living quarters. They are her everything and it's not hard to see why. Aaliya has impeccable taste - Coetzee, Bolano, Saramago, Sebald. To each she gives serious thought, offering up all sorts of opinions and observations. In less deft hands a book of this kind might have been bogged down in stodgy pontification. Not here, though; Aaliya's thoughts are an absolute delight to read. She is funny, feisty and, at times, gleefully acerbic. But this isn't just book porn for the literati. Alammedine keeps the narrative string nice and taut; disaster looms and, eventually, strikes. If you love reading, if you love thinking, if you love a good laugh, if you have even a skerrick of soul, An Unnecessary Woman is the book for you. Seriously, I can't possibly recommend it highly enough.
5 Out of 5 Blue Rinses

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Reduced to its essence, Dept of Speculation is the story of an ordinary marriage. A couple meet, fall in love, get married, run the gamut of typical marital problems (kids, fidelity, ageing) and so forth. That Jenny Offill has managed to craft such a prosaic set of non-events into this sparkling jewel of a novel is nothing short of breathtaking. Dept of Speculation reminds me of another incredible Granta book, Hillel Halkin's Melisande! What Are Dreams? The two share the same sense of quiet warmth that draws you in, messes with your heart then leaves you in a wistful cloud of almost post-coital bliss. Come to think of it, Dept of Speculation has been the missing part of what I now consider my Holy Trinity of books about love. Read Offill, Halkin and Skarmeta's The Postman - all very slim novels that punch well above their physical weight - and you will know all there is to know on the subject. Take that, Rilke!
5 Out of 5 Lost Letters

Diary of The Fall by Michel Laub
Here's a strange case of art imitating life. Many years ago I knocked out my friend's little brother at the kid's barmitzvah. We were spinning him in the air - a manoeuvre know as "the helicopter" - when he lost his grip, flew across the room, and smashed his head on the ground. He spent the night in intensive care. We were encouraged to continue to celebrate in his absence because, well, everything had been paid for and, after all, it was still his barmitzvah. Michel Laub's extraordinary novel begins with a similar event. Joao, who is not Jewish but who wants to fit in with all his Jewish friends, has a thirteenth birthday party modelled around a barmitzvah and, during one of the key dances (another tradition that ignores geographical boundaries - jumping from a chair into a net of waiting arms) is dropped by his friends. This nasty schoolboy prank serves as the catalyst for a considered excavation of assorted memories that the narrator embarks upon many years later when confronting his father's impending descent into the cloud of Alzheimer's. Diary of The Fall is really three sets of memories - the narrator, his father and grandfather. They drift in free flow, each wholly distinct but liable to intersect and overlap as the mercurial narrative unfolds. All of them struggle with their own reality. The narrator fell out with his father after the faux-mitzvah incident and their slow path to reconciliation is key to the book. The father too is locked in an existential battle - with his own illness, with the shadow of the Holocaust that came to define his childhood and with the suicide of his own father. And then there is the grandfather, perhaps Laub's most astounding creation. A survivor of Auschwitz, he keeps a diary of fabrications, through which we come to understand the extent and intractability of his suffering (there is a considerable dose of "He Doth protest Too Much" in his observations about hygiene and order). Laub feeds us in fragments; piling each upon the one before until the weight of the whole becomes almost unbearable. Structurally, it is a fascinating experiment - the pages aren't numbered but the paragraphs are -; one that initially seems slightly disorienting but, in context, comes to make perfect sense. Deftly translated by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, Diary of The Fall is a rare thing of great beauty, engaging and profound. A must read.
5 Out of 5 Repressed Memories

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
For some strange reason, my only reference point for really powerful prison 'literature' is film. The Shawshank Redemption. Sleepers. In The Name of the Father. American History X. I could go on. Now, before the pedants among you start berating me, I know that many of them were books or stories first. But, to me, their real impact was best achieved on the big screen. Here, then, is the game changer. At last I've found a book about the brutality of prison life that punched me in the guts just as hard as any movie I've ever seen. Told through snippets of voices, constructed dreamscapes (or should I say nightmares) of life on death row, Denfeld's debut is a marvel of empathetic storytelling. Centred around a condemned prisoner who, to the astonishment of all around him, wants to abandon his avenues of appeal and just die, it is both a ferocious indictment on the prison system and a profound consideration of the nature of punishment. Desperation, corruption, violence and misery abound, all but snuffing out the tiny glimmers of hope that try to slip through. The effect is claustrophobic, almost suffocating. When you finally catch your breath, you'll be thankful for having read it.
5 Out of 5 Morgan Freemans

The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
After dropping out of Philosophy in uni (see above), I picked up Anthropology to plug the gap in my degree. For the most part it was a horrible, horrible mistake. Sure, the subject is interesting, but the guy who taught it was so fixated on showing off about the brief time he spent on field research forty years beforehand that he didn't really bother to teach us anything of worth. We did, however, get to see photos of his naughty bits, which he paraded proudly alongside those of, um, better endowed island natives. Which leads me to Hanya Yanagahira's excellent debut, The People of The Trees. Based loosely on the case of Daniel Carleton Gadjusak (who discovered kuru), it is the fictional memoir of Nobel Prize winning doctor, anthropologist and, convicted pedophile, Dr. Norton Perina. Early in his career, Perina joins an expedition to Micronesia where he discovers a tribe of people who have chanced upon the fountain of youth. By eating the flesh of a rare turtle, they acquire almost unimaginable longevity (hundreds of years, possibly more). But eternal life comes at a terrible price: turtle flesh causes dementia. Told as Perina's memoir, carefully edited by his sycophantic acolyte Ronald Kubodera, The People In The Trees reads as a fascinating anthropological text. Indeed, there were times I lost myself so deeply in the narrative that I forgot it was fiction. However, behind the gripping tale of scientific discovery, lies a much darker subtext, one that raises some very difficult ethical questions. What are the limits of human experimentation? To what extent may the scientist interfere in the lives of his study subjects? Perina entrenches himself in the islander society and, ultimately, starts bringing its people home where they are essentially locked in glorified cages so their 'purity' is preserved. Also, unsurprisingly, the memoir acts as a self-serving justification by Perina. We know he was convicted of sexually abusing one of the island boys (he adopted over fifty of them and brought them to live with him) but his memoir frames the accusation as the ungrateful rebellion of a particularly problematic child. It is easy to believe him, especially with Kubodera's artful editing. It is not until the very end that we come to understand what really happened. By that time, we already know that Perina and Kubodera have disappeared. Needless to say, your heart will be ripped straight out of your chest.
5 Out Of 5 Bark Canoes

The General Returns To His Labyrinth: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927 - 2014)

on Friday, April 18, 2014
I suppose the writing was on the wall once doctors released Gabriel Garcia Marquez from hospital last week, but even so I was saddened to read that he died today. A pioneer, a poet and, for me, a personal hero, Marquez will be missed in the physical sense but, thanks to an almost unparalleled body of work (not to mention his gifting of magical realism to the literary world) he will always be with us in spirit. No doubt his death will cause a flurry of interest so if you're looking for a place to start, might I suggest his novellas, particularly No One Writes To The Colonel and Leaf Storm. They will change your world. When you're ready, move on to the incredibly complex but truly amazing General In His Labyrinth and Autumn of The Patriarch. Then read the rest. A fitting tribute to one of the true greats.

The Sci-Fi Author, Blessed Be He (Step Aside JK Rowling!)

on Thursday, April 17, 2014
Three cheers for the authorial bait-and-switch. Dickens writing as Boz, Stephen King as Richard Bachman, Dean Koontz as about three hundred different people, John Banville as Benjamin Black, JK Rowling as Robert Gailbraith... the list could go on forever. But given the time of year, here's one that I couldn't possibly... err... pass over.

Now, I doubt many of you are particularly au fait with the contemporary Czech science fiction movement so let me get you up to speed. For the past couple of months there's been only one book that matters - Altchulova Metoda (Altchul's Method) by Chaim Cigan. The first in a four book series it (according to Radio Praha) mixes "politics, prison cells and the secret police with the Middle Ages, Moses and Jewish history – a science fiction thriller told across continents and epochs." All pretty standard sci-fi stuff, I suppose (notwithstanding the heavy Jewish motifs).

So why the big fuss? It's not the book itself that's set tongues wagging so much as the identity of its author. The jacket guff claims Cigan to be a Czech emigre who now lives in Canada. Geography allayed suspicion in the absence of face-to-face interviews. Sure, the book was a success, but the Czech press weren't exactly about to to send hordes of reporters across the sea just to interview a genre writer. The phone works just fine, thank you.

However, within weeks of its release rumours began to circulate. This Cigan fellow... he just wasn't ringing true. Something was fishy... might I say, gefilte fishy. A bit of scratching around revealed Prague's best kept secret. No, not the location of the legendary Golem but, in literary terms, not that far off. Chaim Cigan was none other than the Chief Rabbi of Prague, Karol Sidon. Turns out he has a slightly unconventional idea of what makes a... sorry for this... "good book". As he said:

"Before I began writing this I couldn't read anything but what is considered lowbrow sci-fi literature, which I really love… The story almost unraveled by itself; it was fascinating for me to watch what kind of stuff was going on in my head."

Altchul's Method has yet to be translated into English and my Czech is, to use the vernacular, neupotřebitelný (work it out for yourselves). No doubt it's just a matter of time. Thankfully I still have lox of books to read in the meantime.

*Disclaimer: Yes, I am ashamed of almost very pun in this post.
** Double Disclaimer: I'm still a bit proud of the "gefilte fishy" one.

It Started With a Word: The Inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival

on Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Well, I've been sitting on the details of this for a while now but FINALLY I can let it out: having spent the past year on the organising committee of the first ever Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival we've finally unveiled our full program. And holy crap is it awesome (if I may say so myself). To be honest, I'm still kind of blown away by what our little team of incredibly hard working lit lovers has managed to put together. In addition to all the phenomenal Aussie writers on the bill (Elliot Perlman, Arnold Zable, John Safran, Michael Gawenda, Peter Singer, Kerri Sackville, Linda Jaivin and heaps more) we've managed to rope in Israel's Zeruya Shalev, New Yorkers Dara Horn and Matthue Roth as well as live link ups to superstars David Grossman and Irvin Yalom. Oh, and there's an opening gala of readings and original performances hosted by the inimitable Rachel Burger.

But wait there's more.

Put away your free steak knives, because I'll be making one of my increasingly rare public appearances to participate in three panels and I don't like sharp pointy things. The first, surprise surprise is about blogging. I'll be sitting alongside Australian journalism God Michael Gawenda and slam poet, novelist and zany video game programmer Matthue Roth riffing on life in the cloud. Next up is a gabfest with our two Yanks during which I expect not to get a word in edgewise. And, finally, I'll be sharing my favourite "forgotten gem" - an unrecognised Jewish classic - along with Arnold Zable and Renata Singer. If only I could choose between the veritable chest of such gems in my library. Best I can guess at the moment: it'll probably be Czech.

Early bird tickets went on sale today from the festival website. If you're in Melbourne or can head down at the end of May, get online and buy yours now.

And now a sexy picture:

Springtime For Hitler (Again): Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

on Tuesday, April 1, 2014
A spoiler for those of you who have yet to see the near-perfect jacket design of Timur Vermes's gutsy novel: Adolf Hitler. That's who's back. Without any attempt to explain the intervening sixty years, Vermes plops the most hated man in history into a field on the outskirts of modern day Berlin. At first, poor old Adolf thinks the war is still on and can't understand why the kids playing soccer (obviously Hitler Youth, though how dare they not wear their uniforms) not only don't show him the proper respect but don't even seem to know who he is. Then it dawns on him; there is no war, Eva's dead, his cronies are gone and, well, Germany has gone to shit. Adolf is angry. Batshit crazy ranting angry. Yep, Adolf is right at home.

Wandering back into the big city, Hitler is taken in by a kindly newspaper vendor who thinks he must be a method actor; the best he has ever seen. As luck would have it, the newspaper stand is in the entertainment district and the vendor knows some people who know some people and, before you can say Mein Golly Gott, Adolf finds himself as the political commentator on a popular comedy show. His rants bring the house down, making him (much to his confused delight) the most popular entertainer in Germany. Hitler is well and truly back!

Needless to say, Look Who's Back could have been a tasteless, vulgar exercise in cheap comedy (or worse). Yet, in Adolf Hitler Vermes has the perfect vehicle for "big idea" political and cultural satire. It is scary to admit, but it doesn't take too much tinkering to make the evil despot's diatribes disturbingly relevant. There are some hilariously light touches - Hitler trying to understand computers (especially U-tube, as he calls it) or getting his head around Goth culture - but Vermes really digs his claws in when it comes to Angela Merkel (Adolf does not approve), the modern German political system and the very difficult relationship the country has with its past. Some of the best laughs come from the deepest cuts. When Hitler visits the fascist party headquarters he is horrified to find it peopled by pimply kids and reprobates. He takes them to task on camera, completely eviscerating the movement. It is considered his best skit yet. Meanwhile, his greatest opposition comes from right wing thugs who think he is mocking their great hero. Hilariously (at least in terms of irony), he is bashed by a couple of skinheads and almost killed. Thereafter, every left wing party tries to co-opt him as their own - a hero for the anti-violence, anti-fascist movement. You can't help but laugh.

Look Who's Back is a very funny book. It is also frightening. The idea that contemporary culture's obsession with celebrity could bring Hitler back to power might seem somewhat hysterical but it provides serious food for thought. As I finished the novel I was reminded of that line in The Clash's White Man In Hammersmith Palais: "If Adolf Hitler flew in today/ They'd send a limousine anyway." Scary but, I fear, quite true.
4.5 Out Of 5 Unfashionable Moustaches

Ah, heck - I just have to post the cover. Pure design genius!

All's Well That Ends Well: Tales From The Arse End of a Novel

on Friday, March 28, 2014
A recent feature in The Independent got me thinking - why do we always fixate on literature's best opening lines? Yes, there is an incredible art to crafting the perfect hook. And a couple of obvious ones immediately jump to mind:

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. (Obviously using the Bernofsky translation here).

Heck, I could rattle them off all day. I even know the beginnings to a bunch of books I've never read thanks, in part, to the constant deluge of articles about the best first lines in literature. The general agreement that seems to surround a certain few seem to suggest that they are self-perpetuating creatures much like The Most Photographed Barn In America from Delillo's White Noise. It's like a bloody mantra. For what it's worth, you might want to resist the intense gravity of consensus and branch out because there are some rather excellent openings that just don't get the recognition they deserve:

I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it. Philippe Claudel, Brodeck's Report.

Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change. Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole

At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who gave up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write. Enrique Vila-Matas, Montano's Malady.

Great. Now I've gone and got myself caught up in the very thing I'd come here to slag off. But it's so much fun!

I digress.

While the merits of a punchy opening are self-evident, spare a thought for the poor arse-end of a novel. Too often overlooked, a great last line can ensure the novel stays with the reader long after it is shelved/given to the Salvos/sold at your grandma's garage sale. You can blame Karl Marlantes for this latest obsession of mine. As I finally reached the end of his uneven but rather brilliant brick, Matterhorn, I was so blown away by the last line that I forgave all the book's imperfections. Spoiler alert: This will not spoil the book for you. Check it out:

"He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across the landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change."

Sublime. Those three sentences have haunted me for two weeks now. What then of other last lines? To me there is a clear frontrunner. Nothing has punched me in the gut quite so hard as Jospeh K.'s cry of existential resignation at the end of The Trial.

"“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him."

Among the classics, a few others stand out:

"For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of hate." Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man; and from man to pig; and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." George Orwell, Animal Farm.

Not that I'm offering anything new here. You can readily find all those with a basic Google search for "best last lines". I want to start a new mantra. Reload the canon, so to speak. So here are a few of my favourite closers from off the beaten track:

"And now, as he turned and joined in on the kicking and screaming, and the paddywagon had begun to pull away from the cemetery-in-shambles which would be the final installment in a ten week media blitz, he knew for certain that nothing was finished, that John was not in a better place, and that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. A lord at rest tends to roll in his grave." Tristan Egolf, Lord of the Barnyard

"A new legend will arise of a great flood sent by God upon a sinful humanity. And there will be stories of drowned mythical lands said to have been the cradle of human culture; there will perhaps be legends about some country called England or France or Germany...'
'And then?'
'... I don't know how it goes on.'
" Karel Capek, War With The Newts

"And the mouse took her own life." Jesse Ball, The Curfew.

"With a quick gesture he tosses back his straight greying hair, dragging his feet a bit, as if each step raised clouds of ashes, although there are no ashes in sight." Harry Mulisch, The Assault

"When he turned to look up for the last time at Ephraim, all he saw was a six pointed star turning slowly against the black sky." Michel Tournier, The Erl King (Also published as The Ogre)

"It all works out just right, and it turns out that you can get shot in the stomach and live, if you do it just right, and it turns out that I'm okay, it just happens to be the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life, and it feels really good." Charles Yu, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

That'll do me for now. Can't think of a punchy way to end this. (Insert best ever closing line to a blog post here)

Kafka's Metamorphosis: A Classic Transformed

on Tuesday, March 25, 2014
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Tr: Susan Bernofsky)
When it comes to the cult of Franz Kafka, I have always been a lonely island miles off the coast of the greater archipelago. Sure, I love the usual suspects - The Trial is my favourite novel of all time. In The Penal Settlement is one third of my holy trinity of short stories (Peretz's Bontshe The Silent and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart make up the rest), though it sometimes vies for position with The Hunger Artist. But when it comes to the one story that everyone seems to fall over themselves to love, The Metamorphosis, I am, at best tepid. Conceptually it is a work of genius but I have always thought it a little stale in execution. It was with some hesitation, then, that I picked up Susan Bernofsky's new translation of this "classic" tale and, colour me off-grey indistinguishable insect colour, I am a convert. I probably need not proselytise too much; I get that I am the guy who is turning up late to the party. But holy mother of Joseph K., Bernofsky has breathed so much new life into it that it was like reading the book afresh (her choice not to name the insect is itself a great start). I am reminded of Breon Mitchell's astounding translation of The Trial which managed to inject Kafka's humour back into the text and restore its timeless tone. So too Bernofsky has made The Metamorphosis something that might well have been written last week by a funny yet tortured writer struggling to make sense of a world spun out of control. It's current and exciting, yet entirely faithful. No matter what you think of The Metamorphosis - and I'm guessing that most of you love it - I urge you to go out and read this latest translation. I dare say it will transform before your eyes!
5 Out Of 5 Crushed Carapaces

Our Man In Hanoi: A Brief Encounter With Graham Greene

on Wednesday, March 19, 2014
It's funny how fate sometimes lands you in the lap of literary history.

There I was, happily traipsing through the streets of Hanoi, taking happy snaps of my grandmother and me eating all sorts of unidentifiable creatures, when a friend commented on one of my Facebook pics that I was at the hotel in which Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. That's right, no expense has been spared for this holiday extravaganza with 90-year-old gran; we're shacking up at the Hotel Metropole, the only building here that is older than she is. A few quick chats with the manager and I tee up a visit to the Greene suite (which, I find out, is still used as a regular room).

Fast forward a couple of hours. The concierge leads us through the narrow corridors, swipes his key card and presto... we're in the room. Well, not that room. Turns out there was a slight miscommunication. I am in W. Somerset Maugham's room, the place he worked on The Gentleman In The Parlour. I plonk myself down at his desk, feeling thoroughly British. See:

It's cool but it is not THE room. Rumours abound that Graham's place is the showpiece, left intact from his days writing what is arguably his most celebrated work. Heck, I can make believe, if only for this experience, that I actually like The Quiet American. There's even word that his typewriter is still on the desk. I am practically plutzing to see it. I ask the concierge who says that unfortunately he doesn't think it's available to see. I become a petulant child... "But... But... But the manager promised!" A few quick calls and he comes back. The room is ready for me to see. I feel like a total dick but one who is about to play with Graham Greene's typewriter.

A gold plaque announces room 228 as The Graham Greene Suite. There's a second plaque telling me it's also the room where Australian Governor General Quentin Bryce had her headquarters while in Hanoi, but I don't really care. I am a proud aussie and all but seriously this room is about one person and one person only. And maybe his typewriter. The door opens to... just another opulent Metropole suite. Yes, any remnant of Greene's stay has been swept aside to make way for the ugly intrusion of modern technology. Large flatscreen TV. Fancy iPod dock with garish speakers above the sacred desk. It's a travesty. I compose myself, let the disappointment wash away. Graham Greene may well and truly have left the building but HOLY CRAP I'm at the desk. I'll just pretend there's a typewriter. Clackety-clack.

I suspect the concierge thinks I'm insane. I ask him to take a photo of me with the great man. Now we're besties and everything. Say "existential Catholic angst".

The Folio Prize: From The Jaws of Victory...

on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Well, I should have seen this coming...

After months of overblown hoopla, they've finally announced the inaugural winner of the Folio Prize. You know, the one that was supposed to knock the Booker off its perch... It all got off to a promising start - a shortlist that, while not exactly groundbreaking, was sufficiently interesting to hint at something special. Breaths were baited. Then held. And then they go give it to the most overrated book of the past 18 months. Yes, the 2014 Folio Prize was awarded this morning to none other than George Saunders for Tenth of December. Cue mass exhalation. I'm not saying it's a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It has a couple of amazing stories. And, while on the topic, it chalks up another major literary win for the short story; ain't no doubt they can play with the big boys now. But a more worthy recipient that Rachel Kushner, Sergio De La Pava, Anne Carson or Kent Haruf? Methinks not.

If there's a form of high culture hipsterism, this has got to be it. Yes, from the jaws of victory the Folio committee has snatched defeat. Which leaves Team Booker with one year's grace to get it right. Mark the 14th of October in your diaries right now. Potentially a far more important date than the Tenth of December.

Reading On A Jet Plane (Vietnam Edition)

on Monday, March 10, 2014
I'm off to Vietnam next week, taking my 90 year old grandmother on what I hope will be an amazing holiday. She's super ace, adventure hungry and great fun to hang around with. Much crazy food experimentation shall ensue. And cultural immersion. And just awesomeness.

Vietnam is one of those places I've always wanted to go but never had the chance. In fact, now I think about it, I know almost nothing about the place other than its cuisine (probably my favourite) and... well... to borrow from Fawlty Towers, don't mention the war. Grandma's been (obvious joke redacted) so she's set. I, on the other hand, risk turning up and sounding like an American tourist (apologies to my American friends but, seriously, you are really annoying when you travel).

Fourteen hours. That's how long I have to fix the problem. Yep, I'm gonna learn as much as I possibly can on the plane from Melbourne. I suppose a more normal fellow would be hitting the Lonely Planet guide, studying it in great detail, planning every minute of the holiday. Screw that. I want novels. Excellent novels. That's how I'm gonna learn! Now, before you jump down my throat, yes I've read The Quiet American. Didn't love it (oh god, crucify me now!) but did read it. Alas, that pretty much completes my entire Vietnam reading experience to date. Flicking through the various lists on Goodreads and Amazon, I can't help but notice that almost every novel about the country focuses on one thing and one thing only. To that end, I've already stocked up on a few must reads: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (which I've been wanting to read since it came out), Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien, Dispatches by Michael Herr (yes I realise it's not a novel) and The Last Supper by Charles McCarry.

That about gets me to Singapore. I still have another three and a half hours to get to Hanoi and I want some non-war books - preferably by Vietnamese writers. Which is where you come in. Hit me up with suggestions ASAP so Grandma doesn't spend the whole week rolling her eyes at my absolute ignorance.

Please, do it pho her! (sorry)