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