Finding Purpose in Purgatory: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

on Monday, September 28, 2015
Of all the strange cities I've visited around the world, few hold as special a place in my heart as Haifa. Mid-Eastophiles take note. Forget Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Forget Istanbul or Beirut. Amman? Nope. To me, it's all about that little city on a hill in Israel's north.

For those not in the know, Haifa is home to the best falafel in the world (Falafel Orion, made with white bean rather than chick pea and about fifty times more delicious than anything you'll find anywhere else) as well as the nicest bunch of guys to get together to form a punk band, Useless ID. It's also the only place in Israel where the cultural melting pot actually works. Jews, Muslims and Christians live in the kind of harmony we all speak about wistfully when we bandy around the idea of "Peace in the Middle East". That's not to say it isn't a city of tensions and contradictions. It's still Israel, after all. It's still kind of messed up, albeit in a very complex way. It is this very complexity that makes Haifa the perfect place for Leah Kaminsky to explore some very difficult issues of history, politics and the sense of self in her wonderful debut novel, The Waiting Room.

The book opens with Dina picking through the rubble in the aftermath of a suicide bombing. Ok, so straight up we realise we're in for some heavy shit. The prologue is short and sharp and, when the main body of the novel kicks off earlier that same day, we know from the outset that time is quite literally ticking. If there is such a thing as the Melbourne Expat Every-Jew, Dina is it. Born and raised in Australia, she is drawn to the promised land by a combination of ideology and love. She hits the ground running, quickly building her reputation as a GP in a local clinic while doing her best as a wife and mother. Like most Melbourne Jews, she also carries some serious baggage. She comes from Holocaust stock and is haunted, in her case quite literally, by the ghost of her obnoxious, loud-mouthed, judgemental mother. It is an interesting device - the woman acts as greek chorus and presiding magistrate throughout - though it might have you questioning Dina's mental health at times.

The Waiting Room is very much about the the way we live in a state of perpetual suspension. We are all, it seems, waiting for something, anything. Whether it be the return of love, the birth of a child (Dina is pregnant), the results of a test or the tangible manifestation of fear, time marches on undeterred. The question, though, is how we go about it. Sometimes, we can do little but prolong the agony. In one of the most moving sections, Dina cannot bring herself to tell a young mother that her symptoms are not caused by another pregnancy but, rather, the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. Other times, the waiting breaks us. Dina watches in exasperation as one of her more painful patients - an hilarious caricature of the typical pushy Israeli - tries to force her way to the front of the queue and then explodes at an unfortunate young Arab tradesman who is there to do some fixits. The book is full of this sort of thing - pregnant pauses and unexpected denouements. It also posits an interesting take on why we wait: the act can be an end in itself. It can be restorative, reparative. As the old Arab cobbler tells Dina when she comes to pick up some shoes, "Repairs take time". So it is with Dina in the end. The bomb goes off - we always knew it would - but it is what will set her on the way to a more balanced, meaningful life.

That Kaminsky should have such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of waiting comes as little surprise. The Waiting Room took her over ten years to complete. Thankfully, the book is all the better for it. Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for her next one.

Booker Prize 2015: The Stricken Field

on Sunday, September 27, 2015
Have you ever wondered which books the various publishers hoped would be in line for Booker glory? I'm not sure when Bookworld went all Hollywood on us, but a quick browse through my local bookstore this afternoon revealed a stricken field of heavy hitters in the New Releases section, names that have shown up on Booker shortlists of yore but were conspicuously absent this year (in retrospect). The only real surprise for me when the long list was announced was Jonathan Franzen's new brick, Purity. No doubt someone at FSG saw a sure-fire home run for America's first Booker. Alas, poor Johnny turned out to be an also ran. Never fear, he was in good company. Books released in the past week or so that I assume were scheduled to coincide with Booker season include:

Salman Rushdie - Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Pat Barker - Noonday
Andrew Miller - The Crossing
Rupert Thomson - Katherine Carlyle
William Boyd - Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay
John Banville - The Blue Guitar
Sebastian Faulks - Where My Heart Used to Beat
Maragret Attwood - The Heart Goes Last
Jeanette Winterson - The Gap of Time

Interesting omissions, n'est-ce pas? Now I'm left to wonder who will be wearing what on the red carpet and whether Will Self can play the role of literary Joan Rivers for TMZ... I clearly have too much time on my hands.

Booker Prize 2015: Best. Shortlist. Ever. (Well, not ever, but almost)

on Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Fifteen minutes down and I'm ready to call it: This is the best Booker Prize shortlist in years. Smart, literary and accessible, it promises hours of satisfying reading for those of us who stubbornly push our way through every nominated word in every nominated sentence in every nominated book every fucking year. And, while I'm a pretty smug bastard, I'm not only saying it because I pretty much picked it.

If you haven't seen the announcement yet, the six novels vying for Booker glory are:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Leaving aside the Gold Watch nomination for Tyler, and Sahota's book that I know nothing about (but, judging by the other nominees is probably excellent), we have been gifted with four very worthy books, any of which will not bring shame or disappointment to the Booker name. It might even settle the great Booker/Folio shitfight.

As I said when the long list was announced, smart money would be on either Marlon James or Chigozie Obioma. I've only read the latter and I knew from the outset that it was bound to end up here. Meanwhile, I've heard nothing but the most frenzied of raves for James's story of Jamaica's most tumultuous period (which happened to include the attempted assassination of Bob Marley). Satin Island is brilliant - one of my favourite books this year - but it might be a bit intellectually offbeat for such a mainstream literary prize. And while I haven't read the Yanagihara yet, her last book, The People of the Trees, is one of the few truly revelatory novels of the past five years and, if the hype is to be believed, this is just as good.

I'm a little disappointed that Bill Clegg's long listed novel Did You Ever Have a Family didn't make it. I'm halfway through and it is a deeply moving novel about loss; a chain of voices reminiscent of the late great Andre Brink combined with Iain Pears and the mid-to-late 20th century American storytelling tradition of Wallace Stegner, William Faulkner and Richard Yates. The parochial Australasian in me is similarly disappointed that Anna Smaill didn't get through with her well-received novel, The Chimes but hey, we bagged it last year. And, for what it's worth, I'd have liked to see Marilynne Robinson's Lila there instead of Tyler's book. I'm never one for gold watches (I'm looking at you Ian McEwan).

The Booker Prize will be announced on October 15. I'm still calling it for Obioma. But we all know how that's likely to turn out.

What I'm Not Currently Reading: A Musing From The Cemetery of Forgotten Tomes

on Wednesday, September 2, 2015
I log into Goodreads.

Three books ahead in the Reading Challenge? Check! Friends making friends with people far cooler than me? Check! Friends reading books that make me think less of them? Check!

My eyes drift to the right of the screen. I am overcome by dread. There... There...

A Blink of The Screen: Collected Short Fiction by Terry Pratchett.
Date Added: January 5 2013

Fever and Spear: Your Face Tomorrow Vol. 1 by Javier Marias
Date Added: June 25 2013

Welcome, my friends, to the cemetery of forgotten tomes. Here lie the remains of books I'd hoped to love, books I started with the intention of adding to my bloated tally, books I refuse to admit I've given up on. It is the dark corner of my obsessive affliction, that desperate need to finish every book I start no matter how much I despise it. Don't be fooled by its shiny gate, those neon words flashing in the night sky. It is an illusion. A delusion. "Currently Reading"? I don't think so. This place is a barren wasteland.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.
Date Added: July 29 2014

Oh, yeah, I remember that one. What a stroke of creative genius. I'm serious. Phonetically scripted middle English recounting the Norman invasion of 1066. Holy shit it took me ages to get the hang of reading it. I was invested. I spent a good while patting myself on the back once I could get through a page in under ten minutes. I'm surprised I didn't end up with tennis elbow. And then... Is Terry Pratchett still alive? In this universe he is. Thank you Goodreads - you have caused a ripple in the space/time continuum. Uncle Terry, hiding in a box, waiting for me to lift its lid.

Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere.
Date Added: November 9 2014

Don't suppose you read Class Trip? Probably the creepiest novella of all time. Made me want to read anything Carrere ever wrote. And God knows I've done my best but, I'm sad to say, nothing has come even remotely close. For the most part he has tended towards reportage. I don't like reportage. Still, Limonov looked promising. There was a bit of buzz. I jumped in, full of hope. Three chapters in... I'll get back to it sometime. Or not. Maybe I should try the Marias again. I also swore to myself that I'd read everything of his after I fell in love with The Infatuations (my book of the year back in 2013). But shouldn't I just knock off poor Terry first? Pardon the pun.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Date Added: November 22 2014

Apparently I started (and finished) six books between the time I opened the Carrere and the Ferrante. What the hell is wrong with me? So far as I recall, I really enjoyed the first half of My Brilliant Friend. I'll definitely have to go back. Ok, so one out of five I am, quite genuinely, Currently Reading. It's just taking me a while.

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov.
Date Added: May 19 2015

A fitting title. You probably recall my love of Umberto Eco's concept of the Anti-Library: the books on your shelf that you have not read. Eco says it's just as important as your proper library. It says just as much about you. Here on the screen, in that little corner of my Goodreads page, is a glimpse of my Anti-Library. Ironically, at home, my real world Anti-Library consists of at least five books by Umberto Eco. But I digress.

Maybe it's time I culled. Of the six books I'm Currently Reading, I can confidently say that I ain't touching two of them again. If only I could bring myself to click that little "x" and have them disappear from my life forever.

Out damn spot...

But I can't.

I will go to my grave with these Marks of Cain continuing on in the electronic ether.