1Q2021

Finch – Vandermeer: Once in awhile I get it in my head that I’m going to get back into SciFi as passionately as I did as a teenager. So I try a book like this every couple of years and then quickly put aside the thought. This novel went closer than many though – I loved the original bio/fungal setting and could imagine a film based on it, but it did go on a little long and felt grindy in parts. I’m glad I gave it a go – wouldn’t it be great to swallow a memory bulb oneday? 3.5 stars.

Yesterday’s Weather – Enright: Short story collections can be hit and miss for me, and I was probably not really in the mood for this book in January when I’m playing on my phone till late and then trying to squeeze in 1 story before bed each night. I was reminded of Joan Didion when reading them, but I think the moods/styles (no consolation, bitterness, subtle revelations) work better in a novel instead of the clever, quirky short stories here. I finished some of them barely knowing what had happened! 3.5 stars.

The Old Wives Tale – Bennett: Despite it being a long read, I have little to say about the book – it was certainly not a chore to work through, my chief pleasure not necessarily being the contrasts between the two sisters, but instead, the contrasts between life 100+ years ago and now. This is why I read the classics thesedays it seems! There was something rhythmic and methodical about the book which I liked. Having to read all about one sister’s life to old age, before even beginning the other sister’s story was a wonderful piece of delayed satisfaction in an era where a writer nowdays couldn’t help but leap frog back and forth every second chapter to satisfy our ADD. 4 stars!

Stoner – Williams: Boy I wish my Op Shop paperback copy had this pensive cover, as I probably would have read the book years earlier. The 1965 novel follows the life of a farmer’s son turned tenured university lecturer as he moves through life – his marriage, his parents, his daughter and work colleagues all proving difficult, but somehow he manages, despite so much sorrow and disappointment. There were times when I couldn’t suspend disbelief (could a wife just be so awful and odd?) and it felt perversely maudlin and engineered, but on the whole it soared. Who’d have thought the academic achievements of a middling professor and his minor goals in life would make for such a quirky interesting story. A sad and moving novel. 4 stars.

Sellevision – Burroughs: It’s been awhile since I finished a book in 4 days, and whilst that’s normally a good sign, in this case it took about the same before I’d forgotten about it completely. There’s some showbiz satire here, but nothing that made me laugh really -mostly caricatures and storylines that ended predictably. I don’t really know how it ended up in my To Read pile, but it still made for a pleasant diversion. 3 stars.

The Abstainer – McGuire: God I was looking forward to this one. I considered The North Water probably the best book I’d read in the past year or two, and this one began with similar promise. A troubled Irish cop pursues a would-be assassin in 1860s Manchester, where treachery and torture are part of everyday life. It was a cracker of a page turner really, until the last chapter, which was the ultimate gut-punch after a series of blows. Could there be a less Hollywood ending to a book? Devastating! 4.5 stars.

Final books for 2020

The Blessed Rita – Tommy Wieringa: Having a Dutch surname, I was a little excited to read a book by a Dutch Booker longlist candidate, and the cover entranced me too. I loved how the author was unafraid to take the mood of the novel into difficult / unpopular places with themes of familial obligation, rejection of sexual compromise, fanatical loyalty to flawed friends, and encroaching mental collapse. I’ve always been interested in characters who are illogically wedded to a place or a situation, and the self-loathing, frank internal monologues of Paul were refreshingly real and believable, even if it made for glum reading at times. I’d read another of his for sure. 4 stars, and definitely not for everyone.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck: This is the 3rd time I’ve read this book (1982, 1997 and now 2020) and it remains a powerful work, most notable for its anger about the mechanisation/outsourcing of farming, corporate encroachment on family businesses, and how without unionising, workers will be pit against each other in a race to the bottom. The humanity shown by the Joad family is breathtaking in its generosity, and conditions steadily deteriorate into a dire climax, ending with a final incredible scene. Still 5 stars for me.

Glove Pond – Roger Thorpe: A revolting exaggeration of a novella which deceived with its beautiful front cover. It was probably fun to write but really just a silly exercise. The pages are indispersed within The Gum Thief so I was able to skip those pages. 3 stars.

The Gum Thief – Douglas Coupland: An easy and fun read – never dull and always full of surprises. A series of letters between some unlikely work colleagues undergoing their own struggles. Probably really tough to write and he made it look simple. Life affirming and just what I probably needed after a few heavy books. 4 stars.

Truth – Peter Temple: Truth was a denser read than I expected, requiring some work from the reader to piece fragmented stories into a whole, but it came together pretty well in the second half. Plenty of very Australian references which made it fun, but overall more a character study of a flawed Homicide chief than a crime novel. Wasn’t super well received in my book group but I still enjoyed it. 4 stars.

This is How – M.J Hyland: Unsettling, but an easy, compelling read. An awkward young man begins a new adventurous phase of his life by the seaside in Britain, but despite his confidence, it all goes horribly wrong. A terrific book which was probably harder to pull off than it seems – I was on edge reading the dating scenes, and to have the novel turn on a sixpence before the half way mark was brave and shocking (but successful). The final scene was perfectly done too. Must read another of hers – 4 stars.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders: Nothing like what I expected (in a good way), an amazing collage of voices turned what I thought would be a dry historical book-club chore into quite an adventure. Probably not something you’d recommend to a friend, as it’s such an odd, niche book, but it was short, imaginative and original. Who knew that the scenes at the gates of St. Peters might be so dramatic. 3.5 stars.

The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov: An original, kooky book, which I probably wish I hadn’t bothered with. Who recommended this to me again? Farcical and surreal with jarring re-imaginations of the last days of Jesus and naked witches riding broomsticks. Quite a romp but I just couldn’t go with it really. 3 stars.

The Plague – Albert Camus: It was hard to not draw parallels between our milder COVID incarceration situation, but for a book written in the 40s it was surprising how little changes. People still panic and are fearful, people dare to hope and dream, and people seek our shared higher purposes when faced with adversity. The second half was a little tedious, with descriptions of exhausted and comatose health workers and conflicted potential escapees wondering what they were truly seeking. Enjoyed most of it though, but boy I’d hate to have to write an essay on the themes. 3 stars.

The Riders – Tim Winton: I’m the last person to worry about lack of a story arc or things happening in a novel and I’m glad I wasn’t too tied to the cover blurb because things went south quickly really. There’s something wonderful and unrepentantly Australian about his hardworking, ratbag character Skully, and the lack of feel good ending which dates this as a 90s book for me. And in a good way. It reads as an alarmingly visceral thriller, except there’s a repetitiveness to the second half encounters which left me occasionally frustrated and incredulous about the wisdom of his 7 year old daughter. I thought the writing was terrific, particularly the mad, whirling scenes of glimpsed fragments of his wife. Beautifully done. 5 stars, though not for everyone.

Elizabeth Costello – Coetzee: There was a lot to love about this series of chapters, each a trip to a new location by alter-ego, writer and lecturer Elizabeth Costello, but some intellectual tedium also. I wish Coetzee had left out the long transcripts of her lectures on human nature and kept describing a son’s exasperation with his willful mother, and his recognition (and acceptance) of her flaws. The book is described as uncompromising, mainly due to it’s continual references to Greek history, and to intellectual dinner conversations, which feel a little mechanical / wooden at times. So much of it was original and interesting that it still gets 4 stars from me.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia – Sophy Roberts: It’s a quirky thing to centre a book around, and it didn’t really work for me. I love pianos and I’m curious about Russian/Siberian history, but apart from 3 or 4 chapters, I found myself putting the book aside and snoozing plenty of times, which is not a good sign. I liked the use of photos of people and places sprinkled throughout, and really, there should have been more of them, because it’s sorta tough to visualise the Siberian/Mongolean border country and its people without them. 3 stars.

Golden Hill: Francis Spufford: Gained for the bargain basement hardback price of $12, I launched into it pretty much immediately and it intrigued me from the start. Not only was the premise interesting, but an unexpected, feisty love interest was revealed too, which in the style of the classics (it was the 1740s after all) was heavily chaperoned, reserved and always uncertain in outcome. I just loved it really – what a triumph of a book. A nice surprise ending too, if not in the Hollywood style. 4.5 stars.

The Time we have Taken – Steve Carroll: If I’d realised this book was the third in a trilogy, I may not have started on it, but I’m glad I did. A series of people (mostly older) are shown in degrees of somnambulant stasis, set in routines and becoming detached from their purpose, unable to make a leap to begin a new version of themselves. Read this if you’re in your 50s I say! Loved it.. 4.5 stars.

So much for GoodReads exports

So, I made quite the effort in late Summer when dusting down all the novels as we do every 5 years or so, to use the GoodReads Android app to scan the ISBNs or front covers of them, and got through 550 or so. We excluded all Kim’s fantasy and crime thank god as that would have put it into the mid 1000s. Besides, she’s not interested in documenting stuff like that anyhow. Then, I find out that Amazon no longer allows easy exports into WordPress blogs, so I raise my middle finger to that company.

Here’s the summary of the last 4 months of reading – I joined a book club in December so I got to read a few I normally wouldn’t. None of them were terrible.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowdon: I rarely read autobiographies, because so few of them seem any good to me. And perhaps because I’d read a bit about cryptography in the past and done lots of IT work, I found myself a bit impatient with this one. When the anticipated adrenaline rush of his data collection / encryption and final flight to Hong Kong came, it seemed so normal and unremarkable somehow. There wasn’t a ton here I felt I learned, but some of the comments of the constitution (and the intention of many to limit government power) stuck with me. Finding out that his girlfriend was now with him (and married) in Moscow in exile was some solace, as I’m sure his new life and prospects are not great. 3 stars.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton: I got a little sucked in by the interesting cover and the superlatives, but found the first half a bit of an unrealistic slog. Never been much of a fan of the 13 year old viewpoint / coming of age stuff, and there’s my usual faint cultural cringe to deal with. It sped up a lot in the last quarter, which helped me finish it, but it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone. Should have been called Boy gets Girl. I’m sure it’s popular for the feelgood ending but can’t give it more than 3 stars.

Life of Pi by Yan Martel (book club): It was a lot more straightforward and engaging than I expected, with a few nice surprises too. The visit to Meerkat island in particular was fascinating in a Gullivers’ Travels way but I’m still wondering whether those chapters about Pi’s poly-religious experimentation had a deeper meaning which I didn’t get. The reveal at the end was wonderfully done but there’s no way I want to revisit all the animal butchery of his survival again in a film version. Not sure I’m about to run out and recommend it to anyone but it wasn’t too much of a slog, even if the main character could be highly annoying at times. 4 stars.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara : A deeply romantic and sentimental book which felt repetitive in parts and was overly long, yet still completely engrossing, often in disturbing, voyeuristic ways. I had no preconceived ideas about the novel (hadn’t even read the synopsis) and so at times it hit me like a truck in ways that books rarely do. I took off a half star for length and for the way that so much of the love and devotion was irritatingly perfect and idealised. Still, an incredible book, that haunts after finishing. 4.5 stars.

Dear Life by Alice Munro: There’s such emotional depth in each of these stories (and a sense of unpredictability) that often when they end you half expect the next chapter to be a continuation. Some of them could be novellas in their own right. She plumbs the depths of human irrationality and insecurities with the lightest of touches and the result is satisfying (and occasionally shocking), even if the endings are sometimes elusive and unclear. 4 stars.

Fay by Larry Brown: I grabbed this book out of a Please Take: Free cardboard box outside an Op Shop in Hamtramck in Detroit, and took it back to Oz in my suitcase, where it sat for a few years. I remembered reading a few of his books 10 years ago and liking the style, but worried that I’d moved on a bit. I’m happy to say it was a nice reunion, and although a little slow in parts, the Mississippi vibe and tone was perfect. There’s something very genuine about his writing, and I’m glad he resisted the temptation to finish Fay’s journey like a Hollywood movie. 4 stars.

Drylands by Thea Astley: Book club time, and it was nice to read something I might normally skip over: Thea Astleys’ Drylands from 1999. Although some story lines ending up unresolved or had characters that never reappeared, it reminded me in parts of Wake in Fright (drinking, uneducated heathens, suspicious of book readers, treating women as owned, violence), there were some wonderful tensely written scenes – the part aboriginal nomad naming his white half brother in a public meeting; women being removed by force from a writing workshop by their suspicious husbands; wealthy families drinking with the local police and being untouchable. I end up enjoying it quite a bit, though it was a bit uneven. 4 stars.

The Neighbourhood by Mario Vargas Llosa: I really ripped through this book, as it was punchy, sexy and a simple read. A high profile government figure is blackmailed and exposed by a gossip magazine which published photos of him cavorting with prostitutes in an orgy. My doubts began in the second half – a creeping sense that the translation was askew, or an author who started with a great idea and then couldn’t finish if off in under 250 pages. This culminated in the word salad of The Whirlpool chapter, which was a mashup of the next 10 chapters in one just to get us to the finish line. In the end, the reconciliation scenes with a remorseful, but brave journalist and an unwitting photographer seemed embarrassingly earnest and clumsy. Llosa can still write a heck of an erotic scene though – these Peruvians! 3.5 stars.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges was a fun read – full of quirky family characters and made for TV, in the vein of John Irving. This yellowed 1993 copy had sat around our place for years and I finally succumbed (glad I did) as the chapters flew by really easily. I’m not sure I really expected Gilbert would be 24 and leading a second life as a gigolo when I first picked it up, but that was a nice surprise. Kim tells me that Johnny Depp plays him in the film, so I won’t be tempted to watch it – I’m really not a fan. Plus, I really don’t fancy seeing Arnie covered in sauce, dirt and pickles for half the movie, nor a massively obese mum with an eating and smoking obsession. 4 stars!

The last batch

Is there a more magnificent collection of short stories than this 900 page monster Collected Stories by John Cheever? Before beginning, in my mind I’d confused Cheever for Raymond Carver, who I had mixed feelings about – his unsentimental, brusk (but highly acclaimed) shorts I’d read a decade ago and left me a bit cold. Once I realised Cheever was a different beast, I let these period pieces of the 50s and 60s wash over me. The word luminous (from the review on the back) comes to mind when thinking about these 60 short stories – so many of them unpredictable and odd little urban stories of the affluent suburban neighbourhoods of his upbringing. Kim looked him up and told me about a famous one of his “The Swimmer” before I’d read it, and partly spoiled it, but there were so many here that I loved, it was hard to pick a dud. Occasionally uncomfortable, like the male stalker in The Chaste Clarissa, an office dalliance gone wrong in The Five Forty Eight, and the mortified parents in Clancy in the Tower of Babel, there was also plenty of playful commentary on suburban ambition, and a wonderful lack of predictability all round. Probably my best read in years – I could do it all again now. 5 stars.

I haven’t read any other books by Jim Crace, but this one, Harvest is a lot like those of Geraldine Brooks thematically. I’m a bit confused about the exact era, but it seemed to be around the time (16th or 17th century) when enclosure was increasingly occurring, and more efficient agricultural practices were being enforced upon traditional farm workers in small villages across the UK. I thought it was a pretty successful novel, easy to read, and also staggeringly cruel in parts. 4 stars.

The podcast BackListed recommended Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, but all I could seem to find was The Loser, which in hindsight was probably a better choice for me. From what I can tell, they are similar books, except the former is rantings about the petty smallness and inwardness of Austria seen through the eyes of some ageing art critics, and The Loser was also angry, but less easy to define, being more focused on the lives and achievements of Glenn Gould, Wertheimer and the unknown narrator, all virtuoso pianists. To say this is a swirling, circular monologue of a novel is an understatement, and any quick lookup / podcast tells that the author was known for being a difficult, death-obsessed and uncompromising. I don’t think I’ll read another one of his, but I still found it interesting if irrational and misanthropic. 4 stars.

I can’t resist the odd bit of eroticism and there’s no doubt that James Salter did it well in A Sport and a Pastime, however I found myself reading it in tiny sections, distracted by my phone, or by chess puzzles or Twitter. Just a total mismatch for my mood at the time, despite the writing being really good. To explain, after about 1/3 of the way in, the book mostly cycled between daily wake up morning sex, driving to the next French village, baths together, and then finding a nice place to have dinner. Worst of all, in the end, the handsome American just leaves and flies home, however somehow all parties are sated. 3.5 stars.

What did I do in 2019?

Well, I’ll start off with what I didn’t do – run. By May or June my foot soreness had reached the point that I couldn’t go on, and I ended up getting some scans and eventually a cortisone injection into my left heel in August. Managed a couple of runs after that before things returned to their sorry state. I wish I could say that I suddenly found solace in swimming or riding but those things never really happened either. Hello 73kg again.

I did have a great reading year though, and inspired by Kim and Jenny joining a book club, I went to a Meetup book club in North Fitzroy in December and gave away a copy of my favourite book this year (Beauty is a Wound). We didn’t watch as much TV together this year, but Silicon Valley, The Man in the High Castle, The Crown and Game of Thrones come to mind.

This year I got more involved in my fantasy baseball league (UDL), became more confident in my player trading, did some Skype interviews and got nominated as the secretary for 2020. I started collecting player cards for an album that reflected my team at the end of each season. That was really fun.

In Feb I started some piano lessons again at Red Note Studios in Gilbert Road, and wound up doing my grade 1 AMEB exam on a very nervous weekday morning in December. I didn’t think I played my set pieces very well, but the instructor mostly disagreed and I wound up with a great result. My hands were shaking at lunch at Miss Margaret 10 minutes afterwards. I’ll take a bit of time off for a few months before committing to another year – the lessons are pretty pricey and I’m coming up with what seems like some physical limitations, which is worrying.

The jigsaw and podcasts (my god there was a lot of baseball this year – see below) thing is still going strong, and Kim just loves buying me loads of them, which is lovely but at the same time isn’t going to get any home renovations started. I’ve also started drinking more again, which summer isn’t helping but is becoming more steady and regular than it should be. 2019 favourites were Stomping Ground IPA, Hawkers IPA and pretty much anything from Two Birds out of Footscray.

I did quite a bit of travel in 2019 for work to NZ – Bluff, Mount Maunganui, Seaview, Woolston (Christchurch) and Lyttelton and I really enjoyed it. Can I please retire to the South Island oneday?

What else happened? Kim got an electric bike for Christmas and I got a PS4. The people who live behind us on Oakover Road sold their house for a lot. We had a few rats in the compost this year, and gave up on most things except herbs in the backyard (but still tons of pots to water). They redid the whole school oval across the road with irrigation and new turf and it’s wonderful. After the NZ cruise, Kim went into hospital in March for a few weeks for anxiety and was off work for a few months, but she’s mostly fine now. She started playing WoW and D&D with Michael and Sian, Ben and Oui too.

Lastly I started playing some Chess puzzles on my phone, something I haven’t done in 35 years, and no surprises I am not very good at it. Richmond won the Grand Final and Kim is now back on the bandwagon! I must be reverting back to my teens because I’m now finding myself listening to Ipswich Town podcasts and watching game highlight -so weird.

It’s been a solid year really, but apart from my foot, since about July I’ve been having bad allergy symptoms, which disappeared up in Woolgoolga but then reappeared two weeks after getting back – I’ve been on daily or twice daily Telfast for 4-5 months now. WTF!

Book time again..

My biggish reading year continues. I was about to say I enjoyed this batch less than usual, but when sifting through them again before review, found only 2 that I’d given less than 4 stars. Have a guess which ones!

Calvino’s Marcovaldo wasn’t quite the same book or masterpiece that the podcast Backlisted suggested Italian Stories was when they referenced it recently. Goodreads gives it a 3.8 compared to Italian Stories (4.18). I assumed Marcovaldo would be a subset bearing the best bits of the latter but now I doubt it. It was entertaining in a “well-intentioned, but odd yokel subjects his family to another whimsically conjured obsession, which usually ends up badly” kind of way but didn’t make me laugh or stick in my mind like I’d hoped. 3 stars for me.

I think Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy technically counts as 3 books, but the first in particular was a such a narrow, scholarly piece that it read more like a sombre doctor’s private journal. I kept waiting on it to open up to a broader story but that never really happened, however I enjoyed the series overall, feeling the intense empathy of the writer, and the well described conflicted emotions of the World War 1 soldiers wanting to return to the fray despite knowing of their almost certain annihilation if that happened, and yet doing it anyway. Book two was more free-wheeling and conventional in tone, and explored interesting stories of gay/pacifist dissent, and some brutally unorthodox treatment methods for traumatised individuals. Book three brought it all together, but I found myself confused in some of the sudden scenes in the Solomon Islands – perhaps it was a flashback to an earlier time that I’d missed, but I didn’t understand the significance of it. Not sure I’d recommend the series to many friends I know, due to the slightly depressing theme and the sense that the author felt morally bound to transcribe case studies in full from hundred year old journals at the expense of the story. Still, a really well researched achievement that feels like 4 stars from me.

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion was one of the more depressing books I’ve ever read. An attractive, well-connected actress finds the only way out of her hedonistic circle of friends and demanding ex is to take pills and sleep or drive the highways to make her feel something; anything. A devastating critique of the 70s Hollywood scene, the writing was incredible, but the subject was doubly unbearable in contrast to my just-read three books about earnest self sacrificing WW1 soldiers. I need to read another of hers. 4 stars.

Homesick for another World – Ottessa Moshfegh – A collection of very inventive stories in a world where you need to be very quirky or very creepy to stand out from the rest – and this collection really does. Comparing it to other recent reads, this is weirder, creepier and a little less self-conscious than Crudo, and more approachable than Men and Cartoons. A wonderful ride that was always unpredictable. 4.5 stars.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, but reading it was a disjointed experience, as I tried to read it in lots of small snatches in the caravan, fighting reality shows on TV and visits from pensioners wanting their tablets upgraded. I really couldn’t warm to the main character and his utter hopelessness, nor to the romantic theme, or to the writing style. There were sections I loved, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being manipulated. 3.5 stars.

I really wasn’t expecting Washington Black by Esi Edugyan to be such a straightforward, bare bones affair for a book that nearly won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. The story of a slave rescued from a likely terrible fate on a Barbados plantation in the 1830s, Wash befriends a series of wealthy eccentrics and becomes scientifically educated whilst avoiding a bounty hunter who chases him to remote locations through a series of eyebrow raising coincidences. I wasn’t in love with the first person style which often felt odd, but I had no trouble remaining interested, even if by half way through the plot felt like a mechanical set of scenes designed to get Wash to an endpoint. I know this is terribly critical of me, for a book that was easy to read and never boring and will almost certainly be made into a movie, but I can only give it 4 stars.