I need to not wait 6 months before going back over things – there’s a book in this list I had absolutely no memory of reading, and had to re-scan the blurb to remind myself of its merit.
Since I was going to visit the Midwest in September, I remember seeing Between the World and Me, by Coates and thinking – great, a black author and a thin book; perfect if I’m not enjoying it, as I’ll still finish it, and also intriguing because I’ve never consciously read anything about race before. I suspect I didn’t want to slog through Hillbilly Elegy either. I need not have worried about it because it was terrific and eye opening to me, and I read it in about 3 short sessions. 4 stars.
I’ve always liked Peter Carey’s earlier books like Oscar and Lucinda or Illywacker the most because of their quirky characters and unlikely scenarios, but this barely continues to hold true after the Kelly book and now Amnesia, which is set in nearby Coburg and Carlton. Once again (for an expatriot) he shows a remarkable feel for (a perhaps 80’s dated) Melbourne and it’s political factions and migrant families. I wasn’t overly taken by the hacker teens premise of the book, but his characters were very believable and the pages just melted away. An easy read in the presence of a master. 4.5 Stars.
I had absolutely no idea what Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White was about when I nabbed it secondhand, but the reviews were all great and that’s usually enough for me. I read big chunks of it up in Woolgoolga sitting outside the caravan minding Fergus and it was a pleasure. Apart from the 800 pages – almost twice as long as it needed to be (or could have been), it was an enthralling rags to riches tale of Sugar, a lowly prostitute in the awful, patron-dependent world of 1870’s London. Some really rich character depictions here (the inscrutable Sugar, the ill Agnes Rackham, and the tortured Henry Rackham). A really engaging and forthright story and deserves all its accolades. 5 stars.
In contrast, Matthew Berry’s Fantasy Life was the lazy read I thought I needed afterwards, and by a quarter way through I was regretting it. I should have chucked it then and there but slogged through. 2 stars.
Knowing I was likely going to visit Indianapolis, the early home of Kurt Vonnegut (and the Vonnegut Museum), I decided to read the only book of his I didn’t own – the amusing God Bless you Mr. Rosewater. Having afterwards listened to a nearly 2 hour podcast specifically on this book by two clever guys who call themselves the Vonneguys, I realise how shallow my readings of his books have been. It’s been 10 or 15 years since I’d picked up one of his books, but this one reminded me yet again of the unexpected humour, the originality, and the deep pessimism and cynicism of the man. 4.5 Stars and a fun read.
Cricket is not exactly one of my interests, but there was enough quirk in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland to capture my interest. A corporatised Dutchman in New York in the midst of an expat marital breakdown finds a local with the passion and insanity to try and introduce the game to the U.S public, with some illegalities thrown in for spice. It was a fun read, however occasionally a little too autobiographical for comfort. Still, a solid book that felt at times like a slow burning thriller without actually delivering as such. 3.5 Stars.
I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with books published by Harvill Press which existed from 1946 to 2005, with their distinctive leopard icon on the spine. I always seem to give them an extra look in secondhand bookshops, perhaps because they seem to publish “serious fiction” which has austere or non-playful covers, as is the case in William Maxwell’s short story collection All the Days and Nights, published in 1994. I had not known Maxwell was a mentor to writers like Updike and Cheever, but on the evidence here, I want to read his longer works too. His writing (to me) is dated by his propensity to not finish stories cleanly or simply, leaving room for interpretation, which is the antithesis of the modern age. I hear him described as a humanist, which I can see, but after Vonnegut, everyone else seems like a milder blander version of that. I still think there is plenty of quality here, and I’ll try him again sometime. 4 stars.