Not the best patch for book reading

Whoa…a bit of a rough run it’s been in 2017. A few unfinished novels including the lauded Richard Ford (Lay of the Land – 2 stars). I guess this signals I’m really not truly ever going back to an American novel phase in a hurry. Having said that, I managed to read Haruf’s Our Souls at Night which was sweet but didn’t quite have the impact I’d hoped (4 stars). The fourth of the English history series Revolution by Ackroyd (3 stars) was a bit of a dry slog, and did inform me of the first three Georgians, but I feel like I need to read another book to commit Hannover things to memory a little better.

Somewhere in the pile was a decent Quarterly Essay by David Marr on Pauline Hanson. My god, I am leaving things so long before write ups that I can barely remember them.

The Tontine books (by Costain) I got for a buck each from an Op Shop and were an enjoyable romp, though they took awhile to get through. 3 stars.

The Stone Raft by Saramago was a magical road trip by a small group of oddballs and a stray dog around a cast-adrift and erratic Iberian peninsula for a purpose I can no longer remember. Quite a charming novel though – 4 stars.

When I was Mortal by Marias was a fantastic bunch of often menacing and unpredictable short stories, translated from Spanish. Loved nearly all of them and just tore through this book. 4.5 stars.

A gift from my old mate James, In Love With These Times by Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd was an easy, if mediocre read. He seems to have done his fair share of drugs and booze and the recollections are accordingly hazy. 3 stars for him being an unapologetic Clean and Chris Knox fan, and for admitting he was often pretty bumbling and incompetent.

Woopi summary

We’ve been back at work for a month now and holiday memories recede quickly. This was our fourth year up north (for ~4 weeks) and things went fairly predictably. The highlights were my parents and sister staying in a nearby cabin; catching up with old colleague Jamie Stammers, a parkrun PB at Coffs Harbour (19:39!), 3 games of golf, forest running with the local cross-country team, and losing my wallet at the pub one night (blame loose jean pockets). The oddest moment was seeing Kim get a rush of nostalgia and buy a pair of Op Shop roller skates, which I was terrified she’d break a leg with.

No fishing rods this year, because I was told things were poorly. It was very dry, and didn’t rain once. Folks were watering their sites to keep the grass alive, and many python sitings were made in Josie’s back garden (coming in for domestic water). Bonnie had a good time, with minimal toilet incidents, but I feel like I spent a good chunk of each day escorting her and Fergus on toilet breaks. It was not the most restful of holidays for me in that way.

Plans for next year – buy / loan a boogie board. Buy golf clubs – those hire ones were terrible. Bring a less-weighty book that I will actually finish.

 

 

Another pleasant few months spent

 This Dutch print is probably the best jigsaw gift I could have received and I’ve struggled to choose a successor. We’re loaning our house out to Michael and Jenny when away in Whoopi this year and they’ll need this space, so no new 3000+ piece puzzles are being started now. Took about 9-10 weeks and a ton of fantasy baseball podcasts to do this beauty.

Nasi Lemak in Perth

Summoned to Perth for a work emergency I find myself mercifully alone at dinner having a famous Malaysian dish and wondering how I just blew 150 on some CDs at the wonderfully old fashioned Dada Records. That is all. Life is great!

Brix

I knew it would be pulp but it needed to be read. The Rise, The Fall, and the Rise by Brix Smith tells a surprisingly rocky and neurotic tale. It’s a pretty candid romp about a damaged person who just seemed to choose all the wrong guys but who ends up mostly happy considering things. There’s nothing much new about Mark Smith here ( except for a disturbing hand-biting episode), but what was great to hear about was her life after 1988. Not being plugged into Brittish TV or fashion I didn’t know about her talents in both fields nor whether she still had dealings with ex band members. The perfect book to finish off on a plane to Perth for work. 3 stars.

Ford Madox Ford

If you had a Germanic sounding surname and lived in the UK post-WW1, it might seem wise to anglicise things a little. Perhaps turning Hueffer into Huffer or Heffer, however Ford chose Ford maybe out of imaginative desperation or love of symmetry. Whatever the reason, for someone like myself, this aroused a certain level of curiosity about such a man, leading me to buy his 4 part book Parade’s End on the cheap recently. It didn’t hurt that the rear cover proclaimed it “the finest English novel about the Great War” and was fronted by a mysterious gentile man in strange shiny shoes escorting a lady in a huge hat up some stairs. Talk about inviting your reading audience into your little tome of mystery!

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Let me say that I’ve become a more patient reader over the years and I no longer baulk at 800 odd pages, however this book’s first 50 pages had me completely bewildered – reminding me a little like my one and only attempt at Ulysses nearly a decade ago. A month or so later after finishing it, after reading a couple of Amazon reviews, I was pleased that others felt the same way about the disjointed conversations, exaggerated reactions and impulses which begin the book, and are peppered throughout. It’s really not the most straightforward read (particularly the last part), and possibly the most challenging book I’ve read, however there is some some structure / story to it, and at certain points it gained a certain fluidity which made it very enjoyable. But I don’t think at any point I truly understood all that was going on – often due to conversations which were more about what was left out than what was said, and I went through an entire section being unsure of his use of the word “draft” and what that meant! The main character Christopher Tietjens is described as an 18th century Tory, a dour, brilliant, practical man for whom chivalry and honour are the foundations by which (to his downfall) he lives his life. I get that he is one of the great unique fictional characters, and I loved that the book was long enough to display many aspects of his personality and family history, but I felt you only ever got oblique angles on him, and his helplessness was nothing but frustrating by the end. As for Sylvia, the less said the better! I’m amazed that the BBC saw enough material in it to make a 5 part TV series in 2013, but I’ll have to watch it now. 3 stars.

 

Too long (again)..

Once again, a pile of books to write up and embarrassingly, one of them I cant recollect. Might as well stop reading non fiction for all the learning I’m doing right now.

I found The Sellout by Paul Beatty confusing and over my head. Satire isn’t my strong point nor my normal interest but the cover reviews and that little Man Booker Winner sticker worked their usual magic. At times I struggled to understand subtle points or the language and so many characters were unlikeable that I just slogged it out and finished up nonplussed. 2 stars.

Realising I had largely forgotten the subtleties of U.S Football I wanted a reference book to teach me about line play, types of coverage and play calling in general. I think Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0 by Pat Kirwan achieved that but only just. A few months later I should probably skim it again, though I at least know what Mike, Will and Sam linebackers are now. 3 stars.

Underground is Tobias Hill’s first novel, written in 1999 but hey, decent author and public transport / infrastructure theme and I’m interested. Hill does sinister and claustrophobic moods really well and avoided most of the usual serial killer tropes. That’s enough for my tick – 3 stars.

Having heard the ABC’s Book Club review of Ian McGuire’s The North Water, this novel was a must-read for me. Probably a little overly graphic at times (to the point that I felt queasy during a particular whale hunt scene) the novel delivered in spades and I couldn’t recommend it more highly although I certainly couldn’t watch the movie. Best book I’ve read in years, though not for the squeamish. 5 stars.

Grant and I, by Robert Forster was about what I expected for a Go Betweens memoir, but in a good way. A rock documentary a few years back had ex-drummer Lindy Morrison nearly in tears talking about how awful Grant and Robert had been to her/the other females in the band and I wanted to know why. To his credit Robert largely confesses to focusing more on competing with Grant for songwriting glory than on the women in their lives – both girlfriends / band members being ditched when it all got too much. There are a ton of songs listed and critiqued here (probably to the detriment of the book) and the studied pretence / concept / ambition of the band (even early on) was for some reason a surprise to me. It was still a wonderful read however much like after reading Fall biographies, I was left thinking how little I would like to spend time with the egos that made these great bands possible. 4 stars.

Ah….Slow Man by J.M.Coetzee, the writer who can do little wrong by me after the incredible Disgrace. Now that he’s Australian I seem to have developed a slight cultural cringe when reading him which isn’t helped by this unflattering portrayal of a recent amputee (bike accident) which is so plausible it felt autobiographical. Having not read Elizabeth Costello (written a few years before this novel) the injection of this magical / imaginary figure into this second book both saved it and had me arching eyebrows in disbelief. I don’t think this is anywhere near his best but it still wallops nearly anything else for honesty. This would be an awful movie though! 4 stars.

Lastly I had to know more about the circumstances that led to Ern Malley becoming one of the few genuine front page literary hoaxes in history. Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair drily spelt out the ingredients…the perceived pomposity of Max Harris and the Angry Penguins school; the greater foothold poetry had on a pre-television society and increasingly free-form experimentation in language and arts. The line between what was brilliantly original and what was a nonsensical pastiche was hard to draw, and the hapless but driven Harris was wounded for life as a result. Some of the court transcript of an inept prosecutor trying to prove vulgarity in the poems is amusing now but carried a jail sentence back in the 40s. What does “the black swan of trespass” mean anyway? 3 stars.

2016 windup

My reading has slowed in the last few months, as, on holidays up north, I started listening to weekly ESPN Cleveland Browns podcasts and found myself intrigued by a sensationally bad Browns team. This rapidly led to buying an NFL Game Pass in late October, and downloading 4-5 games a week to an old IPad and watching them on the daily tram to work. It confirmed for me that I enjoy it more when my team is losing than winning, and it was the sporting highlight of my year to see the 0-14 Browns finally win the second last game of the season in the dying seconds, and act like world champions.

Books:

Ended up reading Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was and wasn’t what I expected. The Burma railway work camp and prisoner of war-scenes were graphic and revolting, and the description of surgery being performed with a sharpened spoon nearly made me put the book down for good. It was a terrific book I thought – 4.5 stars.

Had a 100-page go at Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey – My Own Life, and loved the snippets and diary format, however it was hard to stomach 500 pages of diary entries. Abandoned!

Finally for the year, a wonderful crime gem, translated from the French by Scot Graeme Macrae Burnet. The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau was an odd and charming novel. The guilt-driven paranoia of Manfred; his obsession with routine, and the oddly abrupt and suitable ending made for a perfect few days of entertainment. Just loved it. 5 stars.

Running:

Had a great end to an interrupted year by surpassing some modest goals post knee surgery in April. I didn’t really get back to running till July but I was fairly aggressive in building up mileage at Woolgoolga in September, and managed a first half marathon (1:39:00) in October, a 10k best (42:30) in the Zatopek minor grade track race in Nov., and a painful best Coburg parkrun (20:12) in December. Knee and hip issues have intervened though, and yesterday’s hip MRI apparently means stop everything for now. Gah.

Bonnie the wonder dog:

She continues to delight, and yet be completely ravenous at all times. We found out her original birthdate was 21st February 2004, and that she is a Jack Russell x Maltese. So fat!

Kim’s Christmas Presents:

Many books, many running tops and a whopper of an intimidating 3000 piece jigsaw which I hope to show more of later. Overall rating: 8/10.

TV this year:

These are the ones I remember: House of Cards, MadMen, WestWorld, Tudors, Wolf Hall, Ask the Midwife, Last Hope U, Midnight Sun, The Detectorists, Gavin and Stacey, Still Game,  Raised by Wolves, Please Like Me, Rosehaven, Stranger Things, Downton Abbey, Fargo, The Killing, The Legacy and other Scandinavian stuff.

Things to look forward to in 2017:

More jumbo Flat Whites; playing old records on my newly fixed turntable; Malaysian trip in Jan; seeing The Bats in late-Jan; 50th birthday dinner in March; another year up at Woopi in August; a ton of books to work through all year; the end of summer (and daily plant watering); some running without knee issues – maybe?

Deaf Bonnie arrives

We now have a second dog again, though it nearly didn’t happen. I kept thinking that 13 year old Fergus was a little lonely, or acting weird – barking at non-existent cats on the fence at dusk has been his latest trick. Plus, I wanted another affection outlet too. Nothing too puppy-like; something that wouldn’t commit me to 10 years of care, in case we wanted to do a big 6 month trip overseas.

Fergus is an odd dog. A dog that lunges at any unfamiliar dog just out of habit – a dog we really didn’t socialise properly in 2003 as a puppy because he was coupled with a dog that would fear bark at man and beast alike. But also a dog who loves routine, and is used to playing second fiddle – an all white, no-fuss, mostly ignored second dog.

bonnie

So, I apply on PetRescue for a second dog, and mostly miss out on small non-shedding dogs because they are snapped up fast, or because we work 5 days, and pensioners don’t. Fair enough. So, my expectations lower each week – now I’m looking at only older dogs, and ones with medical conditions, and even then, I have to get through a meet and greet, and fill in 3 page applications.

After he chomped at another dog in Wonga Park, I started writing applications that mentioned he was “dog reactive”, a buddy within 5 minutes wasn’t going to happen with him. Then we got lucky. We found an older lady who didn’t mind us spending an hour at her house whilst we walked Fergus back and forth in circles, parallel or perpendicular, but never face to face. Sure he barked and tried to snap, but we got them closer and closer. Maria was either convinced we would make it work, or just happy to see the dog gone, but a week later we paid our money online, plonked her into a dog bed in the back seat and Fergus didn’t move a muscle. Not a single problem since – the difference is astounding.

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Two days later, the euphoria has worn off a little, and things have become apparent. She’s deaf. She has a big belly and drinks lots of water (Canine Cushings – hello Chloe!) and is ravenous all the time. She is badly in need of some grooming, but has an awesome huge tail which goes crazy. Maria must have fed her a lot because the 5.5kg at the North Melbourne Dogs Home in August is now about 8kg. She can’t get in the dog flap (hey even Fergus can hardly make it nowadays) and boy I’m glad we just redid the decking steps because jumping is not her strong suit. Still, I am loving having another dog around, even if she only gives us a couple of years. I’d love to know her background, but everything about her is made up – her name, and probably her age (12), and no-one seems to know much. I hope you like living with us Bonnie.

Next lot

Managed to get through a few chunky books this time around, though sadly there were a few self indulgent doozies amongst them. And a few unfinished ones too.

 

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Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory was a great, if slightly depressing read. It’s not hard to think that many elements of this are autobiographical, especially those about his dying father and his lament about his own failing libido / interests and health. His trademark hedonism is all present, but what makes this book stand out is its more reflective tone, despite plenty of laughs along the way. A melange of observations about modern life (French Tourism; Mercedes A Class vehicles; the financial madness of the Art world) in moments I didn’t expect, and even better, a book that kept surprising me. Probably a 5 star book for me (or close).

Fifty pages into The Hidden by Tobias Hill, a book that had sat unread for five years at home, I knew I was in for another real treat. There were visceral elements that reminded me of Tim Winton or Christos Tsiolkas, and a sense of impending tragedy (McEwan), plus the small group claustrophobia of Golding. I just thought it went on a little long and lost the tension of the earlier part of the book, though the chapter-flipping between modern day Greece and Spartan history was effective. Still a remarkable novel, and a writer I will seek out again. 4 stars.

About a third of the way through Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, I remembered that similarly in 2666, there was a monstrously relentless (and almost endless) section of the book documenting forty or fifty murders of Mexican women who fell fowl of local officials, or who just happened to be around when the cartel chiefs wanted to demonstrate their cruelty to scare off foes. Though not as gruesome as the earlier novel, the 400 page bulky midsection of this book is seemingly designed to wear you down in the same way, via interviews of people coming into contact with our two mad poets Arturo Belano and Ulisis Lima over 25 years of worldwide travels. The book is a loving, scattergun series of recollections about a brief period in Mexico when poetry meant everything to young writers and Viceral Realism was “a thing”. The final section is a harrowing hunt for the founding mother of this genre and whilst I applaud its wackiness and indulgence, I simply couldn’t recommend the book due to length concerns. It still largely won me over – 4 stars.

Well, there’s finally a Coetzee book that I didn’t want to endure, and it was his first and shortest – 1974’s Dusklands. I only managed to get to the end of the first novella and found myself thinking I’d rather move on. What a shame as his later books were so good. 1 star.

Without question I was drawn to David Szalay’s All that Man Is by the maps on the front dust jacket, and (I think) a review in The Age or The Guardian. I found the stories intriguing to begin with, in particular the second one in which the hapless Bernard finds himself trapped with an overweight mother and daughter at an overseas holiday resort. Towards the middle of the book the stories became more angry; materialistic and career driven men and their insensitivities in full flight. The internal lives of young to old men (in sequence) are lovingly examined in small slices, each believable and beautifully described. Well worth the read if you can forgive the stage-prop role of many of the female characters. 4 stars.

Stuck in Woopi, with all the time in the world to pick something long or tough, I lucked out on Foucault’s Pendulum, so grabbed Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before. What a terrible mistake that was; rarely have I found a book so infuriating and circular. Fooled by the Gulliver’s Travels adventure / man finds himself shipwrecked in odd place premise, Eco then digresses to alchemy, explains the cultural relevance of Doves, inset with expositions about longitude and scientific history. Somewhere amongst the 510 pages, there’s meant to be a story, and then it turns out, he’s been writing an imaginary story all along and pretty soon you really don’t care if he ever sees his Orange Dove. Eco is no doubt a clever man, but shouldn’t bore the pants off us needing to prove it. I think I said that about David Foster Wallace in a review of the Infinite Jest too. 2 stars.

I feel so sorry for Ben Pobjie (Melbourne’s Own), as I think he’s a smart guy, and his book Error Australis is often funny, particularly in the absurd chapter quizzes, but heck, reading it made me physically exhausted. I pretty much had to put it down every couple of chapters due to the relentless gag count, and I feel sick thinking about how many hundreds and hundreds of hours he’s put into writing it, only for me to want to bin it or give it to a smart nephew who wouldn’t ever read the Fatal Shore. If I ever need to light a fire, this is the first book I will use as kindling. 2 stars.