The winter slog (in a good way)

The podcast Backlisted had gotten me interested in Anita Brookner, and Fraud, and I’m glad I ventured into her carefully disguised, but probably 1960s insular London world, where the unsexy themes of aging, loneliness and domestic servitude are freshly explored. It brought to mind to The Old Wives Tale that I read only earlier this year, in that the romantic and social aspirations of the main female characters fell away to more immediate needs of monetary survival and familial duties. Although you could call it a dour novel, I found it a wonderful and unpredictable read – can you be truly happy in caring for others and denying your own needs? 4.5 stars.

Is there anything that Coetzee doesn’t do well? Life and Times of Michael K was completely captivating (reminding me of the The Road by McCarthy) in its nihilistic personal journey amidst a civil war in South Africa. Another sad, miserable story you say? Yes, but the sparse style and deep empathy for Michael are completely engrossing, and the narrowed, mute life he finds for himself is sad, redemptive, and completely believable. A total triumph that haunts. 4.5 stars.

Although a bit of a slog in parts, the dense, ambitious and carefully researched An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears was quite the labyrinthine political whodunnit 1660s journey through Britain and Italy – worthy of the Umberto Eco tag. There were times that I got lost in the technicalities of the plot(s), mistaking characters for others (often not spelled out deliberately for intrigue), so perhaps a little complex and long for me, but I loved the technique of giving quarters of the book over to the first person perspectives of key players – someone you thought was good was revealed later to have betrayed etc. My opinions kept shifting on the culpability of many, making for an unpredictable finish. There are many injustices within, making it hard to take at times, however I’m full of admiration for anyone attempting a work like this. What a mini-series it would have made. Not for everyone – 4 stars.

After my last three books, The Life to Come by De Kretser felt a little light and fluffy, but she’s not writing in the same space at all. There’s some terrific language and inventive phrasing here, but it felt choppy and uneven at times. It read like a commentary on modern relations in our busy world – people glancing briefly against each other and then they’re on to new things -self absorbed and shallow. A reviewer called it “a study of modern day, globalised, well-meaning tactlessness”. Another calls it deeply moving, though I’m not sure I agree on that! 3 stars.

Although not my usual stomping ground, I thought I’d try Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, as it promised “unflinching and devastating” which peaked my interest. Unfortunately, once you read incredible sparse writing like that of Galgut or Coetzee, it always feels like a stepdown, especially when it takes twice as long as needed to work through your story – the book was/felt way too long (even at 305 pages). I enjoyed the prison interactions, the tender descriptions of care for a floundering partner, and the healing, feel-good (American?) ending, but ultimately, I was just glad to finish. 3 stars.

The dated looking, odd-coloured and wonderfully titled The Sorrow of Belgium by Hugo Claus (1983) felt like a book I had to read. Although it took me 6 weeks, I worked my way though this dense Dutch translation and was rarely not intrigued by the inhabitants of Walle in West Flanders (Belgium) before and during World War 2. Pretty quickly I found myself struggling to work out the political sympathies of the families and individuals (so many!) – all struggling to live through the life-changing period of German occupation, where opportunistic alliances or minor betrayals routinely led to flight from authorities, work camp internment or to survival. I found the Flemish/French cultural battles hard to understand at times, however the picaresque domestic relationships of all the uncles and cousins and neighbours were amusing and varied. The coming of age of Louis was completely believable, although the first third of the book detailing his schooling at the convent was probably the least interesting part. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone really, since, as a reviewer stated it was “an hallucinatory fresco” at times and perhaps unsatisfying in some ways. 3.5 stars.

Tram thoughts

I can hardly think of any major changes I made in my life through the strange year and a bit that is/was March 2020 till now. I’d already stopped running because of my heel (turned out there was nothing they could do for me – even surgery was unlikely to fix it), but I guess I’d begun riding into work in the summer of 2019/20 – maybe 3 days a week? That certainly stopped.

The one thing that ramped up (in opposition to the drop in clothes buying and work trips to NZ) was my buying of baseball cards and jigsaws. I probably spent 3k on those over the year and suspect that the obsessional eBay and Facebook Marketplace searching I did up to 10 times a day were a reaction to the boredom felt and general powerlessness. At least it wasn’t alcohol or promiscuity! Those buying urges have eased off and been replaced by a new one of course. The great caravan hunt ensued, starting in September 2020 and culminated in a somewhat worn Bailey Unicorn making its way from Leeds to Wollongong via a 2.4m wide shipping container. The old van sold and was towed out the door in about 5 hours in early December, giving us a driveway back after 7 years (felt wonderful too).

We did a recent trip to Maryborough and found the van to be beautifully insulated and warm ( Kim’s primary concern) but it wasn’t the smoothest tow and had us searching Carsales in a panic for a 3-ton- capable car before sanity prevailed and we’re now checking a few suspension options and loading ideas. There’s always something to make you worry I think.

Fergus has been yelping a little in the night, having trouble settling and it’s like a baby crying even though he’s not seriously distressed. The tablets don’t seem to work at all, so we’re resigned to lack of sleep as his decline deepens. He got disorientated the other night and weed in the bedroom which is extremely rare, and I think we both looked at each other and gulped. I don’t particularly want to take him to Woolgoolga this year as he is right near the end and the slightest touch will topple him and the inevitable weeing and restlessness doesn’t make for a fun holiday really. Let’s see how we go I suppose.

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.