Yes, I’m still buying here and there, and thanks to Kim’s Op Shop and Elke, I’m still adding to “the pile” (which now numbers 105), cheaply for the most part. I managed around 21k of pieces this year across 18 puzzles (biggest was 3/4s of a 5400 piece masterpiece), down a bit from previous since I truly did burn myself out on that Degani 8k a year or two back and couldn’t face anything too large and long again.
I’ll call 2022 the year of the missing pieces since 6 of my puzzles ended up being short a piece or more (including 2 brand new ones). Luckily the polish Puzzle Manufacture one was able to be replaced. I started using the Picker Wheel website to add drama to the selection process (so far I’ve obeyed its command without question), and have finally created “to do” and “done” Google Photo albums.
I wasn’t a huge Choose Your Own Adventure reader back in the day (1980s?) but the two individuals in The Boy in the Book (by Nathan Penlington) certainly were. It’s an obsessive and stalker-y journey by a late 30’s man who probably should know better, and probably drove his partner and friends mad with his self indulgence. It’s an easy and fun read really, but you have to feel for Terence (the seller of the book trove which started all the madness) as he’s pursued and quizzed by the author. Lots of fun – 4 stars.
How can you not notice the striking covers of Rachel Cusk books and not be attracted? This was my first, and won’t be the last, even though I was worried the Sans Serif font would be a dealbreaker. Second Place is the story of a happily married woman who invites an uncompromising and indifferent older artist to live on their coastal property in the shabby cottage well down the path. Maybe she thinks his originality and creative energies will rub off on her and invigorate their lives a bit. He then shows up with a much younger girlfriend which somewhat ruins a possible erotic narrative. Annoyingly the artist barely talks or looks at her and she becomes increasingly frustrated. I loved it and will read more of hers. 4 stars.
Who knows how Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver worked its way into my pile, but boy it was a terrible mood match for what I wanted to read. It’s a collection of mostly southern U.S rural tales (1989) which gradually won me over with their humanity and tenderness. Some of them (Rose-Johnny for example) were truly shocking. There’s a maturity and competence in her writing that modern day writers just can’t match. 3.5 stars.
I spent the first half of Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam with a deep sense of unease due to the cover reviews: “resonant and terrifying” and “will keep you awake even after it ends”. I was sure a serial killer was going to sneak out of a cupboard and torture and butcher everyone, but thankfully it was a very different kind of affair. A young, wealthy family rents an isolated luxury cottage and over the course of a few days, a series of events (starting with the arrival of an elderly black couple, who claim the house is their home) bring increasing unease. The tension is kept beautifully throughout by vague and worrying descriptions of possible external calamities and the helpless reliance of modern day people with technology. What happens to our minds when it all doesn’t work anymore? Loved it – 5 stars.
I barely remember Half a Life by Naipaul, except that I was in the caravan in Woolgoolga and I was fighting to read it over the TV that Kim was watching on the front lounge. I recall my favourite section was not the English or Indian settings, but the one the one where things are disintegrating in Mozambique, with people pulling out as the situation deteriorates. I was fine with the passive and sex-starved Willie unlike many others on Goodreads! 3 stars.
The Adventures of Augie March by Bellow was a frustratingly dense exercise – something that ended after a record 30 pages. How embarrassing for me, who’s been known to plow through some tedious stuff. It was never going to happen in a caravan, with needy dogs to entertain and such old, rich prose needing so much attention to do it justice. I feel sad thinking about how I might have managed this in my 30s but ambition and aspiration take a second seat to attention span now. Unknown stars!
Why did I decide to pickup House of Meetings by Martin Amis? Because he’s a rogue and seems to be widely disliked and I hoped I’d get some of the wild, fuck you stuff of Black Dog I suppose. Yeah, this was bad, even for a short, possibly contractually obligated book. Not much of a plot and the usual obtuse meanderings that pass for intellect maybe. It was pretty unreadable and definitely not recommendable, despite the promising blurb – tricked! Two stars.
It was easy to like Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga, since the stories were punchy, if bleak, and the characters kept changing and I really didn’t know how things would end up. Although the themes were critical of entrenched caste positions and disadvantage in mid 80’s India, the writing was still fresh and approachable. 4 stars.
Talking about bleak, this one takes the cake. Apparently a bestseller in the Netherlands, and winner of the Booker International in 2020, The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Rijneveld is a deeply unpleasant read, detailing a traumatised Amish (?) family’s deterioration after the death by misadventure of the oldest son. As an animal lover, there are many scenes here which were hard to get through, and it isn’t a book for any but the most hardened of readers. The ending is simply chilling. Unlike others in this series of brief reviews, I didn’t need to flick through it again to remind myself of the tone or storyline. It’s also annoying when a 12 year old narrator sounds like a wizened adult. Ugh! 3 stars.
Another $1 Op shop cheapie, this one surprised. Although overly long, and full of scenes of gay longing and lines of coke – hardly my normal cup of tea, there was something assured about the writing and depiction of the balancing act that family-friend Nick enacted with his school-friends’ wealthy politician family in mid 80’s sloane ranger Britain. The troubled character of Catherine was particularly fantastic, her sarcastic and cutting comments skewering the privilege and falsity of this Tory family’s life. The depiction of the gay scene 40 years past is also fascinating, with the devastation of AIDS just around the corner. Very imaginable as a movie. Apparently it beat Cloud Atlas to the Booker that year – I’d have a hard time separating such different, yet amazing novels. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst was an easy 4 stars.
Who can resist a novel called Come Join Our Disease (by Sam Byers) – and with such a provocative front cover – not me. Well, let’s just say it didn’t last long. Part one was a fairly predictable redemption story of a street person to Instagram striver, documented and engineered by a kindness-washing corporation with ulterior motives. Part two digressed into endless and repetitive depictions of unchallenged reversion to their most primitive selves by a small group of fed-up women in an industrial squat. It you’d like to read about what it feels like to shit yourself and lay in it, or eat moldy food and vomit a lot, and not wash for months, this is the novel for you. Although set in London, the entire book felt American and false – I didn’t think he wrote convincingly about the women, and even the language and pacing seemed off. The critics seem to love it. 2 stars.
I figured I ought to begin on some of my Patrick White first editions, and the cover of this one was suitably bleak – perfect. After a slow start, Riders of Chariot (1961) began introducing religious symbolism which I should have guessed at with a title like that, but nonetheless made me a little dismayed. It was not the easiest of books to plow through and the battles of Miss Hare and Miss Jolley at Xanadu were a bit of a trial. The tortured and helpless Himmelfarb and aboriginal artist Dubbo were interesting, but ultimately fated and frustrating. The well named and beautific washerwoman Mrs Godbold completed the mystical four “Riders” of the title. There are some lovely tender moments and I was aware I was in confident hands, but the general theme wasn’t of great interest to me. It ends badly for everyone! 3.5 stars (many people rate this as a masterpiece).
Thrillers have changed since 1971’s Wheels by Arthur Hailey (more famous for Airport), but my god this was a straightforward, dated read about the automobile industry and it’s up and coming execs. I had reached page 164 before I realised that life was too brief to endure the other 2/3rds. It gets surprisingly good reviews online but I absolutely could not recommend it. 1 star.
Before a Peter Carey novel, I always brace myself, as I’ve had such different experiences, and I know I’m not the patient young Illywhacker reader any more in the digital age. Theft (2006) was quite a nice surprise – the alternating chapters between the artist Butcher and his imbecile brother Hugh were a fantastic contrast, and the story kept jumping to new crisis-points, though you had to decipher much of it with your own intuition. Compelling and very true to the early Carey’s style. That’s 3 hardbacks in a row for me now. 4 stars.
Cley (1991) by Carey Harrison was the sort of book I read in the 90s – a bit sexy, a bit weird, and with a bonkers, deluded protagonist. It’s 1968 and and a witness to a car accident becomes convinced that the survivor is and old school teacher of his, living a double life in a different part of the English country. Easily readable, the dialogue rang true, and there was a sense of what happened next about it which makes me want to read his other one “Richard’s Feet” to find out. 3.5 stars.
I’ve never loved Irish novels, so maybe I just need to read more of the good ones like this one – Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns, which is a harrowing and claustrophobic masterpiece. No dialogue whatsoever, just ominous intimidatory behaviours and racing-mind monologues about 1980’s Belfast and its gossipy informers and the awful consequences. Such a unique and incredible book. 5 stars.
After the last book, this 1976 bit of farce The Big Day by Barry Unsworth seemed a bit silly and inconsequential – sexually unsatisfied Lavinia plans a seductive affair in the absence of the faltering Cuthbertson. This is what I remember Tom Sharpe being like in the Wilt series – quite fun at the time, but very forgettable, with an odd, unexpected ending in this case. 3.5 stars.
Finally, a second book by Graeme MacRae Burnet that I have given 5 stars to. Amazing. His Bloody Project (2015) felt like a retelling of a real-life Scottish court transcript of the the 1860s, but was apparently completely fictional. I could barely stop reading this thing – completely engrossing. 5 stars,
Joe Speedboat is exactly the kind of coming of age stuff that I have fallen out of interest with, but I couldn’t resist the simple cover, the arresting title and the author Tommy Weiringa, who intrigues me (from the Netherlands, and born the same year as me, etc..). It’s the tale of resentful, wheel-chair bound Frankie, crippled at a young age in a rural harvester accident but encouraged by the always busy, confident and freewheeling Joe. His unlikely progression in life towards amateur arm-wrestling, and unrequited love for the blonde amazonian P.J made for an always interesting read. 3.5 stars.
A bit like Lincoln in the Bardo, with it’s odd subterranean, psychic plot, Lanny by Max Porter is a fascinating and sometimes frightening read about the fate of a boy, and the adults and ghosts who influence and surround him. This is not a book to be recommended lightly, as it really is of quite radical structure, though very short. A triumph though – and to think Kim got it for $2 at the Op shop. 4 stars.
Next was the completely different, longish, bestselling book A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. After the raw earthiness of Lanny, this felt like such a controlled, on-the-rails affair which I was lukewarm about until the unexpected exhilaration of the last section. When I repeatedly read phrases like “Now in all of Russia, there was no greater admirer of the written word than Count Rostov” I felt like I was reading a fairytale for a child. Large sections of it felt a bit that way, and it started to grate on me. An aristocratic man is confined to lifelong detention in a fancy hotel, and through detailed knowlege of people, place and habits, plots an unlikely eventual (decades) escape. Depsite the length, the characters still felt like 2 dimensional caricatures. 3 stars.
There’s a lot of sex talk in Yellow Dog by Martin Amis (2003), and I mean a ridiculous obsession with it, and it’s to the book’s detriment. Otherwise I was enthralled by the disjointed sophistication of it – the earthy asides, the humour, the broken banter and the feeling the Amis is making you work very hard to piece it together. It reminded me of Australian David Foster and his genius-like wordplay and pieced-together logic. The crude originality and lack of telegraphing made for a shocking but thrilling experience in an age that one reviewer called an antidote to “the prevailing literary piety”. A lot of people hate this book! – 4 stars.
From a book that celbrates societies’ worst to one that champions bold open minds and vulnerability, The Museum of Modern Love was quite the unexpected revelation. Written by Australian Heather Rose, it fictionalises characters around a real life artistic event in a U.S Art Gallery in 2010 by Marina Abramovic (and won the 2017 Stella Prize for Fiction). I was captivated from start to finish. 4.5 stars.
After the jubilation of his Booker Prize win, it was sobering to find that I struggled to enjoy Damon Galgut’s The Promise. The theme didn’t appeal much, and I’d say it took more than half of the book for things to accelerate to the point where I was enjoying where it was going. Amor Swart seemed an impossibly distant construct put in place to bridge the decades; barely a glimpse of her life on display. Her brother Anton was better realised, manic and overrun, disappearing into madness. Far from my favourite work of his – 3 stars.
Something more gruelling and sad was Anita Brookner’s A Closed Eye, a book I had almost no recollection of, before remembering chapter after chapter of a desperate mother seeking emotional connection with her oblivious daughter, and her repressed fascination for a friend’s husband, after settling for an older man as a young woman because her family expected it. I enjoyed it, but it was overly long – 4 stars.
I’m only putting this book in the “read” pile because it was the least read of any novel I’ve any attempted. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann was an impossible 1030 pages of no punctuation and a million brief ideas, bridged largely by the phrase “the fact that”, which after only 31 pages I decided was such a one trick pony of intellectual vanity and indulgence that my life should no longer be wasted on it. Unreadable as a whole – 1 star.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford was so forgettable that I had to flick through it for awhile to even remember the characters, and I know that sounds like it was awful, but it wasn’t. It was just a bit of a naff theme really – 5 London teenagers killed during the blitz in 1944 reimagined as leading full lives in a 21-Up-style slideshow. A well chosen title since it was upbeat and optimistic and enjoyable read – 4 stars.
It’s hard to add anything original to add to the mountain of reviews and studies of Ford Maddox Ford‘s The Good Soldier. Considered his best work, having finished it, I certainly admire the unusual structure; the delicate way the story is revealed through a series of repetitive and tortured, tangled scenes. Considering the few individuals in the novel, it was surprising how many permutations and asides Ford could wring out of them, and yet the “good soldier” himself, Edward Ashburnham still remains such an enigmatic figure till the end. How can you not start to question the narrator, when a man of so many adulterous affairs and proclivities continues to be shown in such a positive, accepting light. Circular and well worth a read again in the future, the torment of the characters is well described and believable – 4 stars.
Is Last Letter to a Reader really Gerald Murnane‘s last? I feel like he’s been threatening this forever really, but as a man in his early 80’s perhaps this is it. Dedicating a small chapter to the feelings he has for each of his previous books – of course not in as literal a way as a reader might hope, he admits to his favourite sentences in some cases, in others to his family situation when writing, and to writing droughts and unpublished dross. As always there are always mentions of his many filing cabinets of notes (for a man of some humble beliefs, the ego of this has always sat funnily with me) and again, the failed “O, Dem Golden Slippers” and his love of Proust and Emily Bronte. For the Murnane tragic (and I am one), it was a lovely slice of candour and admission. What a unique individual he is – 4 stars.
New Grub Street by George Gissing, published in 1891, continues my willling exploration into older, more moderately acclaimed titles (e.g. The Good Soldier) introduced by the interesting Backlisted podcast. A warning to the scholarly and uncommercial writer, recurring sections dealt with the misery and fate of the honest and scrupulous, and of the advantages given to populist, opportunistic writers. Far from a morality tale, the cheeky, morally dodgy guy gets the girl, which was a bit hard to take since the other blokes died or starvation or pneumonia. An enjoyable slice of life from an age of innocence in the act of turning – 4 stars.
The biggest surprise to me is the amount of baseball stuff I listed to, since I definitely started souring on the topic after my disastrous foray into collecting cards via the swindling, yet polite John Heckert of Swanton, Ohio. The long story cut short was he stole $1000 dollars of cards from me by refusing to mail them to my U.S postbox address.
Amazingly, the Phone Hacks podcast has continued to be fantastic, and I’m so happy that my friend Michael continues to listen with me year after year to these deviants!
An up and comer I’m really enjoying lately is the NZ duo of Guy Montgomery and Tim ? In The Worst Idea of All Time, so watch for them to rise in the ranks in 2022…