Plowing through the backlog

I went through a huge Indian phase in the late 90s – maybe all the Western world did; authors like Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai, Arunhdati Roy and Vikram Seth were high on the bestseller lists and somewhat romanticised Indian life. Maybe it was just me, but it seems like folks then moved on to other fertile ground – that of Africa or Indonesia and African American stuff. I never did get to India in my travels but once in awhile I like to breath it in again, as I did with No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, a book I bought as much for the joyous cover as I did for the writing. The stories of ordinary life in Mumbai were patchy and uneven (it seemed to me) – some of the earlier ones were more loaded with conventional twists and satisfying unpredictable endings, and then others went nowhere or told a point that was lost on me. Still, enjoyable – 3.5 stars.

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty had been on my wishlist for awhile – Kim found it in an Op Shop by chance, so I was thrilled to get it during this COVID period where I’d not visited a book shop in 18 months it seemed. It can’t be just me that seeks fictional themes that reflect the phase of life you’re in, or will shortly be in and this one promised t deliver. A long married, retired Irish couple go on a long weekend to Amsterdam, where their domestic routines and familiarity with each other provokes reactions and decisions. The woman is found to have suggested the trip so she can explore a future religious life of spartan purity – one that her husband has no part in. The husband, an increasingly doddery drunk, surprisingly understands and continues to do thoughtful things for his wife despite this betrayal. Hopes are dashed and I was left with a gentle, sympathetic portrait of a couple who’ve drifted far apart but who remain grateful for each other when there is nothing left. 4 stars.

This one, Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano is a such an unbalanced, frustrating read, though all his books could be described that way, but when the author died midway through revising it in 2000, it was always going to attract someone wanting to compile the scraps and background research into a commercial product. Large chunks of this are extremely readable – the story of an older passionate gay man who has sex with his students and is eventually hounded out of Spanish academia to Mexico, where he tries to rebuilt his life, only to find new temptations. There are many short chapters in the midst of this final unfinished novel dedicated to topics such as Sworn Enemies of Arcimboldi (a fictional writer) – and then a list of names of fictional people, and chapters with synopses of fictional books he had written. WTF! haha. I skipped some of those bits, but the remainder was typically compelling and dangerous, and Bolano has to be read at least once for the mildly traumatic exposure to his crazy excesses. 3.5 stars.

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park is set in inner Sydney around the 1930s I think, in a very poor neighbourhood of immigrants all trying to get on in life amidst the violence of the streets – car accidents, drunken sailor fights, illegal betting and backyard abortionists – you name it, it’s happening. For me, is was father Hughie Darcy, a flawed and simple man, who provided the highlights of this sympathetic Darcy family novel, which brought to mind The Grapes of Wrath or My Brother Jack. The scenes where the family interact with their lodgers spinster Ms Sheily and Protestant Mr. Diamond are particularly spiteful and amusing. The coming of age story of innocent Roie Darcy is the drawcard and theme, but the bit players and glimpses into everyday life are eye opening and make for a terrific read. 4 stars.

I had no idea how uncommon Yours by Philip Callow was until I noticed only a single review on GoodReads, but the reviews on the cover were convincing, as was the $1 price tag. What a unique and mostly gripping read. Precise and unsettling, a young working class woman ventures into the adult world in the early 1960s to observe and brutally judge her peers for their flaws. There’s a lovely period feel about it (published in 1972), though I’m not convinced it’s a particularly good example of a man writing as a woman. I’d read him again for sure – 4 stars.

Picking up Bypass – The Story of a Road by Michael McGirr, I’d prepared myself for a slog, since A: It was Australian, B: It contained quite a bit of history, C: The main theme was the dull Hume Highway. I was regularly surprised by the freshness of the prose and the candour of the author, a former priest on a redemptive bicycle ride down the Hume from Sydney to Melbourne, partly shared with his future wife-to-be. The historical asides (Hume vs. Hovell) were short, witty and not too indulgent, and the modern day stories of the highway (trucking strike of 1978, Cliff Young ultramarathon, etc..) were interesting and varied. It was beautifully balanced, researched and funny I thought. How is this so poorly rated on Goodreads? 4 stars.

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.

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.

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.

More…

A couple more 5 star books in this batch also.

Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. I thought I was largely done with magic realism in the 90s after large doses of Marquez and Allende, but wow, give me more – what a crazy story this was. Easily the most imaginative, fun and readable book out of this lot, but also incredibly dark. It continued to surprise and the magical stuff didn’t really ramp up until the last bit thank goodness. I could have kept reading forever. 5 stars.

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem. Looking back, to read this after the previous book was not ideal. The stories seem self-conscious and overworked, a couple of them are just terrible really, but there’s quite a bit of imagination on show too. Some of these feel like early attempts at short stories that didn’t quite work or fell short, but I’d still give it 3 stars for originality.

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn. Written in 1967, this funny little piece seemed to be exactly my kind of thing – an expose into the worst excesses of a newspaper office heading towards irrelevance, but along the way I realised that it was a lot more farcical than I expected. Some of the scenes in the TV studio were excruciating and unlikely, and although you know the protagonist is a silly git, and all the men in it are hopeless, it just made me a little sad in the end. I don’t think I love comedy in a novel much. 3.5 stars.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. This must have been quite a shocking book for its time (1961) when divorce or family issues were scandalous things, not to be talked about. It’s beautifully written – the tension ratchets up relentlessly, and the crushing of dreams is heartbreakingly detailed. A very affecting book and I’m so pleased I finally got to it. 5 stars.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. A series of essays talking about the rhythm of poetry (fairly handy really) linked by a man-loses-partner-frustrated-by-procrastination-and-tries-to win-her-back story. I didn’t love it, and I wouldn’t recommend it. 3 stars.

The MVP Machine by Lindbergh and Sawchik. The only non-fiction in this batch of books, this had been all over my Twitter feed for months until I succumbed. I know there’s still a lot of things I don’t know about baseball, and I’ll confess I did learn a bit about spin rates and how determined Trevor Bauer is, but it was overly long, repetitive and had a cheap, rough dust-jacket which I could barely stand to touch. 3 stars.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (Mountain Goats). There were some early disconcerting moments because the book is put together in reverse order, so it’s funny that he titled it Wolf in White Van, because that’s what’s heard when playing Larry Norman’s “666” song backwards (for the satanic voices). A really interesting premise about a mail order adventure game “Trace Italian” run by a handicapped teenager, which ends up having real world consequences for some of the players. This is the sort of book that makes me nostalgic for the pre-internet age, when our imaginations were free to be explored and which spawned Dungeons and Dragons and the like. Occasionally it was a little verbose, but otherwise it was an amazing and worthwhile journey. 4 stars.

On pace for a record setting book year

What a wonderful set of books to have to write about – fresh off our cruise, I found books 3,4 and 5 for 3 bucks in an Op Shop and devoured them all, before finishing off with my yearly crime/thriller pulp for a bit of 900 page fun.

Bought in New Zealand on our cruise, Crudo by Olivier Lang came recommended by someone on Twitter, and is really not my normal thing, but I enjoyed it. Anxious, paranoid, and worried about an uncertain political future, the narrator edges towards a future marriage like it’s a doomsday clock, afraid of everything it will bring. The writing is wonderfully dense with imaginative, seemingly disconnected phrases joined into sentences, always surprising and keeping you unbalanced as a reader. I found it a little self-conscious at times but found myself wanting more at the end. 4 stars.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I think the cover and font put me off it for a long time, when I really should have been more fearful of the content in hindsight. Telling the historically true story of an 1850’s young teenage runaway that is enlisted in a group of hard men bounty hunting for Indian scalps along the Texas- Mexico border, it was compelling and repetitive at times, but hands down it was the most relentlessly bleak and murderous book I’ve ever read. I would not recommend it to most people, because there sections which did sicken this sensitive modern reader, some of which involved animal cruelty and the murder of many, many innocents. Not since Bolano’s 2666 have I felt such revulsion, and yet Blood Meridian goes way further, to the point of being apocalyptic. All through it, the brooding, relentless, messianic character, the Judge provides tension and finally horror when the Indians are no longer the enemy and the barbarity turns to events within the hunting party itself. Incredibly unsettling and impossible to forget – 4.5 stars.

After all that butchery, I needed something very different to remind myself of the the good things in the world, and I found it in the irresistible front cover and title Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson (a Victorian writer in his mid 30s at the time of writing). This intimate, self-aware book was everything that the last book in this series of reviews was not; unsure, not fully formed or thought out, and yet almost as compelling in its own quirky way. A seemingly autobiographical voyage to eastern Europe to discover the mystery of how the painter of a small work found on the wall of a Melbourne restaurant died after going missing in a forest walk in 1967. It’s the sort of thing that’s easily resolved in movies and Hollywood, but not 50 years later by a blundering amateur who’s unable to speak Romanian. It’s a fun journey regardless and worth the read 3.5 stars.

Poe Ballantine wrote the whimsical Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety and with a name like that, I was preparing myself for some possible eyerolling until I read the phrase “one of Americas finest living writers” on the blurb. And it was wonderful stuff – here was a man who’d travelled his country on the cheap, had done a million two bit jobs and could write well about it all. I loved these short stories about his upbringing, girlfriends, drug addled uncle, and debaucherous years, and I just gobbled it all up. I’d read him again for sure. 4 stars.

This next book Black Rock White City, was the last of the three Op Shop ones, and I had saved it to this point because it was the one I was least excited about. Mostly because it was Australian, and because I thought I knew all the Aussie authors I liked already. It was a real surprise and I probably ended up enjoying it the most because of the suspense and because (I can’t believe I’m saying this) the relationships and dialogue were really convincing, if not the premise of the story (which reminded me a lot of the John Lanchester book I finished earlier this year). A.S Patric has written a compelling, edgy story of a first generation migrant caught up in events he wants no part of, and struggles to explain. 4 stars.

I was looking off into space at Kim’s “to read” bookshelf and came across a spine with a label “The only thriller you need to read this year – Guardian” and I realised it was time for a 900 page dose of pulp, and boy did I Am Pilgrim by Australian Terry Hayes deliver! Ridiculously readable, I spent a bunch of nights saying – oh just 1 more chapter before cursing and turning the light out after another hour. Once you accept that the protagonist is almost flawless, all knowing and wise (and thankfully not a total arsehole) and prescient due to infinite years of combat duty, medical experience blah blah blah, you roll with it, and try and decide whether you’d prefer it if the bad guy(s) get away with it, because those folks are all amazingly skilled as well, and you just have to admire everyone’s utter competence. When the U.S President gets involved you know it’s all jumped the shark but it remains just as compelling regardless. It satisfies in every way, as all of the ends are neatly tidied up, and there are some pretty original and exquisitely timed James Bond-like manoeuvres which make for a hell of a ride. The biggest page turner I’ve read in years. 4 stars – wild!

Amazing what a cruise without internet can do for your reading..

I’ve had a great start to the year with my reading, and nearly all of the books have been wonderful. Inspired by a new podcast called BackListed, I plan to venture off my safe path of Murnane, Galgut and Carey one day, but not just yet. I managed to get through about 3 and a half books in two weeks on our New Zealand cruise, and it was all very effortless.

Murnane’s Barley Patch had been sitting around in my piano / computer room for 10 years and I don’t know why. I have a feeling I bought it after listening to him be interviewed at the Melbourne Book Festival back then, but I’m confused by the Readings sticker, since I think the event was at the MaltHouse Theatre. Regardless, I’m going to be vague here and say that once again, his mesmerising and voyeuristic prose will always captivate me, even if I’m occasionally irritated by his wilful and pedantic use of “boy-man” and “image-object” and digressions about what defines fiction writing, however I’m still planning to go to the Goroke Bowling Club one day and shyly stalk my literary hero in his final days. 4 stars.

As someone who thought in 1994 (and still thinks) that the internet was the greatest thing in the world, I felt I needed to see what cultural richness I’d missed in my life, and Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay Net Loss tried pretty hard to describe it to me. It’s true that with phones around, “it gets hard to pick up a book, harder to stay with it”, but I felt that way playing World of Warcraft too. I was more convinced watching a YouTube video of Roald Dahl writing in his shack than I was after 56 pages of Net Loss. 3 stars.

I’m pretty sure that this is my second John Lanchester book, and both have been straightforward, but intriguing stories. This one, Capital, reads like a BBC drama series (and apparently became one), and beguiles with the premise of a nasty campaign against the (mostly) wealthy home owners of Pepys Road, London by an unknown have not, who leaves “We want what you have” messages everywhere, and which escalates. A little cliche prone at times, but it was fresh and humane and a joy to read. It had me waiting nearly the full 575 pages before spilling the beans. 4 stars.

The Imposter, by Damon Galgut is about an early 40’s man, having lost his 20 year corporate job who finds himself being dared to write the poetry he always dreamed of doing in a rundown rural shack owned by his brother, many hours drive from Johannesburg. Aimless months go by with little progress and the man, finding himself progressively becoming unhinged is grateful when an old now-wealthy school friend takes him on board and offers him weekends away with his wife whilst they transform and old game park into a golf course with plenty of graft and money involving local officials.

This is yet another wonderful book by Galgut whose sense of the racial and wealth divide in South Africa is always concisely detailed and who manages a broody unpredictable storyline in all his novels. 4.5 stars.

I’ve finally spat the dummy with an early Peter Carey book, managing 96 pages of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith before giving up in disinterest. The forced quirkiness and richness of unlikeable characters felt implausible and inconsistent to me; the construct of the lands of Voorstand and Efica (seemingly a simple name replacement for Australia and New Zealand) added just for novelty. I’m a little afraid to go back and read Illywhacker again in case I feel the same way – I think my tastes have just moved on a bit. I wonder if Carey himself feels a little sheepish about this book in 2019? 2 stars.

American Rust by Philipp Meyer was a much more straightforward, but convincing affair set in a rural Pennsylvania steel town, probably one of thousands of novels published in the last few decades documenting missed opportunities and the jobless consequences for blue collar workers. I found it pretty dark (particularly the prison and the hitchhiking / homeless sections), but it rang true and was a compelling read, jumping between 4 or 5 viewpoints. A self-confident high school jock son finds himself involved in an accidental death of a vagrant and wrestles with his allegiances, whilst a world weary sheriff is forced to make a decision between his relationship with the boys mother or his job. Satisfying and convincing. 4 stars.

Detroit by Charlie LeDuff was not quite the anthology I expected, and in a good way. It’s a memoir of 5 parts ego, 2 parts good Samaritan and 4 parts tabloid gonzo journalist, chasing anything that would sell copies of the Detroit News. LeDuff is no doubt a no-bullshit, ballsy guy who rocked a lot of boats amongst those in power in Detroit by exposing corruption, lack of resourcing and the third world-ness of his hometown. There’s not a lot of hope or positivity in this book, but it’s a hell of an eye-opener and his writing is authentic and utterly frightening. 4 stars.