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!
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.
Well, I’ll start off with what I didn’t do – run. By May or June my foot soreness had reached the point that I couldn’t go on, and I ended up getting some scans and eventually a cortisone injection into my left heel in August. Managed a couple of runs after that before things returned to their sorry state. I wish I could say that I suddenly found solace in swimming or riding but those things never really happened either. Hello 73kg again.
I did have a great reading year though, and inspired by Kim and Jenny joining a book club, I went to a Meetup book club in North Fitzroy in December and gave away a copy of my favourite book this year (Beauty is a Wound). We didn’t watch as much TV together this year, but Silicon Valley, The Man in the High Castle, The Crown and Game of Thrones come to mind.
This year I got more involved in my fantasy baseball league (UDL), became more confident in my player trading, did some Skype interviews and got nominated as the secretary for 2020. I started collecting player cards for an album that reflected my team at the end of each season. That was really fun.
In Feb I started some piano lessons again at Red Note Studios in Gilbert Road, and wound up doing my grade 1 AMEB exam on a very nervous weekday morning in December. I didn’t think I played my set pieces very well, but the instructor mostly disagreed and I wound up with a great result. My hands were shaking at lunch at Miss Margaret 10 minutes afterwards. I’ll take a bit of time off for a few months before committing to another year – the lessons are pretty pricey and I’m coming up with what seems like some physical limitations, which is worrying.
The jigsaw and podcasts (my god there was a lot of baseball this year – see below) thing is still going strong, and Kim just loves buying me loads of them, which is lovely but at the same time isn’t going to get any home renovations started. I’ve also started drinking more again, which summer isn’t helping but is becoming more steady and regular than it should be. 2019 favourites were Stomping Ground IPA, Hawkers IPA and pretty much anything from Two Birds out of Footscray.
I did quite a bit of travel in 2019 for work to NZ – Bluff, Mount Maunganui, Seaview, Woolston (Christchurch) and Lyttelton and I really enjoyed it. Can I please retire to the South Island oneday?
What else happened? Kim got an electric bike for Christmas and I got a PS4. The people who live behind us on Oakover Road sold their house for a lot. We had a few rats in the compost this year, and gave up on most things except herbs in the backyard (but still tons of pots to water). They redid the whole school oval across the road with irrigation and new turf and it’s wonderful. After the NZ cruise, Kim went into hospital in March for a few weeks for anxiety and was off work for a few months, but she’s mostly fine now. She started playing WoW and D&D with Michael and Sian, Ben and Oui too.
Lastly I started playing some Chess puzzles on my phone, something I haven’t done in 35 years, and no surprises I am not very good at it. Richmond won the Grand Final and Kim is now back on the bandwagon! I must be reverting back to my teens because I’m now finding myself listening to Ipswich Town podcasts and watching game highlight -so weird.
It’s been a solid year really, but apart from my foot, since about July I’ve been having bad allergy symptoms, which disappeared up in Woolgoolga but then reappeared two weeks after getting back – I’ve been on daily or twice daily Telfast for 4-5 months now. WTF!
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.
I decided to begin piano lessons again this year when I realised the studio within 5 minutes walking distance of our house had free slots on weeknights. My satisfaction with living in Preston for the past 28 years (and not succumbing to moving houses out of restlessness) seems to rise with every new local person I talk to and every new shop I can walk to. I’m enjoying being less and less car dependant, and so for now it’s the coffee shop, the hairdresser, the lovely couple who run the grog shop and Red Note Piano Studios. I try hard to remember the shopkeepers and people I run into’s names.
I have long been thinking about what ties me to where I live and whether it would continue in the future, even into retirement. I don’t think I have enough friends or activities nearby to make a compelling argument for staying and I find myself trying harder to find some community I suppose, knowing a decision is coming at some point.
In a silly way I’m enjoying ticking off the years in one place and yet I’m wary of falling into my grandparents scenario of “50 years in our house in Preston, but wow we’re loving this new unit in Heidelberg – wish we moved earlier”. And then dying within 5 years or so.
But back to piano. I stopped in 2007 when World of Warcraft kicked in hard and I just couldn’t keep up the motivation. This time (Feb 2019) my teacher is half my age and she’s got similar classical interests Bach etc..and likes Phillip Glass too. She reckons she wrote a thesis on minimalism. We’re still getting to know each other a bit but it’s going well and I hope to do the grade 1 exams in December.
I rarely use this site for anything but book reviews anymore, but here and there other things need to be noted. And in the past 12 months there have been some high and low points. After Bonnie died so suddenly in mid 2018, I got it into my head in the months to follow that Fergus had lost some zest, perhaps even more than a 15 year old dog with faded hearing and dozens of benign lumps should. He just slept and slept. Kim and I debated it in a pretty casual way, and in building a case for another dog, my mind was tossing up how much effort it was to look after 2 dogs vs. 1, versus how much I wanted another dog around to give him more interest in life. It was inferred that it was on me to take most of the ongoing responsibility if we went down that path, probably because Bonnie had been quite a burden really.
Once again it took a lot longer than I wanted and I probably applied for about 8-10 dogs in varying states but generally older and with some health concerns, but I still rarely got a call back. I like how the rescue people take their caretaker role seriously but it made me anxious when they would talk about a meet and greet session which I knew Fergus would fail. I don’t know why he tries to chomp other dogs really. In the end we drove to Wodonga and in a highway roadhouse carpark met a free spirited young guy called Morgan who would do the rounds of outback NSW pounds and try and rehome them regionally or in Kyneton. Even then, he only let us take her because the previously approved adopters hadn’t got back to them the day before.
Leesa Cupcake was her name and she was really shy and kept wanting to get on Morgan’s lap and lick him on the face as a submissive act. We had the impression she had been part of pack of 3-4 dogs and hadn’t been on her own much. We took her back with us and it was interesting to watch her react to Preston. On the lead she had no idea what to do, and she mostly just followed Fergus with her head snapping at the slightest noises on the street. I don’t think she’d ever been in a city before. In the early months she was fantastic when meeting other dogs but over time this has changed as she’s become more confident and aggressive. She loves nothing more than lunging at birds or getting a head of steam up approaching other dog houses.
I’m so happy she is a healthy 8 year old and isn’t too dominant with Fergus. I think he’s picked up a lot since getting her and I see him watching her and following her as he trusts her eyesight and ears. She gets into bed with him sometimes out of boredom I suspect and he stands up irritated and moves over to her bed and spends ages mussing it up till it’s how he likes it. She’s put on a lot of weight too, thanks to our overly generous treat regime. It makes me excited that we’re about to take her on a caravan holiday to the beach which she’s likely never been to before. I bet she will love chasing the birds there and I’ll take some video for sure.
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.