Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My top books for 2016: five literary fiction; five non-fiction; four popular fiction.


FICTION




Howard Jacobson: Shylock is my Name

How could I go past another Jacobson. Here he exhibits his usual penetrating insight into the male of the species, especially the anxious, older, Jew. He's always ruminating on Jewishness but his insights are glorious and his writing has a wondrous fluency.

This novel is essentially a dialogue between religious and secular Jews that celebrates both but essentially confirms the religious. And I love his usual vexatious interrogation of Christianity.





Han Kang: The Vegetarian


This superb novel won the International Booker prize earlier this year. It's a subtle and nuanced meditation on men, women and relationships in a conservative society. And a devastating portrayal of severe mental illness and social isolation.

But most importantly it's a savage critique of the provincialism of South Korea and its backward social conventions and laws. Why are arty but otherwise sane people kept in police cells for months awaiting legal processes and enquiries to unfold before they can be rightfully released? What's so new and worrying about being a fucking vegetarian?

We see a constipated society that can't deal with resistance or individuality or art or the deep rhythms of human existence. And shamefully can't deal with depression.


Kang has written a very powerful and mesmerising novel in beautiful, spare, but poetic prose.






Jock Serong: The Rules of Backyard Cricket


I was absolutely bowled over (sorry) by this book. It's an excellent story, beautifully written. Two cricket stars are brothers and have a very tense relationship.

Australian cricket is full of brothers of course: the Chappells (Ian/Greg) and the Waughs (Steve/Mark) being the best known. In this story one is an insufferable, conscientious prig and health freak, the other a gregarious party animal, druggie and gambler. They never connect of course.

They are propelled and ultimately captured by anger, but in opposite ways: controlling it or giving in to it. 

It ends in tragedy and strikes exactly the right note. This is a wonderful and superb achievement.




Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project

This was shortlisted for this year's Booker prize. It's a marvellous and gripping story about the awful, hard, and unforgiving lives of the 19th century peasant class in Scotland.

It's presented as a factual account of a brutal murder but it's fiction, superbly and sympathetically rendered.

Two supposed memoirs are presented to the jury. One from the prosecution is an obnoxious piece of ugly, ignorant, insulting, pompous, snobbish, haughty, arrogant, pretentious drivel, demeaning '..the lower tribes of our country'. The other, from the accused, a humble well written account of what happened and why. 

I, accurately of course, predicted this would not win the Booker, being nowhere near deep or meaningful enough, nevertheless it's a superb read. And it will make you angry, and I love books that make one angry.






Emma Donoghue: The Wonder

This is Donoghue's follow up to the highly applauded Room, and it is absolutely fucking brilliant.

It's deliciously anti-Catholic, anti-piety, anti provincial religious nonsense. It's about an eleven year old Irish girl in the 1860's who has seemingly - and that word is important - refused to eat food for four months, but, until the final two weeks, stays alive and well and healthy. The village is celebrating a 'miracle'.

Of course the stupid kid would be force-fed in today's medical world - taken to hospital, drip fed and provided with psychiatric help.

In our Trumpian, post-truth age this story resonates. It's a study of delusion. What people want to believe dictating what reality they 'see'.

It condemns the criminal irresponsibility of the family, carers and authorities (the 'committee men') and the cruel insipidity of their pious religious beliefs.

It's a celebration of truth, fact, rationality and sense. There's a nice love story in there too.



NON-FICTION




Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look

Who doesn't love Helen Garner? Her lovely, translucent prose with the regular stunning phrase or description ('the golf course...and its hoses sprinkling bridal veils of spray..').

This is writing at once plain and vivid, filled with acute insight into human feelings and emotions.

Garner is fascinated as usual by crimes, court processes and outcomes. 'What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls.' 

'Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for'.

Buy it.




Maxine Beneba Clarke: The Hate Race

What a magnificent memoir this is. It immerses the reader in the pain of ugly racism.

A young girl's struggle is so powerfully articulated. We feel for her; we ARE her; we become angry at the vicious, cruel racism perpetrated openly and insidiously.

She suffers emotionally, psychologically and physically at school and as an adult. The racism is always there. 

Clarke's prose is crisp and clean, with a constant drumbeat: 'This is how it changes us. This is how we're altered'; 'This is how it happened. Or else what's a story for'; 'When I gather the threads in my fingers, this is how they weave'; 'This is how it haunts us. This is how it stalks'. (193).

The bullying in High School is particularly ugly: '...there was an unfathomable brokenness somewhere inside of me..' And the teachers called it 'teasing'! 'You'll have to get used to it'.

The blurb on the back cover calls this book 'funny'. Jesus.





Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East - A Military History

The US strategy in the Middle East has always been a combination of ignorance, naïveté and Wild West gunslinger swagger - in other words bullshit all the way. Best-selling author Andrew Bacevich, a retired professor of history and international relations at Boston University and former US army military officer, has written a thoroughly researched, fascinating and highly lauded account of the West's strategic and military failures in the Middle East, what he calls 'the pernicious legacy of Western imperialism'. 

It is just riveting. The history and religion of the region has countered for little. From the disaster of Lebanon in '82, the intervention in Libya, the Iraq-Iran war, the Iran/Kuwait failure, the Somalia disaster, the Afghanistan invasion ('an exercise in strategic irrelevance'), the Iraq invasion ('an attempt to change the way they live), Petraeus's absurd 'surge' ('a pseudo-event'), and more - Basevich offers us an unparalleled historical tour de force. 









Volker Ullrich: Hitler, a Biography


This remarkable book, a best-seller in Germany when it was first published in 2013, is a landmark, utterly compelling achievement. Once again, in this age of Trump and ignorant, racist populism, we need to be reminded that 'Hitler was only able to launch his second political career because his adversaries criminally underestimated him'.

The Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard. The people demanded 'a strong man'. 'Few traditional conservatives were...prescient. Most...believed the Nazi leader could be kept in check'.

There is such a strong narrative drive to this book that it's impossible to skip over even the dense historical bits that you'll never remember later.

The assemblage of quotes from observers of events is powerful and telling. And yes, it is so heartening to read the contemporary critics of Hitler and his Nazi initiatives who were so prescient, courageous, and ultimately of course proved right. 





Clementine Ford: Fight Like a Girl


Yes, I read this and absolutely loved it! This is feminism in the trenches. A wonderful, angry, ferocious, inspiring read. Highly recommended.

There are annoying bits: there's a touch of 70's radicalism in the theory: easy, simplistic, absolutist, hardly nuanced; the constant references to 'cisgendered' women is unnecessary and boring; it's poorly edited (the world population is now 7.4 billion, not 'six billion'!); there's no index or author photo (inexcusable); the standard condemnations of patriarchy reflect rather amateur social and sexual analyses and conceptual overreach ('..another tool developed by thousands of years of patriarchy to deflect our attention away from trying to destroy it').

But this all pales as the book proceeds and the vigor of the language takes hold ('the bourdoir holy-pokey'; 'anti-women banana brains'). And the chapter on online abuse ('Hate Male') is superb.

Make no mistake. This is a very worthy best-seller and a must read. 



POPULAR FICTION





Adrian McKinty: Rain Dogs


Inspector Duffy's dealings and conversations with his police colleagues are always a delight. They're witty, often crude, always robust. He detests these anal retentives, and his insults flavour the novels deliciously. This fourth novel in the series doesn't quite have as many juicy ones as the last one but they're all just so satisfying.


And there's Jimmy Saville and the British establishment to boot. Very pleasing.

I love the short sharp sentences and phrases like jotted notes. They give rawness to the style that keeps the pace flowing.

There's great drama at the end, providing a good and satisfying resolution. 

There's a fifth in the series coming early next year. If you haven't got into McKinty yet, get a life.





Mark Lamprell: The Lovers' Guide to Rome

This is a lovely, romantic novel about two couples and two senior ladies in the enchanting city of Rome.


It's beautifully written, with a light touch. Very engaging indeed. We're sucked into the dynamics of love and fidelity - new, stale and old.

And Rome comes alive in all its history, majesty and wonder. 

Nice holiday reading. And better still - IT MAKES YOU WANT TO GO TO ROME!!





Jane Harper: The Dry

This is one of the most intense and absorbing crime narratives I've read in a long time. 

It's set in an Australian country town and is heaps better then Emily Maguire's An isolated Incident, also set in an Australian county town. Why such a common setting? Because they're dark, those places, and scary. I should know - I was brought up in one of them, left at 16 and have never gone back.






L.S.Hilton: Maestra


This is a delightfully anti British upper classes romp. And it's also extremely sexy, verging on the pornographic. 

Hilton knows how to write about sex. Her heroine is sassy, clever, and very sexy. A thrilling tonic for an old white male like me!

It's got an intricate plot involving the art world, the mafia, the seedy night life of Paris and Rome with all the streets, locales, shops, bars and restaurants brought to life. And a driving crime narrative to boot. 

What's not to like?





Monday, March 28, 2016

An outrageous waste of trees: Gabriel Packard's The Painted Ocean



I've complained often on this blog about quotes from famous authors on covers of new books that praise the buggery out of the 'masterpiece' you've plucked off the shelf and tempt you to buy it.

More often than not they lie. 

The endorsements for Gabriel Packard's debut The Painted Ocean come, among others, from highly regarded authors Colum McCann and Darin Strauss. This is what Strauss says: 

Gabriel Packard has written the sort of book publishers, readers, the whole world is hungry for: a thrilling and literate debut, a smart page-turner that takes your emotions and wraps them around its brutal, quick fist. I sat to read the first page of this novel and blew the rest of my weekend finishing the whole blessed thing.

Colum McCann similarly enthuses: 

A major new literary talent .... a fearless tour de force.

Well, here's my quote that prospective readers should heed:

This book is garbage, an outrageous waste of trees. It's one of the most stupid books I've read in a long time - stupid on every level. It has absolutely no merit at all. It's utter trash. Don't waste your money. Buy something else, anything.

Eleven-year-old Shruti is from a broken home in suburban England, living with her Indian mother who can't speak English. Shruti is subject to awful racism and bullying at school and is then abandoned when the mother comes under pressure from her family to return to India to remarry.

But then another Indian girl, the sassy, beautiful, street-smart Meena, a real male fantasy creation if ever there was one, turns up at the school, befriends Shruti, serves it up to the bullies and completely transforms Shruti's life. 

Shruti becomes obsessed with her, following her to high school and university. Meena invites her to join her on an adventure holiday to India. 

And then.....the book plunges from male fantasy to utter absurdity. And it gets not just ugly, but revolting. As it turns out, Meena also has  succumbed to obsession. In a cultish way she's been sucked in by a fascist, authoritarian, rapist white thug called Steve. They imprison Shruti on an isolated island off the Indian coast, where Steve brutally rapes Shruti every night before making 'love' to Meena.

So we quickly descend from disaster porn to depravity porn. It is relentless. 

Shruti eventually escapes and navigates a small, stolen fishing boat all the way back to England - seven thousand miles away!!

Where, of course, she thrives.

So we are meant to take this ridiculous narrative seriously. I tried to figure out what this so-called literary author (who thanks Peter Carey and Colum McCann 'for their invaluable advice and support') was getting at. What was his point? Is the novel anti-cult? Anti-Indian? Anti-misogyny? Anti-colonial?

No, none of these things. The book is just a tedious and shameful exercise in degeneracy.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I rarely am.
  



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My top books for 2015









Here are my favourite books of 2015.

(It's not a list of the best books by any means, as there were so many well-reviewed books published. And I was very impatient this year for some reason. I started reading many new novels that my favourite reviewers raved about, but I wasn't grabbed in the first 100 pages so bailed.)

Australian Fiction:

1. Rod Jones, The Mothers.

This is a very powerful novel that frequently brought me to tears but mostly made me intensely angry.

It interweaves the lives of four Australian women living in Melbourne from the years of the first world war until the 1990's. While very young they became pregnant to young men who deserted them or treated them cruelly. Their parents were no better, imprisoned by the moral, social and legal strictures of the day. They were also battling poverty and unemployment.

Single motherhood was an absolute no-no. Marriage was compulsory, or the baby forcibly removed for adoption. The story of Anna, a feisty teenager brought undone by the Salvation Army's excruciatingly awful 'home for girls in your situation' is one of the most moving and dramatic pieces of social history you're ever likely to read. It will make your blood boil.

Jones brings his characters vividly to life. His writing is measured and assured, the stories tense and deeply emotional.

No doubt this wonderful book will be shortlisted for a number of awards, and deservedly so. It is magnificent. It will also become a celebrated ABC TV mini-series, no doubt.

2. James Bradley, Clade.

The main character in this new book from noted Australian novelist James Bradley is planet Earth. 

The human characters, none of whom we ever really connect with and most of whom arrive on the scene for a chapter or two then disappear, are inconsequential to the main drama of climate change which is reeking havoc all around.

The story is set in a 21st century future over the course of a few generations and Bradley is relentless in listing every possible disaster that climate scientists have long foretold and that is now happening.

A bleak, apocalyptic scenario unfolds and civilisations from East to West unravel. Genetically engineered crops are unleashing deadly viruses killing millions; 'illegal' immigrants fleeing starvation and disease are everywhere and being savagely rounded up. 

The final pages introduce an element of hope and optimism, and the author's reflections are beautifully articulated. We get a meditation on transience as if the camera is now panning out, seeing every little drama in a larger, more cosmic, context.

 3. Malcolm Knox, The Wonder Lover.

This is a powerful and mighty achievement. It captures and engages the reader, and grapples with a whole range of large issues rarely done well in modern fiction.

Essentially it's an essay on men, but also on women, on sex, on pain and suffering, on loneliness, ageing, beauty and love.

I don't think it's going too far to suggest that in a real sense it's a story of a man undone by strong and powerful women. It could be seen as a feminist tract - on the weakness of men and the power of women.

It reminded me very much of Howard Jacobson, especially his marvellous Zoo Time. It's a heady mix of the comic and the dramatic always infused with hyper real intensity. Jacobson in his Jewish style is a master of portraying males grappling with demanding, crazy women. But Knox brings far more compassion and warmth to his tale, and less social and political critique.

I loved it.

4. Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep.

This novel won the Miles Franklin this year and was a very worthy winner indeed. It caught me and most other readers and critics by surprise. The smart money was on Joan London's The Golden Age and Sonya Hartnett's Golden Boys. I had read both these novels and enjoyed them thoroughly.

The novel is a powerful and visceral adult drama even though a young boy, Jimmy, is the central character.

This is a drama of domestic violence. It's ugly indeed. Laguna skilfully conveys the horror but without emptying the father of all sympathy. Jimmy and his older brother Robby have a warm and loving relationship with both their parents. The deep connections between them are explored. Jimmy and his father Gavin have a bond that survives Gavin's extreme volatility. Gavin is a frustrated man who resorts to the Cutty Sark in the top cupboard for relief. He is eventually made redundant from his printing job, thus taking the narrative to a much darker place.

And the ending is very satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually.

Laguna has written an excellent, highly dramatic novel. What gives the book so much power is the innocence, joy and vulnerability of Jimmy. It's a magnificent portrait and it won't let you go. That boy gets under your skin.

5. Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things.

This new novel from the highly regarded Australian author Charlotte Wood is both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts, but nevertheless a compelling read.

A group of ten young women who in one way or another have recently featured in the media through unfortunate sexual experiences have been drugged, kidnapped and sent to an isolated, abandoned rural property in outback Australia where they are imprisoned and cruelly treated by two men.

The book is well written, some passages exquisitely so, and the narrative superbly structured. 

The women never talk of escaping. In fact they barely talk to each other at all. No ideas or theories are tossed around as to why they are being held or by whom, and no plots hatched.

As the months and seasons pass each woman in her own way is sent to the edge of insanity. But there's no evidence of any visceral anger at their captivity.


In a way they are complicit in their own victimhood. They internalise their plight, indulging in fantasies, obsessions and playthings. They retreat into themselves. They could organise to kill their captors, whose only weapons are sticks after all, and escape to freedom, but they don't. Some of them do form close relationships with each other which are sustaining and supportive, and two of the women are strong and independent. The other eight are weak, 'girly' and rather pathetic. Which may well be Wood's main point. 


It's a confronting and challenging meditation on what it is to be female.


International Fiction:

1. Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Child.

These three novels follow last year's My Brilliant Friend and bring to an end Ferrante's Neapolitan series. They tell the story of the intense friendship between Lila and Elena as they grow up in a poverty stricken neighbourhood in Naples mid last century and develop into strong, fiercely independent women confronting the challenges of love, sex, bad marriages, children, work, frustration, exploitation and desperation.      

It's a relationship exquisitely dissected with surgical precision. But there's so much more to the story than this. The setting is Naples but it could be any provincial Italian town or neighbourhood. The men, the parents, the powerful families and their businesses, the limited job opportunities and abusive workplace conditions, the schools and teachers, the ambitions and aspirations, the ignorance, the stunted lives, the vulgarity, the emergence of the middle class, the destructive power of love and passion. It's all there and more, and the story is beautifully told. And as it unfolds it becomes more and more encompassing, fascinating and thoroughly absorbing. 

It's the drama of our post-war development. It's a story of political and social development, ugly domestic violence, poverty, power, unions, class division, privilege, influence, sexism, abuse. Friendships are riven by the passionate tapestry of Italian politics: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, the Fascists, the youthful rebellion of the 1960's and terrorism. Running through all this are the personal narratives: the confronting relationships, the lovers, the marriages, and importantly the underlying drama of Nino - his beauty, intelligence and sexual attraction: 'the swift, brilliant, even cruel aggressions of Nino Sarratore, my schoolmate, my friend, born in the neighbourhood, like me.'

This is a rich, hard nosed, critical, unsentimental, unforgiving, relentless, dynamic and frequently savage story of ordinary but proud people in a proud and passionate country desperately searching for a way forward or a way out. 


2. Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman.

Go Set A Watchman is wonderful, stimulating, and a real pleasure to read. 

As much as anything it's a novel of dialogues, debates and ideas. And wit abounds. Scout, known by her real name Jean Louise and now in her mid-twenties, is a delightful, highly intelligent and feisty young woman who has spent the last few years in New York. This is a very playful telling by Lee who obviously identifies with her richly drawn and extremely likable character. 

Jean Louise's adult awakening to Atticus is so much more meaningful knowing as we do the child Scout's naive view of her saintly father in To Kill A Mockingbird. The two books enrich each other immeasurably. In fact they both need each other. It was pure editorial genius that Lee was persuaded to first retell the story from the child's point of view rather than proceed to publish Go Set A Watchman. But why did Lee and her publisher decide not to release the first book at all, rather than a few years later? Perhaps so as not to destroy the magic of Atticus that had taken hold in the public imagination? I guess we'll never know.

Unlike in TKAM, a strain of high amusement runs through the GSAW narrative. It has a vastly different tone, at times reading like a satirical village comedy. But Lee manages to expertly combine this playfulness with a serious and savage critique of racism in the South. It is a fiercely passionate denunciation of white supremacism and Lee is very angry indeed. The writing in the heated arguments, particularly those between Jean Louise and her father, is rich, powerful and disturbing. The contrasting ideas and beliefs are fully articulated and the reader served a sumptuous, invigorating feast. 

The final few chapters are intense, and some critics doubt their realism and credibility. Atticus is condemned, in fact demolished by an out of control Jean Louise, but gets a chance to explain his position. It's rational. He's a liberal, as we've always known, but now in his senior years, an Establishment one. He's a lawyer.

I thoroughly recommend you read this book, but if you haven't read TKAM you must read that first.

3. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life:


Basically a novel of abuse, of trauma and incredible pain, this Booker shortlisted book is viscerally powerful and confronting and at the same time exquisitely good.

A word of warning - it's not for the faint hearted. The author grabs you by the back of the neck and thrusts your head into a toilet bowl of depravity. You need a strong stomach. It's a Dickensian horror story for our time that I'm sure not even Dickens could bring himself to write.

The novel is the story of Jude, a child abandoned at birth and brought up in an orphanage run by a religious order. We are all too familiar these days with what inevitably goes on in these dark and sinful places. The boy is good-looking and highly intelligent.

Slowly, as the novel progresses on its meandering way through the lives and careers of his close friends from college onwards, Jude's awful history is revealed. Yanagihara teases, entices, diverts to other stories, but she never forgets, even hundreds of pages later, to tie up the loose ends. That is so satisfying.

4. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island:

Satin Island has a fascinating corporate premise at its core: a brilliant anthropologist is hired by an elite London-based consultancy company to read the contemporary zeitgeist and uncover patterns and theories to construct a unified theory of the whole that will revolutionise its offerings and bring it glorious success.

'U', as he's known, searches for meaning in the rich kaleidoscope of reality to construct this magic concoction. But he's constantly encountering and being fascinated by little dissonances in our social fabric, be they accidents, glitches and illogicalities - like oil spills, parachute failures, cancer cells, video buffering, torture, etc.    

But he keeps at it, encouraged by his boss, the mysterious Peyman, who is nothing if not insane. U's presentations at future-oriented conferences are unmitigated tripe, but he's ceaselessly celebrated by his corporate audiences.

As the dissonances attest a satisfying and meaningful whole is a baseless proposition. 

Ironically an air of meaninglessness, rather than meaning, begins to surface. An overwhelming sense of the unfathomable and the disjointed bombards our senses and unravels our comfortable webs of comprehension. 

Unsettling echoes of tragedies and disasters seep into the narrative. 

The final chapter is superb. U waits at the Staten Island ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan and simply observes ordinary commuters going about their daily business - queuing, buying coffee and donuts, waiting to board, etc. A sense of heightened normalcy pervades. Anything could happen. This is 9/11 territory. 

I was reminded very much of Colum McCann's lauded celebration of New York and the World Trade Centre towers Let the Great World Spin.

McCarthy is a writer for our times. Satin Island is a brilliant book.

5. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant.


A major Ishiguro theme is buried evil, the havoc it has reeked, the potential it has to erupt again and the courage needed to face it. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro's fascination with paranormal evil and how integrated with quotidian reality it is, continues. Dragons, ogres, savage pixies and the monster of them all, Querig the she-dragon, populate the landscape and are an integral part of this folkloric tale. But they portend the inevitability and horror of war and the destruction of love, civility, compassion and innocence.

There are a lot of old, malingering people in this book, including the two central characters Beatrice and Axl, who are absolutely delightful. Their love for each other is the central charm of the book. Like all the characters Ishiguro has them talking in a stilted, formal English. It's very theatrical and Elizabethan, often beautifully poetic with Shakespearean elegance. The Saxons and the Britons have been at war in the ex-Roman colony of Britannia but are now at peace, albeit a fragile one. It is guarded and cherished by the old and wise. Deep roots of hatred and vengeance lie buried - the Giant in the title - but threaten to break out at any time. 

Ironically it is the young who continue the hatred and relish the near prospect of renewed war and bloodshed. In his last novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro had the young as innocent victims of the old. Here it's the reverse.

The ending is intensely moving and profound. 

6. Adrian McKinty, Gun Street Girl.


This is the fourth novel in McKinty's Sean Duffy series, and fans will be delighted. It definitely delivers.

In fact it's probably the best. The central crime that Duffy's team attempts to solve is more dramatic, its tentacles spreading far more widely into the social and political spheres that make up the conflict-ridden reality of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

And Inspector Duffy himself is rather more fleshed out. His usual intelligence and courage are there, but special attention this time is given to his rather dissolute, louche and hopelessly disorganised personal life. (There's also more sex in this one - never a bad thing!)

But his career in the police force is going nowhere. On so many levels the man is a mess, and he needs to make some big decisions. Dulling his restlessness in ever larger gulps of single malt and sniffs of cocaine at all hours of the day and night, rarely sleeping, at least in anything resembling a bed, and never eating much other than toast and chips is not cutting it. He's even worse than Rebus.

All the swagger and vitality of McKinty's prose is here in spades, and it's glorious as usual.

Any new instalment of Duffy is a must-read. This one is no exception.


Non-Fiction:

1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

This is an extremely moving, powerful and very personal examination of what it means to be black in America.

In the form of letter to his young son, it's beautifully written, honest, heartbreaking and angry.

The construction of the 'white' race, the imprisoning American 'Dream', the continuing economy of slavery - all construct 'black' as a losing proposition. The frequent police shootings making news today reflect these deeper malevolent traditions.

This is a critically important book. It has been heralded a classic, and rightly so.

2. Asne Seierstad, One of Us.


This is an incredibly powerful book, but for obvious reasons not a pleasant read. 

Anders Breivik was a monster, an embodiment of sheer evil. Seierstad spends a lot of time giving us a detailed psychological profile of an abused child growing into an emotionally immature youth and finally a self-obsessed, narcissistic adult. A bully incapable of sustaining friendships much less intimate relationships. Nobody really understood him, least of all himself

Interspersed throughout the chapters on Breivik's development are the life stories of some of the young men and women of the Young Labour Party who on 22 July 2011 tragically became his victims. 

Bano, the daughter of Kurd asylum seekers who struggled to make a life in Norway after fleeing Iraq, is an inspiration. As is Simon, widely regarded as a future political leader. These and other stories build incredible suspense. We know the ending but our sympathies are utterly engaged. The ultimate tragedy happens to individuals we love and care about deeply. It is profoundly moving.And then there is the gritty detail as the fateful day unfolds. Horrible but fascinating as a dramatic narrative. We are in the hands of an assured and talented writer.

The final chapters cover the aftermath, particularly for the families. It is immensely sad. 

This book is an enormously satisfying and revelatory read. Highly recommended.


3. A.A.Gill, Pour Me.


 Pour Me is the best autobiography I've read in many years, if not ever. It is a classic.

Gill was born into a loving family with libertarian, dissenting, argumentative parents. He was diagnosed as dyslexic when not much was known about the condition, so was sent to a 'special' boarding school (which was nothing of the sort). He survived the experience by indulgence - in books, music, protests, sex, drink and drugs, and 'good mates'.

He suffered severe alcoholism throughout his twenties. The book is unflinching in describing his descent into that hopeless, degrading, personal terror. It's an enlightening treatise on the psychology of addiction.

Read this memoir for the exquisite writing, and the wit that sparkles on every page.

The narrative keeps spinning off into memories, reveries and meditations on art, music, histories, teachers, doctors, other people of influence, painters (including a lovely few pages on Turner and his virtual invention of the colour yellow), and editors and cooks.

The final chapters of the book range over his career in journalism in the heyday of newspapers and features. It's a celebration of the craft, and of editors and photographers.

I can thoroughly recommend this wonderful book.

4. Cory Doctorow, Information Doesn't Want to be Free.


Author, Internet/technology guru and activist Cory Doctorow has written many articles (mainly on the popular and influential weblog Boing Boing) on copyright, Digital Rights Management (DRM) and privacy issues, but this little gem of a book brings all his insights and reflections together in one comprehensive, superbly written package.

It's an antidote to the sort of nonsense served up as sophisticated critique by whiny spokespeople for entertainment and publishing conglomerates like Andrew Keen (who's latest book I reviewed here). Its prime focus is helping creatives understand and appreciate all the ways in which they can make money in the new digital age - 'how do I get people to pay me?'

But it ranges far more widely than that. It's full of stories and histories, and most enjoyably quotable quotes.

If you're at all interested in or fascinated by the many issues, problems and solutions thrown up by the Internet age then you'll cherish this book.

5. Reza Aslan, No god but God.


If, like me, you want to know far more about Islam, this book is the one you should read. Reza Aslan is an Iran-born, American religious scholar of Islamic faith who wrote the 2013 mega-seller 'Zealot', a controversial book about the historical Jesus (which was superb by the way).

No god but God is the story of the prophet Muhammad, his successors and the religion he foundered, from the very beginning right up until today. As a drama it truly is fodder for a thrilling TV miniseries. The thing about Aslan is he can write. It's a tale exceptionally well told.


Aslan summarises the views of a range of scholars and their different opinions and interpretations. He assess and critiques fairly. Being a well regarded scholar himself, he writes with authority.

He details the debates, the controversies and the evolution of Islam over the centuries, including its spread to Asia, Africa and other non-Arabic countries. 

The chapters on Iran, India, Egypt and Islam's clash with colonialism are enlightening. He is also excellent on the Shia/Sunni divide and particularly Wahhabism, an 'uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam', and its patron Ibn Saud. This history is fascinating given today's iteration in ISIS. 

Aslan is fiercely and rightly critical of the West, particularly imperialist Britain and now the US, and its heavy-handed interventions:

'The French went to great lengths to cultivate class divisions in Algeria, the Belgians promoted tribal factionalism in Rwanda, and the British fostered sectarian schisms in Iraq, all in a futile attempt to minimise nationalist tendencies and stymie calls for independence. No wonder, then, that when the colonialists were finally expelled from these manufactured states, they left behind not only economic and political turmoil, but deeply divided populations with little common ground on which to construct a national identity.'

Reza Aslan has written a highly readable, truly enlightening book. I highly recommend it.





Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life: an extraordinary, utterly absorbing, yet painful read.




Normally I read all Booker shortlisted titles but this year that was a confronting challenge. A Little Life came highly recommended, with heaps of enthusiastic reviews, but it was 720 dense pages long.

For the last two weeks however I've been completely absorbed in it, night and day. It's easily on a level with Ferrante when it comes to obsession.

It's basically a novel of abuse, of trauma and incredible pain. It's viscerally powerful and confronting and at the same time exquisitely good.

A word of warning - it's not for the faint hearted. The author grabs you by the back of the neck and thrusts your head into a toilet bowl of depravity. You need a strong stomach. It's a Dickensian horror story for our time that I'm sure not even Dickens could bring himself to write.

It's beautifully written in smooth and lucid prose, although off-putting at times in its lugubrious and dawdling style. It's frequently wordy and gets bogged down in too much detail which irritates - slabs of prose for dozens of pages without a break. (There is an unwritten protocol governing this sort of thing in fiction. Short chapters or frequent breaks are psychologically necessary. Yanagihara ignores this).

Basically the novel is the story of Jude, a child abandoned at birth and brought up in an orphanage run by a religious order. We are all too familiar these days with what inevitably goes on in these dark and sinful places. The boy is good-looking and highly intelligent.

Slowly, as the novel progresses on its meandering way through the lives and careers of his close friends from college onwards, Jude's awful story is revealed. Yanagihara teases, entices, diverts to other stories, but she never forgets, even hundreds of pages later, to tie up the loose ends. That is so satisfying.

The book is an excellent portrayal of urban, professional, upper middle class US society, almost a sociological analysis of a privileged elite's social, economic and working lives - their country properties, their luscious apartments with expensive art adorning the walls, their constant holidays in foreign parts, their apartments in London and Rome, their theatre, opera and music, their so New York wealthy lifestyles.

It's a celebration of deep friendship and love. But such care for Jude is never enough to bury, much less eliminate, his pain. I doubt there's been any character in literature who's been shown such love and support, but to no avail. Were his years with Willem, his loving and long-term partner, totally non-salvific? The author's intricate dissection of the rich and varied emotions at play in the Jude/Willem relationship is breathtaking. Jude is a cutter. He knows it's bad, but he's desperate to ease his interior pain, and the fact it causes him such grief, including serious infections, is a perversity he can do nothing about. Neither can Willem. It's just so tragic and sad.

The novel has weaknesses, and some critics have have ripped into it for its 'sentimentality' and 'contrivance' (See Daniel Mendelsohn's controversial review in the New York Review of Books here).

There are some really annoying tics in the writing. For example the main characters are constantly saying 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry' to each other. Over a huge 720 page book which must have taken a long time to write one can forgive the author for not noticing this. But the editor? And the constant use of the expression 'off of' is annoying. However I did enjoy the narrative device of using a loose 'he' to deliberately destabilise the reader. It adds a surprising, intriguing and distancing edge to the narrative, seamlessly becoming a character's reflections rather than an authorial telling, and the reader is aware of being on uncertain ground. 

And it is often so fucking yuppie it is unbelievable. Here is a classic passage: 'They've seen very little of their friends for months now: JB has been on a fellowship in Italy for the past six months, and Malcolm and Sophie have been so busy with the construction of a new ceramics museum in Shanghai that the last time they saw them all was in April, in Paris - he was filming there, and Jude had come in from London, where he was working, and JB in from Rome, and Malcolm and Sophie had laid over for a couple of days on their way back to New York.' (609)

It verges on melodrama. They are all so clever, rich, handsome and successful. Even Jude, always in mental and physical pain, is one of New York's most brilliant and successful litigators.

Nevertheless, all these little negatives are entirely tolerable in a story of such substance and power. I can enthusiastically recommend this book.