December 21, 2016 by brettdgale
Just in time for the holiday season here’s my favourite recommendations from everything I’ve read in the past year. To readers everywhere all the best for Christmas and a happy 2017.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain
Like a sports’ star being called the next Don Bradman or the next Michael Jordan being called the next Joseph Heller is a kiss of death for anyone writing war satire. Luckily for us Ben Fountain has passed this test of courage with flying colours. Fountain’s book, (with its extraordinary long title that is a more than a mouthful) is a colourful, eloquent, occasionally laugh- out- loud disquisition on America circa 2005.
Fountain neatly skewers three of the touchstones of modern American life – American Football, Hollywood and the deification of the US military – as he follows the fortunes of a company of soldiers recently returned from a heroic firefight in Iraq and being honoured at halftime of the Dallas Cowboy’s Thanksgiving Day Game. It’s an anti-war satire that manages to both reverently support the troops and pop the balloon of American pretentiousness. It’s brilliantly done and surreptitiously smart. This work deserves every accolade it has received.
Apparently the movie, in cinemas now, has been called unwatchable. Frankly I couldn’t give a shit, I very rarely watch movies based on books (it’s the lazy person’s way of getting an education) – go to the source dear friends, go to the source.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
Because these reviews are short, and usually to the point (although not always, but I digress), I don’t feel the need to spoil Karen Joy Fowler’s gorgeous story of family love and dysfunction with a revelation of the dark secret at the heart of the Cooke family. I understand even some of the promotional materials for the book gave it away which to my mind rather defeats the point, but that’s the modern world we live in, full of one marshmallow babies and internet trolls intent on taking the suspense out of life.
Anyway, back to the book; “readably juicy” is a phrase I wish I’d invented, I didn’t, but it neatly sums up this delightful yet poignant study of family loss and the search for belonging.
Fowler’s narrator is your typical college moocher, wisecracking 22 year old Rosemary Cooke, unsure of the future because she’s equally unsure of her own past. In a series of snappy and well told flashbacks we come to learn that Rosemary’s idyllic childhood was shattered at the loss of her sister Fern when she was a young girl. The how and why of Fern’s disappearance, followed years later by Rosemary’s older brother also disappearing, is the crux of this intriguingly suspenseful character study.
After all, we are all who our families make us.
It would be worth reading for the sheer madcap presence of a Madame Defarge ventriloquist’s dummy alone but the truth is once you know the secret this is probably not a book you’ll want to read more than once but if you want an enjoyable, lively read that also tears at your heart this summer it is a book you will read once.
The Old Curiosity Shop – Charles Dickens
Whenever I read Dickens I wonder why I don’t read him more often. The Old Curiosity Shop is no exception. Sure, it is maudlin and overly sentimental in parts but it also contains two of the great Dickensian characters. In the poison dwarf Daniel Quilp Dickens created a fantastical allegory of corrupt business practices and the most evil character in all his novels. And in the louche figure of Dick Swiveller Dickens created a name to make every 15 year old boy (and those who still retain more than a trace of their 15 year old selves) snigger with glee.
At its heart it is the story of innocence staying pure and true in a world of the corrupt and the grotesque. The Old Curiosity Shop was so popular in its day that crowds supposedly lined the docks in New York waiting for the latest instalments to arrive. Justly famous for the death of Little Nell the writing of which scene allegedly traumatised the book’s own author let alone the reading public of its day. On the other hand Oscar Wilde said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Maus: A Survivors Tale Pt1: My Father Bleeds History – Art Spiegelman
This book is so powerful I don’t quite know where to start. Maus tells the story of the Holocaust through the story of the author’s father. Spiegelman acts as the book’s narrator, telling both the story of his father’s life during wartime and his own somewhat fraught interactions with Spiegelman the Elder. The scale of the Holocaust is often so incomprehensible to the modern mind that it takes the stories of individuals such as Vladek Spiegelman for us to grasp its true horrors. In this sense Maus is a valuable addition to our understanding.
Oh! Did I forget to mention that Maus is actually a comic book? By that simple yet brilliant device Spiegelman manages to make an unsettling story even more disturbing but perhaps even more resonant, raw and real than conventional narrative would have. This is a monumental achievement by any stretch of the imagination and thoroughly deserves the special Pulitzer Prize it was awarded in 1992.
Thank You for Smoking – Christopher Buckley
Two decades on from its publication and Christopher Buckley’s satirical portrait of the methods and mores of the PR industry is as relevant as ever. Buckley’s writing is sharp, funny and oh so close to the bone. If some of the cultural references are dated for younger readers that should be no barrier to enjoyment of this sardonic caper. Buckley’s wit and punch illuminate with a merciless clarity what we merchants of spin so often do in our day jobs. In this case Buckley is comically skewering big tobacco, the alcohol industry and of course guns. This should be recommended as a must read “How to Guide” in communications schools across the land.
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
I’m still reading my way through the back catalogue of Ian McEwen but this, his second most recent tome is one of his best.
The book explores the delicate intersection between the self we present to the world at work and the self we keep for our private lives. Told through the story of High Court Judge Fiona Maye as she is called upon to adjudicate in a case brought by a hospital to allow doctors to give a life-saving blood transfusion to a 17-year-old boy, who refuses to accept it based on his devout religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. The case occurs at the same time her announces he wants to have an affair with a younger woman (whilst attempting to stay married to Fiona).
While short, the novel is multi-layered as Fiona rules in trial she is undergoing her own trial (and not just because of her marital situation). The book is more understated than the usual McEwen style and the denouement more subdued, but it still smacks of the trademark McEwen dissection of human relations and intriguing surprises along the way.
The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia – Frank Bongiorno
For the last three decades the policy and social settings put in place during the 1980s have defined how we live. In every respect, all aspects of our lives from cultural, through political, to technological, had their geneses in the Eighties. Only time will tell whether the volcanic rumblings heard around the world in 2016 will presage a new order that will have had its birth pangs in our current decade. But for now the hangover of the developments of the 80s continues to dominate. That’s why it’s never a bad time for a reassessment of that decade. Frank Bongiorno has set out to do exactly that in this chronicle of Australian life 30 years ago.
“Australia’s 1980s continue to cast their shadow over our lives. The decade stalks debate about the poor quality of our present politics and politicians, the adequacy of our national leadership and the perils of dependence on commodity exports for which world demand fluctuates as much as it did 30 years ago. The songs of the 1980s fill our journeys, its fashions live in our nightmares, its popular heroes regularly figure in the media – even if only to signal their passing.”
There is strength to this argument, after all it’s not really feasible to argue against the proposition that the pub rock bands of the 80’s together created the greatest concentration of musical talent Australia has ever seen, nor that the 80s were the last decade of consistent and persistent economic reform this country has seen.
Whilst humans like to think that history occurs in linear patterns with one thing leading logically to the next, life is rarely like that. And the decade of the eighties in Australia certainly wasn’t, no matter how often we like to look back with a Vaseline tinted lens that gives the sweep of history a pleasant glow. Bongiorno vividly brings to life the melange of overlapping events and idiosyncratic individuals that marked Australia’s wake up decade. Long forgotten names and long forgotten events tumble forth from the pages mingling with those all too familiar to us from constant repetition. From Garrett to Joh, Victorian bushfires to VCRs, Kylie and Jason, Howard to Hutchence, Bond to Banana Republics and on to Bicentennials, Azaria to the America’s cup, the Australia Card to AIDS, and always to Hawke and Keating, not only the names but also the deeds and doings of Australia in the Eighties are well remembered (indeed its almost become a secular catechism within the Labor Party to recite the noble deeds of Hawke and Keating – in many cases to the actual detriment of modern policy development). All and more are covered by Bongiorno in this worthwhile history. This is how Australia lived then, this is how Australia lives now.
Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern – Laura Tingle
I find the constant refrain that “politics today is worse than it ever was, that the system is broken, exceedingly tedious. Such refrains coming so often from those too young and ignorant of the political battles and unedifying behaviours of the past or from those journalists who through their sporting contest analysis of politics have done more than fair share to debase political debate. Laura Tingle however is a significantly notable exception. She posits a reason for this lament that goes beyond the superficial explanations to discover something much deeper; that at the core of Australia’s political processes over the past three decades has been a hollowing out of the intellectual capacities and the institutional memories of our body politic. A hollowing out that has the potential to doom the nation to the constant repetition of the mistakes of recent years. If madness be doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, Tingle makes clear that we are a nation of mad men and mad women. Tingle lays much of the blame for this on the diminution of a robust and experienced public service by successive Governments. A state that has diminished the capacity to put up a stop sign to craziness. She may well be right – her thesis certainly feels so. Agree or disagree, anyone serious about improving the quality of public life in Australia must read this.
The Secret River – Kate Grenville
Notwithstanding my earlier advice to read the book rather than watch adaptions of it, earlier this year I finally caught up with the stage production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Without a shadow of a doubt it was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a theatre in years. It gave due justice to a book that is equally powerful, dynamic and moving.
Put simply The Secret River tells the story of Australia’s frontier war (in Henry Reynolds phrase) as settlers on the Hawkesbury clash with the local Dharug tribes (often at the instigation of the since sainted Lachlan Macquarie). It is a story that for many a long year was downplayed as we celebrated the conquering of the frontier (not really imagining the conquest was of other people not just of Australia’s vicious bush and weather). That Grenville has chosen to tell the story in a fictional account in my view only adds to the importance of the history.
This then is a story of forgetting. More specifically of how most Australians have deliberately forgotten the darker consequences of their past. Grenville’s novel provocatively and decisively holds a mirror up to our souls, one that we should all be forced to stare into. After all it is a measure of a nation’s maturity as to how we cleave to the divisions in our national psyche or how we choose to confront the demons in our pasts.
Zone One – Colson Whitehead
If you read any online reviews of this brilliant short novel you will overwhelmingly find reviewers stating in beguiled wonder how Colson Whitehead a literary writer of the highest order has written a zombie novel. Indeed most reviewers feel like they have to shout it – COLSON WHITEHEAD! A ZOMBIE NOVEL! FFS what does it matter? The constant categorisation of people and things into tiny little genres and sub-genres and sub-genres of sub-genres is partly what’s got the world into the damn pickle we are in at present. When it comes to books I always find a simple rule is best – good writing is good writing and good story is good story and if you can get both in the one book then you should damn well be happy.
Thus we have Zone One. To my mind it hits both marks easily. And I guess even I’m not able to completely avoid the dichotomy at the heart of Whitehead’s task – it’s a magically written zombie novel that makes you think. Once again we have a plague (it’s always a plague) launching itself upon the world leaving only the dead/undead (zombies are both of course) and the survivors. In Whitehead’s telling we begin in Manhattan as the fightback of human kind is beginning apace. Our antihero Mark Spitz is part of a clean-up crew going door-to-door in southern Manhattan (the rest of the island is walled off) slowly cleaning up stray zombies (Skels in Whitehead’s formulation). The action takes place over three days and Whitehead effectively creates a sense of foreboding and moral unease as
There’s a nice twist with Whitehead’s zombies. Whilst some are your usual shuffling, ravenous, flesh eating, super strength stereotypes another group are somewhat more somnolent – languidly repeating over and over the tasks they did whilst alive. Hence we have zombies catatonically stationed over photocopiers, or standing behind the counter in shops, or glued behind their corporate workstations. Yes, yes it’s of a course a not very subtle statement on modern capitalist life – but so are all zombie stories, that’s the point – still it’s a pretty cool motif that I liked very much.
The Passage – Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin’s novel begins with a different sort of virus. One induced by the US Army in a bid to make the ultimate fighting soldier. As is the wont of uncontrolled experiments this one soon gets out of control and the world is mostly wiped out by a swarm of vampires (or Virals as Cronin calls them).
The book is divided into two sections the now and the future with the passages of today so well written and thrilling that I kind of never wanted them to end. Having said that, the whole package is taut and tight and a perfect holiday read, with one massive exception – it’s over 700 pages and the first of a trilogy of similarly heavy 700 page tomes. But then the reading season’s just begun, what are you waiting for, you’ve got all summer – get reading, you’ll not regret it.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 – James Shapiro
James Shapiro has fast become my favourite Shakespeare scholar. His 2005 book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is one of the most impressive yet enjoyable pieces of scholarship I’ve read. The Year of Lear is now as equally an impressive feat of literary criticism. As the title would suggest Shapiro examines Shakespeare’s life and plays in 1606. But more than this he examines the world in which Shakespeare wrote the historical and political ructions that shaped what Shakespeare was writing and why.
As the year 1606 opens Shakespeare may well have been heading towards becoming a middle aged has-been, instead, inspired by the political tumult of Jacobean England in quick succession he turned out King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Let me repeat that: in one year, one dude wrote two of the greatest and most sophisticated plays ever written and followed it up with a timeless love story that doubled as a political parable. Neither the writing nor facts are too heavy despite the source material. Shapiro has a sure but gentle touch with the facts that makes this chronicle as accessible as it is educative.
The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
In many ways this is the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays. Whilst Portia was one of the first strong female leads anywhere, how are we supposed to react to Shylock’s fall other than uncomfortably? One can delight in the clever legal strategy devised by Portia to save the merchant of the title, yet Antonio himself is nothing more than a blowhard and risk taker and thoroughly unsympathetic in his own right. Thus, for centuries scholars have debated whether this is a play about anti-semitism, or an anti-Semitic play?
Harold Bloom’s magisterial work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human has as its central thesis the idea that Shakespeare was the first writer to seriously grapple with human beings’ own innermost psychological torments invented the very essence Bloom defines this as ”personality,” inwardness, what it means to be human. Thus, in The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare’s famous ability to get inside all of his characters makes his plays infinitely rich but, in this case, infinitely discomfiting.
My Name is Shylock – Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson has taken the uncomfortableness of The Merchant of Venice and ratchetted it up a few notches with this penetrating examination of twenty first century prejudice. The kind of prejudice that we too easily hide behind the politesse of our daily facade.
My Name is Shylock forms part of Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare series, a series of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays commissioned for the aforementioned 400th anniversary. My hat’s off to them for such a worthy cause, and the strength of this book bodes well for the other books in the series.
Jacobson has updated Shakespeare’s tale to present day Cheshire, home of vacuous and vapid TV stars, boys in men’s bodies footballers, double dealing art collectors and somewhat surprisingly at first, Shylock himself, visiting the scene of the action as some temporal free spirit, a ghost from times past made flesh and blood. The essence of the novel then, is similar to that of the play, with modern parallels standing in for Shakespeare’s characters, including a contemporary version of Shylock named Strulovitch (daughter running off with a gentile and all), and the infamous pound of flesh transformed into a modern day rite of circumcision. Shylock, the original that is, plays the role of grand inquisitor throughout the novel, pushing Strulovitch to examine both what his own Jewish identity means but also his own actions and those with whom he interacts.
In a novel that is both searchingly illuminating and defiantly humorous, Jacobson gives us a book that is full of food for thought whilst providing a chance to marvel at a master’s power over the English language and its uses. I don’t think I can say it any better than the reviewer for The Guardian who wrote of this reimagining, “It does what any good literary subversion should do: deepens and enhances one’s appreciation of the original”. True dat.
The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It – Owen Jones
In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis and the band aid solutions that kept economies alive (if barely) something fundamental was missed. A great, seething mass of the developed world’s population began to feel that they were left behind.
In this important book Owen Jones tells us why.
The “establishment” like it’s more commonly used sibling, “the elites” is a term that means many things to many people, especially when used as a term of derision. In this case what Jones means by “the establishment” is the set of unified ideas and a blinkered worldview that bind those in power in Britain. To pursue this thesis Jones takes a forensic look at the institutions of British power; from Westminster and Whitehall to the newsrooms of Fleet Street and the boardrooms of the City, and discovers a world of shared beliefs and shared employment. In particular detail, Jones skewers the money-go-round of the movement from MP, Cabinet Minister, or political adviser to making a bunch of money as a lobbyist (and yes I’m well aware of the irony of that statement). Or in fact the other way, from industry lobbyist to policy doyen. Jones exposes the revolving doors that link these worlds, and the vested interests that bind them together.
To point that out almost seems so self-evident it is not worth commenting on. Yet Jones’ contention is, that such mutual reinforcing and back scratching does little to allow in new ideas or new ways of thinking to confront society’s problems.
Jones book is a warning. A warning that if a self-reinforcing set of notions is allowed to continue unchecked, without consideration for the wants of the masses, the whole system will break. Of course, those who didn’t pay attention to the warning prior to 2016, may well have witnessed it do just that.
I must say I’m being somewhat understated in my review. The book is not as straight forward as I seem to be making out. Jones’ book is actually a seething swirling impeachment. This is well written angry leftism of a sort we haven’t seen for years (certainly the well written part). Jones is making a plea on behalf of those left behind by the progress of modern times. The idea that the system is rigged against them is a serious motivating factor in the tide of populism that so many are embracing worldwide. It is well we heed Jones’ warning then, even if we don’t agree with all his policy assessments or solutions.