December 23, 2019 by brettdgale
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
The Testaments is a sequel akin to The Godfather 2 – entirely unnecessary, and unneeded. And yet, like the Godfather 2, Margaret Atwood takes a perfect story and both enhances and deepens its essential greatness with her sequel. The secret is due to the fact that like Coppola’s movie sequel, The Testaments doesn’t seek to replicate the story elements of its predecessor, but rather creates a richer understanding of the events of the original by taking the narrative in new and powerful directions (the same is not true of the TV series based on The Handmaids Tale).
This is a fast paced journey back to the state sanctioned misogyny of Gilead seen in The Handmaids Tale yet set 15 years later. Instead of the story of Offred we have three narrators telling an increasingly intersecting story. Our narrators include the infamous Aunt Lydia and two young women, one in Canada and one in Gilead. As their lives come together, the very structures that underpin the Gileadean regime are laid bare.
The novel explores what accommodations is one willing to make to survive in a totalitarian regime and what needs to be done to subvert the will of the regime. The truth is that the seeds of collapse of every totalitarian regime lie within. As the grip tightens, the more slips through the fingers. Thus, The Testaments becomes a page-turning novel of hope in contrast to the feel of hopelessness pervading its predecessor.
Margaret Atwood is a provocateur of complacency, the champion of shaking us up with chilling scrutiny of what’s hidden, and the high priestess of dystopia. With The Testaments she delivers another profound analysis that will make us rethink our world anew. FYI, surely it’s time to give her the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Cockroach – Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan takes Kafka and turns him on his head. With this witty political satire McEwan takes Kafka’s great novel Metamorphosis and gives it its own metamorphosis. Not man turns into cockroach, but cockroach turns into man. Not just any man, but the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
The new PM, human name Jim Sams, job is to institute Reversalism – an economic policy, voted for in a referendum, which reverses the flow of money so that employees pay employers, cashiers pay customers. (Campaign slogan: “Turn the Money Around”.) Of course, there’s nothing thinly veiled about McEwan’s swipe at Brexit and the strange tale of English politics since the 2016 referendum.
The Cockroach is McEwan’s latest instalment in his imaginative scrambling of English social history and of reality itself. There are parts of this novella that show it was written in a rather great hurry and this leads to some sloppiness but for mine, the laughs more than make up for it. As Stephen Romei pointed out in The Australian about our current global predicament, “in Western liberal democracies reality is a step ahead of satire”. It is totally true, and I doubt any novelists could give true justice to the absurdity of the past five years of UK politics. Still McEwan gives it a fair shake.
I write this in the aftermath of the “Get Brexit Done” election but that doesn’t make McEwan’s take any less funny, actually given the endings of both the novel and the election it might just make it prescient.
Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
“The surreal, or even the absurd, now offer the most accurate descriptors of real life”, so says one of the major characters in Salman Rushdie’s latest offering – a modern day version of Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote.
Don Quixote is one of my favourite books of all time and of course it takes place in a surreal medieval landscape. Rushdie’s latest novel takes the absurdity of Cervantes’ classic and turns it into a satirical statement on the absurdities of our own screwed up, post-truth time. A time in which indeed, reality itself is often questioned and what once seemed absurd somehow becomes real (or real-like, I can no longer tell the difference).
On the simplest level Quichotte is about a quest. Travelling drug salesman Ismail Smile, addicted to crap TV falls in love with the new Oprah – Salma, a woman he knows only through watching her chat show. After inventing a two-dimensional son (literally two dimensional) he begins an fantastical but at times brutally real, journey across the US in order to win her love.
But if only it were that simple. There are layers at work here because not only is the tale of Quichotte a story in its own right, it’s a story within a story. As per its source, the narrative of Quichotte and Sancho is actually a novel written by a man named Brother (former spy novelist trying his hand at magical realism) who faces his own quest to reconcile with a long estranged sister. And of course there’s then the narrator writing the whole thing.
And then there’s everything it’s actually about. So what’s it about? The short list would include: family dynamics, the Indian diaspora, classic literature, the opioid crisis, racial violence, trash TV, cyber-terrorism, authorship, pharmaceutical fraud, rewriting the past, the blurred line between fiction and reality, redemption, forgiveness, and the imminent end of the world.
It’s a novel impossible not to get lost in. Don Quixote was once described to me as a great big shaggy dog of a tale (actually given it’s about a man and a donkey, it was better described as a great shaggy donkey of a tale). In this spirit Quichotte does not depart from its predecessor. It too, is often a god almighty, sprawling free-wheeling mess. But in many ways that’s the point.
The downside is that none of the satire and critique of modern life is particularly subtle, so be ready for some heavy-handed didacticism.
If this all sounds too much, don’t let it be. This is one of those novels where its fine just to lose yourself completely to the wonder of Rushdie’s style and the preposterousness of the world he’s created, as well as the absurdities of our own. Come along for this picaresque satirical journey, check your sense of reality at the cover page, and enjoy the beautiful lucid prose.
The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
This is not a pleasant read. In fact, it might well be one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in years. But once more Colson Whitehead has delivered a modern literary triumph. He’s 4 for 4 in home runs for his last 4 books. All 4 would make the top 20 books I’ve read in the last three years.
Set in Jim Crowe era Florida, Elwood Curtis is a boy with as bright a future as segregation will allow (which of course, is not much), until one innocent mistake lands him in the horrors of Nickel Academy reform school. Those of us who had the stomach to pay attention to the horrors unearthed by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse will know that the future for Ellwood is going to be brutally harsh (indeed the book is based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years, destroying the lives of thousands of children as a key performance indicator).
Still, Colson Whitehead writes with what I’d call a passionate restraint, which adds to the book’s impact without wallowing in excesses of descriptive violence. This adds all the more power to this searing indictment of racism and the way that institutional structures create and perpetuate a dehumanising of both victims and perpetrators. And, while Nickel acts as a place where hope is all too often snuffed out, in both Elwood and his much more cynical comrade Turner we find that humanity in all its positive forms can still exist in places of great horror.
You will not find this book enjoyable, but it is infinitely powerful, beautifully written, and an essential exhumation of an all too easily forgotten part of history.
The Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The final chapter in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series does not disappoint. Each of the four books in the series are really a celebration of books and their power to transform and transcend.
Equal parts mystery thriller and romance novel this is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful escapist series. If you’ve already started the series you’ll find The Labyrinth of the Spirits as compelling as all the rest and up to Zafon’s best. If you haven’t started the quartet yet, pick up a copy of the first book in the series The Shadow of the Wind (the second highest selling Spanish language book of all time after Don Quixote) and start reading this sublime series.
All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid – Matt Bai
This book is so much better than the movie (The Front Runner) that it became. Matt Bai’s tale of Gary Hart’s ill-fated run for President is much more than a tawdry tale of political “monkey business”. We all think we remember what happened between then Senator Hart and Donna Rice but as with most things that occupied our attention briefly a long time ago, the parts we mis-remember are always greater than those we get recollect clearly.
If this book was simply just a spellbinding narrative setting the historical record straight (which it is) than Matt Bai would be doing us a service. But in the end, it serves a much more important purpose. Bai (whose The Argument is one of the best political analyses of the Democrats in the early 2000s) delivers us a sociological study of a tipping point in American journalism and politics. Hart’s fall was perhaps the first time that tabloid journalism took out an American political contender and it marked a turning point towards a new form of political reporting. One where the score was all, and personal foibles far outweighed policy chops in judging a politician’s worth.
Given what politics and journalism has become in the years since the Hart scandal we aren’t looking back at 1988 instead we’re looking up at it from the bottom of a very deep cesspit indeed.
Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe
Any book that seriously annoys Andrew Bolt and his fellow Neanderthals has to be a must read in my estimation. And boy has Bruce Pascoe annoyed them.
It’s because what he writes is true. And what he writes goes against everything these old white men want Australia and Australian history to be. In particular, their defence of the great Australian Silence is not only challenged but thoroughly discredited. The Great Australian Silence is the over 200 year refusal to acknowledge that our land was stolen by gun point and disease, and that the original inhabitants of this land practiced extremely sophisticated techniques of land management.
Bruce Pascoe’s brilliantly and meticulously researched cultural history is designed to rip the scales from our eyes as to what we thought we knew about the way First Nations people lived before colonists thoroughly upended and destroyed their traditional way of living.
Rewriting our history to a more truthful version is such an important contributor to the shape of our future, that’s why Pascoe’s work needs to be justifiably lauded. The fact that he pisses off Andrew Bolt is merely icing on the cake.
Serve the People – Yan Lianke
“To serve the people” is one of the most well-known sayings of former Chinese Leader Mao Zedong – “To die for the benefit of the people, is more important than Tai mountain; working for the fascists and dying for those who oppress and exploit the people, that death would be lighter than a feather. Comrade Zhang Side died for the benefit of the people, so his death is heavier than Tai mountain.”
In this brilliant, biting often laugh-out-loud, satire Yan Lianke takes Mao’s injunction and smashes it to pieces (just as his two main protagonists literally smash icons of Mao and mementoes of Communist rule during their sexual trist). The story itself is a straightforward tale of forbidden lust. The much younger wife of a senior army officer embarks on a torrid sexual affair with a soldier sent to look after her house, and mayhem and farce then ensues.
Set during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s Lianke aims to expose the inherent absurdities, cruelties, corruption and hypocrisy of that period. No wonder it was banned by the Propaganda Ministry of the Chinese Government with the edict, “This novella slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex. Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from or report on it.”
American War: A Novel – Omar El Akkad
Certain historical epochs seem to lend themselves to the creation of great dystopian fiction. Radical, often cataclysmic, societal and economic change has generally accompanied the major eras of literary dystopia (turn of the 19th century into the 20th the period of the 30s and 40s in Europe). I make no conclusions, but certainly draw a number of inferences, from the fact we are currently living through a period in which dystopian fiction is the meat and potatoes for today’s novelists.
With this smashing debut Omar El Akkad has created for himself a worthy place in the great dystopian novels of our times.
To be effective dystopian fiction needs to be scarily plausible. El Akkad’s book with its late 21st-century picture of a second American civil war, fought over fossil fuel in a US devastated by environmental disaster certainly fits the bill.
At its heart is the story of Sarat Chesnut. The novel traces Sarat’s arc from scared kid in a refugee camp through to methodical killing machine for a cause she fervently believes in but doesn’t really understand. It’s told from the perspective of her nephew as he grapples with dark family secrets and how is aunt can be both heroine and ruthless killer at the same time.
American War deals full-frontedly with the question of how war becomes its own sine qua non – war for its own sake where killing becomes tribal and any reason for the ongoing madness on both sides is lost in the depths of time. As we learn at the end of the prologue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”
This debut is gripping, unsparing, full of grisly realism but also impossible to put down.
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like the search for the Holy Grail the search for the “Great American Novel” ™ goes on and on. I’m not sure why, the search should have been over 90 years ago. This is it – greatest of all American novels. End.of.story.
The Lost Man – Jane Harper
The Australian outback can be one of the loneliest places on earth. It is this sense of loneliness and how it affects those who live with it day in and day out that lies at the heart of this fine mystery by Jane Harper.
Like the outback dust storms that infiltrate every nook and cranny of the homes of those who live in the vast reaches of Western Queensland – the isolation and loneliness of the far outback seeps into every page of this enthralling read and into every action of its characters. Constant isolation can make people do strange things, but why would the middle Bright brother Cam abandon his fully equipped car 8km from where his body is found by his older brother baking in the harsh Australian sun? Is it suicide as the local cop with a beat the size of Victoria suggests, or something more malign?
Harper builds the suspense piece by gripping piece as she ultimately tells a tale of family. The things that families do to each other and the things they try and hide. Indeed, in the vast open spaces on the edges of the Australian desert there are plenty of places to hide and supress dark family secrets. Until the harsh light of the Australian sun brings them blindlingly to light.
In the space of three novels Jane Harper has become one of Australia’s best (and bestselling) crime writers. More than that though, she has become one of our finest modern chroniclers of the Australian landscape and the people it creates.
From a Low and Quiet Sea – Donal Ryan
The sea is an apt metaphor for this compelling short novel from one of Ireland’s most accomplished modern writers. But it is far from a low and quiet sea of the title. Instead with short choppy chapters that come at you like the waves that crash against Ireland’s rocky shores, the fast plotting compels you to read quickly.
And like the sea itself the three distinct stories at the heart of the novel can start low and quiet and then erupt into frenzied activity with a propulsive force that can sweep you the reader off your feet just as they place the main characters in mortal and spiritual danger.
The novel told in three different narrative voices for the three different strands, starts with Farouk who with his family is attempting to flee his war torn country by unseaworthy boat. His story is followed by that of Lampy a young Irish bus driver torn by the pangs of lost love. Finally, we have John tormented by the demons of his own violent past.
How each of these tragic stories come together in the end without being overly contrived is one of the great joys of this absorbing little novel.
Ryan writes with a gorgeous prose that will have you absorbed in every word from start to finish.
From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting – Judith Brett
Turns out Australians are bloody geniuses when it comes to devising workable forms of democracy. The achievements that Judith Brett lays out should be celebrated. Yet as the Australian Election Study for 2019 points out only 59% of Australians are satisfied with democracy and only 25% of people believe that those in government can be trusted. These are incredibly dangerous numbers for anyone who believes in our system of government and its institutions. It’s well past time for a concerted effort to stop this freefall of trust and if possible, turn it around. Yet I won’t hold my breath anytime soon. Indeed, as long as the right around the world benefits electorally from denigrating the institutions of democracy and abusing the use of them when they are in power – things will only get worse.
Still Judith Brett gives us some hope. She outlines the many ways that the Australian electoral system is unique. Unique not just its individual elements but certainly in the combination of everything we’ve got – voting on weekend, compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting, preferential voting, independent election commissions and of course sausage sandwiches on voting day. We got all this right and have ended up with a system that actually rewards a majoritarian view of the population (after revealed preferences of course). It’s something we should all be proud of.
To be honest this might well be the best book of Australian political history I’ve read in years. It should become compulsory reading in every High School history class. Perhaps then we’d appreciate what we’ve got rather than taking it for granted.
Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up – Gabrielle Chan
Gabrielle Chan’s examination of why rural voters are pissed off should be a must-read for all who are wondering why our nation’s rural voters are turning away from the major parties in droves. Part memoir of her own journey from Sydney’s east to the farming life south-west of Canberra, and part sociological study of the lives and views of those who live in a small country town, Chan applies the reporting style of a Dos Passos to this assessment of what’s ailing regional Australia and its’ inhabitants. This is a politico-cultural analysis told first-hand through the hopes, dreams and dashed aspirations of the people who live in rural Australia. Chan’s authorial voice never overwhelms those telling their own stories. As such she has created an important exegesis of rural voters’ woes and in my view a book to be rated up there with the best of this type of journalistic reportage.
Lanny – Max Porter
It is almost impossible to describe this brilliant poetic fable. Not only is the story first rate, the cascade of brilliant images that flash by, sweep the reader along in wonderment into a uniquely English kind of myth.
Set in a mystical yet entirely real landscape, this slim volume tells the tale of Lanny a brilliant, otherworldly, creative, boy (and as is often the way his emotionally absent parents) as he navigates his way through a small English village. It is also a tale of the spirits of ancient Britain who live beneath the earth, embodied (which is not the right word as he’s a spirit) in the character of Dead Papa Toothwort. When Lanny goes missing who is to blame Mad Pete the eccentric painter, neglectful parents or something more mystical? And is Lanny actually in any danger at all?
Lanny functions as both a celebration of English village life (and the importance of the rural) as well as a commentary on the suspicions and prejudices that lie not too far beneath its residents’ surface towards those who are different, towards those who are outsiders.
The graphic design of the printed novel is worth the price of purchase alone. With swirling layout and multiple fonts it creates a kaleidoscopic visual representation of Dead Papa Toothwort’s night time flights into the inner-most thoughts and feelings of the villages’ residents.
Chimerica – Lucy Kirkwood
This is a play not a novel so if plays aren’t your thing stop reading this review now. But what a glorious play Chimerica is. Glorious on the stage (and in the TV adaption released earlier this year) but equally glorious on the page.
It’s 30 years since the Tiananmen Square protests rocked the world and still the iconic photo of the man with the shopping bags standing in front of a tank remains one of the most vivid images of the twentieth century.
Chimerica stells the story of the man who (supposedly) took that photo and his search years later for the Tank Man (the man with the bags). It’s a powerful play that also chronicles the troubled relationship between the world’s two modern superpowers America and China (the updated TV miniseries is also a commentary on the Trump era of fake news). If you can see a version of this play do (its stage directions alone are worth watching). If you can’t, do the next best thing and read it.
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
I love situational reading when I’m on holidays. I always try and read a novel or two that will give me a sense of place and make the whole holiday experience somehow richer. Thus, jumping off my unread shelf and demanding to be read in San Francisco this year was Armistead Maupin’s brilliant ensemble of life in San Francisco in the early 70’s (and through 9 subsequent novels bringing the characters’ lives and loves up to 2012 – although I haven’t got around to reading the others yet).
The series opens with the arrival of Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, who is visiting San Francisco on vacation when she impulsively decides to stay. She finds an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, the domain of the eccentric, marijuana-growing landlady Anna Madrigal. It’s here in this boarding house that we will soon meet those who will become the series’ main cast of characters and in a way an extended family to each other and to us, the reader.
Tales is a simple yet touching, endlessly fascinating documentation of the everyday trials and tribulations of a city and its residents with a brilliant rendering of the depth and complexities of human emotional interaction. Even the worst are characters are ones you will fall in love with.
Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan
Robot sex – it’s finally here, or at least it is in Ian McEwan’s new book.
This mixture of sci-fi and alternate history is set in London in 1982, where technological advances far outstrip ours, where Thatcher has lost the Falklands War (and Tony Benn is the most popular politician in the country) and where the first batch of fully functioning robots is ready for purchase (25 of them named either Adam or Eve).
Charlie who manages to purchase one of the first Adams is a washout who dreams of playing god, or at least the somewhat tamer parental version of absolute control. He’s trying to have a relationship with his younger upstairs neighbour and decides that they can bond through “co-parenting” Adam. As any parent of a human baby could predict, absolute control is all but impossible. let alone absolute control over an entity with access to all the knowledge in the world and a hard-wired moral code of inflexibility.
This novel is as much about the complex and contradictory interactions of humans to one another as it is about the ethical ramifications of dealing with an artificially intelligent being.
Storyteller is the word that can best describe McEwan’s gift as a writer. Throughout his career he has often used that craft to examine moral choice in disturbing and surprising ways. Machines Like Me fits that bill perfectly, particularly with its psychologically taut ending.
The novel is not cutting edge science fiction, many of the novels tropes have been raked over many times before but it is thought provoking, particularly as our own reality will soon outstrip McEwan’s wildest speculations if it hasn’t already.
Oh and how does one get cuckolded by a walking laptop? How does the robot do it? According to McEwan, Adam is capable of getting an erection thanks to a reservoir of distilled water in his right buttock (in case you’d ever wondered).
Fox 8 – George Saunders
What does one do as a follow-up to one of the most ground-breaking novels of the last ten years – Lincoln in the Bardo? If you’re George Saunders you write a tiny little book, too tiny to even be considered as a novella. What you write is a fable of a fox forced to flee the forest it lives in when the developers come to town. Fox 8 has always been the dreamer in the group (or more accurately skulk – look it up), but he’s also managed to master the art of human language by listening to parents read to their children at night. In that way he’s able to write us “Yumans” a letter (in a somewhat idiosyncratic phonetically styled English) telling us of his plight.
Yes, that sounds like a straight call for environmental protection and of course it is. However, it is also an allegory of our modern world where basic decency and respecting others is too often ignored. Written with charm, warmth and liberal doses of humour all in a package that will only take you about an hour to read.
Ballpark: Baseball in the American City – Paul Goldberger
I suspect it is a very very small section of my readership who’d find this book interesting. Of course, those who follow me on Facebook would have seen my pictorial chronicle of the great ballparks of the Midwest on my 50 Days of Galey tour. If you loved that (and I know you all did) you’ll appreciate this grand tour of baseball architecture through the ages.
More than simply tracking how ballpark design changed over time, Goldberger details how the location of a city’s ballpark mirrored the rise and fall and rise again of the urban heart of America’s cities.
The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
As the title might suggest this is a book about memory. What is conjured up by the memory of a certain person or object? Do we remember just the thing, or everything associated with it? And more importantly what happens to memory when things disappear?
Because, as it happens, R a novelist lives on an unnamed island where things disappear all the time. And when they’re gone, they’re gone. Not only the object itself but everything associated with it. People will forget the object – in one important case red roses – but also its look, its touch, its smell. In fact, as objects begin to disappear people will join in the act of disappearing – uprooting rose bushes and burning them to speed them on their way. Then eventually even its name will be forgotten.
To ensure the act of forgetting is not a half-way measure, the Memory Police appear, who’s first duty is to enforce the disappearance. It’s second is to disappear those who still possess the unfortunate habit of remembering.
One of those is R’s editor. As the story progresses R and an old man she’s known since childhood take on the increasingly risky task of hiding the editor from the Memory Police.
This is every totalitarian society and none in particular. It is every society where fear dogs your every move and suspicion your every thought. It is every place where unjust removal of possessions almost always presages destruction of the individual.
More than a powerful political novel however, it is also a novel of the power of memory and the trauma of loss. A stunning achievement.
Night Boat to Tangier – Kevin Barry
Two former drug dealers from Ireland, Charlie and Maurice, sit and wait in a Ferry Terminal in the south of Spain. Hardened by the years, but still hard men, they are on the lookout for Maurice’s lost daughter Dilly. The grottiness of the Algeciras terminal acts as a purgatory for the violent souls of these two – “a place in which time passes almost audibly”.
As they wait, they banter back and forth, often in hilarious anecdotes, dredging up memories of their life of crime and their shared history of love and loss. It is Waiting for Godot set in the vicious underbelly of the drug world.
Barry has written a deeply atmospheric novel, full of hidden terrors, explosive acts of violence, dark humour and surprisingly tender acts of love.
Working – Robert A. Caro
The following may be the scariest sentence I’ve read in any book. Ever.
“Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still – at the age of eighty-three – several years from finishing it?”
Why the fuck indeed? Why Robert, why? Why are you writing mini-memoirs?
83, several years from finishing the greatest political biography ever …. Nooooooooooo. This is the stuff of nightmares.
However, there is no doubt that like everything Robert Caro touches with his HB pencil it turns to gold. This little book is a brilliant insight into writing, research and even, in fact, into Caro’s two great biographical subjects Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. You would have to read very widely indeed to find a better exposition of the (non-fiction) writers’ craft than this.
But still I wish he’d finish the Johnson bio.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Upon the original publication of Beloved, John Leonard wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “I can’t imagine American literature without it.” Nearly two decades later, The New York Times chose Beloved as the best American novel of the previous fifty years.
It is truly hard to top those reviews, or the words of Barack Obama in recommending his 2019 summer reading list, “you can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison … they’re transcendent, all of them”.
Transcendent is a beautiful word to describe an amazing novel.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living in post-Civil War Ohio with her daughter and mother-in-law, who is haunted persistently by the ghost of the dead baby girl whom she sacrificed to prevent her from being taken by slave catchers.
Beloved is a work of protest and advocacy, the novel as social document, bringing to the full glare of the public imagination the consequences of the original sin of America’s founding – slavery.
But its also a plot heavy drama written in powerful prose who’s images linger longer after you’ve finished the last page.
Wednesdays with Bob – Bob Hawke and Derek Rielly
Valé Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. Full of touching tributes, humorous anecdotes and thoughtful analysis of Hawkie’s place in Australian history. Rielly’s book is a touching and warm addition to the legend of Bob.
The Rich Man’s House – Andrew McGahan
In the very bottom of the Southern Ocean sits the largest mountain in the world (weirdly named The Wheel). A giant peak rising over 25 kilometres straight up from the ocean’s floor, dwarfing the mighty Mt Everest by more than doubling its size. There it sits a brooding and malign presence – a veritable force of nature if ever there was a natural object worthy of the phrase.
So begins the last novel by the much awarded Australian author Andrew McGahan who died earlier this year, knowing this would be his final bow. It is a magnificent coda to a very impressive career and body of work.
Because humans, The Wheel is a mountain to be conquered, a challenge to be subjugated by the will of man (sexist language intended). But only one man has ever done it, the eponymous Andrew Richman, a mountain climbing billionaire whose ego knows no bounds. The action in the novel however, takes some 25 years later when Richman returns to the smaller Theodolite Island set precariously in the ominous shadow of The Wheel. There he has constructed a giant mansion – a monument to his own hubristic vanity.
Prior to its grand opening he invites a small group to view this monstrosity (the mansion not the mountain). One of those is Rita Gause the daughter of the mansion’s architect who died shortly before completion in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Turns out Rita has a special talent, one that attunes her to The Wheel’s increasingly threatening presence. There follows, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the lonely insanity of The Shining combined with a big-budget action movie a tableaux a story in which virtually everything that could possibly go wrong does.
The Rich Man’s House is a sinisterly thrilling super-natural mystery story with a kicker of an allegory on what happens when you fuck with nature too much. This is your perfect beach read for the summer. Only trouble is it’s so readable that you won’t want to put it down and go in the water.
1984 – George Orwell
Big Brother is watching you. But in 2019 it’s not the Government! (well actually it is the Government, slowly and steadily encroaching on our civil liberties as we soporifically slip into a cocoon of reality tv, narcissistic posting and where “ignorance is truth” is celebrated by the right as a higher state of being). But it’s also Facebook and Coles and Qantas and every other organisation you’ve given your data to in exchange for transitory likes and irredeemable frequent flyer points (an Alessi coffee pot anyone?). 1984 – prescient, relevant and as important as ever. No need for a synopsis here, you all know what it’s about. If you’ve read it before, read it again. If you’ve never read it stop reading these reviews right now and go and get yourself a copy of it.
The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
Great literature has often highlighted injustice and provided a rallying cry to fix social wrongs – Dickens most obviously springs to mind. Not many works of fiction lead directly to the creation of new laws, though. The Jungle (one of my favourite books of all time) is one of the few. By exposing the exploitation and diabolical nature of the working conditions of the great Chicago stockyards in the 1900s Sinclair’s powerful novel lead directly to the creation of the first food safety legislation in the US.
The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Chicago’s meatpacking district determined to live out the American dream. At first, his solution to everything is to work harder. Yet the system eventually beats him down. Among other calamities, he is laid off after being injured on the job, his wife is raped and then dies in childbirth, he is jailed, his house is repossessed and his young son drowns in the street. Only after becoming a socialist does Rudkus turn his life around.
The Jungle ruthlessly unmasked the mirage that was the American dream and highlighted the exploitation of immigrant labour that was treated little better than the cattle they were slaughtering. It exposed the political and business corruption rotting at the heart of the capitalist system. The Jungle is a truly compelling read and forceful indictment that stands the test of time.
Interestingly, while The Jungle is one of the many fine books over the years that have exposed the truth of the working condition of industrial workers (Germinal being one of the other greats), other than Dave Egger’s The Circle which satirised the cult like working conditions of the Tech Giants I’m not aware of any novel that similarly explores the gig economy working conditions of the 2010s (although if the followers of this list know of any such books, drop me a line).
Normal People – Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s Normal People seems to have literally made the list of everyone’s must read novels of 2019. In fact, I only read it in the last week after it kept popping up in those best of lists time and time again. I’m not trying to join the herd by adding it here, but I reckon it does deserve its place on all those lists and of course on the most important of all the Galey’s stamp of approval.
At its heart, Normal People is a book about young love and how late high school and university in particular play such a formative experience in our coming of age.
Connell and Marianne come from different sides of the track in small town Ireland (Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house) but through the last year of high school and through three years of university they pursue an on-again off-again romance. Their love story (for that’s what Normal People essentially is) is told through the misunderstandings and insecurities that play such an important role in shaping our first relationships. Rooney has a great talent for dialogue but also for revealing the equally important unspoken – the power dynamics that often shape our relationships and drive our actions.
It’s a compulsively readable will-they or won’t-they tale that I suspect will become a classic of millennial generation novels.
The Ministry of Truth: The biography of George Orwell’s 1984 – Dorian Lynskey
It is 70 years since Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published and as we well know, it has been back in the news a lot in recent years, as it has received a great surge of cultural relevance and identification. Just one data point – when Trump took office, sales of the book increased by 9,500%. Given we live in a world where the disregard for objective truth, the rewriting of the past and the routine suppression of dissent is becoming commonplace it is not at all surprising that people look to the greats of literature to make sense of reality.
Lynskey has written a primer on how and why 1984 was written and why we still revere it today. The first half of his fine history details the books, people, events and circumstances that shaped Orwell in the years preceding publication of his most famous novel. It expertly analyses those books that acted as precursors to 1984. The second half details the long after life of the novel right down to our present day.