December 25, 2021 by brettdgale
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – John Le Carré
This may have been the incomparable John Le Carré’s third novel, but in a very real sense it was the one that made him. It introduced the world of readers to the world of Le Carré by introducing the world at large to a form of nihilistic cynicism that would become the author’s stock in trade.
The novel depicts Alec Leamas, a British agent, being sent to East Germany as a faux defector to sow disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. With double cross, on top of triple cross, the novel starkly laid bare the motivations of both sides in the Cold War in a way that would have been shocking to those reading it in its own time.
Written in 1963 Le Carré clearly set out to say this is how the world is now, so don’t be fooled by protestations of goodness on either side of this Cold War. There are no black and whites simply shades of grey and greyer.
There are no black and whites in the human condition or in human motivations either.
The novel is bitter, raw, thoroughly brilliant and highly sophisticated. In its day it redefined the spy novel and may well have redefined novels themselves. I read it at a breathless pace, it is simply put a true masterpiece.
The Bodysurfers – Robert Drewe
“When Australians run away they always run to the coast. They can’t help it. An American vanishes, he could be living in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, the mountains, the desert, anywhere. Not an Australian – he goes up the coast or down the coast and thinks he’s vanished without a trace”.
Yes, they do. For, the coast, the beach, plays an outsized role in the Australian imagination and in the Australian way of life. The beach is our rite of passage and our place for escape.
The ability to enjoy the beach is our second amendment right – we will defend it to the hilt. Bondi might be full of wankers but even the wankers weren’t going to stand for a land grab of the sacred sand from a corporate entity looking to profit from serving cocktails to poseurs in deckchairs.
This truism about the Australian relationship to the beach lies at the heart of this taut collection of independent, yet interwoven, short stories. Drewe evocatively explores the role of the beach in the Australian psyche, the quest for something more, the search for immersion and escape.
Although in the end can the beach really provide permanent solace from the overlay of the everyday trials of life, from the suburban malaise, from our own past?
All I know is – you never regret an ocean swim.
Civilisations – Laurent Binet
Laurent Binet who loves turning literary and historical conventions on their head has written an awesome counter factual history of the world since 1492 that is actually highly believable.
Written as if in a series of discovered historical documents Civilisations takes the read on a journey through a world that could have been.
As we all know, in 1492 Columbus and his crew landed in the Caribbean Islands and the rest as they say was history. Or was it? instead of returning home triumphant and inspiring a wave of blood thirsty colonists, in Binet’s telling of the story Columbus’ crew are pretty much all slaughtered on the spot. Years later the 16th Century Inca emperor Atahualpa re-floats Columbus’ boats and journeys back the other way. Landing first in Portugal and then onto Spain where in no time at all he usurps Charles V and pretty soon he is in charge of the entire Spanish Kingdom.
Discovering the wisdom of statecraft in Machiavelli’s The Prince, Atahualpa soon divides and conquers all the principalities and kingdoms of Europe until he himself becomes Holy Roman Emperor. Cameo appearances by Martin Luther, Erasmus, Thomas Moore and Cervantes along with the royal rulers of the day add to the rich tapestry of the world Binet has created.
Entertaining fun that also provides much food for thought on whether or not the desire to conquer ad subjugate is intrinsic to human nature.
“The desire to conquer is not just European, it is universal,” Binet has said
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead will not be pigeon-holed. After writing two of the most powerful and emotionally distressing novels of the past ten years (the justifiably award winning The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys) both of which act as a searing indictment of America’s ongoing struggle with race relations he has turned his writing lens to somewhat lighter fare. To wit a crime novel cum family drama.
Harlem Shuffle explores the double life of furniture salesman Ray Carney who in an attempt to continue providing for his family and continue climbing the greasy pole of middle class ascension has an inability to outrun either the criminal past of his father or the criminal schemes of his closer-than-a-brother cousin.
One of Whitehead’s greatest talents as a writer is his ability to evoke period and place and let us picture what it would be like to live there. Thus, we have Harlem in the early sixties providing the backdrop for a novel which one could probably call a caper but which in doing so would do an injustice to the subversion of genre that makes Whitehead such a brilliant writer.
I fully endorse the sentiment of The Guardian reviewer who wrote, “Whether in high literary form or entertaining, page-turner mode, the man is simply incapable of writing a bad book”.
In a short decade Whitehead has become one of my favourite authors of all time, and I too have not discovered a bad book of his.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures: A novel – Jennifer Hoffman
What happens when the system you’ve spent your whole life working to sustain suddenly collapses on you? That’s the thesis behind Jennifer Hoffman’s brilliant, mind bending novel of the downfall of communist East Germany. One day certainty, and the next the walls you’ve built to protect you metaphorically and literally come tumbling down.
On the day the Berlin Wall will fall Bernd Zeiger an East German Stasi agent isn’t feeling well. But then again many of his colleagues are acting strangely as well. Bernd is also haunted by memories of someone he betrayed decades before and is obsessed about the fact that his favourite waitress in his favourite café has gone missing.
Zeiger’s work as an agent culminated in devising a manual aimed at thoroughly disorientating the minds of enemies of the state. The manual is called “The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures”as opposed to the novel we are reading called The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures: A novel. Unfortunately, for Zeiger the manual was published years earlier and his bureaucratic career has been on a downward trend ever since.
As the order he has known forever collapses, the reader is left to ponder whether Bernd is a victim of his own manual, or simply of his own actions. The novel is as deliberately disorientating and confusing as the manual that Zeiger invented.
Hoffman effectively evokes the paranoia and suspicion that lay at the heart of the East German state. However, in a world where the gaslighting of a whole citizenry has become the tool d’jour of the authoritarian right, Hoffman’s book is a timely reminder that we’ve seen this script before.
While the novel deals with serious themes it remains darkly humorous. Hoffman wonderfully captures a state in turmoil reflected in a mind in turmoil.
QAnon And On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults – Van Badham
Say the following out loud – “a former candidate for President of the United States is the head of a satanic child sex ring that slaughters innocents in the basement of a pizza shop and drinks their essence”.
When you say it aloud, words can’t describe how ludicrous, how preposterous, the idea is. Until you realise that there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who believe it to be true.
This is the basis of the QAnon conspiracy cult.
How it came about and what its implications mean are the subject matter of Van Badham’s fascinating and disturbing new book.
Stealing from Alice in Wonderland, there is an analogy in the movie The Matrix of following a white rabbit down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for curiosity and seeking out strange new experiences, ones possibly filled with danger. The Matrix layers this metaphor by adding in the act of taking “the red pill” which allows one to see the truth of the world.
In QAnon circles allusions to The Matrix’s Red Pill and Alice’s White Rabbit proliferate as a nod and a wink to other adherents of the cult that, you and they alone, know the truth of the world, or in Q’s words “the plan”.
Van Badham masterfully guides us through the rabbit hole of QAnon adherents, but thankfully we pop out the other side with our reason intact but with a not unreasonable fear of how something so absurd could become so dangerous so quickly.
Notably, Badham, illuminates the metastasizing of fringe theories and crank ideas into the mainstream through the literal path the ideas take – from starting on 8kun onto You Tube, discussed in Reddit forums, then posted on Twitter, accepted as fact on Facebook, reported on in mainstream media. The straightforwardness of transmission and the ease of infection of dangerous ideas are truly frightening.
Two things rush through my mind after reading QAnon And On. First, the obsession at the heart of the conspiracy theory of “protecting our children” has echoes with the mainstream media’s blanket coverage of any case involving children. At the same time as reading the book the case of missing boy William Tyrell was again dominating the front pages of our newspapers hot on the heels of the story of the abducted Chloe Smith. That’s when it struck me. The people behind QAnon know they are preying on people’s deepest fears, they know it and they use it.
The second reaffirms something I already knew. The slippery slope into believing conspiracies too often ends in real world danger and violence as witnessed by the January 6 insurgents in the US. The fact that there are mainstream politicians in Australia and cash splashing billionaries willing to engage these ideas here should make us all take stock of where we go as a nation.
Badham is a skilled and passionate columnist for her regular gig at The Guardian, but here she restrains her normal tone and removes any hint of polemic. By taking such a clinical approach to the subject matter at hand she has produced a powerful work of scholarship that does us all a service.
This is an incredibly thoughtful and timely book. It may well be the most important book one reads this year.
Breath – Tim Winton
A confession. Call me unAustralian, but this is the first Tim Winton novel I’ve ever read.
Now I’ve got that off my chest – feels like I picked a good’un to start with.
With all the power of a wave on a hidden surf break this coming-of-age tale picks you up and smashes you down with a force that belies its slim page length. Breath tells the story of two young surfers in an isolated Western Australian town who come under the sway of an enigmatic older surfing legend and his younger bitter wife.
With lyricism at its finest, Winton presents us with a powerful and disturbing story of adolescence and how the inability to control your emotions, impulses and actions at fifteen may haunt you for the rest of your life.
In this novel Winton evokes atmosphere and place in a way that makes you feel the rhythm of the surf, the taste and feel of the salt and spray of the sea and yes literally, has you holding your breath from scene to scene.
Terra Nullius: A Novel – Claire G. Coleman
To spoil or not to spoil that’s the trick when writing book reviews. In general, I try not to spoil plot points when I can, but with Clare Coleman’s fantastical work I’m truly torn.
There is a major twist that comes a third of the way through the novel that thoroughly upends the story the reader thinks they are reading. Only in my case it was the first third that unbalanced me. You see I assumed I knew what the book was about before picking it up. But turns out I only knew the theme of the second two thirds. Coleman so brilliantly and beautifully crafts the plot twist that I spent the first part of the novel absorbedly wondering if I’d thoroughly imagined a book that didn’t actually exist.
I’ve decided against the spoiler but readers be advised, the colonial era novel you think you are reading may not be the colonial era novel you think you are reading.
Coleman a Noongar woman uses the devices of speculative fiction to tell the history of Australia, the effects of colonisation, dispossession, and the cruelties inflicted on First Nations People.
In the tradition of so many of our finest indigenous female writers Coleman uses fiction to force us to hold an uncomfortable mirror up to Australia’s ongoing history and our complicity in failing to redress the faults of our national story. Yet Coleman goes beyond this by using a great feat of creativity to both subvert and reinforce what we think we understand about our nation’s troubled past.
Thoughtful, unsettling, yet strangely enjoyable and very, very clever, I can’t recommend this enough.
The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Greek mythology has provided fertile ground for ingenious re-imaginings in the last 15 years or so. From Stephen Fry giving us his stories of the Gods and Heroes, through Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and David Malouf’s masterful interpretation of scenes from the Iliad, Ransom. All have enriched our cultural heritage whilst entertaining us.
And in 2021 we mark the tenth anniversary of Madeline Miller’s artful contribution to the genre with her take on the Iliad and its central character with The Song of Achilles.
The Song of Achilles retells the story of Greece’s greatest hero from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles best friend and lover. In doing so Miller creates a roundness and humanity for Homer’s characters that may well even be missing in Homer himself.
I confess I was not sure I liked this book at first, the start was a little too Mills and Boon for my taste. But as the story progressed, as the depth of Miller’s creative vision unfolded, it grew and grew on me until by the end I cared deeply for the characters even though I knew what fate would befall them.
By the end I was racing through it, finding it impossible to put down – a triumph of imagination.
“Sing, muse, of the wrath of Achilles.”
Underground Airlines – Ben H Winter
What would America look like if the Civil War never happened? A lot like the country depicted in Ben Winter’s chilling alternate history.
Winter takes the not unreasonable premise that if you change one key thing in history then everything changes. His starting point is that Abraham Lincoln got assassinated before his inauguration, a compromise was reached between North and South, and in the modern-day world slavery still legally exists in 4 states (and of course racial prejudice is pretty much legally enshrined in the laws and more importantly mores of the remaining “free’ states).
The book is narrated by a former slave who “bought” his freedom by turning himself into a hunter of runaway slaves. The action centres on Victor and his pursuit of a runaway slave known only as Jackdaw. As the chase progresses Victor is forced to face not only the complicity of his own moral compromise but the corrupted bargain at the heart of the American system.
Underground Airlines is an immersive thriller that unravels at a breakneck pace while giving the reader plenty to ponder on the echoes to America’s reality.
All the best alternate history shouldn’t just be a literary parlour game of “What If”? – it should provoke, question and illuminate. Underground Airlines does exactly that.
Native Son – Richard Wright
I’m always keen to read a book that was banned for “objectionable language” and “violence, sex, and profanity.” Native Son is all that and more. This is the hardest of hard novels. On publication of his first work Wright is alleged to have vowed that his next book would be too hard for tears. Native Son is that book.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.
This raw and seething book fairly explodes with rage at a racial power structure that is as relevant today as it was in 1940. This is not really a book to like but one to read and be sledge-hammered into accepting its power.
On Shakespeare – John Bell
John Bell has spent most of his life playing Shakespeare. I feel like I’ve spent most of my life watching John Bell playing Shakespeare. And I’ve been richly, nourishingly rewarded for it.
John Bell is a true Australian icon. And Shakespeare is of course Shakespeare.
In this very fine book Bell gives the casual Shakespearean fan an insight into Shakespeare the author and his plays. But more entertainingly and insightfully, he gives the reader an insight into what it takes to act, direct and truly understand the greatest playwright of all time.
The Momentous, Uneventful Day: A Requiem for the Office – Gideon Haigh
Once upon a time I worked in a big impenetrable, impersonal, hulking box of an office building. Many who worked there called it the Death Star for its absence of redeeming architectural features. At the time I personally thought it more like the Soviet prison the Lubyanka, only the without the charm. And that was only the outside. Inside was like a battery hen farm of row upon row of equally charmless utilitarian desks (work stations would have been too generous a term).
It was only a few years later when re-reading Harry Potter with my daughter that I realised the prison analogy was right but it was the prison itself that was wrong. The building wasn’t the Lubyanka it was Azkaban; complete with Dementors on the doors sucking the will to live out of everyone who passed its threshold.
Offices of course were not invented to make their inhabitants happy. They were invented so that white collar workers could be subject to some form of regimentation as their factory based cousins already were. And every generational iteration of office design has been imagined with one output in mind, getting the greatest squeeze of “productivity” out of as many people for as cheap a cost as possible.
Now we come to the great pandemic and the great debate about the future of the office. To hybrid or not to hybrid that is the question.
Into this new conversation on the future of the way we work steps one of Australia’s most thoughtful and eclectic writers Gideon Haigh with this short little treatise on the history of the office, how we got we where are and what the future might hold.
If all that sounds kinda boring it most certainly is not. Haigh enlivens his discourse with multiple references to literature and film, and of course he writes with his usual verve. If you work in an office you’d be well off reading what Haigh has got to say.
A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
Ever since a little movie named Star Wars seared itself indelibly on my eight year old brain I’ve been addicted to a good space opera. And this, the first novel (and the first in a trilogy) by Arkady Martine is a very good space opera indeed.
The basic storyline is that an ambassador from a small space station in the outer reaches of the galaxy has been summoned to the capital of the galactic empire after her predecessor has turned up dead. When she arrives she is thrust into a world of diplomatic duplicity, cultural clash, and a race to survive her own potential killers.
Most reviewers will tell you this book is about the big questions: imperialism, history, politics and that alone would appeal to me for obvious reasons, but I think it is much more besides. It’s richly layered meditation on memory and a reflection on the role that place plays in belonging and identity.
A Memory Called Empire is a totally engaging, absorbing tale – part science fiction at its best, part murder mystery, part political thriller, part same-sex romance, and I can’t wait to read its sequel on my upcoming summer holidays.
The Hobbit – JRR Tolkein
My favourite all time thing on the internet is the blog post/quote/ meme that goes like this:
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life:The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
It also of course involves hobbits.
The Hobbit is one of those books that no matter how many times I read it brings great pleasure and happiness so when Bella had to study it for English class I couldn’t resist the chance to re-read it myself. If you’ve never read it – do so. If you’ve read it before – read it again. That is all.
The Last Bookshop – Emma Young
About a decade ago my workplace lay at the bottom of the Sydney CBD. Every morning I’d get dropped off at the top of the hill and wander down the slope in a walk of about 15 minutes to the office, but one made infinitely longer on many a morning by what lay halfway along the route. A small bookshop.
It was part of a chain sure, but it had two great things going for it, like all book shops it was an Aladdin’s cave to enter, but most importantly, it opened early, 7.30am if memory serves. Lying in wait exactly for people like me – those wanting to delay the inevitability of the day by spending a few blissful minutes immersed in the joy of the search for who knows what.
It’s gone now, and, in cruellest of ironies the space once occupied by a fine bookshop is now filled with a branch of the bank I used to work at during those stolen bookshop moments.
I thought about that bookshop a lot while reading Emma Young’s The Last Bookshop. Not because the bookshop at the heart of Young’s novel (Book Fiend) in any way resembled the one I’d shop at. For a start the selection and layout of the books in Book Fiend are lovingly and thoughtfully curated by the novel’s protagonist Cait. Whereas, being a chain store and all, the books in my little getaway we more uniformly arranged in the basic pattern so common to chains. .
No, it resonated for the obvious reason. The “last bookshop” is not just a title or a metaphor it’s an all too stark truth that has befallen so many other bookshops in the centres of our great cities. I don’t really know Perth where the novel is set, so I don’t really know how many bookshops there are in the Perth CBD in reality. But I do know Sydney, and what I do know is that, where once there was a thriving book scene only three remain.
(Though good news at least, each has outlasted, ebooks, the short attention span of the social media addled, and COVID lockdowns. In fact, one could argue that each of them if not exactly thriving during COVID managed to make lemonade out of lemons. As I like to ecumenically spend my book buying dollars each of them gave my credit card a fair work out during winter lockdown and all admirably jumped to the challenge of online delivery. Although my favourite CBD bookseller Abbeys took it a little further a couple of times when a knock on my front door soon revealed someone who was clearly a store employee handing me my package. I live 15kms from Abbeys so that’s what I call service.)
Of course, online delivery is alright for pandemics but give me the real bricks and mortar version any day. To bastardise The Wind in the Willows there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half as much worth doing as messing around in bookshops. There is no greater thrill than that of holding a physical book in your hand in a physical bookshop. A new discovery waiting to be unearthed.
But enough of this reverie I guess you’ll want to know a little about the novel at hand?
As foreshadowed, Cait owns the last independent bookshop in Perth crowded out by unscrupulous realtors and high-end fashion chains. But with the help of her longest customers Cait’s about to fight back.
That’s all you really need to know about the plot. It’s not the storyline that makes this book worth reading. It’s how it will make you feel. The book provides a sweet tonic for the soul that in a time of stress like the last two years can’t help but make you feel good. It’s a love story for books and bookshops and for lovers of both.
There is a warmth and humanity in The Last Bookshop as there is in any real world bookshop worthy of the name.
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
There are times in your book reading life where you come very late to a book that others have known for years was very good. Embarrassingly, sometimes it can take decades to get there and reading Good Omens 30 years after it was published is definitely embarrassing (I seem to be making a lot of belated book confessions this year).
But better late than never as the cliché goes. So, the verdict – this is a Class A book and genuinely laugh out loud funny (and, as Gaiman said in an interview last year on the release of the TV show based on the book – which sadly I haven’t seen either despite it starring the incomparable David Tennant – the story might be more apt than ever)
According to the prophecies of the witch Agnes Nutter the world is about to end next Saturday. But Crowley a demon and Aziraphale an angel who’ve lived on earth since the beginning aren’t really keen on that end happening thank you very much. And someone has misplaced the Anti-Christ!
On one level this is an hilarious satire of the whole horror/prophecy genre, yet, as with all the best satire there are deeper (hilarious) insights into the human condition. As my favourite line from the book attests – “you could find more grace than in heaven and more evil than in hell inside human beings, and the fucker of it is that very often it’s the same human being”
After reading Good Omens I went back and watched a film that had haunted my dreams since childhood the source material, the original movie, The Omen starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. At the time it came out, and in the years since, I’d found it supernaturally terrifying – thanks to Gaiman and Pratchett it now feels like a spoof.
True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans – Joe Queenan
The greatest sin for Joe Queenan is to be a someone who changes the sporting team that they support. These people are not to be trusted. Ever.
Indeed, switching sporting allegiances is something, “practiced by millions of loathsome scabs, feckless scoundrels, pasty faced mongrels, and unindicted curs”. For Queenan, “a nation that encourages its citizens to cavalierly switch allegiances breeds a moral ambivalence and general spinelessness that will ultimately lead to the collapse of the Republic”.
Queenan is a spots tragic or more accurately a Philadelphia sports tragic (and given the tragic history of Philadelphia sporting teams this is a sporting tragic indeed) yet with this book he turns a keenly observant eye and trenchant wit on the perverse logic of fandom no matter which team you go for.
True Believers is a paean to sports fandom but one in which Queenan not only praises sports and those who love them, but manages to hilariously (and justifiably) skewer boorish fans, lager louts, sports administrators and sports movies along the way. Still, any real sports fan can recognise the truth of these observations by Queenan –“one of the great things about sports…is that there is no script”; “the thrill of victory is made a million times sweeter by the memory of defeat”.
Mayflies – Andrew O’Hagan
I started this review by writing the following: “This book should come with its own soundtrack”. But turns out, because you know, the internet, someone had actually already made one and put it on a streaming service.
So, in reality, the soundtrack for this book contains New Order (and Joy Division), The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall, The Specials and more – essentially a greatest hits of a mid-eighties New Wave era.
An era so perfectly captured in the climactic sequence of the novel’s first half when a group of young men from a small Scottish town hilariously attend a music festival in Manchester with all the above-mentioned bands of the time.
In everyone’s life there is a brief period of time, of seemingly carefree existence, but one that shapes who we become – the pinnacle of youth before the realities of adulthood kick in. In Manchester of 1986 Tully, James and their friends experience this joy and escape the stultifying lives of their fathers while embracing the power of music as a way to escape the darkness of Thatcher’s Britain.
30 years later their shared experiences will shape how they deal with a literal life and death crisis facing them both.
Mayflies is an homage to our formative years and an examination of the bonds of friendship and the obligations we owe our lifelong friends.
The tone is vibrant yet poignant – an elegy for a moment in time.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
There’s probably not a person reading this list who hasn’t read this book or seen the movie based on this incredible debut novel. If you are one of those who hasn’t done either of those things, then don’t delay any longer like I did, grab a copy of this powerful, emotional, unforgettable story.
I saw the movie years ago and I guess I needed its impact to somewhat fade from my memory before I could properly read the book (as a general rule I hate seeing movies before reading the book on which they are based). Obviously triggered by recent events in Afghanistan I am so glad I picked it up.
A sweeping narrative of 40 years of Afghan history from the Soviet invasion through to the rise and takeover of the Taliban. The Kite Runner tells the tale of a friendship between two young boys Amir and Hassan. Hassan the son of Amir’s father’s servant almost worships Amir and will do anything for him. Until during the annual kite running festival which Amir wins, Amir fails to take action and stand up for his friend when Hassan is violently raped.
Soon thereafter Amir and his father flee to America where he is constantly racked by guilt until years later when Amir returns to Afghanistan in an attempt to rescue Hassan’s son from a Taliban orphanage.
Betrayal and redemption are the warring themes of Hosseini’s chronicle. Betrayal and redemption of individual characters, and betrayal and redemption of cultures and nations.
Written with a confident pacing, emotional honesty and political consciousness this is a moving, beautifully conceived and written book. It is a mesmerizing read.
Leave the World Behind – Ruman Alaam
Who of us hasn’t wanted to “leave the world behind” over the past two years. I admit, at the start I was extraordinarily jealous of the characters in Leave the World Behind – at least they got to go on a holiday.
Yet all is not as it should be. As middle-class New Yorkers Amanda and Clay and their two kids settle in for an air bnb stay their second night is rudely interrupted by a couple claiming to be the property’s owners, bringing with them fears of a catastrophe back in the city. Then suddenly, all connectivity to the rest of the world is lost. Of course, in 2021 when the internet disappears you really know you are in for an apocalypse level event.
Feverish speculation amongst the characters ensues but no-one really knows what’s going on. As the sense of unease in the characters grows so too does our sense of unease as a reader.
Alaam skilfully, grippingly, and programmatically, builds and builds the tension and uncertainty until the reader feels they are going to burst. Yet his genius lies in never letting that tension out. For in this suspenseful, and brilliant little novel, he has put his finger squarely on one of the greatest fears of 21st century humans – the absence of resolution.
There are no more endings there just is.
The Rome Zoo – Pascal Janovjak
As the title indicates this is a book about a zoo. But its not about the animals that inhabit its cages it’s those animals that come to look at them, that look after them, and that exploit them that, Janovjak turns a zoological lens on.
In a series of alternating and sweeping vignettes the story follows two arcs, one, the (mostly) true story of the 100 year history of the Rome Zoo and the second a modern mystery involving those tasked with looking after an animal that has become the last living example of its kind. Throughout the intersection of both storylines the author asks us to reflect on humanity’s relationship to the natural world and to each other.
This is a beautifully written, occasionally slapstick, thought provoking exposition.
Apex Hides the Hurt – Colson Whitehead
There is wit and wisdom here in Colson Whitehead’s third novel, even if this book does not reach the dizzy heights of Whitehead’s later works. But, as the man said, there are no bad books by Colson Whitehead. Certainly, none I’ve come across.
The historic town of Winthrop, Anywhere USA. is having an identity crisis. Controlled by a City Council of three: an arriviste tech entrepreneur who wants the town renamed to reflect his business pretensions; a descendant of the original white settlers the Winthrops who wants the name kept; and the third councillor who wants its original name restored to Freedom in honour of the freed slaves who foundered it.
Who ya gonna call? A nomenclature consultant of course. What’s that? – someone paid to name things, and ironically the unnamed narrator of a book that provides the reader with both biting social satire and genuine cultural insight. Here, Whitehead satirises American culture (or at least the culture as it existed in 2006) of consumerism, marketing and boundless optimism.
Deeper though, the book reflects on the power of names. The power of names to shape not only who we are but our very thoughts and perceptions on how we understand the world.
Spring – Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels written and published over a period of four years from 2017 to 2020 seek to give some coherence to our current global rending. Each captures in almost real time the unravelling of our world and our contemporary calamities from Brexit to Trump to post truth to global warming to social media madness.
Yet each does so in their own peculiar story, a sort of surreal, hallucinatory narrative dealing peripherally but obviously with the great upheavals of our time.
I read the first three this year to match our seasons Autumn, Winter and Spring (with the reading of Summer to come in the next couple of months) and for me although I enjoyed them all Spring was the standout.
It is more polemical and angry than the first two but that to me is its part of its appeal.
Spring tells two intersecting tales. That of Richard Lease a filmmaker in mourning for the death of his best friend and muse the screenwriter Patricia Heal. The second, the story of Brit Hall a detainee officer at an immigration detention centre (something that’s not a prison but “a purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design”) and her encounter with someone who can only be described as a 12-year old refugee activist named Florence.
There is a fabulist dreamlike quality to the stories Smith weaves through her seasonal quartet but they are shot through with a sense of moral urgency and resolve. Underlying them is a desire to wake us up, shake us out of our torpor and to suggest that the choice is ours either to change the situation we are in by coming together or let a divided world cleave further apart.
The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison – Sean Kelly
For a long time now, I’ve thought that Sean Kelly is the most perceptive political commentator writing today. Perhaps his only rival is Nikki Savva. Interestingly what they both have in common is that they are former Prime Ministerial Press Secretaries. There’s something to that fact. It gives than an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes; of the motivations and inspirations of our political leaders that even the best journalists have no real hope of discovering.
In bringing all his deep understanding (and it must be said incredible breadth of cultural knowledge) to the task Kelly has given us the best Australian biography of a sitting politician in decades. Analysing not just the personality of our current Prime Minister but that of the society that voted for him.
Kelly has framed how the press gallery (and through them voters) will view Scott Morrison once and for all.
Short Bites (or books I ran out of time to write longer reviews of ,with apologies to the authors who have all written must read books)
On Charlatans – Chris Bowen
My former boss, good friend and (rapidly becoming) prodigious author, Bowen has joined the On Series of short treatises on big issues of our times. Bowen examines the string of political successes of right-wing populists and what the centre-left can do to combat them. Written with great insight.
What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era – Carlos Lozada
There is a little irony in the title here with the juxtaposition of intellectual and Trump. But there were probably more books written about Donald Trump and the implications of his presidency while he was still in office than any other President. Lozada readf most of themn and herein reviews 150 of them. This is a worthy guide to an influential era in American politics whose reverberations are far from over.
Shakespeare in a Divided America – James Shapiro
The universality of Shakespeare’s assessment of the human condition comes to the fore in Shapiro’s tour through 300 years of the impact of his plays on American history. Since the time of the American revolution Shakespeare has been both a guide to and a weapon in the fight over American political identity.
Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View – Misc
The Star Wars story told from the point of view of all the minor characters in the original movie. A fitting tribute when it was released on the 40th Anniversary of Star Wars original screening.
First Cosmic Velocity: A Novel – Zach Powers
For those inclined to believe the moon landing is fake Zach Powers debut novel posits that the Soviet Space program was a giant sham. With identical twins (including identical twin dogs) used to convince the world of the superiority of Soviet ingenuity – with one twin sent to perish in space while the other stayed behind. A very dry wit by Powers satirises the Khrushchev era while bringing forward a tender, hopeful story of humanity.
Winter – Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s Winter is a Christmas book but not if you want a merry one. As with Spring, Autumn and Summer Smith uses a story of individual personal relationships and family dynamics to highlight the fracturing of the modern political world.
American Made: What happens to people when work disappears – Farah Stockman
Over many many years numerous studies have shown us how important work is to an individual’s sense of self, identity and belonging. In this richly detailed study on the lives of how three people are impacted by the closure of their factory, Pulitzer prize winning author Stockman has written an important examination of the current political moment.
Factory 19 – Dennis Glover
Some people write alternate history and others like to live it. Escaping burnout from a world of technological overload the protagonist of Glover’s second novel joins a utopian colony on the outskirts of Hobart who insist on living their lives as if they are still in 1948.