Archive for December, 2009

December 28, 2009

I kind of dislike ‘best of’ lists, so the title of this post is a bit tongue in cheek. But there are, of course, books I’ve read this year that have stuck in my mind, craw (in a good way, if that’s possible) and heart for many weeks and months after I finished them. Here they are, briefly (I’m on holiday!):

Jesse Ball’s The Way through Doors is the book that thrummed most prominently for me – no word as to how lastingly, as I just finished reading it a couple of weeks ago. But I’m pretty sure that if I have one recommendation for 2009, this is it. Amazing cover, too. I took it to Meredith with me and strangers would pick it up and paw at it.

Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned has been topping a lot of local lists, and mine too. It’s extravagantly good. If you have ever nodded your head at anything I have said, and haven’t read this book, then you really should.

Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is another debut that strikes exactly zero false notes. Eloquent on silence and violence, it’s a wondrous novel that deservingly won the John Llewellyn Prize this year.

My pick for form and fun this year is Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing, which explores the crevices and sheets of identity as deployed/suffered/shirked/played with by each and every one of us, yes, even you.

Non-new things I loved this year: poetry incarnate, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; king of the short story Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and Flannery O’Connor’s inscrutably titled Everything that Rises Must Converge.

Well, I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but I have to go drink beer and eat lobster. Plus, I’m getting bitten by these wild little mosquitoes that are ten times smaller and faster than the average blood sucker. But if you are interested, you can take a look at (most) everything I read this year if you click on ’2009′ to the right in the sidebar there. I read about 10 more books than appear there (I’m being laggardly in writing them up). So yes, I made it to fifty books (see sidebar above right). No fanfare, because I’m starting to find a numerical reading target a little embarrassing. But has it been a good year for you?

Jesse Ball’s The Way through Doors is an extraordinary tonic to that tiresome lament that the novel is dead, a single-handed draught for the literary chopfallen. The Way through Doors has all the necessary ingredients – sneaky, silvery prose; intrepid storytelling; thoughtful metafictional interrogration; and such tenderness as is rarely well executed – for an actual, real, motherf’ing book of the year. Let’s not pollute this conversation with talk of the recency effect. This is probably the best thing I’ve read in 2009.

Selah Morse, a young pamphleteer, in conversation with his uncle, receives new employment as a municipal inspector. His new colleague, Levkin, gives Selah a new blue-grey suit, like to those worn by Armenian intelligence. Amorphous though the role may be – there are no parameters or tasks – it’s a pleasing one. Rita, the message girl, is particularly pleasing, with her prettiness and the tea she brings. After six or nine months as a municipal inspector, Selah is out on the street, on his way to buy noodles. A fine looking girl with bare shoulders and elegant mien is also out and about, walking down the street, when she is hit by a taxi. To assist her, Selah requisitions the taxi and they drive to the hospital, where Selah poses as the girl’s boyfriend. He selects a name for her: Mora Klein. Mora’s memory has been lost, and the doctor tells Selah that to recover it, Selah must keep her awake overnight, and help her reconstruct her past.

Beginning with a story familiar to The Way through Doors’ readers, that of his initiation into the municipal service, Selah searches for truths with which to anoint Mora’s soul. But the tale is long and gathers up its own turning velocity. Before long, Selah’s story is subsumed by another, told by Levkin; an explanatory spiel that helps Selah to realise that the municipal inspector’s role is as ‘a randomizing element in the psychology of the city’. Soon, another story takes hold, this time the story of ‘the curling touch’, told by the Chinese chef of ‘the best vegetable steamed dumplings in the whole city’. These tales coalesce and nudge one another, pools of inked water that bleed inexorably into each other, but retain their own pigments. The stories are ‘phrases cast upon precise winds’, espousing and embracing one another with a curious and exhilarating logic (or lack thereof).

The Way through Doors is not so much a story as it is about story. In many ways, it is Kafkaesque, its teetering dimensions reminiscent of a swimming pool with, impossibly, no bottom. Yet it retains the best aspects of story itself, including its capacity to illuminate the oddnesses of our narrative-hungry human race. Ball’s interest in exhibiting how we prioritise narrative above reality can be seen in his other work, too. He is a creative writing teacher, and one of his writing exercises is an exercise in lying: the student is to convince a friend that they did something that has never happened, using as persuasive ballast the student’s knowledge of what characteristic their friend holds most dear about their self. Also in Ball’s well-stocked and unusual arsenal is the tumbling minstrelry of Boccaccio; the evident teller’s enchantment I associate with the Australian ‘yarn’, something told for the sake of itself; the universality of folk tales; the metafictional defiance of Calvino; and a crooning tenderness that is all Ball’s own.

With all its superincumbent passageways and blithe ladders, The Way through Doors should be a virtuoso reading effort. But, instead, it’s one of the most dazzling and joyful reading experiences that has ignited my reading this year.

A little venture into Jesse Ball’s website.

December 21, 2009

Hi there. I’m on holiday in Malaysia (first) and Sri Lanka (soon). Yes, it is rad. So, I will be posting less often than usual. I hope that’s okay with you! Happy Chrismukkah, and I hope 2009 ticks over into 2010 for you with much merriment and no illegality (or very little).

December 15, 2009

Voiceworks is launching its ‘Classic’ issue this Saturday (which my friend Maddie Crofts is in!). This is terrible news, because Nam Le is launching the magazine, and while he is doing so, I will be on a plane to Sri Lanka. How am I supposed to solicit an inscription from him in a witty yet elegant way while I am employed thus? Luckily, I don’t stalk writers.

Except for George Dunford, whom I heartily congratulate on his being longlisted for the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize.

December 14, 2009

Okay, astute and exacting readers, it is Monday, and this isn’t a book post. So sue me. I went to the Meredith Music Festival over the weekend, and I’m lucky to still have a face, let alone be able to carve up some literary criticism for you right here. Fortunately, the good people at harvest magazine are less dissolute than I, and Issue 4 of the world’s most beautiful literary journal is out. One of my favourite local poets, Maxine Clarke, is in there, writing on black rights and bell jeans; Evie Wyld is in there, talking about her incredible debut novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice; Michael Sala, Ainslee Meredith and Jasmina Krupic are all in there. All of these people are winners at life. I’m also in there, cutting a dash about being a reader who writes. And if one issue just isn’t enough, harvest has a cracker of a deal whereby you can purchase every issue of harvest ever produced for $50. So, get to it, and while you’re there, could you get me a copy, because my arms hurt too much from a full weekend of my favoured dance move: the wu-pump.

Something to listen to, this time: the review of Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice I did for Radio National’s The Book Show. I get some tonal variation in my voice after the first thirty seconds; just be patient. Wyld won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for this, her first novel, which was also easily one my favourite things I’ve read this year. Listen to the rest of the show, as well: Reif Larsen discusses the books he likes to collect, Andrea Goldsmith talks about grief and poetry, and Kevin Rudd’s summer reading list is revealed.

December 10, 2009

It’s high time I gave cookbooks their proper dues. Even though I’ve been showing off about my birthday presents a little bit, I’ve neglected the real kicker. Given to me by my friends Wendy and Alan, a paragon of haute cuisine tutelage: Tastes of the Orient, from the highly regarded ‘Fresh and Tasty’ series. Featuring the passed-down-through-generations ‘Turkey with Mushrooms’ (only 38 grams of fat) and the somehow not-so-picturesque-as-perhaps-planned ‘Mandarins in Almond Lake’. Thanks guys! Bet you can’t wait to come over for dinner.

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