Monday, December 29, 2014

Sorry for yet another list but these are my favourite books of 2014.

I read about 50 books this past year, 20 or so less than I usually get through. (I went to France for three months in the middle of the year and spent most of that time walking around Paris and driving around Provence).

So here are my favourites, in no particular order:


I'm a great fan of Martin Amis so any new book by this superb writer I read immediately. This year he released of The Zone of Interest set in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. It received a few ordinary reviews but they were misreads - oversensitive and dull minded. It's at the top of my list.

Another one of my favourites, Ian McEwan, released The Children Act. McEwan frequently writes  short novels, almost novellas, and they are always gems. He brings a searing focus to seemingly unremarkable everyday events and brings them intensely alive. This was one of those. And he takes very seriously people's working lives, investing them with high drama. Magnificent.

Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things was extraordinarily good. Set on a far away planet this was a savage and brilliantly written critique of Earth and its tiresome inhabitants. He pulled it off.

Any new book by Jacobson is a must read for me. (This has been a year for English novelists it seems). J was new territory for this writer who usually immerses himself in domestic Jewish dramas and polemics, often comical, but it was absolutely sensational. Large in scope, imagination and meaning. I loved it.

Irish author Colm Toibin's Nora Webster was superb. It's the story of an intelligent strong-minded woman struggling to raise four kids after her husband dies, and attempting to fashion a new, satisfying, independent and meaningful life for herself. Toibin writes so well about women bound by the provincial and stultifying strictures of a Catholic post-war Ireland. Episodic but dramatic, and in the background the Troubles are emerging. I am so in love with the feisty Nora Webster.

US writer Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was a totally unexpected literary and commercial success this year. It took everyone in the industry by surprise, particularly his publisher. Sales have gone through the roof (as described here). When I read it I saw immediately why. Its two central characters are young adults during the war years of the early 1940's, a French girl and a German boy. It's got exactly the same appeal as The Book Thief and Jasper Jones, huge successes internationally. I absolutely loved this book. It's an instant classic.

I finally read Italian author Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first in her four-book Neapolitan saga about the intertwining lives and loves of two female friends growing up and living adult lives in backwards Naples in the 20th century. I was hooked. It was astonishing and I've now started on book 2 and will immediately get onto book 3, recently published. (Neapolitan males - ugh. I giovanni sono cosi stupidi!)

Australian author Wayne Macauley's Demons rightly establishes him as perhaps Australia's greatest contemporary author. That's a big statement I know, but I've become so irritated with the predictably effusive praise lavished on our 'greats' like Tim Winton and Peter Carey - who in no way deserve it now if they certainly did once - that it's such a joy to find an author like Macauley producing such fine work. Demons is rich and meaningful in so many ways. A book to debate endlessly. A treat for book clubs.

Finally, a book that was released in April 2013 to no real fanfare. Then it surprisingly won the Prime Minister's Award for 2014 a few weeks ago, shared with Richard Flanagan's very worthy A Narrow Road to the Deep North. I'm talking of Steven Carroll's A World of Other People. Another World War Two setting - this time in London during the blitz. A young Australian bomber pilot falls in love with an English girl possibly modelled on Iris Murdoch, but their relationship is sadly brought undone by the tragedy of war. This is the second of Carroll's novels that features the poet T. S. Eliot and that contrasts his 'thin-lipped' conservative vision with the destructive passion of young love and energy, as a new post-war era emerges. As Iris reflects:
  This is them, the army of the miserable. Look at them, no wild emotions to carry them away. No runaway horses in their hearts. No forbidden words to quietly mouth in the privacy of their rooms as if having personally discovered them. Look at them, and she smiles faintly to herself as she crosses with the lights and pronounces farewell judgement: look at them - cuntless, cockless, and fuckless, the whole miserable bunch.

This is a very fine work indeed. Subtle, nuanced, immeasurably sad and well worth the PM's prize.


Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Capital is my pick for the outstanding non-fiction book of the year (my review of it is here). As with any economic critique that attacks some pretty basic dynamics underpinning our experience of capitalism in the West today, it has not ceased to rile the conservative establishment who are still squealing like stuck pigs (see this).

Any book by Michael Lewis is a must-read if you want to fathom the rules and behaviour governing the new and powerful financial class. Lewis writes lucidly about abstruse topics and brings them alive by making them personal and dramatic. This is an immensely enjoyable and informative book.

These two books about the whole Edward Snowden saga were just superb, particularly Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide. Greenwald absolutely skewers much of the mainstream press for its ignorant, prejudiced and cowardly attacks on Snowden. It's a delicious read.

Of the three books published about Fairfax over the last two years this is probably the best (although the other two, Colleen Ryan's Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, which focuses on the board and ownership machinations, and Pamela Williams' Killing Fairfax about how James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch stole the classifieds from under their noses, are wonderfully enlightening reads too). Hills focuses on the management, whose strategy seemed to be - and in fact still is - the one the US military used to great effect (irony alert!) during the Vietnam war: 'destroy the village in order to save it'.

New Yorker magazine correspondent Evan Osnos' Age of Ambition won the 2014 US National Book Award for nonfiction. It's an extremely fascinating and very enlightening portrait of modern China, focusing on the social and economic lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. It's a bit lacking on the economic analysis front, which I found frustrating, but is otherwise rich in insight. Osnos is fluent in Chinese and lived and travelled widely throughout the country for ten years. An extremely enlightening read.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Wayne Macauley's Demons. Surely one of the best Australian novels of 2014.

Wayne Macauley's previous novel, The Cook, published in 2012was extraordinary in every way. I absolutely loved it. It was resonant with meaning on multiple levels and the evil it depicted was as exquisite as the food its affluent, urban characters consumed. 

In his new novel Demons Macauley deepens and broadens his focus beyond skewering the morally bankrupt inner city creative and professional elites. Their vacuous lifestyle, prejudices and beliefs are a bit too easy a target, so he moves well beyond that to engage in a more philosophical rumination about the shared social fabric that sustains us and the destructive forces that can bring it undone.

A group of well off, middle aged friends go away to a large isolated house for a weekend, without phones and computers. They of course take plenty of gourmet food and wine, and they take it in turn to tell stories about real people and their fates. These stories, all fascinating and dramatic, are the heart of the book and its meaning. All but one of the half a dozen or so stories are true and have death at their centre. (The one that is not true doesn't). 

Macauley exposes the deep and dark abyss - the 'dirty great gaping hole' - under the necessary courtesies, protocols and basic moralities of our social construct. By breaching these necessary constraints we descend not just into an immoral decadence but into chaos and madness. This is a very Australian theme. (It also underpins, incidentally, every Stanley Kubrick film, which is why they are so visceral and powerful).

Macauley also reflects on the nature of stories as bonding narratives, providing meaning, order and community, and whether 'truth' can be as destructive as physical assault if it's simply a reckless indulgence.

Australian literary critic James Ley has a long and very positive review of this novel in the latest issue of the Sydney Review of Books (here), but unfortunately he offers a fairly limited psychological/sociological reading and doesn't go to the deeper moral and metaphysical dimension. He also sees it as generational, claiming the young daughter of the politician is some sign of a more hopeful and responsible generation to come. Nothing could be further from the truth. She's as destructive and morally cold as her parents, using cruel trolling as her modern weapon.

So what we have here is one of the best Australian novels of 2014. It is superb.