Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My top books for 2016: five literary fiction; five non-fiction; four popular fiction.


Howard Jacobson: Shylock is my Name

How could I go past another Jacobson. Here he exhibits his usual penetrating insight into the male of the species, especially the anxious, older, Jew. He's always ruminating on Jewishness but his insights are glorious and his writing has a wondrous fluency.

This novel is essentially a dialogue between religious and secular Jews that celebrates both but essentially confirms the religious. And I love his usual vexatious interrogation of Christianity.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian

This superb novel won the International Booker prize earlier this year. It's a subtle and nuanced meditation on men, women and relationships in a conservative society. And a devastating portrayal of severe mental illness and social isolation.

But most importantly it's a savage critique of the provincialism of South Korea and its backward social conventions and laws. Why are arty but otherwise sane people kept in police cells for months awaiting legal processes and enquiries to unfold before they can be rightfully released? What's so new and worrying about being a fucking vegetarian?

We see a constipated society that can't deal with resistance or individuality or art or the deep rhythms of human existence. And shamefully can't deal with depression.

Kang has written a very powerful and mesmerising novel in beautiful, spare, but poetic prose.

Jock Serong: The Rules of Backyard Cricket

I was absolutely bowled over (sorry) by this book. It's an excellent story, beautifully written. Two cricket stars are brothers and have a very tense relationship.

Australian cricket is full of brothers of course: the Chappells (Ian/Greg) and the Waughs (Steve/Mark) being the best known. In this story one is an insufferable, conscientious prig and health freak, the other a gregarious party animal, druggie and gambler. They never connect of course.

They are propelled and ultimately captured by anger, but in opposite ways: controlling it or giving in to it. 

It ends in tragedy and strikes exactly the right note. This is a wonderful and superb achievement.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project

This was shortlisted for this year's Booker prize. It's a marvellous and gripping story about the awful, hard, and unforgiving lives of the 19th century peasant class in Scotland.

It's presented as a factual account of a brutal murder but it's fiction, superbly and sympathetically rendered.

Two supposed memoirs are presented to the jury. One from the prosecution is an obnoxious piece of ugly, ignorant, insulting, pompous, snobbish, haughty, arrogant, pretentious drivel, demeaning '..the lower tribes of our country'. The other, from the accused, a humble well written account of what happened and why. 

I, accurately of course, predicted this would not win the Booker, being nowhere near deep or meaningful enough, nevertheless it's a superb read. And it will make you angry, and I love books that make one angry.

Emma Donoghue: The Wonder

This is Donoghue's follow up to the highly applauded Room, and it is absolutely fucking brilliant.

It's deliciously anti-Catholic, anti-piety, anti provincial religious nonsense. It's about an eleven year old Irish girl in the 1860's who has seemingly - and that word is important - refused to eat food for four months, but, until the final two weeks, stays alive and well and healthy. The village is celebrating a 'miracle'.

Of course the stupid kid would be force-fed in today's medical world - taken to hospital, drip fed and provided with psychiatric help.

In our Trumpian, post-truth age this story resonates. It's a study of delusion. What people want to believe dictating what reality they 'see'.

It condemns the criminal irresponsibility of the family, carers and authorities (the 'committee men') and the cruel insipidity of their pious religious beliefs.

It's a celebration of truth, fact, rationality and sense. There's a nice love story in there too.


Helen Garner: Everywhere I Look

Who doesn't love Helen Garner? Her lovely, translucent prose with the regular stunning phrase or description ('the golf course...and its hoses sprinkling bridal veils of spray..').

This is writing at once plain and vivid, filled with acute insight into human feelings and emotions.

Garner is fascinated as usual by crimes, court processes and outcomes. 'What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls.' 

'Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for'.

Buy it.

Maxine Beneba Clarke: The Hate Race

What a magnificent memoir this is. It immerses the reader in the pain of ugly racism.

A young girl's struggle is so powerfully articulated. We feel for her; we ARE her; we become angry at the vicious, cruel racism perpetrated openly and insidiously.

She suffers emotionally, psychologically and physically at school and as an adult. The racism is always there. 

Clarke's prose is crisp and clean, with a constant drumbeat: 'This is how it changes us. This is how we're altered'; 'This is how it happened. Or else what's a story for'; 'When I gather the threads in my fingers, this is how they weave'; 'This is how it haunts us. This is how it stalks'. (193).

The bullying in High School is particularly ugly: '...there was an unfathomable brokenness somewhere inside of me..' And the teachers called it 'teasing'! 'You'll have to get used to it'.

The blurb on the back cover calls this book 'funny'. Jesus.

Andrew J Bacevich: America's War for the Greater Middle East - A Military History

The US strategy in the Middle East has always been a combination of ignorance, naïveté and Wild West gunslinger swagger - in other words bullshit all the way. Best-selling author Andrew Bacevich, a retired professor of history and international relations at Boston University and former US army military officer, has written a thoroughly researched, fascinating and highly lauded account of the West's strategic and military failures in the Middle East, what he calls 'the pernicious legacy of Western imperialism'. 

It is just riveting. The history and religion of the region has countered for little. From the disaster of Lebanon in '82, the intervention in Libya, the Iraq-Iran war, the Iran/Kuwait failure, the Somalia disaster, the Afghanistan invasion ('an exercise in strategic irrelevance'), the Iraq invasion ('an attempt to change the way they live), Petraeus's absurd 'surge' ('a pseudo-event'), and more - Basevich offers us an unparalleled historical tour de force. 

Volker Ullrich: Hitler, a Biography

This remarkable book, a best-seller in Germany when it was first published in 2013, is a landmark, utterly compelling achievement. Once again, in this age of Trump and ignorant, racist populism, we need to be reminded that 'Hitler was only able to launch his second political career because his adversaries criminally underestimated him'.

The Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard. The people demanded 'a strong man'. 'Few traditional conservatives were...prescient. Most...believed the Nazi leader could be kept in check'.

There is such a strong narrative drive to this book that it's impossible to skip over even the dense historical bits that you'll never remember later.

The assemblage of quotes from observers of events is powerful and telling. And yes, it is so heartening to read the contemporary critics of Hitler and his Nazi initiatives who were so prescient, courageous, and ultimately of course proved right. 

Clementine Ford: Fight Like a Girl

Yes, I read this and absolutely loved it! This is feminism in the trenches. A wonderful, angry, ferocious, inspiring read. Highly recommended.

There are annoying bits: there's a touch of 70's radicalism in the theory: easy, simplistic, absolutist, hardly nuanced; the constant references to 'cisgendered' women is unnecessary and boring; it's poorly edited (the world population is now 7.4 billion, not 'six billion'!); there's no index or author photo (inexcusable); the standard condemnations of patriarchy reflect rather amateur social and sexual analyses and conceptual overreach ('..another tool developed by thousands of years of patriarchy to deflect our attention away from trying to destroy it').

But this all pales as the book proceeds and the vigor of the language takes hold ('the bourdoir holy-pokey'; 'anti-women banana brains'). And the chapter on online abuse ('Hate Male') is superb.

Make no mistake. This is a very worthy best-seller and a must read. 


Adrian McKinty: Rain Dogs

Inspector Duffy's dealings and conversations with his police colleagues are always a delight. They're witty, often crude, always robust. He detests these anal retentives, and his insults flavour the novels deliciously. This fourth novel in the series doesn't quite have as many juicy ones as the last one but they're all just so satisfying.

And there's Jimmy Saville and the British establishment to boot. Very pleasing.

I love the short sharp sentences and phrases like jotted notes. They give rawness to the style that keeps the pace flowing.

There's great drama at the end, providing a good and satisfying resolution. 

There's a fifth in the series coming early next year. If you haven't got into McKinty yet, get a life.

Mark Lamprell: The Lovers' Guide to Rome

This is a lovely, romantic novel about two couples and two senior ladies in the enchanting city of Rome.

It's beautifully written, with a light touch. Very engaging indeed. We're sucked into the dynamics of love and fidelity - new, stale and old.

And Rome comes alive in all its history, majesty and wonder. 

Nice holiday reading. And better still - IT MAKES YOU WANT TO GO TO ROME!!

Jane Harper: The Dry

This is one of the most intense and absorbing crime narratives I've read in a long time. 

It's set in an Australian country town and is heaps better then Emily Maguire's An isolated Incident, also set in an Australian county town. Why such a common setting? Because they're dark, those places, and scary. I should know - I was brought up in one of them, left at 16 and have never gone back.

L.S.Hilton: Maestra

This is a delightfully anti British upper classes romp. And it's also extremely sexy, verging on the pornographic. 

Hilton knows how to write about sex. Her heroine is sassy, clever, and very sexy. A thrilling tonic for an old white male like me!

It's got an intricate plot involving the art world, the mafia, the seedy night life of Paris and Rome with all the streets, locales, shops, bars and restaurants brought to life. And a driving crime narrative to boot. 

What's not to like?