19 September, 2013

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982)

Bernhard has a bit of a following but what a morose bunch they must be. Concrete is a novel in one unbroken paragraph - the anguished internal monologue of a miserable, petty man who wastes years of his life unable to start his great work. It's set in the 1980s but the sour narrator living off old money makes it seem 50 or so years earlier. Amongst the repetitive rambling is much truth, but it's comprehensively subsumed by many a vehement diatribe. Those directed at Bernhard's native Austria are at times breathtaking. He finishes off the novel very neatly but I think, ultimately, it's the relentless hate I can't bear. 

29 August, 2013

The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (1956)

This excellent read was published as the autobiography of a Tibetan monk, covering his life from childhood to a high ranking, aura-seeing lama. There are some remarkable scenes in the narrative, including monks flying inside giant kites high above mountain ravines and an arduous journey to the high Himalaya where they visit a verdant geothermal oasis and encounter yetis. Written in a very accessible style, it inspired many of today's Tibetologists to become interested in the field. Only problem is, the story was actually written by a 46 year old plumber from Devon. But I still loved it.

21 July, 2013

My Love Had a Black Speed Stripe by Henry Williams (1973)

A bloke, his missus and his Holden Monaro. I've not read anything that captures laconic Australian humour and idiom as well as this impossible to find book. The story is serviceable enough but it's the first person voice of Ron, a car factory line worker that steals the show - and it starts right from the opening line: "Love me, love my Holden. I laid that on the line with the missus before we were spliced." From what I can find, this was Williams' only novel and he wrote it after working in a car factory. It's a lovely ocker snapshot of the time and should be brought back into print.

23 June, 2013

The Green Child by Herbert Read (1935)

Based on a 12th century Suffolk legend about the appearance of two green-skinned children this, Read's only novel, is utterly unique. The three distinct sections of the story are so contrasting that the juxtaposition simply shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Read, a poet, anarchist and proponent of education through art, pens prose that can be serenely beautiful. Indeed, The Green Child is such a singular work, its meaning so slippery - seemingly eternal yet fleeting and trivial at the same time - that it has been quietly meditating in a corner of my mind for a while as its many layers slowly crystalise.

06 June, 2013

A Winter in the Hills by John Wain (1970)

A pleasant if pedestrian read. Wain is in that Nevile Shute vein of perfectly accomplished writers who never really reach any great heights. A Winter in the Hills tells the story of Roger, an academic, who heads to northern Wales to learn Welsh only to get involved in some local troubles. Wain does evoke the atmosphere of the small villages and the landscape of northern Wales very well but he is probably more notable for his participation in 'The Movement', a 1950s British poetry movement that included Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis and was a backlash against modernism and experimentation. Says it all really.

21 May, 2013

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890)

This bleak but compelling psychological portrait of a slightly unhinged and destitute young man struggling to establish himself as a writer while slowly starving has been called the novel from which all twentieth century literature sprang. It's a big claim but I prefer to see this work as part of a natural progression from Dostoevsky through to modernism. That's not to diminish Hunger in any way. Set on the streets of Oslo, this tale of a fellow full of frenzied, self-defeating idealism is said to be semi-autobiographical. Toward the end of his life Hamsun sympathised with fascism, something that has scarred his subsequent reputation.

29 April, 2013

Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia Axline (1964)

Virginia Axline pioneered non-directive play therapy for disturbed children, and this is an account of her sessions with Dibs, a five year old boy from a wealthy family. Dibs was so uncommunicative and aggressive that he was almost considered retarded. His gradual emergence through Axline's gentle techniques is what makes this book a classic in its field, although I must admit to wondering how accurate her account was at times. But it's an incredible read and some of Axline's discoveries, such as that Dibs had secretly taught himself to read, were jawdropping. The identity of Dibs has never been revealed.

17 April, 2013

Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (1845)

This is the story upon which Bizet based his famous opera. While the novella gives much more by way of a backstory, the essential tale remains the same. Carmen, the impossibly 'illuring' gypsy woman, holds the Basque soldier Don José hopelessly in her thrall and leads him into a life of villainy. Set in majestic Andalusia, Carmen is equal parts romance and adventure, and the fall of Don José under Carmen's relentless spell has a sort of Shakespearean inevitability about it. It still speaks to us almost 170 years later because, well, we've all been there on one level or another. A deserved classic, but little read.

31 March, 2013

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)

This is a beautiful little book. Set in 1920, Tom Birkin has returned to England after WWI with a twitch and stammer to find his wife gone, so takes a job up in Yorkshire uncovering a medieval mural in a village church. He strikes up a friendship with a fellow veteran doing archaeological work in the churchyard and slowly integrates into the minutiae of village life, falling in love with the dour vicar's young wife along the way. Carr was almost 70 when he wrote this, and it shows. It feels long-distilled and the ending is wise, understated and magnificent.

15 March, 2013

Max Havelaar by Multatuli (1860)

I almost gave up on this one halfway through, but I'm glad I didn't. Max Havelaar tells the story of a minor Dutch official in colonial Java who becomes outraged at the way the local people are being exploited. It's somewhat autobiographical and while the book shocked Holland and eventually led to reforms, the author suffered the usual whistleblower's fate and died in exile, embittered. As a novel, Max Havelaar is often self-indulgent and you never quite know where it is heading, but it is redeemed by the strength of its message and prose that is passionate, surprisingly fresh, sometimes beautiful and often very funny.

28 February, 2013

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (1966)

Considered something of a classic and a very readable one at that, Salih's novel is narrated by a young man returning to his Sudanese village after studying abroad, only to find a mysterious man living there. That man confides that he too studied abroad and relates his time in England, his seduction of various Western women and the abiding sense that he was caught between two worlds. It all ties together in the end but some plot points do stretch credibility. Still, the frank discussion of sex must have made this book dynamite when first published in Arabic in 1966 and it remains a poignant meditation on colonialism.

11 February, 2013

The Last Kings of Thule by Jean Malaurie (1955)

In 1950, Malaurie, a French geographer/ethnographer, spent a year living with the most northern people on Earth - the Inughuit - while he mapped the northern reaches of Greenland and recorded their disappearing lifestyle. From hunting techniques and remarkable ice sea crossings to Canada, to consensual partner swapping to stay sane through the interminably long, dark winters, it is the irrepressible personalities of the Eskimos that really shine in this memorable book. The account finishes with the building of a huge, secret US airbase at Thule heralding the end of their harsh but happy traditional way of life – something subsequent editions go on to detail.

14 January, 2013

Turbott Wolfe by William Plomer (1926)

Turbott Wolfe exploded like a bomb upon publication in Plomer's native South Africa. Plomer was just 22 when he wrote this novel which brutally exposed the attitude of white South Africa toward the black population. That was crime enough, but it was the novel's unashamed embrace of interracial sex that really cemented its notoriety. The story centres around the title character, a young man running a store in a native reserve, who becomes appalled by his white neighbours and captivated by a young black woman. It's a stunning and amazingly prescient book - with an instructive but hefty 70 page introduction by Laurens van der Post.

15 December, 2012

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson (1973)

Few books had as profound an impact on me when I was growing up. This haunting tale of a lonely boy discovering an ancient stone Nargun, a creature straight from Aboriginal mythology, on his uncle's rural property had me spellbound. It still does. Wrightson, who died in 2010, was criticised for using indigenous beings out of context, but what she was emphatically saying was that European mythology doesn't belong here - Australia has its own dragons and elves. And ever since I have viewed the bush through a different and wondrous lens.

28 November, 2012

Pierrot by Raymond Queneau (1942)

This 1950 translation by the British novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross was a let down. You can't turn colloquial Parisian French into Cockney, complete with rhyming slang, without losing the essence of an author like Queneau. Beyond that, I found this to be a delightfully odd novel that is light, happy, even somewhat distracted at times. Pierrot is a young man hopelessly frustrated in work and love, and Queneau breezes his hero through some bizarre events that include fleeting elements of mystery and magic. A couple of coincidences toward the end are a bit hard to swallow though.

13 October, 2012

The Three Royal Monkeys by Walter de la Mare (1910)

What an absolute delight. This is a magical tale of three monkey brothers who go in search of their father, and have great adventure along the way. De la Mare wrote ghost stories and poetry, and viewed children with their extraordinary imaginations as sort of creative visionaries. You can almost feel him reaching back for this here. There's an unbridled playfulness with language in this novel that prefigures CS Lewis and Tolkien - in fact I'd be surprised if de la Mare wasn't an influence on them. What's more, this heartwarming celebration of brotherhood is now available free online.

06 October, 2012

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980)

I only knew Hoban by his children's stories, but this novel is nothing of the sort and, well, there's no other way to say it - Riddley Walker is a masterpiece. Set in SE England, many generations after a nuclear apocalypse, a remnant population grasps at fragments of language, technology and legend as they try to reconstruct the 'clevver' times. Courageously written in a crude, bastardised English that presents an immediate barrier to the reader, it is this striking language that ultimately feeds the rich, mysterious and desperate atmosphere of the novel and lifts it into something truly remarkable. Russell Hoban died last year.

18 September, 2012

Flatland by Edwin Abbott (1884)

Mathematical fiction. Who knew? Flatland is a short, simple novel with hand-drawn illustrations about a society of shapes living on a flat plane. And it is mind-blowing. This is a startling allegory of the Victorian class system and a stark portrayal of how society handles heretical ideas, namely that there may be dimensions that exist outside our known experience. My enthusiasm however, comes with one significant caveat: women are unashamedly treated as unintelligent second-class citizens in this book. After publication Abbott sought to explain this as a satire of sorts, but I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced.

25 August, 2012

A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamed Charhadi (1964)

This is a most unique book. Charhadi was an uneducated North African house servant encouraged to record a series of tapes on his life by the author Paul Bowles. The tapes were transcribed and published as A Life Full of Holes. The result is a remarkable story of the precarious hand-to-mouth existence led by untold numbers of people around the world. Through forced migrations, prison terms, betrayals and more, Charhadi comes across as charming, positive and yet somehow resigned to his lot in life. He is a compelling storyteller from a long oral tradition, and his observations on Christians – or Nazarenes as he calls them – are fascinating.

04 August, 2012

The Pages by Murray Bail (2008)

I'm sorry but this book just didn't cut it. OK, so Bail's prose is enigmatic and slippery, but the premise here is contrived at best: an academic is sent to a remote farm to read the writings of a little known hermit philosopher who has passed away. What follows unsurprisingly is a thinly veiled philosophical indulgence with some equally thin characters. Look, I did quite enjoy his earlier Canowindra book, even allowing for the unexpected Clare Quilty-like appearance of the suitor. But The Pages has made me reconsider the premise of that book in a different way now too.

13 July, 2012

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (1971)

This book should be a showcase for aspiring crime writers. Coyle is a small-time crook who has been painted into a corner by the law and has to make some very careful choices. Pretty standard stuff? Yeah, except the entire story is carried exclusively by fizzing, gritty dialogue that makes the whole grubby world of Boston lowlifes almost lift off the page. This was Higgins' first novel, and although he went on to write quite a few more, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Guess Cold War thrillers were the order of the day and he kinda fell through the cracks. Pity.

27 June, 2012

Declares Pereira by Antonio Tabucchi (1994)

There is a gradual awakening as you read this fine novel that clues you in on how the story will end, but this only makes the main character, Dr Pereira, more endearing. Set in Salazar's Portugal in 1938, Dr Pereira is a lonely, affable widower working as an editor at a small Lisbon newspaper. Uninterested in politics, he is nonetheless drawn to a left wing resistance group, a dangerous move in a fascist-friendly state. Answering why he takes this risk is central to understanding this deceptively simple novel, something Pereira's actions ultimately illuminate in an unforgettable way.

11 June, 2012

Chéri by Colette (1920)

I’ve had a bad run with French literature of late, but Chéri has put an end to that. This story of an aging courtesan and her young, rich boy toy was scandalous in its day but now comes across as well, quite charming really. Colette's wry and sharp observations of pre-war high society Parisian petulance and vanity, along with its apparently carefree pleasures, are a delight. Of course all this was soon to be obliterated forever by WW1, and it is change and loss that sit emphatically at the heart of this wonderful novel. 

31 May, 2012

The Bog People by P.V. Glob (1969)

Across northern Europe, ancient bodies have turned up perfectly preserved in peat bogs for centuries. The Bog People is a fascinating investigation into who these iron age people were and why they were interred in the ritualistic way they were. Glob, a Danish archaeologist, found some of the best preserved examples of bog people in the 1950s and 60s, and his anecdotes on the discovery and uncovering of these bodies are a highlight. So are the amazing photographs of the exhumed bodies and the items found with them. The Bog People labours a bit toward the end but that's only a minor quibble.

09 May, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

There is a lurking, unspoken malevolence in this book that I just love. There is a simplicity of language that lifts Mary Katherine Blackwood above most other fictional characters I have encountered. There is a mystery that isn't really a mystery at all. There are themes of small-town ostracism, violence and atonement. And there is an ending that should be sad and disturbing but isn't. But most of all there is a wish to read more of Jackson's work – a desire I rarely have with any author.

22 April, 2012

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1976)

I just smile and shake my head every time I think of this extraordinary book. The plot? A woman in her nineties is bundled into a rather bizarre nursing home and manages to trigger something like the apocalypse. Carrington, who died just last year, was a surrealist artist who lived much of her life in Mexico and The Hearing Trumpet is packed with symbolism where nothing is quite as it seems. But that doesn't get in the way of a rollicking read that builds to a crescendo unlike anything else I've ever read. Absurd, fantastic and very much recommended.

03 April, 2012

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (2005)

Well now he's gone platinum with the Miles Franklin he's hardly overlooked, but this book simply deserves a wider audience. The Broken Shore is most often described as a crime novel, but it's not really. Yes, Detective Joe Cashin is the flawed heir to Upfield's Bony, but it is in the depth and craft of Temple's characters, his deft dealing with politics and race, his sense of place and just the quality of his spare turn of phrase that make this one of the must-read novels of Australia today.

11 March, 2012

The Sands of Windee by Arthur Upfield (1930)

I didn't expect this crime novel to be as good as it was. A dead body on a sheep station somewhere the other side of Broken Hill. Enter Bony, part-Aboriginal maverick detective, as self-assured as Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it's of its time and Upfield can seem patronising toward Aboriginals, but at other times his unabashed admiration of them shines through. In fact, it's such a good whodunnit, the murder method in The Sands of Windee was borrowed by an acquaintance of Upfield's in a real life murder spree. 

25 February, 2012

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1912)

Perhaps because Alain-Fournier died in action in WWI this, his only novel, is lauded in France. I might have enjoyed it more as a 12 year old. Perhaps then I could have put up with the absurd coincidences, obsessions, unrequited passions and self-defeating decisions surrounding Augustin Meaulnes. I get that this book speaks of the lost idealism of youth and that in post WWI France this would certainly have struck a chord, but there was just too much else besides in this convoluted plot. One for the young and yearning, not the old and cynical.

11 February, 2012

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (1914)

I suspect you need to be Japanese to really understand the nuances of this novel. Narrated by a young university student, Kokoro tells the story of an older man who feels compelled to face the wrongs he thinks he has committed in his life. The inter-generational conflict between old and new values is at play throughout this work, mirroring the emergence of Japan from isolationism during the Meiji Restoration. Now I like to think of myself as one who can handle a slow, deep novel, but this really is ponderous. Honestly, it's like a never-ending tea ceremony.

29 January, 2012

Living by Henry Green (1929)

Creating literature is very much a middle class pursuit and Henry Green, son of a wealthy industrialist, is no exception. But what is different about Living is that here he gives voice to the industrial workers of Birmingham of the 1920s. I don't know of any other novel set in an iron foundry and Green’s use of regional working class dialogue is central to this work’s authenticity. There is more than a hint of self-loathing here too in his vapid, nose-picking portrayal of the foundry owners' son. And yet, despite the bleak existence of the working men and women (in particular), I found Living an uplifting experience. 

08 January, 2012

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner (1979)

Quite why Garner is pigeonholed as a children’s author puzzles me and this work is an example of why. The Stone Book Quartet contains four simple but beautifully crafted episodes tracing Garner’s family in rural Cheshire from the mid 1800s. Deeply felt without ever lapsing into the sentimental, this work shines a rare light on the interconnectedness of a rural village, the subtleties of working with iron and stone, and how the seasons and landscape governed life. You realise how much has changed, how quickly things can fade away.

01 December, 2011

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)

This book is about a man writing a book. And that book is also about a man writing a book. Confused yet? It gets worse, because the characters in the various manuscripts interact with one another and rebel against their respective authors’ plots. Drawing deeply from Irish mythology, At Swim-Two-Birds could be seen as a sort of zenith in high modernism. It’s not an easy read, indeed the language is often ridiculously elaborate, but it is laced with the most wonderful Irish humour. Some of the dialogue is particularly funny. Yes, the rewards for persistence are bountiful here.

14 November, 2011

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (1923)

Bennett was immensely popular in the early 1900s in England, and because of this his staid, traditional style was mercilessly pilloried by the modernist movement. His reputation never really recovered. I could say that’s a shame but I wouldn't really mean it, for the years have not been kind to his writing. It feels dated and the class system pervades his writing in a rather patronising way giving it this odd, conservative reek. That said, he is a natural storyteller and Riceyman Steps is a sombre yet absorbing tale centreing on a miser of a man who runs a bookstore in London.

29 October, 2011

Berg by Ann Quin (1964)

When a book starts with the line: “A man called Berg, changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father” you know you are in for quite the Oedipal ride. Quin exploded onto the British literary scene in the 60s with this book, but soon drowned herself a la Virginia Woolf and was forgotten. In Berg she plays with dream, delusion and reality throughout while capturing the riotous atmosphere of 1960s Brighton, but the most interesting aspect for me was that this book – ostensibly about two men – feels like it was written by a man. 

10 October, 2011

Labyrinths by Christopher Okigbo (1971)

I don't know anyone who much reads poetry anymore. There's the effort involved and besides, it's a tricky form, more personal than prose. Donne and Dickenson might speak to you, while Baudelaire and Blake beckon me (why, yes as it happens!). Which brings us to Okigbo. Slaughtered in the Nigerian civil war of 1967 at just 35, one legend says Labyrinths includes remnants of his work, prophetically titled “the Path of Thunder”, salvaged from his burning hilltop home. And though I can't say he speaks to me, he ought to get the last word: “tears scatter, take root, burgeon into laughter of leaf...”

21 September, 2011

This Accursed Land by Lennard Bickel (1977)

I chanced upon this book with its icy cyan cover while cleaning out my brother’s house after he died a few years back. Odd, because he didn’t much read. It is the story of Mawson in Antarctica, and it’s one of the most extraordinary tales of survival you will ever read. The author Bickel, an ABC science reporter, brings journalistic brevity and immediacy to the story with startling effect. The result is utterly engrossing and will stay with you for a long time – or at least it has for me, but perhaps for other reasons.

07 September, 2011

The Balloonist by Macdonald Harris (1976)

This novel, inspired by an actual attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon in the 1890’s, is a well-wrought tale of adventure that includes a rather odd but memorable love affair. Harris seems very much forgotten, and yet he wrote to some acclaim in his day and is cited by authors such as Philip Pullman as an influence on their work (most obvious perhaps in Northern Lights). He is very adept at describing the science of the day along with the practice of ballooning, but surprisingly he is at his best with his creative rendering of the erotic.

25 August, 2011

FSP by Arthur Gwynn-Browne (1942)

A few pages into this war memoir I was sure it was an Ern Malley-style hoax. Using simple, meandering speech-like patterns to describe his experiences as ‘Field Security Personnel’ in the first months of WWII, Gwynn-Browne produced a war memoir unlike any other. The style reminded me of Stein’s modernist classic Alice B. Toklas - and perhaps that’s the key. FSP’s avant-garde style allows the author a voice that does not shrink from the horror while also exposing the Catch-22-like absurdity of war. Once you cotton on to this, FSP becomes a very funny read and I don’t understand why it has slipped into obscurity.

08 August, 2011

Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward (1973)

Anarchists have always delivered the most withering of social critiques. Their shortcoming has typically been in the alternatives they offer. This book, despite the barricade-evoking title, is an attempt at remedying this. Ward sees examples of voluntary, unregulated cooperation everywhere and builds on these to provide a framework for how an anarchist society might function in a complex, industrialised world. His scope is wide - from family structure to education to housing to play. His argument simple – there is no need to ‘smash the state’, nor is there some utopian endpoint, rather the seeds of change lie all around us. It really is a most beguiling read.

22 July, 2011

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963)

This story of a friendship between two girls on the brink of adolescence – and the subsequent disappearance of one of them - is a Norwegian classic. Maybe it is the translation, but the writing (the dialogue in particular) has a sort of stilted and awkward feel to it. Still, I expect that from most things Scandinavian. Elements of the story are deliberately ambiguous, such as the sapphic air that exists between the two girls, but Vesaas does evoke the ponderous northern winter wonderfully well and his rendering of the ice castle is simply a great piece of writing.

05 July, 2011

Heartland by Wilson Harris (1964)

Perhaps the only thing more impenetrable than the Guyanese jungle of which Harris writes is his prose. His writing has been described as enigmatic and visionary, but I found it dense, long-winded and frankly, pretentious. I actually think he was trying to write a South American Heart of Darkness (no, really). If so, it’s not altogether unsuccessful, but the pages are just so laboured with the most extraordinary sentences that serve to obfuscate more than illuminate (a bit like this one). I probably ought to read Heartland again, but no - life’s too short. Some books are neglected for a reason.

14 June, 2011

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

I heard David Marr say recently that we are forever marked by our high school texts. Mine was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I went on to wrestle with at university, and now I see it in almost everything. The Sheltering Sky is a Saharan variant, and a masterful one at that. Port and Kit’s sometimes brutal odyssey through 1940’s North Africa is a rare sort of love story. Like couscous on the steam, you know there is searing heat underneath but can’t quite see it. I’m stoked this is going to be re-released as a Penguin cheapie. Read it before you see the (very good) Bertolucci adaptation.

15 May, 2011

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald (2002)

In a world awash with Dan Brown, Harry Potter and that Girl with the Hornet’s Fire Tattoo, authors like Sebald slip under the radar, found only by the diligent or lucky. It’s a shame, for reading his work is a unique experience. It is understated, subtly cerebral and even after translation holds a style that is light yet intricate and at the same time unflinching. I don’t quite know how he does it. The effect is mesmerising, and throughout The Emigrants a sort of stripped-back yearning haunts the prose. If you haven’t guessed, he is among my favourite authors. You will either ‘get’ him or you won’t.

02 May, 2011

Mots d’Heures: Gousses Rames by Luis d’Antin van Rooten (1967)

I love this book. Purporting to be a collection of 40 undiscovered old French verses, this work is actually something else completely. But making the discovery is half the fun, so I won’t give it away here (though the title might). Best read out loud, you don’t have to know French, but it helps if you are familiar with the pronunciation. Each poem is annotated, and it is here that Mots d’Heures becomes a none too subtle dig at the pretentiousness of literary criticism.

19 April, 2011

A Melon for Ecstasy by John Fortune & John Wells (1971)

You need to know right up front that this novel is about a man who has a sexual fetish involving trees. Excited? Then you will really like this book. The story, written in the form of journal entries, letters and newspaper articles, follows Humphrey Mackevoy and his nocturnal arboreal passions – often described in rather explicit detail. I shan’t say any more except that after reading this comic gem you will never look at a shady grove the same way again.

31 March, 2011

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge (1949)

Ok, I confess. I have a macabre penchant for gulag fiction, and this is my favourite of the lot. While Koestler & Solzhenitsyn graphically portray interrogation and exile respectively, Serge takes a panoramic approach showing how a Stalinist purge rippled out from a random incident to ensnare old heroes and young zealots alike. And he ought to know - having spent years in a Russian prison in the 1930s. This is a masterfully constructed tale written in an immensely readable style, but it is the unique window into the remorseless machinery of a totalitarian state and its justifications that make this book essential cautionary reading.

17 March, 2011

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)

Orwell’s 1984 & Huxley’s Brave New World owe this work a (not always acknowledged) debt. Written in 1920 and banned by the Soviets before publication, We is set in the 32nd century where society, known as One State, allows its citizens no freedom in order to safeguard them from crime and secure their ‘happiness’. The story follows D-503 (people have numbers, not names), a respected mathematician, who comes to question what One State stands for. Eerily prescient of the Stalinist and Nazi horrors that were just around the corner, Zamyatin’s dystopian sci-fi trailblazer retains a freshness you might not expect from a novel now 90 years old.

22 February, 2011

Peat Smoke and Spirit by Andrew Jefford (2005)

Jefford is a wine writer and this book purports to survey the famous whisky distilleries on the Hebridean island of Islay. But it does much more than that. Delving into the remarkable history of this Western Isle while bringing the salty, wet and heather strewn landscape to life, Jefford manages to capture the essence of the island, its people and yes, the whisky. He is a gifted writer and this fine work will leave you longing to up and go. So do the next best thing: read it on a winter’s night by the fire, a dram of Ardbeg within easy reach.

24 January, 2011

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

Published as an article in The New Yorker in 1946, Hiroshima was one of the first western accounts of atomic obliteration and awoke the American public to the full horror of these weapons. The story follows six survivors of the bomb and graphically describes the death and destruction wrought. The emotionless, clinical style of writing has the effect of removing Hersey from the story, allowing the words of the survivors extra impact. Hiroshima is often cited as an early example of ‘New Journalism’, a more intensive and literary form of reporting. It remains one of the most remarkable and influential pieces of journalism from the 20th century.