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.

05 January, 2011

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940)

Yes, it has an unsavoury title but don’t let that put you off this outstanding novel. Only really discovered in the 1960s, The Man Who Loved Children might be the greatest novel ever written about a dysfunctional family – or a family full stop. Stead, an ex-pat Australian, set the novel on the US east coast but it is largely autobiographical. The parents, Sam & Henny are two of the best realised characters I have encountered in literature and Tim Winton is telling a big fat fib if he doesn’t admit that Cloudstreet was largely inspired by this all-too-neglected masterpiece.