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Best Books 2013

The KillsBecause it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure everybody’s mind is focussed on matters literary I thought I’d take a moment to pull together a list of some of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the past twelve months. As usual I’ve already made a start in my contributions to the annual roundups in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which also have contributions from Delia Falconer, David Malouf, Geordie Williamson, Felicity Plunkett and a lot of other people: if you have a chance I really do recommend checking them out.

As I said in my list for The Australian, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that the best new book I read this year was Richard House’s 1000 page metafictional thriller, The Kills, a book I’ve been proselytising about ever since I read it back in August. In a time when it’s occasionally difficult to make a case for the novel House’s book (or books, I suppose, since it’s really four short novels) is a reminder of exactly why fiction matters: smart, savage, politically ferocious, it’s also technically and formally audacious, pushing the boundaries of what novels are by incorporating video and sound into its structure.

I was also hugely impressed by Rachel Kushner’s dazzling study of art and politics, The Flamethrowers, a book that’s distinguished both by its intelligence and by the electric energy of its prose, Margaret Atwood’s occasionally frustrating but ferociously funny Maddaddam, Karen Joy Fowler’s characteristically smart, self-aware chimpanzee experiment novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Philipp Meyer’s sprawling Texan saga, The Son and Patrick Flanery’s brilliant, angry and thrillingly unstable exploration of contemporary America, Fallen Land.

Another book I liked very much but which seemed to receive less attention that I would have expected was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. Although I’m a big admirer of Barnes I was a bit underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending. But Levels of Life is a remarkable book, exhibiting both extraordinary control and a palpable sense of the raw, unprocessed (and largely unprocessable) nature of grief.

RevengeMeg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is another book that seems to have found a while to attract the attention it deserves, so it’s pleasing to see it turning up on a number of best of the year lists. Warm, capacious and very smart about the nature of friendship and the way age and success alters the dynamics of relationships, it’s also one of the most consistently enjoyable things I’ve read this year. And while I suspect it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, I loved Yoko Ogawa’s splendidly sinister matryoshka doll of a collection, Revenge.

There are also a couple of books I came to late, but which blew me away. The first is A Death in the Family, the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical fiction, My Struggle. I’ve yet to read the second, A Man in Love, which was released in an English translation earlier this year, but I was mesmerised by A Death in the Family. The Sydney Review of Books has just published a brilliant review of the two of them by editor James Ley; if you only read one piece about Knausgaard it’s the one to read, not least because it’s very articulate about the reflexiveness of Knausgaard’s project, and about the Proustian edge to the books, which seems to me to have been mostly misunderstood. I suspect a lot of the impact of A Death in the Family is due to the power of the final third, and its unflinching depiction of the narrator’s father’s death of alcoholism and its aftermath, but the book is also fascinating for the way it explores the tension between mimesis and banality.

The other book I came to late was the late Ian MacDonald’s thrilling study of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, which I read alongside Pete Doggett’s whip-smart account of the lead up to and aftermath of their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money and Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s huge but often fascinating biography of the band and its members, All These Years. While the others are all good, MacDonald’s book is hands-down the best book of pop music criticism I’ve ever read, although it’s given a run for its money by one of the other standout books I read this year, Bob Stanley (late of pop group, Saint Etienne)’s endlessly absorbing, occasionally problematic and constantly delightful history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah. I want to write something longer about Yeah Yeah Yeah at some point: for now I’ll just say that while Stanley lacks MacDonald’s deep critical intelligence he’s never less than engaging and his command of his extraordinarily diverse material is remarkable, and like many such works my arguments with it only added to the pleasure of reading it.

Caspar HendersonI have to confess I didn’t read as much Australian fiction as I should have this year, but of the things I did read a couple of books really stood out. One was Tim Winton’s Eyrie, a book that in its portrait of the contradictions underlying the West Australian boom was more explicitly engaged with contemporary Australia than a lot of Winton’s fiction, but the real standout was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan seems to have spent most of his career looking for a way to marry his family history to the national narrative; in The Narrow Road to the Deep North he’s done just that, with remarkable results.

On the genre side of things I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Graham Joyce’s slyly unpredictable follow-up to the wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale, The Year of the Ladybird, and Ann Leckie’s terrific debut, Ancillary Justice, as well as Paul McAuley’s final Quiet War novel, Evening’s Empires and Madeline Ashby’s queasily acute exploration of the line between human and Other, iD, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Guy Gavriel Kay’s gorgeous, allusive sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. All Kay’s books are terrific but I suspect River of Stars is the best thing he’s written to date.

Of the non-fiction I read this year the best thing was Caspar Henderson’s prismatic exploration of our ways of thinking about animals, Nature and ourselves, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, but I was also dazzled by Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s astonishingly beautiful compendium of bird lore, Birds and People. I admired Cocker’s last book, Crow Country, very much, but Birds and People is a much more singular creation, and, interestingly, one that has more than a few resonances with The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Other non-fiction books I enjoyed include Tim Dee’s deeply disquieting study of four spaces, Four Fields, Philip Hoare’s peripatetic exploration of the ocean and its meanings, The Sea Inside, psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully humane and psychologically sophisticated The Examined Life and John Ogden’s magnificent study of Sydney’s southern beaches, Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (if you’ve got a moment the interview with Ogden on the ABC’s Late Night Live is well worth a listen).

And last, but not least, a book I came to late but loved quite immoderately, Stephen Collins’ delightfully weird contemporary fable, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. As I said in my piece for The Australian on the weekend, even if you don’t normally read comics please take the time to track one down; you won’t be sorry.

And finally my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season: I hope you’ve had a great year and the twelve months ahead are full of life, love and all good things.

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Best Australian Stories 2013

Best Stories 2013Just a quick note to say how delighted I am that my story, ‘Solstice’, has been selected for Best Australian Stories 2013. Originally published as part of The Big Issue’s Fiction Issue, it’s also the first part of my new novel, Clade, which will, with a bit of luck, be published later next year.

My copy of the collection only turned up in the mail an hour or so ago, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But this year’s collection, which was edited by two-time Miles Franklin-winner, Kim Scott, and includes stories by Kalinda Ashton, Tony Birch, Georgia Blain, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Ashley Hay, Andy Kissane, Wayne Macauley, Ryan O’Neill and Favel Parrett to name just a few, looks particularly impressive.

There’s a full list of contributors on the Black Inc website. Alternatively you’ll find copies at any decent bricks and mortar or online bookstore. I’m not sure if the electronic versions are available internationally, but if you’d rather go electronic it’s available for Kindle, KoboGoogle Play and iBooks.

And while I’m here, I should mention how pleased I was a little while back to see my Rapunzel novelette, Beauty’s Sister making the Recommended Reading List for The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012, edited by Liz Grzyb and Talie Helene. The full list, which includes works by writers including Joanne Anderton, Margo Lanagan, Jason Nahrung and Kaaron Warren is available on the Ticonderoga website and is well worth a look.

Paper Nautilus

JBR10001_Book_cover_finalI’m very excited to be able to say my first book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, is now available as an ebook through Amazon. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it (and given it’s (a) poetry and (b) has been out of print for more than a decade that’s presumably pretty much everybody) it was first published by Five Islands Press as part of their New Poets Series in 1994, was shortlisted for the National Book Council of Australia’s Banjo Award for Poetry in 1995, and contains a series of poems I wrote between 1991 and 1993.

It’s always strange rereading work you wrote a long time ago, but looking at the book again I’m surprised how well it stands up. Perhaps unusually I didn’t really start writing until I was in my 20s, and because I managed to get published reasonably quickly the poems in Paper Nautilus aren’t just the first things I had published, many of them are amongst the first things I ever wrote. That being the case it’s sort of gratifying to find the book contains not just a number of poems I’m genuinely proud of but a number more I’d forgotten that are surprisingly good (I have to confess I had no memory of ‘Winter Afternoon’ at all until I reread the book). Even more interesting is seeing the way so many of the interests and preoccupations of my fiction were present right from the beginning.

I’ve made a few minor corrections to the text but otherwise the book is as it was when it was first published, except for the very handsome new cover, designed by Who Creative.

There’s more information and a few reviews over on the page I’ve created for the book, but given you can have the whole book for a mere US$2.99, perhaps you’d be better off just hopping over to Amazon and buying a copy.

On Dexter and how not to end a show

DexterIt’s been interesting comparing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter. The first has been an object lesson in how to finish a television show (or novel, or film or anything, really): understand the fundamental dynamic or contradiction that drives the story, home in on it, isolate it, push it to breaking point and see what happens. The second has been a meaningless pile of blah, in which the writers seem to have decided to abandon the central dramatic tension and head off on a pointless and emotionally dishonest tangent.

At one level it’s not fair to compare the two, of course: after all, Breaking Bad is clearly one of the great television shows. But there is something sort of extraordinary about the total mess of Dexter’s final season, not least since it’s always been clear the endpoint of the show has been the moment when Dexter’s secret life can no longer be kept secret, and even an amateur can see what the results of that will be. How can he protect Deb from what she’s done to help him? Is he prepared to kill Vince or Batista to stop the truth about his secret life being uncovered? How can he protect Harrison from the truth? Can he find a way to live a different life?

And instead we got a season that not only didn’t do this story, but made things worse by introducing characters we’ve never seen before and expecting us to care about them, expecting us to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, rewriting the back-story and then, even once they’d made the fundamental mistake of deciding not to do the one story that needed telling, crafting a season so cack-handed and muddled it didn’t even work on its own terms.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the show itself. Dexter was always a funny mix of elements: the schlocky Ryan Murphy Nip/Tuck aesthetic, the obvious contrivance of so much of the plotting, Michael C. Hall’s carefully controlled movement between opacity and tics of fury (I’ve always thought one of the interesting things about Dexter is that he is, in many ways, the same character as David in Six Feet Under), none of which ever quite meshed. To an extent this was unavoidable, since the show could only work as entertainment if it carefully avoided examining the tension at its centre (if you don’t believe me, try to imagine the show without Dexter’s voiceover, and think about how terrifying it would be watching the creepy serial killer playing with Cody and Astor on the couch. or check out Allan Cubitt’s excellent new drama, The Fall, which chillingly captures the evolution of a serial killer, and the toxic way that infects his family life).

But even within those constraints the final season is inexplicably awful. Why, for instance, were we expected to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, which made no sense the first time around, and less the second? (It’s interesting to contrast the Hannah plot with the season about Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a series I still think is one of the show’s best, largely because the story at the heart of it, about a group of men raping and killing women, felt real in a way little else in Dexter ever has, and Lumen’s combination of anger and pain meshed so well with Dexter’s own). Why introduce the idea of Dexter having a protege (especially since he already has a son in Harrison), and then abandon it so casually? Why give us the romantic triangles of Deb/Quinn/Elway and Quinn/Deb/Jamie and then forget about the first halfway through? Why did they think we’d care about Saxon, or his relationship with Vogel, when they’d given us almost no reason to care about Vogel? And despite the way they kept harping on it, why was Argentina, which was always Hannah’s fantasy, supposed to make any emotional sense for Dexter?

It was a mess that collided with spectacularly awful results in the blahness of the final episode, which failed to even offer some kind of emotional resolution (you can say a lot of things about the end of Lost, but even if they accept the story won’t make sense they do pay out the audience’s emotional investment in the characters). In the interests of avoiding spoilers (although why you’d care I don’t know) I won’t go into detail about what happened, or didn’t, but it was, frankly, one of the worst television finales I’ve ever seen.

Except – and again I’m going to be careful about what I say – there was one image that was very clever and deserves praise, and that was the one that blurred the iconography of the wedding and the funeral, which was clever and powerful and had a fascinating narrative and symbolic logic to it. I won’t say more, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one I mean.

And on the subject of Breaking Bad here are a couple of thoughts about Walt’s character and the use of violence as dramatic release from a few years back.

World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

Let Me Back In

There’s a reason this bruised, gorgeous, bitter-sweet unfolding of a song is the opening track on Rilo Kiley’s collection of B-sides and rarities, Rkives

Coode Street and Me

the-coode-street-podcastA little after the fact, but if you get a chance you might want to check out Episode 154 of the Coode Street Podcast, which features me chatting with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe about subjects ranging from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paul McAuley’s Quiet War series to Margaret Atwood, Tolkien and the future of science fiction.

I’m a big fan of Coode Street, which I think is necessary listening for anybody interested in science fiction or fantasy, so it was great fun to be a part of it. You can download the episode from Podbean or from iTunes.

If you’re interested I’d also very much recommend taking the time to check out M. John Harrison’s recent appearance on the show (available via Podbean and iTunes), in which he demonstrates he’s exactly as brilliant in person as on the page, and the conversations with Graham Joyce (whose new book, The Year of the Ladybird, is a delight (again, Podbean, iTunes)) and Ursula Le Guin (Podbean) from a while back.

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