Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

2020: Looking Back

I’ve already done a roundup of some of my favourite books of the year, so I thought I might pull together a list of some of my own publications over the past twelve months.

The one that matters most to me is my new novel, Ghost Species, which was released in Australia at the end of April. That was obviously a disorienting time to be publishing anything, but I’m incredibly grateful to the readers who have taken the time to read it and found something in it that speaks to them, because it’s a book that means a great deal to me.

If you’d like to know more about Ghost Species I wrote about the inspiration behind it for The Guardian. Alternatively you might want to read J.R. Burgmann’s review of it in Australian Book Review, Ian Mond and Gary K. Wolfe’s reviews in Locus, or James McKenzie Watson’s review in The Newtown Review of Books. Otherwise you could check out one of the various interviews I did about the book (The Garrett, Kill Your Darlings, Books, Books, Books, The Wheeler Centre, Sydney Writers Festival, Byron Bay Writers Festival, Backstory, AusChat). And if you’ve got a few minutes to spare you can see me reading from the opening section for the #LockdownReadingGroup or read an extract from the opening sections.

I was also incredibly fortunate to be involved in a collaboration organised by Brisbane Writers Festival in which the poet Shastra Deo responded to the novel in verse. I’m a huge admirer of Shastra’s work (her first book, The Agonist, is brilliant), and the interactive poem that she produced is completely breathtaking. I can’t recommend it enough.

If you’d like to buy Ghost Species it’s available in Australia as an ebook, online, or from all good bricks and mortar bookshops. If you’re outside Australia the ebook was released by Hodder Studio a few weeks ago, and the print edition will be available in the UK in February. Or you can listen to the audiobook, read by the wonderful Rupert Degas.

In addition to Ghost Species I published a number of pieces of non-fiction. Perhaps the most important of them to me personally was an essay about my mother, Denise, who died just as the pandemic really took hold, that was published as part of Sophie Cunningham’s wonderful anthology Fire Flood Plague: Australian Writers Respond to 2020. You can read Sophie’s introduction online, but if you haven’t seen a copy of the collection yet I very much recommend it: it’s a remarkable document of the experience of living through the past twelve months, but it’s also a book that offers a kind of roadmap for a new and better future, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.

I also had work in two other anthologies. The first – an essay about cuttlefish and deep time – appears in Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell’s brilliant Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, which also includes pieces by writers such as Tony Birch, Delia Falconer, Justine Hyde, Jennifer Lavers and Jo Chandler. It’s a major book, and I’m honoured to have been a part of it.

The final anthology in which I have work is Leah Kaminsky and Meg Keneally’s Animals Make Us Human. Conceived in the aftermath of last summer’s bushfires, it brings together articles and photos about animals by a host of writers, scientists and artists, with all proceeds going to the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. I wrote about magpies, but it’s a beautiful book, and would make a wonderful gift.

Other pieces I published this year included a reflection on the bushfires for The Guardian, ‘Terror, Hope, Anger, Kindness’, a long essay about civilisational collapse and hope in the face of climate catastrophe for Sydney Review of Books, ‘The Library at the End of the World’, an essay about water and time and the origins of the oceans that appeared as part of Griffith Review’s Elemental Summer series, ‘Into the Deep’, and a long article about the minds and sensory worlds of fish for Cosmos (you’ll have to buy the magazine to read the full piece, but you can read an excerpt online). I also reviewed David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue (you can also hear me chatting to Australian Book Review’s Jack Callil about the book on the ABR podcast, and new books by David Attenborough and Tim Flannery. And if you still want more, I did a long conversation with the Anne Charnock (author of the excellent Bridge 108) about writing in a time of crisis for LA Review of Books, and appeared on Osher Günsberg’s Better Than Yesterday, as well as participating in a number of panels and conversations.

Around all that I’ve been lucky enough to get some work done. Or, to be more accurate, I’ve been lucky to have work to keep me going, because I’m not sure I would have made it through without it. Either way I’ve managed to pull together a draft of a new novel, and part of another; hopefully one or both of them will be finished some time next year. I’ve also written a bit less than half of a non-fiction project, which I’m aiming to complete over the next twelve months or so as well. For the moment, though, I just feel grateful to have made it through the past year relatively intact. I hope the same is true of all of you.

Best Books 2020

When I sat down to select my favourite books of 2019, the east coast of Australia was ablaze, and Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne had been swathed in smoke for weeks on end. Twelve months later Sydney’s Northern Beaches are in lockdown, restrictions are being reimposed across the rest of the city, and the other states have closed their borders to New South Wales again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, a number of the best books I’ve read over the past year engaged with this sense of accelerating and multiplying catastrophe. Some of them do it by tracing the crosscurrents of dissonance and denial that inflect our culture in the way Jenny Offill’s Weather or Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea do. Others, like Anne Charnock’s terrific Bridge 108, explore the effects of displacement and social breakdown. And some explore the processes of resistance, violence and dispossession that underpin the larger crisis as Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem does.

But the most significant was undoubtedly Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. The final book in the dazzling cycle of novels that began with 2312, and it simultaneously draws together and transcends many of the questions that are explored in those previous books, illustrating not just the scale of the crisis we inhabit, but mapping out a path toward a sustainable post-capitalist future. Like all Robinson’s novels it’s exhilaratingly dense with information and ideas, but it’s also deeply affecting. That’s partly because so much of what it depicts is so horrifying, but it’s also because while it insists on the imperative of hope, it doesn’t shy away from rage and despair. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and a book I wish everybody would read (I also highly recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with Robinson, which is one of the most consistently intelligent 90 minutes of media I consumed over the past twelve months).

One of the other highlights of my reading year was The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. The consensus seems to be that the final quarter is the best bit, but I have to say I thought the depiction of the aftermath of Anne’s execution in the first 100 or 150 pages was simply astonishing, and captures the mute trauma and terror of a community that is suddenly inescapably aware that none of them are safe with great power. But part of what I found so compelling about those sections was the way they also expose the uncanny terror of state power. Mantel has explored the connections between violence and terror and death and undeath before, perhaps most notably in Beyond Black, but in The Mirror and the Light they take on a whole new set of resonances. And those opening sections are only one element of a genuinely remarkable creation.

Despite a lot of will-she won’t-she angst in the British media about the prospects of Mantel pulling off a Booker hat trick, The Mirror and the Light didn’t make the shortlist for this year’s prize, which instead went to Douglas Stuart’s terrific Shuggie Bain. As I said in my roundup of the Booker shortlist in The Weekend Australian, Stuart’s novel is notable not just for its refusal to sentimentalise Shuggie’s mother’s alcoholism, but for the astuteness of its portrait of the effects of addiction on children and, perhaps most remarkably of all, its immense capacity for forgiveness. I found it an enormously affecting and quietly devastating novel, and it’s been wonderful to see it finding such a wide readership.

Other novels I loved included the final instalment in Ali Smith’s remarkable Seasons Quartet, Summer, Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful Mayflies (a book that felt micro-targeted at me and my interests), Anne Enright’s Actress, Deb Olin Unferth’s wonderfully off-kilter novel about chickens and activism, Barn 8, Emily St John Mandel’s brilliantly structured The Glass Hotel, Daisy Johnson’s splendidly unsettling Sisters, Lily King’s lovely, warm, wise Writers and Lovers, Vigdis Hjorth’s merciless Will and Testament (make the time), Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and Sigrid Nunez’s follow-up to The Friend, What Are You Going Through. The two story collections I most enjoyed were Emma Cline’s Daddy and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ fabulously compressed Sleepovers (seek it out: I promise it will be worth it).

At the more speculative end of the spectrum, I was blown away by M. John Harrison’s compellingly strange The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, a book that elides boundaries of all kinds, so reading it makes the world around you feel uncertain in all sorts of ways. It’s also a novel that invites all kinds of readings, but the one I kept coming back to was the way its emphasis on the watery, floods and transformation echoes Amitav Ghosh’s description of the “insistent, inescapable continuities of the Anthropocene”. I also loved Garth Nix’s delightfully playful and effortlessly entertaining The Left-handed Booksellers of London, a book that might well be my favourite of Nix’s novels, Paul McAuley’s emotionally expansive and affecting reworking of the Samurai and Western in the far future, War of the Maps, and William Gibson’s terrific follow-up to The Peripheral, Agency, a book that plays with our assumptions about the future and contingency with sly wit and deadly seriousness. Wit is also available in abundance in Natalie Zina Walschots’ hugely entertaining reworking of the superhero genre and the modern workplace, Hench, and Lev Grossman’s delightful excursion into children’s fantasy, The Silver Arrow, whereas Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a strange conjuring trick that draws upon many of the tropes and preoccupations of classic fantasy while also taking them somewhere that feels startlingly new. And I hugely enjoyed both Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians and Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild.

Although there are a host of things I still haven’t got to (Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron! Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile! Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s! Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People!) I read a lot of Australian fiction I hugely admired, perhaps most notably Laura Jean McKay’s gloriously weird and feral The Animals In That Country, Chris Flynn’s delightfully deadpan deep time comedy, Mammoth, Lauren Chater’s beautifully constructed and expansive reworking of the silences in Swift, Gulliver’s Wife, Kate Mildenhall’s gripping The Mother Fault, the next instalment in the historical sequence Jock Serong began in Preservation, The Burning Island, Kristen Krauth’s terrific Almost a Mirror and Luke Horton’s terrific debut, The Fogging (if you’re interested, you can hear me and Luke chatting on The Book Show).

Of the non-fiction I read, I loved Julia Baird’s elegant and wise Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark, a book I read at just the right moment, David Farrier’s marvellous and intellectually peripatetic investigation of deep time, Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, Stephanie Convery’s heartfelt and unsparing dissection of violence in sport, After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s elegant and moving The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Danielle Clode’s study of the remarkable life of Jeanne Barret, In Search Of The Woman Who Sailed The World, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World in the Whale, and David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, and Craig Brown’s often hilarious One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time. I also very much admired two shorter books of essays: Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers.

And finally, two more books of poetry: Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, both of which offered reminders of the power of language to console and reveal, something I suspect we’re all going to need more of in the months to come.

Ghost Species Cover Reveal

Ghost Species Cover

I’m very excited to be able to reveal the cover of my new novel, Ghost Species. I’ve talked a little about it before, but here’s the blurb:

When scientist Kate Larkin joins a secretive project to re-engineer the climate by resurrecting extinct species she becomes enmeshed in another, even more clandestine program to recreate our long-lost relatives, the Neanderthals. But when the first of the children, a girl called Eve, is born, Kate finds herself torn between her duties as a scientist and her urge to protect their time-lost creation.

Set against the backdrop of hastening climate catastrophe, Ghost Species is an exquisitely beautiful and deeply affecting exploration of connection and loss in an age of planetary trauma. For as Eve grows to adulthood she and Kate must face the question of who and what she is. Is she natural or artificial? Human or non-human? And perhaps most importantly, as civilisation unravels around them, is Eve the ghost species, or are we?

Out May 2020 from Hamish Hamilton Australia.

Born to Run

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately, and thinking about his body of work and my relationship with it. As you’d expect with an artist whose career spans more than 40 years there are highs and lows, but unusually for somebody who works in rock and roll and pop, there’s also a surprising degree of consistency, and there are albums he’s recorded in the past couple of decades (I’m thinking of Magic and The Rising in particular) which I listen to as often and enjoy just as much as the albums from the 1970s and 1980s.

But the album I love best and return to most often is Born to Run. I’ve been listening to it for 35 years and I still get chills every time. I love the scale of it, the Spectorish Wall of Sound grandeur of its production and the sense it’s in conversation with so many of his influences in 1960s pop and soul (“Roy Orbison sang ‘For the Lonely’ …”), the extraordinary sax and the way it underlines how essential Clemons was, the beautiful piano on ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’, the deliberate yet unself-conscious sweep of the songs and the economy of the storytelling (‘Meeting Across The River’ or ‘Backstreets’, for instance). In his memoir Springsteen says “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”, but although that urgency and desire for liberation through movement is what gives the record its extraordinary power, part of what I’ve always loved about it is the fact that even in its dark moments there’s a joyfulness to it that’s largely stripped away on Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska. Interestingly I also often end up listening to it back to back with Patti Smith’s Horses, which I don’t think is coincidental, not just because both albums were released in 1975 (or because Springsteen wrote ‘Because the Night’ for Smith, apparently singing it down the phone in the middle of the night as he went), but because when you listen to them side by side you hear how much both are about the striving for a sort of transcendence and purity of feeling, both qualities that have become unfashionable in recent years. It’s an astonishing record, and one that only seems to get more remarkable with the passage of time.

The world has changed: on writing in the Anthropocene

Here’s me in conversation with the wonderful Iain McCalman (if you haven’t read his marvellous The Reef: A Passionate History it’s brilliant).

Midyear Music

Because it’s getting toward halfway through 2016 I thought I might share a few of the albums I’ve enjoyed so far this year.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Underneath the ferociously political lyrics A Moon Shaped Pool is the poppiest Radiohead album in years and perhaps not coincidentally the first one that’s resonated with me for almost a decade. Although the video for ‘Burn the Witch’ is so brilliant it could probably carry the album on its own.

 

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
Hope Six
isn’t as good as Let England Shake (although what is?), at least partly because Harvey is clearly hitting up against the limits of the popular song’s ability to communicate complex arguments, but it’s still genuinely thrilling a lot of the time, and Harvey’s passion and fury remain as exciting (and salutary) as ever.

 

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Will Toledo has been recording albums alone for years, a process that led to the release of his excellent Teens of Style a couple of years ago, but his new album Teens of Denial is his first record with the backing of a proper band, and it’s incredible. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but every one of these mini-epics of suburban desire and despair is like a tiny novel, with all the variousness and passion that implies. I need a few more weeks to get to grips with it properly but it might just be my album of the year so far.

 

The Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust
It’s been a while since I listened to Hollywood Town Hall and Rainy Day Music, and the first of the Jayhawks’ reunion records passed me by a couple of years ago, but their new one, Paging Mr Proust, is a bit of a gem. Lovely, literate folk rock that owes a little to the Byrds and a little to REM (no doubt at least partly because it was produced by Peter Buck) but never feels rooted in the past.

 

Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Parquet Courts have always been one of those bands I felt like I should love but never quite did. But their new album, Human Performance, is terrific, and filled with tight, driving songs.

 

Beverly, The Blue Swell
Because there can never be enough dreamy, blissed-out noise pop in the world.

 

Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
Imagine a fractured 2016 version of Nico and you’ve got the general idea. Easily as good as her last couple of albums. The film that accompanies it is also splendidly weird.

 

The Last Shadow Puppets, Everything You’ve Come to Expect
I think Alex Turner is one of the great contemporary songwriters, and although there’s something a little too considered and contrived about his work with Miles Kane (and some fairly icky lyrics) there’s still a lot to like about the baroque, Scott Walkerish Everything You’ve Come to Expect.

 

David Bowie, Blackstar
I wrote about Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s death. I haven’t changed my view: it’s a thrilling, mercurial album, his best since Scary Monsters, and a reminder of what his death robbed us of.

 

There are also a number of things coming out in the next little while I’m excited about (new Kills! new Band of Horses!) and more than a few things I need to listen to more carefully (the new Lucinda Williams for one) but for now they seem like enough.

Favourite Music 2015

I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.

And so, without further ado, here they are …

Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and  a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.

 

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.

 

Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.

 

Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour
Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.

 

The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists’ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.

 

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man,  Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.

 

Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.

 

Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.

Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.

 

Elle King, Love Stuff
Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.

 

Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.

 

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands  find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).

 

Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.

 

Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.

 

Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood
Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.

 

The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.

 

That Glimpse Of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written

Glimpse of TruthI’m very excited to say my story, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, has been included in David Miller’s new anthology, That Glimpse of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written, which was released last week. If you’ve seen the book you’ll know it’s just insanely gorgeous object (and with the Christmas season rapidly approaching would make a perfect gift, hint hint), but it’s also amazingly good, and features stories by Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Thomas Pynchon, Muriel Spark and Colm Tóibín as well as me (and in case you’re wondering then yes, it is a little daunting to be in such company).

Obviously you can still buy ‘Beauty’s Sister’ as a Penguin Special in either electronic or print form, but I very much recommend taking the plunge and checking out That Glimpse of Truth. It’s available in bookstores in the UK and Australia, but if you can’t get to a bookstore you can compare prices on Booko (Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, Canada) or buy the ebook through all the usual channels.

The Inconvenient Dead

Sorry for the intermittent posting – I’ve been insanely busy. Hopefully I’ll get something proper up later this week or next but in the meantime I just wanted to alert you to the fact I’ve got a new story, ‘The Inconvenient Dead’, in the Autumn issue of Overland, which also has fiction by SJ Finn and Paul Dawson and poetry from Mark Mordue.

For the moment at least it’s not available online, so you’ll have to track down the issue to read it If you’d like to read it, it’s available for free on the very funky new Overland site (you can also buy copies or subscribe), but here’s how it begins:

“A week after he killed himself, Dane Johnson came to visit Toby at the service station. It was a Friday, which wasn’t usually one of Toby’s nights, but Toby was working anyway because one of the other guys had quit unexpectedly and the manager hadn’t had time to put a replacement through the two day unpaid customer service accreditation scheme new employees were required to complete before beginning their trial period.” Read more …

Bloodsucking Pumpkins and Vegetable Vampirism

Some of you may be aware of the whole vegetable vampirism thing via Terry Pratchett, others may have come across it in reviews of Matthew Beresford’s rather delightful cultural history of the vampire, From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, but if not, it’s one of those backwaters of folklore studies that demonstrate the many shapes beliefs about vampires and the undead can assume.

The story was first recorded by the Serbian ethnographer, Tatomir Vukanović, in an article published in The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1957. The relevant section of the article reads:

“The belief in vampires of plant origin occurs among Gs. [Gypsies] who belong to the Mosl[em]. faith in KM [Kosovo-Metohija]. According to them there are only two plants which are regarded as likely to turn into vampires: pumpkins of every kind and watermelons. And the change takes place when they are ‘fighting one another.’ In Podrima and Prizrenski Podgor they consider this transformation occurs if these ground fruit have been kept for more than ten days: then the gathered pumpkins stir all by themselves and make a sound like ‘brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!’ and begin to shake themselves. It is also believed that sometimes a trace of blood can be seen on the pumpkin, and the Gs. then say it has become a vampire. These pumpkins and melons go round the houses, stables, and rooms at night, all by themselves, and do harm to people. But it is thought that they cannot do great damage to folk, so people are not very afraid of this kind of vampire.

“Among the Mosl. Gs. in the village of Pirani (also in Podrima) it is believed that if pumpkins are kept after Christmas they turn into vampires, while the Lešani Gs. think that this phenomenon occurs if a pumpkin used as a syphon, when ripe and dry, stays unopened for three years.

“Vampires of ground fruit origin are believed to have the same shape and appearance as the original plant.

“…The Gs. in KM. destroy pumpkins and melons which have become vampires … by plunging them into a pot of boiling water, which is then poured away, the ground fruit being afterwards scrubbed by a broom and then thrown away, and the broom burned.”

If you’d like to read the article in full (together with some more delightful stories about vampiric farming implements) there are scans of the relevant pages herehere, here, and here. Or you can read a piece I wrote about vampires a while back.

A Form Guide to the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The following piece appears in today’s Weekend Australian and is reproduced with their permission.

Over the past 40 years the Man Booker Prize has established itself as the premier literary award in the English-speaking world. The reasons for its ascendancy are complex, especially in an Australian context, yet there’s little doubt that much of its success lies in the skill with which it has been managed over the past 40 years. Former administrator Martyn Goff’s 35 year tenure was in many ways a masterclass in media management, which saw judges selected with an eye to controversy, rumours of scandal and disagreement carefully leaked and tensions between judges and nominees inflated, all with an eye to turning the award into the annual event it has become.

Current Booker administrator Ion Trewin may lack Goff’s hauteur, but he’s every bit as deft a showman. Last year saw a nailbiting finish between Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, both favourites after some judicious comments about the vigour of the comic novel, while 2009 formalised the transformation from writer’s writer to international superstar of one of contemporary literature’s most intelligent and gifted writers, Hilary Mantel.

This year’s award has been distinguished by two things. The first was the appointment of former MI5 Director-General Dame Stella Rimington as Chair of the Judging Panel. Rimington, whose novels are reputed to have been written with considerable input from at least two ghostwriters was always going to be a controversial choice, both because of her lack of literary credentials and because she seemed an awkward choice given the avowedly literary tastes of fellow judges such as Telegraph Books Editor Gaby Wood and novelist Susan Hill.

Friction between judges is part of the game of course. But it was Rimington’s comment that the judges wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them” that provoked the real controversy.

Rimington’s comments could probably be dismissed as yet another piece of the theatre that always accompanies the Booker season, except for the fact that this year’s shortlist, comprised of Julian Barnes’ splendidly controlled and subtle The Sense of an Ending, Carol Birch’s Goldingesque Victorian shipwreck novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, Patrick DeWitt’s wonderfully weird noir Western The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan’s account of black jazz musicians in Nazi-occupied Europe Half Blood Blues, Stephen Kelman’s vernacular novel of childhood wonders and loss, Pigeon English and A.D. Miller’s Russian thriller, Snowdrops is perhaps most charitably described in the terms chosen by the novelist Paul Bailey, as “the most eccentric of recent years”.

Eccentricity needn’t be a negative, of course. Indeed it’s not difficult to imagine a shortlist distinguished by brave, unconventional choices that celebrated the best of genre writing on the one hand or the most exacting literary standards on the other. Yet this year’s shortlist is neither of those things. Instead it is an incoherent collection of mostly middling novels with few claims to either popular appeal or literary brilliance.

Of the six the one that has attracted the most attention is undoubtedly Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Barnes’ eleventh full-length work of fiction and the fourth to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending comes hot on the heels of last year’s thematically-linked collection of short stories, Pulse, and 2008’s extended essay about mortality, Nothing to be Frightened of.

Like all of Barnes’ work, The Sense of an Ending is distinguished by its deceptively effortless formal perfection, its apparent simplicity disguising not just a plot of considerable elegance but a delicate and pleasingly subtle interplay with many of Barnes’ earlier novels (interestingly Pulse exhibited many of the same features). It is also, perhaps curiously given Barnes’ lifelong fascination with French culture and French literature in particular, an almost quintessentially English novel, grounded not just in the rhythms of English middle-class life, but a very English fascination with the tenets of empiricist philosophy and logic.

Its title deliberately invites us to read it as a sort of summation, a final chapter in Barnes’ illustrious career. And in one sense it is precisely that, reworking many of the interests and motifs that have sustained his fiction and non-fiction across the past 30-odd years. Yet it is also very obviously the work of a writer in full flower, exhibiting not just total control of the craft of the novel, but an intellectual and emotional rawness that has sometimes been lacking in Barnes’ earlier writing, neither of which suggest either a diminishing of Barnes’ talent or any imminent farewell to fiction.

Although a very different book in many ways, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is, like Barnes’ novel, essentially a book about failure, and more particularly a certain kind of male obtuseness. Set in Russia during the mid-2000s, it tells the story of Nicholas, a no longer quite young British banker whose involvement with a Russian woman leads him to compromise himself personally and professionally.

Miller is a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist and it shows in both good ways and bad. On the plus side Snowdrops has the immediacy of the best journalism, capturing not just the decadence and violence of the Russian boom but the moral ambiguity of the ex-pat whose pay cheque depends upon helping facilitate the pillaging of the country’s resources.

Yet at the same time it too often seems to be all surface, a skilfully structured, well-written exercise with none of the heft of real fiction. And, more deeply, it suffers from the not inconsiderable problem that the psychological device upon which it turns, namely Nicholas’ total obliviousness to the machinations that surround him, is fundamentally implausible.

If Snowdrops is a novel exploring one sort of moral wasteland, the third book on the shortlist, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English explores a rather different one. Set on a housing estate in south London, it tells the story of 11 year-old Harri Opoku, a recent Ghanian immigrant who becomes embroiled in the search for the killer of another boy.

Like Emma Donoghue’s Room (or indeed Roddy Doyle’s Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) Pigeon English seeks to contrast the innocence of its narrator’s reactions with the complexities of the world they inhabit. And, like Room, it depends in no small measure upon its author’s capacity to capture the rhythms of its young narrator’s voice.

Whether the voice works or not is at least partly a matter of taste: certainly to my mind it seems too writerly to ring true. Yet despite the novel’s unsentimental engagement with the realities of life on the estate, the drugs, the violence, the social breakdown, there is a deeper authenticity missing as well, the absence of which makes the book feel oddly worthy, perhaps closer in tone to a certain sort of Young Adult Fiction than a fully-formed adult novel.

That being the case it would be tempting to see Pigeon English’s inclusion as a function of its undoubted topicality. Yet I suspect its inclusion has less to do with its relevance to recent events and more to do with its stunning final pages, in which an event as devastating as it is unexpected transforms an otherwise unremarkable book into something considerably more interesting and powerful.

Of the three remaining books on the shortlist the one which most resembles what one might regard as a Booker book is undoubtedly Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. Based on an account of a boy’s encounter with a tiger on a London street in the early nineteenth century and Owen Chase’s extraordinary account of the aftermath of the sinking of the Whaleship Essex and the crew’s descent into cannibalism and murder (which also served as one of the sources for Moby Dick), it might at first blush seem to be a reasonably conventional historical novel, albeit one drawing on surprisingly confronting material.

Yet Birch’s novel is considerably less conventional than it might at first appear. For as the book leaves London behind and heads for the tropics the writing takes on a febrile, unsettling intensity, shot through with intimations of revelation and madness, even as the book circles in towards the act of violence at its heart.

But impressive as these latter sections are, the novel still struggles to mark its subject out as its own. The problem is not a lack of control, instead it is that the source material, and in particular Chase’s account is so powerful its truth cannot help but overshadow even the most effective fictional treatment.

The last two books on the shortlist, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers are both by young Canadians, and are both, by virtue of their largely American casts, fairly unusual contenders for an award reserved for Commonwealth writers.

Edugyan’s novel tells the story of a group of black jazz musicians caught up in the aftermath of the fall of Paris in 1940. It’s an interesting and original subject, not least because the differential treatment of the German-born and American members of the group suggests something of the complexity of life under German rule, and Edugyan’s rendering of the voice of the narrator, the bass player Sid, in all his bitterness and regret, is never less than impressive. And while there are a few too many sequences which feel under-dramatised, there is an integrity and intelligence to the whole it’s difficult not to respond to.

Yet to my mind it’s the deWitt novel, The Sisters Brothers, that’s the real find on the shortlist. A very contemporary reinvention of the Western novel, it tells the story of the notorious assassins, the Sisters Brothers as they set out on what will turn out to be their final mission.

Narrated by Eli, the more thoughtful of the pair, the novel is at once deadpan and oddly hallucinogenic, capturing both the randomness and violence of the brothers’ lives, and Eli’s yearning for release, not just from his brother and their life together, but from the failings of his own nature. It’s also utterly contemporary in a way none of the other books on the shortlist are, its dark humour and contained surrealism of a piece not just with the best of contemporary film and television, but with less exalted forms like the graphic novel and the comic.

More deeply though, The Sisters Brothers shows up both the conservatism and the incoherence of this year’s shortlist. Whether it deserves to win seems to me to be an open question: I enjoyed it enormously and admire many things about it. Yet it is difficult to see how a panel of judges that shortlisted it could fail to even longlist China Mieville’s similarly generically playful and protean Embassytown.

It’s a question that becomes even more vexed when one considers some of the more conventional choices that didn’t make the cut. Of course shortlists are always as much about exclusion as inclusion, but even allowing for Rimington’s inane insistence on readability as a guiding principle it is extremely difficult to understand how any intelligent reader could omit Alan Hollinghurst’s sprawling The Stranger’s Child or the conclusion to Edward St Aubyn’s dazzling Melrose cycle, At Last in favour of Snowdrops, or Michael Ondaatje’s wonderfully weightless and subtly sideways fictional memoir The Cat’s Table in favour of Pigeon English.

But in the end the shortlist is what it is, and the question is not what should win, but what will win. If I were a betting man I’d say the safe money was on Barnes, not just because the book itself is so impressive but because it feels like Barnes’ year. But if I had a few dollars to back an outsider I might put them on the deWitt or even the Birch. And while I was there I’d start winding up my righteous indignation in case Pigeon English wins. Because in the end the Booker isn’t really about the winner, it’s about the guessing game and the debate it generates, both of which it manages to deliver in spades, year after year.

Parallel importation and the future of books

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

I linked yesterday to Peter Carey’s excellent piece in The Age attacking the proposed changes to Australia’s copyright laws (I can see already I’m going to need to find a way to create some kind of second stream, or news-ticker to throw up links to articles and sites which I like without actually adding full-blown posts, but that’s another story). Since I’m working on a piece about some of these questions at the moment, they’re rather on my mind, but I thought it might be a good moment to link to several other pieces that have appeared recently, one about the Google Books settlement in the US, another by Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland from yesterday’s Crikey! about the decline of the review and the third a piece from Time about the future of publishing.

At first blush, the two topics are only tangentially related. The first, parallel importation, is a story about protecting the rights of Australian authors to manage their rights within their home territory, and about protecting Australian culture. The others are about a larger, economic and cultural transformation being driven by information technology. But I can’t help thinking they’re actually connected. Sparrow’s piece, the Time piece and the Google Books piece are all about a shift away from the print culture that has existed for the last few hundred years. This was a culture which relied upon particular reading habits, and which gave birth to the dominant cultural form of the last 150 years, the novel. One part of that culture was an economic system in which publishers controlled copyright both legally and physically by controlling the distribution and reproduction of the physical object. Yet as the experience of the music industry has demonstrated, once the physical object evaporates it becomes almost impossible to continue to control reproduction. So as the print culture of the past, and its dependence on both the modes of reading that go with it and the physical object fades, isn’t it possible the debate of parallel importation may begin to look like one of those skirmishes fought on the edge of a larger conflagration?

I’m not suggesting we should give up the fight to prevent the push by Dymocks and their crony, Bob Carr, to roll back territorial copyright becoming reality (why anyone who lives in NSW would listen to the advice of Bob Carr about anything, let alone educational or cultural questions, is completely beyond me, but we won’t go there). That’s a fight that needs to be won. But I also wonder whether it should begin to be seen in a larger context, as part of a more profound shift which will ultimately make questions about the parallel importation of physical objects a relatively minor question within an almost unrecognizable information culture.

The articles mentioned above are:

Time Magazine: Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature

Crikey: The Death of the Literary Review

The New York Review of Books: Google and the Future of Books

The Australian Society of Authors also provides this set of links to various resources about the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books, and submissions to the Inquiry (which have now closed) are available on the Productivity Commission’s website. I suggest anyone who’s interested in this question spend a few moments perusing the many, many submissions from authors and publishers.

addthis

Welcome

Welcome to my new website, City of Tongues.

As you’ll see if you poke around, I’ve assembled a fair bit of information about my novels, and I will, over time, begin to assemble some links to whatever of my work is available online (since the big media corporations buy up electronic rights for a pittance there’s less of it than you’d think). But this site isn’t about promoting my books, or about advertising my work as a reviewer and non-fiction writer. Instead I want to use it to explore ideas and ways of writing that don’t fit easily into the fairly confined framework of the print media.

I’ll be interested myself to see how often I manage to post here. I already know a lot of what I’ll be doing is posting links to things that interest (or amuse) me. But I’ll also be posting some original writing, as well as links to work of mine appearing elsewhere and information about appearances or other book-related events. I’ll try and exercise some editorial control, but not too much, since I want this site to feel capacious, and omnivorous, but basically what I’ll be doing is riffing on the things that interest me, and seeing where that leads. If that sounds good to you I’d be delighted to have you along for the ride.

addthis