Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ten Books That Will Change Your Life

I thought I'd make sure that the last blog post didn't come across as too pedantic (and because boychik tells me people like to be told what to think), I thought I'd provide a list of 10 books to change your life. Let me begin by making it clear that this isn't going to be a list of self-help books. I'm not a huge fan of the plethora of self-help books which will tell you how to do everything and anything better (and I'm sure there are plenty of lenses out there to provide that information). To me, the only kind of self-help that really works is something that begins and ends with you. That isn't to say that books don't make excellent tools, or that you won't find advice that it worthwhile in a self-help book. However, for me, real life changing is the kind of epiphany that comes when you start to understand something about yourself. And the best books for inspiring that in me have always been fiction. Why is that? Probably because the best kind of fiction opens a door -- providing words that weren't there before to allow me to see my world in a broader light. The best kind of fiction is scary, intense, beautiful, funny, but above all, it's about the reader, about humanity, about the way in which we choose to live. It doesn't teach through prescription. It teaches by taking us there -- by showing rather than telling -- by allowing us the insight of experience. So herewith is my list of 10 life-changing books. Most of them are novels of one sort or another. Most of them (but not all) have won great critical acclaim. I've probably (definitely) left something important out. Forgive me for that. There are great books coming out all the time, and I haven't read everything (but I'm working on it!).

  • Ulysses by James Joyce What else. Everytime I read this I find something new, and am inspired to write more, to explore more, to think about my own life (and my family) in broader terms. This is the book of books. It isn't easy, but unlike a quick easy "airport novel" or "beach read" it keeps repaying the effort of reading.
  • Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco Forget about Dan Brown. When it comes to the mysteries inherent in religious orders like the Templars or the Rosiecrucians, Eco is impossible to beat. Add a dash of literary panache, and more erudition than you ever encountered in one renaissance man, and a great, engaging story that raises as many questions as it answers. I've read it three times and that just isn't enough.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Okay, this isn't fiction. It isn't self-help either, but by god Bryson has a way with words. He's a true master at turning science into poetry and illuminating the absolute beauty, mystery and richness inherent in the universe around us. I wrote a whole poetry book after reading this I was so inspired.
  • Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan You need to read this one in full colour. This is a big, funny, sprawling, heady, monster of a novel masquerading as historical fiction. It's not. It's literature pure and simple, and will leave you breathless at its alchemy. Also a rocking good story set in a Tasmania prison.
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey Does this one surprise you? It won a Booker Prize, and well deserved too. I read it during my first labour, so was a little emotional, but it was so beautifully written I only stopped when the contractions were 3 minutes apart! Despite having a wonderful cast, a great director, and a lovely setting, the film was awful, but the book is magnificent. A true testimony to the literary power of one of our greatest modern authors. Reads like a romance. But its about so much more than this one relationship -- it's about real love, about loss, about hunger and addiction. All of Carey's work is good, but this one is beyond good.
  • History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes Like Carey, Barnes is one of our modern literary masters. Everything he's written is worth reading, but this book is life-changing. Like every book on the list here, it's very funny, and often challenging, innovative, and linguistically rich. The book works on multiple levels -- and tells a number of disparate stories (including Noah's Ark from the point of view of a woodworm) which come together in a kind of firework display of meaning.
  • Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood or maybe The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale, or Alias Grace. But I really liked Orxy and Crake because, despite being a distopia, bordering on sci fi (which I normally wouldn't like), there's so much here about who we are now. Also I couldn't stop laughing, but it was never ridiculous, and always moving, intense and scary.
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie but this could also be The Satanic Verses or The Moor's Last Sigh. Rushdie is so heady -- his work is full of sensual, almost purple richness -- the characters speak a language which is near made up and the scenes border on magical realism, but always rooted in great, almost epic heroines and heroes, and a kind of Bollywood humour. Always, always, the work is underscored by a great love for humanity in all its quirky freedoms.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Picking and choosing now that I'm near the end of my list is hard -- there are so many good books out there. But Marquez' work is so distinctive. In many ways, it follows Rushdie's in illuminating just how vast the human potential is. But the sensuality is of a very different kind. More fruit and less spice.
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens Dickens is a wildcard here and deliberately so, but there's something so modern about Great Expectations. Perhaps it's the maturity of his narration, or the way in which the Magwitch's pain is tranformed into something glittery. Like the other books on this list, the humanism, the love of the quirky, and the absolute clarity of the writing to say things it never said before makes all of Dickens worth reading (but I have a particular fondness for this book -- you could also check out Peter Carey's Jack Maggs as a follow up).

Of course there are many more life changing books out there, and I've just thought of 10 more while pausing to sip my coffee. But don't just think of truth in terms of 'what really happened'. Truth is something much deeper -- something that only art can get at. Great literature is art.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Best-Smeller' Lists: Should You Turn Your Nose Up At 'Top-Ten' Abuse?

As a book reviewer, I’m always being asked to rate my top 10 books for the year, for the century, for all time. People seem to have an insatiable desire to read about top lists. For example, the Telegraph has just published a list of the 25 most influential books in world literature.

In The Guardian this week, John Curran gives us his top 10 Agatha Christie Mysteries. The British periodical even has a whole page of top 10s, including top 10 psychological journeys, top 10 books about outsiders, women poets, short novels, books set in Japan, even smelly books.

It isn’t only The Guardian, though it does it particularly well, using well respected authors to create lists that tie in with their own genres and themes. For years Mark Flanagan, over at About, has been creating a range of literary lists from his annual top ten books of that year, to the top ten best novels of the century, top ten contemporary authors or top ten holiday books. The ABC has the Australian top ten, the New York Times does it every year (as does almost everyone else), and Barnes & Noble does it every day. There’s even a book solely devoted The Top Ten. (How about top ten books about top ten lists and so on and on?)

It’s easy enough to come up with a list, and as an author, I could be forgiven for desperately wanting to be included on one of these lists (with the exception of most smelly), as I’m sure they’re excellent for sales. But are they worthwhile? Do they have a function other than to guide readers towards specific books in bookstores? I can see the pros and cons. On the pro side, they call attention to what ought to be quality-based work in a crowded market. Readers who aren’t sure what to buy can use this as a guide, especially if they trust or have similar taste to the compiler. Just print, bring into Borders, and bang, your Christmas shopping is done.

On the con side, any list is both subjective (like, I have to admit, a review), and exclusionary. My top ten is not only limited to what has come into my view, but also limited by the time and place in which I pull the list together, and by the need to limit the number I choose. Even when I have created such lists (and I have to confess that I even have one of those “so you’d like to..” lists on Amazon), there are always great books I’ve just forgotten to include. And there must be thousands of wonderful books I’ve never heard of, or heard of but never read.

That said, I’m sure the next time I’m asked what I think were the best books of 2009, or the ten best young adult books, or the best literary fiction of all time, I’ll be ready and eager to share my list. I may also go and have a look at The Guardian’s list of lists the next time I’m looking for new authors to read – after all, if it’s good enough for Cormac McCarthy, it’s probably good enough for me. But my list won’t be comprehensive. None are.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Song Lyrics and Semantics

I just can’t make it work. “Slowly walking down the hall/ Faster than a cannonball.”

It isn’t that I don’t like Oasis. I do. The words may be a little clichéd, but surely that doesn’t matter in a song lyric. What does matter, at least to me, and maybe only to me, is that they work semantically. You just can’t walk slowly, faster than a cannonball.

Or maybe these two lines aren’t meant to go together. But surely “Someday you will find me/Caught beneath the landslide/In a champagne supernova in the sky” is meant to be listened to as a single image.

I like the imagery. Caught beneath the landslide is nice. So is a champagne supernova in the sky. I can picture both of them vividly. But not together.

The landslide is geographic and earthbound. The supernova is astronomical and as Gallagher rightly says, ‘in the sky.’ Perhaps they were inspired by U2’s “Elevation:” “Going down, excavation/High and high in the sky.”

“Supersonic” isn’t quite as bad, but it comes close: “I know a girl called Elsa/She's into Alka Seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train.”

I'm trying to imagine sniffing Alka Seltzer through a cane (never mind the train) but it isn't working.

My husband tells me I’m just being stupid. No one listens to song lyrics. He even got angry when I suggested that Motörhead’s "Killed by Death" was a terrible tautology.

Unless, I mused, while his face reddened, it’s a personified death – like the grim reaper.

“Stop it!” he shouted. "It’s rock and roll, not poetry."

But the words are still there in front of me. I’m not talking about songs which are acknowledged as stupid.

This isn’t a blog about "Muskrat Love," "Afternoon Delight," "Kung Foo Fighting," or anything by Bobby Goldsboro. I’m writing about respected songwriters who can turn a phrase with the best of them.

Maybe it is me. Maybe people don’t even notice lyrics like “the heat was hot” (at least it makes sense), or “And cause never was the reason for the evening/Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.”

Hang on, I get it. It’s drugs. I don’t do enough to dull my sense of semantics. Otherwise I might find “an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that's abandoned” profound rather than confusing.

I know Kate Bush doesn’t do drugs though, because she says so. But my kids were listening to her latest the other day when they started laughing hysterically. "What’s so funny?" I asked, looking for camaraderie. She’s singing, rather seriously, about a washing machine, they managed to get out, between tears and hiccups.

Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Get that dirty shirty clean
Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Make those cuffs and collars gleam
Everything clean and shiny
Washing machine
Washing machine
Washing machine (Mrs Bartolozzi)

It isn’t just the lyrics. It’s Kate’s extended soprano during the chorus that gives the song an almost operatic feel. That’s obviously the impact of motherhood on her.

Or how about Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash?”

“I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed, and I made it on over to that million dollar bash.”

Wouldn’t want to forget the mashed spuds now – the perfect party accessory.

I like Dylan. Even more than I like Oasis. And many of his lyrics are great, so I suppose a few duds are inevitable.

But what about “Follow me, don't follow me/I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush?" What about “Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you?"

Like Dylan, both REM and Coldplay are lauded for their excellent lyrics. But what's the relationship between spines and Orange Crush (presumably the soft drink). The lights guiding bones are presumably something like plane landing lights, and I can see them guiding home, but igniting bones? They must be pretty hot.

Maybe, as my husband keeps telling me, I’d better stop listening so carefully. The point isn’t to make sense, he says, and who cares about mixed metaphors? You’ve got to take the music as a complete package. Its purpose is to make people dance, sing along. So sharrup.

I’d better do like he says. Otherwise I’ll get put in the corner with a Roxette CD: “Walking like a man, hitting like a hammer, she's a juvenile scam. Never was a quitter. Tasty like a raindrop, she's got the look.”

Give me back Oasis, please. It’s only rock and roll, right?

Reprinted from blogcritics

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writers Helping Writers: On the Value of Literary Friendships

As the Editor-in-Chief for the website The Compulsive Reader, I get about a hundred review requests a week. Of these, maybe one will be accepted. Not because ninety nine of those aren’t good books, but because we simply don’t have the people power to read and review everything out there. And there is so much out there. How do we filter? For me, I try to filter on quality. If a book strikes me as being, in some way, extraordinary, I’ll try to take it on, even if I’m already overloaded (and I am; I am). All writers are my ‘fellow writers’. We are all plying our trade, and most of us doing it in conjunction with a day job, families, and a ton of other commitments. I want to help everyone. But I can’t. Every now and then, someone I “bump into” online will strike a personal chord with me. We’ll ‘bond’ in a virtual sense, and keep up the conversation, continuing to support each other’s work, and communicate our triumphs and losses. I think you could call it friendship, though perhaps not quite in the conventional sense. When the time comes when one of my friends needs a review, back cover quote, some advice, or help with promotion, I’ll be there. Why? Isn’t this a kind of literary favouritism? Does it really help? I believe it does. Here’s why.

A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human. We can’t help everyone. But we can, and should, help those that we care about. It’s the bedrock of our social existence. Some might call it nepotism, especially if family is involved (and I have a rather artistic family – we all support one another), but I agree with author Adam Bellow (In Praise of Nepotism, Doubleday, 2003) that nepotism, when combined with meritocratic principles, can be a positive force.

According to UNESCO, there were just under half a million books published in English in 2005. Of these books, a large number of titles won’t sell more than 100 copies. There are many more books on the market than book buyers. Most book buyers will purchase books based on familiar names. Emerging authors need all the help they can get to simply get their titles noticed amongst the hype and names that dwarf them, but few of us can afford the publicity powerhouse that big names get as part of their publishing packages. Supporting one another is one way to help redress the already negatively skewed balance.

As professional writers, we treat what we review professionally, regardless of whether it was written by someone we know or a stranger. So when I review a book by a friend, I review it in the same objective (as objective as any book review can be – we always bring in our tastes, biases, and perspectives) way that I would review any book. I don’t always give my friends glowing reviews. It isn’t easy, but I have occasionally had to refuse a review, or have had to publish a review which is negative. That happens. Friendship doesn’t mean I compromise my integrity, otherwise my review or support would have no value. What it does mean is that I’m willing to give your book some priority in my crowded stack.

Writing can be a solitary occupation, but promoting a book isn’t. Being in a position to help someone whose work is superb is inherently gratifying. We are all disciples at the altar of the well written word, and promoting excellence wherever you find it is a privilege. That said, the production of my first novel, Sleep Before Evening, found me in a position where lots of people were needed to help me get the word out. I got a tremendous amount of support, and in this dog-eat-dog world where money and celebrity often rules over quality, that support helped me as much emotionally as it did in terms of my book’s success.

Writing novels is a mug’s game, at least in the beginning. It can be immensely gratifying, but it is also painful, hard work. Helping one another is also part of the game. Without the support and community of like-minded authors, there’s simply no way to get one’s foot in that tiny crack of the promotional door. The more we help others, the more we help ourselves. Social networking is the hottest buzz around for writers, and the kinds of networks we develop, with people whose work we admire, helps define who we are. So why not offer your writerly support to someone today. Offer to do a review, host their guest blog, go out and buy the book of someone whose writing you admire, or just mention their work in your blog. It’s the kind of good deed that will come back to you.

(reprinted from

Friday, September 4, 2009

A poem for all you fathers out there (in the UK and Aus at least)

Virtually enhanced

take one unshaven

effort laden

mulishly right, but rarely listened to

sleep deprived

alpha male

comfortable (only just)

in the corner (for now)

bepapered, slippered

classic father figure

enhanced by terror

oxytocin (yes, men too)

pushing out serotonin

(love, if you will)

from the prefrontal cortex

down the sliding pond

log chopping

arms of care

add (slowly)

ascorbic acid, genetic modification

cybernetic implants

and evolution

the inevitable virtual future

we’re all leaning into

if only we can find the app

all that biological programming

down the khazi

of history

Homo Superior

I liked you best the old way