I was on the sixth window of the glittery 2014 advent calendar when thoughts turned to the buying of presents. I realised that I was already well ahead. Some of the best books recently released for Christmas, I had already devoured. What’s more, I had tackled some mature works, some mildly obscure stuff and sundry entertainments that might make good gifts or beach reading for those soft-headed, leisurely days ahead.
I approached the venerable publisher of this site with the proposition of a short, summary piece of seasonal literary fare to illuminate the uninspired gift buyer in us all. At first, her intimidating PA, Lucrezia sneered at my entreaties but persistence paid off and in time, a curt email was sent from the Booklover IV super yacht, currently cruising the Maldives. It read: ‘If you must.’ Thus encouraged, I present…
the Eclectic, Literary, Just Plain Interesting or Quite Entertaining Christmas Book Buyers List.
Heading the list is the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Like me, you may be a little reluctant to read again of the horrific suffering of prisoners-of-war under the Japanese in WWII. This is so well done though and tightly linked to personal family experience that any reservations you may have will be overwhelmed. The war is central but the story of lives and love disrupted is almost as potent. Mr. Flanagan was perhaps relieved to miss out on another award having been shortlisted for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The (unfairly, in my view) nominated passage describes an encounter between the main character, Dorrigo Evans, and his uncle’s wife that to me evokes a mixture of eroticism and whatever its exact opposite might be, that typified sex in South Australia in the 1940s.
Okay, after the Japanese let’s deal with the Nazis (festive or what!). The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis is one of his best books and despite covering familiar Holocaust horror, brilliantly recreates the mediocrity (and proximity to us all) of human evil. Camp Commandant Paul Doll becomes increasingly exasperated with the demands of the Nazi hierarchy. He is a middle manager cursing a head office that understands nothing of the practical difficulties of mass murder. Not all of the characters are as well conceived but when Amis writes this brilliantly, who cares?
Now for a change of tone. I read Indonesia etc. by Elizabeth Pisani in Malaysia because I saw someone reading it at an adjacent table at Muntri Mews in George Town. The New Yorker had just reviewed it favourably and what a read it proved to be. For Australians in particular and the world in general, our ignorance of Indonesia is appalling. This vast, diverse country of 240 million people, speaking 719 languages (!) should be a constant source of fascination and this marvelously knowledgeable book explains why. The author lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and travels through several of the extraordinarily diverse 13,466 islands with an open mind and a generous spirit towards the people that she meets. The ‘etc.’ of the title refers to Indonesia’s declaration of independence from the Dutch in 1945. Here it is in full: ‘We the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible’.
Moving right along – PD James or in full: Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, died on 27 November 2014. Having never read anything by her, I dipped into one of the series of books centred on the character, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. The Black Tower is an absorbing mystery in an exquisite, slightly antique prose style (every three pages or so I had to look up a word and every time it was the most apposite choice of word). There is a television adaptation of her book, Death Comes to Pemberley and combined with the recent death of Baroness James, a renewed interest in her work is predicted.
For Richer, For Poorer: A million-Dollar Love Affair with Poker by Victoria Coren helps you brush up your Texas Hold’em skills and enjoy the breezy humour of Victoria Coren as she works her way to winning the European Poker Tour. Victoria is the daughter of the remarkable Alan Coren (late Editor of ‘Punch’), sister of Times food critic Giles Coren and spouse of David Mitchell and as funny as any of them. There’s a great vignette in the book, where she watches a whisky-affected Martin Amis (see above) playing challenge games of Scrabble in a hotel lobby for 50 pounds a game and can’t believe that he’s missed an obvious word. But he’s Martin Amis!
Now to Victoria’s husband, David Mitchell and Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse. This is a collection of columns from The Observer in the UK. Almost all of which are brilliantly funny and skewer the heart of so many modern idiocies. Quotation is impossible. Just read it all.
Back to Australia with The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. This is a big fat book stuffed with erudition and insight. Widely known but not often read. There are elements of the convict origins that still thread through modern Australia: the muttered rebellion but knee-jerk conformism to colonial hierarchy by convicts and aspirational middle-classes alike, enforced by the lash or by social censure; contempt for aborigines; fear of foreigners and love of a mythologised mother country and an acceptance of mediocrity in all things. By contrast, Hughes is the opposite of mediocrity: fiercely knowledgeable, a masterful prose writer and by the way, uncle to Lucy Turnbull (married to Malcolm).
Stocking-filler alert! The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. A jolly romp of a detective novel with some occult stuff thrown in. Nicely written, entertaining. Recommended for the beach.
The Firm by John Grisham. This was mentioned on Jennifer Byrnes’s Book Club on the ABC as a potentially great beach read that hadn’t been selected by the show’s producers. Dutifully, I went off and read it. It’s a bit dated (oh for a mobile phone! ‘state of the art photo copiers’!) but still accurate in its depiction of corporate corruption, slightly mitigated by the mafia influence as though corporate criminals need something unquestionably evil and can’t quite get it together all by themselves. A fun plot that deserves some sand between the pages.
Finally. Robert Dessaix. Anything he has published. Night Letters, Corfu, Arabesques, Twilight of Love etc. and now his latest: What Days Are For. Mr. Dessaix writes about a glittering everything suspended on a skeletal plot or on nothing at all and for me, entrances on the initial reading and on every rereading thereafter. He has an oblique, descant view of life that is surprising and true. What can you say about a Russian literature aficionado and Turgenev expert from Lane Cove who writes deeply and with a brisk, lightness of style that welcomes the reader to his uniquely erudite and tangentially spiritual view. Buy them all.
 I apologise to any South Australians still alive, that had sex in the 1940s
Note from site publisher: There is greater chance of finding the author of this piece on a yacht than I.