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The Reader

July 14, 2010

The past weekend saw your explody correspondent on assignment in Sydney. My mission was very simple: spend time at home. Yes, I still have a Sydney home. I’m just having a very long holiday in the country. Visiting my Sydney home is always exciting. The contrast between the parental nest, less than a decade old and home to two fastidious people, and my ramshackle Victorian terrace shared currently with four other humans, two cats and one dog, is noticeable. If love, dust and animal fur were commodities, we would be rich. Very rich indeed.

We are also rich in ‘stuff’. Not the kind of ‘stuff’ that would be of interest to potential intruders. Just the kinds of crazy things that you only find in long-term sharehouses, the zany detritus of housemates of today and yesteryear: a collection of ceramic vessels in the shape of nuts; a Street Fighter II arcade game; a Nintendo 64; two turntables; a complete collection of Ratcat LPs to play on said turntables; y’know, the usual.

I, in particular, am a ‘stuff’ magnet; a failed collector. Or perhaps just a half-arsed one. I have a questionable penchant for kitsch. If Tom Filicia from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy sprung me for a segment on his new show, he’d probably label my decoration style spinster-Great-Aunt-meets-crazy-cat-lady-chic. I mean that in a good way. Vintage suitcases and hat boxes contrasted with garden gnomes; colourful resin vases juxtaposed with a large collection of snow domes; vintage paintings next to a Cuckoo clock, that kind of thing. You know, the kind of bedroom pr0n you see in Frankie magazine. Six months away from my ‘stuff’ has made me realise that some of it is superfluous though. Which makes me even more glad most of it was probably $2 from an op-shop. At the weekend I ‘cleaned’ my room, and I threw a not insignificant amount of it away.

There is one special collection that I just won’t part with though: my books. I have LOTS of them. Not collectible, valuable first editions or anything, just a metric shitload of words and pictures. I was taken aback by how much pleasure it brought me to be near them again (surviving on my ‘travel library’ has given rise to separation anxiety) and I spent some time perusing my titles, loosely categorised in my ‘modular bookshelf’ constructed with milk crates: food history; food criticism; recipes; Australian literature; art history and exhibition catalogues; architecture; zines; pulp fiction; writing; history.

Not having looked through them for a while, there were particular titles that stood out. Books that have changed my life in some way, the kind that you would give with love to a friend; books that aren’t recent, and aren’t necessarily the most well-known of their authors’ works. These books aren’t necessarily the best or ‘most important’ that I’ve ever read, but they are the kind that are joyful to read and delight the imagination. I’m not going to give them to you, but here’s a list of my top 10, in alphabetical order by author (I’m no Nick Hornby, I can’t rank things). Get thee to a library! And please leave a comment and share your favourites!

1. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

The reason I read this book was because for many years my former partner and I were obsessed with the band Augie March. The borderline creepy kind of obsessed that made us secretly believe that songwriter Glenn Richards was actually a prophet. Then they became popular, we broke up and I pretty much lost interest. Obviously they did too, because they broke up as well. Or maybe they broke up because they sensed our break-up and they couldn’t continue on. Be that as it may, Nobel Prize laureate Saul Bellow’s novel is an eternal classic. A picaresque depression era romp, readers follow Augie’s quest to find his place in the world, which at one point happens to be in Mexico where he catches lizards with a pet eagle. Because really, why not? I’m not going to lie to you, it’s pretty heavy, and it took me until the second half to get hooked, but the effort is greatly rewarded with Bellow’s rich prose and Augie’s crazy adventures.

2. Foreign Correspondence – Geraldine Brooks

Growing up in suburban Sydney, young Geraldine Brooks saw the world through the eyes of her many pen pals. Twenty years later, a foreign correspondent by profession, she rediscovered their letters and decided to track down her childhood friends, from Nazareth to New Jersey. As a child growing up in country NSW, I too wanted to be a citizen of the world, to find out how people lived in other places, and had pen pals everywhere from South Africa to Trinidad and Tobago. With the advent of the world wide web we are more connected than ever, and yet email and social media can never replace the joy of receiving a letter in the post, with its tangible clues about the author, from the paper to the handwriting and postage stamp. This beautiful memoir celebrates curiosity and empathy, and reveals a connection to place which is universal.

3. The Fat Man in History – Peter Carey

I have been known to claim that the short story is the superior literary genre, bridging poetry and prose. Anyone can write a novel; only a great author can change someone’s life in 3,000 words. I came to this conclusion after reading The Fat Man in History, Peter Carey’s first collection of short stories, which redefined my ideas about writing and fiction. A fantastical exploration of Australian people and culture, Carey seamlessly moves between the ordinary and the surreal from the first story ‘Crabs’, where a date at the drive-in turns into a dystopian nightmare. Whatever Peter Carey was on in the 1970s, I want some. Followed by a distinguished literary career.

4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

This is truly one of the most amazing and delightful books I have ever read. Chabon’s ‘magnum opus’ follows the life of Joe Kavalier, a Czech Jew who is sent to live with his cousin Sam Klayman in New York to escape persecution by the Nazis. Joe, a talented escape artist and illustrator, and Sam, addicted to comic books and a gifted storyteller and bullshit artist, create an anti-fascist superhero, The Escapist, founding one of America’s great comic book empires in the process. Comic books don’t do it for you? Me neither. Chabon masterfully draws the characters in the novel such that they feel like friends, drawing you into their fortunes and tragedies. Set against the backdrop of the horrors of World War II, the power of Joe and Sam’s collective imagination is uplifting. In summary, just read it.

5. High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

Top 5 reasons to read High Fidelity:

5. It’s the best book about pop music ever written.
4. It’s the perfect novel for anyone who’s ever had their heart broken (ie: everyone).
3. It’s one of the only novels which has an equally good film adaptation, however the novel is quintessentially British, unlike the film, which is quintessentially American (in a good way).
2. It is almost guaranteed to improve your taste in music.
1. For the ‘Top 5’ lists (eg: Rob’s Top 5 Subtitled Films; Rob’s Top 5 Side One Track One’s; Rob’s Top 5 Bands or Musicians Who Will Have To Be Shot Come The Musical Revolution).

6. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When I think of this novel, the first thing that comes to mind is Rob from High Fidelity (the film)’s summary: ‘Hey, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I’ve read books like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Love in the Time of Cholera”, and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding.’ Actually, he wasn’t kidding. Love in the Time of Cholera is totally about girls. Mostly about one in particular. It’s about an epic, lifelong romance which is mostly one-sided. Cholera also features prominently. Despite both of these things it’s hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure, exploring the different kinds of love in the world against a backdrop of the balmy climes of South America.

7. Still Life With Woodpecker – Tom Robbins

Another novel that dabbles in the surreal and the fantastic (a theme seems to be emerging), Still Life With Woodpecker is about the mystical powers of pyramids, Camel cigarette packets and people with red hair (a topical subject in Australia!) Like many of the above novels, and most other novels, films and music really, it is about how to make love stay. Tom Robbins is a literary lunatic, and a wordsmith of considerable hilarity. This is really the kind of thing that only an American could write, and I mean that in a good way.

8. Naked – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is probably one of the funniest people ever to have walked the earth. I have read just about every word he’s ever written, and this is my favourite collection of essays about his crazy upbringing and drug-addled youth. I don’t know if all this stuff actually happened, but frankly, I don’t care. LOLs ahoy!

9. The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Who’s Donna Tartt? Exactly. She’s the literary equivalent of the one-hit-wonder, and this is her hit, now available as a popular penguin. It was recommended to me by my friend Emma, one of the most interesting, intelligent and well-read people I know, so I knew that my initial skepticism was likely to be unfounded, which was indeed the case. To use a dirty cliche, it’s one of those books that you can’t put down. It begins as a kind of modern-day American Brideshead Revisited, with the protagonist Richard, a misfit student, befriending a strange cult-like group of classics students. Murder and intrigue ensue, and the implosion of the characters and their relationships is spectacular. One of the most gripping books I’ve read in recent years, and one I’ll no doubt return to when I want to be reminded that reading can just be FUN.

10. Boating for Beginners – Jeanette Winterson

Like Peter Carey, Jeanette Winterson does things with words that I never even knew were possible. This is the first book of Winterson’s I ever read, and combines words and pictures in a subversive, fantastical take on the Biblical tale of Noah and the flood. I have now read many of her books, which are unfailingly magical. This quote from the novel hints at the delights within:

A sense of social hierarchy prevented Mrs Munde from actually telling the lousy bastard to get out, so instead she began to think evil thoughts. She had once read an article on mind control, explaining that the best way to bend someone to your will was to think of a gooey mudlike substance called Cliff Richard and direct it at the object of your intent. Such were the marshmellow-suffocating properties of this image that the victim fell instantly into an undignified froth. Putty in your hands in fact. It didn’t seem to work. The stranger was insensitive as well as intrusive. Mrs Munde gave it one last go till the kitchen air was thick with Cliff Richard. The stranger suddenly made a little squeaking noise and fell sideways.
‘Stop it, stop it!’ he cried. ‘You’re pulping my brain.’
‘Well go away then,’ sulked Mrs Munde, releasing her victim, not through generosity but because she found the image too nauseating to continue.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Catie permalink
    July 14, 2010 15:40

    Felix – another blogging masterpiece! And very timely for me too. Last week I sold 350 of my precious books to Gleebooks. It broke my heart and I am still thinking

    a) I was ripped off
    b) I sold my soul
    c) that I should have paid for them to be shipped overseas. Would it have been worth the expense? Oh yes indeedy.

    Now I have 4 empty bookcases.

    Mt empty bookcases are sad, forlorn and depressing skeletons rather than full, bursting and colourful places of imagination, words and stories.

    I cant remember who said it but the following quote is one I hold dear to my broken heart.

    “A house without books is a house without soul.”

    Oh well. At least books are about a third of the price in the UK as they are here.

    Good excuse to go shopping!


    • felixexplody permalink*
      July 14, 2010 21:06

      It’s little consolation I know, but think of all the loving new homes your books will find their way into. You also have the chance to start afresh, building a whole new collection, how fun! xxx

  2. July 14, 2010 15:50

    This is great – so good to share favourites. I had a great friend called Ruth when I lived in country NSW for a little while years ago; she used to walk me through her rooms and rooms lined with bookshelves, pulling out her favourites for me to read. Always with a cigarette and a cup of tea in hand, a great combo.
    Will add this selection to my list. Have done Secret History only recently, and loved it. The pages all fell out of the spine, so it’s a bit of a mess now. A disgrace, really.
    I just have to ask, where is The Corrections??

    • felixexplody permalink*
      July 14, 2010 21:07

      I haven’t read The Corrections, but have added it to my list on your recommendation, it looks sensational! Just the kind of American drama I likey!

      • Emma, your colleague permalink
        July 15, 2010 10:21

        I loved the Corrections too. He also wrote a great collection of essays — called How To Be Alone.

  3. CecilieK permalink
    July 14, 2010 16:33

    LOLs ahoy alright! I snuck into your room one night looking for the Dexter DVD boxset and found Naked on your desk. I read the chapter titles, giggled and snuck back to my room where I laughed my way through a few more random chapters before reading the whole thing for fear of missing something. A couple nights latter like a true addict I went back looking for more. Couldnt find any though. Bum.
    Great post.
    Over and out.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      July 14, 2010 21:08

      Just wait until I send you the audiobooks!

  4. Emma, your colleague permalink
    July 14, 2010 19:15

    Hey Felix, glad you liked the Secret History. I know how you feel — I am spending my week off work moving thousands of books from the old mismatched painted and unpainted pine shelves to the new made to measure oak ones (yes, middle age has its compensations). The only ones I’ve been able to bring myself to throw out were the ones that actually fell to bits. But, OMG, the DUST! My suggestions to add to the list: AS Byatt, Possession; Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, and A Place of Greater Safety; George Eliot, Middlemarch; anything by Anthony Trollope (that’s a lot to choose from). I was sorry not to see you while you were in Sydney — next time, you are coming to dinner, okay?

    • felixexplody permalink*
      July 14, 2010 21:05

      Thanks as ever for your recommendations! I already have A Place of Greater Safety on the go. Surprisingly, two of my other favourite book-learning peeps, Mr History and Mr Hempton, didn’t care much for Wolf Hall. Whatevs. I will definitely be visiting for dinner next time (which will be soon, like in a few weeks!)

  5. July 14, 2010 20:42

    A brilliant post lovely explody.

    I have had to cull my collection twice in the last 12 months, and the most recent divesting was the most brutal. Funnily enough, the cookbooks (with the exception of a dodgy gift-with-purchase volume) all made it onto the new shelves after the last move. The little room that was left to work with is home to my favourites, including a copy of Peter Pan – a book I come back to time and time again because it reminds me to close my eyes and dream about a place where the good guys can fly and the pirates end up inside the alligator.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      July 14, 2010 21:02

      Amazing, I was leafing through my copy of Peter Pan on Sunday and thought about including it, but I wanted to steer clear of the ‘classics’ (Catcher In The Rye was another). I read Peter Pan for the first time relatively recently, and was stunned at how dark it is! It’s really a story for big kids! Beautiful.

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