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Here is my “must read” list for this Australian summer 2010.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad during the Cold War, but went to school in New York and Ohio, and has spent much of his adult life in New York City. He is the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) which won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, Absurdistan (2006), which was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, and Super Sad True Love Story (July 27, 2010). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, and Granta, to name a few.

His writing is satirical, bizarre, witty, earnest, and imaginative. You can read an excerpt from his new novel here.

In Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious and heartfelt new novel, he envisions a deliciously dark tale of America’s dysfunctional coming years—and the timeless and tender feelings that just might bring us back from the brink.

In a very near future—oh, let’s say next Tuesday—a functionally illiterate America is about to collapse. But don’t that tell that to poor Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old son of an angry Russian immigrant janitor, proud author of what may well be the world’s last diary, and less-proud owner of a bald spot shaped like the great state of Ohio. Despite his job at an outfit called Post-Human Services, which attempts to provide immortality for its super-rich clientele, death is clearly stalking this cholesterol-rich morsel of a man. And why shouldn’t it? Lenny’s from a different century—he totally loves books (or “printed, bound media artifacts,” as they’re now known), even though most of his peers find them smelly and annoying. But even more than books, Lenny loves Eunice Park, an impossibly cute and impossibly cruel twenty-four-year-old Korean American woman who just graduated from Elderbird College with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness.

After meeting Lenny on an extended Roman holiday, blistering Eunice puts that Assertiveness minor to work, teaching our “ancient dork” effective new ways to brush his teeth and making him buy a cottony nonflammable wardrobe. But America proves less flame-resistant than Lenny’s new threads. The country is crushed by a credit crisis, riots break out in New York’s Central Park, the city’s streets are lined with National Guard tanks on every corner, the dollar is so over, and our patient Chinese creditors may just be ready to foreclose on the whole mess. Undeterred, Lenny vows to love both Eunice and his homeland. He’s going to convince his fickle new love that in a time without standards or stability, in a world where single people can determine a dating prospect’s “hotness” and “sustainability” with the click of a button, in a society where the privileged may live forever but the unfortunate will die all too soon, there is still value in being a real human being.

Wildly funny, rich, and humane, Super Sad True Love Story is a knockout novel by a young master, a book in which falling in love just may redeem a planet falling apart.

 The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry arrived at Cambridge on probation: a convicted fraudster and thief, and addict, liar, fantasist and failed suicide, convinced that at any moment he would be found out and flung away.

Instead, university life offered him love, romance and the chance to stand on a stage and entertain.  He met and befriended bright young things like Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie and (after working out how to cheat the university examination system) emerges as one of the most promising comic talents in the country.

This is the intriguing, hilarious and utterly compelling story of how the Stephen the nation knows (or thinks it knows) began to make his presence felt as he took his first tentative steps in the worlds of television, journalism, radio, theatre and film.  Shameful tales of sugar, shag and champagne jostle with insights into credit cards, classic cars and conspicuous consumption, Blackadder, Broadway and the BBC.

For all its trademark wit and verbal brilliance, this is a book that is not afraid to confront the aching chasm that separates public image from private feeling.  Welcome to The Fry Chronicles, one of the boldest, bravest, most revealing and heartfelt accounts of a man’s formative years that you will ever have the exquisite pleasure of reading.

Preincarnate by Shaun Micallef

Recommended by Jennifer Byrne from ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. Here’s the blurb:

Australia’s pre-eminent comic Renaissance man turns his genius to novel writing. Having conquered television, radio, theatre and film, Shaun Micallef smashes his mighty fist onto the keyboard of his soul and produces a novel of such breathtaking brilliance that if Patrick White were alive today he’d hurl his own typewriter into the sea and start a lawn-mowing business.

Suppose you were murdered and woke up 300 years earlier in someone else’s body. Wouldn’t you put yourself in suspended animation and be re-awoken in time to prevent yourself being murdered in the first place? This is the extraordinary tale of an ordinary man in a race against and across time.

Join Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Queen Victoria, Jack the Ripper and Tom Cruise as they unravel a Masonic plot to restore James II to the throne – and in the process, perhaps destroy the Universe itself. Soul transference, time travel, cloning, space ships, Hollywood and the Loch Ness Monster all come together for the first time in one action-packed and beautifully typeset novel.

Preincarnate, Micallef’s first – and very probably only – novel, shows not only that he is the rightful heir to the mantle of White but also the unruly bastard son of Barry Humphries, Clive James and Miles Franklin (obviously they’d all been very drunk that night).

 

Life by Keith Richards

“Because that’s a man who knows how to live one” : Jennifer Byrne from ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. And ABC journalist Leigh Sales is “busting” to read it too.

People say ‘why don’t you give it up?’ I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”
— Keith Richards

A true and towering original, he has always walked his own path, spoken his own mind, and done his own thing.

Reluctant outlaw, rock ‘n’ roll’s unparalleled hellraiser, and one of the greatest guitar gods of all time, Keith Richards has forged a life that most of us can only imagine–and often envy. And amazingly he’s lived to tell about it. Now, at last, in his own words, the ultimate rock Icon gives us the definitive rock autobiography.

In LIFE, in his own raw, fierce voice, the man himself tells about life lived fast and hard in the creative hurricane–from his early days as a young boy growing up in a council estate, listening obsessively to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records, to taking the guitar to its absolute limit and joining forces with Mick Jagger to form The Rolling Stones.

With unflinching honesty, he reveals all the highs and lows of rock ‘n’ roll, from the meteoric rise to fame and the notorious drug busts to the women, drinking, and heroin addiction that made him infamous. The living legend chronicles how he created the revolutionary, high-octane riffs that defined “Gimme Shelter” and “Honky Tonk Woman,” his affair with the equally infamous Anita Pallenberg (the mother of three of his children), and the tragic death of Brian Jones. From falling in love with Patti Hansen to his tumultuous relationship with Mick, we follow Keef on the ultimate road trip we have all longed to know more about–of an unfettered, fearless, on-the-edge life lived to the fullest.

  

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy

James Ellroy’s new, and no doubt very strange, memoir. A blurb I have found:

The year was 1958. Jean Hilliker had divorced her fast-buck hustler husband and resurrected her maiden name. Her son, James, was ten years old. He hated and lusted for his mother and ‘summoned her dead.’ Three months later, she was murdered. The Hilliker Curse is a predator’s confession, a treatise on guilt and the power of malediction, and above all a cri de coeur. Ellroy single-mindedly seeks ‘atonement in women.’ He unsparingly describes his shattered childhood, his delinquent teens, his writing life, his love affairs and marriages, a nervous breakdown and the beginning of a relationship with an extraordinary woman who may just be the long-sought Her. It is a layered narrative of time and place, emotion and insight, sexuality and spiritual quest. And all of it is reported with a gut-wrenching and heart-rending candour. The Hilliker Curse is a brilliant and soul-baring revelation of self. It is unlike any memoir you have ever read before.

  

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

So many people are recommending this one.

No need to worry about spoilers with this title. Irish author Paul Murray even places the titular death at the very beginning of this vast and multi-stranded novel. Let there be no doubt: Skippy does indeed die. But it’s not as simple as that of course. How could it be in a novel that looks at a group of school children and their teachers in an elite religious school in Dublin and includes everything from string theory to fatal donut eating contests. The 600+ page book is a rollicking ride that displays some extraordinary stylistic flourishes along the way.

  

Savages by Don Winslow

A breakthrough novel that pits young kingpins against a Mexican drug cartel, Savages is a provocative, sexy, and sharply funny thrill ride through the dark side of the war on drugs and beyond.
 
Part-time environmentalist and philanthropist Ben and his ex-mercenary buddy Chon run a Laguna Beach-based marijuana operation, reaping significant profits from their loyal clientele. In the past when their turf was challenged, Chon took care of eliminating the threat. But now they may have come up against something that they can’t handle – the Mexican Baja Cartel wants in, and sends them the message that a “no” is unacceptable. When they refuse to back down, the cartel escalates its threat, kidnapping Ophelia, the boys’ playmate and confidante. O’s abduction sets off a dizzying array of ingenious negotiations and gripping plot twists that will captivate readers eager to learn the costs of freedom and the price of one amazing high. Following “the best summertime crime novel ever” (San Francisco Chronicle on The Dawn Patrol), bestselling author Winslow offers up a smash hit in the making. Savages is an ingenious combination of adrenaline-fueled suspense and true-crime reportage by a master thriller writer at the very top of his game.

  

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes is a compendium of Grann’s stories from his work as a journalist, mostly from the early 2000s.  In it you meet famed Holmes/Doyle scholar Richard Lancelyn Green and what he may or may not have done for love of the brilliant detective and Frédéric Bourdin, often called the human chameleon for his ability to transform himself into teenagers.

Grann has made unique choices in the people he chronicles for these stories and he draws the reader in to their complicated lives.  Green, for instance, lived and breathed Doyle and Holmes and through Grann’s storytelling you can almost enter into the mania.  Its an esoteric world with adherents of Holmes who disregard Doyle and even question his authorship.  
In a more conventional story of gangland, Grann details the rise and partial fall of the Aryan Brotherhood. For those who might not know it, the AB is a prison gang who killed, stole and intimidated even those charged with guarding them. They began as a white supremacist group, bands of white prisoners united against those of other colors.  They weren’t satisfied with this and soon controlled drugs and prostitution and power just like their “free” world counterparts did.
 
These stories are by turns entrancing, enlightening, mysterious and sad.  Read the story of  Trial by Fire, the story of Todd Willingham who was put to death by the state of Texas for the murder by fire of his children.  Only did he do it?  Was he indeed guilty?Grann doesn’t always draw conclusions but he does leave the reader with something to think about.

  

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, won rave reviews through its artful and humorous look at office life. The book was honored with the PEN/Hemingway Award, and announced the arrival of a fresh, young talent on the scene. Most writers would be tempted to follow such a success with a similar recipe for their second novel. But not Ferris, who decided that, instead of tinkering with the formula, he ought to turn it upside down. In The Unnamed, his follow-up effort, he presents a dark, unsettling personal tragedy that is a world away from the élan of his award-winning debut book.

Tim Farnsworth has a peculiar medical affliction, one that is so rare that it lacks even a name. He periodically experiences an irresistible urge to walk… and walk and walk, until he collapses from exhaustion. When he awakes, he is lucid and again in control of his actions, but before long—and often at the least favorable moments—his legs again take control of him.

Harbour by John Ajvide Lindqvist

A Scandi crime writer; it looks fabulously creepy.

On a winter trip home to the island of Domarö, Anders and Cecilia take their six-year-old daughter Maja across the ice to visit the lighthouse at Gåvasten.
And Maja disappears. Leaving not even a footprint in the snow.

Two years later, alone and more or less permanently drunk, Anders returns to Domarö to confront his despair. He slowly realises that Maja’s disappearance is not the first inexplicable tragedy to strike the islanders. Nor is everyone telling him all they know; even his own mother, it seems, is keeping secrets.

And what is it about the sea? There’s something very bad happening on Domarö. Something that involves the sea itself.

As he did with Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, John Ajvide Lindqvist serves up a masterful cocktail of suspense laced with bizarre humour and a narrative that barely pauses for breath. Harbour is also a heartbreaking study of loss and guilt and a novel whose epic climax pits the infinite force of nature against the implacable love of a father for his child.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

From The Independent‘s book review:

Enniscorthy in the 1950s. Young Eilis, like many others of her generation for whom opportunities at home are severely limited, makes – or accepts – the difficult decision to migrate to US. After an excruciating journey by sea, she arrives in New York to a life that slightly exceeds her expectations. There is the opportunity to educate herself; there’s also romance, in the shape of Italian-American Tony, whose intentions are, after he seduces her, entirely honourable. But just when everything seems to be going right, there’s a death in the family, and Eilis’ loyalties are tested: the call of blood ties becomes the summons of homeland. Again, she has to travel.  

Colm Tóibín evokes mid-20th-century New York not so much by an accumulation of pictorial detail as in a telling use of dialogue and situation. At times, particularly when Eilis discovers her new city, makes friends and falls in love, we’re reminded of a vaguely left-wing novel of the pre-McCarthy years; at others, Brooklyn is more like a sly, mid-Atlantic appropriation of the romantic novels of Kate O’Brian or Maura Laverty – about Irish girls travelling to pre-Civil War Spain in the 1930s, falling in love, and going home heartbroken.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Craig Silvey’s much-awaited second novel is very different from the elegiac Rhubarb – but it’s every bit as good, if not better. And, like Rhubarb’s play on the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby, with its blind, achingly lonely protagonist of the same name, Jasper Jones draws on a range of literary and pop culture references, from Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird to Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly.

It’s a riveting tale, set in 1960s small-town Australia, about a young, bookish adolescent who is drawn into events surrounding the grim disappearance of a local girl when the solitary Jasper Jones, a rebellious mixed-race older boy (in the town’s eyes, ‘a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant’) comes asking for his help. Alongside the mystery of the missing girl is a forensic examination of the small town of Corrigan, a place beset by undercurrents of racism and fear of the unknown.

‘I think Jasper Jones speaks the truth in a community of liars,’ says Charlie. Indeed, nearly everyone here has something to hide, including Charlie’s father, an Atticus Finch doppelganger who believes books are the font of all wisdom (especially Mark Twain), and his caustic, unhappy mother, whose glare ‘could make a eunuch out of Errol Flynn’. Some of the most gripping sequences involve Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey Lu and his family, Vietnamese refugees who bear the brunt of burgeoning anger about the war. Deeply thoughtful, remarkably funny and playful, this is a gloriously Australian book about outsiders and secrets (both ordinary and extraordinary).

Read Tony Birch’s interview with Craig Silvey.

Great House by Nicole Krauss

For twenty-five years, a reclusive American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young Chilean poet who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police; one day a girl claiming to be the poet’s daughter arrives to take it away, sending the writer’s life reeling. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers, among her papers, a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer slowly reassembles his father’s study, plundered by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944.
 
Connecting these stories is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or have given it away. As the narrators of Great House make their confessions, the desk takes on more and more meaning, and comes finally to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared. Great House is a story haunted by questions: What do we pass on to our children and how do they absorb our dreams and losses? How do we respond to disappearance, destruction, and change? Nicole Krauss has written a soaring, powerful novel about memory struggling to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss.

 

Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre

On Dominic Knight’s list for best book read this year.

A lot of people read DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, which won the 2003 Man Booker prize. Not many read his second, Ludmila’s Broken English, which came in for a concerted pasting from the critics. Much therefore hangs on his third, Lights Out in Wonderland.

Gabriel wakes up in rehab and decides to die. But before this, he must find one last drink, a bacchanal of unprecedented debauchery and nimbus. After all, he says, ‘happiness not derived from intoxicants is false’. And so philosophy and ennui drive this odyssey from London to Tokyo to Nelson Smuts: the swaggering stalwart of inebriants. Alas the night is overshadowed by lethal fugu ovaries landing Smuts in the slammer and whooshes Gabriel to Berlin. He’s determined to save his friend, prove his mortality and close the show with a bang.

We end up in Wonderland. Pierre’s linguistic dexterity spins his characters along tightropes of ecstasy and woe until we realise that this is a master storyteller playing with us at whim. There are footnotes and recipes littered throughout the prose that are best consumed with a second reading. The hilarity and pace of each page is too addictive for frills and there is already a banquet that highlights the banalities of life. It sparkles with the clarity of cocaine and daylight and, I suspect, a virginal hum that’s quite intoxicating.

 

The Family Law by Benjamin Law

Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humorist. Join him as he tries to answer some puzzling questions: Why won’t his Chinese dad wear made-in-China underpants? Why was most of his extended family deported in the 1980s? Will his childhood dreams of Home and Away stardom come to nothing? What are his chances of finding love?

Hilarious and moving, The Family Law is a linked series of tales from a wonderful new Australian talent.

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