Seven months’ worth of one-line book reviews. Go!

All the fiction I’ve read in the first half of 2018, reviewed for you here in a series of pithy one-liners. Well, they all fit on one line when I wrote them in Word.

Also available in free audiobooks from Librivox.

Entire series of 8 Anne of Green Gables novels, L. M. Montgomery

This series is classic and never fails to bring me joy. You don’t like it, you have no soul.

 

 

Dustfall, Michelle Johnston

Reviewed this for WAtoday here, so I won’t repeat, but an awesome read by a local Perth author.

 

 

 

 

 

Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Sequel to Mr Mercedes. Enjoyed almost as much. Fun, quick crime novel, but not my favourite King.

 

 

 

 

Extinctions, Josephine Wilson

Exquisitely written tale of ageing and renewal. Perth author, won Miles Franklin, Dorothy Hewett awards.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan

Family saga that vividly evokes womens’ challenging lives in rural Tasmania in 1900s. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

Survival, Rachel Watts

Sci-fi novella: evil corporations rule world after Bible-style Flood. Reviewed here. Perth author!

 

 

 

 

 

You Belong Here, Laurie Steed

Sensitively told story of family love and lies, that brings Perth suburbs to life on page. Local author!

 

 

 

 

 

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

Begins world-famous series by Italian recluse about hard life in 1950s Naples. Wasn’t sure I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

Part II. Definitely more readable than first. Began to see why global audience found so compelling.

 

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King

Father-son team! Classic King. Huge book, authentic characters in wild plot. Flew greedily through it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)

Ghosts bring up human boy in a graveyard. Beautiful, whimsical, touching. A must. Read by Gaiman.

 

 

 

 

 

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Classic Austen. Clever and full of dry wit. So relatable: idiots back then are just like idiots now.

 

 

 

 

 

NW, Zadie Smith

A very literary style for Smith. Even as a devoted fan I found it slightly hard going, but worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Highly enjoyable like all Austen, but not my favourite plot. Some quirky breaks through “fourth wall”.

 

 

 

 

 

Body Double, Tess Gerritsen

Rizzoli & Isles crime series. Like a drug. I inhaled this, four hours later needed more. Then, got more.

Vanish, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Nice and graphic, these novels, very easy to read, and Rizzoli and Isles good characters.

The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen

See above. Sick of Tess Gerritsen after this. Crave meatier crime, like Val McDermid or Ian Rankin.

 

Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox

Reviewed here. A funny and highly readable first novel by a Perth author.

 

 

 

 

Now reading… Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Stay tuned! 

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The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

Em and Stu do America part 15: Cascadia, home of The Goonies, Twin Peaks and The Shining

Reading time: 5 minutes

Cascadia. As magical as it sounds. This region of loosely defined boundaries, otherwise known as ‘the northwest’, has inspired generations of filmmakers with its endless vistas of mist-shrouded pine forests, its jagged, wild coastlines and the chilling remoteness of its snowcapped mountain ranges.

The drive to Twin Peaks locations: you really could not ask for more atmosphere than this.

The drive to Twin Peaks locations: you really could not ask for more atmosphere than this.

Our national parks tour was drawing to a close, time growing short and the weather dropping below freezing. But we couldn’t leave Colorado without a visit to Estes Park: home of The Stanley Hotel. This grand old hotel fired up the imagination of Stephen King when he and his wife were its only guests one night, and The Shining, one of the world’s most famous horror stories, was born.

There was a Halloween masked ball on while we visited - that just seems like flirting with danger to me!

Was a Halloween masked ball on while we visited – seems like tempting fate to me…

Stanley Kubrick, however, chose the Timberline Lodge in Oregon to film at in his adaptation, one famously disliked by King (also disliked, less famously, by me). That version, which departed radically from the text of a complex and emotionally truthful novel, prompted King to write the teleplay for another version, a three-part miniseries. This version is lesser-known and hard to find (we bought it here). But it is excellent and worth tracking down, and was filmed at the Stanley, showing off its creepy beauty to full extent. So imagine how excited we were to visit!

Next on the Nerds’ Tour of Cascadia comes Twin Peaks locations! The real home of Twin Peaks is the Snoqualmie Valley in Washington state, but budget travellers should note it’s more affordable to stay in Cle Elum, about an hour’s drive out. The drive was laden with atmosphere – mists, snowy pine forests, fall colour, rain – but the downside was that fog and cloud were obscuring the Twin Peaks themselves. Not to worry – we had a bunch of locations to visit that day…

The bridge Ronette walks over, injured and traumatised, in the unforgettable opening scenes of Twin Peaks.

The bridge Ronette walks over, injured and traumatised, in the unforgettable opening scenes of Twin Peaks, episode 1.

It’s the Sheriff’s station! Now a driving school.

They keep the Twin Peaks car out the front of the driving school!

The Double R Diner, which is Twede’s Cafe IRL. Interior is virtually identical to the show, which is really cool, and en route to the restrooms is a wall full of cool filming photos and news clippings. Very worth the visit, but unfortunately Coop was being a little overgenerous in his estimation of the cherry pie. Order coffee and feast your eyes on the decor.

These were all awesome, and there are more locations you can visit as well, but the highlight was definitely Snoqualmie Falls, which features in the series’ opening credits. They are overlooked by the Salish Lodge and Spa, which in the series is the Great Northern Hotel, and in real life has a restaurant not only with this incredible view but also excellent food. Not cheap, but totally worth it; if you’re on a day trip and tossing up between lunch at Twede’s and here, choose the Lodge.

The iconic Snoqualmie Falls, with Salish Lodge visible at the top.

The iconic Snoqualmie Falls, with Salish Lodge visible at the top.

The valley was breathtaking, ablaze with fall colour, but we had to move on; we had a date with Stu’s parents in Vancouver and so we drove straight there, skipping Seattle (I know! Next time, Seattle!)

After a relaxing few days off from our breakneck pace we drove south again from Vancouver – and only later discovered there was a new Twin Peaks-themed bar in Vancouver called The Black Lodge. Damn it! In order to make it down the coast on schedule, we were, unfortunately, also obliged to blow off Portland (I know! Next time!)

Effective sightseeing requires careful preparation.

Effective sightseeing requires careful preparation.

No matter – nothing can dampen the excitement of a pilgrimage to the home of my most favouritest movie in all the world, The Goonies. For those unforgivably ignorant, Steven Spielberg’s 1985  cult classic follows the story of the Goonies – a lovable bunch of nerd kids – who search for pirate treasure in an effort to save their homes in Astoria from foreclosure. The excitement began immediately, as the bridge we drove over into Astoria is the one seen in the distance from Mikey’s house, in the opening scenes.

LOOKITS THE BRIDGE.

LOOK IT’S THE BRIDGE.

Foggy and rainy, the weather was perfect for atmosphere, the movie having reportedly been filmed in the fall to capture the kids’ sombre moods at the prospect of losing their homes. Astoria turned out unexpectedly beautiful, a misty fishing town of pretty Victorian homes snuggled into hillsides, a working fishing pier and lots of nice restaurants and little shops for tourists – the economy pretty much runs off Goonies tourism, as far as I can tell.

They don't like people snooping up close, but you can see Mikey and Brand's house up on the hill.

The owners understandably don’t like people snooping up close, but you can see Mikey and Brand’s house up on the hill.

We prepped with a screening the night before (sorry, Stu) and in the morning set off for a full day of Goonies location visits…

 

The former jail where the opening scene of The Goonies was shot, is now the Oregon Film Museum. It's ostensibly devoted to all the hundreds of films made in Oregon (including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Stand By Me, Point Break, Free Willy, Batman Forever, The Ring, Into the Wild) but really it's an ode to all things Goonies.

The former jail where the opening scene of The Goonies was shot, is now the Oregon Film Museum. It’s ostensibly devoted to all the hundreds of films made in Oregon (including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stand By Me, Point Break, Free Willy, Batman Forever, The Ring, Into the Wild) but really it’s an ode to all things Goonies.

Bit excited.

Bit excited.

Inside!

Inside!

 

Lol. I had to include this.

Lol. I had to include this.

The working fishing pier from the opening credits of The Goonies, where Stef helps her dad sort crabs, and Data ends up falling into a garbage can while testing his latest invention.

The bowling alley, scene of Chunk’s first line over spilled milkshake: “Ah, shit!”

The museum where Mikey’s dad, hard at work, waves to the kids as they set off.

We also visited Mouth’s house and the store Rosalita exits in the opening credits, now a cute cafe and gift store. But the most exciting part of our tour was the next day, as we drove south out of Astoria. Thirty miles south lie Cannon Beach, where the car chase was filmed, and Ecola State Park, where the kids bike to the restaurant that marks the entrance to the underground tunnels where the rest of the movie is filmed.

“The lighthouse, the rock, and the restaurant all fit the doubloon!” We couldn’t get to the angle where Mikey shows us this, because the cliffs are unstable and roped off, but you can see the lighthouse behind me in the distance!

The drive to Indian Point, Ecola State Park, where evil Troy chucks Brand off his bike.

OMG! Look! It’s exactly matching the movie! I’m such a Goonie I actually shed a few happy tears.

I knew it would be awesome. I just never understood how beautiful it would be!

Haystack Rock. This is where the car chase was filmed.

I hated to leave Astoria. At this point I felt like I could happily live there, even though the nice checkout lady at Safeway told me it’s not unusual for it to rain for 180 days in a row. But we had to go, and I was comforted by the fact that Oregon’s entire coastline looks like this: wild, windy and majestic. I drank my fill as we drove hundreds of miles south towards California, its redwood forests and its iconic Pacific Coastal Highway.

StuMobservation: Cascadia

  • I am going to be so annoying to watch TV/movies with now. #beenthere

What we’re reading
Both of us:
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey; The Midnight Line and No Middle Name, Lee Child; A World Without Princes and The Last Ever After, Soman Chainani; Behind Closed Doors, A. B. Paris
Em: The Big Nowhere and White Jazz, James Ellroy; Incurable and Circle of Flight, John Marsden (Ellie chronicles, follows the Tomorrow series); They Found Him Dead, Georgette Heyer; The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson; The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton; DIY Super for Dummies, Trish Power; A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle; Unshakeable, Tony Robbins
Stu: Tears of Requiem, Daniel Arenson

What we’re watching
Stephen King’s The Shining, The Walking Dead S8, Rick and Morty S3, Master of None S2, Aziz Ansari’s latest standup special; and movie prep for LA! Clueless, Sunset Boulevard. 

Em and Stu do America part 4: New York City (warning… epic post)

StuMo’s Guide to Broadway

  • Book of Mormon justifies our entire trip to the states.
  • 1984 replaces important literature with offensive noise, felonious lighting and graphic torture scenes. People walked out.
  • Marvin’s Room like a high-school play but with famous people. (to clarify: I did like it and would recommend)
  • Aladdin: If you have to change the lyrics to one of the songs because you cut a main character (Abu), you are doing it wrong. The Genie had to take breaks mid song, even pausing mid line to catch his breath. Jasmine was utterly woeful.  My year 7 graduation version of A whole new world was more on point. “Hold your breath it gets better” = bad advice, because it most certainly did not.
  • Lion King was everything and more. Dance fighting with animals! When Zazu sang Let it Go instead of It’s a small world I died. Such an unforgettable way to spend our last day in NY.

But to go back a month in time…

We left PEI and drove six hours through an ever-denser grey abyss of fog and cloud that swamped the Canadian horizon, a Twin Peaks-esque tableau as surreal as it was beautiful.

It was a long haul, though (“LANE!!!”) and we were ready to surrender to a bus driver after returning the Chevy to Bangor. Another fabulously kind local, Pat from Rent-a-Wreck, gave us a lift to the station.

Hello NYC: a dancer makes the most of a stunning Brooklyn Bridge backdrop for her rehearsal.

Hello NYC: a dancer makes the most of a stunning Brooklyn Bridge backdrop for her rehearsal.

The cloud continued through Augusta, Portland and Boston, then the rain began. But despite the weather the day seemed brighter in the USA. In fact it seemed to me, as I stared from my front-row seat through the windows, an oddly glorious greyness, tinged with gold. The sort of light that made you feel something grand and mysterious was imminent, the perfect light to herald our entry into NYC – a month I’ve waited my whole life for.

It was then I realised I’d been gazing through the bus driver’s special barrier window which was sepia-tinted and through the rest of the windows was a prosaic, sullen grey. Ha! No matter – nothing could dim the excitement inside.

We arrived ready to party and luckily NYC was more than happy to accommodate with a rooftop celebration on the Fourth of July.

We arrived ready to party and luckily NYC was more than happy to accommodate with a rooftop celebration on the Fourth of July.

It’s not literature that brought us to NYC, I’m sorry to say, but good old television. Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City have been our cultural bread and butter since hitting puberty, and before you open your mouth, Stu’s knowledge of SATC is even more comprehensive than mine.

Not to mention the movies – the classics, the crap and everything in between. All of it stamps in your memory the sights of Coney Island. Empire State Building. Central Park. Broadway. Fifth Avenue. Times Square. Greenwich Village. They’re not just emblematic of a country, a state or a city, though they are all this – they are also our neighbourhood, just around the mental corner. To people born and raised on the box, these places are larger than life and on shows like Seinfeld and SATC especially, they’re not settings so much as characters, as inseparable from the content as the actors.

Yep. Central Park looks just like this. Stu spotted this classic "boyfriends of Instagram scene"; girl preening, guy on double duty as oarsman and photographer.

Yep. Central Park looks just like this. Stu spotted this classic “boyfriends of Instagram scene”; girl preening, guy on double duty as oarsman and photographer.

As I have grown older I have become more aware of the odd paradox represented by the allure of a hyperreal land I have never visited. NYC is venerated as the centre of the universe, the common wisdom is that it’s mecca for anyone who wants to be at the top of their profession, be that arts, finance, or anything, or just live in the most exciting place on earth. After so many years of hungering for a Manhattan apartment of my own I had to ask myself, Carrie-style: is it real at all?

This is why we gave ourselves a month: to get the apartment (Brooklyn, though), pretend hard to be locals, and find out.

The answer is of course it’s real. It’s, ye gods, a bigger, hotter, louder, pricier, denser, sadder, funnier, dirtier, stinkier real than the scrubbed, noise-controlled screen versions can truly render (just try to capture the utter surreal madness of Times Square with a point-and-shoot).

Thanks for the parties guys! How's this for a spot to watch the fireworks?

Thanks for the parties guys! How’s this for a spot to watch the fireworks?

We caught up with locals – my old friend Paul and his partner Stephanie, relatively recent Australian expats, treated us to penthouse parties on the Fourth of July; a newer friend Joe, from Brooklyn (Dom and Jess’ best man) took us out to dinner. They all tell me for the time being at least they would not live anywhere else, despite the expense, the long work hours, the high-impact lifestyle.

It’s easy to understand when every day you walk past icons – Liberty, the WTC, the Empire State Building, NBC, Radio City, the MET, the almost supernaturally beautiful Central Park, why New Yorkers would feel like they’re at the centre of the universe and love it.

Lady Liberty: up close, she is colossal, powerful and moving.

Lady Liberty: up close, she is colossal, powerful and moving.

It is also easy to understand why it could make native New Yorkers somewhat insular, give the impression that they’re living in their own little world, that nowhere else is quite real. We observed this and ran it by our friends, and came to the conclusion: of course NYC-dwellers are living in their own little world. It’s complete, it’s self-sufficient. They don’t need to consider what it would be like anywhere else, because they have everything they need. Not to mention all the stuff they don’t need, evidenced by the confronting mountains of rubbish that are part and parcel of this life as much as the glamour.

But they all need to get out of the city from time to time, the natives I meet tell me. Whether it be to the Hamptons, upstate NYC or further, they build down time into their lives.

Central Park provides some gorgeous moments of downtime.

Central Park provides some gorgeous moments of downtime.

We did our best to do NYC justice in a month of touring combined with hard book editing –editing of my first novel is now complete and regardless of what happens now I am proud. I had the experience of finishing the macro edits in the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, which I’ll never forget.

I’m also proud of how much we managed to do in a month. We walked as many of the neighbourhoods of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as possible, ticked off the big tourist boxes and also did community stuff like farmers’ markets, local theatre, a doggy fashion show. We saw the stuffing out of Broadway. We devoted hours to art galleries and devoured food, glorious food. We quickly abandoned the mid-to-fancy range – there, Perth holds its own – so we concentrated on “only in New York”… bagels, pastrami, corned beef, babkas (yes! Found cinnamon babka!), pizza, international street foods, hot dogs, diner comfort food, cheesecakes, Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. The only thing we failed to find was a good pretzel. It’s probably a good thing we leave, before I eat anything else.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn Heights.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn Heights.

And I don’t know about Stu, but I’m excited about a return to nature. As stunning as Central Park and Prospect Park are, they’re not the nature I know, but a tamed, designed version, despite the “wild” zones – the Ramble in CP and the Ravine in PP. Nowhere do you escape the deafening drone of helicopters, the incessant scream of ambulances, the murmur of twenty million airconditioners running continuously to cool the throbbing heat of this city. It’s so exciting, so stimulating, and yet my heart longs for wildness, for real silence.

NYC is full of incredible beauty and also ugliness, each more intense than I’ve ever encountered. A land of extremes that prompts reflection, but gives you scant time for it. I might be sorry to leave if this were the end of the trip, and I have had mad urges to go and see two plays on the same day, just to fit more in, but we are only excited about the adventures still to come and perhaps finding that reflection time as we travel slowly through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida.

But first: two days each in Philadelphia and Washington, here we come!

Central Park's Bethesda Terrace

Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace

StuMobervations part 5: NYC

  • Beer is not sold at bottle-o’s. It is sold at supermarkets with groceries.
  • You can’t pee quietly in an American toilet, the bowl is so full. Average flush = 6 gallons (22.7 litres)
  • Just because it is devoid of all nutrition does not mean it is not food
  • A sweat mop is an essential item.
  • Australia needs the “everything bagel” as a standard lunch option.
  • Never buy a pretzel from a street cart. Look great, but taste like salty cardboard.
  • Maps just give you something to look at while you argue about where you are.
  • Doggy fashion shows are as awesome as you think.
  • I now understand Mitch Hedberg’s – “Would you like anything else with the pastrami sandwich?” “Yeah, a loaf of bread and some other people!”
  • I saw Starry Night!
  • Junior’s cheesecake is better than your cheesecake.
  • Coney Island = Sideshow alley plus horrible beach. P.S. not an island.
  • It is illegal to take your dog on the subway unless it’s in a bag.
  • Times Square should be avoided.
  • Real Kramer Tour means now need to rewatch all of Seinfeld. We got soup!
  • East Village Pub Crawl is the best idea. BYO local guide.
  • Need a book? People leave them on their front porches, or “stoops”, for free.
  • Freegans are people who eat out of garbage cans by choice.
  • Talk to people on the subway if you want, just don’t smile at them. That’s weird.

For the exceptionally committed readers (hi mum) this is exactly what we did… have only named outstanding eateries

Week 1
Stonewall Inn, Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village Walk tour, Tick Tock diner, Brooklyn’s Park Slope walking tour including Prospect Park, farmer’s market, New York Public Library, Fourth of July party day, Fourth of July hangover day, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island immigration museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State Building, Central Park walking tour part I, Al-di-La restaurant, Peppino’s Pizza part I.

The MET

The MET

Week 2
Downtown Brooklyn walking tour, Bagel Hole, Shake Shack (thanks Juji), Whitney Museum of American Art, 9/11 Museum and Memorial, Hudson Riverpark, Museum of Natural History, Bricolage restaurant, Guggenheim, Broadway 1984 (average), Junior’s cheesecake, Brooklyn’s annual doggy fashion show, Peppino’s pizza part II.

The memorial incredibly beautiful and sobering, the museum a raw and confronting exhibition. A must do.

The memorial incredibly beautiful and sobering, the museum a raw and confronting exhibition. A must do.

Week 3
High Line walking tour, Strand Bookstore, Katz’s Deli (of pastrami sandwich and When Harry Met Sally faked orgasm fame), Eileen’s special cheesecake, Brooklyn Bridge walk, Prospect Park part II, Times Square, Broadway Marvin’s Room (excellent)Magnolia Bakery of SATC and red velvet cupcake fame, Central Park walking tour part II (Strawberry Fields and the Dakota Building, Ghostbusters sights, Plaza Hotel); Broadway Aladdin (average), the Museum of Modern Art, dinner at Junior’s, NY Public Library part II, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in Brooklyn (excellent).

Subway terminal seen from The High Line

Subway terminal seen from The High Line

Week 4
Coney Island, lots of book editing, Kenka Japanese in East Village with Joe (the end of the mashup video below is Emma failing at the fairy floss machine there), Broadway Book of Mormon (excellent), Ess-a-Bagel, Jim Henson exhibition at Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image, Queens food tour consisting of slice pizza and shawarma, kayaking by the Brooklyn Bridge, Museum of Modern Art part II, epic East Village pub crawl with Paul and Stephanie, ate terrible pretzel off street cart when hungover, regretted this, Kramer’s Seinfeld Tour (yes, Kramer was based on Larry David’s actual neighbour, who cashed in and now does an amazing behind the scenes of Seinfeld tour); Broadway The Lion King, Prospect Park part III.
Last hurrah: back to Peppino’s Pizza for a third time, for what the staff there now know as the “drunk Australian special”.

Spiderman takes a moment to call his folks on Coney Island, a place as grungy and weird as we could have hoped for.

Spiderman clocks off to call his folks on Coney Island, as grungy and weird a place as we hoped.

What we’re reading
Em: On Writing, Stephen King; Wet Magic, E. Nesbit; Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
StuMo: The Stand, Stephen King

What we’re listening to
Music: The Gospel Album, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (RIP)
Aladdin and Little Mermaid soundtracks by Alan Menken
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 
read by Jim Dale

What we’re watching
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Excellent 1962 horror movie. Well worth it. 
Game of Thrones 
(hurrah!)

Get under it: Stephen King’s 900-page Under the Dome in five days

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Yerp. It’s big.

The only way you can finish a 900-page book in this amount of time is with the divine aid of the Holy Trinity.

  1. holidays from work
  2. spouse stays at work (so as not to distract you)
  3. book must be freaking awesome

This happy set of circumstances allowed me to arise from the couch On the Fifth Day cramped and red-eyed, but with a glad heart.

The book is about a giant clear dome that slams down, without warning, one fine day over the entirety of a small town in Maine, King’s home town. It tracks the town’s various inhabitants, who are largely under the thumb of a local politician, and observes how they deal with the sudden imprisonment. Poorly, it turns out – spectacularly poorly. And let’s not forget this is America, so they all have guns.

Chaos unfolds, with an outnumbered band of sane citizens trying to protect themselves and their families as they hope for rescue. But as a baffled US Government runs out of options, they must look inside their own hearts and minds  for the answer.

Stephen King has said he had the idea for this book as a young writer but it was essentially too complex, too big, too difficult to write. So he kept it in the back of his mind until he was the kind of writer who could afford to get a researcher to figure out all the scientific ins and outs of what would happen if a giant dome cut off a town from the outside world.

The result is rigorous, fascinating sci-fi with delicious flourishes of the kind of horror only Stephen King can provide (remember the closing scene of Pet Sematary, anyone? Or the opening scene of IT?)

The cast of characters is truly enormous and no amount of commissioned research can help King there – it’s his skill as a novelist, honed over many years, that lets him unfold these simultaneous storylines with dexterity and relentless tension.

This is the most exciting book I’ve read in ages; essentially, after I got out of the Dome, I wanted back in.

That’s why I watched the TV series. Well, two episodes of it. In fact, I was so into this story I began watching the TV adaptation before I had even finished the print version.

It may be that I am being overly judgmental because I was fresh from the book. After all, King and Steven Spielberg are both involved in the production. It should be good. But I stopped after Episode Two. It just doesn’t get the job done. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Just get under the real thing! If you’ve never read King before I there’s no time like the present. Don’t be put off if you don’t like genre fiction (in which case you’re an idiot anyway). The best genre fiction transcends genre, and this gargantuan tale of power, corruption and compassion is a gift from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 16: The Truth (Terry Pratchett, 2000)

Books left: 10. Weeks left: 15. It’s gonna be OK.

The Patrician walked across the floor, followed by Drumknott.
‘Er, yes,’ said William. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. Busy, of course. Such a lot of reading to catch up on. But I thought I should take a moment to come and see this “free press” Commander Vimes has told me about at considerable length.’ He tapped one of the iron pillars of the press with his cane. ‘However, it appears to be firmly bolted down.’
‘Er, no, sir. I mean “free” in the sense of what is printed, sir,’ said Wiliam.
‘But surely you charge money?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘Oh, I see. You meant you should be free to print what you like?’
There was no escape. ‘Well… broadly, yes, sir.’
‘Because that’s in the, what was the other interesting term? Ah, yes… the public interest?’ Lord Vetinari picked up a piece of type and inspected it carefully.
‘I think so, sir.’
‘These stories about man-eating goldfish and people’s husbands disappearing in big silver dishes?’
‘No, sir. That’s what the public is interested in. We do the other stuff, sir.’
‘Amusingly shaped vegetables?’
‘Well, a bit of that, sir. Sacharissa calls them human interest stories.’
‘About vegetables and animals?’
‘Yes, sir. But at least they’re real vegetables and animals.’
‘So… we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no one is interested in.’
‘Except the public, sir,’ said William, trying to keep up.
‘Which isn’t the same as people and humans?’
‘I think it’s more complicated than that, sir.’

Shabby copy of The Truth by Terry Pratchett.

The Velveteen Rabbit of books.

When once I worked in ye olde secondhand bookshop for a crust, we had this thing called the rubbish box. It’s that grubby tub of books out the front that are one step above worthless, all with a big ‘$2’ scribbled on the cover with a Sharpie.

If you are a book, you can end up in the rubbish box for one or a combination of reasons. You might be in good nick, but just a terrible book. You might be an extremely old book no one has heard of and therefore no one would pay over $2 for. You might be spine-broken (the kiss of death for secondhand books). You might be The Notebook or Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks. Or you might be a Really Good Book that has been read so many times its covers have been almost loved off, the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. These are the titles someone will still hand over cash for despite being in the kind of condition that would usually see the bookseller throw them in the bin.

The rubbish box is a bit like the dog pound. Inhabitants might be there for a month. After a while, they might have their $2 dashed out and $1 written on them instead. If they are still not adopted, they will get lobbed into the bin. The rare jewel, no matter how bedraggled and forlorn it looks when it gets in there, is still instantly recognisable as Really Good and will get snatched up within hours by someone who can’t believe their luck and doesn’t care what the poor sod looks like.

Terry Pratchett is like the Holy Grail for the independent bookseller. Finding one in the bottom of a dusty pile of Nicholas Sparks is like finding the toy prize in a box of out-of-date cereal. Even if it is in awful condition, even – EVEN, my friend, if it is spine-broken… you can scrawl as much as $4 on this baby (as illustrated) and it will be out of that rubbish-box before it has so much as warmed up its seat.

Books written by Sir Terry Pratchett – knighted six years ago for his services to literature – are Really Good Books. The majority of them are part of the Discworld series, the chronicles of a world consisting of a disc balanced upon four elephants standing atop a turtle of, as Stephen King might say, enormous girth.

The Truth is the 25th of more than 40 Discworld titles and tells the story of William de Worde, who quite by accident finds himself editor of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper. Before he has got much beyond dealing with all of the people who want him to print pictures of their amusingly shaped vegetables, he finds himself embroiled in a story full of deceit, danger and death that goes straight to the political heart of Ankh-Morpork itself.

After taking weeks to read The Famished Road, I find myself spat out the other end of this in a matter of days. It’s beyond compulsive. I read it in front of the barbecue, ruining some perfectly good Black Angus rump, in bed (I am always very strict about not reading in bed, being a reformed insomniac) and even at the park while walking the dog. A lady is at her most batty-looking when ignoring her dog at the park while reading a book, walking into bollards and giggling audibly.

As well as being madcap and marvellous, the story is bloody clever. It is not only full of wordplay but full of subtler humour and deft insight into the frequently maddening and nonsensical world of a journalist – I am unsurprised when a quick Google reveals that Pratchett began his career as a reporter.

It was as if he’d shaken a tree and all the nuts had fallen out. Several letters were complaining that there had been much colder winters than this, although no two of them could agree when it was. One said vegetables were not as funny as they used to be, especially leeks. Another asked what the Guild of Thieves was doing about unlicensed crime in the city. There was one saying that all these robberies were down to dwarfs who shouldn’t be allowed into the city to steal the work out of honest humans’ mouths.
‘Put a title like “Letters” at the top and put them all in,’ said William. ‘Except the one about the dwarfs. That sounds like Mr Windling. It sounds like my father, too, except that at least he can spell “undesirable” and wouldn’t use crayon.’
‘Why not that letter?’
‘Because it’s offensive.’
‘Some people think it’s true, though,’ said Sacharissa. ‘There’s been a lot of trouble.’
‘Yes, but we shouldn’t print it.’
William called Goodmountain over and showed him the letter. The dwarf read it.
‘Put it in,’ he said. ‘It’ll fill a few inches.’
‘But people will object,’ said William.
‘Good. Put their letters in, too.’

This is sharp humour with a soft heart. If you know a journalist, buy them this book and prepare for their howls to echo through the house.

Keep or Kill? Terry Pratchett is really one of those authors it’s a shame to hoard – they really should be in constant circulation. I’ll give this one to the local op-shop so it can warm the shelf there for an hour or two before getting snapped up.
Note: When I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys oh-so-long-ago for this Project, I compared his writing to Pratchett’s a little nervously, fearing a lighting bolt would strike me any moment for being so impertinent. Reading this book I was reminded of the fact that Gaiman and Pratchett had actually collaborated on a screamingly funny novel, Good Omens, which I not only knew about but had actually read, for goodness’ sake. So there you go. Not so impertinent a comparison at all, then.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 1: The Plague Dogs (Richard Adams, 1977)

 

Intriguing, no?

Intriguing, no?

Books read: 1/26. Weeks remaining: 51 

I originally picked this book up because it was by Richard Adams of Watership Down fame, though I haven’t read Watership Down. I got it out to read now because Adams was on my mind after I’d seen another book of his, Shardik, referenced in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

I’ll save my rant about The Dark Tower for another time.

The Plague Dogs, with its simple blurb, looked intriguing.

Ahhh, you got me, I want to know more.

Ahhh, you got me, I want to know more.

 

 

 

How could you go wrong with a sinister thriller about escaped “plague dogs”? And what are “plague dogs”?

 

 

The novel begins with their break-out. Rowf is terrified of water after numerous experiments involving him being half-drowned in a tank, and Snitter is good-humoured and trusting, but suffers bouts of insanity after being subjected to experimental brain surgery.

As they turn to killing sheep for food, the situation gets out of control: life in the town is turned upside down, the facility they have come from begins to get unwelcome government scrutiny and the newspapers, smelling blood, inevitably get involved.

The world of men, politics and the media is depicted with droll, savagely sarcastic humour (the facility they escape from is acronym-ed ARSE), while the parts describing the dogs’ journey and struggle for survival are rendered in exquisite, lilting prose that frequently veers into actual poetry.

Leaves and branches flying by; helicopter in the sky. Airborne soldiers on the lea; plague dogs riding to the sea. Redwings, fieldfares, cows and sheep; should we cheer, d’you think, or weep? Plague dogs all the way from A.R.S.E., riding down to Ravenglass. What’s that car so black, sedate? That’s the Secretary of State, him as sealed the plague dogs’ fate. Wheel and piston, steam and tank, autumn oak-leaves in the bank, chuff chuff chuff and clank clank clank. 

Snitter’s periodic drops into madness are particularly impressive – weird and clever. I wanted to read all of his dialogue out loud to the Ministry (though restrained myself).

I tired of the descriptive passages, though, in the same way I did when I was a kid and tackling books a little too old for me. This was undeniably good writing, but dated and the language is very old-fashioned and very English, making it a hard slog at times.

I was just starting to feel despair that I would never get through this deceptively slim book (a dense 460+ gossamer-thin pages filled with cramped type) when, entirely unexpectedly it ramped up for a suspenseful, compelling and emotional ending.

Thank goodness for that, too.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone except those of a hardcore literary bent. A page-turner it is not. What I would do, however, is try to get hold of Shardik and Watership Down; I don’t doubt that these are his better known works for a reason.

Verdict: passing it on. To make space for one day owning Shardik and Watership Down one day (can you really ever cure a bibliomaniac…?)

More on my The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here