A couple of years ago I started setting myself the challenge of reading at least 100 books a year. It might seem like a lot, but to be honest it’s surprisingly easy to do once you get into the swing of it. Here’s some standouts from the first 50. They are presented in no particular order or year of release. I’ve selected poetry, novels, biography, graphic novels and everything in between.
Egan’s The Goon Squad was one of the best books I read last year, so I’m not really sure why I didn’t start making my way through the rest of her catalogue earlier. I started reading this book during a visit to the Bunya mountains, and moving my butt from the fireside couch and this hypnotic novel became a herculean task. This is a dark, transcendent novel about a small ensemble of intersecting characters who are all trying to radically reinvent themselves. The themes of identity and transformation are dealt with in a bold, captivating style that somehow manages to border on the surreal whilst also providing brilliant social critique on the concept of self in the 21st century. This is a magnificent novel in so many ways. I’m going to make sure to read everything Egan’s ever written.
You know how you felt when you watched the cops on the Wire being complete, unapologetic assholes? Take that feeling, multiply it 97 million, and then transpose it to a true account of happenings in your hometown and you’ll have a vague account of how I felt reading this book. Condon’s analysis of cops who literally got away with murder (and plenty more besides) during a golden era of corruption is both illuminating and horrifying. Required reading for anyone who grew up in Queensland. The sequel – Jacks and Jokers -was released a few months ago.
While this is certainly the least of DFW’s works, this series of essays written in collaboration with Mark Costello is nevertheless an important document. Particularly if – like me – you want to be able to say “look, hip-hop IS important. David Foster Wallace wrote about it so there now SHUT UP!” Amongst the milieu of ear-shatteringly awful modern rappers – as well as a slew of brilliant MCs that radio stations bewilderingly refuse to spin – it’s important to be reminded of the impact of hip-hop as a social movement as well as something for annoying hoons to pump from the speakers of their Skyline. Sidenote: The next time someone says ‘White people who listen to hip-hop are silly! That music was invented and should only be listened to by black people!” you should ask them about the origins of their favourite jazz/soul/rock and roll/blues/r’n’b records.
It’s almost supernatural how terrible this book is. Don’t get me wrong, Franco – arguably the modern era’s most famous polymath – is clearly something of a genius. The problem is that while the book is very clever it just isn’t very good. You know when you see a band compromised of musicians who all graduated from some highly regarded musical academy and during their set they change time signatures every 14 seconds until they all just start making this weird high-pitched drone and then end by each stepping up to the microphone and reciting their shopping lists? That’s what this book felt like, plus it was filled with ironic, self-aware narcissism that was unsurprisingly every bit as dull as ironic, unaware narcissism.
Like thousands of other True Detective fans, I was drawn to this book by the HBO series. A very strange, chthonic collection, a few of the stories here are captivatingly terrifying, but there’s a lot of dross as well. The four main stories that centre around a play called the King in Yellow that apparently sends people mad are excellent. Apparently Chambers later started making heaps of cash writing sappy romance stories and just gave up on horror so that he could wrote terrible books that made him millions of dollars. HP Lovecraft, a huge admirer of his early work, called Chambers a big fat sellout. Disgusting. Now excuse me while I delete my latest manuscript and start work on my new book Ron Sexley’s Sexy adventures in Sexington: Paradise Kisses: Book one of the Romance Hot Times collection: A Sexy Times book (with lots of sex in it).
Whenever I teach writing workshops I always point to the first sentence of Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude as one of the greatest collection of words ever put to paper: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Marquez was an extraordinary talent and it’s no surprise to discover that he lived an equally extraordinary life. Sidenote: having spent a fair amount of time in Colombia I find it incredibly frustrating when people joke about all Colombians being drug dealers. That’s a little like assuming all Americans are corrupt Wall St lawyers. Colombia has a rich and varied culture of which Marquez is only one wonderful exemplar.
This collection of interviews with prominent Australian musicians by prolific local journalist Andrew McMillen addresses a very important issue: the relationship between musicians and drug use. As an insight into the lives and creative processes of some of Australia’s most talented songwriters it is very entertaining. However, the book’s far more important role is to present a broad range of attitudes towards narcotics – from abstinence to addiction – and their effects. McMillen focuses more on raising questions than answering them and more on stories than statistics and this approach makes his work incredibly engaging and thought provoking. I recently interviewed Andrew about the book on Exit Stage Zed, you can listen to that interview here (starts at 28 mins into the recording).
After reading this book I have one very important thing to tell you: for the love of god don’t send naked pictures to strangers over the internet! Now I’m sure many folks would think that’s a VERY OBVIOUS piece of advice, but as many people – Anthony Weiner I’m looking at you – have shown us, sometimes we need that extra reminder. Olson’s account of one of the most enigmatic and influential social movements of the last 50 years is highly captivating reading, with all the intrigue and slow-burning suspense of a Fincher film. Bonus points for her detailed descriptions of a few neat and surprisingly easy hacking tricks.
Alan Moore is like no other writer on earth. This curious, bloody and incredibly well-researched work is by far the best of the myriad takes on the Jack the Ripper tale. Moore takes that one central mystery and weaves a tale of the birth of the modern era with thick dollops of class critique, violence, history, black magic and perhaps the single greatest page ever presented in a graphic novel. I stared at that one particular page for a solid ten minutes, if you’ve read it you’ll know what I’m talking about. I hear the movie was terrible, but then again it usually is.
Possibly the best example of a brilliant book with a terrible cover. A somewhat autistic hard sci-fi novel, its concepts and philosophies are beguiling and bewildering but it gets bogged down at times by overly technical descriptions. I don’t want to give away the twist toward the end, but I will say that – like Carl Sagan’s Contact – it’s an amazing first contact story that tackles the idea of extraterrestrial life with incredible philosophical flair. Also, once you’ve been introduced to creatures that maintain invisibility by moving in between your eyes’ saccades you may be terrified always and forever.
Worth the ticket price just for the title, in my opinion. I keep coming back to this phrase whenever I’m feeling frustrated with the government – which is around every 36 minutes. Walker’s poetry is clean and unpretentious, although there’s more than a few mediocre pieces in this collection. The standout ones, however, definitely make it worth your while. This little poem in particular has stuck with me:
My teacher was told by her teacher – who loved her: You cannot shoot guns / you cannot drop bombs / your fists are forbidden to you / as are mean and hurtful words / no matter how carefully chosen. / You have one weapon & one weapon only: Use it. / It is your ability to teach.
Look, I know Winton’s not exactly an underground secret. Everyone knows how great his work is and his multitudinous accolades are all very well deserved. Winton is the master of making the ordinary enthralling, the everyday extraordinary. All of these interweaving stories are excellent, but the titular tale is perfection itself. That story is an entire world within a few dozen pages. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it months ago. It’s like he didn’t just create characters, he birthed living humans. The film is also excellent, and didn’t receive nearly as much attention as it should have, particularly considering its luminary cast.
If you have any book recommendations feel free to throw them my way! Remember, readers are the best lovers science says so!