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Books I have read and loved

The product of a pathological need to categorise and remember every book I've ever read, and my only creative outlet being critiquing others' creativity.

Currently reading

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
Barry Estabrook
Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories
Raymond Carver
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis
Flying Too High
Kerry Greenwood
The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton
High Conflict Personalities: Understanding and Resolving Their Costly Disputes
Bill Eddy
Roots - Alex Haley Roots traces the journey of seven generations of a family, from the birth of Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in the mid 1700s, through his capture and removal to the United States. Life in Juffure is vividly described, and we follow Kunta Kinte through his childhood, goat herding, manhood training, rites of passage and the development of his relationships with his father, brothers, friends and elders. And then it all stops.

The first half of the book details Kunta Kinte’s journey, through his torturous journey from the Gambia to America, from masser to masser, from Kunta Kinte to Toby, through his escape attempts, lashings, and gradual outward resignation. Having to hide being African; anything that might threaten sensibilities and voodoo. Having half his foot hacked off, and the tenderness with which he is treated by the doctor, who becomes his master. Who seems a good man, though.. white. It is hard to separate men from their place as white men, and all it entailed.

Partway through Kunta Kinte’s story I started reading reviews of the book, which I can never stop myself from doing, and found the usual ‘this book is so important’, ‘it really makes you think how beautiful the simplicity of life in Africa really is, maybe we should all take a leaf from their book’ type drivel. Somebody’s comments about how they felt cheated when they realised that the book is embellished and that it isn’t entirely true to Alex Haley’s own ancestry. Which seems to be a grievous missing of the point. How terrible, reader, that you feel cheated. What you are really being cheated of is an understanding and shallow empathy (for that’s all that we can really claim) for generations of people, who were wrenched forcibly from their lives only to be transplanted as sub-human work horses into somebody else’s.
These are the people who were cheated. People are still cheated, now.

As each protagonist becomes the focus of the story, the previous families are left behind, more quickly and severely as the book progresses. We are left not knowing what becomes of Kunta Kinte and his wife Belle, once their daughter Kizzy leaves with her new husband, and again and again, to the end. The book gathers pace and seems to rush through generations, for the second half of the book, though without sacrificing or compromising the connections with the characters. They are robust and weighty, still lingering in my head.

There are moments of abject despair, when freedom is promised and so close, only to be snapped away with little more than a cursory consideration. The lives these people live are inconceivable. It is as if they are on a leash loose enough to give the illusion of freedom, to enable more productivity and less ‘trouble’ to ‘deal with’, only to be yanked back when it appears too close and real. Families being ripped apart, being sold, being cheated and lied to. I read parts of this book with my heart in my mouth, it was so real as to detach me completely from my own life.

The landscape and the slave rows are etched in my mind, along with the road down to Chicken George and his fighting cocks. Sucking blood clots out of their wounds and sharpening their spurs. Chicken George, born of his mother’s rape by her new master, who served that master as a slave.

There are moments of tenderness between master and slave, at various points of the book, almost enough to muddy the relationship. Almost enough to feel thankful that, well, at least in such a sickening situation and irksome period of history, there were kind men. But it’s a trap. And it’s a trap that thankfully, this book does not let us fall into for longer than it takes for us to feel it snap back in our face. Just like it did, again and again. Because, hey, Just kidding! Remember your place.

The born sense of entitlement and superiority, which I wish was something that this book could bring to life, as an historical artefact to grapple with. Conversations that make my skin crawl. Parts of this book brought me to tears. Parts of it I read with dread, not wanting to even know what would come next, while knowing, already. The promises of freedom. What happens when freedom finally comes. Freedom in name, which is still subject to whims and norms.

This book will stay with me for a long time. I went to Zanzibar a few years ago, the last slave trading outpost to have existed, where slavery was only abolished in 1897.

I sat in the chamber where slaves were kept, the ceiling too low to enable an adult to stand, where excrement ran down the gulley between platforms. Where light could get in through
Where men were kept, those that survived, the strongest, sold for higher prices. The whipping post, formerly in the slave market, now the altar of a church.

I thought that slavery had been abolished officially in the nineteenth century. Apparently not.
Anathem - Neal Stephenson I couldn't finish this book. I kept waiting to be somehow brought into it, but it was a chore the whole way. With 150 or so pages left, which is nothing in the scheme of things, I gave up.

Maybe it was the wrong way to start with Neil Stephenson. While reading this book, I had furious resentment that I wanted to write uot. Now, though, I now can't even remember enough to really begin. So, we'll leave it at me having a blah, unfinished brick on my bookshelf.
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides I usually start reading goodreads reviews when I'm around 3/4 through a book. Just to check whether I'm on par with the rest of the world, I suppose.

I love this book. I am in Japan, have trawled tens of bookshops in search of an English section, and have some books lined up for when I allow myself to finish Middlesex. Reading reviews has disturbed me, though. As usual, there are those that, with varying degrees of detail and personal reflection, praise it.

What is particularly disturbing, however, is the number of reviews that rate the book so poorly because it describes incest, or because, essentially, it's not what they expected it to be. I don't find the book's description of incest disturbing - I find it disturbing that people are unable to read a book because they consider it to be somehow glorifying incest, in relaying a story which contains it. People are funny, but I find it horrifying that people are so happy to go about life sticking their fingers in their ears going LA LA LA.

Middlesex is a family history, which leads us through three generations of the Stephanides family. It is narrated by Cal, who is the main character of the last third of the book. Cal is a hermaphrodite, who is brought up a girl, discovers at the age of 14 that she is not definitely physically female, and starts living as a male. The fact that Cal is a hermaphrodite, and the 'reasons' for want of a better word, are the most controversial and talked about parts of the novel. They do not make the novel, though.

If you heard Oprah talk about xxx, read the book and realised that there's more to the book than Oprah's discussion of xxx, it's not a shortcoming of the book.
Secrets of the Jury Room - Malcolm Knox This book came from one of those shops furnished with cardboard boxes full of the same 3 books that make you question the sanity (or sense of humour) of the creep in charge of giving manuscripts the ok. Biographies of reality TV stars from the UK circa 2002, family encyclopaedias of garden sourced home remedies, joke books. And ‘Secrets of the Jury Room’, plastered as it is with endorsements from QCs.

‘Secrets of the Jury Room’ looks at the role of juries in the Australian legal system, with discussions and evaluations of surveys of jurors that have been undertaken. The book follows a case in which Knox served as a juror, albeit with enough details and names changed as to make it untraceable. The case, as it appears in the book, is interesting enough to justify the length of the book, and give it pace enough to allow the examination of these issues.

It’s a light read, which throws up some interesting issues. How much power rests with the jury, and in the end, how much power rests with the juror with the loudest voice. What it’s like to serve on a jury, down to the stodgy hot food and reading on the train to the city. It’s an interesting insight into jury duty, and group dynamics under strange circumstances.

The importance of having community attitudes and values represented, and conveying to a jury the issues that they are to decide on. Or more importantly, those that they aren’t placed to adjudicate. The people that are on juries, those that manage to avoid it, and the slither of society that it ends up representing.

I was particularly interested in the issues around the interaction between the jury and lawyers. The second guessing, focusing on the clear ‘leader, the winks and nudges vs avoidance of eye contact. The tactics, and the complete mystery that juries are to lawyers. The way that jurors are able to be so powerful but in some cases are treated with little more than contempt. The way judges are held in such high esteem, and the way people act when put in such a clear role, with clear boundaries and expectations.

Given the 3 strikes it came with, it was ok. Shrug.
number9dream - David Mitchell As many times as I tried to come back to number9dream, it couldn't hold my attention. It is one of David Mitchell’s earlier books, and reads as such – it moves clunkily between dream like states and real world happenings, in a way that annoyed me rather than swept and kept me in. I can’t get beyond half way, and wish I hadn’t started. I started reading it in Tokyo, where the first couple of chapters were set in places that if I hadn’t seen, I could imagine, and which kept me reading.

There is none of the deft character building of Mitchell’s other works (particularly The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), and the awkward dialogue prevented me from ever caring about any of the characters. Whenever I was getting close to being sucked into a scene, some dialogue wrenched me out like an ill-written line in a movie which slams you back into your seat, in the theatre, surrounded by people, and watching a screen. The moment is gone, and you’ve lost your train of thought.

Maybe I’ll try again later, but for now, many more books are calling.
The Colour of Magic  - Terry Pratchett The only reason I tried to read this book again is because I am on holiday, and need something to break up the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This was the only English book I could find, and as much as I have hated Terry Pratchett before, I figured that it couldn't possibly be as terrible as my memory would have me believe.


Reading Terry Pratchett is the literary equivalent of watching sketch comedies inspired by the local political figures of another country, a decade on. I imagine that you'd like if you watched it back then, and had a chuckle. Now, however, it seems dated and unn-funny. There are a few little quips that made me smirk, but they couldn't keep me going beyond about 2/3 of the book. I hate it.

I love fantasy. Swords, horses, mana, flaxen locks, spells and chosen children are not a problem for me. I'm happy to read pulpy trash, particularly on holiday. One would think that I'm the kind of person that ought to love the the kind of person that ought to love the Discworld series. I'm just not. Three or so chances are enough; this is one of the very few books that are too painful to finish than to leave hanging.
Blindness - José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero I am always a book person and never a movie person, but I saw Blindness before I read it. Due to my previous scarring experiences with Latin American literature, and oft-cited comparisons between Saramago and Garcia Marquez, I have shied away from Saramago's novels before. The movie, and the fact that Saramago is Portuguese and has been recommended by friends many times before, made me start this one. The movie is absolutely brilliant, and one of the only movies I have seen which had parts that I was physically unable to watch. One scene in particular is etched in the back of my head; I'm sure that anybody who has either read or seen Blindness will be able to guess which one.


A man goes blind while driving his car, and is helped home by another man (who later also falls blind). When she arrives home, the first man's wife takes him to an ophthalmologist. These three people, along with the people in the waiting room, the doctor and his wife, are the central cast of characters. All but the doctor's wife fall blind at some point in the following days.

Unsure of the nature of the illness, how is transmitted and how it should be dealt with, the government moves all blind people into one part of an old asylum, and separately quarantines those that have come into contact with them. The asylum is ferociously guarded by armed security, which becomes progressively brutal as the government's interest in the blind's welfare diminishes. There is no medical or other assistance provided to the inmates, beyond food packages delivered each day, which the blind must ration out themselves. The asylum descends into a filthy and chaotic hell, where nobody is set to monitor, assist or oversee the complicated and dangerous existence that the inmates must live.

The doctor's wife is the only person able to see, but fearful of what may happen if others realise, keeps this secret. She is a gentle and warm character, whose voice provides much insight into the conditions in the asylum. She quietly and thanklessly provides some semblance of dignity and order for people who are none the wiser, and functions as a beacon of hope in this story of horror and dysfunction.

The book charts this state of systemic breakdown and apparently abandonment by authorities, where there are no witnesses to peoples' actions and abuses, and where leaders appoint themselves and others fall into line. The setting of Blindness is never identified, and could be anywhere, just as the characters remain nameless, and could be anybody. Part of Blindness's power lies in the way it examines humanity, and the way we degenerate into brute animalism at what seems like the first opportunity. It is graphic in some parts, often haunting, and extremely moreish. Looking back, I'm not sure exactly how much time elapses during the book, but it doesn't seem like more than a few weeks.

Much of the dialogue is difficult to read and follow. People interrupt each other, and thus the flow of paragraphs and thoughts. This disjointed and enforced slowness perhaps mirrors the clumsy, disorganised way that the blind move, jostling up against each other.

Some parts of the book are truly hideous, which makes them no less 'true' or imaginable. Do read it. I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie (obviously, I suppose) as knowing the ending really dampened the suspense that would otherwise have been delightfully unbearable.
American Rust - Philipp Meyer American Rust is one of the most disappointing books I’ve read this year. I carried it around many a bookshop, changing my mind about buying it at the last minute, keeping it in the back of mind as something I’d save up.

I’ve read glowing reviews of the ‘Meyer is the new Steinbeck’ type (though any “xxx is the new/this generation’s xxx” type statement makes me cringe). I wanted to read the dark, heartwrenching thriller set in a dying rural town, that I had read about. He is not, and it was not. American Rust struck me as a book by somebody who considers that everyone has a novel inside them, but doesn’t actually read.

It has a glowing review by Colm Toibin on the cover, which is somewhat irksomely returned with similarly glowing thanks on the acknowledgements page. I have read The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and disliked them both for what seems to me as a labouriously but poorly executed kind of writing, rather than a style in itself. American Rust falls into this same category, for me.

Isaac is the shy bookish kid from high school, and Poe is his friend the athlete, who has a thing for Isaac’s sister. A few years after high school, Isaac never went away to college like everybody expected and stayed home to look after his father. Poe never followed through on any of the athletic scholarships and lives with his mother in a trailer, in and out of trouble. They live in Buell, a small town in Pennylvania that was once centred around a steel mill. Isaac and Poe are involved in a murder, and much of the book is focussed on whether Isaac will be found responsible or whether Poe will accept responsibility.

Each chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters, which are either trains of thought or bland recitations of and then I did this, and then I did that, to push the plot along. Cheap and lazy characterisation: show, don’t tell! Rather than providing real insight into the makeup or of a character, this served to hollow them. They are jumpy, hard to read, and peppered with strings of what I’m sure were meant to be gems of insight and profundity, but read as contrived. There are a lot of run on sentences that are at best unnecessary, and a lack of grammar which is painstaking to read and serves no real purpose. When done well, this can convey a sense of urgency and encourage a reader to read in a certain rhythm – here, there was neither structure nor need.

I failed to feel anything toward Pennsylvania, with the death of the American dream, small and dying town kind of ‘themes’ seeming more of a setting for the sake of it than anything else. The motivations of the characters were unclear or unbelievable, because the characters were never really developed. I feel as though they’re very real in Meyer’s head, but something was lost in the translation to text, and life was never fully breathed into them. I was unable to identify with any characters, or care about them at all, even at the very end.

The pace and timing seemed wrong, with little time elapsing between Isaac when we meet him, and the baby-vagrant Isaac that he somehow turns into, some days later. It feels like we’re playing into his runaway fantasy, but I could never work out whether I was meant to take him seriously, or look down my nose at him. Poe, Harris the cop, and Isaac’s sister, Lee, are little more than caricatures.

Structurally, the book has been divided into six books, with chapters that shorten as the book progresses. This is distracting, but thankfully allowed me to speed through the last 30 or so pages. If it weren’t for my pathological necessity to finish every book I start, I would have put it down halfway through. Less, if I’d decided not to soldier on, convinced that it would turn or start to pull me in at some point.

That said, it does have a nice cover..
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell This book came from the library with a post-it note on the inside cover: "This book is brilliant". I couldn't decide whether that was cute or annoying until I actually started reading, and now I completely understand what would push someone to resort to a post-it note. This book is brilliant!

David Mitchell is my new favourite. I have been trying to dissect the gushy love I have for this book but it comes out as a list of clinical words and concepts reminiscent of Mrs Chamberlain in my high school english lit class. Character building! Place setting! Literary devices! Things that put people off reading, and things that aren't necessarily apparent unless they're done particularly poorly, or perfectly. And in that case, they're often invisible.

Not so with The Thousand Autumns. It has the pace and plot of a thriller and the kind of robust and humanly flawed characters that are more real than the host of people you brush past in everyday life. There are the kind of parallel plot lines that can be dangerous for someone with a memory as pitiful as mine, but they are so luscious, and each as interesting as the other, that it works. Every time a chapter ended, I'd grit my teeth with a 'no, fuck you!' and then turn the page and 'ohhhh, yeah! argh!'.

It evokes the mindset of both 'the West' and Japan as Japan was grudgingly opening its doors to trade in the late 1700s, and Holland and England were combing the globe for more trade partners to wrangle with. Both sides with their racism and lack of comprehension of the strange and foreign values of the other. And, the individuals cutting through it, connecting with each other on a human level.


The Thousand Autumns is set in Japan at the turn of the 19th century, on the trading post of Dejima, Nagasaki. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East India company, and the book charts his dealings and relations during his time there. The characters are perfect, with their simmering tension and backstabbing, history and motives.

It is set among politics of the relations between the Dutch traders stationed in Dejima, the Japanese interpreters and people with whom they came into contact. It's humorous without being funny, and very fun to read.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell I love this book.
I can't remember the last time I loved a book so much. The Cloud Atlas is composed of a series of stories across time and countries that are linked, but only just. The connections between the characters pop out and reorientate things, but are not intrinsic. I have read angry reviews, calling for Mitchell to admit that he had a bunch of short stories but a contract for a novel. I disagree, and anyway.. and?

I got lost in the time movements, which is probably testament to my own shitty memory and post-work, post-semester attention span as much as it is to Mitchell's robust character development. I find that it hard to empathise and connect with characters from ancient history, and unrecognisable times and places, but there was none of that here. The characters are complex and real, regardless of how foreign their environment.

Something about this book is reminiscent of Will Self, though I can't quite put my finger on how. Something about being sly, and feeling like the only person in the room picking up on the joke that's just been played on the oblivious crowd.
The Player Of Games - Iain M. Banks The first Culture book I've read - read the last page, turned the last page, and there were no more pages. Very much a '... that's it?' book, to me. A look of build up to a wanting anti-climax which may have been less of one if I had more Culture context and background. Perhaps it's a little piece of a bigger story, but it was an unsatisfying foray to me, and I'm not particularly interested in seeking out any more Culture novels as a result.

I keep hearing about how amazing Banks is, and how I must have just read the wrong things at the wrong time. I'm yet to be convinced.

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War

The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War - Conor Foley I'm not sure what this book was trying to say. It took a long time to go nowhere, and left me staring at it, dumbfounded. Perhaps it's my fault for waiting until the last sentence of the last page to give up on expecting to be enlightened. Or challenged, informed, entertained .. or .. something.

'The Thin Blue Line' is essentailly split into an introduction, a 'case study' type section with chapters on a number of countries, and what I expected to be a discussion and conclusion. Unfortunately, the discussion is sorely lacking, the case studies are recounts of peacekeeping escapades and some general statements about what the book is supposed to have demonstrated are tacked on at the end. The argument or line of thinking is absent for most parts of the book though - I kept re-reading the blurb to remind myself of what I was meant to be reading about.

I think I expected the thesis of the book to provide insight into the way that humanitarian interventions have been co-opted by intervening countries' political interests. Or some critique of humanitarian interventions, or an exploration of their worth or consequences; some kind of insight into how better to think about and analyse them. Something.

In some ways the book reads like a tale of woe, wanting to go back to the golden age of peacekeeping. I'd love to believe there was one, and that humanitarian intervention was ever untouched by the whims and wants of interventing coutries' foreign policy. In other ways it reads like like a diary, by someone who finally thinks they've lived through enough to justify writing a book, with the detail and the 'point' to be fixed at some point in the process.

As a result of the book I've decided that I don't ever want to work for the UN after all. I suppose that kind of clarity is a good thing. Overwhelmingly, though, a very disappointing book.
I, Claudius - Robert Graves The classical world often seems populated with static figures from such a distant past that they are almost un-human. I, Claudius brings this period of history to life, developing characters that are rich, complex and real. To somebody like me, with a limited understanding of classical history (and that understanding gleaned from historical novels), this almost reads like a murder mystery. The various assassinations and ascensions were completely new to me, which made it even more gripping.

Perhaps it would be less enjoyable, or a different kind of enjoyable, for somebody able to recognise the artistic liberties taken by Graves. Though surely that is the nature of any kind of interpretation of the figures of ancient Rome.

This is the kind of book that I think about when people talk about the value of reading, and the way that it allows (or forces) people to empathise and view things from different perspectives. It's not eye opening as much as challenging, and enlightening.

This is definitely the best book that I've read this year, and I'm already worried about what I'm going to do when I finish its 'sequel', Claudius the God.
The Constant Gardener - John le Carré Perhaps it's a bit formulaic, but I loved this book. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it, drew out the final 100 pages, and still have dreams about it.
Gardens of the Moon  - Steven Erikson I only really persevered with this book because of the author's introductory remarks about how most people would probably put it down somewhere in the first third of it. I guess I can only scoff at the competition in hindsight.

Perhaps I'm dim, but there was just too much going on, too much introduced too soon, and nothing that I particularly cared about. I can count on one hand the number of times I was compelled to keep reading after the tram stopped in the morning, because the times I actually cared what happened to a character or plotline were very thin on the ground. Which isn't good for a so-so tome of 700 pages.

I wish I was able to stop reading books part-way through, because the crap ones take me so much longer, and because then I wouldn't be feeling like I want the past few months of my life back.
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy Fucking Cormac. Yet again, why the hype?