The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Downright the freakiest and best made book I have ever encountered. Shirley Jackson is spectacular and ALSO really fun to read.
Harriet Said – Beryl Bainbridge
Repeatedly rejected for publication on grounds of sheer repulsiveness, Beryl Bainbridge's take on the Parker-Hulme murders (of Heavenly Creatures fame) remains a total mind...well... you know what. The story of a co-dependent teenage friendship gone Wrong, this slim, stylish novel will leave you wondering exactly who the perpetrator is... and what it is that they have actually perpetrated....
Junky – William S. Burroughs
Given all the artsy rubbish and convoluted technique, Burroughs should not be as good as he is. But he is. Junky is Burroughs pre-'technique', and the old conciet that you need to be a master before you can attempt abstraction is proved absolutely true in this small, brutal, glorious book.
Morvern Callar – Alan Warner
Morvern might be grieving, she might be a sociopath, she is certainly amoral, and at the far end of whatever it is that makes us civilised. And she is radiant. One of the most charismatic characters I've ever encountered. I love this book.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway – Jim Shepard
Jim Shepard writes meticulously researched historical fiction about things like the esoterica-obsessed Nazi expidition to the Himilayas in search of Bigfoot, or the psychological decline of the mechanist who designed and animated the original Japanese Godzilla. So wonderful.
In the Freud Archives – Janet Malcolm
Freudians getting Freudian all over one another. Bickering, betrayal, and a court case that may or may not have directly influenced the writing of Malcolm's other classic “The Journalist and the Murderer”. Joan Didion for grownups.
Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace wrote essays. Not many things are as satisfying or as entertaining. The eponymous article was assigned as a brief feature on the XXX Lobster festival and ended up as a XXXX page tour-de-force of natural and cultural history, science writing and autobiography.
Young Adam – Alexander Trocchi
Trocchi was included in the pantheon of 'beat' writers, and this book in particular bears a loose resemblence to the drifting dissafection of the American Beat, but Young Adam's central character is in the grip of an entirely different malaise. This is kind of bleak poverty-art-noir set on a coal barge on the English Canals, with a superbly unreliable narrator and what may or may not be murder plot in the middle.
The Sailor who Fell from Grace With the Sea – Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima's childhood Oedipal revenge fantasy is so much more beautiful than it should be. 1960's Japanese gore at it's finest.
Thirst for Love – Yukio Mishima
Mishima again - like The Sailor who Fell From Grace With the Sea but REALLY HOT. There's heaps of Japanese gothy erotica named after this book. Totally weird and bleak and great. Like 50 Shades but with talent.
The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula – Barry Gifford
Psychedellic, blood-spattered, euphoric, ultra-violent road-movie series of crime novels made famous by David Lynch. These are pure trash and pure pleasure (if you like that kind of thing). Also wildly romantic. The kind of thing you might buy for a valentine who thinks (like margaret Atwood) that a horse's heart with an arrow through it on the doorstop on valentines morning is the stuff of fantasy.
The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes – Mark Frost
Sweet Valley High on a noir influenced, DMT-infused spirit-quest. I read this many, many times over as a yong person and then tragically lost. I still remember.
Dangerous Liaisons – Pierre Ambroise Francois Choderlos de Laclos
Immesurably crueller, more perverse and scandalous than anything modern writers can imagine.
Strangers on a Train – Patrica Highsmith
At what point does the good guy become the bad guy, who was who at the beginning anyway, and does he even know it? What happens when the dark urges inside get a champion, however unwelcome, in the cold ligth of day. Highsmith is my favourite of all time- more for the cumulative and compulsively readable weirdness of identity anxiety that swells out of all her novels than for any one book. But this is a damn fine place to start. She used to collect snails.
Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates
This ate my brain. Cannot be described more appropriately than the jacket of the copy I own “A true mythic blowout”... tragedy in the classical sense.
Faithfull – Marianne Faithfull
Marianne Faithfull's (auto)biography: Part ghostwritten rock-and-roll trash biography, and part just unbelieveable. The ultimate heroes journey, but with a woman at the centre for a change.
Monkey Grip – Helen Garner
Fitzroy. Summer. Acid. Speed. House parties. Fitzroy Baths and camping by the beach. Sunshine. Then freezing rain. Heroin. Raising children in the 70's. Feminism, desperate awful free-love, gigs, parties, politics, theatre, literature.... Only magnificent.
Loaded – Christos Tsiolkas
I don't like any of Tsiolkas's other novels, which beside this one seem to come across as writing exercises. This one is electric and hot and dirty. Lie somewhere warm and read it from cover to cover then go out and get drunk.
Bliss – Peter Carey
Harry Joy dies twice, slipping between heaven, hell and the nowhere realm of the rancoteur. Honey Barbara finds him somewhere in between. The whole thing is just plain beautiful.
What I loved – Siri Hustvedt
A book I have returned to time and time again, a mountain of adjectives could attempt to describe Hustvedt's prose but I would rest with elegant. The complexities of New Yorks art scene are teased out into a dark vortex of relationships while meditations on the nature of time and memory betray the authors academic background but never veer into pure abstraction. Every word is in its place, every character remarkable- prepare to be completely undone by the second act.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
If you haven't yet done yourself the favor of reading Virginia Woolf, start here. Her highly experimental modernist novels are always a fascinating push against narrative drive, what seems logical is rendered irrelevant and the dreamy, evocative prose glimmers with thought. Hidden within her cinematic vision are stunning critiques on war trauma, capitalism, classism, and gender. Strange and superb.
Selected Poems – Paul Celan
Melancholic, inchoate, elegant.
This is poetry in its purest sense, lyrical and mysterious, with some unnameable element that haunts the text, often deciphered as biography; Celan, a Romanian Jew, lost both his parents to concentration camps during the war and suffered depression throughout his life until he killed himself at the age of 41. His mastery of words is extraordinary, his restraint lends a elegiac tone that nonetheless often dazzles, resplendant, before retreating back into quiet contemplation of things unknown, suggested and surrendered. Beautiful.
Henry and June – Anais Nin
I would argue this is Nin's best work, her biographical fiction is more finely nuanced than her vaguely surrealist fiction erotica, and for pure indulgence I would take a dip into her novel world of eroticism that floats into poetry (while retaining a whole lot of steamy carnality). The sensuality of her subject is matched equally by the sensuality of her prose, a gorgeous lexicon of language for desire, sex, the human body and its cycles, I cannot help but admire her for writing pure sex without once being vulgar.
Why This World – Benjamin Moser
While I would love to recommend a Clarice Lispector novel, I fear far too few would be motivated to read them, her fiction is bizarre, difficult, luminous, poetry challenged to continue the line and explode into meditative esctasy. Like Virginia Woolf on acid. This biography on her life however, is spectacular and will enchant all who encounter it.
Stigmata – Helene Cixous
A collection of essays by the enigmatic Helene Cixous, who writes here within a multivalenced realm that integrates philosophy, criticism, feminism, poetry, biography et al with an absolute refusal to categorisation, written with an attempt to evade 'writing'. Expect dense abstraction. She excells in atmosphere, deception, metaphor. Read her to be seduced by language.
OPEN – Andre Agassi
Because it's funny and incredibly sad. Agassi is a champion tennis player – but i'm not interested in that – I am interested in the psychology of a champion. The painful sacrificies that Agassi made to play a sport he hates.
GILEAD – Marilynne Robinson
I don't usually care about old, religious men but in Gilead I did. A quietly powerful novel, somehow held me in its thrall.
FOXFIRE : Confessions of a Girl Gang – Joyce Carol Oates
This rebellious novel equally inspired and scared me as a young woman. The seductive, charismatic Legs and her gang of girls misbehaving, acting out against the opression and underlying violence of American suburbia Foxfire was a riveting reminder that girls are powerful and cool.
Swamplandia – Karen Russell
Because it is purely odd, and liberatingly original.
Swamplandia is a entertainment park with no patrons to entertain. The star-performer at Swamplandia was the indominitable Hilda Bigfoot – until she succumbed to cancer leaving a husband and three carny children in her wake.
The novel is largely told from the perspective of the youngest member of the family, a 13-year-old child named Ava who takes it upon herself to rescue Swamplandia in order to keep her mother's legacy and memory alive for everybody. The voice of Ava is truly interesting, as is the muddy, dank, humid world of Swamplania that she inhabits.
H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald
Helen McDonald is a naturalist, a science writer and a poet who has loved falcons and hawks since she was a little girl. In the the wake of her father's death, she wrote this memoir about training a goshawk and dealing with grief, weaving in a history of falconry and a biography of the eccentric English fantasy writer TH White. Elegant, funny, original, utterly engrossing prose. I read this on a plane, made me feel kinda nostalgic for a 16 hour flight.
Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles
Everything is Nice – Jane Bowles
This is all that was written by the remarkable Jane Bowles. There's no other writer like her. She was married to Paul Bowles, an amazing beat writer and composer, they were both gay, both lived with their respective partners. Her writing is strange, mesmerising, hilarious and devastating. Her women are my most favourite women: complex, funny and real. Two Serious Ladies to me is most of all about a desire to escape one's own limitations, the intense, mad longing to come into being.
Swann's Way – Marcel Proust
I thought Proust was meant to be some literary Mount Everest. I opened up Lydia Davis' translation just coz I was curious, like a child sneaking into their parents' bedroom to admire the adult books. Couldn't put it down. Proust actually felt like a real person in my life, and the most wonderful person imaginable. This is writing that is so delicious you want to eat the pages, pure joy. I hear it's best to switch to the original Moncrieff translation after this one.
Gravity and Grace – Simone Weil
Extremelly beautiful and extremelly insane. Simone Weil was a Christian mystic from a wealthy Jewish family, a one time ardent Marxist, a theorist of ethics, a political writer, a factory worker. She was so commited to her ideas of ethics that she starved herself to death. In Gravity and Grace she develops a poetic, passionate, provocative theory of one's relationship with God and reality, and contemplates the need for 'decreation'.
The Aspern Papers – Henry James
This is so good. Deeply original and surprising, mysterious and bizarre. A Henry James sentence is a total treat to start with, and here the story unfolds amongst the opulance of 19th century Venice, plus it's a charming literary mystery. The unreliable narrator is rendered with nuance and humour. The ending explodes with some of the most striking and scary imagery I've come across.
Old Masters – Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard at his relentless, merciless,vicious best. A man in his 80's goes to the same museum every day for 36 years to look at the White Bearded Man . He launches an attack on the establishment, the high art, the low art, Austria, politics, history, walking, eating, sleeping, being - the absurdity of being a human. Don't read it all at once.
Reading Chekhov – Janet Malcolm
I found this work, a lesser known one in Malcolm illuminating and joyful, a very welcome introduction to Chekhov both as a writer and a person. Always introspective, Malcolm also contemplates the traps and limitations of biographical writing as a form. A light, laconic read that makes you rapidly fall in love with one of Russia's greats.
I love Anne Carson. Actually swallow her writing like candies. She's so erudite, so singular and so romantic. She makes poetry feel light and sexy. Treat yourself to Anne any day.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
The Lover is an unforgettable portrayal of the intense relationship between two lovers, and of the hate that slowly tears the girl's family apart. Saigon, 1930s: a poor young French girl meets the elegant son of a wealthy Chinese family. Soon they are lovers, locked into a private world of passion and intensity that defies all the conventions of their society. The Lover is disturbing, erotic, masterly.
The Planetarium, Nathalie Sarraute
Deeply engaging. The Planetarium uses a simple plot to reveal the disparity between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.
Jealousy, Alain Robbe-Grillet
In his most famous and perhaps most typical work, Robbe-Grillet explores his principle preoccupation, the meaning of reality. The novel is set on a tropical banana plantation and the action is seen through the eyes of a narrator who never appears in person, never speaks and never acts. He is a point of observation, his personality only to be guessed, watching every movement of the other two characters' actions and events as they flash like moving pictures across the distorting screen of a jealous mind.
Jules et Jim, Henri-Pierre Roche
In free-spirited Paris, Jules and Jim live a carefree, bohemian existence. They write in cafés, travel when the mood takes them, and share the women they love without jealousy. Like Lucie, flawless, an abbess, and Odile, impulsive, mischievous, almost feral. But it is Kate - with a smile the two friends have determined to follow always, but capricious enough to jump in the Seine from spite - who steals their hearts most thoroughly. Henri-Pierre Roché was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this, his autobiographical debut novel. The inspiration for the legendary film, it captures perfectly with excitement and great humour the tenderness of three people in love with each other and with life.
Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
"Sentimental Education" begins with the hero - Frederic Moreau - leaving Paris and returning to the provinces and his mother. Part love story, part historical novel and satire it tells of how Moreau is driven by passion for an unattainable older woman. His 'sentimental education' turns out to be more of an anxious quest than a happy one, echoing Flaubert's own life experience of unrequited love. Packed with vivid detail and characterised by its historical authenticity, the book was described by Flaubert as 'the moral history of the men of my generation'.
Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, Richard Brautigan
Revenge of the Lawn is Richard Brautigan in miniature and contains no fewer than 62 ultra-short stories set mainly in Tacoma, Washington (where the author grew up) and in the flower-powered San Francisco of the late fifties and early sixties. In their compacted form, which ranges from the murderously short 'The Scarlatti Tilt' to one-page wonders like the sexually poignant poetry of 'An Unlimited Supply of 35 Millimetre Film', Brautigan's stories take us into a world where his fleeting glimpses of everyday strangeness leave stories and characters resonating in our heads long after they're gone.
Ask the Dust, John Fante
Arturo Bandini arrives in Los Angeles with big dreams but is faced with the grim reality of poverty. When he makes a small fortune from the publication of a short story, he embarks upon a reinvention, indulging in expensive clothes, fine food and downtown strip clubs. But Bandini's delusions take a worrying turn when he is drawn into a relationship with Camilla Lopez, a beautiful but troubled young woman who will be responsible for his greatest downfall. Ask the Dust is an unforgettable novel about outsiders looking in on a town built on celluloid dreams.
Farewell My Lovely, Raymond Chandler
Eight years ago Moose Malloy and cute little redhead Velma were getting married - until someone framed Malloy for armed robbery. Now his stretch is up and he wants Velma back. PI Philip Marlowe meets Malloy one hot day in Hollywood and, out of the generosity of his jaded heart, agrees to help him. Dragged from one smoky bar to another, Marlowe's search for Velma turns up plenty of dangerous gangsters with a nasty habit of shooting first and talking later. And soon what started as a search for a missing person becomes a matter of life and death.
Elmer, David MacKee
Elmer the colourful patchwork elephant has been a nursery favourite since this first book was published in 1989. A modern classic, with over two million copies sold worldwide, Elmer's subtle message, that it is ok to be different, resonates with children across the world.
The Search Warrant – Patrick Modiano
Slight book, but haunting—it'll echo in your head far beyond the last page. Fifty years too late, Modiano stumbles across a missing persons notice from a 1941 Parisian newspaper giving only a name, age and brief description. What follows is what the author manages to uncover about the missing girl, Dora Bruder—her family life, her footsteps around Nazi-occupied Paris—and what slips through the cracks, including the mystery of her dissapearance and untimely death.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov
It's funny, sharp, uncomfortable and morally bankrupt. That Nabakov can portray a criminal as reprehensible as a pedophilic kindnapper and make him even slightly sympathetic is some fancy sleight-of-hand.
10:04 – Ben Lerner
Lerner's second novel is a semi-autobiographical book about fear of the future, from the perspective of a neurotic writer in present day New York. He goes to an art film, considers having kids, eats a squid and shelters from Hurricane Sandy. The title is a reference to the exact time that Marty McFly fires up the DeLorean in Back to the Future. That's the sort of thing you're in for.
The Silent Woman – Janet Malcolm
Janet Malcolm could never write a straight-up biograpy. The Silent Woman is not so much a biography of Sylvia Plath as a history of previous attempts to write about the poet, covering divided loyalties, bias and literary estate interference. By the end it's a book on the act of biography itself, and a compelling bit of journalistic detective work.