Stuff from the guts of Australian writer Nigel Featherstone
It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.
One of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.
Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.
Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)
Four poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.
Non-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.
In terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.
Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.
A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.
As I say every year (every day, more like), I would be lost without music: it’s my oxygen, my water, my heart-beat. There is no point comparing it to reading or writing – literature is a whole other world – but music certainly forms an aesthetic space that I adore. As I’ll touch on below, my taste is evolving, as it should; I seem to be searching for beauty more than ever. But, in the main, it’s not a pretty kind of beauty. There has to be light and shadow, darkness even, and edginess, even ugliness. In short the music needs to express the full range of human experience. Sheesh, as if that’s even possible. Thankfully, composers, songwriters and musicians are up for the challenge.
Anyway, enough rambling. Here we go.
Mitski is a conservatorium-trained alternative rock musician from New York and, quite frankly, Puberty 2 is one of the most enjoyable records I’ve bought in a long while, though it’s oddly difficult to describe. Here are a few words that may help: low-fi, angular, gutsy, poetic, PJ Harvey-esque, a touch of Weezer, and melancholic (of course). This is certainly a record to turn up loud so you can air-guitar to the knowledge that love is sublime, fraught, messy, and infuriating. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an almost orgasmic rush of alt-rock goodness. Also have a listen to ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’. Tough, but highly memorable.
Centres by Ian William Craig got me on first listen and it has not let me go. It’s such an elegant mix of keyboard washes and drones, topped with loads of treated voice (Craig is a trained singer). All up, it’s a little like M83, but without the cheesy 1980s pastiche. Album opener ‘Contain’ is the perfect place to start. Great that the album finishes with an acoustic version of the opening track, proving that despite all the studio-trickery there are real songs at the heart of this work.
Kiasmos by Kiasmos: even though this album dates from 2014 and I’ve long been a fan of Ólafur Arnalds, I only discovered this in the last few months; I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites of the year. Kiasmos is intricate, smart, thumping, and – that word again – beautiful. If excellent dance music moves the head, the heart, the crotch, and the legs, this album is beyond excellent. A stunning collaboration between Arnolds as composer and Janus Rasmussen as DJ. Here’s hoping they are working on another record, because I must admit: I can’t play Kiasmos without turning out the lights and dancing like no one’s watching.
In my list for last year I briefly mentioned that I had discovered Floating Points and liked what I’d heard. Well, didn’t things go gangbusters from there. Floating Points is essentially one person, Sam Shepherd (another conservatorium-trained composer), and his Elaenia album is as near-perfect as you’re going to get. A little glitchy, oddly funky, more than a bit jazz-inflected, on paper this album is a contradiction, but once you connect with it you’ll find yourself drifting into a galaxy where heartbeats pulse and surprise and, yes, float.
It’s hardly startling, but as I get a bit long in the tooth I’m interested less in alternative rock (Mitski being an exception) and more interested in ‘new music’, especially the sort at the minimal – and, dare I say it, left-field – end of the spectrum. Dmitry Evgrafov’s Collage album is gorgeous, even pretty (that terrible word), but always keen on strange twists and turns. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is reminiscent of the The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble , while other pieces are washed in Sigur Ros-like aesthetics. Evgrafov is certainly a new composer to watch.
Speaking of composers to watch, Ólafur Arnalds is everywhere at the moment, including further up in this list as one half of Kiasmos. On The Chopin Project, he collaborates with Alice Sara Ott on the recomposition of the famous composer’s work. As Arnalds says in the lines notes, ‘By looking at his music in a different way, through the prism of recording technique in its different facets and through my own compositions, I didn’t intent to question the integrity of Chopin’s music. I wanted to find my very personal interpretation, like so many other great musicians have done before me.’ A subtle, wonderful success.
Dag Rosenquist’s Elephant is at times an unsettling listen: there’s a fair amount of static, a lot of repetitive piano tinkling, and, every so often, blasts of sheer noise. But there’s also plenty of beauty to be found, as well as some artful orchestration. ‘Come Silence’ is the most accessible piece here – it’s a gorgeous combination of slow-building keyboards and horns and then strings, before a Jan Garbarek-like saxophone brings us home. Stunning.
It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense.
At 4pm the slipping on of holey sneakers and the wearing of beanie and gloves; an old blue-striped hooded top too. Glasses on face, ready to go.
Out the back door, down the side of the house (ducking to miss the overhead rose), out the first gate and then the picket-fenced second. Footsteps on cracked footpaths, arms swinging for rhythm, legs keeping up.
Turn right into Addison and the rising begins, past the church with the imploring billboard, though it’s hard to ignore the peace of the high-peaked rectory opposite the workers cottages with nothing in the front gardens except twigs and dogshit, me eyeing off the twigs because I’m in the market for kindling.
A bend in the road where the school oval forms a corner, the dependable runnel of water entering the drain and culvert. Wild plum trees like weeds. Two Herefords in their ag-class paddock, steer and calf, mother and daughter, or mother and son. The Lanyon-esque house opposite, all chimneys and verandahs, like a set of a TV drama. (What drama behind the walls?) On the same side but further up the local Liberal’s mansion tucked away beneath a thickness of pines, the whine of a chainsaw preparing wood for the hearth and then, oh, a glass of sherry. ‘Sherry, dear?’ ‘Yes dear, sherry.’ In my boyhood I would have admired their fine slate roof and the sherry, but not anymore.
Turn away to the patch of scrappy bush, pine cones out of reach beneath the pine trees on the other side of the fence. The footie oval, or it might be for cricket, roos grouped on the sidelines, a hop here and a hop there, before head down to snack on the winter grass. Now my legs and arms have found their flow and there’s good breath and air in my lungs. Up we go some more. The small, axe-murderish farm with its darkly curtained windows and the goats that run up to the fence. One time, as I charged by, the farmer waved and called out hello, and I waved and said hello back and thought, so he’s probably not an axe-murderer after all. And on and on, past the new houses that are being built on sold-off paddocks, black Labradors running from one side of their unfinished yard to the other, thinking of my own black Labrador who is too old to come with me these days.
Turn left and up I go even further, past PLEASANT RIDGE, no railings on the stairs or on the top landing despite the house, a red-brick 70s shocker, being two-storeys high – how old the occupants are, which always (sometimes) makes me worry. The horse paddock on the other side of the road, the horse I call Melody or Max; sometimes he – or she – whinnies, but I just keep walking, the ground becoming rockier, and steeper, my ankles training.
And then, at last, the road tips over to flatness and I can feel my heart pounding. I draw in the crisply clean air; I smell the waft of the single sheep in the sloping paddock. I look over the animal to the wind-turbines on the ridge far away in the last of the light. I stop at the gate, grip the cold metal with two hands, let my breathing – and everything else, everything that I’ve brought with me but have left along the road, like invisible breadcrumbs – settling and settling some more. Breathing: it’s all about breathing; to have come all this way (47 years) to reach that conclusion. ‘Mr Sheep, it’s me again. I was here yesterday but now I’m back. What’s going on for you?’ Silence. And stillness. That other thing I’ve learnt: there’s breathing and there’s silence and stillness. Which is why I’ve come to the edge of town. Everything is now in place, even me, in my gloves and beanie and sneakers. ‘See you tomorrow, Mr Sheep.’
Cross the road and make sure to walk beside the piece of bush, the smooth white trunks of young eucalypts, the scent that’s sometimes heady. VOLUNTEERS ARE REHABILITATING THIS AREA – DO NOT LITTER. As if I would. Looking north to the new suburbs, the suburbs that are already lighting up for another evening of Netflix and nachos, soft folds of paddocks to the north where the end of the day is making hollows, before the damp comes, then the frost. I shudder and burrow into the hoodie that I’ve pulled up and tightened.
It’s always the same, and it’s not until the end that it makes sense: breathe out, ease in. I am empty.
For some odd reason year-end lists seem to be getting a bit of a rough trot this time around, but I’m not dissuaded from their worth. I enjoy them, for the simple reason that I find new books to read and new music to listen to; ultimately they help to diversify and enrich my life. So, in terms of music, what follows are the records I’ve enjoyed this year. I make no claim to being a critic, so there’s nothing that says ‘the best’; I just want to share what I’ve been listening to. As always, not all albums were released in 2015 – one (the Max Richter) first came out in 2012.
The Bronze Medal’s first long-player is a treat from start to finish. A young band from Bristol, and clearly inspired by The National, Darlings is filled with beautiful melancholia and rich instrumentation. ‘Life Plans’ is worth the price of admission alone. It will be very interesting to hear what these guys do next – as a debut Darlings is as stunning as it gets.
The Acid is a band comprising British DJ and record producer Adam Freeland, a professor of music technology Steve Nalepa, and the Australian singer-songwriter Ry Cuming. With Liminal the trio has created a slice of intimate electronic – it’s one part Bon Iver, one part The xx, and one part The Breeders (for those of a certain age). The production and dynamics are sublime; here’s ‘Fame‘. Fascinating to read that they have been performing at experimental music festivals, which makes sense as on this record they go far beyond the comparisons listed above.
I’ve been following Lamb since their drum-and-bass beginnings in 1996. They have never been afraid of getting metaphysical and filmic on us and, at times, just a little twee, but Backspace Rewind Lamb is a highlight of their career. ‘In Binary’ is an absolute thumper and I play it often and I play it loud, and the song blew the roof off the Enmore in Sydney when I saw them live earlier this year – it was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever attended.
On Blank Project, Neneh Cherry has done what mega-selling recording artists should do: break free of all preconceived notions. Produced by Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet, someone else I’ve been following for quite a while) Blank Project is daring, experimental, and sounds utterly fresh. Sure it’s raw in parts, and it’s not entirely comfortable, but it deserves a stack of praise. Start with ‘Out of the Black‘. (Side note: I’ve made a mix-tape of the albums in this list for the car and Cherry’s songs are the strongest and most urgent.)
Pet Shop Boys are master songwriters but their output can be patchy. Electric, which was produced by Stuart Price (who worked on Madonna’s surprisingly excellent Confessions on a Dance Floor), is a ripper. Filled with melody and wit and worldliness – they cover Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Last to Die’ – there is never a dull or half-formed moment. ‘Love is a Bourgeois Concept’ deserves a video, and ‘Vocal’ is one of the finest album closers I’ve heard in years (wonderfully nostalgic video too).
Changing the pace, the record I have listened to the most in 2015 is Max Richter’s recomposing of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Not only do I love the idea of a minimalist like Richter unpacking and then rebuilding a work as iconic as Vivaldi’s, it is also extraordinary to listen to. Richter has stated that if his reimagining makes more people discover the original, then he has done his job. Start with ‘Summer 1’.
A band that in my opinion simply can’t put a foot wring is The Go! Team, which is essentially Ian Parton, a one-man song-writing genius. Discarding the basement samples of previous albums, this time around Parton has used real instrumentation as well as collaborating with a fresh batch of vocalists. It’s true that Parton has a formula – infectious pop is his thing – but there is always such joy in his music. (And there’s more melody packed into any one Go! Team song than some bands manage across an entire album.) ‘The Art of Getting By’ has a coda that is so jam-packed with interweaved harmonies it’s hard not to throw you hands up in the air and cry.
Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands that have been around for years (since 1996 to be precise) but I’ve never quite managed to connect with them – perhaps the whole shy-bedroom-poetry-pre-hipster vibe put me off, or I was too busy listening to DJ Shadow. Hearing that after a 7-year hiatus they have come back with what they call their dance album, I thought I’d check them out. Girls in Peacetime want to Dance is wonderful: it’s clever, politically aware, and meticulously put together (as others have said, it sounds a little like Electric by Pet Shop Boys; case in point: ‘Nobody’s Empire‘). By no means is this record for everyone – with ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ they enter Eurovision territory – but they know what they’re doing and there’s a lot of good listening to be had here.
Sarah Blasko’s latest album, Eternal Return, is a sublime piece of work. With an electro feel overall, the selection comes across as a paean to love in the digital age, and while there is some darkness and loss there is never cynicism. There are no weak tracks, though ‘I’d Be Lost’ and ‘Only One’ are the stand-outs – both are gorgeous – and ‘Luxurious’ is exactly that. Here’s hoping this record does wonderful things for Blasko. It’s certainly done wonderful things for my car trips.
Another album that has hugely enriched my life is In Colours by Jamie xx, the ‘xx’ linking him to the wildly successful band of that name, for which he is the eletronica artist and producer. In Colours sees Jamie step well and truly onto the dance floor; the single ‘Loud Places’, which features Romy from The xx, is a hymn to nightclub possibilities, and the raga-esque ‘There’s Gonna be Good Times’ is ridiculously upbeat. In Colours was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and it’s not hard to see why.
I’ve also enjoyed No No No by Beirut (not Condon’s best release – it’s his first for the iconic 4AD label so perhaps the pressure got the better of him – but there’s still a lot to like, especially the single) and Features by the German producer Kris Menace (check out ‘Higher Love’, which has a vocal by Julian Hamilton from The Presets). Although I’ve not yet been able to hear full albums, I like what I’ve heard of Mercury Prize-winning Benjamin Clementine, and Floating Points and Majical Cloudz have been exciting new finds.