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Proof of Pudding


What discerning judges have said about The Coffee Story

'It's been a while since I read a first novel that felt as universally accomplished as Peter Salmon's The Coffee Story' - Toby Litt

'I was constantly intoxicated by a sense of desire & loss' - Jake Arnott

'Wild and raucous... an extraordinarily accomplished debut' - Niall Griffiths

'Reminiscent of Phillip Roth's Everyman. But it's much, much funnier' - Sydney Morning Herald

'An exceptional debut' - Martyn Bedford

Hard Sell

My Top Ten Books of 2015, Numbers 1-5

Yup, here they are. Reverse order again. No peeking.

flaubert letters5. Flaubert’s Letters

One of my guiltiest secrets as a reader, and as writer and as a man, is that I have never enjoyed or admired Madame Bovary. Again and again I have picked it up, marvelled at the hat that Charles Bovary wears to school on page two, and then felt the book get heavier and heavier in my hands until I am able to drop it a couple of hundred stultifying pages later. So it was quite a revelation to fall in love with his letters. From the frankly obscene letters of his early twenties; to those concerning his (mutually) crap love affair with Louise Colet, through the letters of his maturity in which he sets out his artistic ideals; to the grumpy letters of his dotage, railing against the idiocy of the individual and society, these letters read like an eloquent version of what goes on in the head of any intelligent person, by which I guess I mean me (I do tend to rail against idiocy). Means I will have to read Bovary again. Dear God.

 

 

iliad4. The Iliad by Peter Green and Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

I had the good fortune to come across the writings of Weil for the first time while writing a review of this new translation of the Iliad… and if that sounds like a plug, it is: here’s the review… http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/the-iliad-homer-peter-green/ But self-promotion aside, Weil’s ideas continue to haunt me – I find myself agreeing with her passionately, and then disagreeing with her just as passionately. At her best she is inspiring, at her worst – has there ever been a more annoying writer? I think in the end she is completely wrong, but wrong in the most interesting way I have ever encountered.

 

 

flanders3. The Flanders Road by Claude Simon

This brilliant novel is not so much a book to me these days as a totem. I keep it beside me while I write as a sort of incentive. Whenever I am writing and I think I can’t do something, this novel laughs in my face. It is a book of absolute conviction and absolute audacity. Simon uses language pushed to its limits – this is no affectation, but a revelation of the torsion between language and thought. It is exhilarating.

 

 

 

 

migration2. Migration by W S Merwin

There are some books it is best not to read just before bed. This is one – a collection from W S Merwin which, like the Claude Simon novel, eschews punctuation unless absolutely necessary – in Simon’s case very occasionally, and in Merwin’s case, never. This produces small nodes of surprising meaning in the Merwin – he is able to shape several meanings simultaneously, or deliver one with what appears to be absolute clarity, before it begins to vibrate with ambiguity moments later. Merwin’s recent work has drawn itself closer to nature – there is solace there – but his earlier works come across to me as wounded, worried. And, because his verse is so open, the reader cannot help but start searching for concordances, and new ways of thinking. And then it’s 3am…

 

 

wisdom1. The Wisdom Books – Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; Strong as Death is Love – The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel; Ancient Israel – The Former Prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings by Robert Alter

Without a doubt, Robert Alter’s ongoing translation of the Bible has been the biggest revelation of the year for me. Going back to the roots of the text, Alter provides both a terrific, poetic rendering of the narrative, and provides – running parallel to the text, a commentary that concentrates on the books as ‘literature’. Thus he brings both the skill of a literary critic and the erudition of a linguist to the task. The Bible becomes a living thing – that it became a collection, and that the collection became a holy book, becomes more and more baffling and more and more intriguing. One comes to the conclusion that this is as much down to the genius of words as to the genius of religion – so little of the Bible is moral proselytizing, so much of it thrums with ambiguity. And the notes are a marvellous source of tid-bits, from the quotidian – did you know the etymology of ‘restaurant’ is restorant? – to the sublime – David’s son, Amnon, in love with his sister Tamar, says in English “Tamar the sister of Absolom my brother I do love”  which Alter points out is, in the Hebrew, a “series of gasping sighs – ‘et-tamar’ ahot ‘avshalom ‘ahi ‘ani’ ‘ohev”, the opening vowel sounds of each word panting out his desire. I haven’t read Alter’s Five Books of Moses yet, but they are next on the list. I believe they start with a bang…

My Top Ten Books of 2015, Numbers 6-10

Books, eh? What’s that all about?

Anyway, enough of that. Here’s my top ten books of 2015. As you’ll recall from last year, these aren’t books published in 2015, but books I’ve read in 2015. And they are in no particular order, except that of merit. Books 6-10 today, and 1-5 tomorrow. Reverse order – that builds tension, innit.

death of virgil10. The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch
Picking this off the shelf I am reminded that a) I didn’t finish it and b) I didn’t finish it even more than I remembered didn’t finishing it – according to the natty London to Didcot Parkways ticket that serves as a bookmark, I only got through 104 of the 488 pages, which doesn’t seem a lot. And yet this is a book which has haunted my imagination all year (since Feb 23 anyway, again according to the train ticket). The opening procession, bringing Virgil down the river and then to the palace of Augustus is one of the most brilliantly sustained passages I have read – the long, complex sentences creating a world of darkness that mimics the night through which the poet is transported. I gave up in exhaustion, but know it will suck me in again sometime soon.

 

 

furies9. The Furies by Janet Hobhouse
I remember reading this shortly after seeing the documentary Grey Gardens, and both chronicle with almost overwhelming intensity a relationship of co-dependency between a mother and her adult daughter. Hobhouse, as the title suggests, is filled with rage, and does not always make a pleasant travelling companion through the travails of her mother’s suicide and her own fatal illness. But there is a grandeur to someone – as Philip Roth writes of it – ‘turning their suffering into a confession’. It is a poetic investigation of a childhood that never has the opportunity to end, except in death.

 

 
lives saints8. The Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler
I’ve spent a fair bit of this year obsessed with saints, and this was the book that kicked it off. What started a parlour game, noting the saint of the day and considering mimicking their actions, became for me an interesting intellectual exercise in imaging a world in which belief was a core aspect of being, and the extremes to which an individual is willing to go in order to sanctify it.

 

 

 

 
history christianity7. A History of the Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch; The Primary Chronicle by Nestor the Chronicler
These two books are linked in my mind as I was reading the first when I visited Kiev in late 2015. MacCulloch’s book manages to be both comprehensive and opinionated – at his best he reads like Gibbon. By surveying all of Christianity and its development, he shows how mercurial the belief systems of the followers of Christ – and, crucially, St Paul – have been, and the range of practices they have inspired. One such system I encountered while visiting the cave monastery of Lavra Pechersk, where, among others, the body of Nestor the Chronicler is interred. His Primary Chronicle narrates the foundational myths of Ukraine, and are a wonderful insight into a culture of which I knew little. (My article on my visit to Lavra will appear in The Tablet in February. Just so you know.)

 

 
lives artists6. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari
Not given to audiobooks, except when they only cost a pound from a charity shop, this was a revelation to me. Funny, irascible, opinionated and thorough, Vasari brings the Italian Renaissance to life through those who made it. It’s led me to an obsession with Giotto and notions of perspective. It can keep you awake at night, that stuff. And now I can’t look at a painting by Rosso Fiorentino without thinking of baboons, or baboons without thinking of Rosso Fiorentino’s paintings. And my next novel is based on an anecdote from the book. I’d tell you which, but then you’d steal my idea and grow rich, so I’m not going to. You can fuck right off.

Wheels of Cheese #57: Six pieces for Orchestra by Tony Banks

genesis 1972

These men are rock stars, so I guess they probably want to have sex with you.

When I first started writing Wheels of Cheese, back in the 1940s, I never dreamed that it I would end up writing about the 70s prog rock band (and later 80s shit rock band) Genesis, and yet here I am. Doing just that! Reason being that Tony Banks. the keyboardist, now writes classical music (too!). It’s quite nice.

But enough of that. For most of us, of course, Genesis are best known as one of Patrick Bateman’s favourite bands in American Psycho. For him, Invisible Touch ‘was the group’s undisputed masterpiece. It’s an epic meditation on intangibility. At the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums’. Their earlier stuff he found, ‘Too artsy, too intellectual’. As musch as I hate to disagree with Patrick Bateman, I was lucky enough to stumble across this video of Genesis live on Belgian telly in 1972. ‘Artsy’, yes. But I’m not sure if ‘intellectual’ makes it past the first lyric.

Anyway, if you’ve got half an hour, and literally nothing else to do, I recommend you have a listen – HERE.