Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Paul Auster and Esther Freud: Four short reviews of books by masterful storytellers

It has been my custom, on this humble blog, to write reviews (often quite badly, but perhaps sometimes entertainingly) of the books I have read.

I’ve gathered them in one spot on the Freshlyworded virtual bookshelf, mostly for my own nostalgic pleasure, to peruse from time to time and to remind me of what I have read over the years. At worst, its fantastically eclectic mix of genres, themes and styles.

I hope it might also provide some recommendations for friends and strangers who may be looking for a tome to entertain them, and perhaps an escape from Netflix etc.

As, I have fallen far behind on the books I have read and not yet reviewed, I’ve decided to gather mini reviews of the last four books I have read – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, David Sedaris’s The Best of Me, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky in one handy blog post, sparing my dear reader the lengthy, waffling and rambling diatribes I tend to succumb to when writing reviews.

While it’s hard to find too many commonalities across the four books – Wilde and Auster’s are novels of exquisite imagination set in big cities (London and New York), while Sedaris and Freud’s works are highly autobiographical and deeply observational stories – I can confidently say that all are the product of wonderfully entertaining storytellers that bring characters to life on the page through their precise and elegant writing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, who famously said “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” penned one of the best works of Victorian Gothic fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1890.

An absolutely wicked and very dark tale about how vanity and the pursuit of pleasure can destroy the soul, it was an absolute pleasure to read it for the second or maybe third time. From the very first page, where we meet the artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of young, beautiful Dorian Gray in a stately London home, Wilde transports you to upper class world of Victorian England.

Wilde depicts the inner moral decline of Gray, who succumbs to the “new hedonism” promoted by the aristocratic Lord Henry, and goes from a innocent “young Adonis” to a cruel, murderer frightened of his own shadow. While Gray retains his youthful looks, the painting hidden up in the attic of his Mayfair townhouse grows hideous, depicting the corruption of his soul.

An aspect I loved about Wilde’s book is that the “monster” of the gothic tale is handsome young man, with evil growing inside him, rather than the real monsters that inhabit Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget the numerous film adaptions of the book, and read’s Wilde’s brilliant, dark novel.

Rating: 9/10

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

I was pretty late discovering the wonderful writing of David Sedaris, whose celebrated short stories, fables and accounts of his own life have turned him into one of America’s most celebrated humorist and best selling authors.

A friend lent me a copy of a collection of his stores, Holidays on Ice, published in 1997, that included a retelling of his experiences working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s Department store in New York

Then I came across Sedaris via the great Radio Show/Podcast This American Life. In one episode he read aloud his story about the death of his sister Tiffany, who committed suicide after a troubled life (Now we are five). In another episode, host Ira Glass meets with Sedaris in Paris, where the writer had lived for two years with his boyfriend Hugh. Sedaris takes Glass on an eventful tour of Paris sharing anecdotes of misadventures with the French language and the dangers of buying the wrong butter

Sedaris narrates his own stories with a delightful weariness in his mid-Western voice. He has an almost magical ability to write as if he is confiding only to his reader.

The Best of Me is an anthology of favourite works hand-picked by Sedaris. It begins with a delightfully wicked tale entitled “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 2” where Glen (perhaps Sedaris’s alter-ego) describes his brief and doomed friendship with the attractive male cashier at Dave’s Kwik shop. It’s both very funny and unsettling, descriptions which apply to a lot of the stories contained in The Best of Me.

While I enjoyed some of his fable-like fictional stories like Christmas Means Giving, where rivaling super-rich neighbours try to outdo each other’s charitable acts in the most hideous fashion, my favourite stories are the one Sedaris tells about seminal moments in his own life particularly those about his family. Sedaris grew up with five siblings, including the actress and comedian Amy Sedaris.

Sedaris combines both tenderness and great humour in his writing, which is never overly sentimental or lecturing, but always insightful whether it be about relationships, politics, culture or identity.

Many of his stories explore the relationship with his father, who treated him with disdain and unkindly in his youth, but who softened into someone almost likeable as he aged.

To get a taste of Sedaris’s unique voice, you can listen to him narrate the story of his father’s final days in the achingly poignant Unbuttoned via the New Yorker magazine website. Unbuttoned is one of the stories contained in the anthology.

You can also read online – Dentists without Borders – which was first published in The New Yorker in 2012.

You can also listen to him read Now we are five and Americans in Paris on This American Life and dozens of other episodes featuring his stories and essays.

While his writing is a platform to explore his own upbringing, identity, phobias and personality, Sedaris has this amazing ability to make the reader feel good about being alive in a world of contradictions and craziness.

Rating: 8/10

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

I hadn’t realised how many Paul Auster books I had read until I browsed my bookshelf at home, after reading his work of magical realism Moon Palace.

Here I found Mr Vertigo (1994), The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003).

I also know of Auster through two screenplays he wrote for the movies Smoke, and its follow-up Blue in the Face, both starring Harvey Keitel, who plays the owner of a Brooklyn cigar shop.

Though I don’t remember all the plots in detail, I have a clear memory of the sheer pleasure in reading those books and the sweetness of the movies, especially Smoke.

Auster, is one of the modern greats of American Literature, and has been touted as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature. Were he to win it, he would be one of the most accessible and worthy recipients (the prize is often in my opinion given to writers no one has heard of (Abdulrazak Gurnah in 2021?) apart from university professors of English literature.

Auster is a wonderful storyteller and masterful creator of characters, that often draw on his own personal history. Many of characters reappear in his books, at different ages and stages of their lives.

Moon Palace is narrated in Holden Caufield-like fashion by the introverted, intense and tortured orphan Marco Stanley Fogg. It begins with Fogg nearly starving to death in his sparse New York apartment after deciding to “live dangerously” and simply live off the proceeds of the mountain of books he has inherited from his late Uncle Victor. Later he finds love in the arms of the beautiful and kind Kitty Wu and then a live-in job reading and carrying out chores for a blind old, wheel chair-bound man called Thomas Effing in his large Manhattan apartment.

Along the way, all sorts of strange and seemingly unlikely (but believable in the hands of Auster) coincidences take place throughout Marco’s epic, modern odyssey that take him from streets of New York to the sparse wilderness of the American Mid-West and that bring him closer to knowing his back story and finding his identity.

As with other Auster books, there are “stories within stories” as the reader is swept down portals of time and memory. If you’re looking to make a start on the oeuvre (yep, fancy word – look it up!) of Auster, magical and mystical Moon Palace is a good place to start.

Rating: 8/10

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I thought I’d be a bit more enthralled by Esther Freud’s autobiographical tale about her stint living in Morocco with her aimless mother Julia and older sister Bella. (Freud is the daughter of the legendary portrait painter Lucian Freud and the great granddaughter of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud).

I picked the book at random from my gigantic 1001 Books You should Read Before You Die and was looking forward to reading it as I’d travelled through Morocco with my wife when we backpacked in 2010 and been entranced by its ancient and bustling cities with their overflowing markets, maze-like laneways and lively squares like the incredible Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square and marketplace in Marrakesh.

Indeed we stayed in just the kind of cheap hotel Lucy, the six-year-old narrator stays in with her mother and sister (the wonderfully named Hotel Moulay Idriss) close to the Jemma el-Fnaa.

Lucy precociously narrates the family’s adventures across the country, the curious sights she sees in the markets, squares and festivals, the relationships forged with local characters like Bilal (her mother’s Moroccan lover and a father figure for her kids) and the eccentric expats they meet, like the wealthy “prince” Luigi Mancini. The children seem to have a supernatural power to to know which adults to trust, a fortunate quality given their mother is often absent, in spirit if not sometimes physically.

The family are constantly having to find ways to make ends meet as they wait for money to arrive, making dolls to sell in the market, or a few pieces of fruit they have gathered. One “holiday” has them sleeping outdoors on a beach for days.

Esther Freud’s beautiful descriptions transported me back to my time in Morocco, especially Marrakesh, which was wonderful. The novel is magical in parts, but I was also quite bored at times by all the wondering about and waiting around. Perhaps I need to read it again (It’s only 186 pages). I’d also like to watch the movie starring Kate Winslet.

Rating: 7/10

Podcasts for train journeys: 10 to get you started

Vlocity_train_at_little_river_victoriaA new, hour–long, daily commute by train into work (Gisborne to Southern Cross) has suprisingly quelled my reading habits and instead created a new obsession: Podcasts.

Where I thought I would have my head buried in a book as the rugged Victorian countryside rolled by,  I have instead been listening to a variety of audio tales spanning  true crime, politics, everyday life, pyschology and science, celebrity lives, music and comedy.

I’ve been using the Stitcher app which is great because its very user-friendly and you can download podcast espisodes onto your phone to listen offline so I don’t have to use any of my data or rely on mobile connections (this is particurlarly handy for country train rides where mobile signal disappear into black holes).

Much has been written about how Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and others have changed television forever with all their brilliantly original shows and on-demand binge viewing, I reckon Podcasts are changing radio broadcasting in the same way.

In fact I hardly listen to live radio any more and haven’t watched live television in months.

I have listened to Podcasts before – namely the groundbreaking Guardian Unlimited Ricky Gervais Show and the first brilliant season of crime investigation Serial – but this is the first time I have truly binged on the podcast medium.

Given there are literally thousands of podcasts (and many are downright mediocre or terrible), here are 10 I reckon are worth giving a try, mostly based on recommendations from my podcast-addicted friend Jonny L.

Casefile

My first introduction to the Australian true crime podcast ‘Casefile was the story,  told in three parts, of the notorious ‘Jonestown’ massacre involving the narcissistic Reverend Jim Jones. I followed this up with the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels serial murders in Snowtown, South Australia in the late 1990s which revealed human behaviour at its most depraved.

Each grizzly story is told in graphic detail by an unnamed (and yet to be identified) Australian narrator with a chilling, deadpan voice. Each episode is brilliantly researched, taking you right inside the criminal mind. The podcast, which according to a Vice interview came about when the anonymous creator was stuck in hospital and bored, has become an international sensation with something like 200,000+ downloads per episode.

Sword and Scale

I followed up a couple of Casefile stories with another true crime American podcast ‘Sword and Scale’ with a disturbing episode about childhood sexual abuse and then an episode about Donna Scrivo who killed and dismembered her own son, Ramsay.

Narrated by the disquieting Mike Boudet, Sword and Scale has more of an investigative feel blending a retelling of events with exclusive interviews, courtroom recording and radio and television broadcasts. The podcasts keep listeners guessing, only revealing certains bits of crucial information towards the end.

Desert Island Discs

In need of some light relief, I tuned into the BBC’s famous music series Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, John McEnroe, Hugh Bonneville and Mark Rylance to date) where celebrities talk to Kirsty Young about their lives and the eight songs they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. This is actually a radio show that has been condensed into podcast format. Each are about 40 minutes long.

Here’s The Thing

Next on the menu was Alec Baldwin’s New York podcast “Here’s The Thing'” where the 30 Rock star interviews actors, musicians, politicians and other people he admires (Edie Falco, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffma, William Friedkin, Bernie Sanders, Sandra Bernhardt, Anthony Weiner and Mickey Rourke) about what inspires them, the turning points in their lives and the people and events that shaped them. It’s great because Baldwin loves and admires his interview subjects and is genuinely interested in their lives. Plus he has the perfect voice for radio: smooth and mellow, and he doesn’t take himself to seriously. (My personal favourite so far, the director William Friedkin who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).

The Moth Radio Hour

I confess I have only listened to one episode so far, but it was brilliant. The format of the show, which has been around for years, is to have a theme and then to feature real stories told live in front of an audience. The theme I listened to was Me, Myself, and I: Stories of Questioned Identity which included a great story by the writer and journalist Jon Ronson about a Twitter spambot that stole his identity. The three other stories in the podcast, including the dating adventures of a Manhattan Mormon comic, were all wonderfully engaging, funny, charming and thought-provoking.

On Point

On Point is podcast by the always reliably good National Public Radio (NPR) syndication network examining major issues dominating the American news cycle. Hosted by Tom Ashbrook, the former foreign editor of the Boston Globe, the show invites top journalists and bloggers who are experts on the chosen topic – be it the Harvey Weinstein scandal or the #Takeaknee NFL protest – to present their view-point and debate among each other. Generally panelists include people across the political spectrum which adds to its appeal.

Phoebe’s Fall (On iTunes not Stitcher)

Phoebe’s Fall is a special investigation by The Age newspaper into the bizarre, tragic and unexplained death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjunk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage shoot in one of Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment towers.  Presented over six episodes by investigative journalists Michael Bachalard and Richard Baker, it looks at all the key aspects of the baffling case, which seems to defy the ruling of the Coronial Inquest; that Phoebe died by misadventure. It includes interviews with Phoebe’s family, retired detectives and legal experts pulled together with an enjoyable discussion and debate between the two journalists about the key aspects of the case. It’s unmissable for podcast addicts.

This American Life

Presented by one of American radio’s most distinctive voices, Ira Glass, This American Life is one of the most listened to radio shows and podcasts in America. Each weekly episode (broadcast across 500 radio stations) exploring a different theme or topic with great nuance and insight whether it be “The Perils of Intimacy” (about relationships), or “Expect Delays” (about the banal perils of travel and journeys) or more serious topics like the rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. The show is legendary and deserves its status.

Hidden Brain

Also an NPR broadcast, Hidden Brain is a science-based podcast about how we experience the world. Episodes that I have listen to look at the phenomenon of Nostalgia and Regret. The latest episode is on unpredictable behaviour. It’s presented by the highly articulate Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist.

These are just a few suggestions from a novice Podcast listener. If you have any suggestions of your own, send me an email (freshlyworded@gmail.com).

In particular I am keen on finding a good comedy podcast. I’ve not had much luck so far.

The freshlyworded 2 minute review: Serial

141023_CBOX_SerialPodcast.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeWhat’s being reviewed?

Serial

What is it ?

A 12 podcast series produced by ‘This American Life’ a  syndicated American radio program and WBEZ Chicago, a community radio station.

What’s it about?

Part story telling, part investigative journalism, part amateur sleuthing in the style of Scooby Doo (as one reviewer put it), Serial tells the story of the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction, after two trials, of her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was given a life sentence. In each episode, journalist and broadcaster Sarah Koenig attempt to unravel a different element of the case to answer the question: Did Adnan do it?

If you only know one thing…

It’s the most downloaded podcast of all time with more than 5 million downloads as of January this year.

Is it any good?

Yes. If you love a good detective story or a riveting documentary, you will love Serial. The show’s executive producer, Ira Glass said of it: “We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”

What I liked most about it?

The chatty, personal style that exploits the audio-only medium and draws you in. How much you learn about criminal investigation and procedure. The setting, Baltimore, one of America’s most interesting cities. The interweaving of narrative, interviews, opinion and evidence that gives Serial its power.

What I disliked?

Trying to remember all the details and keep track of the various plotlines. At times confusing. The ending may disappoint some.

How much time do you have to invest?

Eight and a half hours of listening time, plus many more hours on the Serial website, doing your own research and reading analysis and comments about the show. It’s addictive.

How do I listen to it?

It’s free. Download it from iTunes or from serialpodcast.org

Can you recommend something similar, in another medium?

The Oscar-nominated documentary: “Capturing the Friedmans” about dark secrets in a upper middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. And watch The Wire, a television series set in Baltimore about criminals and the police that pursue them. Arguably the greatest television show ever made.