August-September (2021) reads

September has almost gone and now it’s time to compile my reads for the last two months. Since my prior list, I have finished four more books. Jane Harper’s The Dry (2016) was the first to be completed. A gripping tale of tragedy in a small drought-stricken Victorian town, this was a stellar debut. Subsequently, I went through J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (1953). The collection reinforces the late writer’s status as one of the hallowed fiction writers of the previous century. In addition, I knocked back two nonfiction titles. The one I’ll review here is Eddie Jaku’s The Happiest Man on Earth (2020). This is a breezy read from the centenarian, a Holocaust survivor.  

  • The Dry (Jane Harper). As per above, this novel was released in 2016. Set in Victoria during a long drought, the plot centres around the murders of a young family. Luke Hadler was a notable figure in town and his wife worked in the local school. His death brings his friend, Aaron Falk, into town. Through Hadler’s father, Falk resolves to conduct a clandestine, unsanctioned investigation into the killings. While the settlement hates him, he finds a pal in Gretchen, a former classmate. Falk left the community with his dad many years past. They were under a cloud of suspicion following the murder of Ellie Deacon, another friend. As Falk gets more entangled into the mess, past secrets come to the surface and tensions turn ugly. Someone doesn’t want Falk to unmask the slayer and would stop at nothing to do so.  

The book is more character driven. Harper seems like she’s been producing novels for years. The plot oscillates between the present and the past, as depicted in Falk’s memories. What makes this a splendid crime thriller is how Harper keeps us guessing. The matador’s identity remains a mystery until the very end. In crafting this microcosm, Harper foregrounds the idiosyncrasies of small-town Victoria. She gives an accurate portrayal of two time periods, a pair of stages in the lives of her mainstays. She moulds flawed characters and situations that give credibility to the story. 

Her writing is likewise commendable: fluid and where every scene counts. Her chapters are well-spaced. Due to the book’s popularity, this eventually became the first of a series. Last year, an acclaimed film adaptation was released, starring Eric Bana as Falk. I must add that, despite the stunning debut, Harper has largely stuck to what gave her success. All her books are rather similar. In this regard, she is the Aussie Karin Slaughter. While the thriller functions as a crime read, The Dry is likewise a timely insight into climate change. Recommended for anyone down for a good mystery. 

Rating: 4.25/5

  • Nine Stories (J.D. Salinger). I’ve had this one on my shelf for a while. At 195 pages, it’s a relatively brief read. With the repositories closed until further notice, now was the time to get cracking on Salinger. Catcher in the Rye was his only other text I’ve read. This one is emblematic of post-war America, highlighting Salinger’s own milieu. The author served his country during WWII. None other than Ernest Hemingway praised his early work; they met during the war. Seven of the stories were published in The New Yorker. Included are two of his most renowned stories: ‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor’ and ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’

The first few tales feature female leads. This impresses Salinger’s aptitude in underscoring protagonists of either sex. The collection tackles various subjects. A couple vacationing in Florida, with Seymour scarred from the war (‘Bananafish’); a mother and son debating by the pier (‘Down at the Dinghy’); a precocious kid with Hindu insights on a cruise ship (‘Teddy’). Some of these tales are loosely based on Salinger’s own experiences. For instance, a critic claimed that the character Seymour is Salinger himself. Furthermore, the author worked on a cruise ship and had a Hindu phase. 

For Esme is by far my favourite in the volume. It’s funny, specifically the line about triple-reading paragraphs. I also chuckled when Sergeant X became posture-conscious after seeing how Esme sat. The story was conceived for returning American troops who struggled after WWII. Salinger has been described as Sargeant X in situ. ‘De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period’ was likewise praiseworthy. John Smith recalls the events of his early life when he got a job at a dodgy ‘art school’. Here, he meets two Asian ‘instructors’ who ran the school through correspondence. He critiques the work of three students and just wings it. Ultimately a tragedy, the tale harbors deeper meaning: about the dilemma of making choices. The man must choose between superficial living and higher learning. This becomes a turning point in his march towards reason.

The book leaves no doubt in my mind as to why Salinger scaled the heights of the literary world. His prose, though from a different era, is terse but powerful. He gives his readers tremendous insight into family dynamics of the fifties. He democratises post-war America for posterity. Already critically lauded upon release, Nine Stories remains a classic. Salinger was not the most prolific producer but every book he released became a bestseller. The anthology is tangible proof of his literary genius.

Rating: 4.7/5

  • The Happiest Man on Earth (Eddie Jaku). This represents one of the best-rated memoirs in recent history. For starters, the author writes with simplicity – making the work very accessible. The title is also a veritable quote machine, giving readers much awareness into life. Who better to dish out advice than someone who’s lived to a hundred? The text details the struggles of a young Eddie, as he deals with Nazis in his native Germany. Being born a Jew, he had a happy childhood in Leipzig, a major urbanscape in Deutschland. German was his first language and he also spoke French. He changed his identity just to finish his engineering studies. He saw his environment being turned to poison because of the Nazis gaining power. 

He relates his experience in this culture of suspicion, hatred, and betrayal. He was twice interned in concentration camps, losing almost all his family. This included a lengthy stay at notorious Auschwitz. He faced death numerous times but was able to survive and tell his tale. Despite these challenges, he was resolved to remain positive. He focused on the good things he received and the friendships he forged. ‘The best balm for the soul is friendship, and with that friendship, we could do the impossible.’ He was amazed on the good Samaritans he encountered. Though he stayed with his young family in Belgium, he decided to bring them to Australia, where they thrived. ‘When there is life, there is hope. And when there is hope, there is life.’

Over the years, he refused to speak about his ordeal. As the Jewish community around him became more substantial, he gradually decided to share his story. Soon, his audience grew from thousands to even more. However, the memories remained painful, and he could not bear to discuss them with his immediate family. As he turned a century, he put his ordeal to paper. The result is a manuscript that’s less than two hundred pages. Reading the work in a day and a half is certainly possible. Aside from being well-written and quite quotable, this is likewise an uplifting read from someone who’s been there. He introspects near the close: ‘They will never really understand because they have not had this experience…it is something only we can understand.’ 

Rating: 5/5

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