For the past week I’ve been thinking about the writing of this post and I should be truthful and say that I’ve been struggling a little. I’ve been struggling a little because at first very few books that I’ve read this year jumped out as being absolutely essential. But I worked it out in the end. Compared to this year’s crop of albums, which has been nothing short of mind-blowing for their immediacy (more on this in a forthcoming post), in terms of reading, 2011 has been a year of books that slowly and almost imperceptibly wrapped their arms around me until the best wouldn’t let go.
I’ve also noticed that my reading habits have changed, probably, I think, because as co-editor of Verity La I spend many evenings and weekends reading submissions before working to publish them. This is an honour, particularly publishing the poetry, because by the time a poem appears on screen it feels as though it’s become a part of me and me a part of it. This year I’ve judged the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award, which is run out of the ACT Writers Centre – what gems come to the surface during these competitions. All this has meant that I’m reading more on-line, and by the time I get to the end of the day I’m looking for something short and punchy, which I’m finding in literary journals like Overland.
Amongst all this has been my own reading program. What follows is a list of five books I’ve read this year that have ended up on the top shelves in my library, meaning they’re books that I must risk life and limb to rescue if the house is burning down.
I’m pleased to report that two books in the list are short story collections. Finally this year I read some Raymond Carver, commencing my journey into this much-lauded oeuvre with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Vintage, 2003; first published in 1981). What a joy are these stories. Except joy isn’t the right word, no, not at all; these are melancholic stories, told with an uneasy simplicity which reaches for a depth of humanity. The prose is accessible, almost prosaic, but try writing like this and you’ll discover how much of a story-magician Carver was. Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’, and it feels to me as if this was Carver’s modus operandi, too. The next time I’m in a second-hand bookstore I’ll walk out with a bucketload of this bloke’s books.
The second short story collection is Marion Halligan’s Shooting the Fox (Allen and Unwin, 2011). Here the Canberra-based Halligan reveals her artful playfulness – she has such damn good fun with words and characters and stories! As opposed to Carver’s stories, Halligan’s are closer to poetry, although not in a pretentious sense; she simply asks the reader to work just a bit hard to nut it all out. Throughout the year I’ve found myself thinking about many of these stories or telling friends about them. If Raymond Carver’s stories have been boiled down to their essence, Marion Halligan’s are the most fluent and lively that you’ll find – they’re almost mischievous. You can read more about Marion Halligan here.
And then there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Jonathan Cape, 2011). A friend asked me to recommend a good book so I recommended Annabel because I’d read a glowing review, not because I’d actually read it myself, which is always dangerous, I know, but this is how it happened. My friend ended up loving it and recommended it back to me, so I read it and…wasn’t as moved as I expected. The story concerns a child born in 1968 in a remote part of far north-east Canada with male and female genitalia and follows him – for much of the book he’s known as Wayne – until early adult-hood. Annabel is beautifully written, but perhaps too much of it goes in tangents so the end result isn’t as dramatic as it could have been. However, like Shooting the Fox, I’ve found myself thinking about this book, especially Winter’s Wayne/Annabel character, and hoping that the world ends up treating him-her with kindness. I’m convinced that I’ll come back to this book and a greater depth will be revealed.
Bite Your Tongue by Francesca Rendle-Short (Spinifex Press, 2011) is a brave book for two reasons: it explores life in Queensland in the 1960s and ’70s with an ultra-zealous, ultra-conservative, book-burning mother; and it’s a creative memoir, combining elements of the novel with elements of the straight memoir. Somehow Rendle-Short manages to create a work that is loving, tender, critical and hard-hitting all at once. It is a resolutely original book. You can read more about Rendle-Short and Bite Your Tongue here and over at Verity La.
Perhaps the real book-reading treat this year has been discovering The Paris Review Interviews Volumes 1-4 (Picador, commencing 2006). These interviews, many of which date back to the 1950s, offer illuminating insights into the writing process. In the first volume alone there are interviews with Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, TS Eliot, and Saul Bellow. Perhaps I find these interviews so fascinating because I’m someone who writes, but also because I sometimes interview writers for The Canberra Times and Verity La. However, anyone interested in books and ideas, in the creative process in general, will enjoy these conversations. For example, who cannot marvel at this piece of wisdom from Gabriel García Márquez (from Volume 2)? If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you. Sheer genius.