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For the last few days – these slow, almost alcoholic summer days – I’ve had on my dining table a pile of books, the books I’ve read in the past year.  There are not many books in the pile, just fifteen in total, which isn’t much more than one book per month.  It’s a busy life and this pile, so it seems, is all that I can manage.  Of the fifteen books, twelve are fiction; there are three books of short stories; there is only one poetry collection, though in the pile is an essay by a poet, the same poet who wrote the collection.  Seven of the books were written by Australians; only three of the books were written by women – two of them by the same woman, actually, the poet.

How I’ve loved having this tower of books on view!  What worlds I’ve explored in the last twelve months!

Why, however, is the pile of books on my dining table in the first place?  Because it’s good, good as in telling, to review the year’s reading.  When I scan the covers, which make my heart skip a beat?

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson was a completely edifying non-fiction read about a man who inherits a castle but then takes on the National Trust as he tries to return the estate to how he remembers it being when he was a child.  No, it doesn’t sound much, does it, but ultimately it’s an exploration of place and belonging, and if there are two words I adore they are place and belonging.  Into the bargain is the fact that Nicolson writes beautifully, which is handy because his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.

The late Dorothy Porter’s Love Poems is an exhilarating collection of poems about love, desire, passion and obsession, the bliss, the poison, the sheer dangerous drug of it all.  But this isn’t love poetry that could find its way into greeting cards, oh no, it’s not that.  Try this on for size: ‘There’s a white-blue nerve burning/across my night sky/I wish it hurt to watch/because then/I might stop’ (Comets 1).  Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, check out Love Poems. Please do.  You might find yourself in love, or lust.  If only with words.

Two other books that really did it for me are story collections from Tolstoy and Chekhov (which makes me sound dreadfully literary and stuffy and tweed, but I can only tell the truth): The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 respectively.  The sparse, intense and – yes – grim realism from these Russians can be breathtaking, and just a little humbling.  Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ is a good example of how short stories can achieve so much; the ending in particular is extraordinary, and really it’s just ink on paper.

Speaking of short stories, I finally read Nam Le’s The Boat, and it lived up to the hype, which is always a relief.  ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which I’d already read in the Australian journal Overland, is one of the best contemporary short stories I’ve experienced in years.  Oh bugger it, it is the best.  And many of the others are very nearly as good, including the title story, which should be required reading for all Australians, especially at Christmas time.  In this collection, Nam Le displays such a wide range of themes and styles that it’s almost unbelievable that this is the work of one person.  Clearly a very good book by a writer a lot of people will be watching.  Australia’s Franzen perhaps?

However, the two books of 2010 that truly moved me were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (yes, I’m a little late getting to this) and The Lakewoman by Alan Gould.

I read Capote’s monumental work on the way to spend a month in Tasmania, which is rather apt considering that island’s terrible penal history, and I was overwhelmed by the author’s control of his material, the depth to which he plummets the characters and their situations in order to unearth the core of the tale, and the startling qualities of the prose.  How’s this for a final sentence: ‘Then, starting home, he walked towards the trees, and under them, leaving behind the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’.  Ah the weight – and sheer life – of poetry.  A bold, important book that appears not to have aged one bit.

Speaking of poetry, Alan Gould is a wizard of the craft and he brings this wizardry to his ‘romance’ (his term, or at least his publisher’s) about an Australian soldier who parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields.  Whilst magical, The Lake Woman is not magic realism, and I gobbled up the last third of the novel in one sitting.  A full box of tissues needed to have been on standby.  Not only was it the story that got me in the gut, it was the quality of the sentences, each and every one of them giving the reader something to savour.   If you’re looking for a love story with depth and intelligence and written by a master of the English language, do hunt down this book.  Stealing it from the grannie on the train-seat next to you would be justifiable.

So there it is: the best of my year of reading.  What the dining-table pile says to me is that, yes, what wonderful worlds I’ve experienced in the last twelve months, and without these worlds, and without the music I listen to (music which, in its own strange way, can augment these worlds), life would be bereft of much of its meaning, worthless even.

Bring on the new worlds!

‘One day I will die.  One day I will not wake up to the smell of my partner bringing my morning mug of strong coffee up the stairs.  One day I will be dust.  But I have learnt the truly hard way that the passion I must cling to and ardently believe in is plain gusto.  To respectfully paraphrase [Agatha] Christie – whose books were wonderful comfort and company when I was on chemo – how lovely to be fifty-four years old and greedy!’  From On Passion, by the much-loved poet Dorothy Porter (1954-2008).

I’m a fair way off 54, but I’m greedy too.  For great stories (like those contained in this book), for great music (Frightened Rabbit is doing it for me at the moment), for great food, for great places, for great company, which I’m lucky to have.

I’m greedy for as much life as my trusty little ticker can handle.

I’m greedy for fucking gusto.

But best to give the last word to the poetry wizard, another quote from the delicious read that is On Passion.  ‘One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen is an azure kingfisher fishing in a mangrove swamp near my family home in Pittwater, Sydney.  I was paddling a canoe down a creek in a rare meditative silence (one of the joys of canoeing), when there was a flash of orange/blue, like a jewelled dart suddenly spearing into the water.  And as Gerard Manley Hopkins so exquisitely says, I watched a kingfisher ‘catch fire’.  In the same sonnet, Hopkins proclaims the unique wonder of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’

But what makes them vivid is the force of James’s interest in them, his manner of pressing into their clay with his examining fingers: they are sites of human energy; they vibrate with James’s anxious concern for them.

– from How Fiction Works by James Wood

What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination; and, third, their industry.

–  John Ruskin

It’s banal to start a looking-back piece with ‘what a year it’s been’, because years can be nothing but themselves – years. So I’ll start somewhere else (although I haven’t started somewhere else, I’ve just started where I’ve begun) with a challenge: to think about the year ‘that’s been’ (I typed ‘bean’ just then, which is rather lovely), and to write about it, and see what learnings bubble to the surface.  Because we’re about to head into the ridiculous fake-snow-in-summer season – or, as a colleague said to me yesterday, ‘Shitmass’.  Which means the brain will turn off and then another year will get sprinting and before we know it we’ll all be two decades older, greyer, and probably not that much wiser.

So, to begin.  Somewhere.

Learning No. 1 – Go away. Under the Counter (or UTC to those in the know i.e. just muggins here, though ‘UTC’ sounds like a university, or a type of farm vehicle; I should drop this over-use of brackets) is littered with references to Bundanon and its far-reaching artist-in-residence program.  Still I can’t help remembering – for the umpteenth time – the Shoalhaven River and its happy leaping fish, the lantana-infested bush and the largest goanna I’ve ever seen (an easy six feet with a tongue the size of an arm), the mother roo and joey grazing nervously at the backdoor of the writer’s cottage, the sounds of busy things in the night that I’ve never heard before even though I’ve spent forty-one years in this part of the world.  And I remember drinks on the verandah at the always-pink dusk and watching wombats emerge from their burrows, and the swallows darting gloriously through the air, catching whatever it is they catch, bugs, they catch bugs.  And I remember working my arse off, so much so that on my fourth and last Thursday I had to have a lie down and listen to some Sigur Ros – yes, I’d over done it, but that’s my usual way, I’m afraid.  Oh woe is me.  The fact is I bring it on myself, it’s my choice, and, as I’ve counselled others, no one cares.  So Learning No 1.1 – no one cares.

Learning No. 2 – I’m in love with the most complex thing EVER. ‘Work-in-progress’: that’s the not-very-inventive title of my, um, work-in-progress, a novel, a very long story.  When people who know about these things say that novels are inherently complex, listen to them, believe them – novels are complex to write, they’re complex to read; they are the hardest thing to bring into the world.  My one, my second, has been in the process of being born since 2006 (I mistakenly typed ‘1996’, probably because that’s how it feels; bugger it, these brackets are just so persistent).  Needless to say, this project – is ‘project’ the right word? a novel isn’t a bridge, though they might be – has taken me here and there, like a wild river, and some of the waters have been fast and rough, some shallow and sublime, some tannin-black and utterly horrifying, and some murky and motionless, the froth of pollution at the edges.  Enough: I’m getting the shakes writing this, though that could be the rum balls I had for morning tea.

Learning No. 3 – good people never stop doing good things. The middle of the year saw the extended family and passionate others come from all over to be present at the launch of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon (yes, yet another reference to that Boyd place).  This meant taking He Who Originally Came From That Part of the World, Meaning Nowra, A Shit-Hole He Says back to the place from where he came, and also to the place I spent four weeks in a creative La-La Land.  After three hours of driving – up the Hume Highway, down through Kangaroo Valley, with the last half an hour winding our way amongst tinder-dry coastal bush – there it suddenly was, a converted 19th-century barn.  All shiny new, a red ribbon strung up for cutting, dancers dancing, the rainbow lorikeets watching on, as they will always be.  And we knew that within days the Studio would be filled with artists dreaming, imagining, collaborating – and working bloody hard, there can be no doubt about that.  Cuz, there was a tear in my eye when the ribbon was cut.

Learning No. 4 – reading completes me (like Blundstone boots and Arvo Part). 2009 was filled with great books and my favourites are listed elsewhere on this blog, but there are a few notables that aren’t on the list because they weren’t published this year, in fact they were published many years ago.  Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave – for decades I’d put off reading this book because by and large, and despite my own personal sexuality (which is indeed my own and personal), I don’t read gay fiction, but this novel completely ripped me to shreds.  So much so that, when after the last page was read, I had to go for the longest walk up the mountain (with The Old Lady of the House, obviously) until I felt ready to come back into the world.  Holding the Man went straight onto my ‘Brilliant Books Live Here’ shelf in my work room.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, which was no doubt reissued because of our bomb-tastic times.  And – embarrassingly – I finally read DJ Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; see ‘Caught in an Edgy Trap’ in the First Word 2009 archive for more on this.

Learning No. 5 – there will always be great music. Like the book list, the year’s top albums can be found elsewhere on Under the Counter, but I do have a late entry for the best-of-2009 gang: ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers.  Anyone who likes Jeff Buckley, Deerhunter and Arcade Fire really should check out this extraordinary album; there’s also a hint of Antony Hegarty in the overall aesthetic, which is both gentle and dramatic, always a great combination.  Hospice is hardly a jovial ride – it wallops you in the head and heart, and everywhere else for that matter – but it’s certainly worth the purchase price.  And great cover art, too.

Learning No. 6 – so writing conferences CAN be worthwhile! In October the National Library of Australia put on its Flight of the Mind – Writing and the Creative Imagination conference.  Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Steven Conte, Rodney Hall, Andrew Goldsmith, Kevin Brophy, Claire Thomas, Judy Horacek, James Bradley, Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Felicity Packard, Sophie Cunningham, Aviva Tuffield, and Peter Pierce; not a bad line-up, it has to be said.  Topics covered creating fiction from fact, recreating other people’s stories, and writing across borders (a session chaired by yours truly; okay, the brackets win).  As one of the more prominent speakers told me at the end of the weekend, ‘This conference was a beauty’.  And good audiences too, in terms of both numbers and engagement.  The other thing that impressed me was the amount of speakers who hung around for the entire weekend, their journals at the ready, pens poised to jot down another pearl of wisdom for safe-keeping.  Yes, a beauty.

Learning No. 7 – posh experiences in poor countries don’t add up. In November He Who Likes A Cool Drink On A Warm Day and I jumped on a plane to attend a wedding in Vanuatu.  Apart from me almost carking it (check out ‘The Trouble with Death’, which is also in the First Word 2009 archive), we did everything you’re meant to do when on a tropical island: ate way too much, drank way too much, got so sunburnt we looked like Iced VoVos, read heaps, in my case Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book, which I enjoyed, though it also wore me out.  But resorts, big ones at least, aren’t my thing – they’re theme parks for the moderately rich and not-at-all-famous.  Still, good times were had, and, most importantly, two friends got married the way they wanted, and sometimes that’s all that matters (says he who over-thinks everything, including the moral responsibility of my local supermarket to provide free trolleys – not everyone has a gold coin in their pockets, you bastards).

Learning No. 8 – there’s nothing freakier than politics. 2009 was also about climate change, Copenhagen (a disaster? no, a little foot-shuffle in the right direction, me-thinks), and…bloody Tony Abbott.  Who’d have thought the Punch-Drunk Mad Monk would get the Leader of the Opposition gig?  Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s North Shore and schooled entirely at private schools, combined with the fact that I can sound terribly, terribly posh went I want to (see?), I’m not one for the conservative side of politics, but at least Malcolm ‘John Howard Broke My Heart By Stuffing Up The Republic Campaign’ Turnbull was trying to move things forward, if only by a millimetre.  Then, however, came the most public coup (of course, I just typed ‘pubic’, which isn’t something I usually associate with the Liberal Party) and Mr Malcolm went down the tube and Tony ‘Verbally Attacking Terminally People Is Such Fun’ Abbott came up trumps.  You know, I was happy give him a go, only because that’s what we do in this part of the world (when it suits us), but then all he’s been saying since he got the job is ‘great big tax’ and I’ve found myself shouting at the radio/television/newspaper, just like I did when John Howard hung around for eleven long, long, LONG years.

Learning No. 9 – the machines may take over. I started the year without having an internet connection at home but have ended the year with a PC on my desk, a laptop in the cupboard, an email address, and a website and a blog.  Next stop digital television and an i-Phone.  Perhaps.  Though probably not – a home is a home, not a computer-corporation outpost.  But it’s nice to be in the blogosphere, or hanging around ‘the inter-webs’ as some like to say, though I do feel as if I’m wandering around a parallel universe stark naked with the CCTV cameras tracking my every movement.  Now I just have to keep all this technology in check.   It’s us human types who control the machines, don’t we?

What, the machines have taken over?  How did I miss that?

Better go and pour myself a glass of crisp, dry Semillon and put on a record, yes, one of those Ye Olde spinning platter things that crackle and hiss like carpet on a hot day.  It might be The XX’s album, or Peaches’ cheeky latest, or something really, really old, maybe even Peter Gabrielle’s So, because So reminds me of being seventeen and school was about to finish and I knew absolutely nothing about anything.  Which, despite this list and all the words that go along with it, is still probably the case, because the sum total of what we know can only ever be a tear-drop in the deep blue ocean.

(Footnote: What’s with the opening quotes? you ask.  Well, I’ve had those two pearlers Blu-tacked onto the side of my computer screen all year.  They’ve hung there, just a little dog-eared and torn, fluttering each time I breathe or I type extra vigorously or the fan finds them; they tell me to work harder, to work deeper, to do good things.  In time, in time.)

Following on from his other autobiographical explorations, Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee continues to bugger around with the whole prose caper, mixing up fiction and non-fiction in Summertime (Knopf).  There’s something about this writer that really gets me going (Disgrace is a favourite novel of mine, and it was great to see the Australian-produced film version living up to expectations).  Whilst Coetzee can undoubtedly be a self-absorbed misery guts – the narrator, a researcher writing about a ‘John Coetzee’ who is dead, describes his sexual modus operandi as having ‘autistic’ qualities – there’s a palpable sense of playfulness in this book.  I was only half a dozen pages into this when I decided that it would be placed on my shelf marked ‘If the house is burning down, risk life and limb to rescue these books’.

Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy (Text) is a tale of a Moscow boy’s relationship with a pack of wild dogs.  Grim for sure, but what an extraordinary piece of  imaginative prose.  I can’t look at The Old Lady of the House without recalling Hornung’s story, and I can’t walk the peaceful, beautiful streets of Canberra without feeling thankful for being born an Australian and not a Muscovite.  The last few lines completely knocked my bloody socks off, but I won’t quote them here as it would suck the life out of this work, and piss you off, dear reader.  So go on, don’t be scared – give this book a whirl.  You might have nightmares for days afterwards, but the warmth and tenderness in the prose (it is there, it’s just not lashed on like honey spread across toast) will linger with you for a very long time.

Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith (4th Estate) has so much in it: an exploration of relationships, how they can shift deliciously though painfully between love and in love; and a thirst for knowledge and purpose, particularly in a global world that doesn’t really know where it’s going.  And that’s just for starters.  This is a slow-burner of a novel, but ever so subtly it gets under your skin and before long you find yourself caring about these people, which, of course, is the real test of a piece of fiction.  Ultimately, Reunion is a novel about friendship, and I’ll read great prose about friendship until the cows come home.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard (Allen and Unwin).  Reading young-adult fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine, usually because these books can be gobbled up in one sitting, and, perhaps more importantly, there’s often a lack of over-complication and pretension that can exist in adult fiction (I wanted to write ‘grown-up’ there…which, it seems, I’ve now done).  Like Reunion, Millard’s novel is a book about friendship, this time between a young boy and an old man within the context of an Australian city – Melbourne – that’s experiencing war (it’s a difficult conceit to pull off but Millard does it very well here).  These two unlikely people gather others to their lives, and soon find themselves forming the strangest though most intimate of families.  A surprisingly complex book filled with the deepest of love for its characters.

The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter (Black Inc.)  This isn’t a novel, but as Dorothy Porter made the verse novel her own, and she completely and utterly rocked in every possible way, I’m including her final collection, The Bee Hut, in this list.  Everyone talks about Dorothy’s high-octane writing, the sensuality, the cheeky wit, and the jaw-dropping intelligence, and it’s all on show here.  From the first line, ‘The most powerful presence/is absence’ (‘Egypt’), to the last, from ‘View from 417’, the final poem she would write, ‘Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck’, I can only shake my head at the depth, the skill, and the sheer power of these poems.  If you buy one book of poetry this year… (Disclosure: I have other reasons for including The Bee Hut in this list, but I’m not discussing them here.)

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