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This year, which was bonkers (and not in a good way), was one that was both softened and enlarged by reading. Every year there are truly spectacular books, those that genuinely get under your skin and you think about them for weeks, if not months or longer. What follows is not a list of books I consider ‘the best’ (as if I’d know) but ones that have resonated in a way that was surprising, or beautiful, or funny, or shocking, sometimes all at once – and more.

Although I don’t usually break my reading down into genre or geographic categories, I have this time, only because the list is long and some structure might be useful.

Australian novels I enjoyed this year include Melissa Lucashenko’s cheeky but powerful and very necessary TOO MUCH LIP, Charlotte Wood’s moving and piercingly astute THE WEEKEND, RWC McDonald’s wondrously joyful THE NANCYS, and Simon Cleary’s THE WAR ARTIST, which is a timely addition to Australian literature that dares to question our apparently unbounded love of military history. Other novels that packed a necessary punch are Andrew Goldsmith’s intricately drawn INVENTED LIVES, THE BREEDING SEASON by Amanda Niehaus (my review for the Canberra Times here), and THE ORCHARDIST’S DAUGHTER, Karen Viggers’ study of Tasmanian forest ecology and the human lives that depend on it. THE PILLARS by Peter Polites puts a dagger through Sydney’s obsession with real estate; the novel actually does so much more. INVISIBLE BOYS by Holden Sheppard is a no-bullshit exploration of growing up gay in regional Western Australia – the novel and its author are attracting a huge fanbase and it’s not hard to see why. Finally, three novels that deserve to be widely read are Julie Keys’ THE ARTIST’S PORTRAIT, which is such an ambitious and unique historical novel about art and memory, HITCH by Kathryn Hind (my review for the Canberra Times here), and IN WHOM WE TRUST by one of Australia’s greatest living prose writers, John Clanchy.

Novels from overseas that I adored include HAPPINESS by the always wise Aminatta Forna, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, and Max Porter’s utterly magical – and devastating – LANNY. I finally read works by Rachel Cusk – TRANSIT – and Elizabeth Strout – OLIVE, AGAIN – and, oh my goodness, both were extraordinary and I will be reading more of both. To my mind, the novel of the year, if not the decade, was Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, which knocked my socks off, partly because it gently though forcefully reveals the inter-generational impact of war and partly because the language is so poetically exposed.

I read some very moving Australian non-fiction this year, including GROWING UP QUEER (edited by Benjamin Law), Laura Dawes’ FIGHTING FIT, which scientifically and entertainingly explores the many ways Britain kept its home population healthy during the Second World War, Chloe Higgins’ tragic and remarkably vulnerable THE GIRLS, James Halford’s wonderfully drawn essays about his love of Latin American literature as collected in REQUIEM WITH YELLOW BUTTERFLIES, and Patrick Mullins’ impeccably researched and thoughtfully written biography of the much-maligned Australian prime minister Billy McMahon – TIBERIUS WITH A TELEPHONE. I found THE SATURDAY PORTRAITS by Maxine Beneba Clarke incredibly moving and does a lot to reveal the challenges presented by contemporary Australia. I very much enjoyed Peter Papathanasiou’s LITTLE ONE, which is a joyful memoir about determination and crossing boundaries (in many ways). NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS by Behrouz Boochani is an extraordinary – and deeply poetry – chronicle of ‘life’ in this country’s deplorable refugee prisons, and THE ERRATICS by Vicki Laveau-Harvie shows how powerful prose can be, especially when focused on a highly dysfunctional family.

I didn’t read as many poetry collections as I would have liked, though the form is a regular part of my reading. I loved ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Eileen Chong, and I had my own celebration of Mary Oliver, lapping up the Pulitzer Prize-winning AMERICAN PRIMATIVE and LONG LIFE, which is a collection of essays, many playful, interspersed with Oliver’s typically accessible though always moving poetry.

I have a thing for light, quite a thing. Sometimes days go by and it’s all I’ve thought about. Light. It’s such a simple word, and it sounds exactly as it should – it sounds light, as in light to carry, but also as though it would be possible to turn the word on and off, that it glimmers and glows, that it shows us the way, and indeed it does. In the early evening, after I’ve poured myself a glass of wine and struck a match to the fire, I close the west-facing curtains over the French doors only when it’s well and truly black outside, because I like to see the final blue hue as the day darkens.

I’ve written short stories about hurricane lanterns, because I love the idea of a light – at least a carrier of light, or a protector of light – that’s designed to withstand the worst of storms, the worst of seas.

One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths, which is such a jaunty tune about young people going for a night-time drive: “And if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die”. But it’s the lyric to fade that’s the real killer: “There is a light that never goes out”, repeat, repeat, repeat until – irony of ironies – you feel more alive than ever.

Recently I bought a light-shade for my hallway, a simple Art Deco design found in a second-hand store up the road. I’d been looking for it for weeks, months, my whole life perhaps, and there it was in all its frosted green-glass glory. For an entire evening I turned the light on and off, on and off, as if electricity had just been invented and there I was amazed, gob-smacked. Each time I walk down the hallway I look up and see the light-shade; it makes me feel as though I’m in love for the first time. I’ve found myself thinking, I feel so happy at the moment, I wonder why, oh yes, a new light in the hallway – best go and have another look.

Light may be, as my Oxford Dictionary claims, an electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds, but really it’s the opposite of hopelessness.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.)

Being in bed, the teeth have been cleaned and there’s that lingering minty freshness, and then, with a book in my lap, leaning over to the bedside table and taking a couple of sips from the glass that’s there, the glass that’s filled with newly poured, fridge-cold water.

Planting – it might only take a couple of minutes for the pot to be filled with soil, the plant to be eased out of its punnet or dug up from another part of the garden, and then for it to be patted down and watered, but the benefits last for days, weeks even, potentially whole lives.

Going for a drive while listening to a dusty old home-made mix CD and coming across a forgotten song.  I experienced this yesterday when driving in the rain between here and Robertson (the home of the big potato, would you believe) – happy behind the steering wheel ‘Grace Under Pressure’ by Elbow came on.  I had to reach for my hanky, let me tell you that (and stay clear of cars overtaking as if there was no tomorrow).

Absently – even aimlessly – walking down my hallway and catching a glimpse of my library.  There’s nothing like it; it’s as warming as an open fire, as reassuring as an arm on the shoulder.

Riding down the street on my trusty treadly.  I just love being on that thing, especially at the end of the day and the brain’s looking to empty.  Hands on handlebars, riding gloves on hands, the sense of silence and stillness in the traffic, despite all the energy required and the movement.

These things that are ordinarily ecstatic.  Yours?

And then there she was.

All week I’ve been marvelling at my happy, cheery little friend that has sprung up in a rather grim-looking black pot on the backstep.  Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised, because I actually planted the thing – a geranium – over summer.  But still each morning, as I peg my bath towel on the Hill’s Hoist out the back, I look down and get a happy, cheery little vibe from my happy, cheery little friend in the grim-looking pot.  And pink isn’t even my favourite colour; actually I’m not a fan of the colour pink in the slightest.

But still, there she is, looking so happy and cheery.

Perhaps it’s because in the part of Australia where I live we’re coming to the tail-end of one of the hottest summers on record.  Or was it years? Or decades? I can’t recall – all this talk about the world falling apart weatherwise gets a bit mixed up after a while.

Or is it because, speaking of weather, no one seems to have the definitive answer on climate change – is it fact or fiction? – and what we should do about it – tax polluters or plant more trees?

Or maybe I’m cheered up by my happy, cheery little friend because she comes from my aunt’s place, a farm a couple of hours drive west of here, couriered to me by my brother as a cutting in a plastic shopping bag.

Or it might be because ten years ago some bastard poisoned parts of my front garden and all this time later I still can’t get things to grow there (one day I’ll talk about this, perhaps even here on this humble little blog-shaped contraption), so it’s just nice to see a happy, cheery little plant doing so well.

Or it might be because, unknown to me, I just need a little cheering up this week.  Could it be this?  It could be, you know.  Perhaps, perhaps.

What I do know for certain is that I’ve now taken a snap of my happy, cheery little friend and put her up here for all to see.

Isn’t she pretty?

To celebrate her fame I’ve just put on repeat on the stereo Beirut’s ‘The Gulag Orkestar’ (off the gorgeous 2006 album of the same name).  Not because it’s the cheeriest song in the world, in fact it sounds like a stack of men with banged-up brass instruments getting plastered on cheap vodka because their wives have run off with a herd of donkeys.  Or they just like getting drunk on cheap vodka.  Either way, Beirut’s music is music that makes me smile.

More to the point, I think my happy, cheery little friend is out on her back step right now swaying this way and that because she loves this music too.  Or she’s remembering what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote: ‘how poor is the language of happines!’  So she’s swaying this way and that.

Yes, how poor is the language of happiness.

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