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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.
One of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.
Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.
Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)
Four poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.
Non-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.
In terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.
Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.
A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.
‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’ – Toni Morrison, The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, 2007
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.