I’m back for another round of Reading Bingo, a framework for reflecting on what I read this year. It was a strange year for me reading-wise, dominated in the first two-thirds by reading for my PhD (which I wrote about here), and in the last few months, by recovering from reading for my PhD. For weeks after completing my thesis, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on full-length novels, opting instead for short stories, even vignettes (Mortification: Writers’ stories of their public shame edited by Robin Robertson was particularly therapeutic). I started numerous novels and put them down again — very unusual for me — only going back to finish reading them as the year draws to a close. I read less books than I usually would in a year, though I suspect there may be a few I can’t remember reading. So welcome to my eclectic reading year.
A book with more than 500 pages: I didn’t have a book for this category last year, but this year I read Salman Rushdie’s 600+ page memoir Joseph Anton. I’d been reading about cultural appropriation for my thesis, and thought I’d look at what Rushdie had to say about the freedom to write, given he might have died for the principle. The book is a mix of autobiography, gossip and, at its strongest, reflections on writing. Here’s an extract from my thesis that quotes from Joseph Anton:
Rushdie notes advice he was given as a student by his history professor: ‘You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.’ Rushdie writes that ‘it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story’ (2012, p. 40; emphasis in original).
A forgotten classic/A book at the bottom of your To Be Read pile: I don’t know that Things Fall Apart is a ‘forgotten’ classic as such, but it’s a novel that I’d been meaning to read for some time. Again, I was drawn to Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel outlining the impact of colonialism on traditional life in Nigeria through my PhD research. Achebe’s is a novel cited by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (another book I read in 2017) as an example of ‘the Empire writes back’ (a phrase coined by Rushdie, from memory). Where the Africans in Joseph Conrad’s novel grunted, Achebe made them speak. In writing about Igbo culture from an African point of view, Achebe challenges the assumptions about African savagery and primitivism that underpinned colonialism.
A book that became a movie: My pick here is Maile Meloy’s Both ways is the only way I want it, a collection of short stories, one of which, ‘Travis, B’, was among three Meloy short stories adapted by Kelly Reichardt for her luminous film, Certain Women (2016); the other two, ‘Tome’ and ‘Native Sandstone’, appear in Meloy’s collection Half in Love. Though I’d bought Both ways is the only way I want it several years ago after hearing Meloy speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I hadn’t got around to reading it, until winning a double pass to see Certain Women at ACMI (thank you Readings) bumped it up my TBR pile. Both the book and the film are clever, precise and immersing. Highly recommended.
A book published this year: Ten out of the 41 books I read in 2017 were published this year, including Melanie Cheng’s short story collection, Australia Day. In a year in which the legitimacy of celebrating a national holiday on a date that marks the start of an attempted genocide against Australia’s first nation people has been called into question, Cheng’s collection depicts a multicultural Australia in which many of us struggle to find a sense of belonging. But Australia Day is by no means a bleak book. At times inspiring, always intelligent, Australia Day won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Award as an unpublished manuscript, and is shortlisted for the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
A book with a number in the title: a box I have to leave un-ticked this year.
A book written by an author under thirty: My pick here, Julia Leigh’s 1999 debut novel, The Hunter, could also have been my choice as a book that became a movie. I came to The Hunter after reading Leigh’s Avalanche as part of my PhD research. On the surface, the two books couldn’t be more different. Avalanche is a memoir depicting Leigh’s attempt to have a baby through IVF and her decision to give up trying; The Hunter is Tasmanian gothic, the tale of a man attempting to kill and harvest the DNA of the last thylacine. Yet both books are about obsession, and Leigh’s mediation on hope in The Hunter, written when she was 29, seems eerily prescient in light of her IVF experience: ‘hoping itself was an exercise in delusion, and all the hope in the world could not determine which way a bird would fly, or a leaf would fall. Things were as they were, that was all.’
A book with non-human characters: another box I have to leave un-ticked this year.
A funny book: My friend Stephen Russell describes Ryan O’Neill as ‘an insane genius’. Certainly, Their Brilliant Careers is work of insane genius, a collection of biographies of invented, (in)famous Australian writers, whose lives are linked in various ways, resulting in a work that reads like a novel. Among my favourite characters is Addison Tiller, master of the bush yarn, known as ‘The Chekhov of Coolabah’, who never travelled outside Sydney. The stories/biographies themselves are laugh out loud funny, although it was the index that really set me off. Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, Their Brilliant Careers went on to win the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, an astonishing achievement for a comedic novel.
A book by a female author: again, I marvel how this can even be a bingo reading category: 23 out of the 41 books I read this year were written by women writers. The one I’m highlighting here is Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman, a collection of short stories by 14 women writers dubbed ‘the trailblazers of domestic suspense’, written between the 1940s and 1970s. Several of the featured authors, such as Dorothy B Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, wrote novels that were made into noir films. Others, like Edgar award winner Margaret Millar, continue to inspire contemporary crime writers. Among the most memorable stories in the collection is the deeply creepy ‘Mortmain’ by Miriam Allen Deford, set in a nursing home.
A book with a mystery: Though an avid reader and writer of crime fiction, I didn’t read as many crime novels in 2017 as I normally would — only eight out of 41. However, Emma Viskic’s And Fire Came Down, was the first full-length novel that I managed to read from cover to cover after finishing my PhD. Published this year, And Fire Came Down is the sequel to Viskic’s multi-award winning debut Resurrection Bay. Both novels feature profoundly deaf protagonist Caleb Zelic, whose extended family links take him into Indigenous communities in Victoria’s southwest. With its tight plotting, convincing characterisation and evocative settings, And Fire Came Down got me out of my anti-novel slump.
A book with a one-word title: Another contender for my favourite crime read of 2017 is Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera. Winner of the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, Wimmera might be described an anti-coming of age story, set in rural Australia. Literary crime fiction appears to be becoming increasingly popular in Australia, but not everyone can pull off the balance of lyricism and pace required to make a book succeed as both crime and literature. To my mind, Mark Brandi aces it. In the interests of full disclosure, I had the pleasure of helping Mark to launch Wimmera at Readings earlier this year, also interviewing him at the National Writers Conference in June, as part of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival.
A book of short stories: A short story collection that I greatly enjoyed this year was Common People by indigenous Australian writer Tony Birch. Birch writes lyrically, with affection but without sentimentality about people whose lives are not commonly featured in literature — at least, seldom in ways as nuanced as in these stories. For me, Birch is the literary equivalent of the nineteenth century French realist painters, who shunned famous or exotic subjects in favour of finding truth in ordinary life. I also had the great pleasure of hearing Tony Birch and Melanie Cheng in conversation as part of the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival, where I bought this book.
Free Square: Every year I like to read something that is way outside my usual reading zone. This year, it was Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles, recommended to me by Lucy Ballantine at Text Publishing. Draw Your Weapons centres around two ‘characters’: Howard, a conscientious objector during World War II, and Miles, a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib. Framed by these personal stories, Sentilles draws on memoir, history, philosophy, literature, art theory and theology to produce a captivating meditation on art and war, written in the style of a collage. At the heart of the book is the revolutionary idea of imagining what a world without war might look like. A unique and valuable read.
A book set on a different continent: More than half the books I read this year were set wholly or partially on a continent other than Australia. Wife of the Gods is set in Ghana, the first in the Inspector Darko Dawson series. I read Wife of the Gods and the latest novel in the series, Gold of Our Fathers, in preparation for appearing on a panel with author Kwei Quartey at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in February this year. The plot in Wife of the Gods, centering on the conflict between traditional and Western medicine, was particularly appealing to me, and I enjoyed reading about Ghana, a country I know little about. It was a great pleasure to meet the author, too, and discuss ‘Writing Culture for Another Culture.’
A book of non-fiction: I read more non-fiction than usual this year on account of my PhD, including three full-length academic works and two books of interviews with Australian writers: Charlotte Wood’s The Writer’s Room and Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing. Of the four memoirs I read in 2017, I’m singling out (no pun intended) Only: A Singular Memoir by Caroline Baum. The intensity of being the only child of traumatised parents is the unifying theme in Baum’s memoir, which is beautifully written and admirably unapologetic. I interviewed Caroline about Only at Geelong’s Word for Word Festival in November, an experience that only added to my admiration of her as a writer and person.
The first book by a favourite author: I had the great pleasure of reading Home is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire as a manuscript, thanks to the two of us having a PhD supervisor in common. Magdalena won the UK Impress Award based on the first three chapters of the novel. I was totally swept away by the power of the writing in this story of a group of avant-garde artists during the Polish Crisis of the 1980s. I subsequently bought the published novel as a Christmas gift to myself. Magdalena is also an award-winning short story writer and I’ve been blown away by everything I’ve read of hers. Hence my confidence that this is the first book I’ve read by someone destined to become a favourite author.
A book you heard about online: A conversation on Facebook between writers Lucy Sussex and Claire Corbett lead me to the latter’s ‘genre ambiguous’ novel, When We Have Wings. While only tangentially about surrogacy, it is easy to see how surrogacy could flourish in Corbett’s futuristic society, where the wealthy obtain wings and genetically alter their bodies to enable them to fly, congregating in Flierville, a city designed to accommodate Flight. Non-fliers are forced into Edge City, the slum-like kampungs, or the Rural and Regional Areas. When We Have Wings is a captivating read, the descriptions of human flight so convincing that, months later, I still fantasize about what colour wings I’ll choose once biotechnology makes possible Corbett’s equally compelling and disturbing vision.
A best-selling book: I’m honestly not sure if Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, Melina Marchetta’s first foray into crime fiction, was a best-seller or not, though she is most assuredly a best-selling author, and if even half those who read and loved her classic Looking for Alibrandi read this one, it would have done well. Written before the terrorist attack that took place in Nice, France, in 2016, Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is disturbingly prescient. The novel works as a fast-paced thriller, a convincing character study, and a meditation on the injustices that are done as a result of the assumptions we make. Melina Marchetta was an Emerging Writers Festival ambassador in 2017 and my enjoyment of this novel was enhanced by the pleasure of interviewing her at the National Writers Conference.
A book based on a true story: In 1892, Lizzie Borden was charged with the axe murder of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts. The following year she was acquitted of the crime, which remains unsolved to this day. See What I Have Done, the debut novel of Australian author Sarah Schmidt, attempts to fill in the blanks. Written in four distinct voices, including Lizzie’s, See What I Have Done re-imagines the story in vivid and visceral detail — you can practically feel the humidity and smell the rotting meat coming off the page. Schmidt purports to have been inspired to write the story after being haunted by Lizzie’s ghost. Whatever the case, I found this a convincing and beguiling read. And it has probably my favourite cover of the year, too.
A book at the bottom of your to be read pile: See, Things Fall Apart, above; A Thief of Time, below.
A book your friend loves: My mum loved Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and offered to buy it for me. Given the last book she loved and bought for me was Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All The Light We Cannot See, I totally trust her judgment. Days Without End is a beautiful love story between two men, set during the horrors of the so-called American Indian Wars and American Civil War. The story is compelling, and Barry’s mesmerising prose made me want to re-read every sentence. Recently, Mum told me that Barry, whose has twice won the Costa Book of the Year and twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker, said: ‘I would like to be remembered for a short novel called Days without end mostly because it was inspired by my radiant son.’
A book that scares you: Regular readers of this (irregular) blog will know that I’m a great admirer of Jock Serong’s writing. His 2017 novel, On the Java Ridge, was my nomination for the 2017 Melbourne City of Literature’s
#cityoflitadventcalendar, where I described it as “brilliant, angry, gut-wrenching fiction; uncomfortable truths” (I was given a six-word limit!). The story is set in a not-too-distant Australia in which not only the incarceration of asylum seekers is privatised (as it currently is), but the policing of asylum seeker boats as well. A fast-paced, expertly written political thriller, the story scares me because its imagined horrific future scenario is entirely believable, given my country’s appalling and shameful treatment of refugees.
A book that is more than 10 years old: I read eight books more than 10 years old in 2017. Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time was first published in 1988, part of his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police series. I’d been meaning to read Hillerman for years, fascinated by this author who writes outside his own culture, and whose work is praised by those he writes about: in 1987, Hillerman was recognised as a Special Friend of the Dineh (Navajo), and the Navajo and other First Nations people use his books in their schools. Added incentive to read Hillerman came when I was invited to Arizona, where many of his stories are set. The plot of A Thief of Time centres on the ethics of anthropology, with the desert setting exquisitely evoked.
The second book in a series: I was invited to chair several panels for the Melbourne Writers Festival Schools Program in late-August, but had to knock back most of them as I was due to finish my PhD that same week. But I couldn’t say no to Belinda Murrell, not when her timeslip books were among my Miss Eleven’s favourites. I read several in this engaging and informative series in preparation for our panel , including the second, The Ruby Talisman, which opens in Versailles just as the French monarchy falls. Murrell doesn’t treat her readers with kid gloves: her feisty young female heroes must navigate violence, sexism and class conflict. Also on the MWF panel was Kim Kane, author of When the Lyrebird Calls, another terrific Australian timeslip novel for young readers.
A book with a blue cover: I’ve come full circle here, as Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall was the book with the blue cover that I nominated in my Reading Bingo Challenge 2016 as the first book I would read in the new year. Skylarking got my reading year off to a great start. I tore through this bittersweet story of female friendship, envy and desire, set in a lighthouse-keeping community on a remote Australian cape in the 1880s. Having heard Kate Mildenhall describe how the book was inspired by a true story added to my enjoyment of it. And that I can still remember it so clearly one year on is a measure of the novel’s success.
On the top of my TBR pile heading into the New Year is Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, the first of her novels that I’m reading, having found her essays and commentary fascinating. Also the final version of Magdalena McGuire’s Home is Nearby, Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, the latest in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series, A Dangerous Language, Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.
What’s on your summer reading pile?