For the past few years, I’ve reflected on my previous year’s reading using Reading Bingo as a framework. But 2020 being the year it was, I’ve decided to go rogue.
I was surprised to find I’d read 13 fewer books in 2020 (total of 45) than I did in 2019, because I feel like I was constantly reading during the year. That said, I suspect I missed recording a few books, my powers of concentration not up to normal standards, given all that was going on.
As usual, I read more fiction than anything else (33 novels, six novellas and one short story collection), mostly by Australian women writers (29); of the 30 Australian authors whose books I read in 2020, 22 of them were known to me personally (which is why I’ve largely stopped reviewing books).
The novels I read fall into roughly two categories: books that resonated with the times, and books that took me away from those times. The books that resonated included The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean Mckay, The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall. All excellent reads.
And I made #LiteraryCritters inspired by Laura and Meg’s books.
Of the books that helped me escape at times from what was one of my toughest years on record, my stand out reads were: The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy (also a contender for a resonate novel with its themes of climate change and mass extinction), Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe, The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, The Crying Place by Lia Hills, The White Girl by Tony Birch and The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. The funniest book I read was Mammoth by Chris Flynn. And before the year went to hell, I read Tara June Winch’s two novels, Swallow the Air and The Yield, which led me to conclude that she is one of the finest writers Australia has ever produced.
A number of these books inspired #LiteraryCritters, too.
I also confess to reading a couple of books in order to make #LiteraryCritters to go with them, notably The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers (couldn’t resist the cute little Tasmanian Devil pattern by Paw Paw’s Studio). And then of course there was the whole Animals Make Us Human project (soon the subject of another post).
I read three books by American writers, an eclectic mix of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, all of which were excellent.
And I read one poetry collection, Turbulence by Thuy On, which inspired a crocheted koi fish.
I read more non-fiction than usual in 2020, nine books, compared with six in 2019. Included among these was A Better Death by Doctor Ranjana Srivastava, which I found incredibly helpful when my mother was dying.
Towards the end of the year, I felt strong enough to start reading about grief. My first of these books, and my last read of the year, was Melbourne Circle by my friend Nick Gadd. The book documents the ‘psychojogging’ that Nick and his late wife Lynne did of inner city Melbourne over two years, combining history, travelogue, pyschogeography and memoir. The book is a beautiful tribute to Lynne, a poignant reflection on loss, and a wonderful account of Melbourne’s more hidden history. It has also inspired a #LiteraryCritter (a work in progress).
Nick writes: ‘In grief, we act for reasons we don’t understand.’ I took up two practices in the wake of my mother’s death last year, which I continued through Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown and the death of my father: crafting #LiteraryCritters and birdwatching. For months I have not been able to make sense of this. But I’m starting to see how these activities, which occupy my mind and commandeer my attention, have provided a buffer against an immense sadness that might otherwise overwhelm me. Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk when her beloved father dies, which she documents with great poetry and poignancy in H Is For Hawk (my first read for 2021). She writes, ‘I had no use for history, no use for time at all. I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.’ Perhaps I read and craft (and go birdwatching) to make it all disappear, too.
That said, I am encouraged when Nick writes, ‘Change and loss are everywhere, but so are survival and regeneration.’ And for Helen, ‘There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now…the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.’