I generally read about two books a month. This year I thought I had not read as many as usual, but I read 32 which is 2.6 a month. So retirement hasn’t changed my reading habits. My favourite books, were three fiction and three non-fiction, as follows, in order:
Lincoln In The Bardo
Poum And Alexandre
The Last Man In Europe
War And Turpentine
I’ve listed them all, roughly in order that I read them, below. Those with one or more asterixes I have already blogged about. Those with one asterix are described here, those marked ## are dealt with here and those marked ### are found here.
Cheri, The Last Of Cheri, Colette
I’ve read a biography of Colette and seen various places where she lived in Paris, but until now I have never read any of her work. I found the writing mesmerising as she takes you into a completely different world in these two books. High society Parisiens where mothers get their sons mistresses to ensure they are fully formed / experienced before settling down to marriage. But poor Cherie doesn’t quite manage to settle. Beautiful writing describing a strangely compelling milieu and a strange and unsettling tale of obsession.
Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir,Catherine de Saint Phalle #
This memoir was up for the Stella Prize and I’m sorry it didn’t win it. I loved it. The peculiar characteristics of both mother and father are gradually revealed through the course of their inter-actions with their only child. As is the family’s peculiar circumstances. All written from a child’s perspective, so that full understanding of how and why they live as they do, sort of in suspended animation, only becomes clear after reading the whole book. Very enjoyable and strongly recommended. child.
Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett #
This is a strange, dream-like story. You are thrown write into the dream from the first page where we are in a city somewhere, imagining and then cultivating a small garden in a strange setting. Then we are in the country-side and mundane, daily life is happening. The full details of the protagonist’s living situation is never fully explained, nor her relationships with the few characters who come in and out of her life. There is a pond, but it’s not very striking. Nevertheless this small book was beautifully written and I am tempted to read it again. Nothing much happens and it might not be to everyone’s liking.
The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney #
This story rattled along and the family members who were conflicted about an inheritance, the nest in question, were engaging enough, I did not feel much emotional connection. Okay to while away some time, but not memorable.
Goodwood, Holly Throsby #
This was a great little book, with very engaging characters with whom I was very emotionally involved. The narrator is a young woman who I liked a lot. She’s in a small town that could be any of the small mallee towns near where I grew up. All very recognisable. There’s a disappearance and the clues emerge slowly and very realistically. The denouement when it comes is very believable. A great read and recommended.
Today Will Be Different, María Semple #
I really loved Where’d You Go Bernadette by this author but was a bit disappointed with this story. It started strongly and rattled along but the explanation for the husband’s mysterious behaviour seemed too silly for words. Left me not caring too bits about any of the characters.
Antarctica on a plate, Alexa Thomson ##
this was a surprisingly entertaining read and surprisingly informative about Antarctica. I read it on the way to visiting that far off cold continent and enjoyed it a lot. Apparently the author wrote a blog while she was employed there as a cook. Apart from the fact that she undersells herself it was really good. I cared about her while she was there and about how her story ended. Maybe this is just for afficiando’s of Antarctica, but a good read.
Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders ## and ###
This was my favourite book of the year for the reasons given in the two blogs I’ve written about it. I say to people when recommending it that you need to persevere. Many start and don’t finish it. I had no idea what the bardot was when I was reading it (the spirit world) but it didn’t matter. I think the history of America is contained in the voices of the spirits that make up a good part of the book; so seeing them just as spirits is very limiting. I’d also read,
and enjoyed very much, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is quoted in the series of real life contemporary observations that are also included in the book. So I was familiar with the story of the death of Lincoln’s little boy, and of the circumstances surrounding it; that is the conduct of the ball and of the President’s visits to the graveyard where his son was interred. I loved this fictional account of it. Very moving. Brilliantly done. Strongly recommended.
War And Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans ##
I read this while I was in Antarctica and enjoyed it very much. I was often confused as to whether it was a memoir or a work of fiction; it’s the latter, although it reads like the former. A grandson goes in search of his grandfather; former soldier, amateur painter, upright husband. It’s a sad tale he tells. Of courage and discrimination in the army during the First World War (Walloon versus French Belgian), of the loss of the great love of his life and his dutiful but loveless marriage to her sister. Beautifully told. Recommended.
Danube, Claudio Magris ##
I read this in Antarctica too, and a place further from the frozen and uncivilised frozen continent than the thriving communities along the course of this great river is hard to imagine. I loved it. It’s a meandering, discursive, encyclopedic monster of a book. Full of snippets of information about things you did not know you were interested in. Having read and enjoyed very much Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk along much of the same terrain (A Time of Gifts, Between The Woods And The Water and the posthumously published The Broken Road), I found it all fascinating. It also brought back memories of the wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy. Strongly recommended if you are interested in mitteleurope.
Greene On Capri, Shirley Hazzard ##
I read this on the plane coming back from Argentina having found a lovely hardback copy of a book that I have been looking for in second hand shops for ages. I really enjoyed it; although recently I read a narky remark about how it was just an excuse for Shirley to recount her links and conversations with famous people. I found it interesting. It seems Graham Greene was a fairly unattractive character; but I loved The Power And The Glory when I first read it as a teenager. And have subsequently enjoyed many other of his novels, though the focus on Catholicism is a bit hard to take these days. Characters in fear of hell and damnation for adultery is a bit outdated! Anyway I enjoyed this small book and other Greene afficiandos would too.
The Green Road, Anne Enright ##
I wanted to like this book because I liked the author a lot when she spoke at a Wheeler Centre function early in the year, but I’m afraid I didn’t really. She is praised for her exploration of family dynamics. But I didn’t take to any of the characters in this novel. Hysterical mother, absent father, failed priest, runaway aid worker, dutiful daughter. Maybe the Irish / Catholic family milieu is too close to home?!
The Return, Hisham Matar ##
Another author I have seen speak thanks to the Wheeler Centre. In fact I’ve seen him speak twice and been very impressed both times. First seen he was talking about a novel and how the idea for it came to him. The second time, early this year, he was talking about this one which is autobiographical. I found it very interesting and at times quite moving. What I think stands out about it, is what he left out. He just takes you into what it would have been like to be part of this family. Libyan middle class, politically active; a father imprisoned and then disappeared without trace from within the prison system. Harrowing for the family not to know what happened to him, although they can surmise the worst. He describes it all very sparingly and through small snippets that convey a lot. The British Labor Government’s lack of support, or worse betrayal, is touched on lightly. The ending, full of hope for Libya following Gaddafi’s overthrow, is heartbreaking given what has happened since. Recommended.
The Nix, Nathan Hill
This was on lots of US best books lists as being a searing account of America from the 1960s until now; but I wasn’t particularly engaged. Includes accounts of the riots during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, left wing student political betrayals and more. A son goes in search of his mother’s history; I can’t remember why. In any event I didn’t care about her, or him, or the characters he discovered from her past life.
The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose
This won the Stella Prize, and I’ve decided to read all of the winners from now on. I’m really supportive of the prize. But I was disappointed. It puts together a fictional story about people whose paths cross at the Museum Of Modern Art during the Marina Abramovic show The Artist is Present. I had seen the movie about this show, screened at MIFF in 2012, of the same name which was rivetting. So all of the material in the book about Marina was known to me already. I don’t know whether this affected my response, but I did not feel at all engaged, either with the fictional overlay, nor the biographical bits. The show itself was amazing. She just looks at people sitting across from her and their emotional response at being deeply looked at is often incredibly emotional. Lots of tears.
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin
This is on lots of lists of the best contemporary Argentinian fiction. I wished I had been able to read it when we visited Buenos Aires. It’s very small; and very strange. In fact it’s all there in the title; it’s a fever dream. Strange to read. Very poetic writing. And very opaque, you have no idea what is going on. But I found it stayed with me a long time after; even now as I’m writing about it. Very interesting. Recommended but remember it’s strange.
Between Them, Richard Ford
I found this a sad little book. He is describing the lives of his parents, and of his family life as their only child. It seems such a straitened existence. I’m not sure whether it is the content or the writing that leaves me a bit cold. They lived ordinary, middle American lives as far as one can tell. He was a travelling salesman who died relatively early, in his fifties. He was away from home a lot. But the couple seemed to get along fine. She didn’t work when he was alive, but then got various jobs. They didn’t have much of an extended family and seemingly not a wide circle of friends. I found it quite sad.
The Last Man In Europe, Dennis Glover
I was keen to find a book that I could really get into and did so with this one. It’s great. I knew a fair bit about Orwell before reading it, but it really enhances your understanding of his life. Its called a novel which is a bit strange because it is, as far as I could tell, very true to the life. It focusses on the period when he was writing 1984 and desperately unwell with tuberculosis. He lived a terribly poverty stricken life. It’s all a bit gruelling to read; his lack of attention to his health which led him to an early, and perhaps not necessary, death. It’s all told in a very gripping style and you feel for Orwell and his family. He never lived to see the success of his work which is very sad. This book is strongly recommended.
The Dry, Jane Harper
Loved this little thriller. It’s set in the mallee, and the landscape is a big part of the book, almost a character in its own right. I certainly evoked a strong response in me. It’s all very well done. A sympathetic protagonist who is a very unlikely detective, his specialty is financial crime. He is drawn into investigating the death of a former friend. It’s his old home town. The only misstep was to have the town bullies directly confront him; in real life bullies are too cowardly to be so direct! It is all very satisfactory; sympathetic off-sider, possible love interest with an air of mystery, a link to a long ago death when they were all teenagers together. Some red herrings scattered around. People are not what they seem; but who is the villain remains a mystery until the very satisfactory conclusion. All good. Jane is a very engaging person. I saw her at the Wheeler Centre. She was a journalist before writing this book, and a new mother when she wrote her second. She didn’t downplay the difficulty in finishing both novels. But points out that she was used to writing, and writing to deadlines. The book is going to be made into a film by Reece Witherspoon. She, Jane, was asked whether she wanted to write the screenplay and also to suggest who should play the protagonist. She sensibly declined both offers; get experts in the area. She was very open in the interview, and to responses to questions. I strongly recommend this for a good, enjoyable read.
Wimmera, Mark Brandi
I was keen to like this book, given the success of The Dry and also a tenuous link to the author, who like me, was an adviser in the Bracks / Brumby Government. He worked with Tim Holding. He was also brought up in country Victoria, in Stawell. The country town where the novel is set is not named, but could be Stawell. It’s well written and rattles along. But the story is very dark and there is no happy conclusion. Perhaps I’m being narrow in wanting my thrillers to have happy endings. Here, both the main characters, who we meet as children and then again as adults, have pretty sad lives and no satisfactory resolution to the harm that was done to them both.
Force Of Nature, Jane Harper
I enjoyed this just as much as I enjoyed The Dry although many I have spoken to have preferred the first book. This one is set in a completely different environment, but once again, the landscape is a key feature of the story. It’s how people respond to a strange environment that powers the plot. A group of women are sent out on a corporate bonding exercise and our financial crime detective is back on the scene. There are small references back to the earlier book, but it is not necessary to have read it to enjoy this one. There is another possible love interest. The overlapping back stories of the characters and their inter-relationships held my interest. And I thought the ending was believable and, once again, quite satisfactory. Also recommended.
Taboo, Kim Scott
I was not sure about this novel during my reading of it, but it stayed with me afterwards and I think it tells a very important story. It takes you into the Aboriginal community that is at the centre of it and gives real life to the individual characters and their inter-relationships. I thought the denouement could have been explored more. It ends rather abruptly and I think the idea of some sort of reconciliation between the white and black characters, if that is what happened, it’s a bit ambivalent, could have been made more of. Worth a read. Makes me want to read the author’s earlier book, That Deadman Dance that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2011.
Moonglow, Michael Chabon
Another book that was on lots of American best booklists that disappointed. I picked it up at a second hand shop which might have been indicative. Its about migrants making their way in America. Refugees from the end of the Second World War. There’s a Holocaust story in the mix. Also lots and lots of information about the development of rockets, including the first man on the moon. I found the rocket bits quite tedious. The characters weren’t engaging enough for me to feel any emotional involvement. And without that, at the end, one asks, What’s the point?.
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida
This was another disappointment. I found the protagonist, a woman holidaying in Morocco who has all of her belongings stolen, quite unsympathetic and the situations she gets herself into quite unbelievable. She’s in Morocco because she has been a surrogate mother for her sister and had been excluded from the child’s life. The nurse who delivered the baby is also in Morocco. Having had her stuff stolen, she gets paranoid about the staff at her hotel, about the police, about the US Embassy staff; in short about everyone. She becomes the stand in or double, for someone who is named only as the famous film star and strikes up a very unlikely friendship with her. Before everything comes crashing down. In short ridiculous.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
I liked this a lot. It’s a sweet story about a woman who is, of course, not completely fine at the start of the book, but who, by its end, is getting there. It is all quite well done and sometimes very moving. its told from Eleanor’s point of view. We get snippets of her life in little bits and pieces, that in the end, come together quite satisfactorily. We start with her daily routine, but there are clearly some details that need to be explained, for example her turning up to work on her first day with obvious injuries. It’s a while before we know how she got them. There is a very sympathetic love interest along the way. It’s a very short novel and an easy read. Recommended.
The Peregrine, J A Baker
Beautiful, poetic writing. I wanted to underline or read aloud sentences and phrases for their sheer beauty. It was recognised as a masterpiece as soon as it was published in 1967 and has never been out of print since. Its a distillation of the author’s ten year observation of Peregrines in the Essex estuary in eastern England, near Chelmsford. It charts a year in the life of the birds in the estuary – from October to April, but it’s thought the author has used observations from a number of years in this telling. I loved it. It was recommended by Robert Macfarlane, himself a wonderful nature writer. I loved Macfarlane’s books The Old Ways and Landmarks. I also enjoyed Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She got a bit of criticism for not referencing The Peregrine in her own book and for being critical of it for its stark rendering of how Peregrines kill. She has since said that, of course, she recognises this as one of the great nature books. In any event, it deserves that reputation. It is extraordinarily detailed about the bird; what it looks like, how it flies, how it stalks and kills its prey, how it eats what it has killed. how relates to other birds, how it spends its time in the wild. But it’s the language used to describe all of these things that is striking. There is not a photograph in the book, but you come away with a strong visual image of the bird. A biography of the author, J A Baker, My House of Sky was published in October this year. I’m unsure whether to read it; apart from his bird watching it seems he lived a very dull life! But this book is strongly recommended.
Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier
I’m sure I’ve read this many years ago, but I had no recollection of the story at all! Funny thing memory. I enjoyed it, although I picked the villain pretty readily. What I like about these older authors is how succinct they are. They reveal character through actions that drive the plot along. There are no long, stand alone, psychological digressions. Actions speak for themselves. So I enjoyed all of this, although I’m not sure our heroine’s life on the road was going to be better than her own farm back home.
The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
I didn’t remember reading this novel, until I was about a third of the way into it and then it all came back. This one is a whole novel about psychology. Very interesting take. But again, all revealed through the actions moving the plot along. Two men meet by accident and discover they look exactly alike. One hoodwinks the other into swapping places. One lives a monastic life without meaning. The other is surrounded by family and other people with whom he has nurtured very unhealthy, acrimonious relationships. Our monastic fellow resolves all the family animosities and sets up his doppelganger to lead a good life. He on the other hand loses everything. All interesting, but, of course, completely unlikely.
A Loving Faithful Animal, Josephine Rowe
I have no idea who recommended this book or even where I heard about it. But I enjoyed it. Australian author, born in Rockhampton, grew up in Melbourne. It’s about a family who live in a place up the Hume. Father is a Vietnam veteran; and therein lies the tale. He is beset by demons which end up destroying the family unit. Its told through the eyes of the two daughters. Very typical country teenagers, exploring life, nothing to do, wanting to escape. Mother has her own demons that she takes out on at least one of the daughters, maybe both. It’s all very evocative. I liked the Epigraph, which really explains the book: Here’s the house with childhood / whittled down to a single red tripwire. / don’t worry. Just call it horizon / & you’ll never reach it. / Here’s today. Jump. – Ocean Vuong. Sometimes a tough read, but good. Recommended.
Out Of Africa, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
I’ve never read her, but on the recommendation of a friend finally got around to doing so. I liked it, very evocative of South Africa; the landscape, the people , the way of life, the animals, relations between the races, between men and women, between different tribal groups. She calls Muslims, Mahommedans. She is incredibly interesting about the differences between the different nationalities, Somali, Sudanese etc. She is quite non-judgemental and just describes what she observes and what she learns from those who work for her. Beautifully written.
I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell
This was on lots of best book lists, but this time British ones, it’s been a best seller in the Sunday Times, The Times, Guardian and the Irish Times. Makes a difference I think, I’m more in synch with British best books than American ones. I haven’t read any of her novels, but might now read The Hand That First Held Mine that won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. I really enjoyed this one, which is an autobiography with a difference. She tells her life story (partly) by describing incidents when she might have died. An odd way of structuring the story of your life. She has said in interviews that she wanted to reassure her daughter, who has some serious health issues, that you can overcome anything life throws at you. Maggie has certainly had a lot thrown at her; there are seventeen incidents described; all with the surrounding context and implications illustrating a particular period and aspect of her life. It’s not chronological either. But its a compelling read. She had a serious illness as a child which led to an encounter with Jimmy Saville! She escaped from a potential killer by some very quick thinking and suffered another mugging while travelling. And so it goes. A very good read. Recommended.
The Outrun, Amy Liptrop
I thought this book was going to be about the wildlife of the Orkney Islands. I had an Uncle from Stromness, so was interested. In retrospect I’m not sure why this misconception arose. In any event, there are some descriptions of the wildlife in the Orkneys and more extensive descriptions of the wild terrain, but the book is essentially about the author’s alcoholism and her struggle to overcome it. Very well written and very informative about what is a very destructive disease. I loved the opening page which had me hooked. It describes her introduction to her father on the day she was born; which occurred under the rotating blades of a helicopter that was to take him away to a mental health facility, there being none on Orkney. He was in a straitjacket. She goes on to describe how her family lived with her father’s mental illness, but he successfully, with her mother, managed their farm. the mother got hooked on born again christianity. So there are a number of threads to her story. She doesn’t write about this, but the book, is in fact is what she did while she was living back in the Orkneys. A very good read. Recommended.
During the year I read three of Shakespeare’s plays; As you Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V. I skim read Othello; in search, unsuccessfully, of the phrase the applause of list’ning Senates to command spoken I thought by Othello. I read all of these in William Shakespeare: Complete Works edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen published by The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007. Apart from being unwieldy, it’s a massive volume, this is a great source for everything produced by Shakespeare. Great historical context for each play and comprehensive footnotes.
I also dipped into Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom to read his analysis of these four plays. It is very though provoking, full of interesting history about changes Shakespeare made to the plays between the First and Second Folios, how they have been interpreted over the years, and finally giving his own view about the different characters. Very stimulating. I read all this in preparation for seeing performances of these plays by the Pop-up Globe. I’ve written about that here.