Highlights of 2020

Thanks to Covid-19 I read a personal record of 158 books in 2020.

(asterisks indicate Australian authors)

Non-fiction

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)

The Five is an astonishing social history that delves into the lives of the ‘canonical five’ victims of Jack the Ripper. The book seeks to put their lives into their contexts of poverty and disadvantage and to de-sexualise them, as their representation in the popular imagination remains synonymous with sexual temptation and prostitution. Indeed, as Rubenhold shows, for four of them there is no evidence that they were prostitutes. There is a fascinating interview with Rubenhold on the Guardian books podcast, which is where I first heard about it. 

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss (2020)

Biss trains her unique and perceptive lens on capitalism and labour. Fascinating insights into reflections on the lives of Virginia Woolf and Marx also pepper the book. This brief outline doesn’t do it justice, so read Aminatta Forna’s review in the Guardian.

Our Bright Hour by Nina Rigg (2017)

This memoir by the poet Nina Rigg chronicles her years living with terminal breast cancer, as she comes to terms with the fact that she won’t grow old with her husband, or see her two sons reach adolescence. It is a moving portrayal of the life she created with her partner John and the daily wonder of raising two precocious children. Interestingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was Rigg’s ancestor, and she also reflects on his contribution to literature, as well as her love for Montaigne’s essays. Rigg died at 6am on 26 February 2017 at the age of 39. I would say this is the standout book of my reading year. Read it with tissues- you may need more than one box.

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon (2018)

Translated from French, this book reveals the ongoing effects of living with childhood sexual assault. As a young girl, Adelaide was attacked by a serial rapist, and has spent the rest of her life trying to cope with the trauma. Bon also gave an illuminating lecture on witches in the cultural imagination at Sydney Writers Festival.

Night Fishing by Vicki Hastrich (2019)*

These essays are profound meditations on the artistic process, and how obsessions- for Hastrich, with the Woy Woy area, the ocean and Goya- are an undercurrent in artists’ lifelong creative quests. The collection was born out of Hastrich’s ‘fallow period’; a decision to be ‘unproductive’ when a novel she was writing wasn’t working out:

The more I thought about it the more I warmed to the idea: I would go dormant but in a way that was still active. If I opened myself up and calmy listened, there might be all sorts of things to hear – things I didn’t immediately have to turn into something else, as writers often feel compelled to do. In fact, I would be anti-production. I would read and walk and look at art and people and nature, and I would let whatever came my way to wash over and through me, and then let it go.

She also offers us this pearler: ‘…the pleasure of thinking a big idea is not to be dismissed as nothing. Even if the idea is never realised, the thinking is real and enlarging, sustaining, as much a part of art and the life of inquiry as actual production.’

After Our Bright Hour, this is the next best book I read in 2020.

The Girls by Chloe Higgins (2019)*

Chloe Higgins’s debut details the legacy of living with intense grief and trauma. When she was in her final year of school, Chloe’s two younger sisters died after the car their father was driving was involved in an accident and burst into flames. Beautifully written and unsparing in its honesty, this book is a compelling read and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Travel Light, Move Fast by AD Fuller (2019)

This memoir, from the author of the instant classic Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, looks at the death of her father and the ongoing legacy of her parents’ colonial existence in Rhodesia and Zambia. It has to be noted that Fuller is one of those memoirists who reproduces long conversations and claims them to be verbatim, which usually rings alarm bells for me. However she has worked as a journalist so it is possible she meticulously chronicles her life and interactions. Nevertheless, this book is so beautifully written and draws out the dynamics of complex family relationships in a post-colonial setting so finely that it deserves a guernsey.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: a True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (2020)

This is Summerscale’s fifth book, and her second to be set in the interwar period (this was the backdrop for her first book The Queen of Whale Cay).  Summerscale looks at reports of poltergeists in suburban London as the second World War looms darkly on the horizon. Focusing on one household- that of the eponymous Alma Fielding- Summerscale follows the investigation of Hungarian-Jewish ghost hunter Nandor Fodor, and the burgeoning belief in psychoanalysis and the unconscious, which makes Fodor question his belief in the supernatural. Watch out for a review on this blog in 2021.

The Details by Tegan Bennett Daylight (2020)*

I had not previously read Daylight’s work, and came across her book of essays after an excerpt was published in the Guardian. I devoured it in a weekend.

The essays are masterclasses in both analysis and critical writing, with her love of Helen Garner and George Saunders shining through, although for a critic she is surprisingly rigid when it comes to the canon- she despairs for the university students she teaches who have not read ‘the classics.’ This is a flaw of the book- surely the role of the critic, especially a female one, is to challenge the male-dominated canon? It is an odd blindspot considering the lead essay is about the damage childbirth did to her vagina and challenges the silence our society has constructed about the horror of childbirth and women’s health more broadly. She also valorises the critic James Wood, whose insightful work nevertheless shares her own blindspot: his book How Fiction Works is dominated by the work of white men. This quibble aside, however, the collection is well worth a read.

Fiction

Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey* (2020)

A hilarious and poignant look at a bunch of Harvard graduates gathering for their fifteenth reunion in the shadow of a Trump-like President. As I wrote in my review for the Newtown Review of Books, Dovey’s move to a more commercial premise has not compromised the profundity of her fiction.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (2020)

The narrator is asked by her friend to assist her to die as she suffers from terminal cancer. A stirring meditation on friendship and loyalty against the backdrop of planetary destruction. Nunez’s style is circuitous, spare and, at times, oblique, but she still manages to get to the heart of the matter.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)

2020 will also be memorable for my belated encounter with the prickly and imperfect Olive, who, despite her flaws, is an endearing character who the reader can’t help but care about. Strout’s heartwarming portrayal of ordinary people going about their lives as best they can is deeply moving. A sequel was published in 2019 which is on my list for this year, as is her forthcoming novel

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

O’Farrell’s eight novel takes a beautiful, heartbreaking look at the life of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died in childhood from the plague. O’Farrell’s imagined journey of the fleas carrying the plague to Hamnet is remarkable, as is her portrayal of grief and the way it haunts its sufferers.

I had wanted to review this for a journal as there is hardly any critical work available on Maggie O’Farrell (a very nothing-y review was published in the TLS, a slightly better one appeared in the New Statesman), but unfortunately the publication I approached turned my review down. I did however review it on this blog. Hamnet won last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, so hopefully her next book garners more critical attention.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)

I finally got around to reading Normal People, which the media, including critical cultural publications, love to refer to as the quintessential millennial novel. The word millennial gets flung about with such abandon that it now fails to signify anything meaningful. I’ve found it is often accompanied by the adjective ‘solipsistic.’  

If anything, Normal People challenges this lazy designation. Turns out, your late teens and early twenties are a meaningful period of your life. There is a scene when the two main characters, Connell and Marianne- an on-again-off-again couple whose personal and collective shame keeps getting in the way of their relationship- are reflecting on their shared history and the current state of their lives.  ‘Its funny the decisions you make because you like someone,’ says Connell, ‘and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’

A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled in parsing the appeal of Normal People, and of Rooney’s oeuvre (if you can call it that after two books). A mixed review by Madeline Schwartz in the New York Review of Books drew attention to Rooney’s flat prose and self-destructive female characters. Lauren Collins, conversely, waxed lyrical in the New Yorker about Rooney’s millennial sensibilities. Meanwhile, for Emily Temple writing in Lithub, it’s all about the sex:

how vulnerable it is, how tender…But it’s necessary, too. Marianne and Connell are magnetized in this mysterious way, both in the book and in its adaptation; it’s a sexual magnetization as well as an emotional one, and it comes with the constant refrain: “it’s not like this with other people.” Indeed not, and for that reason the sex stops short of being realistic, exactly—which only makes it more effective at transmitting the narrative’s central concern: the uncommon bond between these two people, and whether it can outlast the world around it.

To me, the success of Normal People can be explained by the way it counters the pervasive belief that the relationships formed and broken in early adulthood are not damaging, or that they have no bearing on the rest of your life. Rooney gives voice to the lingering feelings of shame and longing that forever colour the memory of your first romantic attachment. We want to believe that love will win out; indeed, we are drip fed this message from an early age. But the mutual attraction and vulnerabilities shared by Connell and Marianne does not mean their love is straightforward. Questions of image, and the pursuit of status and of glamour – not to mention class – cannot be separated from our ideas about love. This, too is a lifelong tension.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Though it may at first seem like a stretch, I think Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham is, in many ways, the corollary of Normal People. Whereas Rooney’s novel is forward-looking, Sittenfeld’s is a playful retrospective examination of the fork in the road that was Hillary Rodham’s decision to marry Bill Clinton.

Like Marianne, Hillary has a problematic father, which leaves her with lingering psychological effects, including insecurity. By the time Bill asks her out on a date, Hillary has already taken a senator to task in her university graduation address; one would assume she is gearing up to take her place in the world, yet she cannot believe a man of his stature would show any interest, let alone romantic interest, in her.

But what, exactly, is Bill’s interest? Sittenfeld cracks open this question through her retelling of the famous Sixty Minutes interview; in the actual historical interview Hillary sits beside her cheating husband and defends him to the American public. In Rodham, Hillary looks on with horror as the woman who had the misfortune to marry Bill does the same.

Perhaps I loved this novel so much because it is close to the bone. I started dating my first boyfriend in the summer immediately following my graduation from highschool. Aspiring to poltiical office, he worked on and off in the electoral offices of various state Labor MPs. Alas for me, my hair was not long enough, my smile not broad enough, my conscience not silent enough, my personality not submissive enough. Eventually he unceremoniously ditched me.

Now, I await elections with dread. But even if we have the collective misfortune of one day seeing him on television, at least I will never be that woman on Sixty Minutes; I will also never be dragged out, like Margie Abbott was in 2016, to inform the Australian public of my politician husband’s penchant for period dramas, or to reassure voters that if you actually get to know him, he really is a nice guy.

Prior to this experience, I had wondered earnestly about how you could spend your life married to someone who was so obviously a pig, and not only keep on being married to them but also deny their piggery. I was so confident in my ability to avoid this particular pitfall. Now, of course, I know better.  As Anne Enright wrote in her review of Rodham for the Guardian, ‘Love is the great accident. We can fall for the wrong person, or we can have the great good fortune to attach ourselves to the right person, and the strange thing is, we may never know which is which.’

Michelle de Kretser writes that the job of good writing is to make us feel seen. Rodham did more to validate the decade of humiliation I felt as a result of that formative relationship than any counselling I’ve undertaken. I had joined the ranks of Hillary and Margie for a time, but was ultimately spared. Now I can look back with gratitude.

Best critical writing

Two lengthy reviews really stand out in my mind. The first by Roslyn Jolly examines Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock in conjunction with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It is a searing validation of ‘angry’ literature, canvassing the ‘indignities, trespasses and violence to which women are subjected, in the wider world and more particularly in their own homes.’

Angry Women | Roslyn Jolly on Evie Wyld and Anne Brontë (sydneyreviewofbooks.com)

The second by Thornton McCamish looks at Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum.

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’ | The Monthly

I also loved the take on the writing life offered by the supremely talented Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Called ‘Award Rate,’ it captures the ignominy of trying to carve out an artistic life under capitalism, and the rock-and-a-hard-place scenario of being shortlisted for a major literary award, ‘a once-in-a-lifetime boon from a government that would prefer we didn’t exist.’

Thanks for the money, I imagine saying, then slipping offstage. Would that be too ungracious? Uninspiring? Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around.

Award Rate | Laura Elizabeth Woollett on writing | Sydney Review of Books

What I’m Looking Forward to reading in 2021

Australian

Alice Pung, One Hundred Days (June, Black Inc.): a pregnant sixteen year old battles her mother as the due date approaches.

Anna Spargo-Ryan, A Kind of Magic (July, Picador): Spargo-Ryan’s memoir is based on her 2016 Horne prize-winning essay The Suicide Gene.

Krissy Kneen, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen: Travels with My Grandmother’s Ashes (May, Text): Kneen investigates the early life of her grandmother, following the trail through Eastern Europe and Egypt.

Kathryn Heyman, Fury (May): novelist Kathryn Heyman discusses the aftermath of a sexual assault and how she survived it.

International

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera (Viking): a study that looks at the legacy of empire from the NHS to Brexit and Covid.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber): involving an “Artificial Friend,” this nvel considers humanity and the meaning of love.

Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner (William Collins): a memoir centering on objects.

Everybody by Olivia Laing (Picador): an investigation into bodies, which looks at protests, alternative medicine and the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus): looks at Count Camondo, a prominent Jewish banker and the creator of a vast collection of decorative arts, who lost a son in the first world war and whose daughter and grandchildren died in the Holocaust.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador): the author of Say Nothing investigates the secrets of the controversial pharmaceutical family.

Real Estate by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton): The final instalment in the award-winning “living autobiography” series.

Consumed by Arifa Akbar (Sceptre): the Guardian’s theatre critic tells the story of her sister’s death from TB, and also considers the history of the disease.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (Granta): a fesh look at Orwell through his love of nature and gardening.

New Territory Litbloggers’ Year in Review 2018

As the end of the year looms closer, I thought it would be good to catch up with Sue Terry of Whispering Gums to compare notes on our favourite reads of 2018. We have both read a selection of new and older books over the year, and we also chatted about the highlights of our summer reading lists. Sue has reviewed some of her books (and many more!) on her blog.

To cap it off we have also included some reflections on the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program.

Sue’s highlights are below. You can read mine on Sue’s blog.

Best Fiction of 2018:

I’ll be doing my top reads of 2018 in early January as I always do, and I’ll admit right up front that I find it very hard to choose Bests. Consequently, I’m going to choose three books representing different “categories” in my fiction reading for the year:

For translated fiction: Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Evacuation: I loved this for its imagination, its clever “road trip” form, its Tel Aviv setting, and its exploration of art, war, and personal choices.

For contemporary Australian: Sofie Laguna’s The choke: Very hard to choose because I’ve read a lot of great Australian fiction. The choke may not be perfect, requiring some suspension of disbelief in its denouement, but it moved me immensely. Not only are its characters, subject matter, and setting so beautifully evoked, but it avoids sentimentality and judgement. And, I loved Justine’s voice.

For my classic: EM Forster’s Howard’s End. I read a few good classics this year, but it was so good to read EM Forster again, and to see how relevant it still is, that I just had to choose this one.

Best Non-Fiction of 2018:

Again, I’m going to choose three (well, four, actually) books representing three different categories:

Biography: Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner, and Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life lived at the edge of the world. I’ve chosen Krasnostein’s book for the warmth and generosity of its writer and subject, and for its clever structure; and Scott Tucker’s because, although it is a more traditional biography, it manages also to be an exciting, engrossing tale.

Memoir: Marie Munkara’s Of Ashes and rivers that run to the sea. It’s hard to make a serious story about dispossession and the Stolen Generations funny, but Munkara pulls it off – without undermining the seriousness of, and conflicting emotions within, her story.

Non-fiction: Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. This is a bit of a cheat I suppose because it is partly biography, but it is also a study of the history, science and ethics of cell culture, and it manages to do all of this with a great deal of aplomb.

What has New Territory meant for me?

This was my second year as the blogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s litblogging program, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly again. The best part is meeting other bloggers, and Amy has been an absolute delight to work with over the last few months. I loved that she was open to exploring her blogging goals and keen to learn what she could, that she came with definite ideas about what she wanted to achieve, and that she took the initiative in organising a couple of meetings to which she then invited me. In addition, there’s the fact that the best mentor relationships involve learning on both sides. At least, I hope Amy feels she’s learnt some things! I certainly have, particularly in terms of Amy’s way of thinking about and interrogating the arts. I look toward to continuing to read her thoughts when our formal mentorship ends. I wish her well with her longer-term writing goals.

Besides this connection with the bloggers I mentor, the program has also provided me with an opportunity to get to know a little better some of Canberra’s cultural movers and shakers – at the Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia, in particular. It’s a two-edged sword, that, because I rather like lying low, but I also like to meet warm, interesting, enthusiastic people, and that’s what they are.

Summer reads

I’m not a big on making reading plans, partly because the majority of my reading tends to be driven by the review copies I’m sent, and my reading group schedule. But, in January, there is always just a little sense of having the time and freedom to break a bit loose, and so, if time permits, my priorities would be:

  • Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s biography Germaine: the life of Germaine Greer, which I bought at the Conversation event I attended and am keen to read as Germaine is, well, Germaine.
  • Fiona Wright’s book of essays The world was whole, a follow-up to her Stella Prize shortlisted first book of essays, Small acts of disappearance, which impressed me for its openness, thoughtfulness, and stylish writing.
  • Gerald Murnane’s latest novel Border districts, which has just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction though, as Amy can attest, I already had it on my list. Just saying!
  • my first reading group book for 2019, Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe, which was highly recommended by my brother and an ex-reading group member.

However, please don’t keep me to this. Who knows what January (not to mention Santa) will bring?

Tops of 2017

I thought I’d kick off with a selection of my tops of 2017.

Top fiction reads (not all were published last year)

Larchfield by Polly Clark

A poet who is coming to terms with motherhood crosses time to meet up with WH Auden. Beautifully written and a challenge to question whether miracles are in fact possible…

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

On of my favourite contemporary authors. Her command of language is magical and totally transporting. I challenge anyone to not be gripped by her work…

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (Miles Franklin winner)

This book about healing deep family rifts really moved me. It is set in Perth where I grew up, and the descriptions of everyday life in the suburbs was very palpable to me. The narrator is a selfish and unpleasant older male, a perspective I found insightful and ultimately uplifting- perhaps selfish men who think they are entitled to dominate (and unwittingly destroy) family life can change their ways.

The Party by Elizabeth Day

The Talented Mr Ripley meets Brideshead Revisited meets The Line of Beauty. The writing is frequently witty but also acidic, cutting through class pretensions and dealing with the unpleasant reality of mopping up when our facades crack open to reveal who we really are.

The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald

We all know that romantic genre full of cosy bookshops where one meets one’s true love. This does not belong to that genre. A good read for anyone with a strong sense of justice. A  review will be posted in June after the release of the film adaptation.

Top non-fiction reads of 2017

Kick by Paula Byrne

A completely different perspective on the Kennedy family, focussing on Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy who caused scandal by marrying into the Protestant Cavendish family and tragically died at age 28.  You can hear Paula Byrne speaking at the Adelaide writers’ festival here

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

Book by the Twitter sensation @herdysherpherd1 about farming the same Cumbria farmland that his family has farmed for six centuries. If anyone has the meaning of life sorted it is this guy.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir of living life to the full by one of my absolute favourite authors. The book was written for her daughter, who has severe anaphylaxis and can die at any moment by coming into contact with everyday substances.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

An analysis of a scandalous divorce case in the mid-1800s. The unhappily married Mrs Robinson becomes infatuated with a young doctor. But perhaps her real transgression was to think for herself and record her thoughts in her diary…

Adult Fantasy by Briohnny Doyle

Framed as a critique of how our society measures success through material acquisition, this compelling and utterly persuasive analysis of how our society is down on millennials, and why we shouldn’t be (clue: the baby boomers have a lot to answer for). I also believe Doyle’s book functions as an exposition on the artist’s life and marginalisation from economic security, as it ponders fundamental questions that are completely left out of our received wisdom, such as what constitutes meaningful employment? Do I have to sell my soul to keep a roof over my head? Highly recommended.

The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain

A moving dissection of our capacity for language and narrative, written as Georgia was losing her ability to speak and join words because of a malignant brain tumour.

Most memorable news article: Suzanne Moore’s article in The Guardian on the retrograde “legacy” of Hugh Hefner

Most memorable cartoon- the mental load (or, why women get lumped with all the responsibility)

Top film or TV

The Crown Season 1- reviewed here

Jackie- reviewed here

On Chesil Beach- review will be posted after general release in April

Top theatre

Richard III, directed by Kate Mulvaney (Bell Shakespeare)

Talk by Jonathan Biggins (STC)

Secret River (Kate Grenville/ Andrew Bovell, Adelaide Festival)