Mourn­ing to morn­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jaya Sav­ige Next week:

Jane Ja­cobs wrote the sem­i­nal The Death and Life of Amer­i­can Cities in 1961. In it she de­vel­oped the the­ory that so­cial and cul­tural di­ver­sity is nec­es­sary for a thriv­ing, en­er­getic in­ner city com­mu­nity. Robert Kanigel’s com­pre­hen­sive bi­og­ra­phy of Ja­cobs, Eyes on the Street, is a won­der­ful trib­ute to her life and ideas, which are even more rel­e­vant now as the in­ner cities be­come so­cially ho­mogenised and gen­tri­fied. Af­ter a cou­ple of re­cent anaemic bi­ogra­phies of the au­thor of Gul­liver’s Trav­els it was good to come across John Stubbs’s ma­jes­tic por­trait of this bril­liant writer and con­trary man in Jonathan Swift: Re­luc­tant Rebel. The exquisitely pro­duced The Phan­tom At­las: The Great­est Myths, Lies and Blun­ders by Ed­ward BrookeHitch­ing fea­tures gor­geous il­lus­tra­tions of coun­tries and is­lands that were once thought to ex­ist, ei­ther cre­ated as de­lib­er­ate lies or by in­com­pe­tent car­tog­ra­phers. For any fans of maps this is a must. Ex­otic high­lights in­cluded Eca de Queiros’s great Por­tuguese saga The Ma­ias; the won­der­ful, ec­cen­tric Guernsey novel by GB Ed­wards, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, and The Door by the Hun­gar­ian Magda Sz­abo. One of the finest and most acer­bic Aus­tralian col­lec­tions of letters, writ­ten from the pro­vin­cial Ho­bart against which she chafed even as it nour­ished her po­etry, was Gwen Har­wood’s Idle Talk: Letters 1960-64. The best new crime series is Adrian McKinty’s, track­ing the tra­vails of DI Sean Duffy in Belfast dur­ing the Trou­bles. Gun Street Girl is one of them, with a sixth due in the new year. Two mas­sive works of his­tory can worthily fill a Christ­mas week or two: Peter Wilson’s The Holy Ro­man Em­pire and Christo­pher Goscha’s Viet­nam. Lu­cia Ber­lin’s comic and har­row­ing post­hu­mous short-story col­lec­tion A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women is now avail­able in pa­per­back (a present for your­self or oth­ers), while three Amer­i­can nov­els of the high­est or­der in a strong year were Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer win­ner The Sym­pa­thiser, Paul Beatty’s Booker win­ner The Sell­out and CE Mor­gan’s The Sport of Kings: here is the finest fe­male coun­ter­part of Cor­mac McCarthy. Af­ter Amer­ica Trumped it­self, JD Vance’s Hill­billy El­egy has be­come the anx­ious read­ing for many. Join them. The book of the year, if not the decade, is Sec­ond­hand Time: The Last of the Sovi­ets by the 2015 No­bel lau­re­ate Svet­lana Alex­ievich. To­gether with the au­thor’s ear­lier works on the war in Afghanistan and the nu­clear disas­ter at Ch­er­nobyl, it forms a trip­tych pre­sent­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of men and women from the Soviet em­pire dur­ing com­mu­nist times and their af­ter- Today I held my part­ner for sev­eral hours, as I have done each day since we learned last week that we are in the crit­i­cal mo­ment of a fail­ing preg­nancy well into the sec­ond trimester. How to think of one’s books of the year when you are wait­ing daily for a tiny, fight­ing heart to stop beat­ing?

But to­gether we re­call the hard clear mar­vels in Denise Ri­ley’s mas­ter­ful Say Some­thing Back, chis­elled from the dark ed­i­fice of a mother’s mourn­ing for her child. Even be­fore last week, this was my most mem­o­rable po­etry book of the year. Then, two days ago I showed my part­ner its shim­mer­ing cen­tral se­quence, A Part Song. The book is now a part of the fab­ric of our own lives.

The New York Re­view of Books’ reis­sue of JH Prynne’s 1968 late-modernist clas­sic The White Stones made a home of my jacket pocket, to re­mind me “how the banks cel­e­brate their pri­vate sea­son, with / bril­liant swaps across the At­lantic trapeze”.

Sex, phi­los­o­phy and God are among the sub­jects Rachel Briggs does se­ri­ously well in Com­mon Sex­ual Fan­tasies, Ru­ined. If ours is an age of the poet as philoso­pher manque, Briggs is the real deal. Among the (in­creas­ingly preva­lent) book-length poem se­quences I en­joyed this year were David Mus­grave’s Anatomy of Voice, writ­ten for an im­por­tant teacher (Sydney Univer­sity lec­turer Bill Maid­ment), a pris­matic tes­ta­ment to the way a for­ma­tive voice can snag in the mind; Joel math. Alex­ievich is not the au­thor so much as the com­piler of this col­lec­tive self-por­trait. The qual­ity of fo­cus, at­ten­tion and em­pa­thy in her work of lis­ten­ing and in­ter­view­ing is bal­anced by the depth of emo­tion — love, de­sire, long­ing for grace — that she records in her sub­jects. Among West­ern­ers look­ing in on the 20th cen­tury Soviet world of “ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing so­cial­ism”, and its more re­cent suc­ces­sor regimes, there has al­ways been a ten­dency to feel the sys­tem with all its con­straints served to pro­duce stunted lives. Alex­ievich tes­ti­fies to the op­po­site: in that realm, dif­fi­culty, pri­va­tion and suf­fer­ing mid­wifed a grandeur and depth of hu­man feel­ing that puts the mod­ern Western world to shame. Both in for­mal terms, as a piece of lit­er­a­ture, and in moral terms, as a trib­ute to the hu­man spirit, this is an es­sen­tial work. Char­lotte Bronte: A Life by Claire Har­man. It’s a rare lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy that can de­liver the po­etry and dra­matic heights of the sub­ject’s fic­tion, but Har­man’s study of the most tal­ented of the Bronte sis­ters is cer­tainly one of them. Rich in de­tail, scrupu­lously re­searched, and nar­rated with flair, this bi­og­ra­phy is a must-read for devo­tees of the Bronte mythol­ogy. Head­wa­ters, by An­thony Lawrence: lyri­cal, com­pressed, and with a mu­si­cian’s ear for the line break, this col­lec­tion con­firms Lawrence as one of the best Aus­tralian po­ets of the 21st cen­tury. De­tec­tive Work by John Dale: a stylish noir thriller set in Sydney, in which the city it­self is the most raff­ish, dan­ger­ous and un­pre­dictable char­ac­ter. The high­light of my 2016 read­ing was War and Tur­pen­tine by Bel­gian writer Ste­fan Hert­mans. Rem­i­nis­cent of WG Se­bald, this in­tox­i­cat­ing hy­brid of a book com­bines mem­oir with fic­tion as the au­thor weaves his own re­flec­tions with his grand­fa­ther’s World War I di­aries. Urbain Mar­tien was both a sol­dier in the Bel­gian army and a painter of church mu­rals. In 6000 pages Dean’s of­ten startling The Year of the Wasp, which charts the stings and ar­rows of his re­cov­ery from a stroke, where “the run on sen­tence / of the hori­zon / is a page / that can only be turned”; Claire Nashar’s de­but Lake, a wildly ex­per­i­men­tal el­egy for the poet’s ge­ol­o­gist grand­mother, which per­forms the thrust fault po­et­ics of a new gen­er­a­tion; and John Kin­sella’s three-vol­ume Graphol­ogy, which takes the ex­tended se­quence to the ex­treme, track­ing his ca­reer-long com­mit­ment to eco­log­i­cal po­et­ics.

At the present mo­ment I am also think­ing of The Ques­tion­naire, a poem from David McCooey’s Star Struck (like Dean’s, also a post-stroke book), for its sub­tle yet haunt­ing re­sponse to the ques­tion, “‘Which po­ets would / you turn to if you / were un­well?’ That / sort of thing.” of note­books, he recorded his ex­pe­ri­ences of art and life be­fore hand­ing them to his grand­son, Hert­mans, a few months be­fore his death in 1981. For 30 years, the writer re­sisted read­ing the note­books, some­how know­ing it would change him ir­re­vo­ca­bly. This beau­ti­ful and cun­ning book is the re­sult of that trans­for­ma­tion. THE AUS­TRALIAN’S A late­comer, like so many oth­ers, to the won­ders of Eimear McBride, I read both her nov­els this year more or less back to back. First I im­mersed my­self in her startling 2013 de­but, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a dizzy­ing feat of lan­guage, in­no­cence and loss. Her next book, pub­lished this year, is a 2016 high­light. Com­pared with the first, The Lesser Bo­hemi­ans is more ac­ces­si­ble, per­haps, cer­tainly more un­set­tling, but un­doubt­edly fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of a ma­jor tal­ent. That said, I’m a new fa­ther — my boy, Raphael, is al­most nine months old — so this list should re­ally re­flect my main read­ing habits. And of all the chil­dren’s books start­ing to fill my home, the work of Jon Klassen stands out. His lat­est is We Found a Hat, the fi­nal in­stal­ment in the so-called hat tril­ogy (the oth­ers were I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat). It tells the story of two tur­tles who find a hat: there’s two of them but only one hat, so what to do? Raphael seems to like it. If noth­ing else, he finds the pages de­li­cious. The Last Paint­ing of Sara de Vos by Do­minic Smith is one of those books I didn’t want to end. The story of a (fic­tional) tit­u­lar fe­male painter of the Dutch golden age and the ef­fect her Two of my favourite books this year were, in very dif­fer­ent ways, both about women and their bod­ies, and the ways in which their bod­ies are imag­ined and con­strained by cul­tural pres­sures and vi­o­lences. In fic­tion, Emily Maguire’s An Iso­lated In­ci­dent ex­plores the strange fas­ci­na­tion our me­dia has with bru­tally murdered young women. Set in a small town just off the high­way between Sydney and Mel­bourne, and largely nar­rated, pitch­per­fectly, by the ballsy but brit­tle Chris in the wake of her sis­ter’s mur­der, Maguire’s book is in­cred­i­bly nu­anced, and qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing. In non­fic­tion, The Long Run by Ca­tri­ona Men­zies-Pike ex­am­ines the his­tory of women’s long-dis­tance run­ning, and the in­dig­ni­ties and im­ped­i­ments that women have over­come to par­tic­i­pate in the sport. But this nar­ra­tive is in­ter­wo­ven with a very per­sonal story of grief and en­durance, and told with a won­der­fully acer­bic wit. The book is lively and ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing, not to men­tion in­tel­li­gent and beau­ti­fully self-aware.

Books of the Year con­tin­ues, with con­tri­bu­tions from Char­lotte Wood, Ge­ordie Wil­liamson, Ash­ley Hay, Gideon Haigh, Delia Fal­coner, James Bradley and many oth­ers.

Poet Jaya Sav­ige at home in Bris­bane

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