Mourning to morning
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