MORE BOOKS OF THE YEAR

As promised last week, here is the sec­ond in­stal­ment of our an­nual wrap-up, where writ­ers and crit­ics name their favourite books of the year

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

This year I’ve been read­ing Ge­org Trakl, an ex­tra­or­di­nary Aus­trian poet (1887-1914). He trained as a phar­ma­cist at the Univer­sity of Vi­enna but af­ter re­ceiv­ing pa­tron­age from Ludwig Wittgen­stein he was able to con­cen­trate on writ­ing po­etry. Trakl pub­lished his first book in 1913. There are sev­eral English trans­la­tions but this vol­ume, Po­ems and Prose (A Bilin­gual Edi­tion), trans­lated and in­tro­duced by Alexan­der Still­mark, is the finest. Writ­ten more than a cen­tury ago, the po­ems re­main cur­rent. Trakl’s vi­sion of World War I is star­tlingly con­tem­po­rary. He served in the army med­i­cal corps, re­spon­si­ble for the care of se­ri­ously wounded sol­diers. The po­ems glow with an in­tense in­ner life. We ex­pe­ri­ence the mak­ing of po­etry as a way through hell. Trakl takes the lan­guage of night­mare and tilts his im­agery un­til it flows into the light. The images shake with this in­ner light and colour. The more I read Trakl’s po­ems the more they in­spire, to not only write but to con­tinue on­ward. The other book I want to rec­om­mend is Lu­men Seed, a col­lec­tion of po­ems and pho­to­graphs by Ju­dith Crispin. Wanta Jampi­jinpa Pawu-Kurlpurlurnu in­vited Crispin to La­ja­manu, a re­mote town in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory ac­cessed by cross­ing the Tanami Desert. Two senior Walpiri law­men of­fered to take Crispin in and ‘‘grow her up’’. Th­ese fine po­ems and pho­to­graphs in­tro­duce us to this an­cient cul­ture, and as Crispin puts it ‘‘there is a se­cret world nested in­side this one. I’ve seen it.’’ Hav­ing judged the NSW Premier’s Lit­er­ary Awards this year, I was thrilled by the di­ver­sity and qual­ity of Aus­tralian writ­ing, es­pe­cially Osamah Sami’s hi­lar­i­ous, heart­break­ing and rawly hon­est Good Mus­lim Boy and Robert Hill­man’s bawdy and hi­lar­i­ous Vera: My Story, which bursts with wit, joie de vivre and in­cred­i­ble sto­ries of sur­vival and bo­hemia. Pre­sent­ing You Gotta Read This! on Dou­ble J, I’ve read a sur­feit of music books but the best two were Love in Vain: Robert John­son 1911-1938, a lav­ishly il­lus­trated graphic novel about the life of blues­man Robert John­son, and Porce­lain by the much-ma­ligned Moby, which was sur­pris­ingly good: ar­tic­u­late and af­fect­ing, his fam­ily story al­most out of the pages of a Vic­to­rian novel. It’s an in­spir­ing ac­count of the strug­gles of the artist as a young ve­gan, thrum­ming with amus­ing and sober­ing sto­ries about fame and the fa­mous. Fic­tion high­lights were Han Kang’s The Veg­e­tar­ian — strange, un­set­tling and bril­liantly trans­lated, a vis­ceral dis­sec­tion of so­ci­etal mores and fe­male agency; Roanna Gon­salves’s The Per­ma­nent Res­i­dent, a col­lec­tion of funny, sweet and mem­o­rable sto­ries about the tri­als and ten­der­nesses of the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence; and Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist, which marks a re­turn to form for the Trainspot­ting au­thor and an in­trigu­ing re­turn for one of his most com­pelling and ter­ri­fy­ing char­ac­ters. My favourite book this year was Dana Spi­otta’s mar­vel­lous Innocents and Others. Like all Spi­otta’s nov­els, it’s in­formed by a fas­ci­na­tion with film and pop­u­lar cul­ture, not just their lan­guage but their tech­nol­ogy, se­cret his­to­ries and mythology. It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­plo­ration of the com­plex and of­ten un­pre­dictable ways in which fan­tasy and real­ity over­lap, the mu­ta­bil­ity of iden­tity and the com­plex and of­ten con­tested na­ture of friend­ship. I also greatly ad­mired Col­son White­head’s The Un­der­ground Rail­road, a novel that doesn’t just make the un­speak­able sav­agery of slav­ery tan­gi­ble but also makes wrench­ingly clear the de­gree to which its trauma con­tin­ues to dis­fig­ure Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. It’s a thrilling ex­am­ple of the ca­pac­ity of the fan­tas­tic to make that which we think we know starkly and ter­ri­fy­ingly new. Fi­nally, I adored both Ann Patch­ett’s glo­ri­ous and qui­etly sub­ver­sive Com­mon­wealth and Bruce Pas­coe’s as­ton­ish­ing ex­plo­ration of the ma­te­rial cul­ture of pre-colo­nial Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia, Dark Emu: there aren’t many books I think ev­ery Aus­tralian should read, but Pas­coe’s is one of them. I’m eas­ily won over by au­thors with music in their prose. This has been a good year. Thorn­ton McCamish’s Our Man Else­where: In Search of Alan Moorehead is a feast: style and sub­stance melded into one read­able whole, quiet author­ity and flick­ers of wit, a dis­dain for the drea­rier con­ven­tions of biog­ra­phy. Moorehead, who died in 1983, was one of the finest prose stylists this coun­try has pro­duced, with a cam­era for an eye and a mel­low voice that washed over the reader like a spell. McCamish has sim­i­lar gifts. Richard Fi­dler’s Ghost Em­pire is the story of Con­stantino­ple and the Byzan­tine world, its glory and squalor. The au­thor says Ha­gia Sophia, the church built by the em­peror Jus­tinian, floods the senses with won­der and plea­sure. Fi­dler’s book does much the same. An­thony Do­err’s novel All the Light We Can­not See, set dur­ing World War II, is an af­fect­ing tale crafted around a blind French girl and a Ger­man boy fas­ci­nated by ra­dios. Short chap­ters and the use of the present tense give it the pace of a thriller. Do­err is a mas­ter of the word pic­ture. At its best his writ­ing is in­can­des­cent. Sev­eral bril­liantly writ­ten and deeply thought­pro­vok­ing books were pub­lished this year. David Reith’s In Praise of For­get­ting: His­tor­i­cal Mem­ory and Its Ironies makes the con­tro­ver­sial ar­gu­ment that, af­ter the Holo­caust, cul­ti­vat­ing his­tor­i­cal po­lit­i­cal mem­ory may do more harm than good, per­pet­u­at­ing re­sent­ments that lead to de­formed iden­tity pol­i­tics, pogroms, war and geno­cide. Amer­i­can writer Shadi Hamid’s con­tentious Is­lamic Ex­cep­tion­al­ism: How the Strug­gle over Is­lam Is Re­shap­ing the World is es­sen­tial read­ing. It ex­am­ines how the dif­fi­culty of rec­on­cil­ing sec­u­lar­ism and Is­lam not only makes in­te­gra­tion tricky for Mus­lims in the West but per­pet­u­ates sec­tar­ian war within the re­li­gion, even while ar­gu­ing that “progress” to­wards lib­eral democ­racy is not a his­tor­i­cal in­evitabil­ity. Pa­trick Kings­ley’s The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Cri­sis is an ab­sorb­ing read that shakes up com­pas­sion fa­tigue with grip­ping wit­ness ac­counts, vivid his­tor­i­cal con­text and se­ri­ous anal­y­sis that goes way be­yond the mo­men­tary spot­light of news grabs. And When Breath be­comes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a neu­ro­sur­geon who chron­i­cled his own death from can­cer, is just ex­tra­or­di­nary: hu­mane, po­etic, mov­ing and en­light­en­ing. I thought Don DeLillo’s Zero K and Ian McEwan’s Nut­shell were dis­ap­point­ing, though in ways that bore the sig­na­tures of mas­ters. Fay Wel­don’s Be­fore the War was mar­vel­lous: moody, lu­dic, and poignant all at once. And Rose Tre­main’s The Gus­tav Sonata had the power of a lost Tol­stoy story. Non­fic­tion by nov­el­ists had a lot of verve this year with He­len Garner’s dev­as­tat­ing and bril­liant set of self-por­traits in Everywhere I Look. And Tim Win­ton’s mar­vel­lous mem­oir in easy pieces, The Boy Be­hind the Cur­tain. John le Carre’s The Pi­geon Tun­nel is not the master­piece of self-dis­clo­sure it might be but the finest of the es­says (all about his deadly charmer of a con-man fa­ther) is a heart­break­ing thing of bril­liance. Sarah Fer­gu­son’s The Killing Sea­son is the am­pli­fied sou­venir of one of the great­est pieces of tele­vi­sion this coun­try has seen. Ash­leigh Wil­son’s Brett White­ley: Art, Life and the Other Thing is a ter­rific por­trait of a tragic, glam­our-rid­den sub­ject. David Hock­ney and Martin Gay­ford’s A His­tory of Pic­tures is a real charmer. JK Rowl­ing’s play Harry Pot­ter and The Cursed Child is an ut­ter win­ner. JM Coetzee’s The School­days of Je­sus is the work of an archangel. The best book this year was one I didn’t read un­til I’d heard it: Max Porter’s novella Grief is the Thing with Feath­ers. Porter had a ses­sion at the 2016 Ade­laide Fes­ti­val with the lat­est biog­ra­pher of Ted Hughes, English critic Jonathan Bate — an ap­par­ently suit­able match as Porter’s book takes its cen­tral metaphor, and much of its en­ergy, from Hughes’s po­etry. But you could feel the au­di­ence bristling at Bate’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the life of Hughes, which sees the poet as a kind of pri­apic mon­ster. Porter’s beau­ti­ful read­ing re­turned the po­etry This was a great year of read­ing. Non­fic­tion high­lights in­cluded Baba Schwartz’s The May Bee­tles, a pre­cise and lu­mi­nous story of sur­vival. An­other treat was He­len Garner’s col­lec­tion Everywhere I Look (can we please have a book­length vol­ume of the di­aries?). But my pick of the year was his­to­rian Tom Grif­fith’s The Art of Time Travel, which is ev­ery­thing good aca­demic writ­ing should be: gen­er­ous, ef­fort­less and ex­cit­ing. Grif­fiths’s re­flec­tion on 14 Aus­tralian his­to­ri­ans is also kind of a love let­ter to his own craft. It’s a must for any­one in­ter­ested in what his­tory is and how it’s writ­ten. In fic­tion, I came late to Pene­lope Fitzger­ald’s The Blue Flower (1997); its ironic vi­sion re­minded me of an­other favourite, Lampe­dusa’s The Leop­ard. I was de­lighted by Heather Rose’s weirdly en­gag­ing The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Love, a fic­tional biog­ra­phy of Ma­rina Abramovic, while Emily Maguire’s An Iso­lated In­ci­dent got un­der my skin and stayed there. I loved the Text Clas­sic reis­sue of Christina Stead’s The Puz­zleHeaded Girl, a kind of fe­male ver­sion of Bartleby the Scrivener. Stead’s gifts are so am­ple, her grasp of ob­ses­sion ex­tra­or­di­nary. This year I also fell hard for Rachel Cusk: on a read­ing jag of all her work, I found my­self lov­ing the caus­tic in­tel­li­gence of her non­fic­tion ( A Life’s Work and The Last Sup­per). But it’s her two most re­cent nov­els, Out­line and Tran­sit, which have me dy­ing of envy. Th­ese nov­els, episodes in a di­vorced writer’s life, read like a hyp­notic amal­gam of fic­tion and non­fic­tion but also seem to con­jure the com­plex, pre­car­i­ous feel­ings of this strange year. My book of the year was Jimmy Barnes’s mem­oir Work­ing Class Boy, which reared up out of nowhere and clob­bered me. I still don’t know what sur­prised me more: the Dick­en­sian de­pri­va­tions of Barnes’s child­hood or the re­lent­less in­ten­sity of his nar­ra­tive style. I’m bet­ting the book will be viewed as an Aus­tralian clas­sic. The best novel I read this year was Ian McGuire’s The North Wa­ter. Set in the 1850s on a whal­ing ship with a mur­der­ous psy­chopath aboard, the book has a lot of rol­lick­ing old-fash­ioned virtues. It also has McGuire’s prose, which is mod­ern, honed, el­e­men­tal: like Cor­mac McCarthy, he is a poet of vi­o­lence. In a year of po­lit­i­cal shocks, I be­lat­edly picked up Richard King’s On Of­fence. Read in the shadow of Don­ald Trump, King’s warn­ings about the long-term dan­gers of tip­toe­ing around each other’s taboos have the sound of an un­heeded prophecy. “In our ea­ger­ness to take of­fence, we make our­selves a prey to the dem­a­gogue.” As­sum­ing we want to keep Trump’s lo­cal coun­ter­parts at bay, our vi­tal cen­tre will need to re­dis­cover its ap­petite for free speech and fear­less con­ver­sa­tion — and its vi­tal­ity, come to think of it. Read­ing King’s sane and stylish book is an ex­cel­lent way to start.

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