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
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.