My covid year was relatively fine, but it still played havoc on my reading, considering how many hours I had to give up to doomscrolling and rocking quietly in a corner. So my overall list for the year was way down. Here though are my favoured five non-work reads for 2020. Putting them together, I detect (only now) a preference for intimate narratives close to home (literally Sydney) or for generally feelgood stories. No doubt a reflection of the times. I might get into more bracing feelbad fiction next year – here’s hoping.
Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss was a really well written book about a really unattractive family, but it evoked illness well, and London, and love. It was often acclaimed this year as a debut novel, but in fact Mason had published a book about Sydney in 2017, You Be Mother, which I also enjoyed even though the plot is a bit nuts and the family equally yuk. It’s great to see such dramatic sharpening in a writer’s style.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was rightly hailed everywhere. I read it through some of the most intense BLM protests, which made it especially compelling – a portrait of class and race neatly entwined in contemporary America.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell came to my notice for its controversy in possibly ripping off another woman’s story. I tried reading the other work and couldn’t see it myself, considering how much the novel in fact wants to play on the ubiquity of the Lolita narrative. The other author rightly criticises the racial machinations behind western publishing deals, but Russell’s book stands on its own for its lyrical style and nuanced depiction of abuse. [This was not a feelgood read BTW].
Holly Wainwright’s I Give My Marriage a Year was very much a feelgood book—the marriage bit of it, though, being the least convincing. But the depiction of Erskineville, Botany and surrounds was beautiful – somehow even more heartwarming when they were among the only suburbs I could visit for a while in 2020.
The winner of the year for me was probably One Two Three Four by Craig Brown – a loving biography of the Beatles, which was a tad too long, but as funny and quirky as Brown’s Margaret book (see below). It helped the whole family develop a fun soundtrack to the lockdown too.
My top 2019 reads: gotta say, none as stellar as the top ones of some books below, but maybe it’s me. The year started with Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, fantastic saga about a Chinese family in America (sagas make great holiday reads). Two books here were recommended by my friend Zora, Fleischman is in Trouble, unexpectedly good on the New York rich, and Let’s Hope for the Best, a brilliant Scandi memoir about grief and motherhood and writing. (I don’t always agree with my very well-read friends though; I just don’t get the hype for Rooney, Nunez et al). I stumbled upon The Erratics (a bit late) – what great writing about the Australia-Canada connection and family dysfunction. And I greatly enjoyed The Grammarians about writerly twins, though some might find it a bit twee. Let me know any adjacent reads to this I should check out!
My round up of top five non-profession-related books for 2018. Not quite so much Oz stuff this year for some reason, and though I enjoyed a handful of novels or so very much there were not quite so many outstanding ones. Ugh, maybe I’m just in a bad fiction patch – please send your fave fiction recommendations my way! Memorable books this year that didn’t quite make the cut: Meg Wolitzer’s novel about aging iconic feminists, Female Persusion; Danzy Senna’s great zeroing in on ‘racially nebulous’ contemporary America, New People; Cressida Connelly’s totally curious and eye opening novel about British fascists, After the Party; aaaand a fab novel that I can’t find any trace of any more!!! It was set in interwar Bay Area, about a woman married to a fake, self-important scientist – it’s driving me mad not remembering the title or author, please let me know if you recognise it.*
1) Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff. All the best lines were indeed other peoples’ but it takes an incredible wit to draw out the right ones at just the right time. This devastating and bone-chilling book had me chuckling right the whole way through.
2) Relatively Famous, Roger Averill. I never heard anyone else talk of this book this year but it’s my number one Australian for the year, about living in ordinary Melbourne when your father is extraordinarily famous elsewhere; evokes fame and everyday life in totally charming way. I can’t wait to read more from him.
3) White Houses, Amy Bloom. Some of my better read friends sighed at this, but I thought it was an utterly imaginative recreation of the Roosevelt household. Her writing has sharpened up hugely. Sent me down a Roosevelt tunnel… again.
4) Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones. This novel can stand in for all the Jones novels I read in one month after discovering An American Marriage around Easter time. They are all amazingly edible; I just hoovered them up. This one possibly the best, about friendships, and inequality. And hair.
5) Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Craig Brown. The winner of the year for me I think. Does exactly what Barthes said was the only format left for biography – the stack-together biographeme – but without the snore factor of Barthes. This was totally funny and presumably accurate, with some fiction thrown in, which hardly mattered, and was in fact unnecessary. I’d love to write a biography (or autobiography maybe!) one day like this.
*Discovered finally! It was Jane Smiley’s Private Life (2011).
Around New Year I usually back-track though my non-professional reading and compile a top five. Last month I came up with these for 2017:
1) Music and Freedom, Zoe Morrison—an Oz writer, though this is set largely in Oxford, UK; excellent storytelling, strong characters, lots of music.
2) 4321, Paul Auster, a rare male entry! I didn’t think I was an Auster kind of person, but this was gripping from beginning to its very far off end (extremely fat book, which I was not aware of when I started it on kindle). Four versions of a life; some found it too hard to keep track. I devoured it and enjoyed the brain tease, too (strangely). [This also, by the by, sent me down a rabbit hole of ‘versions’ literature, and I quite enjoyed Laura Barnett’s Versions of Us, as well.
3) Extinctions, Josephine Wilson—holding up West Australia’s reputation for great literature, this was thought-provoking about adoption, Aboriginality, academia, and Australia (the As).
4) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, a first novel for this UK writer, set in the UK. Obviously, from the title, we know that Eleanor Oliphant is far from fine, but she will be, though not in ways you expect. It’s been pegged as hopeful, happy literature, though I was fairly cut up about most of it. A tremendous debut.
5) The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser. The stand out, I reckon. Making this my third Aussie book in the top 5! (Not typical.) Astonishingly evocative of modern Sydney. It can dip into mildly tedious cynicism, but its originality usually redeems such moments.
For 2016, these were on my list (copying from my Facebook post):
For my friends catching up on their fun reading this month, I’ve compiled my top five of 2016. Let me know yours, too!
1) Hope Farm, Peggy Frew—I rarely put Aussie novels on my list (not from principle) but this has stayed with me all year…
2) My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem, the first of a good swag of femmo memoirs this year—totally mesmerizing to be in the hold of such an assured writer.
3) The Mothers, Brit Bennet—a first novel by amazing black American femmo writer (combining some themes of this year’s list, apparently, for me)
4) The Hate Race, Maxine Clarke—probably the best book of the year, hard to read in some parts considering her age is so similar to mine, but her memories of public schooling as an Afro-Caribbean child are sooo different…
5) Negroland, Margo Jefferson—black American femmo memoir (the culmination it seems of my interests this year!); just finished, fantastic on the Chicago elite (and set two blocks from my friend Becky’s house!)