Sunday, 31 December 2017

My Reading Year - 2017

I have had a wonderful 2017 in books. Each year I set reading goals which usually consist of a number and a list. My challenge in 2017 was 24 books - two a month – which I exceeded by reading 26 titles this year. Not too bad considering my heavy workload and the stress of changing jobs mid-year.

My list included a number of books which I wrote about in my Planning for 2017 post. I managed to get through a many of these books, including:
Alas, several of my planned reads did not eventuate as I got distracted by other books.

Throughout the year I decided to chuck a few titles off my towering 'To Be Read' pile as it is clear that they are never going to get read. I made a second and third attempt to read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in 2017, and even tried listening to the audio book version. I made it to the halfway mark but was not enjoying it. Life is too short to read a book I cannot get into... Clearly I have not caught the Ferrante Fever!

Other books that I started and put down in 2017 include: Paul Beatty's The Sellout, Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, and Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I may return to these some day, but was not in the right mood when I started them.

Well, enough about the books I didn't read! I had an enjoyable 2017 in reading, and this is why:

When looking back over the novels I read in 2017 it is hard to discern a pattern or theme. I read several mysteries this year, which was a bit unusual for me. With one exception, all were written by women. Most were written in the last few years.

Several novels were on my list at the start of the year, and I am so pleased to have read Australian Jane Harper's remarkable debut The Dry (2016) and her follow up Force of Nature (2017). While I was reluctant to begin Hannah Kent's second novel The Good People (2016), I quickly became engrossed in the story. Ian McGuire's vivid The North Water (2016) was a pleasure to read for his lush and descriptive writing. 

Many of the titles that I read this year came about because I suddenly found myself without something to read. For example, I found Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in a discount book shop while waiting for a meeting I had arrived too early for. Likewise I found Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) while tidying my book shelves. I read both Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Gillian Flynn's Dark Places (2009) as I had suddenly finished other books and went scrounging through my e-reader to find something else to occupy my time. 

Wherever possible, I like to read a novel before I see the film adaptation. That was my impetus for reading JK Rowling's screenplay Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel (1951). Rediscovering Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie, after a long absence, was a wonderful delight.

Of all the novels I read this year the ones I would most recommend to others are Jane Harper's The Dry,  Ian McGuire's The North Water, and my favourite novel from the past year - Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love (2016). Rose's Stella Prize winning novel, inspired by the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, lingered with me long after I finished reading. It is magnificently crafted, taking a real event and adding a fictional twist to the tale. 

My non-fiction reads this year were a mixed bag of memoir, long-form journalism, and essays.

I continued to be delighted by my subscription to the Quarterly Essay and greatly enjoyed Benjamin Law's Moral Panic 101 and David Marr's The White Queen. I also subscribe to Australian Foreign Affairs and The New York Times which have provided much food for thought and many of my Random Reads columns.

Carol Dweck's Mindset (2006) had long been on my reading list, and I finally read it this year. This book made me think a lot about my own mindset, how I problem solve, how I communicate and about my relationships with others. It is such a simple concept - how a fixed or growth mindset will determine how you approach life -  but one with deep ramifications. 
On the recommendation of my mother, I read Mark Tedeschi's Murder at Myall Creek (2016) about a brutal massacre of Aboriginal Australians in 1838 and the NSW Attorney General's determination to see justice. Another horrific crime took place in 1996 at Port Arthur, where a man killed 35 people. Sonia Voumard wrote an interesting book, The Media and The Massacre (2016), on journalism and ethics, which I heard about when it was longlisted for the Stella Prize.

I read a number of books which tackled serious subject matters. Richard Flanagan's brief but impactful Notes on an Exodus (2016) explores the refugee crisis by telling the harrowing stories of individual asylum seekers. Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World and Me (2015) explores race in America in the form of a letter to his teenage son. Feminist journalist Lindy West's essays are compiled in Shrill - Notes from a Loud Woman (2016) where she explores misogyny, fat shaming, and other subjects.

I read some interesting memoirs this year. I had been holding on to Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son (2014) since the 2015 Sydney Writers' Festival where he was promoting the book. I really enjoyed Cumming's conversational style. I also read Carrie Fisher's The Princess Diarist (2016) about her affair with Harrison Ford on the set of the original Star Wars film. This was a bittersweet book, read in the months after her sudden death.

JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) was an incredible read about the disenfranchised working class in America, and goes a long way to explaining why populist politics were able to take hold in the 2016 Presidential election.  The vivid characters in the Vance family, their struggles and triumphs, lingered with me long after I finished reading.

I greatly enjoyed Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened (2017), her dissection of the Presidential campaign and the factors which lead to her loss. Her reflection is witty, passionate and sincere. She takes responsibility for her own actions and mistakes, and points the finger at those who share the blame.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was Mark Colvin's Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son (2016). Colvin was an old-school reporter and his memoir of learning on the job, covering major stories, and reporting from far-flung regions of the world was fascinating. So too was his early life as the child of a British diplomat/spy living in Austria, Malaysia and elsewhere. I have always admired Colvin as a journalist and his memoir was a delightful read. 

I have always loved poetry but often to forget to include it in my reading diet. This year I really enjoyed Clive James' Collected Poems (1958-2015), especially how he expressed his longing for Australia in many of his verses. Rupi Kaur's bestselling Milk and Honey was an underwhelming disappointment. I will not be rushing out to read her latest collection. 

Best of 2017
Of all the books I read this year the two works I regard most highly are Mark Colvin's memoir Light and Shadow and Heather Rose's novel The Museum of Modern Love. Honourable mentions go to Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened, JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, Jane Harper's debut The Dry and Ian McGuire's The North Water.

2017 was another great year in reading - enjoying new authors (Harper, Rose) along with old favourites (Rowling, Christie, Du Maurier). Plus, I managed to clear some books that have been on my 'To Be Read' list for way too long (Cumming, Dweck). Looking forward to a new year and new reading adventures in 2018.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

End of 2017 Book Lists

'Tis the season for the lists of the "Best Books of 2017" to be released by various media outlets. As a general rule, the lists contain books I haven't read and in some cases haven't heard of, so it is an opportunity to be introduced to new titles and authors. At the end of each year I compile my own list of what I enjoyed this year and my plans for the year ahead in reading. Before I share my own 'Best of' let's look at what others have to say...

Last Christmas I treated myself a subscription to the New York Times, and its section on books has provided me with much inspiration throughout the year.

The New York Times has two lists of recommended reads: the 10 best and the 100 notable books. The shorter lists contains fiction from Booker prize nominees Autumn by Ali Smith, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, along with Naomi Alderman's The Power, Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. For non-fiction it cites Richard O Prum's The Evolution of Beauty, Ron Chernow's Grant, James Formean Jr's Locking Up Our Own, Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy, and Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser's biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Well, I have read exactly none of these books!

I thought I might do better on the longer list, but alas no. The fiction side contains lots that I want to read: Rachel Cusk's Transit, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, John Banville's Mrs Osmond, and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Of the fifty non-fiction titles I have only read Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.

The Guardian invited publishers to nominate their favourite books of the year. Unsurprisingly, George Saunders makes the list, as does Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13, and Maggie O'Farrell's I Am, I Am, I Am. Of the listed titles, I want to read Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere and have read Jane Harper's magnificent debut The Dry.
Esquire magazine named 50 Best Books of 2017. Among the titles that made the cut which interest me are: Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing; Hanif Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach; Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere; Samantha Irby's We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.
The Boston Globe's list of The Best Books of 2017, contains a diverse mix of books. Of those listed, the ones which appeal to me are: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie; House of Names by Colm Toibin; The novels by George Saunders, Naomi Alderman, Jesmyn Ward, Mohsin Hamid, Arundhati Roy, and Min Jin Lee are among the Globe's best. Again, the only one I read off this list is Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.

NPR's Book Concierge compiled a treasure trove - a massive list with a diverse range of titles. The non-fiction list includes: Scaachi Koul's essays One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter; Ariel Levy's memoir The Rules Do Not Apply; David Sedaris' diaries Theft by Finding; Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies; Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race; Rebecca Solnit's The Mother of All Questions; and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Loads of great books here!

NPR's fiction list features familiar names: Hamid, Toibin, Ward, Roy, Ali Smith, Saunders and Strout. Other titles include Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; and Mike McCormack's Solar Bones.

Slate's Book Review writers Laura Miller and Katy Waldman each identified 10 books worth reading. Laura Miller's list includes Ali Smith's Autumn, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, Hari Kunzru's White Tears, and a number of non-fiction titles. Katy Waldman's lists always appeal to me more. Of the ones she has listed, I am attracted to Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, and the novels by Saunders and Egan.

Time magazine names 10 works of fiction including Danzy Senna's New People, Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, Rachel Cusk's Transit, and novels by Ward, Saunders, Hamid, Egan. Time's non-fiction list includes Ariel Levy's memoir, Roxane Gay's Hunger, Ta-Nahisi Coates We Were Eight Years in Power, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's What Happened.
Many of the lists contain predictable titles, but a few have hidden gems that I would not have heard of otherwise. After my exploration of these "Best Of" lists I have whittled it down to a handful of titles I would like to read in 2018, including:
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid 
  • Sung, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Conversation with Friends by Sally Rooney
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  • They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
  • We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
  • The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

So it's off to the library for me!

Notes on 'A Novel'
Finally, I am perplexed by the number of books I have come across on these lists which are subtitled 'A Novel'. What's that about? I could understand if it was part of a series like 'A Hercule Poirot Novel' or 'A Stephanie Plum novel' but not just 'A Novel'.

Is it done to help the reader find works of fiction? Is it to help shop keepers know which section to place the book in? Is it to ensure the reader knows that it is an invented tale? I reckon it is a either pretentious ('I am literature') or laziness (for those who don't read the back cover). Just saying...

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Rachel, my torment

Yesterday I finished reading Daphne Du Maurier's classic, My Cousin Rachel (1951), and last night I watched the 2017 film adaptation. Rarely do I find that film adaptations do justice to the novel, but I was pleasantly surprised this time.

Set in Cornwall, the novel is told in first-person by 24 year old Philip Ashley. Orphaned as a child, young Philip was taken in by his cousin Ambrose, a twenty-something bachelor, and raised on a large country estate. The two bond as father and son, and live in a world devoid of women. Philip returns from school and commits himself to remaining a stay-at-home bachelor like Ambrose.

When Ambrose takes ill, he is prescribed a treatment of good weather... so off to Italy he goes to take in the winter sunshine. Ambrose and Philip correspond and one day Ambrose mentions in a letter that he has met their cousin Rachel, a widow. As one season moves into the next, Philip learns that Ambrose has given up his bachelor ways and married Rachel.  Ambrose's health worsens and his letters become more erratic. Then one day he writes:
'For God's sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay it may be too late.'
Philip takes off for the continent only to arrive after Ambrose has died and the widow has left town. He returns home in a red-hot rage about Rachel, convinced that she has done wrong by Ambrose. But did she? Throughout the rest of the novel the reader contemplates whether Rachel is a mischievous gold digger who killed her husband, or a grieving widow who has lost the love of her life.

The challenge is that we only see Rachel through our unreliable narrator, Philip. His loathing soon becomes obsession as he finally realises that women have a place in the world. He has been so socially isolated that he cannot understand his desire and shows his affection in a number of ill-conceived romantic gestures. As Philip's love for Rachel grows, he resists gossip from the townsfolk and the warnings from his godfather and his long-suffering, would-be girlfriend Louisa.

I greatly enjoyed My Cousin Rachel for the way in which we readers are compelled to oscillate between Rachel's guilt and innocence. This is the torment, the not-knowing. Often times I get annoyed by books which leave me hanging, but with Du Maurier I loved the ambiguity.

The recent film version does the same. Rachel Weisz stars in the title role, with Sam Claflin as Philip. Incredibly talented, Weisz is so mysterious and bewitching, that the audience can see why Philip is enthralled by her.

I enjoyed the feminist undercurrent in Rachel's character, her desire to lead an independent life, free of any man, in a time in which women had few options. The acting was fine by all concerned (I especially loved the portrayal of Seecombe, Philip's ancient manservant). The scenery, sets and costumes were also superb.

If the film had a fault, it was in the heavy-handedness of the foreshadowing: Rachel brewing her herbal tisanas, the pruning of the laburnum, and so on. The film opens with Philip's voiceover asking 'Did she? Didn't she?' and ends with the audience left wondering. I will be pondering that for some time.

I would highly recommend reading Du Maurier's novel first for her incredibly sharp writing, her subtle wit and the way she draws the reader in. While the film is enjoyable, the book is more so.

My review of Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) can also be found on this blog.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Ms Rodham Regrets

Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir What Happened (2017) is her attempt to come to terms with her surprise defeat in the 2016 American Presidential election. Despite winning the popular vote by almost three million votes, she lost in the electoral college, handing the Presidency to Donald Trump.

The book begins on what was perhaps the most difficult day of Clinton's life - the inauguration of Donald Trump. She could have been forgiven for staying away, but instead she steeled her nerves, smacked on a smile and raised her head. Her reason for attending was to secure 'the peaceful transfer of power' and to signal a need to bring the country together again after a bitterly divisive campaign. Trump's inaugural address as 'dark and dystopian... a howl straight from the white nationalist gut', and a sign of things to come.

In this memoir of life on the campaign trail, Clinton is searching for the answer to why she lost, especially to such an unqualified, odious person. She writes:
'How could sixty-two million people vote for someone they heard on tape bragging about repeated sexual assault? How could he attack women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexican Americans, prisoners of war and people with disabilities - and as a business man, be accused of scamming countless small businesses, contractors, students and seniors - and still be elected to the most important and powerful job in the world?'
What Happened is a statement not a question. Clinton ponders the range of factors that lead to her loss: the desire for change, the disenfranchisement of large swathes of the population, the interference in the election by Russia and Wikileaks, the sensationalist media, the lingering of Bernie Sanders, the rise of third party candidates, her lack of 'likability' and 'those darn emails'.

Since reading the book I have seen a number of reviews which decry What Happened, stating that she doesn't take responsibility for her loss. I disagree. Clinton owns up to her own mistakes, but rightly points the finger at those who deserve to share some of the blame. This notion that she should curl up in a ball and never speak again is ridiculous.

Aside from life on the campaign trail, Clinton is also deeply personal in this book and spends a lot of time sharing stories of her family, her faith and her daily life. I enjoyed the 'at home with Hillary' insights and wish she had shown more of this side of herself in the campaign.

The chapter on women in politics reminded me of Julia Gillard's memoir, My Story (2014) and the misogyny she endured on a daily basis. Neither woman could get a break, and had to work doubly hard to be heard. As I watched this election from afar, I desperately wanted Clinton to smash the glass ceiling and take office. As she recounts her experience on the day of the election, preparing for victory and then switching to a concession speech, my heart ached for her. Like Gillard, Clinton has a deep reservoir of resilience.

I have read some of Clinton's earlier books like It Takes a Village (1996) and Living History (2003). They were smart but left me somewhat cold. What Happened is all together different, like she has found her voice and is free from the shackles of giving a crap about what the trolls say. She is witty and sharp. Reading this felt like sitting down with her over a cup of tea and listening to her tell stories. She is warm, quippy, and doesn't hold back.

I would recommend What Happened to anyone interested in politics. As she writes during the first year of the Trump presidency, her policies and positions on a range of issues stand in stark contrast to his self-serving and divisive initiatives.Given the events of the past year, the outing of high profile sexual predators (including many Clinton supporters), and the winding back of policies to protect those at the margins, the world needs the leadership she would have offered.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Law of the Land

Benjamin Law's Quarterly Essay (QE67) arrived in my mailbox this September, just before my same sex marriage survey did. The timing was prescient as Law's Essay, Moral Panic 101, was subtitled 'equality, acceptance and the safe schools scandal' and we were heading into a panic over the simple proposition that all people should have equal rights under the law to marry. 

Throughout September, October and November the hysteria around same sex marriage has been overwhelming. Those opposed have campaigned on fear and loathing, with slippery slope arguments which will bring about the end of days. While those in favour have argued for equality from a place of love and human rights. It has been a horridly difficult time for many in the LBGTIQ community and their supporters. Fortunately the result was a clear victory for the Yes! camp and the legislation to bring about this change has just passed in the Australian Senate. 

Law's essay is not about same sex marriage, but rather about the controversy surrounding the Safe Schools program. Essentially, Safe Schools was designed to address the problem of high youth suicide, particularly among LBGTIQ young people. The optional program would help schools be supportive and inclusive of LBGTIQ students, families and staff. The program was controversial largely because it was swept up in a moral panic by right wing media and conservative politicians.

Law explores the journey of the Safe Schools program from its origins to the hysteria surrounding it, and the eventual withdrawal of support from many states. Law deep dived into all the media reports about Safe Schools and from this was able to write with clarity about how the panic unfurled.

This was an emotional read: the tragedy of young Tyrone Unsworth who was driven to suicide at age 13 after relentless bullying; the bravery of  Caleb Nichols-Mansell who grew up gay in a small Tasmanian town; the passion of John Albiston, principal of a Victorian high school which adopted the Safe Schools program; and Law's own experiences as a young gay man growing up in conservative Queensland. These stories anchor the essay and make the reader ride waves of anger, grief and pride.

Law's writing is clear, frank, funny and packs a punch. This is an important essay and one that should be mandatory reading for parents, principals and politicians. Safe Schools has been pilloried when it should have been praised and funded. My hope is that now that the same sex marriage debate is drawing to a close, that young LGBTIQ people will feel supported by the overwhelming affirmation of equal marriage and that our nation will become more inclusive.