Notable reads and highlights from 2013

Last year I wrote two highlights posts – a general one on blogging and reading, and a specific one targeting books. This year, I think I’ll revert to one post and combine the two. (I’ll provide links to my posts where relevant – not to promote myself, but to make it easy for those of you who’d like to check out anything I refer to that you missed first time around).

Literary event highlights

Sara Dowse text

Sara Dowse (Courtesy: NewActon.Com)

I managed to get to a few literary events this year – including some great book launches – but the three that most stood out for me were:

  • Woven Words: an inspired and inspiring night, associated with The invisible thread anthology, that blended words with music chosen by the guest authors.
  • Writing the Australian Landscape Seminar: a wonderful weekend of speakers organised by and held at the National Library of Australia. Not only was it wonderful to hear some favourite writers in person but the content gave me much to think about. Two ideas that have remained with me are Murray Bail’s suggestion that Australians rely too much on the strangeness of our landscape to construct our identity, and the wider issue regarding reconciling settler Australians’ experience of landscape with indigenous Australians’ relationship to country.
  • Childers Group’s forum on The role of the public arts critic. I particularly loved the idea that the critic is “a trader in ideas”, It takes away the notion of assessment and judgement and focuses us on what the arts are really about – which for me is to provide us with an opportunity to reflect on who we are, what we think, where we’ve come from and/or where we are going.

Aussie reading highlights

I don’t like to list my “top [name your number] books of the year” because it is such a subjective and moveable thing. I prefer instead to name some highlights:
  • The classics: I read a few Aussie classics this year and all were well worthwhile reading, but the two highlights were being able to read Patrick White’s first (buried) novel Happy Valley, which was published by Text Australian Classics, and finally reading a Christina Stead, For love alone.
  • A debut: I haven’t yet read this year’s most touted debut, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites. That pleasure, as I’m assured it will be, is coming this year. But I did read a few debut novels. Courtney Collins’ The burial was a standout for me. I loved the unusual and confronting narrative voice, the strong descriptions, and the fact that it was inspired by the story of a little-known Australian woman bushranger.
  • Awards: While I couldn’t tell you who won all the major literary awards in Australia this year – and have been slack about maintaining my sidebar awards list – two winners were standout novels for me this year: Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds which won the inaugural Stella Prize and Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel which won the Miles Franklin award (among others).
  • Canberra Centenary anthologies: Canberra’s centenary year has ended but we have two wonderful books – The invisible thread edited by Irma Gold and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue – to dip into again and again when we want to think about what Canberra means to us, its residents, and the wider us, Australians.
  • Small presses: I’ve read so many excellent books from small presses, books that just don’t get the exposure they deserve. Dorothy Johnston’s e-book Eight pieces on prostitution published via the Australian Society of Authors website, Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov poems (Pitt Street Poetry), Rachel Hennessy’s The heaven I swallowed (Wakefield Press), Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free (Hybrid) and Susan Hawthorne’s Limen (Spinifex Press) are just a few of this year’s small press treasures.
I feel badly about limiting my list to just these few – I read so many good books this year. Just because they are not listed here doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten them!

Other reading highlights

This year really was a year of Australian reading. However, I did read some excellent books from foreign lands. The highlights were – and I swear I didn’t choose them for the initial of the author’s last name:
  • Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the bodies. What can I say? I loved how Mantel continued Cromwell’s story but with a different theme to the first novel in the trilogy. Can’t wait for the third book. What will she explore in it?
  • Diego Marani’s The last of the Vostyachs which was not only a great read but synchronised well with what turned out to be a major theme of my reading this year – the relationship between language and culture.
  • Bill McKibben’s Oil and honey: the education of an unlikely activist. McKibben does a great job of chronicling his transition from writer on activist issues to an activist who also writes, and he beautifully articulates the development of his activist strategies, making this book work both as memoir and how-to.

Blogging highlights

  • Australian Women Writers’ Challenge: this is such a positive project to be part of, and I am proud of what we as a team are achieving in terms of promoting Australian women writers. I’d love to know whether those writers who are living are seeing any increase in sales or, even, wider recognition, since the challenge started in 2011.
  • Commenters: I’d love to name you all because you have made blogging this year such a positive experience for me. I’ve enjoyed all the thoughtful and honest comments you’ve posted – asking questions, posing different ways of looking at issues, adding your experiences to the conversation. Thank you so much.

Short stories rule: Top posts for 2013

WordPress consistently tells me that the most popular topics I write about – according to my tags and categories – are Australian literature, Australian writers, Women writers, 21st century literature and Review-Novels. However, my most “hit” post last year was a short story by an English woman: Virginia Woolf’s “The mark on the wall (reviewed in March 2012). I presume, partly because of the sorts of searches that find it, that this is because it’s a set text for schools/universities, but still, it’s great seeing short stories being read.

Interestingly, my top “hit” Australian post (and third on my Top Posts for 2013) is also for a short story: Barbara Baynton’s The chosen vessel (reviewed in November 2012). This one I find more intriguing. Is this a set text too? If you can throw light on this, I’d love to know.

Searches that reached my blog in 2013

Every now and then I take a look at what people who come to my blog have searched on. As Google is now offering encrypted  searching, less information about search terms can now be captured by WordPress, but some still are. Here are some of my favourites from this year:
  • non living elements that help a echidna (I have no idea what post this one found as I can’t replicate the search to find me)
  • what significance does “whitaker’s table of precedency” have in “the mark on the wall”? (From the very specific wording of this one, I’m guessing this was a test/essay question?)
  • my in sex gum girl (I can’t help thinking he/she was disappointed to find me!)
  • what page of midnight empire does drone attacks start (From someone else reviewing Croome’s book?)

And finally …

Thanks to everyone who has read, commented on and/or “liked” my blog over the last year. I may not know you all, in person, but I really do appreciate your visiting me here. I wish you all happy reading in 2014 … and, meanwhile, would love to hear of your blog or literary or reading highlights of the year.

30 thoughts on “Notable reads and highlights from 2013

        • Oh, I saw a reference to that on Facebook (?) but I didn’t realise it was about your letting up a collaborative blog. Good for you. I manage two collaborative blogs – not as ambitious as what you are doing – so I know how time consuming it can be.

        • I don’t manage Balzac, I just set it up and have added a few bits and pieces. Most of the work has been done by Dagny, Pamela and Jim and some others.
          Zola is the same, I’m just doing the architecture. I’m not sure what other contributions I will be able to do because I’ve only read three of his novels, we will be depending on others who have done much more being willing to contribute. But there are two who are already keen, which is fantastic, the generosity of volunteers on the web is just brilliant.

        • It is … I once read an article about the availability of intellectual capital and how the web frees up all sorts of possibilities for making use of it. The NLA has tapped into it with astonishing, even to them, results with their newspaper program. Anyhow, good for you. Team work makes all these things so much more feasible.

  1. I love Baynton’s The Chosen Vessel. Such an evocative gathering of Australian landscape and Christian ritual into horror. I don’t know if it’s a set text, but when I taught at Flinders Uni it was one a short story course there and might still be. I hope so! Many of the students found it confusing, but they still picked up on the horror and pathos.

  2. Thanks, Sue, for this summary of your reading year, and for the shout-out to the Childers Group and their forum on the role of the critic – wonderful to see the ongoing discussion. A critic as a ‘trader in ideas’? It’s an intriguing expression, isn’t it. And thanks also for Whispering Gums – it’s such a brilliant resource.

    • Thanks Nigel. I know my blog is a good resource for me! Helps me remember what I read and what I thought!

      I was very pleased to have been able to attend the forum and am glad to keep an idea or two alive.

      I wish you all the best for 2014 and look forward to seeing you at some of this year’s literary events.

  3. Happy New Year Sue, and may your reading throughout the year continue to be wide and varied. I chase up most of the books you mention from my local library, and usually agree with your reviews. Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to obtain the “small presses” books from my library. I do like it that most of your blogs are about Australian writers. It helps me to keep up to date with Australian literature of the present as well as the past. My favourities Australian novel for the year was The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, and short story was The Salesman by Paddy O’Reilly. However, the best read for the year was The Orphans Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

    • Thanks Meg … thanks for telling me that you follow up my reviews, but that’s sad re the small presses isn’t it. Hopefully blogs will result in more people asking and therefore raising their profile in the library community.

      I received the Flangan for Christmas which I was thrilled about. (I only received two novels!). I just have to find time to read it as it didn’t end up being scheduled for my reading group and I have a lot of other books lined up. I so want to read it though. Glad you liked The salesman. Is the Johnson last year’s Pulitzer? It sounds like a great read. I wish you good reading in 2014, and am always happy to hear what you have to say about the books you read.

  4. Thank you for your blog over the past year, Sue – I always enjoy reading your posts. Best wishes for you and the blog in 2014.

  5. What a wonderful and varied year you had! I must say that I enjoyed following along all of your adventures. I have been trying to catch up in reading my New York Review of Books magazine and just read an extended essay on McKibben’s book that was really good. That combined with your review of it will mean I am very likely to read the book in the coming months. I hope you have a 2014 filled with joy and lots of good books!

  6. My top reads for the year were:
    Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
    The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
    We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
    Last Friends by Jane Gardham
    Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
    Hild by Nicola Griffith
    The Gold Finch by Donna Tartt

    Surprisingly the majority of my favourite new reads for 2013 were by women writers, though I anticipate male writers will dominate my 2014 list, with two favourites, David Mitchell and William Gibson, both releasing new books this year.

    Happy New Year Mrs Gums – hope it is as good as it gets.

    • Thanks Anne … I love that you shared your top reads. I should have said to Meg that my reading group is going to do The orphan masters son this year. Since you and she have it in your top books, I’m looking forward to it. I had Life after life in my ebook reader but I still haven’t got to it. I’m sure I’d find it interesting too from all I’ve read about it.

      I suspect my 2014 will feature more males too – but my males will be different to yours: Winton, Tsiolkas, Flanagan have all had books out recently that I hope to read, as well as the Johnson and my second Stegner (which I can’t wait to read).

      All the best to you too, for 2014. Did I tell you that I went to Paris Cat in Melbourne in early December? We saw the Leigh Barker Quintet with Heather Stewart. Loved it. (We may be biassed as we’ve known Leigh since he was pretty young, but the group is I think developing wonderfully!)

  7. Well, I hope you like The Orphan Master’s Son, it’s a stunning novel and I’m glad someone else thought so too. Can’t say as I’ve heard of the Leigh Barker Quinetet, but I’ll google them and check them out.

  8. My five 2013 highlights, as restricted purely to Australian books published before 1900.

    A Mother’s Offering to her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales — Charlotte Barton
    A fictional dialogue between a mother and her children. Cannibalism, shipwreck and beetles.

    Materfamilias — Ada Cambridge
    Fiction, narrated by a bulldozer ego who sincerely regards herself as a justified, ladylike soul.

    Bengala, or, Some Time Ago — Mary Theresa Vidal
    Austen mingled with convict hyperdrama, set in country New South Wales.

    The Broad Arrow — Caroline Leakey
    The first few pages are hyperbolically didactic (Observe, dear reader, these evils, etc — it’s the Ah! Lo! Alas! tone of her earlier poetry lingering on into her fiction) but then she gets over it. Hobart society in convict times.

    Shearing in the Riverina — Rolf Boldrewood
    Just a long dramatic essay on exactly that subject.

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