Reading highlights from 2014
Unlike last year when I crammed all my highlights into one post, this year I’m returning to the two-post approach. This keeps the posts shorter, which better suits this lazy time of year (southern hemisphere speaking anyhow!) So, this post will focus on literary/reading highlights, and the other will share my blogging highlights (such as they are!)
Literary event highlights
I didn’t get to many literary events this year, partly because my year was fragmented with many small trips out of town (overseas and within Australia). Consequently, I only have two event highlights, and a special – well, you’ll see:
- Les Murray, probably the current grand man of Aussie poetry, at Poetry at the Gods. What can I say about this except that getting a chance to see and hear one of Australia’s most significant living poets in an intimate venue was a treat, and something I’ll treasure.
- Mansfield Park Symposium during the Jane Austen Festival of Australia. For some reason I didn’t write this most enjoyable event up on my blog. It involved four academics talking about Mansfield Park from different aspects: Janet Lee on letters and letter-writing, Heather Neilson on education, Gillian Dooley on music and its relationship to morality, and Christine Alexander on landscape gardening and the urge for “improvement” in the era. I’m hoping the 2015 festival includes another targeted symposium.
- Meeting overseas readers. I began discussing books on the Internet eighteen years ago in January 1997 when I joined the “bookgrouplist”. Through this and other online book discussion groups, I’ve “met” a lot of wonderful readers, cyberly! Over time I have also managed to meet some face-to-face. In 2014 I added to my “met” list by seeing* Emmy, Merrilee and Murph in Toronto, Canada, Cheryl in Montreal, and Trudy (a re-meeting, in fact) in Redondo Beach, California. All lovely people. It’s special being able to put faces to the names, and, of course, meeting locals adds to the joy of travel. I thank them all for making the time to catch up.
* POSTSCRIPT: I’m mortified that I forgot to mention meeting cheeky Cheryl and her husband Tony in Montreal – and receiving three sample jars of Tony’s delicious homemade maple syrup. Never name names because you’ll aways forget one!
Aussie reading highlights
- Classics: I didn’t make great headway this year in my reading of Australian classics, but I did read the last two short stories in Barbara Baynton’s Bush studies collection, having started it in 2013. She’s a significant Aussie writer who offers an important counterbalance to the bush-writing of people like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. I have another classic part-read on my Kindle. With any luck you’ll see a review of that appear some time soon …
- Juvenilia: At the aforementioned Mansfield Park Symposium I met one of the speakers, Christine Alexander, who also happens to be Director and General Editor of the Juvenilia Press. They have published several volumes of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, but they also publish juvenilia from around the world, including Australia. I bought several, and to date have enjoyed Mary Grant Bruce, Eleanor Dark and Ethel Turner. Fascinating stuff if you are interested in writers and their writing lives.
- Awards: Three of this year’s award winning books particularly impressed me: Evie Wyld’s somewhat controversial All the birds, singing (Miles Franklin Award), Richard Flanagan’s generous The narrow road to the deep north (Prime Minister’s Literary Award, among others), and Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (Stella Prize).
- Short stories: While I always read short stories, I read more anthologies and collections in 2014 than in 2013. The standout anthology was Australian love stories edited by Cate Kennedy. It left me with such a buzz, for the variety of stories and styles, and the depth of emotions presented. I also loved the latest Margaret River competition anthology, The trouble with flying and other stories, and The great unknown edited by Angela Meyer. And I enjoyed expat author Catherine McNamara’s Pelt and other stories for its unsettling subject matter, often involving exploitation and power imbalances in relationships, and for her richly expressive style.
- TBR reading: I actually read 4 books from my TBR pile. Three were Australian – and all were well worth diving into the pile for: Jessica Anderson’s One of the wattle birds, Sara Dowse’s Schemetime, and Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air.
- Non-fiction: I read 7 Australian non-fiction books this year, including four memoirs and a biography. I was particularly moved by Margaret Rose Stringer’s tribute to her husband in And then like my dreams, and Olivera Simić’s passion for non-violence in Surviving peace. And I loved Helen Garner’s latest foray into non-fiction, This house of grief. I admire the way Garner can wear her heart on her sleeves while writing with such perspicacity.
- Small presses: Once again I read some excellent offerings from our small presses, including Nigel Featherstone’s The beach volcano (Blemish Books), Howard Goldenberg’s Carrots and Jaffas (Hybrid Publishers), and Margaret Merrilees The first week (Wakefield Press). They deserve a shout out.
Reading highlights from other parts of the globe
- Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a dutiful daughter. It reminded me that no matter how radical people are, they can never completely escape their childhood influences and the values of their times.
- Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize winning The orphan master’s son. A surprisingly compelling, yet discomforting novel critiquing politics and power in North Korea.
- Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to safety. My fourth TBR pile read. I love Stegner’s ability to get to the heart of relationships – with warmth and generosity.
Finally, here are a few books that impressed or excited me because of their voice. Some are pretty grim, but I like my reading fare to include books that shock and/or surprise and/or test my expectations …
- Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl: a story that challenges us to think about young girls, their sexualisation and how they might safely traverse our on-line world.
- Morris Lurie’s Hergesheimer in the present tense: a novel in thirty stories about an ageing writer coming to grips with love, life and writing.
- Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing: a confronting story about family, disconnection and the urge to self-harm, told in an idiosyncratic voice that reaches your core.
- Annabel Smith’s The ark: an inventive modern epistolary novel/app/e-book, dystopian speculative fiction set in a post-peak oil world.
- Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a naked official: another challenging story, this one about sexualisation and self-indulgence in a materialistic world.
All in all, an exciting year of reading that included some challenging, confronting and controversial reads. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What were your standout reads for the year?