Monday musings on Australian literature: Best books of 1975

Given we’re all looking at best reads, I thought it might be fun to look at best reads of a past time? My initial thought was 1965, a neat 50 years ago, but I couldn’t find any appropriate lists. Google found a 1965 New York Times bestseller list on Wikipedia and a couple of 1965 lists in GoodReads, but they weren’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted Australian lists, but my first port of call, Trove, wasn’t helping. However, not being quite ready to give up, I thought I’d try ten years later, 1975, which is the year I moved to Canberra. Eureka! This time Trove produced two lists …

And they are nicely representative. One is by classics collector, “book reviewer and litterateur”, Maurice Dunlevy, writing in the Canberra Times (woo hoo!) on December 26. Dunlevy wrote a book review page for the paper for 30 years, to 2000 apparently. The other is by one Nina Valentine. A brief search hasn’t turned up much about her except that she was clearly a writer for the Australian Women’s Weekly, which is where I found her December 31 article. Given their different publishing environments, you won’t be surprised to hear that their styles, not to mention their recommendations, are rather different. Both, though, focus on books for summer reading – and, although this post is dedicated to Australian literature, I’m going to break my usual rule and include some non-Australian picks. After all, they were writing for Australian readers.

“… books to help you enjoy lazy, long summer days to the full”

Let’s start with Nina Valentine. Her circa 700-word article focuses on books that tell a strong story, though not all are fiction. Since there’s only five of them, I’ll list them all:

  • Evelyn Anthony, The Persian kingdom (an error, I think, for Persian ransom) A British writer, Anthony is, she says, “one of my favorite writers of sculptured novels”. Sculptured novels? That’s a new term for me, but she does define it. They are novels which – wait for it – have “form, character and situation”. Hmmm. Anyhow the novel has an interesting setting, Iran. It’s about the oil crisis, the Palestinian Liberation Army, and a secretary who, Anthony’s heroine knows, threatens her marriage. “Thrilling holiday reading”, Valentine says. According to Trove, many Australian libraries hold it, so there’s no excuse for not adding it to your summer pile!
  • Kenneth Harrison, Dark man white world. This, however, is something completely different. It is a biography of famous indigenous Australian tenor, Harold Blair. In addition to singing, he became an Aboriginal activist fighting, she writes, “for better education, better understanding and a better lifestyle for his people”. I love that Valentine chose this as a holiday read.
  • James Quartermain, The diamond hostage. Part of a series, this book she says is “tailor-made for holiday escapist fare”. Set in Frankfurt, it features Raven, who is security chief for Mrs Diamond, a very wealthy “diamond-hard business woman”. She’s kidnapped (as is the heroine’s child in Anthony’s book), setting up, presumably, an exciting read.
  • ReyTheGreekAmazonPierre Rey, The Greek. Translated from French, it’s about a “Greek shipping magnate whose affair with a concert singer finishes when he marries the widow of an American who has been assassinated”. Ring a bell, anyone? Rey swears it’s fiction, says Valentine, but for her the point is that it’s “racy” in the style of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Sussan. (Love the cover.)
  • The Saturday Book sounds a little more interesting (to me). It’s an “elegant, gift-boxed collection of stories, poems, drawings, photographs and nostalgia”. Annually published, it may, she writes, be the last due to production costs. She describes it as “a book to beguile you while on holidays, and to enchant you at all times”.

So, overall, an interesting mix of the usual beach holiday plot-driven fare combined with a couple of other options for those looking for something a little different. Minimal Australian content, but interesting to see a translated – genre – book in the mix.

Doing “your bit in the grit to further your cultural education”

Dunlevy’s article is the same length as Valentine’s but he packs more into his by spending less time describing the books. He discusses his selections under categories, recognising his (surely) more diverse set of readers than Valentine’s.

  • IrelandBurnLiterary fiction: I love that he starts with Australian literary fiction naming Xavier Herbert’s doorstopper Poor fellow my country, David Malouf’s autobiographical novel Johnno (the only one I’ve read), Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the forest, David Ireland’s “fine novel about the Aborigines” Burn, Michael Wilding’s The short story embassy, and Laurie Clancy’s A collapsible man. I haven’t in fact heard of these last two. His foreign literary fiction choices are the last volume in Anthony Powell’s Music of Time sequence Hearing secret harmonies, Iris Murdoch’s A word child, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s gift.
  • Poetry (or Verse, to him): This is his second category! Love it. His selections are all from established poets he says: A. D. Hope’s A late picking (which I actually have), David Campbell’s Deaths and pretty cousins, and Gwen Harwood’s Selected poems.
  • Australian literary criticism: If I was surprised by poetry being his second group, this third one made me really sit up. He recommends poet Judith Wright’s Because I was invited and poet Douglas Stewart’s The broad stream, describing them as fine successors to poet A. D. Hope’s Native companions, published in late 1974. The final critical work he names is again by a poet, Vivian Smith’s Vance and Nettie Palmer. I know a couple of these – but am mightily intrigued by the others.
  • Biographies: Here we move away from a focus on Australian works. He lists several books, including Hilary Spurling’s Ivy when young: The early life of I. Compton-Burnett, describing it “as a fine re-creation of the Victorian family life of an oddball novelist”; Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John; R. M. Crawford’s life of fellow English-Australian historian G. Arnold Wood A bit of a rebel; and Scottish-born Australian Mary Rose Liverani’s autobiography The winter sparrows. According to AustLit, this last book “has been acclaimed as a landmark in Australia’s migrant literature”. Onto the TBR list it goes.
  • Histories: Dunlevy says he’d read so many good popular histories in the year that he “would not know where to begin if I were not now reading the most diverting of all, William Manchester’s narrative social history of the United States 1932-72, The Glory and the Dream”. He describes it as “a huge journalistic history which reads like a massive newspaper written by a single brilliant journalist”. He offers two other social histories suitable for holiday reading: John Ritchie’s Australia as once we were and Michael Cannon’s “third volume about Australia in the Victorian Age, Life in the Cities“. I don’t know any of these historians.

Having gone to the trouble of listing all these worthy works, he then admits that he doesn’t “very often see people reading high quality fiction or poetry or criticism or biographies or history on the beach”! Not sure I do either. The “best-selling paperback” is probably the better bet, he thinks, and to that end he suggests P. Benchley’s Jaws, Harold Robbins’ The Pirate (‘which includes lots of stirring sex scenes, including one in front of a mirror”!), Frederyk Forsyth’s The dogs of war, and Irving Wallace’s The fan club. Personally, though, I’d be looking at those books in his first category. I reckon they still make perfectly good recommendations today.

17 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Best books of 1975

  1. In 1975 I was reading mostly science fiction, plus I was very, very poor! But I have read two or three of Dunlevy’s literary fiction. And I have Burn near the top of my TBR. I’ll read it and do a review in the next month or so – the worry is I’ll end up an expert on fiction by white authors with black protagonists.

    • Haha, Bill … still, it would be good to have that book reviewed by a blogger. Two of the biographies I didn’t mention were of Robert Browning and Lord Byron. In 1975 I was working in the public library and I read a book about his daughter. It did the rounds of the cataloguing section as I recollect. I seem to recollect that I read a lot of biography around then.

  2. Sad to say I think I was reading Harold Robbins back in 75, or just about to start. Funny how I didn’t recognise any of the AWW recommendations, but as you say the Canberra Times literary fiction suggestions have stood the test of time.

  3. Yes, I agree about his LitFic choices, and top of my list is Poor Fellow My Country, which is top of my TBR and I’ve actually started reading the introduction. I have two copies, one the first edition, and the other, the one I’m actually reading with the introduction is a recent edition published by A&R Classics and given to me for Xmas by the Offspring last year. I haven’t read any of his other selections except for the Powell (because I’ve read the whole Dance to the Music of Time series) but I have read Malouf, Ireland, Keneally, Bellow and Murdoch, and I have no doubt that the titles he suggests would be worth reading.
    Of course what’s missing is the fine writing by women that comprised most of my reading in those years. There would have been new releases by Fay Weldon, Elizabeth Jolley, Nina Bawden. Alison Lurie and Mary Wesley, just some of those on my shelves that come from round about that period, I think. When did Anne Summers bring out Damned Whores and God’s Police? I think there is a re-release of it soon, BTW, I’m looking forward to that.

        • Sue must be working or travelling but we can fill some space for her. I have the Summers so that was easy (Wikipedia is cheating). I now have out my ‘Annals’, there wasn’t much else that was missed though Charlie Perkins A Bastard Like Me and Bobbi Sykes Black Power in Australia would both have been interesting. And Jessica Anderson had The Commandant (of early Qld if I remember it rightly).

        • Oops, I replied to Lisa before seeing your replies. I was out socialising – seeing a movie, having lunch – and then finishing off my patchwork group’s current charity quilt. The commandant – yes. That’s a good one. Both Lisa and I have read and reviewed that I believe. (At least I have and I think she has too). It’s a good read.

    • Good point re Summers, Lisa. I believe it did come out in 1975 and a special edition came out last year for its anniversary? And good point re women novelists, though there wouldn’t have been any Jolleys. She didn’t get published until the 1980s. There could have been an Astley though. I have read Johnno, but as you say different books by Murdoch, Keneally and Bellow. I haven’t read Poor fellow, my country. Should one day.

      • Something rather melancholy about lists like these – so many of these books are probably forgotten. Not all of them though, I recognised the Keneally title (and I think Gossip From the Forest was on the Booker prize list in 1975) and David Malouf is a writer very much still read. Interesting that one of the lists has so little that is Australian in it. I think that miscellany (The Saturday Book) must have been the last of a long running series – George Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali first appeared in (I think) the 1943 edition.

        • Thanks Ian. Yes, most of those fiction writers in the first list are still well known today as you say. It’s nice to see such longevity, and rather affirms that reviewer’s judgement!

          That’s interesting about Orwell in the Saturday Book. I do love reading Orwell essays – and, in fact, was just thinking this morning that it was time I read another.

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