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.
- Pierre 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.
- Literary 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.