Well, folks, it’s getting to the time of year when people start producing lists, and so, as last year, I’ll be joining the fray, starting this week with books recommended by ABC Radio National’s presenters – the bookworms amongst them, anyhow – for us to read over the coming summer.
However, as last year, not all chose Aussie books, but this post is in my Monday Musings on Australian Literature series, so what to do? Last year I decided to share them all, starting with the Aussie reads, and I’ve decided to do the same this year. After all, the things Aussies read form part of our literary culture don’t they?
Notwithstanding the above, I was disappointed last year when only two (TWO!) of the 18 presenters chose books by Australian authors. (The two books were Stan Grant’s Talking to my country and Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look, both of which I’ve read). I’m consequently thrilled that the number is far greater this year, with SIX (that is, nearly half) of the 14 presenters choosing Australian authors. Here they are:
- Michael Cathcart (Books and Arts): Tony Birch’s Common people. Birch recently won the Patrick White Award, and his novels Blood and Ghost River were both shortlisted for significant Australian literary awards. Common people, however, is his (latest) collection of short stories. Cathcart says that the stories “take us into the lives of very ordinary people — often people who are doing it tough — and open up the pain, the wit and the twinkle of their worlds. Tony’s wisdom and goodwill are beyond politics. His prose breathes with humanity”. How I love short stories, and this sounds like another great collection.
- Andrew Ford (Music Show): Ashley Hay’s A hundred small lessons. This is Hay’s third novel, her second The railwayman’s wife having won or been nominated for several literary awards.) Ford says that Hay’s writing “is so simple and precise, at first you fail to notice how powerful it is” and says that “the main character in the book is Brisbane — actually, two Brisbanes, 50 years apart, culturally different in so many ways, yet both sticky, subtropical, and prone to flooding”.
- Ann Jones (Off Track): Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. Koh is a critically well-regarded short story writer, and this, her first full collection, has received many accolades including her being named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist (though the “novelist” nomenclature is a bit weird.) Jones makes the collection sound great, when she says “The stories are dark and make fun of hipsters. In fact, in gorgeous and believable flow, Koh unleashes a portmanteau of fables, which take on body image, racism, father-son relationships and cat cafes.”
- Sarah Kanowski (Books and Arts): Tex Perkins’ (with Stuart Coupe) Tex. Unlike many of the presenters it seems – see my summation below – Kanowski took the “summer read” recommendation seriously in choosing this memoir of Australian rock musician Tex Perkins. She said “In Tex, he is self-deprecating but not apologetic: yes he’s drunk too much, been an idiot, sabotaged his chances of commercial success, but he has also made great music and, above all, had fun. There are nobler aims in life and wiser books, but if you’re sitting on a beach towel with a beer this summer Tex will serve you brilliantly.”
- Amanda Smith (Life Matters): Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner. This is a biography of an amazing – but ordinary – person, Sandra Pankhurst, who was born a boy, “was adopted into an abusive family”, and then married, as a man, before deciding to live as a woman. It just so happens she also works as a trauma cleaner, that is, one who “cleans up crime scenes after the police have finished” and who “also sorts things out after ‘unattended deaths’.” Smith says that not only is the book a “tribute to a life-force” is “a story told more beautifully than you can possibly imagine.”
- Robyn Williams (Science Show and Ockham’s Razor): Julia Baird’s Victoria the Queen. Williams noted that in 2017 he’d mostly read books by women, with this biography of Queen Victoria being his best book of the year. He bought it because he loves Julia Baird’s journalism, is “impressed by her range, deep learning and clarity”. He says that this biography “surprises, informs with real scholarship and tells a huge story with a light touch. When I finished I felt as if my brain had grown an extra layer.” I wouldn’t mind an extra layer in my brain, I must say!
Four chose British authors:
- Joe Gelonesi (Philosopher’s Zone): Stephen Mumford’s Glimpse of light: New meditations on first philosophy (non-fiction)
- Patricia Karvelas (RN Drive, and the The Party Room podcast): Natalie Haynes’ The children of Jocasta (fiction, Greek myths retold through the women characters)
- Keri Phillips (Rear Vision): Tim Harford’s Fifty things that made the modern economy (non-fiction)
- Andrew West (Religion and Ethics Report): David Goodhart’s The road to somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics (non-fiction)
And four chose American authors:
- Kate Evans (Books and Arts): Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (novel)
- Antony Funnell (Future Tense): Sarah Sentilles’ Draw your weapons (non-fiction)
- Natasha Mitchell (Science Friction): Oliver Sacks’ The river of consciousness (non-fiction, collection of essays)
- Scott Stephens (The Minefield: Noah Feldman’s The three lives of James Madison (non-fiction).
So, a more even spread than last year’s, but still oh-so-very Western-based. Last year, only ONE presenter chose a non-Western book, with all the rest choosing, as this year, Australian, British and American. This year there’s not even one non-Western book. However, both years, an indigenous author was chosen – just one, but that’s something. And, the choice of Julie Koh provides some nod to diversity too, as she’s the Australian-born daughter of Chinese-Malaysian parents.
The biggest difference this year, besides the significant increase in Aussie picks, is in the fiction-non-fiction ratio. Last year NINE (that is 50%) of the choices were for fiction (all novels), but this year only FIVE (35%) are, and of these, two are novels, two are short story collections, and one a collection of myths. This sort of selection is probably not what most readers might expect when looking for summer reads, but our ABC RN presenters are clearly a serious lot!
What ONE book would you recommend from your 2017 reads for, let’s be inclusive and say holiday, not summer, reading?