Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their 2017 summer picks

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:

  • Tony Birch, Common peopleMichael 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.”
  • Julia Barid, Victoria the queenRobyn 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).

Julie Koh, Portable curiositiesSo, 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?

23 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their 2017 summer picks

  1. I wouldn’t mind Robyn Williams’ brain, with or without the extra layer. As for the holidays, of which I have one week WITH visitors, I am going to read Rosa Praed’s Lady Briget of the Never Never, I would like to read Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest, and what I would recommend an unknown someone to read might be Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland.

  2. Hi Sue, this is all too difficult. I have had a few good reads during the year and for holiday reading I could suggest several. However, the one I am reading now and can’t put down is Atlantic Black by AS Patric – it is so different to his last novel. It is very dark, surreal at times, and the writing is entrancing. A good one to read on a cruise!

    • Yes, I know it is Meg so I’m glad you gave it a go anyhow. I’ve had a great reading year I think too. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Atlantic Black so will have to try to get to it.

  3. I just finished it, and it is brilliant! I have a library copy, but I will now buy it and reread it. I have noted all the pages (there are many), with great lines of writing.

    • Oh, I wish I could just sit down and read! And reread. That would be bliss, but these days I get about half an hour a day to read. I look forward to the quiet post-Christmas time. I wonder if someone will give it to me?

  4. Along with Andrew Ford from The Music Show I have also really enjoyed ‘A Hundred Small Lessons’ by Ashley Hay. I thought it was beautifully written and I loved the way she expertly wove the two plots together although on at least one occasion she left the reader with a hook from one plot and then went back to the other plot which annoyed me and I skipped over a few pages to find out the answer to the hook. 🙂 It was about the history of a house and I have read a few novels now about the history of a place as being central to the story and I find this concept interesting. Another of these is Storyland by Catherine McKinnon.
    I enjoyed Ashley Hay’s book so much I read her earlier book ‘The Railway Man’s Wife’ as well and I also enjoyed it especially that the main character was such a calm woman and I thought that most novels have a protagonist who is experiencing some sort of angst and trauma, but Annika just sailed through life’s little problems. I loved it. It made me calm and the ending was unexpected but, when I thought about it, all the seeding was there. Hay is a very skilful writer.
    I have ‘Atlantic Black’ booked at the library because I also enjoyed ‘Black Rock White City’ and I think AS Patric is a writer to watch.

    • Thanks Nawnim. I have still to read both of those books by Hay, but everyone sense they’re great. (But, my, what a cheeky reader you are to skip ahead!) I really liked Black Rock White City too so must check out this second one.

  5. I was about to say ‘Alone in Berlin’, then I realised it’s not a holiday read, WG. Despite reading so many, I wonder why I am not able to share even one with you. Sigh! Oh! You might like ‘Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’, WG.

    And I look forward to reading your lists.

    • Thanks Deepika! I like that you’re getting into the spirit of “holiday” read. I did say I like the sound of Ikigai, didn’t I? (At least, I enjoyed your post on it, I recollect.)

  6. Not sure mine qualifies as a holiday read, either, although it would benefit from reading in large chunks, but my favourite book of the year (so far) is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (not Autralian, I’m sad to say). It’s not always easy to read but it is fabulous how Gyasi has wound the stories of two branches of a family together. So far I have given it to my mother-in-law and chosen it as a bookclub read.

    • Thanks Sharkell. Sometimes non-Australian is good, particularly if it introduces us to someone completely news Yaa Gyasi is to me. Sounds intriguing, given the breadth of your recommendations for it.

  7. Yay for more Aussie books being on the list this year! I have done a very poor job of keeping track of my books this year and haven’t even begun to think of the end of the year. I have read some good ones though!

  8. I think the two books of 2017 I remember and think of most are Song of a War Boy and The Trauma Cleaner. Both tales of humans dealing successfully with extreme adversity and both Australian published. Looking at your stats- when one walks into a book shop (at least in Hobart) the books are really all western published. Finding translated fiction requires so much more searching and I don’t think the average book buyer is aware of what else is out there or how to access it. Just a thought I had. Plus look at the media hype about the same authors again and again.

    • Yes, I think you’re right Pam re bookshops. I have bought translated fiction, just by browsing, in bookshops, but you’d only see them by slow browsing. They wouldn’t pop up.

      And thanks for naming your books. I don’t recollect hearing of the first one at all. Did you write it up?

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