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Reading highlights for 2017

January 1, 2018

I do hope I don’t disappoint my Monday Musings fans too much, but as this Monday also happens to be January 1, I’d like to use it to share my reading highlights for the year. Rest assured – if you care – that Monday Musings will be back. (Indeed, next week’s is already in the bag.)

So, to my 2017 reading highlights. As usual, I won’t be naming a top ten, or somesuch, because as I’ve said before I’m a wuss. It’s too hard. I could never be a literary awards judge. However, I had a great reading year – albeit a very unusual one – as you will see …

First, though, this year’s …

Literary highlights

Muse bookshop

Muse bookshop (before an event)

Literary highlights mean for me literary events, and there were many wonderful events in Canberra this year. I missed a lot f them because I was away or had clashes, but those I did attend gave me much to think about:

  • Festival Muse: Muse is one of my favourite places in Canberra. Billing itself as “Food, Wine, Books”, Muse is a cafe, bookshop and event venue. They regularly hold author events, but early in the year they organised a literary festival. The sessions I attended were wunderbar. Given our Canberra location, their Festival, like the Canberra Writers’ Festival, includes quite a bit of political content. I wrote two posts (Women of the Press Gallery, Robyn Cadwallader author interview)
  • Canberra Writers Festival on which I wrote four posts (Day 1, Day 2 Pt 1, Day 2 Pt 2, Day 2 Pt 3): I loved the variety of sessions I attended, but had to miss the last day due to a cold which made attending the second day hard enough. Roll on 2018.)
  • Author interviews: I missed so many this year, but I did enjoy hearing Charlotte Wood, Sofie Laguna, and Jelena Dokic.
  • Two annual lectures at the NLA, which I try to make a fixture in my calendar: the Seymour Biography Lecture, given this year by Raimond Gaita; and the Ray Mathew Lecture given by Kim Scott. These lectures are the best – and we always follow them up with supper at Muse! What’s not to like!

Reading highlights

As in previous years, I’m going to discuss this year’s reading highlights – the books that made the biggest impression – under categories appropriate to this year’s experience (links to my reviews).

The reading … it was a year of …

  • Sara Dowse, As the lonely blyLosing myself in grand sweeps: There was Sara Dowse’s As the lonely fly which spanned the lives of Russian Jewish émigrés to Israel and the USA over most of the twentieth century; Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko which looked at Koreans in Japan over the same period; and Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland which, in an inventive structure, told the story of a region of southeast Australia from the late 18th century to a 28th century dystopian future! Now that was a grand sweep! All three books were great reads which gave me plenty to think about.
  • Exploring displacement: As I reviewed my reading for the year, the theme of displacement kept popping up, book after book. I wonder why that would be!? The first two grand sweep books fit this theme, but others included Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too afraid to cry (about being an indigenous child adopted into a non-indigenous family), Stan Grant’s Talking to my country (about indigenous people’s displacement by colonial settlers), Yuri Herrera’s Signs preceding the end of the world (about Mexicans making the crossing to the USA), AS Patrić’s Black rock white city (about Serbian refugees in Australia), Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (about a Vietnamese Buddhist nun displaced in her own country) and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer (about Vietnamese refugees in the USA).
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my motherDelving into indigenous Australia: While I only read four works by indigenous Australians, they were a varied, inspiring lot: Ali Cobby Eckerman’s memoir Too afraid to cry and her poetry collection Inside my mother, Stan Grant’s hybrid memoir Talking to my country, and the Writing black anthology edited by Ellen van Neerven. These, and two other books, The stolen children edited by Carmel Bird, and Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful, contributed significantly to my growing understanding of life as experienced by indigenous Australians and how I might accommodate this understanding in my own life.
  • Indulging in short stories: Are you surprised! Okay, okay, I can’t name them all, so I’m picking the four that jumped into my head: Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking dogs and Karen Thompson’s Flame tip, which were connected by location and theme; the more traditional collection, Stephanie Buckle’s Habits of silence and Stephen Orr’s Datsunland.
  • Anos Irani, The scribeMeeting unusual narrators: Unlike some readers who look askance at odd narrators, I’m open to them (in the hands of great writers, anyhow). Ian McEwan’s foetus in Nutshell and Carmel Bird’s skeleton in the cupboard in The family skeleton took me along with them into their – hmm – challenging families. The transgendered Madhu in Anosh Irani’s The parcel fits here too, though perhaps shouldn’t (be seen as unusual, I mean). The confessional tone maintained by the unnamed mole (of the spy not furry variety) narrating Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer made him a somewhat unusual narrator too. And finally, how can I forget the slippery Hartmann Wallis in the eponymous (sort of) Who said what, exactly.
  • Discovering the lives of “real” others in fiction and non-fiction: Heather Rose’s novel The museum of modern love and Bernadette Brennan’s literary portrait A writing life; Helen Garner and her work were standouts here.

There were many more great books, including several classics (see, I haven’t even mentioned she who should be named) and some fascinating biographies, but I need to finish somewhere – don’t I, dear patient reader.

Some stats …

And here is where there are some surprises (for me, anyhow):

  • 53% of my reading was fiction, short stories and novels (versus 63% in 2016, and even more in 2015): While I was vaguely aware this was happening, I must say I’m not happy with it. Part of the reason is that my reading group did more non-fiction this year – four out of eleven in fact – where we usually only do one, and part of it is due to review copies sent my way. Very few of the non-fiction I read were actively chosen by me. I hope to recalibrate this somewhat next year.
  • 73% of the authors I read were women (versus 65% and 67% in 2016 and 2015 respectively): Again, while I like to read women writers and count reading them as one of my specific reading interests, I didn’t actively seek to increase the proportion this year. I can’t blame my reading group for this one, as our ratio there was 55%!
  • 35% of the works I read were NOT by Australian writers (versus 32% in 2016!): Roughly one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian feels like a fair ratio to me.
  • 31% of the works I read were published before 2000 (similar to last year’s 35%): Again, I’m happy with this. I like to keep delving into past works, but it’s a challenge doing so while trying to keep up with the contemporary literary scene.

So, some trends I’m comfortable with, and some less so. I don’t usually set goals for the year – besides a soft goal of trying, vainly, to reduce the TBR pile – but in 2018 I will do my best to lift the fiction ratio (albeit my first review for 2018 will be – wah – non-fiction!) This is not to say I don’t like non-fiction, because I do, but I have felt the lack of fiction at times. I need it in my life.

Overall, it was a good reading year, and I have loved sharing it with you. So, as I wrote last year, a big thankyou for reading my posts, engaging in discussion, recommending more books and, generally, being all-round great people to talk with.

I hope you all have a wonderful 2018. I also hope that you will continue to visit me here to share your thoughts. (And I will do the same for those of you who have your own blogs. What a lovely community we have.)

What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?

42 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2018 11:44 pm

    One of my literary highlights is, for sure, to read your blog, Sue. You and Lisa Hill have opened my eyes to so many great Australian books. Thank you!

    Although I don’t read as much nonfiction as you do, I usually enjoy it (and often find it wonderfully mentally stimulating) but I feel the for fiction in my life too.

    Here’s hoping your 2018 reading brings you much joy!

    • January 2, 2018 3:21 am

      Thanks so much Debbie – for that lovely comment, and for understanding exactly how I feel about the fiction-nonfiction issue. I’m glad to see you back posting again btw.

  2. January 1, 2018 11:58 pm

    Reading Highlights: I think like nearly everyone else that The Museum of Modern Love was the standout new release. And I have two personal highlights – reading Homage to Catalonia in Catalonia (and Maigret in Paris) and Justine Ettler’s response to my interview questions.

    • January 2, 2018 3:23 am

      Thanks Bill – it was pretty much so in my reading group too (as you saw). I can understand about Homage to Catalonia which I read in the very early 2000s. Great read. I can also understand seeing Justine Ettler’s response as being a highlight too. That would have been a thrill.

  3. January 2, 2018 4:05 am

    I just started Painfully Rich a non fiction book about the Getty family. Egads! The Rich ARE different!!

    • January 2, 2018 4:16 am

      Always thought they were, Guy – how can they not be in a way, particularly those born rich – but now you have me intrigued.

      I’m picking up that we all read nonfiction but it seems to not always appear in people’s top picks. Is it a conscious thing I wonder to focus on fiction for top picks lists? Do we see fiction as the real business of reading, even though we enjoy non-fiction? (Or, am I wrong, and most people do include nonfiction.)

      • January 2, 2018 8:11 am

        I’ve included non fiction before, but this year those non fiction titles just didn’t make my top list. The Getty one might. Now off to read some more of this… it’s nasty. In a good way

        • January 2, 2018 10:31 am

          Haha Guy, nasty in a good way sounds good. This book would probably be interesting to read given the film that’s just out.

          BTW, thanks for responding to the non-fiction question.

  4. January 2, 2018 4:53 am

    What a good way to look back on the year – more insightful than just listing the favourite books. I do know what you mean about the difficulties of picking just a handful of books, I have a similar problem. Hence why I pay scant attention to the star rating system on Goodreads.
    Looking forward to seeing what you read in 2018 Sue – I love the weekly injection of insight into Australian writing and culture so long may you continue with the Musings……
    Hoping you have a healthy, happy and fulfilling 2018

    • January 2, 2018 6:13 am

      Thanks Karen. It MAY be more insightful, but it’s not as quick and easy to read for all you lovely visitors to my blog, I know, and for that I apologise.

      And thanks so much for the comment on my Monday Musings. I’ll keep going with that I think, for as long as I can come up with ideas that people seem to be happy to read. Do tell me if I start to get boring or repetitious.

      And I certainly hope your 2018 is healthy – and all the rest too!

  5. January 2, 2018 5:22 am

    So many literary highlights, Sue! Who knew Canberra could be so cultural!! (I’ll stop jesting now 😉) I would love to have heard the Kim Scott lecture. And isn’t it funny how your reading follows themes/issues of interest. Is this something you plan or is it subconscious? I only ask cos I often find this with my reading but it’s usually serendipitous. For instance I’ve just read a handful of novels about the effects of Communism / Fascism / The Holocaust. It wasn’t something I planned.

    • January 2, 2018 6:18 am

      Haha, yes, be careful, be very careful with the Canberra jokes Ms Kimbofo!! And yes, or do I mean no, I don’t plan at all. It is serendipitous (coming from reading group choices, review books and only to a small extent from my own specific choice). I nearly boted that last year I seemed to have more Holocaust or WW2 novels than usual and that this year it was very different. I sort of expected that maybe these themes were in the zeitgeist and that all our reading might have reflected the same trends, but clearly yours was a little different. Very strange.

    • January 2, 2018 8:15 am

      You are so lucky to live in Canberra. I think it’s a deeply cultural place. You don’t need grafittied laneways and oily brick walls to prove your cultural cred haha.

      • January 2, 2018 10:33 am

        Haha Joanna, that comment made me laugh… Though Canberra is trying these days to emulate the laneway culture I’ve noticed. Trouble is, we don’t have many given Mr Griffin’s lovely open plan!

  6. January 2, 2018 7:39 am

    Another very interesting post – thanks Sue. I enjoy your blog, your reviews & reading suggestions. One suggestion of my own, given you would like to read more by & about Indigenous, I recommend Taboo by Kim Scott. I haven’t read any of his earlier works (although now intend to) & just finished this one. It’s a great read & while at times I was dreading the occurrence of some terrible event, in fact, the terrible event(s) are all in the past which is not to say they don’t resonate right into the present. And an interesting style of writing too.
    By the way, I would be curious to know how many books you get through each year? I tried in 2017 to get to 52 but didn’t quite make it (47all up) but maybe 2018 I’ll reach my goal. Of course, if I don’t actually like a book or it doesn’t grab me within about the first 100 pages, I don’t keep on with it. Time is too precious to waste on the ‘worthy but not for me’ books.
    Happy reading & writing in 2018.

    • January 2, 2018 10:25 am

      Thanks Francesca, that’s lovely of you to say. And thanks for your recommendation. I have a signed cc opy if the book from the lecture I attended and definite l read it this year. That deadman dance is a wonder. As for how much I read, I’m always around 60 works reviewed in a year. I keep trying to read more now I’m retired but there are so many pulls on my time. One day I’d like to reach the stellar numbers some bloggers reach but I can’t see that happening for a while.

  7. January 2, 2018 7:54 am

    I forgot to answer your question! Reading highlights for me this year were :

    Fiction:
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    The Eye of the Sheep by Sophie Laguna
    The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
    The Girls by Emma Cline
    A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

    Memoir:
    Position Doubtful by Kim Mamoud

    Poetry:
    Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

    Nonfiction:
    Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
    Where Song Began by Tim Low

    Looking forward to other reader’s ‘tops’ too.

    • January 2, 2018 10:29 am

      And I think I forgot to say I agree with you about being careful about what I read given the amount I manage to read.

      Great list. I’ve read a few of those, and a couple I’d particularly love too, such as the Laguna (in my pile) and the Porter (my virtual pile). I haven’t read Atkinson for years but always have her in mind too.

  8. January 2, 2018 8:17 am

    Oh dear, my TBR list just keeps getting longer. What does one do about that?

    • January 2, 2018 10:35 am

      If you find an answer let me know…. But the only sure fire way I’ve heard us to institute a book buying and book borrowing ban and get stuck in! But, could you bear that?

  9. January 2, 2018 8:30 am

    Your podts have made me so much more aware of Australian writers. It has been invaluable. I am determined to read more Aussies. I will look forward to what fiction you pick up. I noticed my top reads were heavily non fiction this padt year which is unusual for me. I guess that is because I enjoy bios and travel writing so much. All the best for 2018.

    • January 2, 2018 10:38 am

      Thanks Pam, I’m glad of course that my posts do that. That’s interesting re non-fiction for you too. I know that for me bios, particularly literary ones, memoirs and essays play a role in the weighting.

  10. Meg permalink
    January 2, 2018 10:39 am

    Hi Sue, I am glad you have had a good year in Canberra, and your social literary events have enhanced your reading life. I don’t have my diary with me on the books I read in the past year, Though I can remember a few details. I read over 100 books, and at least 60% would have been written by women, and therefore more Australian books. I think my ratio of fiction to not fiction would be two to one. I think non fiction books, especially if it is a memoir give a better feeling for the life not only of the author, but also of the times. I know I have had some great reads, and A S Patric Atlantic Black – admittedly in December – was a highlight. And as usual your blog. I always read it first thing Tuesday morning. (Not up late on Monday nights).

    • January 2, 2018 10:56 am

      Thanks Meg. It would be my dream to read over 100 books, so good for you. Sometimes I think I could read a book in the time it takes to write some of my posts! So, I suppose it’s a trade-off.

      I hear you re Atlantic black. I clearly must read it. I think two to one for fiction non-fiction us a good ratio and closer to my usual, because I do like non-fiction too. It is part of a well rounded reading life isn’t it.

      Sensible you not being up late on Mondays! I love though that you look for my post on Tuesdays. I feel almost like one of those journals whose deliveries we’d wait for.

  11. January 2, 2018 11:21 am

    Thanks for all your posts in 2017, Sue. It’s a continued pleasure reading your blog. Looking forward to many more Whispers in 2018!

    • January 2, 2018 11:33 am

      Thank you very much John. The urge hasn’t returned to you? No pressure, of course, but we miss you. I’m glad though that you still visit me.

  12. Brian Joseph permalink
    January 2, 2018 11:53 am

    You seem to have had a superb reading year.

    It is so interesting how you have broken down your reading into percentages like men and women, Australian and non -,Australian, etc. I need to do something similar.

    Happy New Year’s!

    • January 2, 2018 3:29 pm

      Hi Brian. It’s sort of fun to do breakdowns that suit your interests – at least I enjoy doing it. Other breakdowns could included Translated-Nontranslated, Classics-Nonclassics, etc. Anyhow I’ll be watching out to see if you do it. I think my subscription to your blog is working now.

  13. January 2, 2018 5:43 pm

    I agree with Debbie, Sue, that reading your blog provides many a literary highlight for me. So many books, so little time! Happy New Year and I hope 2018 brings many more literary treats.

    • January 2, 2018 7:25 pm

      Thankyou so much Angela. I know how many balls you are juggling in your life so I really appreciate hearing from you.

      I wish the same for you for 2018 too!

  14. Deepika Ramesh permalink
    January 2, 2018 5:55 pm

    I love this post, WG. It gives a great perspective about our reading radar. I wish I could as organised as you. You inspire me.

    Happy New Year to you and yours! 🙂 I will, of course, continue to visit your blogs and feed my TBR with Australian literature. You are bad for my TBR, but that is the kind of bad I want in my life. 😉 Thank you, WG.

    • January 2, 2018 8:05 pm

      Oh Phew, I don’t mean being a good bad girl, Deepika. I enjoy our communication too – and have my fingers crossed for your finding a job, preferably a great one, in 2018.

  15. January 2, 2018 6:34 pm

    Hi Sue, another great year in reading, and I especially like the ‘unusual narrator’ and displacement recommendations – that a beaut way to do it.
    Hey, now that you’re going to be a grandma, can we expect to see reviews of lovely children’s books? They say that Australia leads the world with children’s picture books and it’s a real shame that they don’t get reviewed online very much, or in the mainstream press at all.

    • January 2, 2018 8:21 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I love coming up with different categories to describe each year’s reading, but this year those two lovely ones just fell out!

      As for the picture books, I’ll certainly consider it though I feel very rusty about them. I didn’t know that about our leading the world in picture books. Good for us!

      • January 2, 2018 8:48 pm

        I miss seeing all the lovely new PSBs that used to come into the school library:)

        • January 2, 2018 9:51 pm

          Yes, I bet you do. Funny how quickly you lost contact with a world when our lives change.

  16. January 3, 2018 11:24 pm

    Fascinating. I see from your reply to Booker that this approach takes longer but it is interesting. I did actually to a bit of a breakdown myself on percentages (only really for gender) and it was a bit disappointing this year to be honest as is reflected in the fact only four of the books in my top twelve were by women. I think that reflects my reading more Mexican and South American fiction and not at the time being aware of the female writers in those traditions, but still it’s a could do better.

    Interesting too to see the themes. Mine are I think more random, but then I’ve not interrogated the list to see if themes emerge.

    Like Guy I do read non-fiction (though probably less of it), but it tends to make less impact on me than fiction.

    Anyway, nice approach to the end of year roundup. Thanks!

    • January 4, 2018 8:23 am

      Thanks Max. Hmm, interesting point re gender. Maybe VIDA needs to do some of its data gathering activism there.

      As for the theme of displacement, it just popped out. Random reading but something in the water!

      Anyhow, thanks for popping by and commenting.

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