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Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their top 2018 reads

December 17, 2018

In recent years, I’ve shared ABC RN presenters’ suggested summer reads, but this year I’m sharing Best Reads of 2018, from the two presenters of The Bookshelf program, and some of their guests. For more lists, and related links, you can check out the webpages for their December 7 and December 14 radio shows.

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeNicole Abadee (literary consultant and books writer for AFR Magazine and Good Weekend):

Trent Dalton (author of Boy swallows universe):

  • Haruki Murakami, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki (Japanese)
  • Geraldine Brooks, People of the book (Australian-American) (an older book, and one I read before blogging)
  • Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (American) (another older book, as I’m sure you know)

Kate Evans (presenter on The Bookshelf): 

  • Melissa Lucashenko, Too much lip (Australian)(on my TBR – I’ll get to it soon)
  • Michael Ondaatje, Warlight (Canadian)
  • Imogen Hermes Gowar, The mermaid and Mrs Hancock (English)
  • Peter Cochrane, The making of Martin Sparrow (Australian)
  • Tayari Jones, An American marriage (American) (Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest identifies this as the book which appeared most frequently in the 37 best-of-2018 lists she analysed)

Amelia Lush (Stella Prize judge, and head of Children and Young Adult programming for the Sydney Writers’ Festival):

  • Rebecca Makkai, The great believers (American)
  • Tara Westover, Educated (American) (A memoir highly recommended by my Californian friend)
  • Maria Turmarkin, Axiomatic (Australian) (Highly recommended by Brother Gums)

Cassie McCullagh (presenter on The Bookshelf): 

  • Rachel Cusk, Kudos (Canadian-born English)
  • Sally Rooney, Normal people (Irish)
  • Tim Winton, The shepherd’s hut (Australian)
  • Peter Cochrane, The making of Martin Sparrow (Australian)
  • Tayari Jones, An American marriage (American)

Shaun Prescott (author of The town)

  • Dag Solstad, T Singer (Norwegian)
  • Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Australian)
  • Olivia Laing, Crudo (English)

OK, so not many of these are Australian, but for this particular Christmas list I relax my rules to focus on Australian readers (at the ABC!)

Anyhow, a few observations. Of the 23 top picks, there are only three duplications: Peter Cochrane’s The making of Martin Sparrow; Tayari Jones’ An American marriage; and Rebecca Makkai’s The great believers. Only one of these is Australian, Cochrane’s historical novel set in the early days of the colony. This lack of duplication is probably not surprising given all the books that are out there for us to read.

Just two of the books (unless I’ve missed something) are non-fiction – Tara Westover’s Educated and Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic. Again, probably not surprising.

And, most of the books are anglo – Australian, American, English, Canadian, Irish – with just two that aren’t, Murakami from Japan, and Solstad from Norway.  We really aren’t, it seems to me, very good at reading translated books from other cultures – and I admit that my reading diet is light on in that area too. Only one, as far as I can tell, is by an indigenous Australian.

Anyhow, I hope you have found this at least a bit interesting!

What ONE book would you recommend from your 2018 reads for the rest of us to read over the holidays?

28 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2018 11:13 pm

    Ok, I know, I’m on my soapbox again, but sheesh, wouldn’t you think that the Stella Prize judge of all people could come up with better than two out of three choices being American?

    • December 17, 2018 11:33 pm

      I wondered about that too, Lisa – with Trent Dalton also. I wondered whether they specifically specifically decided to avoid Australian authors. If you’re in judging circles you may want to be careful about showing your hand or setting up expectations, and if you’re an author you may not want to offend good friends by not choosing their books. (Of course Maria Tumarkin is Australian, but Axiomatic is a bit left field in terms of “competing” with other books, if that makes sense.) I don’t know any of this for a fact, of course, but my tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Still, personally, I’d liked to have seen more Aussies there!!

      • December 18, 2018 5:31 am

        Yes, I can see your point, I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s fair enough if that’s where they were coming from.
        But still, I can’t help but think of the hurt our Aussie authors must feel at this time of the year when their work is, collectively and individually, sidelined in these EOY lists.

        • December 18, 2018 5:43 am

          I agree, Lisa – there can be hurt either way, can’t there? I guess that’s the nature of something so subjective as the arts.

          And I do admit that I’m always rather surprised, and have commented in previous years, about the low level of Aussies in the ABC Presenter’s lists. The reasons I gave above makes sense to me for judges and authors (though whether my reason is the reality or not, I don’t know) but for professional commentators and critics, I’m not so happy to give them that leeway and would like to see more Aussies in their lists. Do they not read them? Or do they really not like them well enough?

  2. December 18, 2018 4:35 am

    I love year end lists even though I read so few new books. I am making a New Years Resolution to read more translated literature and more new literature in 2019. I might actually get to Murakami some time in the year.

    • December 18, 2018 5:00 am

      Yes, I do too, Brian.

      And, I keep planning to increase my translated fiction, but usually with not much success. I’ve read some this year, but – well, I’ll probably mention them in my end-of-year round up in early January.

      Have you read any Murakami? If not, I do hope you enjoy him. I’ve only read a couple since blogging, and one of those was non-fiction, but I have long been a fan.

  3. December 18, 2018 7:44 am

    Well, I’m not the person to ask about the 2018 version of the book show, I so rarely listen to it. I have a poor opinion of it, exacerbated by two out of two instances of listening to it recently when each of the presenters admitted to not having read the book under discussion. I don’t know why they don’t just get off air and let their readers do the talking… neither of them have the expertise of Michael Cathcart, and McCullogh in particular is an embarrassment to listen to.
    But yes, I agree, I’ve sounded off on my own best-of list about the Wheeler Centre’s dispiriting lack of attention to Australian adult fiction, and RN is just as bad, if not worse. We do not need more promotion of overseas authors, they get plenty of it anyway, even in The (so-called) Australian Book Review, whereas Australian authors, especially middle-ranking authors of LitFic, find it very hard to get any attention anywhere. Everyone in the Australian book industry works so hard, for so little acclaim or reward, you’d think these opinion-makers would make more of an effort.

    • December 18, 2018 7:44 pm

      I listen to it if I’m around, but not as religiously as I used to. It’s all so bitsy piecy now. Cathcart is very good, though, I agree. And, I agree, that if they are discussing a book – that they know in advance they are going to discuss – they should have read it. We of course want some discussion of non-Australian literature because our writers don’t work in a vacuum but I agree that the balance should be in Aussie writers favour. They should be the focus. (This national-international issue is one we discussed many times at the National Film and Sound Archive.)

      • December 18, 2018 9:01 pm

        Did you have a specific policy about it?

        • December 18, 2018 10:12 pm

          It was a bit of a moving feast but yes it is enshrined in the Collection Policy which is available online. We had a lot of lively debate about these things – what we collect, what we preserve, and what we program – throughout my career. Films were repatriated to their countries of origin, at times, but this was complex too if they’d been part of a travelling picture show collection.

          If you go to this page , click on the 2017 policy, and go to page 7 you’ll see the main part of the policy. I don’t think it’s changed a lot of many years now.

        • December 18, 2018 11:09 pm

          Oh, I like it. It’s just exactly what you’d want it to be:) I wonder if RN has anything similar.

        • December 19, 2018 8:19 am

          Oh, I’m glad you do, Lisa. Yes, I wonder too. If I had time I’d go looking for their mission and policies. They are different in mandate but it would be appropriate to articulate the issue of telling Australian stories.

        • December 19, 2018 9:30 am

          Yes, especially the bit about diversity. Australian Story with its preoccupation on crime and Backroads with its preoccupation on Great Aussie Characters are so anglo….

        • December 19, 2018 10:02 am

          True, and worth pointing out to them. However, I think they have made moves in the right direction – more non-Anglo presenters on radio (including Stop Everything) and to some extent TV news, shows like Black Comedy on mainstream ABC channel not their indigenous channel, and the odd new drama telling indigenous stories or featuring indigenous people, is progress at least. BUT we need to keep them honest, don’t we?

  4. December 18, 2018 12:45 pm

    One book only? Absolutely without doubt Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. That’s my book of the year.

  5. ian darling permalink
    December 18, 2018 9:01 pm

    Best non fiction for me was Keith Lowe’s book about the impact of World War 2, The Fear And the Freedom, which was so much more than an account of battles/campaigns. Best fiction was for me perhaps Michael Faber’s 2014 novel The Book Of Strange New things a remarkable imagining of an intergalactic missionary which I would recommend to anyone.

    • December 18, 2018 10:19 pm

      You mentioned the Lowe recently Ian?

      I haven’t heard of that Faber novel, though I have read The crimson petal and the white, which I remember enjoying (a long time ago.)

  6. ian darling permalink
    December 19, 2018 12:50 am

    I love Michael Faber’s stuff. I read Strange New Things when it first came out…it is one of the few contemporary novels that I felt I had to reread. Its a science fiction book, a novel about Christianity and evangelism and a long distance (intergalactic, no less!) love story. I’m probably not very good at SF and perhaps The Book Of Strange New Things (what the inhabitants of Faber’s visited planet call the Bible) is the sort of SF novel liked by people who don’t really get the genre but it really worked for me and is as good as Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness as a wondrous work of imagination.

    • December 19, 2018 8:22 am

      That sounds like the sort of SF I like, Ian – they are usually one-off stories by writers who don’t write in one genre, so have a different sensibility about their style and goals perhaps.

  7. December 19, 2018 6:00 pm

    This is a tough call! My favourite Australian non-fiction read this year was Gregory Smith’s Out of the Forest. My favourite Australian fiction was probably Sharon Kernot’s The Arr of Taxidermy.

    I think my overall favourites this year were non-Australian – I Am, I Am, I Am and Home Fire.

    I have Shell and Boy Swallows Universe samples on my Kindle.

    • December 19, 2018 6:33 pm

      Wah wah wah, I haven’t read any of those Agnes – but, perhaps not wah wah wah, perhaps yeah yeah yeah some great new ideas for me to consider!

      I am looking forward to reading Boy swallows universe, and will do my best to read Shell next year.

  8. December 22, 2018 8:28 am

    I loved Dancing Home by Paul Collis and of course I also loved Educated. I think I was just so amazed by her journey. So one Aussie book and one American. I have tried translated fiction but have found so much of it is about war, struggles, refugee status. There is so much of that in the news that I get too depressed to read more. I understand the importance of the work but need to read books that are a bit more uplifting most of the time. Maybe that is a poor excuse. By the way I love ‘eavesdropping’ on your conversations with Lisa.

    • December 22, 2018 9:41 am

      I love that you love our conversations Pam. That’s one of the now of blogging isn’t it?

      I find that I don’t mind reading grim stuff, but I don’t like watching thrillers about psychopaths. I never did but I really can’t any more.

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