If you are a regular here you’ll know that my Reading Highlights post, which is my answer to those Top Reads posts that many bloggers do, will not contain an ordered list of the books I considered my “best” of the year. I find that just too hard to do (though I did make a stab at it on Amy’s blog last month.) I prefer to talk about “highlights”, that is, those books and events that made my reading year worthwhile.
Literary highlights mean literary events, and there were many wonderful ones in Canberra this year. I didn’t get to near as many as I’d wish, but I enjoyed those I did attend:
- Festival Muse: Muse is a cafe, bookshop and event venue, and a popular haunt for Canberra book people. For the second year running they held, in March, their Muse Festival. It’s a busy time of year and a long weekend, so I only attended the opening session, Turn Me On. The aim was for the five speakers to share “the lightbulb moments and hidden drivers” behind what turned them on (of course). The speakers included old hands, like journalist Michael Brissenden, and the up-and-coming, like feminist writer Zoya Patel. A wonderful event.
- Sydney Writers Festival live streams some of its sessions to regional locations, and Canberra was one of those in 2018. I attended three sessions: Conflicting narratives, Annabel Crabb’s BooKwiz, and Emily Wilson on Translating the Odyssey. How wonderful modern technology is when it facilitates events like this.
- Canberra Writers Festival about which I wrote six posts. You can find them by clicking this link and then selecting those posts for the 2018 festival.
- Author interviews/conversations of which I only attended a few of the many offered, but those I attended were nicely varied: Robyn Cadwallader, Nadia Wheatley, and Elizabeth Kleinhenz.
- Annual lectures: the NLA’s Seymour Biography Lecture, given by broadcaster Richard Fidler; and Manning Clark House’s Dymphna Clark Lecture given by historian Clare Wright. As last year, we had supper at Muse after both lectures.
And here, as in previous years, is where I share some observations about my reading this year. These aren’t necessarily my “top” reads, but all were good ones:
- Strange synchronicities (1): Setting: The universe, as I mentioned in one of the posts, is clearly telling me to make good on my plan to visit the Mallee region because every second book I read this year – well, I’m exaggerating a little – seemed to be set in the Mallee or near it: Jenny Ackland’s Little gods, Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys, Sofie Laguna’s The choke, Emily O’Grady’s The yellow house, and Sue Williams’ Live and let fry. I’m not sure that these books presented the Mallee in its best light – there were a lot of struggling families – but this flat, hot and dry, somewhat remote, self-contained region made an excellent backdrop for drama.
- Strange synchronicities (2): Narrator: I read a lot of child narrators/protagonists, most of them from the Mallee! How did that happen? Sue Williams’ Live and let fry is the exception, but to the remaining four Mallee-area novels, I add three others featuring young protagonists: Nick Earls’ LA-set novella, NoHo, Wendy Scarfe’s Adelaide-based novel The day they shot Edward and a book I’ve just finished but won’t post until 2019, Jarrah Dundler’s northern NSW set Hey brother. All but two of these were adult fiction. Writing child narrators for adults, without becoming sentimental or being simplistic, is a challenge, but when done well – like, for example, Sofie Laguna’s The choke – these voices add a depth that can open our eyes to the impact of adult actions and/or enable us to see adult behaviour from a different perspective.
- Exotic places I may never get to, like Beirut in Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman, and Tel Aviv in Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Evacuation. These two books were revelations, in very different ways, and I’d highly recommend both.
- Great covers: Covers aren’t ultimately important to me, but I do love gorgeous ones. Two particularly caught my attention this year: Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of colours which conveys a sense of mediaeval lusciousness appropriate to its subject matter while also being modern, clean, fresh; and HC Gildfind’s The worry front which is inspired by the front lines on a weather map. So evocative, so metaphorical.
- Interesting finds: I read three early twentieth century short stories, two from Trove, “The bridge” (1917) and “Christmas tree” (1919) by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and one sent to my by Pam (Travellin’ Penguin), “The hand” (1924) by ML (Mollie) Skinner. I love reading these writers from the past.
- Biggest surprise (1): I didn’t plan to read Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner because I expected it to be one of those sensationalist stories, but how wrong I was. It’s an intelligently written respectful book about a warm and complex person well worthy of a biographer’s time.
- Biggest surprise (2): I couldn’t believe that such a dense, contemplative book as WG Sebald’s Austerlitz could be a page-turner, but it was.
- The odd man: I don’t mean by this that the men themselves were odd but that there weren’t many of them in my reading diet this year. However, I loved reading Rodney Hall again, with his provocative A stolen season. Richard Flanagan’s First person was an engaging and intriguing read too, and John Clanchy’s novel about women, Sisters, was right up my alley. Then there was the daddy of them all – well, I mean, one of the great writers from the past – EM Forster. Loved re-reading Howard’s end.
- The ones that got away, or, the books I really wanted to read, but didn’t. There are too many of them, but two that really bother me are Jane Rawson’s From the wreck, and Gerald Murnane’s Border districts.
There were many more great books. Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography of Elizabeth Macarthur was excellent, both informative and engaging, as was Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom. I read several Australian classics, and was impressed again by works by some of our older, fearless women writers – Carmel Bird, Helen Garner, and the late Elizabeth Jolley.
Some stats …
And here is where there are some surprises (for me, anyhow):
- 80% of my reading was fiction, short stories and novels (versus 53% in 2017): I said last year that I wanted to rebalance the fiction-nonfiction ratio towards more fiction. I sure did it – and then some!
- 70% of the authors were women (versus 73% in 2017, 65% in 2016, and 67% in 2015): I like to read women writers and reading them is one of my specific reading interests, but 70% is a little higher than it need be. I’m not unhappy though!
- 18% were NOT by Australian writers (versus 35% last year and 32% in 2016): Last year, I said that roughly one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian felt like a fair ratio. Less than 20%, however, does not feel “balanced” and I’d like to redress it next year.
- 28% were published before 2000 (similar to last year’s 31%): I’m happy with this.
- 35% were published in 2018, which seems reasonable.
Last year, I noted that I don’t set reading goals – except a general one of trying, vainly, to reduce the TBR pile – but I did say that I’d like to lift my fiction ratio. I did achieve that. I also increased my TBR reading by 100% – meaning I read 6 books from the TBR pile (defined as books I’ve owned for over a year) compared with 3 in 2017. Woo hoo!
Overall, another good reading year containing some excellent reads. I’m grateful for all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be all-round great people to talk with. Thank you for being here.
I wish you all a wonderful 2019.
What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?