Regular readers will know that my Reading Highlights post is my answer to other bloggers’ Top Reads posts. It does not contain a ranked list of the books I considered my “best” of the year, because I prefer to talk about “highlights”, which I define as those books and events that made my reading year worthwhile.
I don’t set reading goals, but I do have certain “rules of thumb”, such as trying to reduce the TBR pile, increase my reading of indigenous authors, and read some non-anglo literature. How do you think I went?
Literary highlights really means literary events, and there were some inspiring ones this year:
- Festival Muse: for the third year running, Muse (cafe/bookshop/event venue beloved by Canberra’s booklovers) held, in March, their Festival. It’s a busy time of year and a long weekend, but I had booked to attend the opening, as I always do, and one other event. Unfortunately, a family member’s hospitalisation meant we had to miss the opening, but I did get to Alice Pung in conversation.
- Sydney Writers Festival has been live streaming selected sessions to regional locations – like Canberra – for a few years now. I attended three in 2019: Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis; Andrew Sean Greer in conversation about Less; and “I do not want to see this in print”.
- Canberra Writers Festival about which I wrote 7 posts: to find them click this link and select the 2019 festival posts.
- Book launches: Two of the book launches I attended this year were particularly special because it was perfectly obvious that the authors involved were surrounded by a large, warm and enthusiastic group of people who cared deeply about them and their work: Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review) and Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami (on my TBR).
- The Constructive Critic panel: this was the year I relented and finally said yes to a request to take part in a festival panel. It was part of the Design Canberra Festival, and I did manage to write it up, here.
As in previous years, I’m sharing some random observations about the year’s reading, without ranking them in any way. Just know that I’d be happy to recommend all those I mention here:
- Indigenous authors: each year I try to make sure my reading diet includes a few indigenous authors, and this year I read more Indigenous Australian writers than I have in recent years, including anthologies by Anita Heiss and Us Mob Writing, Stan Grant’s essay On identity, a children’s book by the Yolngu students of Nhulunbuy Primary School, and novels by Melissa Lucashenko and Tony Birch. I also read, at last, Native American Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace.
- The locals: Canberra is said to punch above its weight in terms of, per capita, the number of authors we have here. I don’t know whether this is statistically substantiated, but we are certainly well endowed! This year I read the latest novels by two of our well-published authors, Nigel Featherstone and Karen Viggers. (I also met Kaaron Warren, who is a multi-award winning author in genres I don’t read, speculative fiction and horror.)
- The “dreaded” TBR: I didn’t make impressive inroads into the TBR, but I did reduce it by four, including two highlights, Louise Erdrich’s above-named book, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Can I improve next year?
- Memoirs with a difference: There is a tried-and-true formula for memoirs in which the writer relates a trauma and how they’ve risen above it, or, if they’re celebrities and sportspeople, write tell-alls about their successes and failures. These memoirs have value, but are not my chosen fare. I prefer those that do something a bit different, like, say, Jessica White’s hybrid biography-memoir, Hearing Maud, and Ros Collins’ Rosa: Memories with licence in which she teases us about whether the book is indeed memoir or fiction. Or, like those which share experiences in order to educate readers. These can be off-putting if not handled well. Fortunately, Neil H Atkinson in The last wild west and David Brooks in The grass library managed to do just this, about racism and animal rights, respectively.
- The book I wasn’t planning to read: Still on the subject of memoirs, I hadn’t planned to read Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The erratics, feeling it was going to be a bit too much of the rise-above-a-trauma style, but when it won the Stella Prize, I decided to give it a go – and was rewarded for my effort.
- Some interesting voices: This year didn’t produce any unusual narrators like fetuses or skeletons, but Sayaka Murata’s mystified yet open Convenience store woman is an engaging narrator who encourages us to think about people who don’t meet societal expectations. Trent Dalton and Tim Winton sustained powerful young male voices in Boy swallows universe and The shepherd’s hut, while Amor Towles’ A gentleman in Moscow was one of the most charming narrators I’ve read for some time.
- Forgotten Australians: Bill’s (The Australian Legend) annual AWW Gen weeks provide the perfect opportunity for me to feed my love of past Aussie women writers. This year Louise Mack and Capel Boake had their turn.
- Older Americans: This year also saw me read some older, excellent American novels – the already-mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Mary McCarthy’s The group.
- Death, be not proud: Amanda O’Callaghan, in her debut short story collection This taste for silence, writes about death in more ways that you could think possible, and yet leave you wanting more.
- Out of left field came Kim Scott’s nicely researched local history, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956.
- The book I’ve recommended the most: Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip is a perfect example of how to create engaging but flawed characters, and how to tackle deeply political issues with both humour and passion.
- The one that got away: as always, there are the books that got away, which included, this year, Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. It is still sitting in my TBR pile, accusingly.
These are just some of this year’s worthwhile reads.
Some stats …
I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I like to keep an eye on what I’m doing to ensure some balance, all the while maintaining my particular interest in women and Australian writers:
- 70% of my reading was fiction, short stories and novels (versus 80% in 2018): Around 75% is my rule of thumb, so I’m happy!
- 64% were by women (making my average for the last five years, 2015-2019, 68%): As women writers are an important priority for me, without wanting to be exclusively so, this proportion seems reasonable.
- 28% were NOT by Australian writers (versus 18% in 2018): Last year, I said I wanted to redress the balance to be something more like my previous one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian, and I got close.
- 24% were published before 2000 (rather less than for the last two years which hovered around 30%): While this is ok, I’d really like to read more older books.
- 34% were published in 2019 (similar to last year), which pleases me, because I don’t want all my reading to be current.
Overall, it was a good reading year in terms of what I read, but less so in terms of how much. Life got in the way moreso than usual! As always, 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 an excellent 2020.
What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?