Reading highlights for 2020

For newbies here, my annual Reading Highlights post is my answer to other bloggers’ Top Reads posts. In other words, I don’t do a ranked list of the books I consider my year’s “best”, but instead share my “highlights”, which I define as those books and events that made my reading year worthwhile.

I don’t, as I say each year, set reading goals, but do have certain “rules of thumb”, including trying to reduce the TBR pile, increase my reading of indigenous authors, and read some non-anglo literature. This year though has been an annus horribilis for me – of which COVID-19 was only a part. Consequently, I didn’t make great inroads into any of these … as you’ll see.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, were different this year, given the pandemic’s early (and ongoing) presence in the year, However, going on-line, while a less personal experience, had its pluses:

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  • Writing War panel discussion: This in-person event was changed into a Zoom one. As it included local writer Nigel Featherstone on his book, Bodies of men, I loved being able to attend!
  • Writers in Residence: This tightly run online festival aimed to give exposure to some emerging writers, and it worked a treat.
  • Melbourne Writers Festival: Covid-19 had some silver linings, including enabling me to attend, at last, some Melbourne Writers Festival events. I only attended two sessions, one on short stories and the other a lecture by Alexis Wright, but they were both so stimulating.
  • Yarra Valley Writers Festival: Another silver lining saw me able to attend sessions of the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival. Session topics were wide-ranging, such as climate change and crime. I wrote four posts.
  • Author interviews/book launches: I only got to a few of the many offered: Heidi Sze, Sara Dowse, Robert Dessaix and Ramona Koval (the last two from Yarra Valley Writers Festival’s New Release Sundays program).

Reading highlights

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This is where I share some random observations about the year’s reading, rather than a ranked list. That said, I’d happily recommend all I mention here:

  • Indigenous authors: Each year I try to ensure my reading diet includes a few indigenous authors. This year I didn’t quite achieve the number I did last year, but I did read three novels, Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin Award-winning The yield, Julie Janson’s Benevolence, and the collaborative On a barbarous coast by Craig Cormick and Indigenous writer Harold Ludwick – plus Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell my why.
  • The year of single-word titles: I can’t remember when I read so many books with single word titles, titles not even preceded by an article, like Benevolence, Bruny, Damascus, Displaced, Mammoth, Murmurations, and Unsettled. I like the possibilities contained in direct, simple-sounding titles like these.
  • Rethinking colonial Australia: Completely serendipitously, I read a few books this year by Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers that attempted to correct the white-version of Australia’s colonisation that many of us grew up with: Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick’s On a barbarous coast; Julie Janson’s Benevolence; and Gay Lynch’s Unsettled. Poet John Kinsella’s memoir, Displaced, also addresses these issues, albeit within a contemporary framework. And, at a tangent, Madeleine Dickie’s contemporary novel Red can origami hinges on this colonial dispossession to explore the complex relationships and exploitation behind mining in northwest Australia.
  • That “accusing” TBR (which I define as books waiting for more than 12 months): This year I read 5, one more than last year, so, a win. The highlights were Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland’s collaborative memoir, The drums go bang! and Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist.
  • Returning to an old favourite author: Looking for books for my mum to read, I chose, among others, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the side of the road. She wanted to read it, but her time ran out. However, I read it, and Tyler’s quirky world was just the right thing at the time. Other favourite authors I returned to this year included Thea Astley (An item from the late news), Jane Austen (Juvenilia Vol. 1), and Helen Garner (Yellow notebook).
  • Out of left field from Brother Gums came Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard’s nourishing art-poetry book, The voice of water, and, from my reading group, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s cheekily titled Erotic stories for Punjabi widows.
  • Observing contemporary Australia: My reading always includes books that interrogate contemporary life, and two stand out from this year, Carmel Bird’s wry, satirical Field of poppies about a retired couple’s failed escape from the city, and Charlotte Wood’s The weekend about older women and friendship.
  • Other people’s lives: Biographies and memoirs are always part of my reading fare. Two standouts this year were Desley Deacon’s thorough and beautifully designed biography of Judith Anderson, and Rick Morton’s heart-rending but not self-indulgent memoir, One hundred years of dirt.
  • Some interesting voices: Each year seems to produce an unusual narrator or two – a foetus or skeleton, perhaps. This year produced another variation, with Chris Flynn’s Mammoth narrated by, yes, the fossil of a 13,000-year-old mastodon. It was more enjoyable than I expected.
  • Surprise of the year: I read a couple of books for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen3 week but Angela Thirkell’s Trooper to the Southern Cross took the cake. I didn’t know what to expect, and was both surprised and entertained by what I got.
  • The quiet achiever: A beautiful, perceptive book that just didn’t get the recognition it deserves is John Clanchy’s historical novel exploring clerical abuse of children, In whom we trust.
  • The book most relevant to me this year won’t surprise those who know my year: Griffith Review 68, Getting on. It’s enlightening, informative, and even, at times, inspiring, about all things ageing!
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These are just some of 2020’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:

  • 63% of my reading was fiction, short stories and novels (70% in 2019 and 80% in 2018): Around 75% is my rule of thumb, so this is quite a bit lower. Not sure why, but these things happen!
  • 80% were by women which is significantly higher than my 2015-2019 average of 68%: This is a bigger weighting than the 65-70% I prefer. Some of this 80% includes collaborations with male writers and editors.
  • 18% were NOT by Australian writers (28% in 2019 and 18% in 2018): I would like the balance to be something more like one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian, so this is a regression on last year’s achievement, but this year was an aberration overall so I’m not going to beat myself up. It is what it is.
  • 15% were published before 2000 (significantly less than for the last three years which hovered around 30%): Too low. I really like to read more older books.
  • 22% were published in 2020 (rather less than last year), which pleases me, because (obviously) I don’t want all my reading to be the latest books.

Overall, it was a disappointing reading year, in which much of my reading was driven by review books and my reading group. Both of these resulted in some good reads, and I don’t for a moment regret them, but my personal circumstances meant I did less self-directed reading and that was a bit frustrating. I hope I can get back to a more even keel in 2021.

As always, I’m grateful to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be all-round great people to talk with. You know I love you!

I wish you all an excellent 2021, and thank you so much for hanging in this year.

What were your 2020 reading or literary highlights?

50 thoughts on “Reading highlights for 2020

  1. Your stats for how many books read from your TBR got me thinking, so i just did a quick head count on my own blogroll, and was pleasantly surprised to see that I had read 20 books from off of my TBR during 2020.
    Rather keen to try On a Barbarous Coast after reading about Matthew Flinders in My Love Must Wait.

    • 20! I could only dream of that Brona. That’s impressive. I remember school friends reading My love must wait, but I never did. I’d be interested to know what you thought after reading both (if you get to read On a barbarous coast.)

  2. You might be a bit disappointed, but it seems it was still a really good reading year. One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic has been all the literary festivals that went online. I got to “attend” the National Book Festival held every year in Washington DC as well as several other book events I would not have been able to be part of otherwise. I hope going forward when in-person things can happen again, these events will also consider keeping in a virtual element. I laughed over all those books with single word titles. I hope you and all the Gums have a very happy New Year!

    • Thanks so much Stefanie. I think that one of the positives to come out of covid is that many event organisers will plan for hybrid events. It was starting to happen here before with live streaming to far-flung venues by the Sydney Writers Festival of selected events, so it has already been proven viable. Let’s hope!

      Thanks so much for visiting me through the year. I wish you, Bookman and the (remaining 🙁) Dashwoods all the best for 2021 too. Keep safe and well, please.

  3. I like your stats, ST ! I always enjoy puddling around in Excel, and assume that’s how you reach your figures ? But I DEMAND you acknowledge that last year (so happy to write that, I am !) was one that removed meaning from ongoing stats, and will forever be simply 2020 – a hiccup along the way.
    Whatever you read and whatever you wrote, it was very worthwhile.

    • Thanks M-R… Ok I acknowledge it. You are right!! And thanks of course for your interest and support… I always love hearing from you.

      Yes, I love Excel too… And it was part of the process here.

  4. You asked, WG, and I’m answering. The far and away highlight of my reading in 2020 has been John Docker’s three-volume memoir Growing up Communist and Jewish in Bondi, which I’m in the process of reviewing for Inside Story just now, and praying I can do it full justice. Unlike many memoirs, this is fundamentally a journey through the author’s mind, in other words, an intellectual bildungsroman, though he has another name for it and the personal is there as well. I don’t believe there’s anything else published here quite like it and it’s fascinating. It sent me back to his earlier (2001) 1492:The Poetics of Diaspora, a book I’ve treasured so much that it’s one of the few that’s still with me after my so many moves, and pointed me towards other books besides. Wow, is all I can say. Three volumes may seem indulgent for a memoir but it’s anything but, and throughout the whole journey my interest never once lagged. A genuine achievement by an author, and massive pleasure for this reader.

    • Oh thanks Sara. I asked because I really wanted to know, so I’m glad you did. I hadn’t heard of this, but it sounds a wonderful book on multiple levels. I’ll try to look out for your review. I know you’ll do it justice.

  5. I don’t always have time to comment but I have enjoyed your posts and what I have learned about Australian writers from you, Lisa and Bill. It has been wonderful. 2020 will now be delegated to history. I think some things might stay the same in 2021 but many thjngs may be happier. I remain optimistic. My goal for 2021 is to read from my shelves. I really need to get some books off the shelves, read or a decision about moving them on. All the best to you for a good year. 🐧🤠🌷🌷

    • I remain optimistic too Pam… And I wholeheartedly agree re moving books off the shelves. Let’s see what we can achieve!

      I enjoy your blog too, you know!

      All the best to you and yours, too.

  6. A lot of my reading time this year went to philosophy, which made for fewer books: depending on the writer, one can read forty pages of fiction in an evening; but twenty pages of philosophy would be a challenge. That said, I read and enjoyed the novels Abigail by Magda Szabo, The Invasion by Janet Lewis, and The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

    I re-read a bit of The Aeneid, and encountered the question, perfect for 2020, “Cur dextrae iungere dextram/non datur, ac veras audire et reddere voces?”–roughly “Why can we not clasp hands, and converse in our true voices?”

    The 19th-Century American C.S. Peirce may have been the most interesting philosopher whose work (some of whose work) I read this year. But there were several others of varying density that I read with interest.

    • Thanks George. I like your assessment of how much fiction versus philosophy you can read. makes sense to me. Brother Gums and I were talking about the challenges of reading philosophy just the other day.

      I love that sentence “Why can we not clasp hands, and converse in our true voices”. I don’t know CS Pierce.

    • Yes, I think so too, Angharad. I guess my point is that I put minimal effort into achieving them because other things end up driving what I read so these aspirations rarely come to the fore! I’d like them to a little more than they do!!

      I think it’s good that we all managed to keep reading eh?

  7. I enjoy your posts although am not familiar with any of these except the Angela Thirkell. The Chloe Hooper sounds familiar but maybe I only read about it. Speaking of unusual narrators, my sister told me a couple weeks ago she was reading a mystery told from the perspective of the refrigerator! That sounds like an author way to desperate for a gimmick.

    I am interested in what you said about Literary Festivals. I did sign up for one or two events but, truthfully, after being on the computer much of the day for work and two nights a week for my master’s degree classes I did not want to Zoom any more than I had to. I used to have meetings several nights a week, some for fun, some for work. I definitely feel I got more reading done, although that includes some rereads I wouldn’t have bothered with if the libraries had reopened sooner.

    I do wish I had done more cooking and less reading but at least I didn’t starve!

    • Thanks Constance. A refrigerator! That sounds like a bit of a push. (I have a vague feeling I’ve heard of this one but it’s buried somewhere in the recesses of my mind.)

      I can imagine with that regime your not attending zoom literary events.

      You clearly don’t have the pile of TBR books that I do. The library being closed would not be a factor in my rereading as I have so many books here waiting to read – sitting there, glaring at me! I gave some away last year, and might do so again this year!

      I love your assessment that you wish you’d done more cooking!

  8. Ah ha! I think I may have a solution about my dilemma over which Australian author to feature for next year…
    Are there some in your TBR by Barbara Hanrahan or Eleanor Dark?

    • Certainly Eleanor Dark Lisa. She’d be a good pick I reckon. I’ve read the only Hanrahan I have but I’d be happy to read more of her too, and she isn’t well known. (Hmm… might be harder for people to find her.) Love that you’re thinking this.

  9. Hi Sue, thanks again for your great year of blogs. Your reading year stats are astounding, and well done under such difficult circumstances. I had a disappointing year in reading but I think it was my mood; and in September I only read 2 books. I picked up a lot of books and put down a lot of books. I had to read books from my TBR, because of the COVID19. And, very happy that it made me read Arabesques. Also, very pleased that nearly 50% of my reads were from Australian authors.

    • It was a strange year for us all wasn’t it – mine just had the added distress. A couple of months I only read 2 also and we weren’t even holidaying were we? Are you going to be able to see you Taswegians?

      Anyhow, thanks so much for being one of my loyal followers and commenters. I love that we read so many similar books.

  10. Hi Sue, I have just returned from two weeks with my daughter and her family. Had a wonderful time. Went to Maria Island and climbed and climbed, and loved the wombats and other wildlife. The Painted Cliffs were amazing. Lovely Christmas day with Jacqueline’s friends. Also bought some books from Fullers. All happy and well. I think follow and read the books you review.

    • Oh, I’m so glad Meg. Last time I went to Tasmania, we went to Maria Island and walked around it, but didn’t do the biggest climb walks. My brother was involved in some of interpretive history you see there.

  11. Dear Sue,
    Thank you very much for your reviews and commentaries which I have very much enjoyed dipping into throughout the year. And thank you for your literary and reading highlights, a source of good ideas for our book group.

    • My literary highlights were: two sessions at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival: Lawrence Wright talking about his book The End of October which predicted the Covid crisis and was published just a month before it happened; and Elizabeth Strout on her new book Olive Again, and Rick Morton at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.
    • My reading highlights were:
    o Lawrence Wright The End of October (gripping, terrifying), Going Clear (about the history of Scientology and story of its founder Ron Hubbard (absolutely amazing) and The Looming Tower (more hard going than the other two books but fascinating all the same).
    o John Mortimer The Rumpole Omnibus (absolutely hilarious – a laugh a minute). Also, A Voyage Around My Father (funny and utterly charming) and Clinging to the Wreckage (his autobiography – very funny and deeply thoughtful).
    o Elizabeth Strout Olive Again (funny how Olive just lives on in your mind!)
    o Anne Patchett The Dutch House (An American family saga – not great literature but a terrific read all the same).
    o Megha Majumdar, A Burning (powerful and quite horrific but with some beautiful character portraits and humorous bits).
    o Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor, Mincemeat, and Agent Sonya. (We are hooked on Ben MacIntyre’s true spy biographies. They are utterly gripping and full of fascinating information about the secret doings of both sides in Cold War espionage and espionage in the French Resistance under the leadership of an extraordinary America woman, Virginia Hall).

    Thanks again, and all the best for good reading, reviewing and living in 2021, whatever it throws at us.

    • Oh, it’s lovely to hear from you Jill. Thanks so much for sharing your highlights. Are any of those from your reading group?

      I have only heard of a few of these. And, I’ve never heard of “true spy biographies”. Mr Gums might be interest in these.

      I wish you and yours all the best for 2021 too.

  12. My reading highlights this year – Philip Salom, Waiting; Steven Carroll, The Art of the Engine Driver; Carmel Bird, Field of Poppies, and Charlotte Woods, The Weekend, Robert Dessaix, The Time of Our Lives. All Australian writers!

    And my thanks to you Sue and Lisa at ANZ Litlovers for all your work on the blogs during a very difficult year. You’ve managed amazingly this year Sue. Best wishes to all here for 2021 – may it be a better year than the last!

    (Walked around the CBD here today and noticed just how many shops and cafes have had to close here – it really has been a tough year for small business. I feel so sorry for people).

    • Love your choices Sue, and that they are all Australian, though I haven’t read all of them. (BTW I have a friend who is in a reading group in which not one member liked The weekend apparently! They are all of the age of the women in the novel, whereas most of my reading group are in the previous decade. I wonder whether that had something to do with it?)

      Anyhow, thanks so much for joining the commenters on my blog this year Sue. I’ve really enjoyed your inputs.

      (Oh, and, that’s sad about your CBD, particularly given you are in a regional area where you had almost no cases I think? We had a short lockdown here, though a lot of restrictions, but it looks to me like the majority of businesses have survived to date. However, it’s not over yet is it, so my fingers are crossed fro them. I hope your businesses can revive?)

      Anyhow, I look forward to more book conversations this year, and wish you good health and contentment in 2021.

      • Hi Sue,

        Too close to the bone for your friend’s reading group do you think? I haven’t quite finished it yet… but there are parts I can relate to so much I’m not sure whether to laugh or whimper sometimes!

        I spat the dummy at my book club and haven’t returned. It was The Lucky Galah that did it – they were having such an earnest discussion about it I couldn’t cope any longer – the scene where the woman made a nappy for the bird – I had a meltdown! I now go to music lessons instead. What a relief.

        I thought about suggesting The Weekend for them, but doubt it would be appreciated – probably the same problem as your friend’s group. Oh dear!

        • I haven’t read The lucky galah, so can’t comment on that. I thought it might be an interesting book but I have have many others much higher in my priority list. I’m sorry you don’t have a reading group, but I guess they don’t work for everyone. A music lesson sounds a very good and worthwhile alternative.

          And yes, I think it might have been a bit too close to the bone for my friend’s group, and I don’t think they got, for example, the role of the dog. I know what you mean about not being sure whether to laugh or whimper sometimes – but they, apparently, saw nothing to laugh at. I think it’s a book with a wry sense of humour that can make you laugh, ruefully, at yourself for example (which is what you are saying I think.)

        • Laughing ruefully is the best way to go Sue! I am amused by learning acoustic guitar at this age – along with a heap of teenage boys. I find it hard to stop laughing at myself! It’s fun!

  13. I’m glad you were able to temper a difficult year with more (virtual) attendance at non-ACT writers festivals. I was interested in what you said about Alexis Wright at MWF, so I looked it up. While Wright is not included there are some interesting free podcasts of author talks which I really must add to my constant diet of audiobooks. (Thanks for the mention. I hope some of your readers slip across and see what we achieve with the ‘Gen’ Weeks).

  14. The best part of reading and blogging this year, for me, was all the the buddy-reads, read-alongs, and video chats I did with other bloggers. I became a “yes” person in 2020 when it came to reading, which upset the applecart on my reading plans, but in the best way possible.

    Re-reading your review of The Weekend makes me want to read it. I don’t think there are enough books about women and friendship, nor about elderly women.

    • I don’t do those specific things Melanie, but just the conversation with bloggers is special for me. I’d love to do a buddy-read or read along but I buck at them for fear of their becoming a pressure like homework. One day I might feel in a position to do so…

      I wonder what you’d make of The weekend… It’s not universally loved…. But I agree we need more books about these subjects.

        • Oh good, Melanie. That will be interesting to have your two generations reading it, and an American perspective as well. I won’t be hurt if you don’t like it – Bill didn’t as I recollect!

        • I remember having divided expectations when I read Too Much Lip; you liked it, Bill didn’t. I also wonder if it makes a difference that a lot of his reading is in audio format. I’m not sure if he read Too Much Lip or The Weekend as audio, but I know for me the text vs. audio version of books makes a massive difference.

  15. I wonder if some of the disappointment comes from a sense that you didn’t necessarily choose all of those books, even if you didn’t actually NOT want to read them, thinking of the publishers’ copies and bookgroup selections. I’ve had reading years where that was an issue and it felt much better to back off some of those commitments (and sometimes choose others instead, or not). This past year I read fewer Canadian books than previously; and I’m okay with that, I’m ever-more aware of other writers whose works I’ve never read and I’m curious. One stat we shared is an unexpected increase in women writers read; mine were up by 10% and I actually thought it was headed the other way (because I felt like I’d read more books by male authors…maybe they just stood out more somehow, like Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean, which was fantastic). Here’s to a less sorrow-soaked year for you. x

    • Thanks Buried. And yes, I think it’s the choosing. Less so with the reading group ones because they can inject some great surprises and/or several of my own suggestions get taken up which is great. I need though to balance the review copies a bit more if I can. As you say I tend to get ones I’m happy to read but some would be lower priority, and they’ve resulted in a narrowing of my reading. This had not been helped by having less time over the last couple of years which means they have occupied a bigger share of the pie.

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