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.
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:
- 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).
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!
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?