Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2021, Part 2: Nonfiction and Poetry

Last week, as most of you will know, I shared the favourite Aussie fiction books named by writers in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Books we loved in 2021 and ABR’s Books of the Year 2021. This week, as promised, I’m sharing the nonfiction and poetry favourites. Again, I’m only including Australian titles (as this is a Monday Musings post). It’s a much longer and more varied list than last week’s.

Nonfiction

Nonfiction picks tend to speak to the professional interests of their nominators – historians, for example, tend to choose histories, while literary critics might range across essays and literary biographies, and social commentators tend to like other analyses of contemporary life and behaviour. The result is a rich, and tempting, list.

Despite this variety, a few books were picked multiple times, like Bernadette Brennan’s biography of Gillian Mears, Leaping into waterfalls, and Delia Falconer’s essay collection, Signs and wonders. Political biographies/analyses are usually popular and so it is here with Gideon Haigh’s The brilliant boy: Doc Evatt and the great Australian dissent and Sean Kelly’s Sean Kelly’s The game: A portrait of Scott Morrison.

A few other titles appeared more than once, including a couple on my TBR, but one stood out because it was new to me and sounds different: Anwen Crawford’s No document.

As for the most popular form of nonfiction favourited this year, you could probably say that the memoirs have it.

  • Ruth Balint’s Destination elsewhere: Displaced persons and their quest to leave postwar Europe (history): (Sheila Fitzpatrick)
  • Clem Bastow’s Late bloomer: How an autism diagnosis changed my life (memoir): “frank and fearless” (Graeme Simsion); “astute and illuminating” (Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen)
  • Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay: Top blokes (essay): “hilarious and incredibly illuminating explanation of how identity politics shapes actual politics” (Bri Lee)
  • Lech Blaine’s Car Crash (memoir): “deeply moving” (Bri Lee) 
  • Bernadette Brennan’s Leaping into waterfalls (biography): “verve and sensitivity … intimate and often unsettling” (Caroline Baum); “a skilful, unforgettable distillation of a writer’s creative imagination” (Mark McKenna); “scholarly, passionate, readable” (Don Anderson); “The book I never wanted to end” (Zora Simic); “an exceptional work” (Brenda Walker)
  • David Brophy’s China panic: Australia’s alternative to paranoia and pandering (nonfiction): “some uncommon common sense on Australia’s current hyped-up alarm” (Sheila Fitzpatrick)
  • Edmund Campion’s Then and now: Australian Catholic experiences (essays, theology): “humane, literate, hospitable, engaging essays” (Don Anderson)  
  • Anwen Crawford’s No document (book-length essay): “superb … resonant power, about grief, politics, ephemerality and art” (Lucy Treloar); “sophisticated, moving lament” (Bernadette Brennan); “a striking collage-like essay written in a spirit of lucid grief and righteous anger” (James Ley); “so beguiling I read it twice” (Zora Simic); (Declan Fry) (Lisa’s review)
  • Emma Do and Kim Lam’s Working from home (may ở nhà) (social commentary): “this book!” (Declan Fry)
  • Delia Falconer’s Signs and wonders (essays): “both solace and alarm as she renders the impact of living in the anthropocene” (Anna Funder); “exquisite writing that swerves with heartbreaking facts, into hidden realms of our broken world, luminous with humanity” (Robert Adamson); “illuminating book on the climate crisis ” (Brenda Walker); “captures the fragility and incredulity of living at a tipping point of earthly life” (Tom Griffiths) (Lisa’s review)
  • Fiona Foley’s Biting the clouds (history): (Anita Heiss)
  • Helen Garner’s How to end a story (diaries):”reads like a thriller, gripping us in the quotidian, real-time horror of her unravelling marriage” (Clare Wright); “the taut shape of a fine novel” (Brenda Walker); “the most formidable book of excerpts from the diaries so far” (Peter Craven) (on my TBR)
  • Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson’s Larrimah (nonfiction): “strange and extraordinary” (Craig Silvey)
  • Stan Grant’s With the falling of the dusk (memoir/politics): “an insightful analysis of a world unravelling since the 1990s” (Andrew West)
  • Bella Green’s Happy endings (memoir): “astute and illuminating” (Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen)
  • Gideon Haigh’s The brilliant boy: Doc Evatt and the great Australian dissent (history): “concerns H.V. Evatt’s compassion as a High Court judge in a negligence case” (Judith Brett); “exemplary in its forensic analysis and sympathetic treatment of a brilliant man” (Jacqueline Kent); “a fascinating and moving story of callousness, compassion, and creativity” (Frank Bongiorno)
  • Amani Haydar’s The mother wound (memoir): “poetic rumination on the false binaries between “public” and “private” violence, and modern Australia” (Bri Lee); “narrated with unsentimental intelligence” (Bernadette Brennan); “powerful” (Zora Simic); “astute and illuminating” (Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen)
  • Veronica Heritage-Gorrie’s Black and blue (memoir): “an eye-opening and heartbreaking examination of how messed-up policing is in Australia” (Bri Lee); “powerful” (Zora Simic)
  • Jennifer Higgie’s The mirror and the palette (feminism): “spellbinding update of Germaine Greer’s and Linda Nochlin’s seminal feminist research” (A. Frances Johnson)
  • Kate Holden’s The winter road: A story of legacy, land and a killing at Croppa Creek (true crime/terrorism): “powerful environmental parable … brilliant, sensitive” (Tom Griffiths)
  • Eleanor Hogan’s Into the loneliness (biography): “the delicately handled story of the friendship between writers Ernestine Hill and Daisy Bates … a complex and moving book” (Delia Falconer)
  • Sarah Holland-Batt’s  Fishing for lightning: The spark of poetry (essays): “luminous” (Mindy Gill)
  • Terri Janke’s True tracks (nonfiction): (Anita Heiss)
  • Evelyn Juers’ The dancer: A biography for Philippa Cullen (biography): “richly researched cultural history” (Georgie Williamson) (Lisa’s review)
  • Sean Kelly’s The game: A portrait of Scott Morrison (political profile): “outstanding for the subtlety of its psychological insights, weighing of evidence, and the breadth of reading” (Mark McKenna); “illuminating psychological exposé of Scott Morrison … grim but essential reading” (Peter Rose); “the best thing I have read on our current prime minister … full of insights and ideas” (Judith Brett); “deserves to become a political classic” (Frank Bongiorno)
  • Krissy Kneen’s The three burials of Lotty Kneen (memoir): “fascinating and powerful” (Favel Parrett); (Anita Heiss)
  • Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer (nonfiction): “the nutty given dignity by her sharp, empathetic eye” (Jock Serong) (my review)
  • Janet McCalman’s Vandemonians: The repressed history of colonial Victoria (history): “her trademark approach: take the local and specific and use them to illuminate a whole stratum of life” (Glyn Davis) (Lisa’s review)
  • Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru (history): “profoundly moving” (Jock Serong); “a powerful microhistory and meditation on frontier violence and its legacies” (Frank Bongiorno); “metaphysical true crime story … may it change hearts and mind” (Geordie Williamson); “challenge[s] Australians with the responsibility of truth-telling” (Tom Griffiths) (on my TBR) (Janine’s review)
  • Sylvia Martin’s Sky swimming (memoir): “intimate, generous, written with modesty and great empathy … a gem of a book from the heart of a deeply intelligent writer” (Alex Miller)
  • Fiona Murphy’s The shape of sound (memoir): “deft explorations of disability and self-discovery” (Fiona Wright)
  • Cassandra Pybus’ Truganini (biography): “essential reading for understanding Tasmania” (Jock Serong) (Janine’s review)
  • Stephanie Radok’s Becoming a bird (essays): “an unassuming gem of a book” (Michelle de Kretser); “a marvellous book about the freedom of the mind to take wing” (Nicholas Jose) (Lisa’s review).
  • Yves Rees’ All about Yves: Notes on a transition (memoir): “a new and important critical voice” (Clare Wright)
  • Henry Reynolds’s Truth-telling: History, sovereignty and the Uluru Statement (history): “challenge[s] Australians with the responsibility of truth-telling” (Tom Griffiths) (Janine’s review)
  • Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan’s (ed.) Life As Art: The biographical writing of Hazel Rowley (essays): “vibrant collection of essays” (Brenda Niall)
  • Chelsea Watego’s Another day in the colony (memoir): “you should read” (Declan Fry)
  • David Williamson’s Home truths: A memoir (memoir): “big book for a big life” (Don Anderson)
  • Michael Winkler’s Grimmish (experimental nonfiction): “a brilliant experimental stroll through pain, boxing and sweary goats” (Jock Serong): “a feral, unpinnable creature” (Beejay Wilcox)
  • Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Emmalene Richards’ Mangiri Yarda (Healthy Country): Barngarla wellbeing and nature (language/culture): “an inspirational examination of the …. benefits of language revival and the profound importance of reawakening languages” (Alice Nelson)

Poetry

  • Eunice Andrada’s Take care: “thank you for your care” (Declan Fry)
  • Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear: “with subtlety and an occasional razor” (Tony Birch); “discourse-altering” (John Kinsella); “showed us where it’s at!” (Declan Fry) (Brona’s review)
  • Eileen Chong’s A thousand crimson blooms: “piercing reflections on memory and loss” (Lucy Treloar): “a nuanced, tender volume of deceptively complex and disarmingly emotive verse that is at once deeply personal and universal” (Maxine Beneba Clarke) (Jonathan’s review)
  • Jelena Dinic’s In the room with the she wolf: “an understated wonder, a journey from war to peace, and from one poetic tradition to another” (Peter Goldsworthy)
  • Toby Fitch’s Sydney spleen: “existential linguistic meltdown” (John Kinsella) (Jonathan’s review)
  • JS Harry’s New and selected poems (posthumous): “imaginative genius” (Robert Adamson)
  • John Hawke’s Whirlwind duststorm: “innovative, intelligently creative, almost fearless” (Jennifer Harrison)
  • A. Frances Johnson’s Save as: “some of the most moving confessional and elegiac poems you’ll read anywhere” (Gregory Day)
  • Bella Li’s Theory of colours (poetry/art): “gloriously disquieting combo of image and text” (Declan Fry)
  • Kate Llewellyn’s Harbour: “more meditative book overall, a safer haven, but she is still plenty naughty” (Peter Goldsworthy)
  • Mal McKimmie’s At the foot of the mountain: “innovative, intelligently creative, almost fearless” (Jennifer Harrison)
  • Caitlin Maling’s Fish work: “has the terseness of an Anthropocene novella” (Tony Hughes-d’Aeth)
  • Jazz Money’s How to make a basket: “tender and sharp, clear-eyed and lyrical” (Jennifer Down); “a powerful and accomplished debut” (Maxine Beneba Clarke)
  • Omar Musa’s Killernova (woodcuts/poetry): “a unique hybrid creature – a beautifully designed, stunning combination of woodcuts and poetry” (Maxine Beneba Clarke) (my post on the launch)
  • Pi O’s Heide: “staggering in its audacity, and an intoxicating thrill to read. It is history as ode, and a bold vindication of art … also wickedly funny and heretical” (Christos Tsiolkas)
  • Elfie Shiosaki’s Homecoming: “exquisite hybrid work” (Tony Hughes-d’Aeth)
  • Emily Sun’s  Vociferate | 詠: “cultural-presumption-shredding” (John Kinsella); “bristling with spiky maternal reclamations and intercultural electricity” (Tony Hughes-d’Aeth)
  • Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning: “confronting and sculpted” (John Kinsella); “some of the most moving confessional and elegiac poems you’ll read anywhere” (Gregory Day)
  • Lucy Van’s The open: “read it with an increasing sense of excitement” (Declan Fry)

As I said last week, the lists will come thick and fast over the next month, but I’d be interested in any thoughts you have on these, particularly if you like nonfiction and poetry.

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Favourite books 2021, Part 2: Nonfiction and Poetry

  1. Some excellent looking nonfic there but as usual hard to get hold of here (The Shape of Sounds only on fairly expensive ebook, Mangiri Yarda not at all). An exhaustive and wonderful list with something for everyone (who can get hold of them!).

  2. Have only just recalled that Delia Falconer, too, was associated with the postgrad cert I did ar UTS in 2012-14: seems that UTS is a hotbed of non-fiction writers and teachers ! And to think I enrolled there because it’s at the end of a street a block away from where I lived, and I walked there and back ..

  3. Thanks for the mentions… there’s one you missed, The Dancer by Evelyn Juers. This is, I think, a book that you will love because you’re interested in dance, and I hope someone gives it to you for Xmas or a birthday. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/11/30/the-dancer-a-biography-for-philippa-cullen-by-evelyn-juers/).
    Oh yes, and I reviewed No Document too: https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/05/23/no-document-by-anwen-crawford/
    I have The Brilliant Boy: on the TBR, but there’s also a couple there that I borrowed from the library and took back unread. Obviously not because there is anything wrong with the books, just not my kind of books.

  4. I don’t do NF or Poetry – have I said that before – but I just scraped into your NF list, bought Another Day in the Colony for myself when I was out xmas shopping yesterday.

    • Woo hoo, Bill … there are always exceptions aren’t there. I “do” a little more nonfiction than you do, but it’s not my first love. Weirdly though, as I get older, more of me is drawn sometimes to nonfiction, before I once again am pulled back to that original reading love!

      BTW Not doing NF is interesting in a person who loves their F to be factual!! (if you know what I mean)

  5. Hi Sue, I have read nine of the non fiction, and for me Leaping into Waterfalls, was the best; but I am still to read Helen Garner’s Ending of the Story. I have read only two of the poetry books listed – Eileen Chong’s A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which was good. I loved Pi O’s Heide, so differnt and so fascinaing. After I read It, I went and bought a copy.

      • I’m with Meg, Leaping into Waterfalls is extraordinary. I believe it’s a bio that you would get a lot of too Sue. I hope/plan to finally write my review for it after Christmas.

        Many of the poets on this list are on my radar, with Musa and Chong at the top of the wish list. Jazz Money has piqued my curiosity too.

        • Haha Brona. Just think of all the links I’d have sent your way if you’d read it! I’ve been meaning to read Chong for a while, and of course I do mean to read Musa.

  6. I’m just reading Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes Quarterly Essay now Sue, he is an exellent writer and I’ve put his book Car Crash on reserve at the library. I think that’s all I’ve read on your list! Looks to be a quietish Christmas with Omicron around, so perhaps I’ll get to read a few more!

    • Thanks Sue. I used to read Quarterly Essays more often. I stopped subscribing to all journals because I couldn’t keep up. I might check this one out though, so thanks for the heads up. Omicron is a bit of a worry isn’t it?

      • Yes, I wish I knew more about the reasons people need hospitalization because of it Sue – age, co-morbidities etc. About two-thirds of people here seem to be wearing masks indoors thank goodness (I certainly am). I don’t get a booster until February so I feel a tad anxious about it all, due to having the Astra Zeneca. How are things in the ACT?

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