Monday musings on Australian literature: The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables (2)

Two years ago, I wrote a post on The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables series, which was initiated in 2019 and aimed to highlight 12 new releases they deem “significant”. The series was supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea

I wondered at the end of my previous post whether the project would continue after the initial twelve. It seems that it did, at least until August 2020. By that time, they’d added 15 more works, but there were some changes. The initial project was about “highlighting significant new release Australian books”, but, pleasingly to me, later selections include older books like Randolph Stow’s The merry-go-round in the sea, published in 1965. This is because, from the 15th selection on, they changed tack to offer books “you’ve finally got time for”. That is, Unmissables went from “new releases” to books recommended by writers “for your lockdown”. 

With this, they also changed how the books were presented. In the original series, there were two articles per book, one on the book and one offering some additional resource – an extract from the book, or an interview with or essay by the author. From the 15th selection, there’s just one article, written by the recommender.

I’m chuffed that I’ve read several of this more broadly focused selection. And now, before I list the books, I’ll share Christos Tsiolkas’ comments on making a selection:

Should I choose a novel that I think under-appreciated and undervalued? Should I use positive discrimination in my choice? Should I choose the contemporary and au courant? Or should I be deliberately anti-fashion?

My being disconcerted speaks to the obsession with the “curated self” that we all now have in the digital age: every choice must be scrutinised for its moral and political purport. But in the end, I decided to trust my instincts. I had returned home from overseas in mid-March of this year and, knowing I was to enter a fortnight’s quarantine and then a subsequent period of quietude, I picked a handful of books off the shelves that I just had to read again. The only Australian book I chose in that initial cluster was Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea.

Now, the books …

(Listed alphabetically by author)

Book cover
  • Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (nonfiction) (1/4/2020) (my review) plus essay by Bridie Jabour applying Baird’s book to living through coronavirus. Little did she know in April 2020, how far we had to go!
  • Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang (novel) (3/8/2020) (read before blogging) recommended by Caro Llewellyn. Clearly a Carey fan, she says she read it knowing she “was in the presence of a writer walking along a knife’s edge of daring and audacity, my stomach churning at Australia’s cruel past”.
  • Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (novel)(24/7/2020) recommended by Briohny Doyle who says the story is easy to explain but its “nightmarish tension not so much”. However, she gives it a red hot go!
  • Chris Flynn’s Mammoth (novel) (24/4/2020) (my review) plus essay by Paul Daley who explains how this book about which he was doubtful got him hooked good and proper.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river (novel) (20/7/2020) (read before blogging) recommended by Stephanie Wood who says that “we hold our breath as we read, hoping for the happy, harmonious ending we know cannot come”.
  • Clive James’ Sentenced to life (poetry collection) (28/5/2020) recommended by Vicki Laveau Harvie who calls this slim volume “the poetic equivalent of the tiny, concentrated energy rations marathon runners take to keep going, when the end is not yet in sight”.
  • George Johnston’s A cartload of clay (novel) (6/7/2020) recommended by Paul Daley whose comments are included in my recent Unfinished books post.
  • Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon (novel) (10/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Carrie Tiffany, who opens her piece with “it is proof of a fine novel when its characters enter your spirit as you are reading and take up residence there”.
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (novel) (17/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Alice Pung, who supports this book with a passionate argument that ‘for those of us whose family survived genocide, slavery and stolen children (as mine did), this book is a triumph, brimming with love and wit”.
  • Frederic Manning’s The middle part of fortune (19/6/2020) (Lisa’s review) recommended by Jeff Sparrow who asks “Why hasn’t Anzackery’s ever-rising tide washed Frederic Manning and The Middle Parts of Fortune further up the Australian literary shore?”
  • Alice Pung’s Her father’s daughter (memoir) (27/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Melanie Cheng who discusses her choice, saying “escapism seemed facile”. She needed “a book that could speak to the existential emergency humanity was facing, but also offer a blueprint for how to get through it”.
  • Nevil Shute’s On the beach (novel) (21/5/2020) recommended by Chris Flynn who calls it “a dynamite isolation read”. A teen favourite of mine, it has dated I think, but is still a good apocalypse read.
  • Randolph Stow’s The merry-go-round in the sea (novel) (11/6/2020) (my review) recommended by Christos Tsiolkas. He appreciates that COVID-19 has provided “the opportunity for stillness”, and suggests Stow’s novel is perfect because “it unfolds at a composed, quiet pace”.
  • Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (novel) (4/6/2020) (my post) recommended by Tara June Winch, who provides excellent insight into how to approach this wild novel. She says “it will change you, as long as you have the guts to read all the way through”.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (collective biography)(13/7/2020) recommended by Tegan Bennett Daylight who summarises this Stella-winner as “a chorus of voices about one of the country’s most prominent Indigenous activists is a glorious kaleidoscope of testimony”
Alexis Wright, Tracker

I wish The Guardian provided more about this project. How did the funding get extended and why did it stop? Regardless, there’s good reading here, both the books and the articles about them.

Finally …

This is a simple post, but interesting I hope. I am currently in Melbourne where our second grandchild, a little girl this time, has just been born. She is Neve Jessie, named for my lovely Mum. I’m just so thrilled, and not entirely focused on blogging.

What would you have recommended, if asked?

25 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables (2)

  1. There’s a few there I would recommend against reading. But hooray for Alexis Wright. Carpentaria, The Swan Book and Tracker are works of genius.
    Hooray too for new grandchildren!

  2. Hi Sue, there is some very good reading, and varied reading in the list. Congratulations on the arrival of Neve Jessie – love the name. This week I welcomed my grandson to Melbourne. And, helped him establish himself in living near the Melbourne University, where he will study. They grow so quickly and are a delight..

      • It has been a hectic two weeks. He will be studying Science, and majoring in Computer Science at Melbourne Uni. He has settled in quite well, and has already started part time work. I am doing his washing at the moment; a good excuse for me to keep on seeing him.

  3. Congratulations on Neve Jessie, it’s lovely to have a wee girl in the family, especially as we had two boys, but one ‘boy’ and his wife gave us Isobel Skye 14 months ago, so I know exactly how you feel.

  4. Congratulations grandma!! Delightful news & I’m glad you were able to be in Melbourne for this time.
    I’ve been very distracted too lately, but just regular life stuff that seems harder to keep up with and still work full time!!

  5. Congratulations! Being a grandparent has so many responsibilities but the bookish ones are just plain fun!!!

    I love the idea of this series and how it changed from mainstays to “what else is there to do during a pandemic but read books we should have read already”. Heheh

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