Monday musings on Australian literature: Warm Winter Read

For several years now, Cathy of 746 books has been running a 20 Books of Summer challenge, which many Southern Hemisphere bloggers re-frame as “of Winter”. It’s a great initiative, and this year has over 120 participants. You go, Cathy! However, for something closer to home that’s geared to this winter, I thought I’d share with you Warm Winter Read. It is an initiative of Public Libraries Victoria, and I read about it on Angela Savage’s blog. Well-known as an author, Angela is also the CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.

As a retired librarian, I love checking out what libraries are doing – and when they encourage reading AND Australian authors and books, then I’m on side.

The program’s aim, Angela says, is “to encourage readers to develop a daily reading habit by tracking the days they read over June and July 2022”. It has been taken up by most of Victoria’s library services, and involves an app – the Beanstack app (here) – through which participants can log daily reading, take part in optional challenges and share book reviews. Apparently the optional challenges include things like, Angela writes, “read outside your home; read aloud to a pet, person or plant; and talk about what you’re reading in person or online”.

This is all great, but I’m mainly sharing it with you because the campaign has eight ambassadors, who are all “high-profile” Victorian authors. Each of these was asked to recommend four books to get readers started (although people can read any books). There are apparently bookmarks for each author, containing their recommendations.

The ambassadors are a diverse bunch (links on their names are to my posts on them) and so are their recommended books, which range across a wide variety of forms and genres, fiction and non-fiction. Their recommendations are:

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke: Maria Takolander’s Trigger warning; Claire G. Coleman’s Lies, damned lies; Alice Pung’s One hundred days; Ennis Cehić’s Sadvertising
  • Claire G Coleman: Omar Sakr’s Son of sin; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s How decent folk behave; Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s (ed), Unlimited futures; Evelyn Araluen’s Drop bear
  • Helen Garner: Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end; David Owen Kelly’s State of origin; Larissa Behrendt’s After story; Gabbie Stroud’s Teacher
  • Jane Harper: Sally Hepworth’s The younger wife; Karina Kilmore’s Where the truth lies; Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault; Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in my family has killed someone
  • Toni Jordan: Genevieve Novak’s No hard feelings; Emily Spurr’s A million things; R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys; Paddy O’Reilly’s Other people’s houses
  • Rebecca Lim: Amani Haydar’s The mother wound; Trent Jamieson’s Day boy; Cixin Liu’s The three-body problem; Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay
  • Jock Serong: Emma Viskic’s Those who perish; Robert Gott’s The orchard thieves; Emily Brugman’s The islands; Michael Winkler’s Grimmish
  • Christos Tsiolkas: Emily Bitto’s Wild abandon; Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl; Andy Jackson’s Music our bodies can’t hold; Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin

I have not heard of all these books, let alone read them, but I can see that the list offers something for most readers and should kickstart some thinking about what to read.

Different library services are promoting the program in different ways. Here are some: Goldfields Libraries; Hume Libraries; and Yarra Plenty Regional Library. BUT as I pottered around some of the sites, I also picked up other things that libraries are doing. For example, the Warrnambool Library advertises that it can help members access their vaccination certificates. What a great service for the less technologically proficient in our communities. I love how modern public libraries are comprehending and expressing their role as community information centres.

Also, in some communities, the local newspaper has got behind the program too. What about this one from the Shepparton News:

Come into your local library to check out a Warm Winter Read. You’ll find hot romances, spicy thrillers and toasty tales of fun and adventure. You can register and log your participation via the Beanstack website at www.plv.beanstack.orgor by downloading the Beanstack Tracker app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

For readers who prefer ‘old-school’, pick up a tracking sheet from your local library. Lots of challenges to keep the next few months interesting.

And here I will leave you. This is a pretty short and simple Monday Musings, partly because I have joined the growing number of bloggers who have contracted COVID-19. So, while I’m not very sick, thanks to being fully vaccinated, I’m also not wonderfully chipper and need now to go take a nap!

Meanwhile, here’s a job for you: what would you have recommended if you’d been asked to suggest four books for a program like this? (And if you’re not Aussie, you can choose non-Aussie books!)

Stephen Orr, Sincerely, Ethel Malley (#bookreview)

Like Lisa, I’m a Stephen Orr fan, but for some reason it took me forever to finish his latest book, Sincerely, Ethel Malley, partly I think because while its characters are engaging, it’s a novel that deserves concentration which I seem to have in shorter supply this year. This is not meant to discourage readers, because it’s a fascinating, and wryly humorous read that explores a range of issues, to do with art and society, against a backdrop of war-time 1940s Australia.

As those who know the story will have guessed, Orr’s novel takes as its starting point the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. To summarise Wikipedia, this hoax was perpetrated by two conservative writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who created modernist-style poetry in the name of a fictitious poet, Ern Malley. They wrote the poems using random words from various reference books and rhyming dictionaries, and, in 1943 sent them, in the name of Ern’s sister Ethel, to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, the journal of a modernist art and literary movement. This movement included some of the leading lights of the Heide art group, which was the inspiration for Emilly Bitto’s novel, The strays (my review). They were modern, confident, and prepared to tackle head on conservative Australia. It wasn’t long before the hoax was exposed, but that wasn’t the end of it, because Max Harris was then tried for publishing the poems, on the grounds of obscene content.

I have written about literary hoaxes earlier in this blog, and made some points about what hoaxes tell us. Among these are that they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Is a work, for example, somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the author isn’t who we believe s/he is? In other words, is the work the thing? These are some of the issues Orr explores in Sincerely, Ethel Malley.

The novel’s intent is also suggested by the four epigraphs, the first of which – with its own in-joke – is “ascribed” to Aeschylus. It suggests that Prometheus is the source of “every art possessed by man”, so, perhaps, why worry about anything but the art? Then there’s Frederick R. Ewing’s suggestion that the problem occurs from a misunderstanding over where “the truth left off and imagination began” – which, in a way, is the idea underpinning this book. The third comes from Max Harris arguing, essentially, against “playing god”. And finally, there’s Donald Crowhurst’s “it is the mercy”. I’ve never heard of Crowhurst but, according to Wikipedia, he was an amateur sailor who disappeared during a race. Wikipedia says that this statement, which he left behind “is obscure, [but] most commentators have accepted that it signifies his relief that, at last, he is leaving an unbearable situation”.

All this will tell you that Stephen Orr has big ideas in his sights. Fortunately for us, they are wrapped up in the engaging character of Ethel. She carries the novel. It starts in 1981, with her death, and then flashes back to 1943, which begins the main body of the novel and tells the story of Ern and his poems from Ethel’s (first-person) point-of-view. The novel’s last chapter returns to 1981, with Max hearing about Ethel’s death. Ethel (and Ern) are Sydney-based – which is where McAuley and Stewart were based – but most of the action takes place in Adelaide, where Max Harris was based.

In the 1970s, Adelaide was a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, but back in the 1940s it was a very different place. Orr is South Australian and captures the ambience of the place and time beautifully, as our Sydney-suburban housewife, Ethel, makes her way between the iconoclastic Max, the lively bookseller Mary Martin, and Adelaide’s conservative establishment.

I thoroughly enjoyed the explorations – many of them done with wit if not downright cheek – about truth and authenticity, about poetry not being meant to be understood but to be “interpreted”, and about the art versus the artist. It’s subversive in self-consciously confronting some of the things we say and think about art and literature. It tackles conservatism, our resistance to innovation – “Originality. If your writing’s worthwhile, most people will hate it”, Max tells Ethel. Early in the novel is a discussion within Harris’ theatre group about what play they will perform, one by Shaw or one by Cocteau. Most of the players argue that people won’t come to Cocteau, because they “want a story”. For boundary-pushing Max, “that’s their problem”. He wants to do something “modern” (hence, also, his interest in Ern). This dilemma is not confined to 1940s Adelaide, but is one arts communities grapple with constantly. What will audiences tolerate?

Orr’s skill is in presenting his “big” issues through “authentic”, engaging characters and strong narratives which draw us into their reality. Orr’s characters are always warm and authentic (even when fictionalising an already made-up person like Ethel) and his dialogue is so natural. The story of Ethel as she struggles to prove that Ern is real, and his poetry not obscene, is entertaining – particularly when people start questioning her existence too. It can get mind-bending some times, and quite rollicking other times, as Ethel flips between present and past, but it works.

All of this is in the service of issues Orr thinks are worth thinking about, but it’s the thinking and the questions that are, in the end, more important than the answers, with Ethel, of course, being our guide. Early on, she’s never heard of Sid Nolan, but by the end she can hold her own with the best of them as she struggles to defend herself, Ern and his art against those who question. It’s both heartfelt and funny.

There is a lot to this book, but fundamentally, I see it as being about conservatism. In addition to the whole modernist poetry debate, Orr makes pointed comments along the way about the press and academia, not to mention Australians themselves. Ethel tells Sid Nolan, she’s learnt that “Australians hate anyone who claims to be creative”. In Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Orr is teasing us, goading us even, into being open to new ways of seeing, just as Max Harris wanted to do in the 1940s – and he has done so with his usual skill combined with a good dose of fun.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well.

Stephen Orr
Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021
441pp.
ISBN: 9781743058084

Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.

Damon Galgut, The promise (#BookReview)

Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The promise, is one of those novels that grabbed me intellectually and emotionally from its opening pages. The plot, itself, is straighforward. It concerns a White South African family’s promise to give a house on their property to their Black maid, whom their grandfather had acquired “along with the land”. The narrative tracks just how hard it is for the family to honour this promise. What makes the novel a Booker-Prize winner is the quality of the writing and how Galgut uses his story to create a potted history of South African life and politics in the post-Apartheid decades.

The novel is set between 1986 and 2018, and centres on the family, and their farm outside Pretoria. The family comprises Ma, Pa, and their three children, Astrid, Anton and Amor. In the opening pages, the youngest family member, Amor, overhears her dying Jewish mother extract the aforementioned promise from her Afrikaner father to give the house to Salome. Amor wants this promise honoured but achieving it turns out to be much harder than she expected.

The promise was my reading group’s May read and, somewhat unusually for us, it was universally enjoyed. Our ex-South African member used words like sharp, clever, funny, vicious, and said that Galgut nails the South Africa she knew and had experienced.

“something out of true at its centre”

There is so much to say about this book, that it’s hard to know where to start, but the writing is an excellent place, because it truly carries the novel. Particularly effective is the slippery voice (or point-of-view) which shifts perspective and person, sometimes mid-sentence. The effect, among other things, is to implicate us readers in the narrative. It prevents us distancing ourselves from the choices, decisions and behaviours we see. Here, for example, we shift from third to first in a paragraph:

For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family  … We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

And here is a mid-sentence shift from third to second person:

But in truth he’s bored by this man, by his ordinary life and his ordinary wife, just as he’s bored by almost everything these days, all significance leaked away by now, and it doesn’t feel wrong to wait till he’s gone, then get up and wander out into the night, as if you’ve been drinking on your own. You probably have.

Alongside the voice is Galgut’s wordplay, his recognition of the power of words to clarify or obfuscate. Take the irony of the white family’s name, Swart, which means black. But it doesn’t stop there because it is also an archaic word for “baneful, malignant”. Take also the narrator’s frequent self-corrections that always nail home a point, like:

“So Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place.” (Which reminds us that the promise has not been enacted.)

“He no longer calls himself dominee, he’s a pastoor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” (Which tells us something about this man of the church’s real motivations.)

Then there’s the idea of promise itself. What a loaded word that is. While this is the story of a family, The promise is ultimately a political novel, so Galgut deftly plays with the idea of “promise” in more ways than one. The novel opens and closes with false promises, related to the historical realities of 1986 and 2018, as well as to the family’s inaction. It also teases us with the idea that the end of Apartheid would bring the promise of a new South Africa, but it shows that ideal foundering. The failure of the country to live up to its promise is paralleled in the character of Anton who, at the beginning of the novel, is “full of promise”, as he describes himself in his unfinished autobiographical novel, but who, by the end, admits that he has not lived up to it:

He’s still stunned by the simple realisation that’s just struck. It’s true, I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do … Not ever going to do much of anything.

(Note the slip from third to first to third person, here!) There are many failed promises in the novel, including a minister’s failure to keep a confession.

Other motifs threading through the novel include the four funerals in four different religions/belief systems that shape the narrative’s four parts, and the fact that the Swart’s family business is a (failing) Reptile Park. How telling is that! Just think of all the allusions.

The characters are another compelling aspect of the novel. As an epigraph-lover, I can’t resist sharing Galgut’s from Frederico Fellini:

This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’ With this metallic voice she continued, ‘Why is it that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’

What a hoot, and what a great epigraph choice. It immediately challenges us to consider what is “normal”, if such exists, and puts us on the alert about notions of normality. Galgut’s characters – even the minor ones like Lexington the driver (who “brings the Triumph to the front steps”), the homeless man (“as he keeps obsessively singing the first line to Blowin’ in the wind, let’s call him Bob”), and the various funeral workers – are carefully differentiated, and add depth to the picture being painted of a family and country in crisis. The irony is, I think, that each is disconcertingly normal – in their own way!

Early in the novel, the narrator describes the recently departed Ma’s spirit lingering around the house:

She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.

“Vague and adrift” perfectly describes Astrid, Anton and Amor, none of whom have it together. The “quiet and attentive” Amor, however, is at least empathetic, and therefore the most sympathetic. She constantly shows heart, but, having little power in the family, her solution is to disappear at every opportunity, and live a spartan life, working as a nurse among the most needy. Could she have done more sooner?, is the question worth asking.

So, what is the takeaway from this novel? My reading group was unanimous in feeling that the novel is underpinned by the idea that when one group has an unhealthy position of power over another, both are diminished, if not destroyed. It is to Galgut’s credit, however, that he explores this without didacticism. We are never told what to think. Instead, he presents his characters’ thoughts, actions and decisions, and leaves us to consider what it all means.

We are also given this:

No truthful answers without cold questions. And no knowledge without truth.

The wonder of this book is that such a strong and serious story can be so exciting to read.

Lisa also loved it.

Damon Galgut
The promise
Vintage, 2021
295pp.
ISBN: 9781473584464 (Kindle ed.)

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556

Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

“It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

“What do you see?” he asked.
The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
“What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
“Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
“No sir,” she said.

And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Vera
London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
319pp.
ISBN: 9781844082810

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australia’s favourite genres

A week or so ago I received an email from an organisation called Studying in Switzerland. Their main focus, as their name suggests, is helping students who want to study in Switzerland, but it seems that they also do some research of their own. A recent project was to identify the most popular book genres – in countries where data was available. 

Their methodology was to analyse Google search queries on genres from different countries, and the results are intriguing. I haven’t found much discussion of their analysis to know how others view the effectiveness of the methodology. Does it match up with borrowing or book-buying data? Or, is what we read different to what we research?

Study in Switzerland says that:

Books continue to be a significant part of our lives, with reading being a popular pastime for many people. Indeed, a typical person reads 12 to 13 novels each year, and how people choose what to read has long piqued the curiosity of researchers. As a result, book publishing has a huge market size worldwide, with revenue reaching $112.5 billion in 2022.

Anyhow, here is what came up for Australia – they identified that Australians search most for Adventure and Classics! Is this what you would have guessed? If I’d been asked, I would have thought Crime. Indeed, I probably would have said “Crime, hands down”. And, of course, as I questioned, what is searched may be different from what is actually read.

We are not the only country interested in Classics. This genre was also popular in Sweden, Hong Kong, USA, UK, Ireland and New Zealand.

Worldwide, they say, Romance, Classics and Poetry are the most searched for genres but, drilling down, there are some interesting preferences. Asians and Canadians, for example, had Poetry first, while overall Europeans (like the Russians, Poles and Finns) go for Fantasy, although some of them (like the French and Spanish) searched more or Romance! Not surprisingly, Belgians, the Dutch and the Norwegians seemed to prefer Crime and Thrillers.

Study in Switzerland makes some assumptions about the reasons for the various preferences they found. Those assumptions make some sense, but they are not based, I believe, on this research.

For their report, please check out this link.

Meanwhile …

There is other research to look at. Back in 2017, a survey conducted by the Australia Council and Macquarie University of Australians’ reading habits, found something closer to what I expected, which is that

The most popular fiction genre is crime/mystery/thriller, with 49% of Australians having read a book of that genre in the last 12 months … followed by historical fiction on 36%, contemporary/general fiction on 33%, science fiction/fantasy on 32%, and classics on 31%.

However, they also found that just over half (51%) of Australians were interested in “literary fiction”, which they described as fiction “eligible for prizes like the Man Booker and Miles Franklin”. They also found that it’s generally older readers who are most interested in this fiction. Interestingly, they found that these “older readers also tend to be more interested in work by Australian authors”.

I did report on this survey back in 2017, and posed some questions at the end. Some of these might have been answered by …

A report on bookselling published by ArtsHub in 2019 which confirmed Australians’ interest in “home-grown authors”. They found “a 30% jump in local authors featured in the top 25 fiction titles” over the previous two years. Further, bookseller and Book Club coordinator, Jennifer Stephens at Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, reported that “we are reading a lot of Australian women writers”. (Music to my ears, of course.)

Overall, this report, which drew on two years of Nielsen BookScan data, concluded:

Australian readers’ priorities and interests are evident: self-help and finance, a taste for home-grown writers, an eye for feminist writing, curiosity about sexuality and gender, a fascination with crime and mystery, and a deep need for First Nations perspectives.

I wonder if things have changed much since then, particularly given the pandemic? Either way, it’s interesting to ponder whether there is a significant difference between what we search for online and what we actually buy, or, whether, Study in Switzerland has identified a big swing in our interests over the pandemic?

Any thoughts?

Ida Vitale, Byobu (#BookReview)

Uruguayan writer Ida Vitale’s Byobu was my reading group’s second book of the year. Originally published in Spanish in 2018, with the English translation released in 2021, Byobu is Vitale’s first book of prose to be translated into English. Few, if any of us, had heard of her – and yet, this now 98-year-old woman was, in 2019, named by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women of the year. The things we don’t know!

Anyhow, Byobu is a curious book. It has no clear narrative, and only one character, the eponymous Byobu. It’s just 85 pages, and comprises 34 “chapters”. It is replete with allusions to a diverse range of writers, thinkers, musicians. In other words, it’s one of those books you can struggle with, if you don’t come up with a way of reading it. For me, this was to jettison preconceptions about what a novel is and go with the flow to see what fell out. And what fell out was a mind-opening, and sometimes witty, series of thoughts and observations about life and living. I can’t say I understood all of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience.

The best way I can encapsulate Byobu is to describe it as a sort of modern Everyman story, the story of an individual in a world that can be confusing, if not sometimes downright hostile. The overall theme seems to me to be: How do you live in this world?

Before I explore this more, some basics. Byobu is set in Uruguay, and although there’s no plot per se, there is some structure. (I’d probably find more structure had I time to read it a few times). The opening chapter introduces the idea of “story” – and clues us into the idea that we are going to be unsettled:

a story’s existence, even if not well defined or well assigned, even if only in its formative stage, just barely latent, emits vague but urgent emanations. (“A story”)

The next few chapters introduce us to Byobu, conveying a general sense of who he is. These are followed by chapters that consider bigger issues in contemporary life.

However, although we are introduced to Byobu, he remains somewhat shadowy. We don’t know how old he is, but one member of my reading group suggested he was old, like his author, and that he encompasses an old person’s thoughts about life. I can accept that. Regardless, besides not knowing how old he is, we don’t know whether he is (or has been) married, has a family, is working, and so on. A family home is mentioned, and there are references to daily activities including attending a conference. All this vagueness supports the idea of him as an Everyman (albeit, possibly, an old one!)

We do, though, learn some things about the sort of person Byobu is. He can be indecisive. He has “an intractable inclination to complicate things”, and hates change. He’s not a good storyteller, but he likes nature and enjoys minutiae. Unfortunately, though,

often distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important. (“On anodyne things”)

I found him very human and engaging, to the degree I could, given his shadowiness.

I fear though that I’m not selling the book, so I’ll try now to share some of its joys and intellect. I’ll start by talking a little about the style. Many of the “chapters”, and I put them in quotation marks because some are only a paragraph long, start with what you could call truisms, but they don’t read as cliches, like:

Everything important lies below the surface. (“Terrestrial labours”)

Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending. (“Knots”)

Byobu has heard it said that ‘every mile has its rough patch’. (“Epiphanies”)

Byobu is not always able to predict how the situations he gets involved in will end. (“Dangerous misunderstandings”)

How can you be sure that the avenue, boulevard, or ordinary road you’re facing is not actually a blind alley? (“Crossroads”)

Just look at that sentence, “Byobu concludes that he must begin by ending”. So terse, so clever. “Knots”, in fact, is one of those one-paragraph chapters. It concerns Byobu’s realisation that if he doesn’t end his “trepidations” and “tepid transactions”, if he doesn’t “lay limbos aside” and “ignore everything initiated by the iniquitous” – he will have to “accustom himself” to “the cage”. But, can he recreate himself?

“Crossroads” addresses another recurrent idea in the book, the importance of the imagination, of mystery, over the mundane. Opposing mystery and imagination are “straight lines” which also recur, starting in the second chapter, “Life is not a straight line”. In “Knots”, Byobu learns that straightness “lays snares” and in “Against the Argive Way”, he is aware that “The world loves conversations in straight lines and single-minded strides. Intersections divert. Labyrinths confound.”

A few chapters in, then, it dawned on me that Byobu was about more than a man muddling through life, that it’s a commentary on modern life. Byobu pleads for the imagination, for not going in straight lines. It critiques conformity, power and authority, commercialisation, urbanisation, inhumanity, and resistance to change. “Internal coherence” explores resisting social pressure. It is “immoral”, it suggests, to accept a world “governed by the boorish authorities who rule during these evil times we inhabit”. Yet, Vitale realises resistance is not easy, so her Byobu “resists on the inside, while staying quiet and feigning surrender”.

In the penultimate “chapter”, “Byobu and the traffic light”, traffic lights are a metaphor for “supervision and compliance”. Here “the defiant … recognise the bad example of a behaviour that is a silent hymn to obedience to all authority”. Vitale goes on to suggest that traffic lights should, in fact, “innervate the pedestrians” (who are “increasingly incongruent elements in the city”) to “assume their role as essential antagonists”. This chapter is a call to defy, to rebel.

Lest this all sound rather bleak, let me say there’s beauty here too. There are, for example, some lovely descriptions of nature:

In the garden, jasmines reign supreme. At night the star jasmine is a vertical Milky Way, delirious with aroma. (“Seasons”)

And, there is quite a bit of humour. Much is of the quiet, understated sort, but it made me laugh. “It’s true”, thinks Byobu, “there were three Wise Men; not quite a battalion” or “They’d better not count on him. He’s not an abacus”.

I hate leaving this book, but of course I must, so, I will leave you with two ideas. The first comes from one of the two epigraphs. Neither were translated, but the second is by Henri Michaux, and it roughly translates as “In case of danger, joke”! Joking is part of this book, but it is also deadly serious. Speaking of “story”, the opening chapter exhorts Byobu (our Everyman) not to “underestimate its flexible, disordered density”. And neither should we, because this novel has much to offer those willing to go with its flow.

Ida Vitale
Byobu
Translated from the Spanish by Sean Manning
Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021 (Orig. Pub. 2018)
85pp.
ISBN: 9781913867023

Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop (#BookReview)

My first reading group book of the year, Amy Witting’s Isobel on the way to the corner shop, nicely doubles as a (late) contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week. Winner of the 1993 Patrick White Award, Amy Witting is one of those much-admired Australian writers who had not then and still has not received the full recognition she deserves. In her lifetime (1918-2001), she was admired by Patrick White, himself, and Thea Astley. Australian poet Kenneth Slessor is recorded as having said “tell that women I’ll publish any word she writes”.

Another admirer, Australia critic Peter Craven, argued that her form of realism wasn’t really accepted by the reading public until Helen Garner appeared on the scene, but for him “Witting was a great master of realism, a naturalist who could render a nuance in a line that might take a lesser writer a page”. Take for example this two sentence paragraph from our socially unconfident protagonist early in the novel:

The prison of other people’s eyes. No prison narrower.

So now, the book. Isobel on the way to the corner shop (1999) picks up the story of Isobel Callaghan that Witting had started in I for Isobel ten years earlier. You don’t need to have read the earlier book to enjoy and appreciate this one, because enough of Isobel’s past is given for us to have a sense of why she is the person we meet here.

“I have to step out into space”

The person we meet is a 21-year-old woman who, having received some encouragement from an editor, is struggling to establish herself as a writer. She’s poor, starving and isolated, having left her job after screaming at a colleague in “a rage”. She fears she’s going mad. I was engaged from the start by her strong sense of self, her vulnerability, and her determination to be independent, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. I felt anxious as anxious as she did when she felt she was going mad, and just as relieved as she was when her illness was given a name – tuberculosis.

The first third of the novel introduces Isobel and takes us to the moment of her admission into Mornington Sanatorium in the Blue Mountains. In this section, some of the novel’s themes become apparent – one being the artist’s struggle to survive. Another concerns love. The novel starts with Isobel stalled over writing a love scene, because she doesn’t “know the first thing about it”. Not about parental, family love; not about romantic love. This, and her sense of herself as awkward and unlovable, cause her to make a big – and hurtful – mistake when a young man makes a gesture of real affection towards her.

Over the rest of this section of the novel, Isobel meets some people who show genuine kindness – love – towards her. Although the hospital makes her feel like a “parcel”, the section closes with a comforting touch from hospital volunteer Mrs Delaney, “the first time anyone had touched her in kindness”. Through the remainder of the novel, Isobel observes and experiences all sorts of expressions of love (and its opposite), including through a delightful little poetry discussion group at the sanatorium, which starts when Doctor Wang asks Isobel to explain Gerard Manley Hopkins to him.

In the final two-thirds of the novel, another theme that was nascent at the beginning, comes to the fore, and it’s to do with “being oneself”. Isobel’s sense of self is challenged at the sanatorium. It’s an inspired setting because it encompasses a microcosm of society: patients of a disease that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, their visitors, and the doctors, nurses and other staff with whom the patients come in contact. Finding your place in such a world, where you can be stuck for months, is not easy.

Isobel is particularly tested by her room-mate Val, a peevish, inflexible, and, she thinks, illiterate woman. Val is unhappy, and like many unhappy people, is self-absorbed. She “felt for no-one”. Try as she might, Isobel cannot get their relationship onto a comfortable footing:

Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself.

Maintaining your self is difficult, though, when you are “different”, as our funny, resourceful, and compassionate Isobel clearly is. At one point, when her recovery is threatened, she realises that she must be tougher, and so creates a new mantra for herself, “bastards get better”.

There is, surely, a hint of autobiography here, for Amy Witting’s name is a pseudonym, chosen to remind herself to “never give up on consciousness’, not be unwitting, but to always remain ‘witting'”.

Gradually Isobel does get better, physically and emotionally. She discovers, for example, that people from her old workplace cared deeply about her:

I have to live as if…I have to assume that I have some importance to other people. I have to live accordingly. I have to step out into space.

With this comes debts and responsibilities, something new for her to accommodate.

Peter Craven described Witting’s work as “a form of realism”, and “realism” sounds valid to me. The novel contains minimal drama of the narrative-arc kind. Instead, there’s astute, warm and sometimes wry, observation of ordinary people living their lives. Witting looks into the hearts and minds of human beings to understand who we are, and how we get on together with all our differences. She also offers some subtle social commentary about gender, race, poverty, class. These are not the main game, but they inform the realism inherent in the setting.

Ultimately, Isobel on the way to the corner shop is about how a young artist learns to maintain her integrity, her authenticity, while also behaving responsibly and compassionately. It is, in a way, about growing up, but it encompasses far more too.

Amy Witting
Isobel on the way to the corner shop
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 1999)
311 pp.
ISBN: 9781922182715

Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

Reading highlights for 2021

Regulars know that my annual Reading Highlights post is my version of a Top Reads post. It’s my way of sharing highlights from my reading year without actually ranking books or nominating a “best” which I just can’t do.

I don’t, as I say each year, set reading goals, but my “rules of thumb” include trying to reduce the TBR pile, increasing my reading of Indigenous authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. This year was another difficult one – of which COVID-19 was only a part. Consequently, once again, I didn’t make great inroads into these … but there were highlights.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, were, for the same obvious reasons as last year, mostly online – except that I seemed to attend fewer than last year. I don’t think it was that I was Zoomed-out so much as that times just didn’t seem to suit. However, those I attended were excellent:

  • Sydney Writers Festival: Live and Local: Many online festivals – some solely online, and some hybrid – were offered over the year, but I only attended a couple of sessions from the now well-established Sydney Writers Festival streamed series: one featuring Sarah Krasnostein in conversation with Maria Tumarkin, and the other Richard Flanagan with Laura Tingle.
  • F*ck Covid: An online literary affair: This event, organised by the ACT Writers Centre, was a mini-festival. It comprised two sessions, both convened by Nigel Featherstone: one featured established authors (Irma Gold and Mark Brandi) and the other, emerging authors (Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees). It was a most enjoyable and enlightening afternoon.
  • Stella: The Stella Prize is coming up for its 10th year – can you believe it – so they put on a little online celebratory event, Stella … 10 Years. It featured three previous winning or short-listed authors – Carrie Tiffany, Emily Bitto and Claire G. Coleman. It was brief, but I liked that the questions were a little different to the usual ones you get at a book launch.
  • Author interviews/book launches: With COVID-19 abounding, there weren’t many in-person book launches, but we did get to a couple: Irma Gold’s debut novel The breaking, and Omar Musa’s gorgeous book, Killernova.

Reading highlights

What follows here are highlights based on what I love about – or in my – reading.

So, I love …

  • reading First Nations Australian authors: Each year I try to ensure my reading diet includes First Nations authors, and this year I read quite a variety: Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson’s Cooee mittigar (picture book), Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler’s Black cockatoo (children’s/YA novel), Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (novel), Adam Thompson’s Born into this (short story collection), Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me and Cindy Solonec’s Debesa (memoirs).
  • it when my reading connects in some way: This year, for example, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer and Alison Croggon’s Monsters, both referenced the idea of living with uncertainty in a way that made me stop and think, but more interesting was the link between Krasnostein’s nonfiction book on believers and Helen Meany’s novelistic exploration of belief, truth and authenticity in Every day is Gertie Day.
  • reading essays: I read many this year, including three by George Orwell, as well as essay collections, like The best Australian science writing 2020, which is always a stimulating read.
  • Australian novels that address contemporary life and issues: Favourites this year include Irma Gold’s The breaking, Malcolm Knox’s satirical Bluebird, Helen Meany’s above named novel. Interestingly, there were not so many climate change dystopias in my reading this year.
  • reading short stories: I read some engaging collections this year, including one from Mumbai authorJayant Kaikini (No presents please) and some debut Australian collections, Marian Matta’s Life, bound, Margaret Hickey’s Rural dreams and First Nation’s Adam Thompson’s collection.
  • coming across writing that stray from the mould: I didn’t have any talking foetuses, skeletons or fossils, this year, but I did read a second-person book, Tsitisi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, which movingly captured its protagonist’s uncertainty. I also read Bernadine Evaristo’s syntactically different Girl, woman, other which looked off-putting with its almost completely absent punctuation but which, in fact, flowed beautifully. Loved it.
  • reading writers on other writers: I read some excellent commentary by writers on other writers this year: two books from the Writers on Writers series (Jensen’s warm but informative tribute to Kate Jennings and Stan Grant’s honest discussion of Thomas Keneally), and three essays from Belinda Castles’ Reading like an Australian writer.
  • reducing the “dreaded” TBR (which I define as books waiting for more than 12 months): I started off the year with a bang, reading four worth-waiting-for books in the first four months – Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl, Elizabeth Harrower’s The long prospect, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur – but I then fell in a heap. The result is that my TBR grew significantly over the year. Wah!
  • rereading loved books: I rarely find the opportunity to reread, but this year, I actually managed a few. There were classics by Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, but the one I want to highlight is Sara Dowse’s West Block. I’d been wanting to re-read it for some time, and was not disappointed as I loved reacquainting myself with its original approach and still-relevant content.

And then there were the little misses!

  • The one that got away: I was astonished to discover, when writing my Reading Group favourites post, that I had missed reviewing our first book of the year, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I realised why – the meeting was a week after my Dad died – but I can’t believe that I wasn’t even aware that I hadn’t reviewed it. Such is the discombobulation wrought by grief.
  • The one I started but have not (yet) finished: I started reading Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella winner, See what you made me do, on my Kindle, very early in the year. It’s a good read, but I only read it when I’m out and about about, and there’s been less out-and-abouting this year, meaning that at the end of the year, it remains unfinished.

These are just some of 2021’s highlights. I wish I could name them all.

Some stats …

As for actual stats, I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences and like to keep an eye on what I’m doing to keep me honest to myself! So, how did I go?

I like …

  • to read fiction most: 62% of my reading was fiction (short stories and novels) which is less than recent years, albeit only just less than last year’s 63%. Around 75% is my rule of thumb, plucked out of thin air I admit, but, the fact is, there’s some great non-fiction around so, well, I read a bit more of it this year!
  • to give precedence to women: 65% of the works I read this year were by women which is better than last year’s aberrant 80%, and more like what I think is a fair thing! This includes collaborations with male writers and editors.
  • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 27% of this year’s reading was NOT by Australian writers, which is close enough to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
  • to read older books: 25% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than last year, and closer to the longer-term average of around 30%. I will try to lift this a bit more.
  • to support new releases: 25% of this year’s reads were published in 2021, which is similar to last year. I think this is fair!

Overall, it was a great reading year in terms of quality reads, but not so great in terms of quantity. As in 2020, my personal circumstances, in addition to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, meant I did less self-directed reading than I would have liked and that was a bit frustrating. Here’s hoping for a better 2022, for all of us.

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be both thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

I wish you all an excellent 2022, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

What were your 2021 reading or literary highlights?