Monday musings on Australian literature: Summer picks 2020

For a few years now, I’ve shared ABC book journalists’ top Aussie reads of the year, but this year I’m doing something a little different. I’m sharing picks from three different sources. Most of these include non-Australian books, but I like to share them in a Monday Musings post and focus on the Aussie books among them. So, here goes.

Readings bookshop

Book cover

Readings staff actually shared their favourite Australian books of the year, which is really great of them so they get first billing here. Their list is called “the best Aussie fiction books of 2020” but in fact the text describes the list as their “favourite” books, which puts a different, and better, slant on it I think.

Here’s their list, reorganised into alphabetical order. I don’t know whether their order was by popularity vote, but alphabetical is easier for people to look for their favourites…

  • Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate
  • Kate Grenville’s A room made of leaves
  • Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country
  • Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault
  • Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile
  • Elizabeth Tan’s Smart ovens for lonely people
  • Jessie Tu A lonely girl is a dangerous thing
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words

I like this selection because, although I’ve not yet read one of them, I have given some as gifts during the year, and I have a couple on my current TBR. Whether I’ll get to them in summer is another thing, but I will get to some …

ABC RN’s Bookshow and The Book Shelf presenters

Book cover

Claire Nichols, Sarah L’Estrange, Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh put together a list they call “The best books of 2020 for your summer reading list”. It includes books from around the world, but, as I explained above, I’m just going to share their Aussie picks, which are but few!

  • Erin Hortle’s The octopus and I
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country, which Kate Evans describes as “Surprising and surprisingly-convincing characters, and a well-realised, inventive premise”.
  • Jessica Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing, of which Claire Nichols says “the passion and the obsession drips off the page”
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words, of which Sarah L’Estrange says, “For lovers of language and the power of words, this story has everything you want”.

Interesting that three of the four here also featured in Readings’ list. Are these the books we are likely to see on awards long and shortlists next year? Interesting too that all are women writers (as were the selectors. I can live with that!)

ANU English Department picks

Book cover

Now this list – on the ANU website, but shared with me by retired University Librarian Colin Steele (thankyou Colin) – is an unusual one, partly because it has very few contemporary (or any other) Australian books. The Aussies are:

  • Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, her biography of Elizabeth von Arnim, though, weirdly, the description doesn’t mention that at all. It just says “a literary sensation of the early twentieth century weaves a wonderful tale of love, pleasure, gratitude and survival that is written beautifully, perfect for the history buffs and women’s literature lovers among us”. Why not mention the name of the “literary sensation” or that it’s a “biography”? It could sound like a novel?
  • Sarah Hopkins’ The subjects, which is on the Small Press Network’s Book of the Year shortlist, is described as “a gripping read, which follows a gifted teenage delinquent down an uncertain path”
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come, which came out a couple of years ago now, is described as “a wickely [sic] funny novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations”.

On lists …

When is a list not a list? Regular readers here know that I don’t tend to produce my own annual “best of” or “top reads” lists. I prefer to write a Reading Highlights post (which I will do again in early January for 2020). In this post, I don’t rank books or even talk about best books. Instead, I talk about the books and events that made my reading year worthwhile – and, already, I know I will have some interesting trends to comment on for this year. It is, though, still a list, I suppose! Just a very loose, porous one.

For a thoughtful piece on lists, you might like to check out an article written by one of my 2019 New Territorians, Rosalind Moran. Titled “Against best-of lists” it’s available at Overland Literary Journal. While much of it covers thoughts I’ve had myself, it’s beautifully and clearly expressed – and it did give me some additional points to ponder! (Thanks for Lisa for the heads-up).

What do you think about lists? Are some useful, despite their failings? Or, would you prefer to eschew them altogether?

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC Bookshelf’s top Aussie reads 2019

The usual end of year listmania has begun, and I also like to join in, but with a focus on Aussie book lists. This year, I’m starting with the Aussie books subset of the books recommended on ABC’s Bookshelf program. Recommenders, in addition to the show’s presenters, Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough, were Stephen Romei, Literary Editor of The Australian; David Gaunt, independent bookseller of Sydney’s Gleebooks; and Michaela Kalowski, interviewer and moderator for writers and ideas festivals and local libraries. To see the full list of books they recommended, check out their page or, even better, listen to the program (accessible on that page). Do listen to the program if you have time, as they discuss issues like books that are hard to sell (and why) and liking (or not) books that are grim or too close to the bone.

Books from around the world were mentioned, but of course there was an emphasis on Aussie books, and that’s what I’m focusing on here. I like that this list roams across genre (including historical fiction, crime and sci-fi/fantasy) and to some degree across time (including books not out until next year. That’s prescient of them!)

Here are the Aussie books mentioned, separated into fiction and nonfiction, and ordered alphabetically by author.

Fiction (and poetry)

  • J.M. Coetzee, The death of Jesus: novel, coming in May 2020
  • Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe: novel, my review (Also recommended was Dalton’s second novel, All our shimmering skies, coming in June 2020.)
  • Garry Disher, Peace: crime fiction
  • Lexi Freiman, Inappropriation: novel
  • Chris Hammer, The Martin Scarsden seriescrime fiction series
  • Kathryn Hind, Hitch: novel
  • Toni Jordan, The fragments: historical fiction, Lisa’s review
  • Leah Kaminsky, The hollow bones: novel, Theresa’s review
  • Paul Kane, A passing bell: Ghazals for Tina: poetry (by an American poet who spends half his time in Australia)
  • Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Aurora rising: YA sci-fi/fantasy novel
  • Melissa Lucashenko, Too much lip: novel, 2019 Miles Franklin Award winner, my review
  • Roslyn McFarland, All the lives we’ve lived: novel
  • Adrian McKinty, The chain, of The Sean Duffy series (Irish really, but lives – or has lived – in Australia, and has won the Ned Kelly Award more than once): crime fiction
  • David Malouf, Ransom: novel, my review
  • Heather Rose, Bruny: novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s and Bill’s reviews
  • Dominic Smith, The electric hotel: novel, Australian-born but now US-based, my review
  • Ilka Tampke, Songwoman: novel, 2019 MUBA winner, Lisa’s review
  • Peter Temple, works: crime fiction, my review of Truth, his 2010 Miles Franklin Award winner
  • Lucy Treloar, Wolfe Island: novel, Lisa’s review
  • Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus: historical fiction, on my TBR
  • Rohan Wilson, Daughter of bad times: speculative fiction, Lisa’s review
  • Rohan Wilson, The roving party: historical fiction, winner of NSW Premier’s Literary prize, Lisa’s review
  • Tara June Winch, The Yield: novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s review
  • Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things: novel, 2016 Stella Prize winner, my review
  • Charlotte Wood, The weekend : novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s review

Nonfiction

  • Meera Atkinson, Traumata: creative nonfiction/part memoir
  • Trent Dalton, By sea and stars: nonfiction
  • Helen Garner, Yellow notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1987: non-fiction, on my TBR
  • Katharine Murphy, On disruption: essay
  • Cathy Perkins, The shelf life of Zora Cross: biography, on my TBR

This is a lot of books, and there was a good number of non-Australian books mentioned too, many of which I’d love to read, so the program covered a lot of reading in an hour!

By the way, if you really, really, really love end-of-year book lists, you need go no further than Kate’s (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) blog post, Best Books of 2019 – A List of Lists. She will keep adding to it as more lists appear!

Do you use these lists to direct your own reading or – as I suspect many listmakers hope – to help with your gift-shopping?

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their 2018 summer picks

Last Monday, I posted the best picks for 2018 by ABC RN’s Book Show presenters and some of their guests. I considered not posting at all this Monday. After all, it’s Christmas Eve and most of us are busy, but then, yesterday, I saw that the ABC had posted “2018’s best summer reads” recommended by their Hub on Books and Bookshelf program presenters. Of course, I couldn’t resist.

Unlike last week’s post, though, where I justified giving equal weight to all the picks, this week I’m going to prioritise their Aussie selections, and then mention the rest at the end. Seems fair enough for this Monday Musings series!

So, just four of the eleven picks were by Aussies, and they are:

  • Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The lebs (Hachette): Sarah L’Estrange , producer of The Hub on Books, says that “There’s a lot of violence, homophobia and sexism in the novel — the author doesn’t recoil from an honest portrayal of life through the eyes of his protagonist” but that it is also “a lyrical, at times comical and often challenging read”.
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (UQP) which is on my TBR and I’ll be getting to it soon, maybe in summer!: Kate Evans of The Bookshelf, calls it “a cracking tale of family dynamics” that has “a touch of magic that’s light enough to feel entirely real, and keep readers reaching for words like ‘tough’ and ‘uncompromising’.” (Lisa has reviewed.)
  • Emily O'Grady, The yellow houseEmily O’Grady’s The yellow house (Allen & Unwin) (my review): The Hub on Books’ Claire Nicholls describes it as “a chilling book that explores the different ways that trauma resonates through a family.”
  • Tracy Sorensen’s The lucky galah (Picador Australia): Sarah L’Estrange said that “While it might sound kooky, the novel is written in a warm, vivid and charming manner. Who knew that galahs could provide insight into 1960s Australian family dynamics?” (Lisa has reviewed and while it’s not her top pick, she thinks debut author Sorensen has promise.)

Interestingly, of last year’s six Aussie picks, I had read none at the time, and have picked up only one since, Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review). However, this year, I have already read one, as I’ve mentioned, and will be reading at least one other very soon.

Anyhow, the other picks were:

  • English writer Pat Barker’s The silence of the girls
  • American writer Amy Bloom’s White houses
  • Northern Irish writer Anna Burns Booker prize winner The milkman
  • American writer Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer prize-winner Less
  • Chinese-born American writer Ling Ma’s Severance (which was published here by Text)
  • Indian writer Anuradha Roy’s All the lives we never lived
  • Canadian debut novelist Katherena Vermette’s The break (published here by Allen & Unwin).

While there was a preponderance of non-Aussie books in their picks, the selection as a whole feels more diverse than last year’s, with Arab-Australian writer Ahmed and indigenous Australian Lucashenko making up two of the four Aussie selections, and the rest not being your mainstream English and American writers (not to cast aspersions on the quality of the writing from those writers!) How great, for example to see a Canadian debut author here. The versatile Vermette is from Winnipeg and is of Métis descent, a group I hadn’t heard of before.

I should make a point here about my reference to diversity. My raising the issue is somewhat equivalent to discussion about quotas or not for increasing diversity in workplaces, in parliament, etc. I believe in merit, but I also believe that merit is often not judged in a fair playing field. This means that equally meritorious writing (however we define that) from non-dominant culture writers does not necessarily get equal exposure, because, for example, publishers, agents, and even, if they do get published, readers, do not take a “risk” on them. The more we talk about the issue, the more, I hope, the opportunities will be equalled.

Anyhow, if you are wondering about my picks, I’ll be joining the fray next week when 2019 arrives … I know you can hardly wait!

Meanwhile, have you read any of these books, and would you support the presenters’ recommendations for them?

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their top 2018 reads

In recent years, I’ve shared ABC RN presenters’ suggested summer reads, but this year I’m sharing Best Reads of 2018, from the two presenters of The Bookshelf program, and some of their guests. For more lists, and related links, you can check out the webpages for their December 7 and December 14 radio shows.

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeNicole Abadee (literary consultant and books writer for AFR Magazine and Good Weekend):

Trent Dalton (author of Boy swallows universe):

  • Haruki Murakami, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki (Japanese)
  • Geraldine Brooks, People of the book (Australian-American) (an older book, and one I read before blogging)
  • Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (American) (another older book, as I’m sure you know)

Kate Evans (presenter on The Bookshelf): 

  • Melissa Lucashenko, Too much lip (Australian)(on my TBR – I’ll get to it soon)
  • Michael Ondaatje, Warlight (Canadian)
  • Imogen Hermes Gowar, The mermaid and Mrs Hancock (English)
  • Peter Cochrane, The making of Martin Sparrow (Australian)
  • Tayari Jones, An American marriage (American) (Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest identifies this as the book which appeared most frequently in the 37 best-of-2018 lists she analysed)

Amelia Lush (Stella Prize judge, and head of Children and Young Adult programming for the Sydney Writers’ Festival):

  • Rebecca Makkai, The great believers (American)
  • Tara Westover, Educated (American) (A memoir highly recommended by my Californian friend)
  • Maria Turmarkin, Axiomatic (Australian) (Highly recommended by Brother Gums)

Cassie McCullagh (presenter on The Bookshelf): 

  • Rachel Cusk, Kudos (Canadian-born English)
  • Sally Rooney, Normal people (Irish)
  • Tim Winton, The shepherd’s hut (Australian)
  • Peter Cochrane, The making of Martin Sparrow (Australian)
  • Tayari Jones, An American marriage (American)

Shaun Prescott (author of The town)

  • Dag Solstad, T Singer (Norwegian)
  • Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Australian)
  • Olivia Laing, Crudo (English)

OK, so not many of these are Australian, but for this particular Christmas list I relax my rules to focus on Australian readers (at the ABC!)

Anyhow, a few observations. Of the 23 top picks, there are only three duplications: Peter Cochrane’s The making of Martin Sparrow; Tayari Jones’ An American marriage; and Rebecca Makkai’s The great believers. Only one of these is Australian, Cochrane’s historical novel set in the early days of the colony. This lack of duplication is probably not surprising given all the books that are out there for us to read.

Just two of the books (unless I’ve missed something) are non-fiction – Tara Westover’s Educated and Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic. Again, probably not surprising.

And, most of the books are anglo – Australian, American, English, Canadian, Irish – with just two that aren’t, Murakami from Japan, and Solstad from Norway.  We really aren’t, it seems to me, very good at reading translated books from other cultures – and I admit that my reading diet is light on in that area too. Only one, as far as I can tell, is by an indigenous Australian.

Anyhow, I hope you have found this at least a bit interesting!

What ONE book would you recommend from your 2018 reads for the rest of us to read over the holidays?

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their 2017 summer picks

Well, folks, it’s getting to the time of year when people start producing lists, and so, as last year, I’ll be joining the fray, starting this week with books recommended by ABC Radio National’s presenters – the bookworms amongst them, anyhow – for us to read over the coming summer.

However, as last year, not all chose Aussie books, but this post is in my Monday Musings on Australian Literature series, so what to do? Last year I decided to share them all, starting with the Aussie reads, and I’ve decided to do the same this year. After all, the things Aussies read form part of our literary culture don’t they?

Notwithstanding the above, I was disappointed last year when only two (TWO!) of the 18 presenters chose books by Australian authors. (The two books were Stan Grant’s Talking to my country and Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look, both of which I’ve read)I’m consequently thrilled that the number is far greater this year, with SIX (that is, nearly half) of the 14 presenters choosing Australian authors. Here they are:

  • Tony Birch, Common peopleMichael Cathcart (Books and Arts): Tony Birch’s Common people. Birch recently won the Patrick White Award, and his novels Blood and Ghost River were both shortlisted for significant Australian literary awards. Common people, however, is his (latest) collection of short stories. Cathcart says that the stories “take us into the lives of very ordinary people — often people who are doing it tough — and open up the pain, the wit and the twinkle of their worlds. Tony’s wisdom and goodwill are beyond politics. His prose breathes with humanity”. How I love short stories, and this sounds like another great collection.
  • Andrew Ford (Music Show): Ashley Hay’s A hundred small lessons. This is Hay’s third novel, her second The railwayman’s wife having won or been nominated for several literary awards.) Ford says that Hay’s writing “is so simple and precise, at first you fail to notice how powerful it is” and says that “the main character in the book is Brisbane — actually, two Brisbanes, 50 years apart, culturally different in so many ways, yet both sticky, subtropical, and prone to flooding”.
  • Ann Jones (Off Track): Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. Koh is a critically well-regarded short story writer, and this, her first full collection, has received many accolades including her being named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist (though the “novelist” nomenclature is a bit weird.) Jones makes the collection sound great, when she says “The stories are dark and make fun of hipsters. In fact, in gorgeous and believable flow, Koh unleashes a portmanteau of fables, which take on body image, racism, father-son relationships and cat cafes.”
  • Sarah Kanowski (Books and Arts): Tex Perkins’ (with Stuart Coupe) Tex. Unlike many of the presenters it seems – see my summation below – Kanowski took the “summer read” recommendation seriously in choosing this memoir of Australian rock musician Tex Perkins. She said “In Tex, he is self-deprecating but not apologetic: yes he’s drunk too much, been an idiot, sabotaged his chances of commercial success, but he has also made great music and, above all, had fun. There are nobler aims in life and wiser books, but if you’re sitting on a beach towel with a beer this summer Tex will serve you brilliantly.”
  • Amanda Smith (Life Matters)Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner. This is a biography of an amazing – but ordinary – person, Sandra Pankhurst, who was born a boy, “was adopted into an abusive family”, and then married, as a man, before deciding to live as a woman. It just so happens she also works as a trauma cleaner, that is, one who “cleans up crime scenes after the police have finished” and who  “also sorts things out after ‘unattended deaths’.” Smith says that not only is the book a “tribute to a life-force” is “a story told more beautifully than you can possibly imagine.”
  • Julia Barid, Victoria the queenRobyn Williams (Science Show and Ockham’s Razor): Julia Baird’s Victoria the Queen. Williams noted that in 2017 he’d mostly read books by women, with this biography of Queen Victoria being his best book of the year. He bought it because he loves Julia Baird’s journalism, is “impressed by her range, deep learning and clarity”. He says that this biography “surprises, informs with real scholarship and tells a huge story with a light touch. When I finished I felt as if my brain had grown an extra layer.” I wouldn’t mind an extra layer in my brain, I must say!

Four chose British authors:

  • Joe Gelonesi (Philosopher’s Zone): Stephen Mumford’s Glimpse of light: New meditations on first philosophy (non-fiction)
  • Patricia Karvelas (RN Drive, and the The Party Room podcast): Natalie Haynes’ The children of Jocasta (fiction, Greek myths retold through the women characters)
  • Keri Phillips (Rear Vision): Tim Harford’s Fifty things that made the modern economy (non-fiction)
  • Andrew West (Religion and Ethics Report): David Goodhart’s The road to somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics (non-fiction)

And four chose American authors:

  • Kate Evans (Books and Arts): Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (novel)
  • Antony Funnell (Future Tense): Sarah Sentilles’ Draw your weapons (non-fiction)
  • Natasha Mitchell (Science Friction): Oliver Sacks’ The river of consciousness (non-fiction, collection of essays)
  • Scott Stephens (The Minefield: Noah Feldman’s The three lives of James Madison (non-fiction).

Julie Koh, Portable curiositiesSo, a more even spread than last year’s, but still oh-so-very Western-based. Last year, only ONE presenter chose a non-Western book, with all the rest choosing, as this year, Australian, British and American. This year there’s not even one non-Western book. However, both years, an indigenous author was chosen – just one, but that’s something. And, the choice of Julie Koh provides some nod to diversity too, as she’s the Australian-born daughter of Chinese-Malaysian parents.

The biggest difference this year, besides the significant increase in Aussie picks, is in the fiction-non-fiction ratio. Last year NINE (that is 50%) of the choices were for fiction (all novels), but this year only FIVE (35%) are, and of these, two are novels, two are short story collections, and one a collection of myths. This sort of selection is probably not what most readers might expect when looking for summer reads, but our ABC RN presenters are clearly a serious lot!

What ONE book would you recommend from your 2017 reads for, let’s be inclusive and say holiday, not summer, reading?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the arts (3)

This should be my last post on Mr Haskell’s survey of the arts in Australia, and it focuses on Radio and the Movies. First though, in his section on literature, he talked about Australian readers and bookselling. He wrote that the average Australian “is a great reader; more books are bought per head of population in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the English-speaking world”. He admires Australian booksellers who can’t quickly acquire the latest success. So, “they buy with courage and are true bookmen in a sense that is becoming rare in this [i.e. England] country.”

I believe Australians are still among the top book-buying nations, per capita, but I couldn’t find any supporting stats, so I may be making this up! However, I did love his commendation of the booksellers of the time, and his sense of their being “true bookmen” (as against their peers in England). He certainly wasn’t one to look down on the colonials!

“an admirable institution”

He writes about the “admirable” ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). He recognises that wireless has become a necessity “in a country of wide open space” because it is, for many, “the only form of contact with the world”. He says the ABC “supplies much excellent music, and at the same time appeals to the man-in-the-street through its inspired cricket and racing reports”. You all know how much I like the ABC.

BUT radio is a vice too, he says, when it is left on all day “in every small hotel, seldom properly tuned and dripping forth music like a leaky tap”. He is mainly referring here to commercial broadcasting which he describes as “assaulting popular taste by their dreary programmes of gramophone records and blood-and-thunder serials … Unlike America, they cannot afford to sponsor worthwhile programmes”. Hmm, my old friends at National Film and Sound Archive might disagree given Australia’s large and by all accounts successful radio serial industry, though perhaps much of this occurred from the mid 1940s on – i.e. after Haskell did his research.

“isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

Haskell has a bit to say about Australians’ love of cinema, with “the consumption per head being greater than anywhere else”. Film theatres are “the largest and most luxurious buildings” in Australian cities, but

the films shown are the usual Hollywood productions. There is as yet no public for French or unusual films.

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian films are being made, he said, “in small quantities” but are “not yet good enough to compete in the open market.” He is surprised that given Australia’s “natural advantages”, it had “produced so little in a medium that would encourage both trade and travel”. He goes on to describe how much people knew about America through its films -“we have seen cowboys, Indians, army, navy, civil war and Abraham Lincoln”. He suggests that Australia had just as interesting stories to tell and places to explore:

What of the Melbourne Cup, life on the stations, the kangaroos, the koala bear, the aboriginal, the romance of the Barrier Reef and the tropical splendour of the interior, the giant crocodiles of Queensland? What f the early history, as colourful as anything in America? isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

He suggests that films could do more for Australia in a year than his book, and yet, he says it seems “easier and safer to import entertainment by the mile in tin cans and to export nothing”!

He makes some valid points but he doesn’t recognise that Australia produced, arguably, the world’s first feature film, back in 1906, The story of the Kelly Gang – yes, about Ned Kelly.  It was successful in Britain, and pioneered a whole genre of bushranging films that were successful in Australian through the silent era. Three more Kelly films were made before Haskell visited Australia – but films were pretty ephemeral, and he clearly didn’t know of them.

At the time he researched and wrote this book, 1938 to 1940, there was still an active film industry. Cinesound Productions produced many films under Ken G Hall from 1931 to 1940, and Charles Chauvel made several films from the 1930s to 1950s, but the war years were lean times, and it was in those early years that Haskell did his research. It’s probably also true that then, as unfortunately still now, Australians were more likely to flock to overseas (that is, American, primarily) productions than their own.

Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical survey of an outsider’s view of Australia as much as I have – though I guess it’s all rather irrelevant, and even self-indulgent, if you’re not Australian! Apologies for that!

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their best reads of 2016

Now, here’s my conundrum. We (at least I think I can speak for a general “we”) want Australians to read widely, because it’s important for us to understand cultures that are different to our own. But, given how small the Australian market is, we also want people to read Australian literature (and see, for that matter, Australian films which struggle for recognition and box office).  To achieve more people reading Aussie writing requires promotion, and there’s nothing like people of influence (like those I reported last Monday) naming and talking about Australian books to help this process.

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookSo, what happened when ABC’s RN (Radio National) presenters named their picks for 2016? Well, there are 18 presenters on this list, and only two named Aussie books:

  • Paul Barclay (presenter, Big Ideas): Stan Grant’s Talking to my country. Stan Grant is a journalist who has an indigenous background, and his book, says Barclay “might not be quite the best thing I’ve read this year” but he says that its message about “growing up feeling excluded and subjected to bigotry in your own country” has stayed with him. Great choice. It’s on my TBR pile and everyone who’s read it says it’s a book all Aussies should read.
  • Sarah Kanowski (co-presenter of Books and Arts Daily): Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look. Oh, lookee you here, another Aussie, and what a lovely one it is. (See my review.) Kanowski – I always knew I liked her (haha) – described it as the book that gave her the “most delight — and most wisdom” this year.

So, what did the others choose? Eight chose British writers – mostly novelists:

  • Richard Fidler (presenter, Conversations): Peter Frankopan’s The silk roads: (non-fiction)
  • Andrew Ford (presenter, The Music Show): Alan Bennett’s Keeping on keeping on. (non-fiction)
  • Ann Jones (presenter, Off Track): Max Porter’s Grief is the thing with feathers. (novel)
  • Patricia Karvelas (presenter, RN Drive): Deborah Levy’s Hot milk. (novel)
  • Lynne Malcolm (presenter, All in the Mind): Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. (novel)
  • Rachael Kohn (presenter, The Spirit of Things): Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. (novel)
  • Amanda Smith (presenter, Sports Factor): Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday. (novel)
  • Robyn Williams (presenter of The Science Show): Julian Barnes’ The noise of time. (novel)

And six chose American writers:

  • Kate Evans (presenter, Ear Shot): Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. (novel)
  • Antony Funnell (presenter, Future Tense): Amanda Foreman’s A world on fire. (non-fiction, that Funnell called “a nice, big fat book for summer reading”. I do like his definition of summer reading, I must say.
  • Cassie McCullagh (co-presenter, Life Matters): Noah Hawley’s Before the fall. (novel, which McCullagh decribed as “perfect holiday reading”)
  • Annabelle Quince (co-presenter, Rear Vision): Anthony Doerr’s All the light we cannot see. (novel, which Quince described as “perfect summer reading”.)
  • Scott Stephens (Online Editor for the ABC on Religion and Ethics): Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and forgiveness. (non-fiction)
  • Tom Switzer (presenter, Between the Lines): John B Judis’ The populist explosion. (non-fiction)

That leaves two more presenters:

  • Michael Cathcart (co-presenter, Books and Arts Daily) who chose a memoir by a Libyan-born novelist, Hisham Matar’s The Return.
  • Natasha Mitchell (science journalist and presenter) who managed to sneak in two choices, both memoirs, one English and one American: Jeanette Winterson’s Why be happy when you could be normal? and Gloria Steinem’s My life on the road.

These are all, I’m sure, worthy reads but is it wrong for me to be disappointed to see so few Aussie books here – just two works of non-fiction and no fiction? And, is it wrong for me to be further surprised that, of the preponderance of non-Aussie books, only one is not British or American? How ethnocentric we are! I appreciate that the presenters were asked to give only one pick (albeit Natasha Mitchell managed to squeeze in two). If they’d been asked to name three, say, we may have seen more variety, including more Aussie books.

However, I do see making these lists as a political act and therefore an oportunity for them to give a little boost to local writers. Perhaps, though, they didn’t want to show favouritism to one author over another and so went off-shore? Whatever the reason, I would love to have seen more Aussies here.

What do you think about this, particularly if you’re an Aussie? And if you’re not, what do you think about their choices?

Monday musings on Australian literature: RN presenters’ pick reads of the year

I was going to write my Case for post this week, but I think now that I’ll leave it to January. Life is a bit too busy right now to put proper thought into presenting my case (though I’ve pretty much decided which book it will be!) So, instead, since various media outlets are starting to publish “best” or “favourite” books of the year, I thought I’d share those from the presenters of the radio station that I most listen to, ABC Radio National.

Many did not choose Australian books, but given the theme of this post, I’m only going to share those who did. However, you can see the whole list online at Radio National. Here goes:

  • Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

    Courtesy: Text Publishing

    Damian Carrick – presenter of the Law Report – chose Helen Garner’s This house of grief. Not surprising, I suppose, that a presenter on law would choose this book about a murder trial. He was concerned, he said, that he might find it too bleak, but “from the opening page I was hooked. It’s a page turner, and as it should be it’s an aching lament to the loss of three lives”. I hate the use of the word “aching” in reviews but regular readers here will know that I liked it too.

  • Jonathan Green – presenter of Sunday Extra – chose Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. I’m glad someone did! He felt that, given it had won the Booker Prize, “anything I say isn’t much more than licking the spoon that somebody else used to put the icing on the cake. Even so, gosh this is a good book”. I agree.
  • Lynne Malcolm – presenter of All in the Mind – chose comedian Tim Ferguson’s Carry a big stick. Again, it’s not a surprising choice for the presenter of a program about the mind and the brain, as this book is a memoir focusing particularly on Ferguson’s being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Malcolm refers to Ferguson’s progress from denial to eventual admission when he could hide the condition no longer.
  • Rhianna Patrick – presenter of AWAYE – chose Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light. This is a book I have on my TBR. Here’s what Patrick says “Van Neerven is part of what I see as the next wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, who are university graduates in creative writing. What’s clear early on is van Neerven’s exploration of indigeneity and sexuality, and whether the two can coexist”. That intrigues me. Why can’t they coexist? Clearly, I’ll have to read it to find out.
  • Robyn Williams – presenter of the long-running Science Show – chose Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing. He says that “It may be about blokes with beers and rugged times on the land, but the voice is always clear and convincing”. Hmm, blokes with beers do appear but I wouldn’t quite say that’s what it was “about”. However, I like the fact that he appreciates Wyld’s voice. (You can check out my review if you like. I expect it will feature high in my top books – when I do my list in January).

Other choices included Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries, and Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing, both of which I’ve reviewed this year. The most interesting choice, from my point of view anyhow, was from Ann Jones, presenter of Off the Track. She chose Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole which she described as “fantastically surreal and brutally real”.

For each of the choices, there is a sound grab (at the link I provided above) that you can listen to which gives you a little more about their reasons. I don’t find them all enlightening, but I do find it interesting at this time of year to hear people’s choices and why they chose them.

Have you chosen your favourite book of the year, or are you, like me, waiting until the year is over? (Even then, I suspect, I won’t be able to choose ONE book to top all the others but I will have some favourites.)

Michael Sala and truthful fictions

Michael Sala The last thread bookcover

The last thread (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

Michael Sala doesn’t actually use the term “truthful fictions”. That was a character in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river. But he could have.

Yesterday I heard Sala interviewed on ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters about his debut novel The last thread, which I reviewed last week. Presenter Natasha Mitchell commenced by mentioning the transitions, secrets and traumas that characterise Michaelis/Michael’s life in the novel. She asked why he had chosen the fictional, rather than memoir, route. He responded that he had started writing his story in first person but got swamped by emotions, and then he read J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical novel*. He realised, he said, that he could write about the child he used to be “as if he were someone else”. (I love hearing how writers – as I also reported in my Jessica Anderson post – learn from other writers.)

This is fair enough I think. There are those who like a “memoir”, as it were, to be a “memoir”, but in our post-postmodern world in which we know that truth is a slippery beast at best, what difference does it really make? How important is it to be able to say Michael Sala did this, felt that, experienced such-and-such versus, for example, how does a child navigate abuse and how does such a child translate those experiences into functional adulthood? How important are questions of fact against exploration of these emotional “truths”?

In other words do we need to know the “facts” to understand the truths? I’m thinking now of Kate Jennings. I’ve reviewed two of her books here, her autobiographical novel, Snake, and her autobiography of sorts, Trouble: Evolution of a radical. Snake is a novella that chronicles Girlie’s life in a complicated family. We know it mirrors much of Jennings’s “real” childhood but we can’t be sure what are the facts and what are scenes created to convey her emotional truths. Trouble, described as an “unconventional autobiography”, is a collection of Jennings’ writings – journalistic articles, poems and excerpts from novels – that have been put together in such a way as to convey something about her life. We may not be able to glean from these slippery books a lot of citable “facts” but both tell us a lot about who Jennings is, about where she came from and what she believes.

All this of course begs the more fundamental question of how factual memoir is anyhow? But that is something I’ll leave – for the time being anyhow. Meanwhile, there’s a scene in Sala’s autobiographical fiction in which his mother discusses his problematical father with her sister:

“He’s a wonderful man,” Elfje says. “We’ve become great friends. Oh, he makes me laugh!”
“That’s one side of him,” Mum says.
“Yes, yes, we all have versions of events, stories to tell.”
“Stories?” Mum says. “Is that what you think they are?”
(from The lost thread, by Michael Sala)

Therein lies the rub. Whatever we read, memoir or fiction, we surely must always be aware that it is “one side” we are getting. Could it be, says she provocatively, that something labelled fiction is a more honest recognition of this fact?

* Coetzee has written more than one work of autobiographical fiction but Sala wasn’t clear which he’d read. I’m assuming he at least read the first one titled Boyhood: Scenes from a provincial life.

Why I love Radio National

ABC Canberra radio and TV studios in the Canbe...

ABC studios in Canberra (Courtesy: Bidgee, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikipedia)

One of the best things about retirement for me is being able to listen to Radio National in the morning. For you overseas readers, Radio National is the national radio station of our national broadcaster, the ABC, Aunty, or, if you want to be formal, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here is the usual morning line-up:

  • 0830: a Report of some sort: the Health Report on Monday, the Law Report on Tuesday, Rear Vision (a look at matters historical) on Wednesday, Future Tense (change) on Thursday, and Movie Time on Friday.
  • 0900: Life Matters: a wide-ranging interview program devoted to current issues relating to social change and social policy, the things that affect our day-to-day lives such as education, health, the environment, and so on.
  • 1000: The Book Show: all things book-ish
  • 1100: Bush Telegraph: things rural and regional

The Book Show is of course of particular interest to me, and today’s show is a good example. It started with a discussion of the Blake Dawson Prize for Business Literature through an interview with Australian business and sports journalist Gideon Haigh who has won the prize in the past. I pricked my ears up for this one as I hadn’t really thought about business writing until I read Kate Jennings last year. Jennings though focused on business fiction. This prize considers the whole gamut of business writing, most of which is non-fiction. Haigh, for example, won in 2006 with his book Asbestos House about James Hardie Industries and the history of its dealings with asbestos (a topic well-known to Australians). Corporate histories (authorised and unauthorised) are not high on my reading priority, but this interview convinced me that I should not dismiss them (nor other types of business writing) cavalierly.

The next spot in the program was about the recent VIDA report on gender in book writing and reviewing. It shows a strong gender imbalance in both authors reviewed by and who does the reviewing at some of the top literary magazines in the US and UK – like Granta, the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review and so on. The Book Show decided to check out the situation in Australia and so approached three of Australia’s top literary editors: Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Steger of The Age and Steven Rommei of The Australian. These three (two men and one woman) did not do a thorough survey of their respective papers but they all found a gender bias, albeit not as pronounced as VIDA had found (which may be accurate or may be due to their less rigorous methodology). They admitted to not being fully aware of their own unconscious (until now) skewed practices – such as, for example, always offering serious history books to a male reviewer. It’s gobsmacking really just how ingrained this gender stuff is!

The problem, though, is less in the methodology than in interpreting the results – as the literary editors above discussed and as The Reading Ape raised in his post on the topic last week. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • are fewer women authors published than men and, if so, why?
  • are the books women write less likely to be reviewed by the mainstream literary papers and journals and, if so, why? (One person suggested that women write more genre books?)
  • are  there fewer women reviewers because they are less likely to put themselves forward as reviewers?
  • who are the literary editors (and their “bosses”), particularly in terms of gender, and what drives their practices?
  • how does the literary culture establishment’s bias (as shown in VIDA’s figures) relate to reading practices in terms of who actually buys and reads the books?

And then there’s the question about us, the bloggers: Who are we, in terms of gender? What are we reading and reviewing? What influence do we have?

(After all this, dare I admit that 60% of the authors I’ve reviewed here to date are male?)