it might be over soon – some (typically last-minute) thoughts on 2016

Even though it’s pretty much The Done Thing to give 2016 a good kicking – pass me my pointiest boots, because I’m joining in.

I know I sound melodramatic, but seriously, this year. It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m still staggering around, still trying to swing a few more feeble, sweaty punches at 2016. But the bell’s about to ring. I might be down for now, but don’t even think about counting me out.

I wanted to take a (very) last-minute look at a few of the good things about 2016; the books, the music and the moments that made this year bearable. Okay, fine – begrudgingly enjoyable.

 

 

Any year with a new Bon Iver album can’t be all bad, right? This was the song I listened to most this year – and that first line, “it might be over soon”, the album’s opening lyric, became a kind of mantra to me. The rest of the album is good too, but sometimes frustrating – the annoying song titles, the reliance on vocal effects that sometimes wriggles down in between the song and the emotion behind the song, getting in the way of things…but 22, A Million seems to me an album of (and about) the things that get in the way. I get that, and I’m grateful it exists.

Another favourite? Bibio‘s new album, A Mineral Love. Next year, I’ll listen to a few songs without saxophone solos, I swear.

As for movies, I only made it to the cinema a handful of times this year, and every time to see blockbuster films  I found oddly disappointing. Though (like the Death Star, ha) it has some glaring faults – an unnecessarily confusing opening, characters so undercooked I risked food poisoning – Star Wars Rogue One seemed emblematic of a year in which, to quote Leonard Cohen, the good guys lost.

 

 

Like everyone else, I was transfixed by Stranger Things. I’m not great with keeping up with the latest TV shows, so it was quite nice to be watching something at the same time as everyone else for a change. I finally caught up with all of Orphan Black this year – a show I love despite the fact that they seem to be making up the plot on an episode-by-episode basis. I also really enjoyed the recent BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which managed to inspire in me the memory of of the same obsession I felt when I first read the book.

 

 

Talking of obsession, many of the TV series I consumed with an obsessed passion, I can barely remember a single thing about now. I did a lot of re-watching instead. I decided to celebrate Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary by watching the entire thing from the very beginning, starting with The Original Series, then moving on to The Animated Series (which I’ve never seen before), then The Next Generation and so on. Admittedly, we spend just as much time snarking on Trek as we do enjoying it, but that’s all part of the fun. Plus, it’s also the reason why Swear Trek (see the gif above) is my favourite Twitter discovery of the year. I’ve also fallen completely in love with Webcomic Name

Though I’ve read a lot of books I loved this year, I’m limiting myself to five favourites, plus a few honourable mentions…

Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things deserves every accolade it’s received so far, and quite possibly a few more. Not that prizes make a work of literature more legitimate, but still – this deserves to be recognised. There’s nothing left for me to say about this book – everything has already been said. All I have to add is that I consider it a classic. If you haven’t already read it, make sure it’s the first thing you do in 2017.

I wrote about Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas over at Newtown Review of Books, but what I didn’t have room to mention was the way that, as soon as I finished Noho, the final of these five linked novellas, I went straight back to Gotham, the first, and read them all again. Also, top marks to Inkerman and Blunt for these beautifully-designed books. And to Earls for his initiative and determination in publishing these as separate novellas, rather than together.

I mentioned Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker earlier this year when I wrote about my favourite books for the first half of the year. According to Goodreads, I finished reading Letters on February 14, which seems too appropriate to be actually possible. This little book wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It’s stayed with me all year, and I adore it.

Another book from my middle-of-the-year round up that’s still very much on my mind is Nic Low’s Arms Race. It’s from 2014, but I’m slow on the uptake. I think about the stories in this seriously underrated volume all the time – they come back to me like the memories of dreams. Mental note: add more short story collections to my to-read pile for 2017.

From fiction to non-fiction, the final book to round off my top five for 2016 is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race. It turns out that Clarke and I are of the same generation – high school debating teams and Cabbage Patch dolls – but it turns out that our experiences of growing up couldn’t have been more different. This book made me sad, it made me angry – and, more importantly, it made me think.

 

As for those honourable mentions, The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson made a real impression on me this year. Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look was another favourite for the year. Not every piece in this collection needed to be there, but still – Helen Garner! Seeing her speak at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival turned out to be one of the highlights of my year.

Talking of idols, I found a new one in Jeanette Winterson. I picked up Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? from the library a few months back. It’s a strange place to begin, but I immediately wanted to read more.

And finally, I’m being a little cheeky naming a novel I’m right in the middle of reading on my Best of 2016 list, but Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is just amazing, and I’m going to try and sneak away to spend the final few hours of 2016 finishing it.

 

 

From inspirational to aspirational. In 2017, I’m hoping to read more widely – more short stories, more graphic novels, more sci-fi and fantasy…more everything, really. Everyone’s been sharing their reading stacks for summer on Twitter and Instagram. I’m so, so excited (and lucky) to have such an amazing-looking pile of books to work my way through in the coming weeks and months…

 

 

What do you want from 2017? Personally, I’m just hoping for kindness, a calm mind and great books. Writing some essays and book reviews would be an added bonus.

Whatever you’re after from the New Year, I wish you all the best. Stay safe.

Michelle

an awkward comeback + some books i’ve loved this year

IMG_4664I actually Googled “how to start blogging again after a long absence” to try and find a non-awkward way to approach writing this post (and, with any luck, the next few posts) but the only real piece of advice I found was not along the lines of “duh, don’t leave your blog dormant for months and years on end”. Harsh, Google. True though.

While I work out where – and how – to begin blogging again, I’ve been thinking about some of the books I’ve read so far this year. We’re over halfway through 2016, which is frankly ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’ve read some seriously good books.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you.

I’m starting with Yvette Walker’s criminally underrated Letters to the End of Love. I read it at the start of this year and since then I’ve been quietly devastated that I wasn’t smart enough to pick this up when it was first released back in 2013. I utterly adored this intense, elegant epistolary novel about three relationships; each taking place across different time periods, different countries and different sexualities. I’m already looking forward to reading it again – although I’m not sure how I’ll keep my place, as I’ve already folded over every second corner to mark a favourite quote or passage.

Another book I wish I’d read when it first came out? Arms Race by Nic Low. How would you classify these twelve unexpected short stories? Science fiction? Humour? Perhaps a little of both. One thing’s for sure – this is a really strong collection. In the months since reading Arms Race, I still find myself thinking about Low’s stories all the time. They keep coming back to me like the echoes of dreams. They’re bizarre and beautiful and I loved every one of them.

Another book to which I arrived later than usual was Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. How can a novel be so surreal and real both at the same time? And so, so good? Really, everything about this stunning novel has already been written. I have nothing new to add, other than my admiration.

I did, somehow, manage to find something to say about Helen Garner’s masterful collection of essays, Everywhere I Look. I reviewed it for Newtown Review of Books, and it’s left me itching to read more of Garner’s fiction and non-fiction. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

I have a bit of a thing for Geoff Dyer. I read Out of Sheer Rage last year and dogeared it to within an inch of its life. Which is why I picked up White Sands, Dyer’s new collection of essays on place and art and crisis. There are moments in White Sands when Dyer is at his infuriating best – he’s obtuse and wrapped up in his own obsessions, but the thread of vulnerability that runs through the collection draws the reader towards a touching, sincere final act.

I started this post with a book I should have read years ago, so it seems fitting to finish it with a series of books that are very much here-and-now – Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree collection. It’s a series of five novellas. I’ve read Gotham and Venice, the first two in the series, and I’m just about to begin the third. It’s not just the episodic nature of this series that has me hooked – it’s the way Earls captures his characters so perfectly. I’m looking forward to finding out where Earls is going to take me next.

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I’d better sign off here, before I start rambling about every book I’ve read so far this year. Sitting on my to-read pile right now? Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper (how could I resist that title?) and A S Patric’s Las Vegas for Vegans, because I was transfixed by Black Rock White City. There’s also Shibboleth and other stories, this year’s Margaret River Short Story collection anthology, edited by the brilliant Laurie Steed.

I’ve realised recently what a privilege it is to have access to books. Three cheers for libraries. I’m lucky to have plenty of reading in my future.

Talking of the future, I’m hoping to start blogging more often. I’ve really missed writing posts like this one. It’s just a matter of throwing words at the screen and hoping some of them stay there…and make sense.

2015 – salt creek – lucy treloar

Salt Creek Lucy Treloar

It has been closer to me of late, its outlines growing clear again. Not two weeks ago letters and an old tin trunk crammed with items from the past arrived from South Australia. It was dented, dusty still, and a finger drawn across its skin left a smudge on my fingers. Could it be the grime of the Coorong after such a journey? On a whim I licked it from my fingers – salt – and swallowed to keep it safe.

Earlier this month, I reviewed Lucy Treloar’s debut novel, Salt Creek for Newtown Review of Books. At the time, it had won the Indie Award for debut fiction, made the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – and just a day or two before my review was published, had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. It’s since been longlisted for the Dobbie award for a debut novel by a woman writer. In other words, Salt Creek is everywhere at the moment – and deservedly so.

If you’re interested, you can read my review of Salt Creek here.

I know I say this every time I post a NRB review, but I can’t say it enough – thanks to Linda and Jean for publishing me. There’s really only one way to learn how to write book reviews, and that’s by actually writing book reviews. NRB provides not only an online space for the work of emerging critics to learn their craft, but feedback on their work, which is invaluable for those of us still learning our craft.

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I’d been putting off reading Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things for the longest time. I’m not sure why. I bought it as soon as it came out, and it’s been sitting on my bedside table since.

Perhaps my hesitation is because Wood’s writing always leaves me devastated – in a good way, but still devastated – and I’ve been feeling fragile for months now. Either way, I finally picked it up last week and gulped it down in two marathon sittings, finally turning the last page at 1am and remaining awake for hours after. And yes, it’s devastating, but it’s also beautiful and sad and funny and intensely moving. I’d love to write more about this novel, but I doubt I have anything new to add, other than my sincere admiration.

Anyway – while on the subject of books and awards, I was so thrilled to see The Natural Way of Things win this year’s Stella Prize. You can read Charlotte’s amazing acceptance speech here.

the books of 2012 ~ part two

In case you missed yesterday’s post, here’s a quick recap.

Due to my complete failure to read and review a reasonable number of books this year, I emailed a few of my favourite bloggers, tweeters and people I admire and asked them to contribute a couple of their most memorable books for the past twelve months.

With that out of the way, allow me to introduce part two of the Books of 2012. Enjoy!

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I’m a huge fan of Read in a Single Sitting. Stephanie writes witty, discerning reviews of novels she can read – as the name of her blog implies – in a single sitting. She’s also a freelance writer, as well as a YA and middle grade author. I don’t know how she finds time! Go and take a look at some of Stephanie’s other favourite reads for 2012 here – and make sure you click on the links below to read Stephanie’s reviews!

theglamourI’ve had Christopher Priest’s The Prestige on my shelves for years now, but for some reason I haven’t yet got around to reading it. One of the dangers of watching the film adaptation first, perhaps. But although The Prestige has languished on my shelves for ages, when I picked up a copy of The Glamour on sale a few months back I started reading it right away.

There are books that entirely change the way that you think, and which also influence the way that you read. The Glamour is one of them. It’s a strange narrative focusing on a man recovering from an accident and his interactions with a woman called Susan, who professes to be his girlfriend—even though he has no recollection of her. Slowly the man begins to recall various aspects of the events leading up to his present state, and yet, when Susan relates the same, the stories differ in many, many ways.

The Glamour is a novel that takes the unreliable narrator idea to a devastating extreme, and it’s a chilling, frankly terrifying book that has had me questioning the truth of any fictional character’s experiences. It’s a book whose strange half-truths and fancies see it re-write itself as the story progresses, and there’s a twist at the end that does the same again. Perhaps fittingly, Priest himself rewrote the ending to the book some years after it was first published, giving the book yet another layer of possible subterfuge. Just what is real and true, and how can we possibly tell? This is a question that has tapped me on the shoulder during my reading many times this year.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which I read not long after The Glamour, looks remainsofthedaysimilarly at the strange beast of truth and how readily anything can be twisted to ring true to ears that want it to be so. This is a novel that’s very much an embodiment of that old saw of history being an argument rather than a series of facts, and which eerily examines the idea of where culpability should rest.

Our protagonist Stevens is an ageing butler who is becoming increasingly irrelevant both personally and in terms of his career. He clings desperately to ideas of dignity and service, desperately averring how a true butler must always go along with their employer’s wishes, no matter how odd or transgressive. And yet, as the narrative begins to unfold and Stevens reflects on his past service, we begin to see the astonishing degree of self-deception that is on display here. Stevens’ employer turns out to be a man whose political sympathies are abhorrent, and although Stevens is aware of the issue, does nothing, telling himself that it is not his place to do so.

It’s a beautifully written and extremely quiet book, and yet under its thick veneer of dignity and respectability is something truly eerie: the denial of personal responsibility in a terrible situation. It’s a book that will leave you thinking about all of those times when you’ve avoided speaking out, or when you’ve been removed enough from whoever’s making the decisions that you feel safe and without guilt. Like The Glamour, it’s a book that lingers and haunts, and any book that does that is well worth the read.

My second guest today is Jeremy Earl. He’s a Perth-based librarian who blogs about books over at Excelsior, and his love of records at Closed Groove. Here are his choices – click the titles and go and read his reviews!

Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the most fully realised novels I lonelyhunterhave ever read. The writing is economical but engaging and the ensemble of characters are perfectly drawn and psychologically nuanced. The novel tackles big issues, but is subtle in the rendering of its underlying subtext.

Ostensibly the tale of a lonely mute called John Singer, the novel expands to cover racism, isolation, sexuality, alcoholism, politics and small town prejudice. The book has hardly dated, despite being set during the mid 1940s. Its themes are universal and its humanity is profound. I thought about this book for weeks after finishing it and recommend it to anyone who is yearning for a novel that is both technically perfect and emotionally engaging. Definitely the book of the year!

The Magus by John Fowles is one of those books that can polarize readers. Some regard it as pretentious and indulgent, others, like myself, regard it as fascinating, adventurous themagusand beautiful. I did not merely read this book; it took a hold of me and I became drawn into it and had difficulty putting it down. I don’t regret one moment I spent with this intense novel and although it didn’t provide me with any answers, it made it clearer as to what questions to ask.

The Magus is the tale of an Englishman called Nicholas Urfe who takes up a teaching post on a remote Greek island post-WWII and becomes involved with master manipulator Maurice Conchis. The Magus takes you on a journey to who knows where and doesn’t let go till the very end. Mystifying and existentially expansive, it’s a novel best read across hot afternoons when you can give it the attention it deserves. It took Fowles ten years to write and I can tell you that it was worth the effort. Only the perfection of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter beats The Magus as the book of the year.

Rose Powell has excellent taste in books, as evidenced by her eloquent guest appearances on Channel Ten’s Breakfast Show this year. Rose is the driving force behind the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Best Australian Blogs competition, which will be returning for its third year next year. With a new job and her studies, Rose is super-busy, but managed to find time to send me the titles of two of her favourite reads for the year. Click on the images below to find out more about each title:

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Next up is James Tierney. James writes about books and art and more at A Long, Slow Goodbye. His reviews are breathtaking…and, to my delight, they’re beginning to pop up all over the place, including the Wheeler Centre, as well as the Newtown Review of Books. I’m looking forward to discovering what treats James has in store for us in 2013!

There’s a half-serious argument that I try and rationalize to myself in quiet moments. It goes a little something like this: as an art form, the character-driven literary novel is almost uniquely suited to the introverted experience.

OK, yep – you got me. A glass of good red wine is likely to be my co-theorist in these moments, but just go with me here –

What other art form so precisely takes the intelligences of life, under-tussled by conversation, and pins them to a truthful, effecting narrative?AnimalPeople

Two of my favourite reads during 2012 each looked at an introverted man and woman

Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (published in 2011 but a book I returned to again in 2012) is a tactile and beautifully paced novel focusing on Stephen, a man whose first strategy is the mistaken simplicity of withdrawal. Animal People is a portrait of masculinity that plays one of the best tricks of fiction: netting those many, oscillating thoughts about ourselves and others into a tightly inflected story, bringing a wisdom hazily at the back of our minds into a sharp, present focus.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is a complete contrast in form. A graphic novel that comes in a Monopoly-sized box, it contains 7 separate pieces: an SMH-sized broadsheet, two hardbacks, a large board-game fold-out and smaller booklets. They are in no determined buildingstoriesorder. The stories within spiral out of the inhabitants of a three-story apartment building in Chicago, with most focus on an unnamed woman struggling with a life of quiet disconnection. Pieces of hers and other character’s narratives throw different contrasts depending on the path the reader picks amongst the fragments. In this, Building Stories replicates the approximate way of memory, in that events otherwise insignificant and perhaps years apart, may be drawn together by a creative remembering.

Writing is a social act, one that reaches out, but exactly how it is experienced varies slightly with every set of eyes. Whether shy or showgirl, every type of reader matters – whatever my glass of red says.

They call Booktopia’s John Purcell the Book Guru for a very, very good reason. As the voice behind @booktopia, John’s one of my favourite people on Twitter, He’s also a stellar blogger. His book recommendations are like a treasure map: when John recommends a book, I add it to my collection, no questions necessary. In fact, I was so curious about John’s favourite books for the year that I pestered him constantly and unashamedly until he agreed to write this for me (sorry!). Click on the titles to find out more. 

My Hundred Lovers. I recommend it to anyone who feels a little pale and dusty. It is a great tragedy this gorgeous book was published in our year of fifty shames.NW

NW. I read this twice in a year when I seldom found time to read the books I was meant to read once. Why? Because it seemed to say on its first page – fuck off if you’re too lazy to think. Sadly this included the entire reading public. NW sold very few copies. Which is a testament to its quality.

Love and Hunger. Puts food back in its place as the means and not the end for people coming together.

The Hanging Garden is a story of adolescent love, with all of its latent complications, its beauty and its disquiet. There is a startlingly raw truth to this story which conjured up in me long forgotten memories. This is great writing for our time.

The Conversation. This is a book for lovers of ideas, of good conversation, of impossible loves and for those intellectuals who still enjoy having heated arguments in cafes.

My final guest is novelist Charlotte Wood. She’s the author of The Submerged Cathedral, The Children, Animal People and more. This year, she published part-memoir, part-cookbook Love and Hunger, and Animal People made the shortlist for the Kibble Award, as well as the Miles Franklin longlist. She blogs about food at How to Shuck An Oyster. Earlier this year, I saw her deliver a brilliant speech on writing, which I now have stuck to the wall next to my desk.

Damon Young’s Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free was a real find for me at philosophyinthegardenthe start of this year, so when I heard about his new one, Philosophy in the Garden, I was excited. Part philosophy lesson, part literary companion, it’s a contemplative stroll through writers’ relationships with their gardens. It might sound beautiful and it is, but it’s also more challenging than that – there’s as much war and decay in a garden as fruit and flowers, and Young doesn’t shy from the darker aspects of philosophy’s relationship with nature.

A writer friend, Tegan Bennett Daylight, led me this year to the bitingly sharp, intimate works of the late Alice Thomas Ellis. I have devoured four of them now – The Birds of the Air and Unexplained Laughter first; then The 27th Kingdom, my favourite so far, and the strange beast of The Sin Eater. Thomas Ellis is weird, very funny, acutely observant and black as black. They’re mostly out of print but I ordered a second-hand stash from the UK and am eking them out for the rest of my life.

thewatchtowerSpeaking of black, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower is my other favourite from this year. Re-released after more than 40 years, it’s an incredible piece of work. She sure does know how to harrow – and how to write.

The most satisfying re-read of the year was the brilliant Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, which I read for the third time and, I am enormously proud to say, led a sales revival for this book by choosing it for the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV. Every single panellist adored it, and it’s been going gangbusters since, I am told. I have even had booksellers hug me in the street because of it. So my work on earth is done.

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Now that my guests have all discussed their favourite books of the year, that means it must be my turn. I love writing about books, but I hate having to choose between them!

While I readily admit 2012 has been a slow year, I’ve never claimed it was dull. I’ve had the fortune to read some stunning novels over the past twelve months.

As I’m allowing myself only two choices, I’m justifying my decision by selecting two very different novels. One is a classic from the Sixties; the other was released earlier this year.

mateshipwithbirdsMy first choice is Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds. I have to confess – I’ve read it three times this year.

Mateship with Birds is like its own perfect, self-contained little bubble. It’s set in the Fifties, on the outskirts of Cohuna, a small town in the north of Victoria. Harry, a middle-aged farmer and birdwatching enthusiast observes a family of kookaburras that’s taken up residence in a gumtree by the dairy…but his binoculars also seek out Betty, a single mother with two children who rents the house next door.  As the seasons change, the fledgling attraction between Harry and Betty cautiously begins to take wing.

I loved the pace of this novel, its slow, subtle – but unmistakably relentless – seduction. From the hypnotic opening passage to the final sentence, Tiffany’s writing is sure-footed and perfectly understated.

revolutionaryroadFor my second choice, I’ve selected Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’ first novel, published in 1961. There’s nothing subtle or shy about Revolutionary Road – it’s brash and bold and gets straight to the point – and that’s precisely what I loved about it.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a marriage held together only by the vaguest promise of happiness that always remains conveniently out of reach, Revolutionary Road is more than three hundred pages of constant discomfort. There’s an unforgettable scene towards the beginning of the novel in which Frank and April Wheeler, Yates’ main characters, abandon their car during a night drive and argue by the side of the road – a scene that tore me to shreds to read. This visceral novel left me stunned in its wake. Its a good thing I’ve always had a soft spot for the books that leave me with scars.

I can’t resist a few honourable mentions. Charlotte Wood’s Animal People – though I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have read this in the final days of 2011. I devoured Zadie Smith’s NW over the course of a single weekend, unable to do anything else until I’d turned the final page. NW is clever and devastating and I uttely adored it. I’m adding my voice to the chorus who read and adored Wallace Stegner’s sublime Crossing to Safety this year. And I can’t forget Patricia Highsmith’s amazing The Talented Mr. Ripley – or Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which struck me like lightning and ‘m afraid I haven’t been quite the same since.

ornamentFinally, I’d like to express my thanks to all the talented writers who have helped me put this post together. An odd thing happens to time around Christmas – it disappears at a staggering rate, slipping between fingers and pouring through the cracks between hours. You’ve all taken a moment out of your hectic schedules to help me, and I’m grateful to you all.

I write because I love to read – it’s that simple. The fact that other readers have joined me along the way never ceases to amaze me. To everyone who’s read one of my reviews, written a comment, connected with me via Twitter, sent me an email, my heartfelt thanks.

Have yourselves a bookish little Christmas!

Michelle

PS. Which books made an impression on you this year? Let me know in the comments below!