I have read a lot this year, and most of it has been rewarding. In past years I’ve often struggled to reach my one-hundred-page rule; that is, I never give up on a book before reading a century of pages. (Except when reviewing, when I trudge on dutifully). I don’t remember calling on the mercy rule once this year (unless I was re-reading drafts of my own work). Most of the novels were good. Some of them were exceptional.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites arrived in bookshops to much hype. While I usually don’t believe it, on this occasion the book delivered on the buzz. I read it in one sitting, over a wet Saturday winter. It may not have been Iceland (the location of Burial Rites), although it was cold in Carlton on the day, which seemed to add to the atmosphere. While Kent has an eye for detail and an ear for colloquial language, the story is not weighed down by historical authenticity, and never lost form. I admired the central character, Agnes, for her courage and dignity. Kent skillfully manages deep emotion while avoiding sentimental tricks.
Another Australian novelist I enjoyed was Alex Miller and his most recent book, Coal Creek. It is not easy to discuss the book without giving something away. But let’s try. In addition to Miller’s masterful use of language, which is both economical and rich, he writes about the Australian ‘bush’ and its inhabitants in a way that is never nostalgic or jingoistic (in that National Party sort of way). The story he produces is tender, sad and ultimately challenging. In the hands of a lesser writer the conclusion to the novel could be distasteful. But it is everything but that. I read Coal Creek the day after Burial Rites and was equally satisfied.
Along with what will ultimately become tens of thousands of others, I read Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda. I find some response to his work annoying. Reviewers in particular often focus on his description and interrogation of class in Australia at the expense of his more interesting and provocative portrayal of homosexuality and homoeroticism. (Dennis Altman has been one exception, who took up this very point recently in the Guardian). Early in the novel we discover that the teenage protagonist, Danny Kelly, a swimming prodigy, is off from the northern suburbs to a private school; an institution he and his suburban friends refer to as ‘Cunts College’. Reviewers revel in this point, as if it provided a deep sense of transgression and a challenge to our misguided sense of egalitarianism. The idea that an excluded group of teenage kids might refer to a private school as Cunts College is funny. And appropriate. When you go to a state high school where pen and paper and grass can be hard to come by, the wide lawns and blazers of the private school brigade would lead to the obvious conclusion that such places are full of ‘cunts’, from the perspective of outsiders.
Tsiolkas’s portrayal of sex, which is often dismissed as the ‘rude bits’ by readers and critics, is where the real challenge is located in his fiction, (particularly for straight readers). I suppose his work is being discussed with more rigour in academic theses (read by few people). And I know he gets questions on sexual relationships at gay venues, such as the Hares and Hyenas bookshop in Fitzroy. I would like to see this discussion taken up more widely, to test our ‘tolerance’ of gay and lesbian people beyond the institution of marriage.
As I do each year, I read many short story collections this year. Maria Takolander, a local writer, released The Double early in the year. Her stories have been appearing in literary magazines and journals for some time now. Those who enjoy her writing, including me, were eager to read the collection. I was not disappointed. Takolander writes with a subtle hold on both head and heart. Her stories are tender, occasionally confronting, and always rewarding.
Another collection I enjoyed was Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection Battleborn that was released in 2012. I read it when it was first released and again this year, convinced that she is one of the best short story writers going around.
In the nonfiction genre I got a lot out of Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters: Playing God with the Climate. It is one of several books I’ve read on climate change that seem absolutely necessary. And yet it is a book that could lead to depression – not because of its content, vital information we all need – but because those who should read the book most likely won’t, and may even deny its existence! (I can see these people with their collective head in the sand as a Tsunami washes over them). Bradley Garrett’s Explore Everything: Place-Hacking in the City is a great ‘how to’ manual for those interested in urban ruins, cave-clanning, and subverting corporate surveillance of its own empire.
And finally, indulging two of my passions, I read Running With The Pack, by the philosopher Mark Rowlands; a book for distance runners who also like to think (or at least, in my case, I think I can think). And I re-read Chicago: City on the Make, by Nelson Algren – a remarkable song to a city, written by one of my all time literary heroes.