Reading my way through 2016

This year has started out with much reading – days spent lazing about the pool or at the beach – there’s nothing quite like reading a good book interspersed with dips in the ocean. Going through my kindle library I was astonished at how many books I had read over the course of the year.

Currently I’m reading The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad which is both interesting and captivating. Åsne Seierstad entered Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11 attacks and followed the Northern Alliance into Kabul. Disguising herself by wearing a burka, she lived with a bookseller and his family in Kabul which provided her with a unique opportunity to describe life as ordinary Afghan citizens saw it.

Most journalists who covered the fall of the Taliban and, like her, traipsed down through the Hindu Kush to enter Kabul with the soldiers of the Northern Alliance were delighted to discover that, in the city’s Intercontinental Hotel (in which the rooms had no sheets and no running water), there was a surprisingly well-stocked bookshop. It was run by an urbane man ready to share his stories. This is Seierstad’s bookseller. He tells her: ‘First the Communists burnt my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burnt them all over again.’ I’ve not yet finished this, but it’s very interesting, especially reading about how repressed women are – part of the Afghani culture rather than a direct result of despotic regimes.

I’m also reading a huge tome about Queen Victoria – Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird, which I was given as a Christmas present.  It’s meticulously researched, well written and very engaging.

Previously, I read Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, an account of her investigation into the life of her estranged father who she learned had undergone sex reassignment surgery at the age of 76. It’s essentially a book that investigates identities – her struggle to grasp her father’s reinvented self; Hungarian politics;  the Jewish fugitive Holocaust in Budapest –  and raises the question: Is identity something you ‘chose’ or is it the very thing that you can’t escape?

My 2016 reading list:
Books I really enjoyed and definitely recommend:
Plato and a Platypus walk into a Bar by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart, a book that seeks to explain philosophy through jokes.  I laughed out loud reading some of these and couldn’t help but sharing some of the jokes with family and friends.  Here’s one that illustrates the Reductio ad absurdum argument in Existentialism (our tendency to unthinkingly identify with the attitudes and values of our social ggroup by showing use exaggerated instances):

Abe and his friend Sol are out for a walk. They pass a Catholic church with a sign out front that says “$1,000 to Anyone Who Who Converts.”
Sol decides to go inside and see what it’s all about.
Abe waits outside.  Hours go by.  Finally Sol emerges.
“So?” says Abe.  “What happened?” 
“I converted,” says Sol. 
“No kidding!” says Abe.  “Did you get the thousand pounds?”
Sol says “Is that all you people think about?”

An aside from the authors:  So we’re not politically correct.  We’re philosophers.  So sue us!

Barkskins by Annie Proulx.  Wow, what a writer.  I was in awe of her ability to create two interconnecting narratives that spanned three hundreds of years and traced not only the settlement of Canada but also the demise of the Indians through the story of two immigrants to New France, René Sel and Charles Duquet, and of their descendants. It spans over 300 years and witnesses the deforestation of the New World from the arrival of Europeans into the contemporary era of global warming. For a review/synposis, click here.

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood. Highly recommended, the protagonist is an artistic director who is about to stage a very controversial version of The Tempest when, in an act of treachery, he is fired.  Living in exile in a backwoods hovel he takes on a job of running  theatre course for inmates at a nearby prison.  Here, he takes his revenge in the form of putting on his Tempest.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. A the story of two families whose lives become intertwined and incredibly dysfunctional following a drunken kiss at a christening. It follows their lives over the course of five decades and culminates in the discovery by the youngest sibling that his life has been hijacked and turned into a best-selling novel and film. Read a synposis/review here. I also read her novel Run which tells the story of Bernard Doyle, an Irish Catholic Boston politician. He and wife Bernadette have one biological son and later adopt African-American brothers Tip and Teddy.  Four years later, Bernadette dies from cancer. Sixteen years later, Tip and Teddy are university students. Bernard, the former mayor of Boston, has invited them to a Jesse Jackson lecture and a reception afterward. Tip is pushed out of the path of an oncoming vehicle by a woman the family believes is a stranger. The novel’s plot centers around that woman’s identity and that of her 11-year-old daughter Kenya, who comes to stay with the Doyles. This is my least favourite of Patchett’s novels – it’s a bit schmaltzy.

The other book I loved by her is a series of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a memoir that is wide ranging and deeply personal, told with wit, honesty and charm. If you’re interested in finding out more about Ann Patchett, read her personal account of how she decided to open up a book store to keep independent bookstores alive:  The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Georgia Blain who sadly, died last year, is the daughter of celebrated Australian journalist Anne Deveson who wrote about her son’s schizophrenia Tell Me I’m Here and later went public about her own struggle with dementia. Births, Deaths and Marriages is Blain’s memoir which describes her experience of dealing with her family with honesty and bravery.  She also wrote very candidly about the ambivalence many women experience about parenting and motherhood. Other books by Blain I read are: Closed for Winter,  Too Close To Home and for me, her best book: Between a Wolf and a Dog click here for a good review/synopsis of this book.

All the Pretty Horses:  The Border Trilogy 1 by Cormac McCarthy – a must read for all.  I love the prose style – so quintessentially American (and I must read the other books in the series).

The Last Painting of  Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith tells the story of an Australian grad student (conservation/restoration) who agrees to paint a forgery of the one remaining painting by Sara de Vos who in 1631 was admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St Luke in Holland.   It’s a decision that later haunts her as half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. An very well-written and enaging book which is a bit of a thriller.

One Life: My mother’s Story by Kate Grenville – I can’t praise this biography highly enough.  It is everything that the Dusevic memoir (see below) is not. It reads like fiction rather than fact, imaginatively sympathetic, it’s a beautifully written and intimate account of her mother’s life.

M Train by Patti Smith.  I loved this little book by this wonderful poet.  Like her earlier book about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe Just Kids, I read this in small chunks, mesmerised by her wordcraft.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende is a beautiful book. It is the story of Irina Brazili, a care worker struggling to reconcile her own troubled past, who meets Alma (nearing the end of her life) and her grandson, Seth, at Lark House nursing home.  As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, and learn about an extraordinary and secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

Fall by Candice Fox.  I heard Candice Fox being interviewed on the radio and was incredibly impressed by the way she thought out the structure, narratives and characters of the three books in this series.  Dark, compelling, conflicted characters, like the other books in the series, this a real page turner.  This is the third novel in the series, following Hades, and Eden (both of which I had read at the end of 2015). Fall is perhaps not as gripping as the earlier two but it’s still a gripping thriller. Like I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, I highly recommend them (albeit they are essentially “pool-side reads”).

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a sad and very moving tale, focusing on the lives and friendship of four graduates from a small Massachusetts college who move to New York to make their way. Over the decades their relationships deepen and darken as they realise that their greatest challenge is to protect Jude,  a very talented litigator but an incredibly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome, but will define his life forever. I loved this book.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov who, in 1922 is put under house arrest at the Hotel Metropol where he has a suite.  Rostov is however confined to a tiny attic room and stripped of the trappings that defined his life.  Throughout his incarceration he questions what makes us who we are. This is not a novel of thrilling conflicts so much as charming encounters. As the years pass, the count always behaves as a perfect gentleman. He never complains about his confinement — never even admits that it is a confinement. This is a story of how for many decades, his life continues and changes within the milieu of this once cosmopolitan hotel.  A very engaging read.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann.  A story told from multiple perspectives about a senseless and brutal attack on an old man as he leaves his favourite restaurant following his usual lunch.

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Zubanski. I was very sceptical about a comedian’s ability to write well, but was suitably impressed; Magda Zubanski is  a very good story-teller.  This is an intimate and revelatory memoir, describing her journey of self-discovery from a suburban childhood, haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland and by her secret awareness of her sexuality.

Ducks on the Pond by Anne Summers is an autobiography spanning the years from 1945 to 1976. It charts her life, growing up in postwar Australia and her long journey which led to her becoming a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement (in Austraia), an award-winning journalist and ultimately a key adviser to prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  Summers was also instrumental in creating one of the first women’s refuge centres in Australia.  A remarkable woman, her book Damned Whores and God’s Police was seminal in changing the way that women saw themselves.  Interestingly, I only bought this book because I mixed up Anne Summers with Georgia Blain’s mother, Anne Deveson, also a writer and journalist.  However, I’m glad I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have read this interesting book about mid-century Australian feminist politics.

Kafka by the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  I loved this book.  It consists of two distinct but interrelated plots, with the narrative runing back and forth between both plots, taking up each plotline in alternating chapters.  It’s centred on two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. I think Helen Garner is one of Australia’s greatest writers and have loved her non-fiction books (This House of Grief, The Spare Room, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Cast the First Stone). Everywhere I Look is a book of essays, panning fifteen years of work, in no particular order but full of unexpected moments, sudden shafts of light, piercing intuition, flashes of anger and incidental humour. From backstage at the ballet to the trial of a woman for the murder of her newborn baby, from the significance of moving house to the pleasure of re-reading Pride and Prejudice. It includes Garner’s famous and controversial essay on the insults of age, her deeply moving tribute to her mother and extracts from her diaries, which have been part of her working life for as long as she has been a writer.

Diane Arbus: A biography.  Diane Arbus was an American photographer and writer noted for photographs of marginalised people – dwarfs, giant, transgender people, dusts, arrives performers – and others whose normally was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal.  Although she did many spreads for Vogue,  glamour, Seventeen and Harper’s Bazaar, Diane hated the fashion world and hated working for it.  Her work only came popular after her death – she committed suicide in 1971 – after which she became the first American photographer to have her work displayed at the Venice Biennale.

Modern Love:  The Lives of John and Sunday Read by Lesely Harding and Kendra Morgan.  A very detailed and insightful exploration of the Reads and the artists that were drawn into their orbit.

Books I read that enjoyed but were lightweight:
The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink is a novel about a fictitious painting called Woman on Staircase. The unnamed narrator is a German lawyer who, while on business in Australia, comes across the painting in a Sydney art gallery. Immediately, he is bewitched again by its subject: “She was softness, seduction and surrender.” Instead of flying back to Frankfurt, he contacts a detective agency to find out the owner of the painting and the whereabouts of the woman he loved and lost 40 years ago.1  I have read a  number of Schlink’s books since The Reader, none of them caught my interest as much a this first novel did.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss.  This is a story about the breakout of more than 1000 Japanese prisoners from their camp in Cowra on August 5, 1944  and of one prisoner – the sensitive, university-educated and English-speaking Hiroshi – who remains at large. His unexpected but fortunate fate is to find himself protected within the Erambie Aboriginal Mission outside the town, by elders who make the hard argued decision to harbour him in their air raid shelter. Interestingly a few years earlier I had read Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives about this same incident which dramatised tensions within the Japanese prisoner population  – between officers and other ranks, zealots with death wishes and others opting to wait for peace – and among their Australian jailers.

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, a novel about the key years in the life of Lucia Joyce, Joyce’s only daughter, who was confined to a mental institution for the last 47 or so years of her life. A “by the pool” read.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Frerick Backman – a light hearted read about and absurdly pedantic woman who finds herself after 20 years of marriage, separated from her husband and both unemployable and totally inept at social interactions. A quick “lie by the pool” read.

The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg follows one woman’s battle for survival in a saga that spans from Paris in the ’30s and Spain’s Civil War to Moscow, Warsaw and the heart of Nazi Germany.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higahino follows a twenty year journey of Detective Sagasaki as he pursues the connection of two people who are inextricably linked to an unsolved crime.  A great detective novel.

The Misremembered Man by Christins McKenna, a quirky little story about the search for love and life in rural Ireland.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Her unexpected visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters and her ambivalence towards her mother.  It’s a beautifully written story.

The Golden Son: A Novel by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is about a young Indian doctor who leaves his village for a residency in the US. But grapples with the expectation that as the oldest son, he is expected to inherit the mantle of arbiter for all village disputes. And he finds himself torn between a beautiful American girl and his old childhood friend. A very good read

While the World is Still Asleep by Petra Durst-Benning. Set in 1890s Berlin, this is the story of a young girl who, following the tragic death of her younger brother (for which she is blamed) is sent to a sanatorium where she discovers the joy of riding a bike. Back in Berlin, Josephine is determined to keep riding, despite a woman riding a bicycle being taboo.The title comes from her idea of riding under the cover of night, while the world is still asleep.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire is a psychological thriller about everyday violence, the media’s obsession with pretty dead girls, the grip of grief and the myth of closure, and the difficulties of knowing the difference between a ghost and a memory, between  monster and a man.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. This is a quirky debut about two ten-year-old girls who, following the disappearance of Mrs. Creasy take matters into their own hands. Inspired by the local vicar, they go looking for God—they believe that if they find Him they might also find Mrs. Creasy and bring her home.
Spunky, spirited Grace and quiet, thoughtful Tilly go door to door in search of clues. The cul-de-sac starts to give up its secrets, and the amateur detectives uncover much more than ever imagined. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a complicated history of deception begins to emerge. Read a review here.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan.  Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovers on the day of his retirement that he has inherited a baby elephant – an inconvenient gift, but as Inspector Chopra has one more case to solve he discovers an unexpected partner in the baby elephant.  This is a bit of romp in the same vein as Anelxander McCall Smith books.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan, another Australian writer who I have tended to find too light-weight. This is the story of a successful lawyer, bon vivant, loving husband and father who has a heart attack and dies while swimming in the local pool. A man apparently happily married, yet, with two divorces behind him and three puzzled children. As his family gathers each comes to the realisation that he was not the person everyone thought. Essentially, a book about the messiness of life.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Cathrine Lowell is the tale of Samantha Whipple, the last remaining descendent of the Bronte family who searches for clues to the real identity of the lesser known Bronte.

The Dust that Fall from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres.  For me, nothing beats Captain Correlli’s Mandolin which had me almost rationing my reading, desperately not wanting the book to end.  Red Dog is also a fabulous book (I got this on audio and really enjoyed listening to it while driving) and interestingly de Bernieres manages to get the Australian idiom spot on.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.The tale of the inhabitants of a small Sussex town in 1914. Another “pool-side read”.

The World Without Us by Mireille Jachau is a story of a family who each struggle with loss and frailty following the death of one of the three children.

Books I read that I enjoyed (sort of) but wouldn’t recommend:
The Wonder by Emma Donaghue is about a nurse who is sent to investigate whether an eleven-year-old girl who has stopped eating but remains miraculously alive and well, is a fraud.I gave up on this as it was a bit slow.

The One Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  This has been made into a film and I  think the film was better than the book, though I didn’t finish either.

The Blue Guitar by John Banville – I realised a quarter into this book why I wasn’t a fan of Banville’s.

The Light Years:  The Cazalet Chronicles 1 & Marking ztime:  The Cazalet Chronicles 2 by Elizabeth Jane Howard – somewhat dated and lacking in any real substance. I read these because I had read a review about Howard’s autobiography and thought the books would be worth reading first.  I was wrong.

Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim follows two characters: Lisbeth, the daughter of the plantation owner and Mattie, her wet nurse, a slave on the plantation. Mattie is brought into the house to feed Lisbeth but Lisbeth is so attached to her that Mattie basically raises Lisbeth. Mattie longs to be able to raise her own son, Samuel, and finds ways of entwining Samuel and Lisbeth’s lives. However Samuel is sold to a neighbouring plantation and there begins a sad trajectory. The story of slavery, the desparate attempts to flee and the dire consequences has been well documented and written about.  Despite the novel approach I got bored (in anticipation of the inevitable) and didn’t finish it.

Whole Wild World: A Memoir by Tom Dusevic,who is a Walkley Award-winning journalist.  Essentially it’s about his growing up in Sydney in a migrant – Croatian – family.  I found it a bit ho hum and couldn’t really be bothered with it.  Something about the tone or timbre of his writing.  Perhaps he’s better suited to journalism.

And finally, the worst book I read:
The Mountain Shadow:  The long-awaited sequel to Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which just made me very angry.  So badly written and so condescending. Don’t bother.

I think there have been one or two other books that I read and quickly handed on to the second-hand bookshop, but if I can’t remember them then they’re not worth mentioning.

This has turned out to be a far greater list than anticipated.  It appears that I have had somewhat indolent year, but I hope you find some inspiration for your reading. And please let me know of books that you have read and enjoyed – I’m always on the look out for a good read.