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Posts tagged ‘Ann Patchett’

Best Books 2019

9780241143803I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling 2019 was a year when reading felt necessary, not so much as an escape from the world, but because the kinds of truths it communicates so often seemed an antidote to the increasingly demented and distracted world around us.

Of the books that helped, the best were smart and sane, but also not afraid to engage with the world as it is. This is especially true of the third instalment in Ali Smith’s marvellous Seasons Quartet, Spring, Lucy Ellmann’s massive Ducks, Newburyport, and Max Porter’s glorious Lanny. All three offer marvellous examples of the ways in which fiction can absorb and refract the rhythms and textures of its moment and fashion something revelatory from them. Charlotte Wood’s scabrous and hilarious The Weekend and Elizabeth Strout’s almost casually brilliant Olive Again achieve something similar in their portrait of the lives of the characters at their centre, as well as exploring the often neglected experience of ageing (in the case of The Weekend, it’s particularly fascinating to be reminded of just how bodily a writer Wood is, and of the degree to which all her books are engaged with questions of physicality and decay).

9780702260384.jpgOther books I loved included Tony Birch’s The White Girl, a book whose power lies not just in its subject matter, but in the devastating simplicity and clarity of Birch’s storytelling; Bernadine Evaristo’s Man Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other; Wendy Erskine’s marvellously compressed and blackly hilarious Sweet Home (seek it out); and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s portrait of New York life amongst the super-rich, Fleishman is in Trouble, a book that subverts the reader’s expectations in fascinating ways. Likewise I greatly enjoyed Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans, Sean Williams’ Impossible Music, and (although I suspect it’s not the best of the Jackson Brodie books) I loved every moment of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky.

I also very much admired both Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, a pair of books that have the distinction of being novels by poets that deliberately situate themselves in the unstable, interstitial space between memoir and fiction. In the case of Lerner’s I’m not convinced some of the larger connections he wants to make quite come off, but the precision and brilliance of the writing and his control of structure and the competing perspectives of the characters is so impressive I didn’t care; in the case of the Vuong the parts I found most affecting were in fact in the second half, and in particular his portrait of his relationship with his former lover and their home town.

original.jpegSadly I was less excited by the final instalment in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, The End. Partly that was to do with the surfaces of the prose – in contrast to the deliberately artless language of the first five volumes a lot of The End has the slightly-too-buffed tone of a New Yorker profile – but it was also because it often felt like the book was rehearsing Knausgaard’s greatest hits (Here I am doing domesticity in excruciating detail! Here I am worrying about my art!). But in the end, even despite moments of brilliance, it just didn’t feel substantial enough to address the concerns that are so wrenchingly explored in the first five.

As I’ve said before, I find the language we use to describe fiction engaged with questions of environmental crisis fairly problematic, but however we choose to classify it, I don’t think there’s any question Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island is likely to become one of the classic texts of the field, not least for the incredibly sophisticated way it uses the liminal landscape of the Chesapeake to elide the boundaries between past, present and future to show us we are already living in the midst of a crisis, it’s just that (to borrow William Gibson’s aphorism) it’s unevenly distributed. I also loved Alice Bishop’s incredibly intense and beautifully observed depiction of the Black Saturday bushfires, A Constant Hum, which I would also see as a significant contribution to the literature of environmental crisis in general, and the literature that has grown out of Black Saturday in particular. And I hugely admired Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, a book that makes fascinating connections between the past and the present by unpicking the intertwined forces of colonialism, capitalism and climate change, and Ben Smith’s starkly observed and very powerfully written breakdown narrative, Doggerland.

40121978._SY475_.jpgOf the speculative fiction I read the two standouts were Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers. If you haven’t read the Maughan, make the time: it’s a startlingly intelligent and profoundly political interrogation of surveillance culture and late capitalism. The Wendig is also wonderful: a seamless fusion of horror and science fiction that manages to be oddly timeless and incredibly topical. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation and Helen Phillips’ The Need are also terrific, as are Garth Nix’s wildly enjoyable Angel Mage and Margaret Morgan’s sleekly subversive The Second Cure, a book that feels more prescient almost by the hour. And although it seems to have passed a lot of people by, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower is an absolutely fascinating exercise in what is as much a form of environmental writing as fantasy.

In recent years writing about the natural world has taken on a new urgency, charged not just with helping us see the world in new ways but with bearing witness to the scale of the transformation taking place around us. Of the non-fiction concerned with these questions I read this year, three books stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first was Robert Macfarlane’s stunning Underland. I’ve been a huge admirer of Macfarlane’s work since The Wild Places, but Underland is invested with an urgency and a depth of thinking that pushes it to a new level. It’s an astonishing book. 

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I was also hugely impressed by Sophie Cunningham’s wonderfully peripatetic City of Trees. Like Underland it’s a book that’s simultaneously focussed on the particular and the global, and asks vital and profound questions about our responsibilities to the past and the future. I loved it.

And finally there was Barry Lopez’s Horizon. If I had to make a list of books that I can honestly say changed my life, Lopez’s Arctic Dreams would be close to the top. I’m not sure Horizon is as easy to admire as Arctic Dreams – it’s a much more conflicted, troubled work, that’s closer in many ways to the kinds of autobiographical writing Lopez published in About This Life, but that sense Lopez is grappling with his legacy and trying to make sense of his larger project is part of what makes it so fascinating, and so profound. It’s a remarkable book, and one I suspect I’ll be returning to.

I also very much admired a number of the essays in Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing, David Wallace-Wells’ brilliant and completely uncompromising synthesis of the bad news on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, and Ian Urbina’s thrilling and often deeply confronting portrait of life on the high seas, The Outlaw Ocean. And closer to home I was incredibly impressed by Vicki Hastrich’s illuminating and expansive essays about the waterways of the central coast, memory and seeing, Night Fishing. And although it’s not about the natural world, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism should be compulsory reading for everybody.

I also very much enjoyed a few things from previous years, in particular Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Robbie Arnott’s magic realist Tasmanian Gothic, Flames, Rebecca Makkai’s wonderfully observed The Great Believers and Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. I also finally got around to Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, which is precisely as good as everybody says it is.

As always there are also a number of things I didn’t get to but hopefully will in the next few weeks, in particular Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus, Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. In the meantime I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and that 2020 is an improvement on 2019.

Best Books 2016

Spiotta.jpgIt’s that time of year, so because what the world needs is yet another best of the year list (surely it’s time we all went meta and started producing lists of the best best of lists?) I thought I’d pull together a quick roundup of some of the books I loved this year (if I get the time I’ll also put together a few music picks).

If you’d like to get a head start you can check out the Best Books features in The Weekend Australian (Part One and Part Two) and Australian Book Review, both of which include some of my selections as well as those of many other smart, interesting people, or indeed the features in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which I’m not part of but are terrific. And you can also hear me in conversation with Jonathan Strahan, Gary Wolfe and Ian Mond about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year on The Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review episode.

As I say in The Weekend Australian, my favourite book of the year was Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, the follow-up to her fabulous Stone Arabia. I’m a huge fan of Spiotta, and like all her books Innocents and Others is just thrilling as a piece of literary art: beautifully written, strikingly intelligent about the questions of friendship and art at its core, wonderfully oblique in its approach to narrative. If you haven’t read it I recommend it very much (in fact I recommend all her books).

Barkskins.jpgI also hugely admired Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, a book that forces the reader to confront the scale of the destruction humans are visiting on the world around us, and which, in its final, wrenching sections, embodies more than a little of the incoherent grief so many of us feel. It’s also a book that makes a useful companion piece to three of the best non-fiction books I read this year, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and Horatio Clare’s slim but often profound search for a vanished bird, Orison for a Curlew.

I was also deeply impressed by Colson Whitehead’s speculative reworking of the history of slavery, The Underground Railroad, Frances Spufford’s gloriously poised and entirely delightful riff on the eighteenth century novel, Golden Hill (a book that deserved much more attention than it received), Ann Patchett’s characteristically smart and expansive Commonwealth, Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, and the fifth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Some Rain Must Fall (like many people I’m torn between being unable to wait for the sixth and regret that it will be the final volume).

Amsterdam.jpgI’m not sure it would be correct to say I loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but other than the Proulx I’m not sure any book affected me more this year: I found its portrait of grief and mental illness and their generational legacy deeply distressing and extremely powerful. Something similar is true of Han Kang’s intense and deeply disquieting The Vegetarian, while Elizabeth Strout’s hugely impressive My Name is Lucy Barton is distinguished by the pain that lurks in its silences. And although Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out approaches its subject with a real lightness of touch, its exploration of the ways in which assisted suicide affects those who must facilitate it is hugely intelligent and very moving.

Other novels I enjoyed very much include David Dyer’s wonderful Titanic novel, The Midnight Watch, Sarah Perry’s exuberant The Essex Serpent, Mike McCormack’s novel in a single sentence, Solar Bones, Ali Smith’s Autumn, J.M. Coetzee’s delightfully strange and darkly witty The Schooldays of Jesus and Kirsten Tranter’s beautifully pitched study of grief, Hold. And while I came to them late (and I don’t think the stories are necessarily best served by being presented in collected form) I was hugely impressed by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Dark Emu.jpgIn terms of non-fiction, my pick of the year is Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant study of pre-contact Aboriginal agriculture and technology, Dark Emu. There aren’t many books I think every Australian should read but Pascoe’s is definitely one of them. I also very much admired Amy Liptrot’s Wainwright Prize winner, The Outrun, Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Kate Summerscale’s brilliant The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. I also hugely enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s foray into memoir, Born to Run, and although I read it under sad conditions, Simon Critchley’s wonderful Bowie, a book that along with Hugo Wilcken’s study of Low is, for my money, the best of the small library of Bowie books I’ve read in the past couple of years (if you’re interested you can check out my essay about Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which is also in this year’s Best Australian Essays).

I’m biased, obviously, but of the science fiction and fantasy I read my favourite was the first instalment in my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new series for middle grade readers, Escape to the Moon Islands. Like all her books it’s warm and funny and wonderfully original and I can’t recommend it enough (it also has a talking parrot).

In second place was Garth Nix’s Goldenhand, which saw Nix return to the Old Kingdom with triumphant results, but it was a close-run thing with Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderfully expansive sort-of sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, Children of Earth and Sky, and I also very much enjoyed the conclusion to Paul McAuley’s Jackaroo duology, Into Everywhere, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station and Charlie Jane Anders’ exuberant Anthropocene fantasy/sci fi mash-up, All The Birds in the Sky. And while it isn’t strictly speculative, I also hugely admired Nike Sulway’s Dying in the First Person.

There’s not really any competition for comic of the year as far as I’m concerned: that crown goes to Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s stunning Vision, but I also loved Adrian Tomine’s short graphic stories, Killing and Dying.

Wolf and a Dog.jpegAnd finally, although my experience of it was tinged with great sadness, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog. Georgia’s death a fortnight ago from brain cancer leaves a huge hole in so many people’s lives, but it has also robbed us of one of the most important voices in contemporary Australian literature: Georgia’s writing, both fictional and non-fictional, was always distinguished by her preparedness to speak plainly and truthfully about her own experience, the lives of women and the demands and contradictions of family and love, and to my mind at least she was one of the bravest writers I have ever known. Worse yet, it came at a time when Georgia’s work seemed to have found a new freedom and expansiveness, qualities that are very much on display in Between a Wolf and a Dog, and which I am certain will be everywhere in the book she completed in her final months, The Museum of Words, which will be published next year. I wrote a short piece about Georgia and her work for the Fairfax press, but there have also been beautiful tributes to her from Charlotte WoodSophie Cunningham and Jane Gleeson-White, and a terrific piece about her and her mother, Anne Deveson (who died only three days after Georgia) by Anne Summers. As Sophie says, she was magnificent.