What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

November 2017 - Favourites of 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, November 01, 2017
Jonathon: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle—A mental health nurse who became one of the USA’s most revered songwriters wrote this book. John Darnielle’s second novel deals with family, loss and the temptation of Evangelism on the frayed ends of rural USA. A video store clerk strives to reveal an opaque local horror when he stumbles upon scenes of torture randomly dubbed onto VHS tapes. This subtly written and expertly plotted book urges us to pursue our truths in the gaps in local memories. I read it in two shots.

Sally: My choice for Book of the Year is Anything is Possible  by Elizabeth Strout. These beautifully modulated stories explore relationships and memory in a small community in ways that are both surprising and profound.

John: It comes as no surprise to my colleagues that my pick of the year is John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies. Set between the Cold War of the 60s and today, le Carré revisits the world of George Smiley and a past when the Cold War was hot, spies were on the front line, and mistakes fatal. That world looks rather different today and the death of Alec Leamas, fifty years ago is under investigation. A riveting read that blends the politics of today with the actions of half a century ago. I would also like to highly recommend Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man—a political thriller set in Australia in 1972 with the background of social change and the first Labour government for 23 years—a skilful blend fact and fiction. And for a change of pace Tony Birch’s collection Common People—wonderful vignettes of lives largely unnoticed told.

Liz: My favourite novel this year was The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser. Like a series of interconnected short stories or novellas that circle back on characters lives from different perspectives and time periods this book is hilarious and moving with deep poetic pockets. Among other things it feels out horrible loneliness and fragile connection in a world of frantic social media. I don’t think I will be alone as a reader in finding this book’s biting satire pitch perfect and deliciously unsettling as it feels so close to home. Anyone who has been to a writers’ festival, met a book publicist, studied or taught creative writing, tried to be a ‘writer’ or prided themselves on being ethical, creative, vegetarian or Australian will be by turns highly amused and exposed by de Kretser’s quick wit. Such a clever and beautiful novel!

Andrew: My two favourites topped and tailed the year. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders with its dazzling inventiveness, black humour, and humanity started the year, and in Manhattan Beach Jennifer Egan charges a traditional historical novel with her phosphorescent precision prose just in time for Christmas. Oh, and honourable mention to Colm Tóibín—he never ever disappoints, and his House of Names was a high wire daredevil triumph.

Tamarra: Crosstalk by Connie Willis: This is a sci-fi romantic comedy of sorts with a nod and twist to all the social media we now use. In the near future couples can experience connectivity on a higher level by means of a new medical procedure which allows them to experience mutual empathy.

Tatjana: Soviet Bus Stops Volume 2: When you think of the Soviet Union, you might think Lenin, Stalin, the Iron Curtain, KGB, communism but it turns outs it was also the nation of bus stops. At a time when car owners were few, a vast transportation system was needed and so buses became essential. In the more remote areas, the bus shelter became even more important as it was a convenient place for people to gather and socialise. The shelters are the experimental legacies of mostly unknown architects who might have otherwise been stymied by central planning—but here they were allowed freedom to create these small impressive, sometimes bizarre, eccentric and often just weird bus shelters. Their styles vary from 1920s modernist, to strict Brutalist, to folksy outsider and Gaudi inspired mosaic structures. Photographer Christopher Herwig travelled across the former USSR over 12 years to document these small bursts of creativity that dot the landscape, especially in remote rural areas. If they are now in ruin it only enhances how wonderfully weird & whimsical they are.

Hannah: When we are called upon to nominate our end-of-year favourite I usually vacillate between three or four novels, but this year there was one book that was head and shoulders above the rest, and, unusually, a non-fiction title. Priestdaddy by poet Patricia Lockwood is a unique account of when she and her husband moved back in with her completely insane, gun-loving, semi-nudist Catholic priest father. Autobiographies are rarely this funny, well-written, honest, and, dare I say, brilliant. Lockwood has what’s been described as ‘lexical synesthesia’—her original way of looking at the world makes her a great poet and a memoirist par excellence. Please, please read this book.

Ingrid: Charlotte is a compelling verse novel by David Foenkinos about short, tragic life of German artist Charlotte Salomon. It is sad, and beautiful and you will find yourself searching for her paintings. I read it in almost one sitting at the start of the year, and hope more people will read this, as it will lead them to discover her work. At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York is Adam Gopnik’s account of his move to New York as a newly-married postgraduate in the early 1980s. Some of the stories may be familiar from reading the New Yorker or listening to Moth, but it is wonderful to have these not so much collected but forming a narrative. It encompasses life in New York, studying, starting work, the changing art world, his friendship with Richard Avedon, amongst others, and, of course, writing and criticism. Gopnik is humorous and thoughtful. This is a book that can be dipped into again and again or read from cover to cover.

Ben: Polly and Buster: The Wayward Witch and the Feeling Monster by Sally Rippin— The first book in Rippin’s magical new series! Polly isn’t a very good student witch, but with the help of her monster friend Buster, she learns there is more important things than being good at spells. A story about acceptance, tolerance and friendship. Easy to read and suitable for young readers not ready for Harry Potter.

Mandy: The Shop at Hoopers Bend by Emily Rodda—A string of coincidences and uncharacteristically rash decisions bring 11 year old orphan Quil and recently-retired Bailey together at the shop at Hoopers Bend in the Blue Mountains. While Bailey recovers from a minor injury, they fall easily into a companionable routine, hatching plans to revive the old shop. As the layers of the past are peeled back, Quil understands why she feels so at home here. This warm, magical, atmospheric novel is a charming read by one of Australia’s best storytellers for children—I loved it! Also, I’m only a little way into the thrilling fantasy Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, about an 11 year old cursed child who’s been given a chance to change her destiny. This is a fabulous debut by Queenslander Jessica Townsend, and I’m absolutely hooked!

Victoria: A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman—A book about Israel; about people and societies and their sometimes horrible malfunctions and written at the pace of a stand-up comedian. The reader doesn’t have a clue where the narrative is going until it hits you in the face. Wonderfully written and exceptionally translated from Hebrew. Couldn’t put it down!

Jan: I just loved The Choke by Sophie Laguna—and when I turned the final page I cried and cried. It is a beautifully written, tragic tale; heartachingly told through the naive voice of a young protagonist.

Louise: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie has died, and has been temporarily  interred in a cemetery in Washington DC. He has also been caught in the Bardo—the crepuscular zone  between life and rebirth, according to Tibetan teachings. The narrative resonates with voices of ghosts and their stories, and despite its grim setting—a graveyard over one night—it’s a book of great beauty and humour, with a surprisingly reassuring perspective of life and death. I loved it.

Tim: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—A surreal, funny, and very moving novel.

David G: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North deserved its plaudits, but the new one, First Person, is his best novel yet. At once raw and sophisticated in its exploration of what creative writing really is, this is a book drawn from Flanagan’s life experience. What he does with this extended reflection on truth in writing is remarkable and impressive

Janice: My favourite book of the year I think has to be Insomniac City by Bill Hayes. It’s wonderfully evocative of Manhattan. I love Oliver Sacks, and Bill Hayes, and their relationship shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

Judy: Two favourites out of many reading adventures this year: Charlotte by David Foenkinos concerning the passionate life of artist Charlotte Salomon. The beautiful poetic form of this short work makes it a joy to read. Charlotte springs from the page much like her art work—full of life, even though her beginnings and her ending are sad as sad can be. Highly recommended. Manhattan Beach is the brand new novel by Jennifer Egan, author of the fabulous A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s set in Manhattan and Brooklyn over The Depression and war years—the docks, the apartments, the street corners, come to feel as familiar as a stage set. The characters are so essentially interesting and also so loveable it makes you glad to spend time with them. A great choice for a Christmas present for a lover of fine writing.

Scott V: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow—One of the founding fathers of the United States and such a fascinating character. Born in humble circumstances in the Caribbean, Hamilton was General Washington’s right hand man during the revolutionary war and then through Washington’s Presidency. Hamilton saw the United States as one nation rather than a set of loosely aligned states and, for better or worse, helped to found many of the federal institutions we know today:  including the army, navy and the nation’s economic system. He engaged in bitter rivalries with his political opponents and was involved in a sordid sex scandal. His tragic death (and what a death it was!) proved an apt match for his extraordinary life. (Broadway even turned his life into a hit musical.) A great read.

Jack: ‘Books (to quote Samuel Beckett) that caused the same old tears in the same old places’: Mancunia by Michael Symmons Roberts. ‚ÄčThe Return by Hisham Matar. Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist  by Paul Kingsnorth. Confabulations by John Berger. This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Morgan: For me, nothing surpasses The Life to Come, a recent release by Michelle de Kretser. I can do no better than quote from a review in The Saturday Paper ‘...by turns wise and abrasive, witty and poignant....an extraordinary evocation of how joy and melancholy mingle in the wakeful anguish of the soul’. I am calling it—de Kretser is the very best fiction writer working in Australia today.

Steve: The Prince and the Assassin by Steve Harris—Clontarf, Sydney, 12 March 1868: Henry James O’Farrell, an Irish-born, Catholic nationalist shot and wounded Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria—’to revenge the wrongs of Ireland’. The louche 23 year old Prince was making the first ever Royal visit to Australia. O’Farrell—stricken by business failures and alcoholism—was clearly mentally unbalanced but that did not spare him from the gallows ten days later. In the interim, the anguished Colonies indulged in frenzied displays of Imperial devotion; NSW Premier Henry Parkes passed the punitive Treason Felony Act; Victoria was derided by NSW for harbouring ‘Fenian terrorists’—O’Farrell had lived in Ballarat—and the sectarian divisions of the nation became ever more entrenched. This is a compelling account of a forgotten political crime and its repercussions.

David M: Well, it could have been Lincoln in the Bardo, but I think it has to be the author who should have won that other prize and didn't. I first read Murakami about ten years ago, and was transfixed in turn (and in that order) by Kafka On the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. His new collection of stories, Men Without Women, for the most part makes no use of magical realism, and in certain respects reminds me of the melancholy grace which characterises some mid-20th Century European short fiction. But the whole set is uniquely informed and enriched by two stories which separately invoke the Scheherazade and Metamorphosis (Kafka) tropes, each with its attendant associations, mythical depth, and literary self-consciousness. I have a few reservations about the translations, although I understand that they have generally been applauded. These stories continue to reverberate and grow in my mind. Here is quiet mastery.

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