One of the most thrilling sentences I’ve heard this year is – “I’ve just given your book as a present because I know that my Dad/friend/cousin will really enjoy it.”
To be “gifted on” has been the unanticipated joy of writing a book. I have one friend who has popped in several times to ask me to inscribe copies, and each time I feel honoured and excited to be the gift given. Maybe it’s because one of my biggest pleasures has always been to go into a bookstore to select a book for someone. Arranging that marriage of writer and recipient is endlessly fascinating as I weigh up whether the relationship should be challenging, consoling, sensual, amusing or intellectual. It’s made even more of a joy when a knowledgeable bookseller makes recommendations and I have to consider stranger, but equally attractive, possibilities than those I had begun with. Such fun!
Then there is the treat of being given a book voucher and browsing the shelves for myself. That almost equals the moment of receiving a book wrapped in crisp paper!
The other deep pleasure is when I’m recommended a book. “You haven’t read it, Ailsa? I can’t believe that. You must! You will love it!” That certainty. That wish to share the story or poem that has shaken someone’s foundations, or made them step into the world and see it with new eyes. I’ve been recommended some wonders in the past few months, and I thought I would pass on a few of my favourites here. These are the books I have given – and they are also books that keep on giving. In no particular order…
I’ve actually read this twice now. I bought it the minute it came out, and gulped it down greedily, loving Sophie Cunningham’s very particular portrait of her Melbourne, which overlaps and intersects with my Melbourne, but which also uncovered aspects that surprised me, both historically and topographically.
I read it again after asking her to sign a copy for me at Byron, and I’m so glad I did. It merits a second, slower read. Rather like Melbourne itself, it is full of by-ways and diversions. It details our clans and allegiances (yes, like the football…our Cats did not make it to the final this year), and focusses on 2009, the year of fires. It is beautifully crafted, seamlessly blending the personal and the public life of the city and the author. Read it wherever you live.
Rodney Hall’s book of short stories – Silence – was an epiphany for me at the beginning of the year. I waxed about it to everyone I met. We created a night of words and music around it at the Airey’s Inlet Festival. I gave it for birthdays and beloveds.
I have read much of Rodney’s work, and always admired it, but these stories woke me to what a master of the short story he is. They are the work of decades, and they reward reading and re-reading. Infinitely varied in tone and setting, they are by turns fierce, tender and always true.
I can’t go another minute without mentioning Charlotte Wood. I know she has had air-time here before, and maybe my admiration for her is already obvious, but she has produced two books in twelve months and both of them are magnificent. Animal People is a novel of dark humour, wisdom and compassion, with a central character who must be put onto a cinema screen. It is one of the most vivid portraits of person and place I’ve ever read, and Sydney streets will always look different after reading this. Love and Hunger is just my favourite book of the year for its generosity, its tender heart, its moral wrangling with contemporary issues and its complexity. Enough said? Not really, but you get the picture!
OK, so there had to be something Spanish!
Lucia Graves is the daughter of Robert Graves. She grew up in Spain, and writes about it with the particular intimacy of an insider/outsider. It is exquisite as biography, as cultural document and as a history of a particular time. It’s not easy to track down but I can’t recommend it enough. And for those of you who enjoy Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it is Lucia Graves who translates his works so brilliantly into English.
Seek her out. Do!
You don’t need me to tell you the wonders inside this cover, but it has been great to go back and re-read, re-savour, replenish.
Even in translation, Lorca’s words pierce psyche, heart, conscience, intellect. All.
They are lush and lovely.
An essential indulgence.
And speaking of lush and lovely…
I couldn’t wait to read Susan Johnson’s new book My Hundred Lovers. I am a paid-up fan over many years. It is one hundred shades of sensuality, and is crafted masterfully. Lap it up. And while you are seeking it out, see if you can find my favourite of hers – A Better Woman. It remains one of those lifelong “besties” for me. I have given it and given it. I re-read it in the light of her new book and it is just as potent and wrenching. Hard to find but you can get it with the help of a good bookseller or online. Maybe we can force a reprint if enough of us ask.
Also potentially hard to get, but worth tracking, is Hilary McPhee’s timeless book Other People’s Words. Hunt it down.
I have loved this since it was first released. It is wise, funny, meticulously observed, full of delicious details, and delivers way more than its humble title suggests.
These are Hilary’s words, and so of course they are gold. If you love Australian writing, this book is almost a primer for you. On every page there is something to savour and remember.
The poet (and friend!) E.A. Horne recommended Bereft at the beginning of the year. I read it in the heat of summer, and couldn’t put it down.
Dark, gothic and poetic, with hints of another favourite, Sonya Hartnett, but entirely individual, it is bound to be a film because every page is so vividly evoked. I could see, smell, taste the place, and held my breath on every page. Brilliant characters and an Australia that is both familiar and strange. Magnificent.
I’m not sure I can add anything to what you already have read about All That I Am. It has won all the big prizes this year, and is a masterly novel that squeezes the heart and challenges the mind. It is also an exercise in writing place – each location is brilliantly evoked. But I did want to remind you about Stasiland, Anna Funder’s previous book, which remains on my all-time top ten. I could just list superlatives endlessly, or you could just get your hands on it!
I’m currently finishing off this collection of writings by Robert Dessaix. I would never miss anything he writes, even though I have moments of being shocked by his curmudgeonly take on things.
Or is that why I love him? He’s unflinching and pithy, and his view of the world is particular and incisive. I saw him speak at the Wheeler Centre earlier this year, and just wanted him to go on and on. That mix of generosity and sharpness is entirely seductive. I don’t want the book to end. I know he is not everyone’s taste – I’ve had arguments about this – but I’m in awe of him. And in delight. And anyway, why be to everyone’s taste?
Well, I’ve already started to delve into Fishing the River of Time, and I know it is going to be a perfect follow-up to Dessaix. Completely different in tone, but equal in craft and detail, from the truly lovely first sentence I was hooked.
Just google it and you will be seduced by the story. The writing lives up to all promises.
I have to stop. I could go on and on, but I have a tale to write for Wednesday’s story-telling night at Grumpy Swimmer bookshop in Elwood, and a letter to pen for Sunday’s Women of Letters event.
And I have books to read. What a privilege that is, and what companions they are.
The list is far from complete. The year has delivered so many other treats – essays and ruminations, picture books and poetry, genre novels and plays. But I offer these up as possibilities. Walk into a bookstore or a library in search of one of them, and I guarantee you will emerge with a friend.
Or a gift – for yourself or someone else. No matter. You will have had pleasure before you even open the pages!
OOPS! A postscript added later.
The other thrilling sentence of this week was “Did you see that great review in Sunday’s Sun-Herald in Sydney?”
I hadn’t, but friends sent me a photo. And here it is for you. My gratitude for the pic, and also to the reviewer – Rosemarie Milson – for her kind words.