As the year draws to an end, we asked a few of our favorite people in the book world—novelists, poets, booksellers, critics and translators—to share their most memorable reading experiences over the past twelve months, regardless of publication date. Other than reading itself, few things in the life of a reader are more exciting than hearing from others who share our passions. We hope the following titles and recommendations add to your list as it did to ours.
One of my favorite reading experiences is coming to a novel in a complete state of innocence, knowing absolutely nothing about the author, the subject matter, the critical reception... nothing. For an obsessive reader—and in this age of hyper-information—this is a rare occurrence, but it happened to me this year with the novel A General Theory of Oblivion by José Agualusa. I was assigned to interview Agualusa for a newspaper I occasionally write for here in Buenos Aires. Before Googling the author, I just dove into the story. It is set in Angola during the thirty-year civil war. I am embarrassed to say I knew nothing about this country. In the novel—I am not giving anything away, this happens at the very beginning—the protagonist retreats into her apartment to wait out the conflict. It will be a long wait.
Agualusa—who I was able to meet—is a prolific fifty-five-year-old author. In English, A General Theory of Oblivion is published by the magnificent Archipelago Books, which publishes Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. I am not embarrassed to admit that along with novels, I tend to fall in love with their writers. I cannot conceive of the novel as an utterly objective artifice free from the author’s persona. I was sold on Agualusa after reading his book and more so after speaking with him in a café in Buenos Aires. He was a solid person. No bullshit. This is rare nowadays.
A few anecdotes. When he was a child, his father was a teacher on the railroads built by the British. He had his own car at the back of the formation that served as the classroom (he taught the railroad workers work-related subjects). Frequently rebels would attack the trains, but for Agualusa, a boy, it all seemed like a great adventure. Another. Gabriel García Márquez visited Angola and upon arriving said “I am an Angolan” because it reminded him of his homeland.
I strongly recommend this book. It is short, surprising and brilliant. And now, entering a Trump presidency, it inevitably takes on a different weight. Everything seems to have changed. It will help to look at countries that have suffered true tyrannies, like Angola. Both to be on guard but also to not to hysterically exaggerate the dire situation that we are in.
Reading great books clarifies the mind and steadies the spirit. The General Theory of Oblivion is a great novel
Andrés Hax is a cultural reporter based in Buenos Aires.
My reading year became much more disjointed and erratic than I had expected. So many plans thwarted by whim! Some of my favorite reads this year smashed against what I thought I knew about my preferences. Even though I generally find crime novels stressful or (perversely) boring, I loved Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett about a young man pushed by his stifling society to commit a gruesome crime; the first volume of crime comedy series about bumbling twin brothers in Barcelona, A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana; and The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson that fictionalizes an episode in Patricia Highsmith’s life. I read few young adult novels, but I should try more if Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is any indication of the quality of what’s being written for kids today. I loved the way Stead got inside the mind of a sweet, confused twelve-year-old who doesn’t yet have the language to confront the challenges in her friendships and her own emerging values.
The novels that touched me most this year include Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, a surprisingly fast-witted and funny story about four young people whose lives are upended by the Second World War; Someone by Alice McDermott, which follows a woman through the memories of loving her father, creating the kinds of stories about strange neighbors that only children can spin, stumbling through romances and a job comforting the bereaved; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks, in which a World War II veteran searches for the truth about his unknown World War I veteran father; LaRose by Louise Erdrich, about two families torn apart but forever connected by the death of a child; Ian McEwan’s Nutshell for its brazenly preposterous premise and its gleeful writing. Perhaps my novel of the year, though, is Unknown Caller by Debra Spark. She’s created one of the most emotionally complex, conflicting and satisfying books I’ve encountered in a long time. I continue to carry her understanding of the fluidity of identity with me.
My favorite Australian novels this year couldn’t be more different: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar and the Miles Franklin-winning Black Rock White City by A. S. Patrić. Salt Creek is a heartbreaking, fully realized story of a once-wealthy family trying to adapt to the harsh demands of South Australia farming and their contact with the Aboriginal people whose lives they upend. More in the tradition of the European novel and with a European sensibility, Black Rock White City follows a Serbian couple who have fled destruction for the relative safety of Melbourne, where the husband becomes a janitor at a hospital and the wife cleans houses. Menacing graffiti begins to appear in the hospital as the couple’s fragile façade in this new city cracks.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett just came out, but I’ve already read it twice. The only book I read more times in the past twelve months is The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, which surprises and delights me every time. The Great Big Doorstep by E. P. O’Donnell, first published in 1941, is my pick for best recovered classic. It became a portal into a collective past. I just started The Mothers by Brit Bennett and can already tell I'm going to love it and press it onto others.
In nonfiction, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded me of how much more there is to know, how much more I have to strive toward understanding and empathy. Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) chronicles moments in the lives of European refugees from World War II. In fewer than two hundred pages, it captures the fear, the uncertainty, the disbelief that the world can forget about the vulnerable displaced. Siri Hustvedt remains one of the most exciting novelists and thinkers at work today. I constantly interrupted my reading of her latest collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, to email long quotes to several friends. She's fierce, provocative, inspiring.
Anyone interested in the creative process would do well to read Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. She's wry, practical and encouraging while she looks straight on at the rejection, fear, anxiety and excitement that lives alongside every work of the imagination. And one last pick: Charles Johnson's The Way of the Writer. This one's a cheat since it's only been out for days and I haven't yet read it, but he's a master and I can't wait to get my hands on it. I think about his professionalism, his dedication and his tenacity (he wrote several "apprentice" novels before he was ever published) every time I get stuck.
As in most years, Australian books have preoccupied me this year, the delight I take in them heightened by the threatened demise of Australian publishing as a result of the government’s intention to repeal parallel import restrictions for books.
My book of the year is Griffith Review 54, Earthly Delights: The Novella Project IV. All five novellas have such intensity and focus that they will linger in the mind long into the future, especially the utterly compelling “The last taboo: A love story” by Suzanne McCourt and “Datsunland” by Stephen Orr.
Georgia Blain’s latest novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, about a day in the lives of four adult members of one family is a standout for both the lyrical quality of her writing and her compassionate insight into the lives of ordinary people.
My favorite discovery this year was Rodney Hall, an award-winning writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Inspired by Robert Graves’s poem “Love Without Hope,” his novel of the same name addresses hopeless love, imprisonment and flight. Hall explores the wrongful exercise of power with fierce intelligence and wit, and his lyrical and rhythmic language sizzles.
As a migrant to Australia, I love books which teach me more about my adopted country. This year, the one which contributed most in that regard was Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter by Lesley and Tammy Williams. The book focuses on two hitherto unexplored issues affecting Aboriginal lives: first, the absolute control of the former so-called Aboriginal Protection legislation on every aspect of the lives of those removed from their traditional lands and relocated to live in Aboriginal settlements or missions. Second, the stolen wages scandal—the thousands of Aboriginal workers who were never fully paid for the labour the government sent them to do. Lesley Williams’s battle against the Queensland government to recover those wages is inspiring.
Annette Marfording is a writer, critic and blogger on Learning Writing from Reading. She is the author of Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors.
Of Late, the Reading Life
When I was a boy, the first book I read after my mother was murdered was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I think I wasted a good hunk of an adult life agonizing over why a kid would make such a queer selection at such a time. Although this obsession countenanced only a dribble of self-knowledge, it left me with a hard habit of scrutiny. Not only the “Why did I read THAT book?” but “How has any such thing taken hold of me? What’s its power?” Like some building or record, some movie or emotion. Her but not her? Why this note over that note? Why, at this time, has a certain something gotten under my skin?
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. No wonder the novel got rejected eighteen times before a small house “took a chance” on it! It’s brilliant. Unsettling. I remember my best pal pushing it across his coffee table at me and saying how much he loved it. Then I remembered: I hadn’t read a single book he’d suggested since high school. Thinking about that made me love it too.
During some season I’d endured an anemic NPR interview with Stephon Alexander, the author of The Jazz of Physics. At the time my friend Jack Butler and I were exchanging long emails about physics and poetry and the Blues. Talk about under your skin! I read The Jazz of Physics and blasted Coltrane in the mini-van all summer. “Cool-Train,” as my little boy calls him, made universal sense out of this super book.
I “read” Mick Jagger’s harmonica track on the almost dozen minutes of “Midnight Rambler”—another kid favorite. I’m thinking: Christ, how did I miss this? Who is this black delta cat killing this gut-bucket shit throughout this thing? It was Mick. I “read” that song a few hundred times in the Papa van. Loud.
Let’s see. Mr. Sophocles. I ate up all the Antigone plays again, especially liking how the translator of my edition, whose name I can’t recall, arranged the Greek dialogue in shortish lines. Like poetry. Yes! I don’t know why that was so powerful. Maybe because Sophocles didn’t have his folks talk much anyway. The editor thinks, Break it up into small chunks, instead of one or two long lines. Easier on the eyeballs. Or something.
A friend said around last Christmas: If you haven’t read Evan S. Connell you’d serve yourself right by doing it. Or was it: Read this, Mr. Big-Shot. Connell’s The Aztec Treasure House was a book I’ve happily passed around.
Frederick Seidel’s latest book of poems, Nice Weather, was, as I’d expected, a book you read and throw over your shoulder and say, Why do I even try? And Gilead. Marilynne Robinson. Because I'd been thinking about "voice" in literature, there was nothing its equal in anything I've "read" lately. Save for Mick Jagger's harmonica on "Midnight Rambler."
Michael Martin is a poet, playwright and editor. His collection Extended Remark was published last year by Portals Press.
Earlier this year, I was discussing with the bibliotherapist from Sydney’s School of Life, Germaine Leece, the dilemma of who we bring into our lives when we buy a book. It occurred to us that sometimes the most heinous and troubled people are invited into our homes and park themselves a little too firmly on our hearths long after we have finished reading their tales, leaving a malevolent aura that is brought into view every time our eyes glance over the book they inhabit.
We discussed the idea of bringing characters that people wanted to live with into reader’s lives—not just books that are amusing but people that (again, when our eyes wander over their books) bring forth a wry smile or even laughter.
In that spirit, I thought I would base my round-up of 2016 on those books that captured a little joie de vivre and whose characters I would happily invite to my Christmas lunch. As you can imagine, the list is much shorter than it would be otherwise. But I hope you will enjoy spending time with these books as I have.
I cannot go past Count Alexander Rostov, whose plunge from glory during the heady days of revolutionary Russia are delightfully explored in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow. Nor could I resist Vivienne Westwood’s amazing, hilarious and outrageous diary entries from Get A Life: The Diaries of Vivienne Westwood.
It was published in 2015, but if you still haven't picked up Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, please do. You will spend some bittersweet hours with Addie and Louis, but will be moved by their unusual relationship. As you will with Isabel Vincent and Edward, whose friendship blossomed through a series of meals as told in Isabel’s memoir Dinner with Edward.
In The Dust That Falls From Dreams, Louis de Bernières delivers us a trio of World War I heroines in the McCosh sisters that will delight you to no end, whilst Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven entertains with a cast of bantering soldiers and nurses during World War II.
And last but not least, a dip into the children’s section. This year I was utterly devoted to Nick Underwood and his friend Frank, the little girl who makes two very bad decisions and then one grand one, in A. F. Harrold’s The Song From Somewhere Else.
Hope these bring some joy to you.
Megan O'Brien is a bookseller in Sydney.
This year I read my first Elizabeth Gilbert novel, The Signature of All Things, and I’ve been raving about it ever since. What a fabulous read, so accomplished and enjoyable and compelling, an intelligent page-turner. Set in the nineteenth century, The Signature of All Things follows the adventurous life of Alma Whittaker, a botanist and self-taught moss expert, who is drawn into the study of evolution. It’s a grand, ambitious work and lots of fun. I loved it.
I also read my first chess novel this year, Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit, a novel of life and chess written with the vigor of an adventure story. It’s a Bildungsroman about Beth Harmon, an orphan chess prodigy en route to troubled stardom. Beth has become one of my all-time favorite characters, I wish I could be more like her—cool, tough, resilient. The Queen’s Gambit is both an exciting chess novel (honestly, the games are thrillingly narrated) and a smart, patient study of a young woman trying not to succumb to her innate and seemingly unavoidable flaws. Walter Tevis is a terrific writer, brisk and elegant, his sentences second to none.
I am late to Ted Chiang, whose short story “Story of Your Life” was adapted into the movie Arrival. Chiang, who I’ve heard described as “the science fiction writer’s writer,” currently only writes short stories, and the best of them are Chekhovian in their economy and emotional subtlety. Stories of Your Life and Others has been re-released under the title of the movie, Arrival, and contains Chiang’s first eight stories, classic science fiction tales formed around scientific or metaphysical ideas. “Story of Your Life,” for instance, uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the way people think is notably influenced by their native languages. In this case, the language is extra-terrestrial. Chiang’s writing throughout the collection is exceptional, and these stories show off the literary value of the kinds of cognitive estrangement that are science fiction’s specialty.
Daniel Stephensen is contributing editor of Sacred Trespasses. He writes stories and poems, plays cello.
There are times when I find reading—the physical act itself—unable to sustain my serious attention, when what I’m reading is inadequate. The reasons differ dependent on an array of variables. Sometimes they are driven by mood—like when I’m tired, or irritable, or feel plain old lazy. Other times I blame myself for choosing the book in the first place (such as the hyped, terrible, unbelievable book, which was the second-last I read). If I dislike a book, if I get to a point where I question myself relentlessly over it, I tend to (I’m sorry) put the book down. I don’t finish it. Alternatively, I have often abandoned books that are too good and I’m simply not ready for them. Not then. Ones where I want to be in a better mood, a smarter mood, the “right” mood for that demanding or extra-long “great” book.
In fact, over the last year I have struggled to find those “right books,” the ones that connect with us at the exact moment we are reading them. Two books, however, that aligned for me and which I inclined wholeheartedly towards were: A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter and Hourglass by Danilo Kiš. In particular, Hourglass, with its play with form and with its poignant yet ironic look at the Holocaust, connected me to its wit, its sadness, its humanity. It is not the easiest read, but if you’re in the “right” kind of mood for it, I can’t recommend it higher.
Luke Terbutt has been a bookseller for more than twenty years and is proprietor of Alice’s Bookshop, Carlton North.
I thought that this year was going to be terrible for reading. I started a PhD in February and imagined that this would herald a three- or four-year hiatus in all reading for pleasure. However, I enrolled in an elective called “The Great Works,” which really lived up to its ambitious title. The “greats” chosen for this mini canon were Candide, The Prince, The Inferno, A Room of One’s Own, Culture and Anarchy and Middlemarch. The course provided the opportunity to discover and rediscover of some of the treasures of European literature, and I’m eternally grateful for the initiative, without which, I may never have met Dorothea, Casaubon, the Brookes and the other Middlemarchers; I can only know, after reading it, what an incredible poverty that would be. And of course, there’s the amazing privilege of getting to know a book in a scholarly environment and to be guided through it by a knowledgeable mentor.
As a treat to myself, I began, just a few days ago, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace after a good friend put me onto an interview with them in The French Review (thank you, Daniel Stephensen). The way the couple spoke about translation and described their process won me over completely and I made a pact to read their work as soon as the chance arose. I haven’t made it so far yet, though we’ve left the drawing rooms and heady society gossip of Moscow and St. Petersburg and have joined up with the troops in Braunau. The adventure is just unfolding, and I know I’m in safe hands.
With shorter gaps for reading in my new schedule, the essays and articles in the LRB, The New Yorker and the bulletins from Sacred Trespasses, of course, have been rich sources of great writing, allowing me the illusion of travelling more extensively in literature, current affairs and ideas than I have been able to do. Here’s to another year of reading, to more words, in ever more interesting combinations.
Phoebe Weston-Evans's translation of Patrick Modiano's Paris Nocturne was long-listed for the PEN/Translation Prize and short-listed for the Australian Academy of the Humanities Medal for Excellence in Translation.
REGGIE SCOTT YOUNG
Two books that matter to me a great deal during the political moment we now face in the United States were both published before the recent presidential election: Sandra Cisneros’s A House of My Own and Emmy Pérez’s With the River On Our Face. The books are of obvious value to me because of my personal relationships with the authors, but I think they will be of significance to anyone who values great writing. Despite the fact that English serves as both authors’ first language, each are from Mexican family backgrounds, meaning they belong to a race of people whose participation in America democracy has been put under increased scrutiny because of their ethnic differences from the country’s mainstream population. But they are clearly American writers. The two books might be in different genres and styles of writing, what they both have in common are a special compassion for our common humanity.
Cisneros, a lifelong friend, is the founder of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop in San Antonio, a collective that both Emmy and I belong to as members. Macondo’s creed is expressed through its Compassionate Code of Conduct, a statement that helps to govern members’ interactions with each other and the outside world. My focus on compassion in discussing their works stems from one of the essays in Cisneros’s collection, a book that the dust jacket describes as “true stories and nonfiction pieces that, taken together, form a jigsaw autobiography.” As with Esperanza in Cisneros’s best-known work, The House on Mango Street, the issue of identity has often been a contentious one for her because of accusations from others in the Chicano community who claimed early on that she was not an authentic Chicana. In her tributary essay to Luis Omar Salinas of the Fresno school of poets, one of the important influences on her work, Cisneros quotes him saying, “Every Chicano writing is a Chicano writer. Chicano poetry is human poetry—that’s where the heart of the matter lies—human compassion.” The works of nonfiction in this volume, one that Emily Dickinson would have surely loved because of Cisneros’s masterful way of slanting important truths to make them all the more meaningful to us as readers, might not read like what you would expect from an ethnic Chicana since Cisneros’s voice is so unique and her perspective has become that of a citizen of the larger world, but without doubt the works in her jigsaw collection are all steeped in the compassion that Salinas taught her about, a compassion that is deeply needed today in the United States and elsewhere.
In terms of compassion, Pérez’s poems have the power to render impotent the harsh and oftentimes ugly language used in public discussions of the people who live in border region that the United States shares with its neighbor Mexico. These are poems from a place where people live in the midst of an often hostile occupation force made up of immigration officers who are not always trained to know the difference in Spanish-speaking citizens, guests who cross the river to visit with family members and friends who happen to live on the other side, and the mythical deadly “invaders,” even though many are mere women and children and fathers eager to do the kinds of work that most U.S. citizens are no longer willing to do. I particularly like long lyrical poems and one of my favorites is “Rio Grande-Bravo,” which begins with the lines:
The ambiguity of life, the ambiguity of moments, the certainty
Of moments, the certainty of laws, the ambiguity of laws el
Rio Grande-Bravo has an invisible line down its center
An invisible caesura
Where I want to apply stitches
Like skin healing
The rest of the poem, like others in the volume, is not a didactic rant or a polemical argument against the rights given to terminate brown skin people in a region in which nearly everyone, other than immigration officers, business investors and public officials, are brown skin people. The book is a love song to those who live in the region and to the life-giving river that helps to sustain them, no matter which side they live on—people who are represented in the title as having a single collective face. The beauty of the volume is in the poems’ transformation of a place that in many of our minds is a culturally desolate and barren battleground into one that is nourished by nature’s idyllic magic and the transcendent possibilities generated from human compassion found in the lives of those who are forced to live in circumstances that are anything but humane.
Reggie Scott Young is the author of Yardbirds Squawking at the Moon. His works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Louisiana Literature, Oxford America and other publications.