To be honest, I’ve become a little weary of the ubiquitous year end best-of lists as the same books seem to appear on all of them and I feel that we need to be moving away from conformity in reading and exploring what sets us on fire as individuals, rather than just choosing a book because everyone else seems to be reading it. Having said that, there’s a certain pleasure in reviewing the books you’ve read in a year and sifting through them to see which ones have really stayed with you. So I have done that, mostly for my own enjoyment. But if you read and enjoyed any of these, or if you read and didn’t enjoy them, I’d love to hear why.
Anyone who regularly reads this blog already knows how I had no interest whatsoever in reading anything by Elizabeth Gilbert until I heard her speak at Perth Writers Festival and she was so warm and witty and wise and compassionate that I immediately adopted her as my guru. But even if none of those things had happened, I have no doubt I would have adored her wonderful book The Signature of All Things, starring a most unconventional heroine carving out her own path in the 19th century world of botany – just gorgeous.
And although I am always a little ho hum about historical fiction, in reality, I obviously actually love it because I was utterly enraptured by the beautiful beautiful evocation and insight into the lives of three (fictional) insignificant players in the Second World War in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
From the past to the far future, no list of mine would be complete without at least one speculative title and this year’s great read for me in that department was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Imagine Heart of Darkness set on another planet with aliens who are wildly enthusiastic about the bible and a reformed alcoholic missionary trying to make sense of it all. You can’t? Well read it then, Faber has done all the work for you.
My favourite Australian novel of the year was the winner of the Miles Franklin, which was surprising because I usually hate the Miles Franklin winners. But Sophie Laguna‘s heartbreaking story of family violence, The Eye of the Sheep reeled me in from the very first page and never let me go. It’s hard subject matter but she makes it just bearable, and she captures with enormous compassion the complexity of the many factors which create a situation in which family violence occurs as well as its devastating effects.
Entirely underwhelmed By Donna Tartt‘s previous books, I was hesitant to pick up the giant tome that is The Goldfinch but once I did, by golly, I couldn’t put it down. Lots of people say it’s flawed, but for me it was a world I so loved being immersed in, it was like being newly in love: the flaws were invisible.
Miranda July’s The First Bad Man probably has the strangest plot of any book I have ever read, not in the sense of being surreal, but just because the characters were so unconventional and did the most unexpected things. I think it is best summed up by saying it’s a book that makes you feel better about being out of the mould. But if you don’t consider yourself at least a little bit freaky, it may not be for you!
Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is both contemporary and historical, a hard read but worth the effort. Juxtaposing the contemporary story of a teenage girl grieving for her dead mother and a gender-bending renaissance artist, it was utterly unconventional and magical in a way I find very difficult to articulate.
I have been reading a lot more non-fiction this year and there were three stand-outs in what is normally, for me, a rather neglected genre (though, of course, it is not really a genre at all, rather a collection of books of all kinds. Never mind, let’s not split hairs over terminology).
Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage – a ‘memoir’ (heavily fictionalised, I suspect) about his desire and subsequent inability to write a book about DH Lawrence is laugh-out-loud funny, and I know people say that all the time about things but I actually laughed out loud and that is very rare when reading, don’t you think? It is a meditation on writing, so if you’re also in the writing game it is hilarious and mortifying at the same time. It is also a kind of travelogue, keenly-observed, and, in the end, a work of literary criticism on Lawrence. Pure genius.
Along with Liz Gilbert, I have adopted another new guru this year and that is Stephanie Dowrick. Her collection of essays Forgiveness & Other Acts of Love blends the spiritual and the psychological to create a work that is nurturing, thought-provoking and profound; one I will return to agin and again.
The wonderfully warm-hearted and down-to-earth English novelist Matt Haig this year released Reasons to Stay Alive—a book about his experiences with depression and anxiety which is part memoir, part self-help book, part pop-psychology, and, well, you get the picture – it’s a blend of things. It’s NOT just a book for people with depression/anxiety. It’s a book for anyone who knows anyone who has depression/anxiety and let’s face it, that’s everyone. It’s informative, insightful, nurturing, incredibly accessible, sometimes funny, and surprisingly uplifting, and if you choose only one book to read from this list, or to gift to someone for Christmas, make it be this one!
Your turn: I want to know, of course, what wonderful things you’ve read this year please x