2018: The Year in Books

OK folks…it’s that time of year when I present my top fives for 2018.

Today it’s books! So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books for 2018:

1. Boy Swallows Universe (2018) by Trent Dalton

Boy swallows universeYour end is a dead blue wren…

For me, it’s as unforgettable a first line as any of the great first lines in literary history: Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Lolita. I’ve already written a tiny bit about this book, which has become my new Favourite Book of All Time. Really. It’s a rollicking good read and exceptionally well written, with the added (and almost unbelievable) bonus of being based on real events from Trent Dalton’s childhood. There is something inherently Australian about this debut novel: Dalton captures the heat and humidity of living on the outskirts of Brisbane, and all that simmers beneath.

If you’ve read it already, I can highly recommend his Conversation with Richard Fidler about writing the novel. If you haven’t read it, I’m not going to say any more…other than to say I, quite obviously, recommend you get your hand on a copy of this and — hopefully — enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoThis sprawling family saga had me captivated from the start. Set in Korea and Japan in the early decades of last century, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is packed full of detail and emotion. Depicting a way of life and period of history I knew little about, I was swept up in the story of Sunja and her descendants. I found Lee’s treatment of the strange limbo occupied by the Koreans who moved to Japan, even after several generations, interesting and moving.

If you’re after a read that will deposit you in a foreign land and make you feel like you can’t leave until you know what’s happened to all the main characters, this is the book for you.

3. Danger Music (2017) by Eddie Ayres

danger musicThis autobiographical tale of teaching cello to children in wartorn Afghanistan follows Ayres’ earlier book, Cadence, which was written while he was still known as Emma Ayres, the hugely popular host of ABC Classic FM’s Breakfast program (and a particular family favourite of ours).

Ayres’ story of self-discovery, set admist the chaos of Kabul and the challenges of teaching children who deal every day with the twin threats of violence and loss, is a painfully but beautifully honest account of his transition to becoming the man he always was inside. The playlist at the end of the book is an added bonus for any music lover, but this book has something for everyone.

4. Bridge of Clay (2018) by Markus Zusak

bridge of clayOh, how long we all have waited for this book?! Not nearly as long as Zusak himself who, after the phenomenal success of The Book Thief, wrote and rewrote Bridge of Clay for years until he finally reached a point where he could release into our hands.

I was conscious, at different points of reading this brilliant novel, that each and every word was precisely chosen and placed…but that in no way detracted from the tale and my emotional investment in it. This was a book I tried to read slowly, to savour the writing, the characters, the whole shebang — but partway through I gave in and finished the rest of the book in one go, unable to resist the pull of the plot. This is a superbly crafted novel that is well worth your time, and one I spent days thinking about after I’d finished it.

5. Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama

becomingBecoming was always going to be a global blockbuster: Michelle Obama is someone many of us admire want to know more about. Here, in her own words, is Obama’s story of her upbringing, her education, her marriage, and her time in the public eye as First Lady of the United States.

It’s forthright. It’s interesting. It’s well-written. And as soon as I finished it, I was more than happy to pass it on to my elder daughter, who (despite being in primary school) devoured it as quickly as I did and enjoyed it just as much. If you’re after an autobiography to read this summer, not to mention a reminder of a time when the highest offices of one of our most powerful allies were not reduced to chaos and trivialising tweets, this is well worth a look.

Honourable mentions this year go to Ian’ McEwan’s Solar (2010), which may well be the most darkly humourous novel I have ever read, and Muhsin Al-Ramli’s haunting and heartbreaking book The President’s Gardens (originally published in Arabic in 2012) which, like Pachinko, took me to a place in time I have had little experience with but for which I now have a much deeper appreciation.

I also thorougly enjoyed Ailsa Piper’s travelogue Sinning Across Spain (2017), Helen Russell’s occasionally hilarious The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (2016) and delighted in Stephen Fry’s Mythos (2018), his elegant and downright funny retelling of the Greek Myths.

So there you have it! Hopefully there is something for everyone here…I’d love to know what you think and what you’ve read this year, so get in touch via the comments if you think I’ve missed one of your standout books for 2018.

It’s summer here, and that means time for books!

Dirt Music

 

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Dancing spotlit in a bodystocking? Not me…I’ll leave that to the likes of Misty Copeland.

So the other night, after a few “light beers” (which may or may not have been entire bottles of wine), a mate of mine asked me whether I had a Favourite Book.

As in, a Favourite Book OF ALL TIME.

And I said…Yes.

Or perhaps I just whispered it.

I definitely held my breath for a split second before I answered, not sure of how my response would be received, or whether it would be treated with the reverence I reserve for Favourite Books.

Because let’s face it — owning up to having a Favourite Book (of All Time, no less) is to to reveal your self, to expose your self as completely and unapologetically as a dancer in a flesh-coloured bodysuit on a spotlit stage.  Which is fine, completely fine, if you’ve spent the requisite years honing your body and your skills to the point that a body-stocking, or a distinct lack of on-stage hiding places, or (God forbid) an audience no longer fazes you, but…clearly, that’s not me.

I write. I read.

I cook. I most definitely eat. And while my kitchen is well-known as a place where dancing is heartily encouraged, I would sooner eat a body-stocking rather than wear one.

Even so, despite my many misgivings (or maybe because I, too, had consumed several glasses of wine), the other night I actually confessed to loving one book above all others.

Now, any literature lover will tell you that the idea of narrowing down the books you couldn’t bear to part with to a Top Ten is an utterly absurd exercise. If you truly love books, whittling down your list to a Top Fifty is a difficult proposition.

But if you have a Favourite Book, you know what it is. If, unlike me, you’re the sort of person who likes to proclaim your Favourite Book far and wide and to encourage every last being in the known universe to read it, you know what it is. If, like me, you’re a little more circumspect about revealing the identity of your Favourite Book, you know what it is. Even if you have trouble admitting to yourself that one particular volume is your Favourite Book, you still know what it is.

And mine is Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.

Dirt Music

So here it is — my Favourite Book. OF ALL TIME.

(Oh dear Lord! Did I just type that for the world to see?!)

Yep, Dirt Music is my Favourite Book of All Time.

And I have decided that I will own up to it, and expose myself to whatever judgements you may make about me as a result of that admission, because it is my Favourite Book.

I could have dodged the issue entirely, perhaps, and said it was impossible to decide between Dirt Music and any number of other books, such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings or The Great Gatsby or Hamlet, to name just a handful of others.  No authors’ names necessary, of course — they’re all tomes that are regularly cited as being Favourite Books. I could even have wrong-footed my friend by pointing him in the direction of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or  Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

But I didn’t.

Because, deep down, I know that Dirt Music is my Favourite Book.

I’m not saying that it’s best book in the universe — that’s a whole other discussion. And I’m definitely not going to weigh into the whole debate about the Great Australian Novel, either, and whether that accolade goes to Winton’s Cloudstreet or not.  I’m not even saying that you should rush out, buy Dirt Music, and devour it cover to cover — it may not be your thing at all. (I mean, if you want to, of course — go ahead; it might end up being your Favourite Book too).

Nup. I’m not doing any of that.

But what I am saying is pretty simple, really.

For me, Dirt Music, Winton’s tale of Georgie Jutland losing and finding herself in the wilds and waters of Western Australia is special. In the true blue, Bruce McAvaney sense of the word.

I love — no, I utterly adore — Tim Winton’s prose.  I love the tangible physicality of his descriptions of people and place. I love the accuracy with which he captures his characters’ vernacular. I love the overarching presence of the Australian landscape, particularly of the ocean and the coast. I love the way he describes Georgie’s father as Himself, QC — and I love the sheer volume of information and resonance and impact those two words impart.

Dirt Music 2

My super-power: escaping into books…

Reading is such a great privilige, and literacy such an inordinately important gift. And, as Alain de Botton points out, “Of all the addictions, bibliophilia is the noblest and most dangerous.” Where else, but between the pages of books, can we embark on great quests, fight revolutions, ride dragons, or sail further west than west?

I will, I know, continue to read, and always — always — to write. Like Rudyard Kipling, “I am by nature a dealer in words, and words are the most powerful drug known to humanity.”

And it is beyond comforting to know that I can return time and again to the happy places that lie between the dog-eared volumes that line my shelves, to wend my way along hidden paths towards Rivendell, to walk with Elizabeth from Netherfield back to Longbourn, even to hold my breath as Anna waits for the oncoming train…

But I will always come back, time and again, to Dirt Music, if only to discover, like Luther Fox, just one last time:

She’s real…she’s real…

The Thrifty Fictionista Strikes Again!

 

WP Cover

Tolstoy’s great tale, beautifully translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky.

I was heading out the door to collect Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop from school this afternoon when I casually slung my handbag over my shoulder and nearly put my back out. Now, I will admit that this particular accessory is known in our household as “The Bottomless Bag”, not only because it holds a great deal of stuff, but also because it seems to possess an uncanny propensity to cause said stuff (most commonly keys) to evade my grasp whenever I am scrabbling around the bottom of said bag.

Today, however, I already had those elusive keys in my hand — my handbag was just heavy, and perplexingly so. What on earth could I possibly have stowed in my tote?

It was at this point that I remembered that I, quite literally, had a copy of War and Peace in The Bottomless Bag.

Having a book in my handbag is not an uncommon state of affairs for me — in fact, I suspect that not having a book in my handbag, not to mention a notepad and several pens, would be much more unusual. But today, I had completely forgotten that sometime this morning I had waltzed happily (though perhaps a little lopsidedly) out of the local bookstore with a copy of Tolstoy’s classic tale in my bag. Yes, the Thrifty Fictionista had struck again…

For those of you as yet unacquainted with my alter-ego, the Thrifty Fictionista is prone to prowling through bookstores, aiming to get as much book for her buck as possible. At one point last year, the Thrifty Fictionista staked out Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy.  Earlier this year, she successfully ensnared Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And today, obviously, she tracked down War and Peace, which being out of copyright and running to well over 1,200 pages definitely meets the Thrifty Fictionista’s usual criteria for her prey: lots of book for not so many bucks.

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War and Peace: the Laughing Squid edit.

To be completely honest, I — having given up referring to myself in the third person a lá Jaqen H’ghar in the last paragraph — did not actually track the book down all by myself this morning. I engaged the assistance of an obliging young bookshop employee who was all too happy to point me in the direction of the hallowed shelves where the classics reside and then, to my delight, knew exactly which translation I was referring to — the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky one, of course — when I asked specifically for War and Peace. Could it be that the Thrifty Fictionista had found a kindred spirit, a fellow hunter of bargain-priced quality books? A simple flip of the volume to check the price tag (watch your wrist, there, it’s a hefty tome) and I was rewarded with a knowing smile. Yes. A kindred spirit, indeed.

As it turned out, my new best friend was also in the process of reading War and Peace. I didn’t ask him where he was up to — the book took Tolstoy six years to write (and, some would say, takes just about as long to read), but his slightly bleary eyes revealed that he had been at it for some time, while the determined jut of his jaw indicated his intention to finish. It was my turn, it seemed, for a knowing smile.

The first time I read War and Peace I borrowed my father’s copy, which was conveniently housed in three battered blue volumes he had bought as a boy. I’ve always enjoyed Tolstoy’s work, particularly after studying Russian history at university, and still count Anna Karenina among my favourite novels of all time. But having just watched the sparkling new BBC adaptation of War and Peace, which was written by Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for that TV version of Pride and Prejudice, not to mention House of Cards and Vanity Fair, among many others), I wanted to read the book again — particularly now that the screen production has provided me with faces to associate with the many (hard to remember and harder to pronounce) names in the book.

WP Dolokhov

Tom Burke stealing every scene he’s in as Fedya Dolokhov, the soldier who takes exactly what he wants…

Davies’ adaptation shrinks Tolstoy’s story down to just over six hours of television, but I don’t believe that the end result to be at all reductive. The screen is filled with the broad sweep of the novel and of Russia itself, and is populated by an impeccably costumed cast. Paul Dano is admirable as Count Pierre Bezukov, James Norton suitably haughty as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and Lily James utterly exquisite as the young Countess, Natalya Rostova.

For my money, however, it is in the supporting cast that the stars really begin to shine. Brian Cox is superb as gruff old General Kutuzov, who has seen it all before (with his one remaining eye) and knows his best ally against Napoleon is Russia’s winter rather than her troops. But the stand out, in my view, is Tom Burke’s brilliant take on the career soldier, Fedya Dolokhov, a man who makes his own luck and takes exactly what he wants — this man’s wife, that man’s money, even the food off his friend’s plate. He’s a troublemaker (to put it mildly), a dangerous and destructive force played with impulsive energy, passion and panache by Burke.

I’ve already started re-reading Tolstoy’s epic tale of love and loss, of War and Peace — I couldn’t stop myself — and I am thoroughly enjoying placing the characters in the sets and contexts so beautifully supplied by the BBC adaptation. I love that the book itself is as big as a house brick, and that I might well have put my back out had I not taken it out of The Bottomless Bag before school pick up, but that within its pages and in between the battles and bombardments there are subtleties and nuances and snippets of conversation conveying the overriding delicacy of thought that is so characteristic of Tolstoy. There is an insistence that we look at ourselves, and at our choices throughout life, and that we recognise within ourselves the power to forgive, to love, and to be happy.

WP Tolstoy quote

Well, that’s the one thing we are interested in here — until the Thrifty Fictionista strikes again…