2019 in Books

At last…the third and final instalment in my Top Five’s for 2019 has arrived — books, beautiful books!

2019 was always going to be a tough year in books for me, because 2018 was the year when Boy Swallows Universe usurped Dirt Music as my favourite book of all time.

So this year, instead of seeking out works of fiction that might make me change my mind yet again (because — as we now know Patrick Melrose would say — that’s what a mind is for, after all), I opted for to throw some non-fiction in with my usual reading escapes…and was more than pleasantly surprised.

I also read a few classics of English literature, one of which begins this, my humble list:

1. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Mrs DMrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It’s one the great opening lines in literature, and somehow evokes the quiet control Virginia Woolf exercises over each and every character in this slim and beautiful novel. I’ve long been interested in Woolf, and am so pleased I found time to read this novel this year.

Taking place over the course of a single day, Woolf takes the reader back and forward in time, from one character’s perspective to another, making us privy to their innermost thoughts about that day and its events, and of the other characters. Only in books do we have this power: to know the internal dialogue and register the emotional barometer of another (albeit fictional) person.

It is staggering to me that Woolf managed to deal with themes such as religion and secularism, mental health, sexuality and feminism in the space of so few pages. This is stream of consciousness writing at its finest, and is as relevant today as it would have been on the June day in 1923 it describes.

2. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

TCThe subtitle of this brilliant piece of non-fiction is “One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster”, but not even these words begin to sum up Sandra Pankhurst and her astonishing progression from abused child, to husband and father, to drag queen and sex reassignment patient, to sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife…the list goes on.

I had heard rumours and rumblings about this book for a couple of years. Not surprisingly, given the quality of Krasnostein’s writing, it has won a whole swag of awards, but I was honestly unprepared for the impact it would have on me. It was not that I was reading about someone who cleans up crime scenes, horders’ houses, and squalor so sordid it is almost possible to smell it coming off the page, it was the emotional wallop of Pankhurst’s own life story, interleaved with chapters about her clients and the tenderness — yes, tenderness — with which she deals with them.

Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

SARAH KRASNOSTEIN

Krasonstein’s treatment of the slippery nature of memory and truth is masterful, and her frank admissions about the issues and memories her interactions with Pankhurst and her clients raise for her are, to my mind, courageous. It is impossible to read this book — and I could not put it down once I began — without having your breath taken away.

This is also a book that will  leave you thinking, hard, about things you never expected to, for a very long time.

3. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

DJ6Whoa…we need to head back to Fictionland after that one, hey?

Well, what better way to do that than with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six? Weirdly, upon reflection, this book also deals with memory and truth as much as The Trauma Cleaner does, though in a fictional setting. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the book poses as an oral history trying to get to the bottom of a rock’n’roll puzzle — what made Daisy Jones and the Six, one of the decade’s most successful bands, split up straight after playing the final concert of their tour in 1979?

The writing style reminded me of Lizzy Goodman’s brilliant non-fiction work Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a huge tome chronicling the rise of bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem and The National. Being fiction, however, Daisy Jones and the Six lets you invest yourself in the characters, allows the reader to take sides without fear of any recrimination, and to enjoy the twist that comes towards the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

4. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

CofGI was not expecting to include this book in my Top Five for the year, but have done so because it proved to be a rollicking good read and, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction Elizabeth Gilbert has produced in years. Unlike The Signature of All Things, which I found to be overwhelmingly populated by caricatures, City of Girls bursts at the seams with the colourful characters encountered by Vivian Morris from the time she moves to Manhattan as a nineteen year old after being kicked out of college.

Gilbert vividly recreates the theare and showgirl scene in New York City in the 1940s, and the novel is as much a love story to the city as it is the story of Vivian navigating her way through life and love, to recount it as a ninety-five year old narrator. This book is a great escape, not to mention a fascinating examination of how important it is to be free to be yourself.

5. How To Raise Successful People by Esther Wojcicki (2019)

SPI bought this book after hearing Esther Wojcicki interviewed on a podcast and read it cover to cover in an afternoon. Wojcicki draws on her experiences raising three highly successful children (all women who have risen to the top of typically male-dominated professions) and teaching generations of Media Arts students at Palo Alto High School, and also reflects on how her childhood informed the choices she made as a parent.

It’s partly a parenting manifesto, partly a practical advice manual, and a lot of what Wojcicki has to say makes a great deal of sense to me. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this was definitely a book that gave me much to think about — not to mention implement in my life — this year.

Honourable Mentions this year go two other non-fiction titles, Drusilla Modjeska’s beautiful and evocative memoir Second Half First and to Melinda Gates’ highly thought-provoking book about empowering women, The Moment of Lift.

On the fiction front, Max Porter’s novella Grief is a Thing With Feathers very nearly made my Top Five for its emotional bravery and poetic brilliance. I am yet to read Lanny but hope to get my hands on a copy in 2020. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and will admit to spending a week devouring the entire Cormoran Strike series, penned by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), with something akin to glee. I was a late-comer to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and loved it, and am looking forward to reading her next book, The Starless Sea, this year.

So that’s all folks! I read a whole lot of other books during the year that were also noteworthy and interesting, but these were the ones that made the cut for 2019.

That said, I have just trawled my local library for a substantial summer reading stash and have kicked off with the Julia Baird’s so-far brilliant biography of Queen Victoria…it may well make my 2020 list!

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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!

Purple Nails

purple nails

Not my hands, but you get the general picture.

I found myself sitting in a nail bar in a suburban shopping mall the other day, snatching a few moments of time for myself following several screamingly busy weeks I had scheduled down to the last minute. The washing was on the line, drying beneath yet another blue-skied day in this bone dry, drought-stricken land. The kids had been deposited at school, one dressed for a regular day and the other for an excursion. The overseas guests who had stayed with us during a whirlwind visit had been dropped safely at the airport following a quick trip to Taronga Zoo ticking all the tourist boxes: kangaroo, koala, even a spotted quoll.

“Pick a colour,” said the nail technician, brandishing brandishing wheels of fake plastic nails painted an unimaginable variety of shades in my direction.

I attempt to comply, but I am tired. Weary. Nearly undone. Decision fatigue has set in, and instead of selecting a tried and tested shade of something sensible I find myself searching for my favourite colour — a rich, deep blue shot with pewtery grey. The colour of my bridesmaid’s dress at my wedding, a dozen years ago. The colour of the sea after a storm.  As you wish…

I find it, or something vaguely resembling it, and sit silently in my chair as my fingers soak, letting the sounds of the technicians’ murmured conversations wash over me. They are speaking a language I don’t understand, pausing every now and then to give me and the women around me simple instructions in English. Hand in the water. Out again. This I can do, in my depleted state. This is why I am here.

The technician begins applying paint to my nails.

“OK?” she asks.

I look down, and instead of a comforting shade of grey-blue twilight I see a slash of purple.

Vivid, vibrant purple.

I shrug, and find myself nodding. My simple act of self-care has gone slighty awry, but I’m too tired to care.

In the week that follows it dawns on me that I am not in possession of a single stitch of purple clothing. I also realise that the particular shade of purple my nails are now painted attracts attention. That my fingertips now convey the impression of an extroversion I can feign but do not feel.

purple boy

My new favourite book. Ever.

I retreat into myself, into the solitary pursuits that I savour — reading, writing, day dreaming and night thinking. Here I find the acts of self-care that actually restore me, and I notice one morning that my purple nails do match something after all: the cover of the book I’m reading, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe.

I am captivated — catapulted into a world that consumes me, into writing that overwhelms me to the point that I am forced to acknowledge that I might just have a new favourite book of all time.

Boy Swallows Universe.

Girl swallows book.

Later in the evening, only hours after the nail technician has finished polishing my freshly painted purple nails to a bright sheen, I’m dropping my younger child at a birthday party. A small blonde-haired boy, about four years old, is beginning to wail: it’s his sister’s big day, and he’s feeling left out.

“Hey, matey,” I crouch conspiratorially in front of him, “I had my nails painted today, and they’re not a normal colour. They’re not red, or pink, or anything boring like that. Do you know what colour they are?”

He eyes me suspiciously for a moment, still sniffing, but the distraction is working.

“Bet you can’t guess!”

He stops crying and grasps my hands, turning them over to reveal my purple fingernails, gleaming in the dusk and the light of the bright sunshine of the smile that is now plastered across his tear-streaked face.

“You’re funny!”

Yeah, I reckon I probably am.

Funny as in ha ha sometimes, and funny as in a bit weird at others. But I’m OK with it, and I’m OK with my introversion, and my need to let the words pour out of me, and with knowing that my solace comes from solitude, and that I come from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, and despite all that — or perhaps because of it — I’m even OK with my purple nails.