There’s two ways to break the ice: simply, or with a lot of vodka. As the consequences of a lot of vodka are less predictable, my first submission will simply be about books I read last year. Specifically, five that I loved and one that I didn’t.
As a bearer of chronic disease, I spend a lot of time stuck prone in my bed, my mind racing, or lying awake at night in pain, my mind racing. The only effective technique I’ve ever found that stills this mental athleticism (unmatched by my physical capabilities) is to read. This means I get through a lot of written words throughout the year, not only books but long-form journalism, essays, and criticism. If I’m really desperate, I pick an unwieldy topic I feel embarrassingly ignorant on or morbidly fascinated by and read the Wikipedia entry. The American Civil War entry and The Crimes of Ted Bundy being particular highlights (both in content and hours of entertainment).
I digress! I often do. Without further disruption, here are the five books that had wedged a home in my memory in 2016.
Not appearing in this photo: Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, by Helen Garner
- Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, by Helen Garner
On the recommendation of a friend (and my pretend friends, Annabelle Crabb and Leigh Sales, on their podcast ‘Chat 10 Looks 3’), 2016 was the year I discovered the writing of Helen Garner. I read three of her books this year and I have three more in my teetering pile of ambition awaiting me. Damn she’s good. But it was her book, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ which out-lingers the rest. The book records Garner’s attendance at trial for a sensational murder that occurred in Canberra in the late 90s: a woman calls a dinner party, telling her guests it is to farewell her partner who she will be killing. She does. And he dies a horrible, protracted death. It is not the horror and gore that is compelling here, but Garner’s ability to see herself as a participant in the story in a completely non-narcissistic way, and her stunningly evocative observation of the ordinary. Here’s an excerpt that struck me as so prescient that – as I flew across Central Asia on a darkened, sleeping plane – I took a photo of my eReader so I could capture her honest insight, deceptively elegant prose and, in particular, description of female relationships (below). She’s a great Australian feminist writer whose work is so enjoyable to read that you’ll have to consciously pause to admire how good she is. I implore you to track down her work.
On the unique power asymmetry of (some) female friendships
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
Let’s imply that there was any design to this blogpost and continue with another crime novel. As I was reared watching British crime drama on the ABC (my first words were probably ‘you have the right to remain silent’), I do like crime as a portrait of society, power and people. However, it is very, very, very rarely anything other than light diversion. That two ‘crime novels’ make this list, then, is exceptional. I’d heard this book mentioned as the archetypal great crime novel for some time, and so it was added to my lengthy list of books to look out for in second-hand bookstores (I need a focus otherwise I turn into Violet Beauregarde and want everything). In the musty mecca that is Gould’s in Newtown, I found an artfully tattered original copy and dove in, but… this was no crime novel. Yes, a murder takes place (in an ornate mansion stacked with ornate antiques inhabited by an eccentric millionaire who hosts parties to rival Capote’s). However, the majority of this book – and what makes it spectacular – is not the crime itself but its drippingly rich portrait of Savannah high and low society with its Dickensian characters. The characters are so outlandish and the writing so vivid I could feel the southern heat – and the madness/eccentricity it incubates. I felt as though I had passed through the wardrobe into another, almost unbelievable world. But the story is true. And now I really want to visit Savannah.
- The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
I now feel compelled to assure you that my literary tastes extend (well) beyond crime writing and narrative non-fiction (especially because the other two works on this list are non-fiction and really, I read a lot of fiction and I do really like it I just haven’t gotten to my stack of Booker Prize finalists yet and I got distracted by reading THE ENTIRE Outlander oeuvre which comprises – to date – eight novels of 1000+ pages each and really I’m an intelligent well-rounded person with lots of interests, except for science and sport, unless these are in a historical and social context and… anyway).
There’s a reason Julian Barnes’ writing is so highly awarded: his prose is witty, warm and elegant. I’m not getting up to check but I think I must have seven or eight of his books – probably more than any other author who has made it onto my shelves.
I had somehow convinced my husband that I deserved ‘just a look’ inside a really good bookstore in Bowral (a break in the mind-numbing drive between Sydney and Canberra that we had been doing too regularly in order for me to attend medical appointments). When I saw a new Barnes novel I squealed. When I saw it was about Shostakovich – one of my favourite composers, on whom I had written a major research essay in the third year of my history degree – I started trotting on the spot.
The book is written from Shostakovich’s point of view as he is subjected to the scrutiny of the Stalinist police state. So many artists faced impossible choices: to flee, to become a propaganda tool of the USSR, or to risk life and family to stay and resist. Shostakovich went from Soviet hero, to inadvertently offending Stalin’s musical sensibilities (a crime that saw him ostracised from cultural circles) to restoring his place as a favourite – at enormous cost to his musical and personal integrity.
It includes the fantastical, yet completely true, anecdote that Shostakovich was to return to the terrifying headquarters of the secret police for further interrogation but his integrator was himself arrested in the interim – an emblem of the insanity of 1930s Soviet Russia.
The Noise of Time does not require an appreciation or understanding of Shostakovich. It is a portrait of a man in a horribly crippling and intractable crisis. But I will highlight to you something that, for me, made this book so much more fascinating: there has been academic debate over the degree to which Shostakovich tried to resist the regime through his music. Was the Soviet cultural hero actually using his art as coded resistance?
It is testimony to Barnes’ human insight that his Shostakovich is simply a man trying to stay afloat as he is buffeted by wild torrents; an artist who simply wants to produce his art but battles the anxiety and creative inertia bred by the State peering over his shoulder. Here, resistance does not storm a platform and wave a banner. It is irregular, and subtle, and opportunistic. And it just tries to stay alive. And The Noise of Time is less inspirational than it is a deeply human portrait of the tragic absurdity of trying to produce transcendent beauty amidst utter terror.
- Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi
Teffi is the nom de plume of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhivitskaya – a fin de siècle poet, playwright, journalist and satirist. And total freaking boss.
She wrote for the first Bolshevik newspaper in Russia, knew Lenin, stared down a slimy Rasputin at a dinner party and saw the ideals she extolled be somehow subsumed into a revolution that would destroy her glittering, intellectual world. Memories records her experiences as the revolution encroaches, the danger and uncertainty forcing her to leave St Petersburg – she thinks only for a brief while. However, as Bolshevism eats its way across Russia, she slips further and further down a slide made smooth by the exodus of the many whose lives were upended by revolution. It is a dramatic, tragic, character-filled and funny read.
There is a little of Tolstoy here – an incredible gift for finding humour in darkness. The lightness of the prose. The wry sendups of the powerful. I finished this book not only wanting to be Teffi’s friend, but to grow up and be as witty, resilient and utterly modern as this woman was.
- The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell
Biographies (and even more so, autobiographies) rarely appeal to me: either the focus on a single life is too niche for my curious mind that wants to go down dark side streets, or I’d much rather know the person through the medium for which they are famed (to read about a musician, for instance, omits the very thing through which you could know them most).
But this one works – so well! – for the sheer improbability of this family when looked at as a whole: amongst the seven siblings of this minor aristocratic family were a Nazi, a Communist, a famous author, and a queen of London society who then became a queen of scandal.
Mary S. Lovell allows the characters and personalities of this remarkable family to sing, and her restraint (when presented with such melodramatic material) allows a fantastical normalcy to emerge, for instance, the way siblings butt heads as they seek to define their own path.
The Mitford Girls has also inspired me to track down the works of the two writers in the family – Nancy (best known for Love in a Cold Climate) and Decca (a journalist) – and in this case, finishing a book hungry is a very good sign.
I did not like this book.
The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Since swapping my Eastern European studies for an East Asian focus, I have strictly rationed the time I allow myself to return to my first love (I’d never read anything for work otherwise). But, after a long hospital stay, I treated myself to the latest tome (and it’s a tome – everything about its marketing shouted ‘THIS IS A TOME!’) by a historian whose works on Stalin I was familiar with from my Russian studies. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a pop-historian: credible, great access, readable but academically light. His latest book on the Romanov dynasty would be a treat I could fall headfirst into.
Except I hated it and couldn’t bring myself to finish it (I made it three quarters of the way through a three hundred year dynasty).
I thought this approach to history was on the out: it concerns itself only with men, dates and battles. The rule of each leader is set out as if following a formula. They were born. There was a struggle with a half-brother for power. There was almost certainly a skirmish with Sweden or the Hapsburgs. They died. Begin again. How dull. How incomplete. Were the odd Machiavellian female not engaged in the odd power play, Montefiore would have confined women to footnotes noting who they married (not mentioned for human interest, of course, but because these women were state resources). It dismays me that this book – which received the publicity and print run that most historians dream of – has such an outdated and patriarchal view of history. I simply cannot read another book that erases so many people and so many textures from history. It is not only women who are erased – the Romanov story was inextricably shaped by the people they governed, by the increasingly hostile dialectic between peasantry, society and the elite, by the omnipresent authority of the Church, and by the remarkable blossoming of Russian culture after a protracted dark age. That’s the Romanov history I’d like to fall into. But nup, none of that in here. I’ll have to go back to Teffi for that sort of insight.