Galey’s Favourite Reads 2020

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December 13, 2020 by brettdgale

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

My favourite book of the year, hands down.  But any recommendation must come with a trigger warning – Maggie O’Farrell has created a genuine tearjerker, there is every chance that you will be reduced to sobs by book’s end.   

Hamnet neatly marries my two fictional odysseys of the year 2020 – women authors and the plague.  In fact, halfway through this masterpiece of historical fiction, O’Farrell takes us on an intimate journey tracing how the bubonic plague reached two little children in a small English town.  The scene would be terrifyingly foreboding in any novel but is of course doubly so in this forsaken year.

Although the plague is instrumental in causation of events that rock the novel, it is not the book’s main subject.  That, is grief.  And, the everlasting impact that the death of a child can have on the emotions and actions of those who must deal with its aftermath.  It is a story steeped in tragedy but explanatory of the ways in which people find their way through grief.

In real life 16th Century Warwickshire, the death of the 11year old Hamnet led directly to the writing of what many consider to be the greatest work in the English language – Hamlet.   

Hamnet the novel, movingly creates a reimagining of Hamnet the boy’s death, but it does it by centring the story not, as would normally be expected, on the world’s most famous playwright – in fact he is never mentioned by name – but rather by making his wife the beating heart of the story.   O’Farrell’s narrative concentrates on the life of the family that Shakespeare left behind as he made his name in London, with rare cameos by the man referred to on first glimpse as, “the Latin tutor”.  This both pays homage to Shakespeare, and indeed, Hamlet, without overwhelming the reader with a sort of fan fiction vibe.

When the bard does make appearances the novel is electrified.  The novel’s conclusion, wherein the playwright and his wife meet again after a long absence dealing with their own griefs, is a crescendo of equal emotional brilliance to that which brings the curtain down on Shakespeare’s greatest play.

O’Farrell has created a story that will resonate timelessly though the ages. 

The Plague – Albert Camus

As I left the clear waters of Bondi Beach on an early morning in mid-March and looked towards the already beginning to be crowded sands I knew it would be the last time I was swimming in the ocean for a while.  After television news had hysterically reported on large crowds the day before, it was surely only a matter of time before some sort of prohibition was put in place on beachgoing.  And sure enough that afternoon it was. 

Looking back now, it’s possible to ask whether the decision wasn’t a tad of an overreaction.  Especially given we know how the photographers used the compression effect and lens size to make distorted images of how close to each other people actually were.  We could also have asked ourselves what sane person, even in a pre-COVID world would deliberately plop their towels down closer than 1.5 metres next to complete strangers?  The answer of course is no-one, not in Sydney where distrust of people you don’t know is second only to dislike of traffic as being part of the DNA of living in this city.  

However, at the time it was the entirely rational and correct decision, and one that in the exact same circumstances was right to have been made then and would be right to have made today.   Particularly as we didn’t really know then as much about the COVID as we do now.  And, also even if it meant that those of us who live in Sydney and believe that going to the beach is the Australian equivalent of our second amendment right were a tad annoyed at losing our favourite ocean going therapy. 

Of course, as time has moved on, we have learnt that the risk of infection indoors is almost 19 times higher than in open-air environments and it was probably always the case that, (at least for those of us who swim regularly at Bondi) the chances of catching the COVID were much higher in one of the un-socially distanced nearby cafes full of eastern suburbs antivaxxers than they were down on the sand.

In many ways the story of our closed beaches and their gradual re-opening reflects the Australian experience with COVID in microcosm, go hard to suppress and then slowly but surely release the rules.  It is an approach that has stood us in more than good stead compared to the devastation wrought across the world. 

But what combination of science, health advice, moral panic, good governance, and plain old-fashioned politicking helped shaped the myriad of decisions and the decision-making processes that governed our response to COVID? That to me is one of the most fascinating questions to ponder as we enter a potential post crisis era. And what did we learn that will help us next time? (because there will always be a next time).  News and media can only reveal for us the mechanics of the process – it will be up to the history, biography and literature of the future to uncover the psychology. 

The psychology of decision making (both individual and collective) during the pandemic and how we as individuals and societies have adjusted to it is not surprisingly the thrust of much “plague” related literature and is certainly the underlying theme of Camus’ masterpiece The Plague

It was to The Plague I turned to begin my journey into pestilential fiction at around the same time as the fences went up around Sydney’s beaches.  And I soon discovered that it wasn’t just my beaches that were closed by plague but the beaches of Oran (the novel’s setting) were closed too. 

Suddenly, reading The Plague over late March was almost like re-reading a diary of daily events unfolding in real life (IRL for the hipper among you).  Every page was a revelation into the social and psychological effects of a deadly epidemic, every action in the book has an equivalent action in the way that we in our modern world dealt with the scourge of COVID. 

Events in the novel suddenly sprung straight from the page and into governmental action and civilian behaviour. It’s almost like Camus was writing a checklist of actions for our time (a beautifully written and realised checklist of course). Every single thing we’ve lived through in 2020 Camus’ presciently chronicled seven decades ago. 

The disruption to daily life – check; the ever present fear of death or debilitating illness – check; the separation from loved ones – check; the closing of borders -check; entire suburbs locked down – check; the hoarding of goods – check; shortages in supermarkets – check; beaches closed – check (grr); sporting competitions and artistic attendances stopped – check; quarantine and isolation for those with even minor symptoms – check; religious observances (worship services, weddings, funerals) scaled back or cancelled altogether – check; the issuance of new and daily changing government regulation and fiat – check; the empowerment of the military and police in a health emergency – one final check. 

Even (thankfully) the primacy of public health concerns over the, “let it rip” “put the economy first crowd”.  Indeed, given the way that Chief Health Officers have ascended from obscurity to oracle over the course of 2020 it is also ironically apt that the character Camus’ narrator follows most in the novel is that of a Doctor.   

Camus not only provides us with a checklist of what occurs during a pandemic, with The Plague  he has captured not just the behaviours we undertook in 2020 but the mental pressures we faced too.   Epidemics make exiles of people in their own countries, our narrator stresses. Separation, isolation, loneliness, boredom and repetition become the shared fate of all. The novel illuminates all the heightened stresses of our year but also the weird sense of ennui many have felt living through it,  “The trouble is there is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence and, if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.  In the memory of those who have lived through them, the dreadful days of the plague do not seem like vast flames, cruel and magnificent, but rather like an endless trampling that flattened everything in its path”. 

And as all of us have learnt during these COVID times, dealing with pestilence and plague brings out the best and worst.   

Now consider that Camus wasn’t writing about a plague at all.  He was writing an allegory of the Nazi invasion of France.  That’s what makes The Plague such a breathtaking read.  In its piercing examination of how people behave, both together and alone, under immense and atypical pressure, Camus has given us a study deep into the human condition.

But, there’s good reason that The Plague has been described as a sermon of hope, Indeed on that note the last word on how to approach a pandemic should come from Camus, “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency”.  And during 2020, even with the toilet paper hoarding, we saw enough examples of decency to know that Camus spoke truth.

Why We’re Polarised – Ezra Klein

The most common refrain for those who supported the winning side in the recent U.S. Presidential election was “how could so many people have voted for Trump”. It seems incomprehensible to many that 74 million Americans could have given their sacred electoral duty to a corrupt, racist circus clown who had presided over the needless deaths of 250,000 fellow Americans. 

This sentiment was secondarily accompanied by the disbelieving query of “how could the election have been so close?”.  Putting aside the fact that Biden won the popular vote by 8 million votes and counting (not that close really) the idea of some electoral landslide was always probably a misinterpreted pipe dream (after all four of the last six Presidential elections have relied on a handful of votes in a handful of states deciding the election).  And if we think about it, the signs were telling us for years that we shouldn’t have been surprised by the Trump vote at all.  Trump’s approval ratings remained solid for most of his Presidency (consistently in the range of the low to mid- forties).  Through four years of scandal, corruption and ineptitude his ratings rarely shifted out of a narrow band.  At the end of the day he ended up with 46% of the vote exactly

American voters it turns out are reliably partisan.

However, at a time when strict party identification and loyalty have waned in much of the western world (for instance, the primary vote for all political parties has been rapidly trending down in Australia for decades) it is an intriguing fact that the US has gone completely the other way.  This is the situation that data journalist Ezra Klein interrogates in Why We’re Polarised  – my favourite non-fiction book of the year. 

What seems to be starker in the US than elsewhere, is that political identity drives polarisation.  Political or partisan identity has become a mega-identity which supersedes everything else about you.  Again, this is the inverse of the rest of the western world.  As the era of mass parties recedes completely in Europe and Australia in particular, political affiliation as a window into the rest of one’s life has somewhat evaporated.  In the U.S. your identity is your politics, and your politics is your identity.

As Klein points out, in the U.S.  “our politics map onto our deeper preferences and those deeper preferences drive much more than just our politics”.   In some ways, cheering for our political teams has become a supplement for cheering for sporting teams – group identity is all.  It is this truth that lies at the heart of Klein’s analysis – ““what we are often fighting over in American politics is group identity and status – fights that express themselves in debates over policy and power but cannot be truly reconciled by either”.  Of course, if you support your team – right or wrong – then you are going to support the captain of your team -right or wrong – and that’s Trump for 70 odd million people. 

Political identity has begun to seep into every aspect of American’s lives.  As studies have shown, once was, Americans wouldn’t marry outside of their own religious or racial group.  Today Americans are much more likely than they were fifty years ago to do that.  Yet, the idea of marrying someone from the other political party has become anathema to many.  Two out of five Americans say they would be troubled by their son or daughter marrying someone from the other party.  

Polarisation might not be as bad if it was only limited to polarisation of a positive sort – this is who I support, yay.  But the great driver of partisanship is actually negative polarisation.  Going back to the sports analogy – I’ve long held the view that one of the great joys of sports for sports fans is not just seeing your own team win, it is actively seeing the other team lose!  This too is the logic of negative political polarisation. As Klein sums up the last fifty years of American politics, “we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more – indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less – but because we came to dislike the opposing party more”.

This ground is also one chewed over by Amy Chua in Political Tribes: Group instinct and the fate of nations (another book I’d recommend on this topic).  While approaching the issue from a more global perspective than Klein (and from a more right wing perspective than both Klein and I – which is actually useful for this debate) she makes the point that “Humans are tribal.  We need to belong to groups…But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong.  It is also an instinct to exclude”.

She also asserts that, “at different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group transcending values.  Neither does today”.  While it is possible to quibble at this statement around the edges, and I’d argue as Klein does that Republicans have caused greater cancerous polarisation than Democrats – if one looks at the hard left and the hard right it is impossible to refute. 

The great strength of Klein’s writing is that this is not just polemic and assertion, he has amassed a vast amount of data and evince that supports his main thesis it is presented in a way that illuminates rather than overwhelms. 

Klein lists the key drivers of this increasingly polarised world as in particular feedback loops and choice-based media. Feedback loops – Klein’s evidence shows, “to appeal to a more polarised public, political institutions and political actors behave in more polarised ways.  As political institutions and actors become more polarised, they further polarise the public”.  Spin and repeat, ad infinitum.  Klein calls this the logic of polarisation and it is a compelling argument.  As for choice-based media, Klein makes the revelatory (although obvious once its revealed to you) point that people who opt into political news are already polarised.  His evidence shows that “the more political media you consume, the more wared your perspective of the other side becomes”. Of course, we cannot ever doubt the pernicious influence of the Murdoch media in contributing to this state of affairs.  There’s also the important point that Klein makes about the role of social media in polarisation given that for the politically engaged social media is merely one more form of public identitarian expression.

However, there are I think, missing pieces in Klein’s analysis of how America came to be so polarised at a time when other countries have lost theirs. 

For me part of the problem is that from the very first time an American registers to vote they are forced to proclaim their political allegiance.  Sure, you can change your registration over time but that first statement of group identity seems to me the civic equivalent of bikie initiation ceremonies.  A way of proudly proclaiming who you are to the rest of the world. 

Further, a lack of truly independent institutions in the US must only exacerbate partisanship.  If you are asked to vote in a partisan manner for vote for everything from dog catcher to President including lower level judges is it any wonder all government positions are seen through a political lens and that appointment to the highest court in the land depends much more on your political affiliation than on your competence as a jurist. 

It’s a small complaint towards a very strong book but I would have liked Klein to have at least thrown a lens over these issues.

Having said all that, Klein does make the point that polarisation is not necessarily all bad.  The key question is are political systems set up properly to deal with extreme partisanship and polarisation.  The answer in the case of the US is clearly that no they are not.  A Westminster system by contrast is designed expressly to give a release valve for a divided populace. 

One of the most important services that Klein’s book also serves is to call bullshit on the notion that somehow the past of greater cross-partisanship, less division between the parties and more crossing the floor was a better time.  As Klein makes clear those days really saw four political parties in action tucked inside two (the Democrats were made up of Dixiecrat southerners and northern working class folks) – “in that era when Washington was least polarised, political consensus rested on a foundation of racial bigotry that most would find abhorrent today”

The real problem with the sort of political polarisation that Klein examines is that, rather than just seeing politics through a political lens we will see all issues through a political lens even sport (witness the various partisan reactions to sports stars making arguments about racial justice).

Sadly, most of us are already inured (if frustrated and annoyed) to the fact that climate change (at least in the US and Australia) has long been a partisan issue. However, as we have seen this year, the real threat to a functioning society comes when it’s not just the environment but public health and even democracy itself become mere partisan tools in a wider fight.  

This is the ultimate warning of Klein’s book.

Too Much Lip – Melissa Lucashenko

In a hail of gravel Kerry Salter roars into the fictional town of Durrongo in Northern New South Wales on a stolen Harley, on the run from a crime gone wrong.  She has also returned (briefly she thinks) to her small hometown to pay her respects to her dying grandfather. 

But as in many novels of small town homecoming, the return rips the scab off what has been hidden for too long, and exposes the rawness of what always lies just beneath the decisions individuals make on whether to stay or go.  Family is family but also foe, long dormant memories resurface and a much delayed reckoning with the past is called for.  So go the characteristic tropes of “return” novels. 

But with this, the winner of the Stella Prize in 2019, Melissa Lucashenko has not only written a powerful story of inter familial relationships, she has delivered an exquisitely realised dark comedy that exposes a truth-telling that all Australians need to face. 

In Australia we are finally witnessing a long overdue focus on powerful writing by indigenous writers telling indigenous stories whilst at the same time, providing an authentic voice illuminating hitherto ignored insight into contemporary (and not-so contemporary Australian life). As Luchashenko’s flawed protagonist Kerry thinks about the main white character at one point, folks of white descent have, “no fucken clue what was at stake when you walked into the world wrapped in dark skin”.

But, the complex and multi-layered relationships between Kerry and her extended family  – her dying grandfather Pop; Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary; older brother Kenny prone to quick tempered violence;  little brother Black Superman another escapee from the small town drawn back in; Donny, Ken’s anorexic teenage son; Donna the sister missing for decades; the spectre of Granny Ava shot while escaping white vengenance; and thoughts of the family totem (a shark weaving itsway throughout the novel) – show us exactly what is at stake.  

Too Much Lip is a powerful novel that forces us to face profound questions about class, generational trauma, systemic racism, and confrontational violence. These are important issues, however Lucaschenko’s success is to get us to face them while writing a novel where humour, satire and pure comedy breathe through every word even in the darkest passages.  In no part of the novel is the reader ever beaten over the head with too much gravitas or a deadened sense of didacticism – quite the opposite. 

And ultimately the author provides us with a story not just of the raw brutally of life but one that seeks and delivers, redemption, humanity, understanding and hope.  An exceptional book. 

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

One of the few exceptions to my female or plague only fiction rule this year (I think it was probably the first book I read this year – before I’d officially adopted the path I eventually did).    The novel tells two stories: one of young Danny,  swimming prodigy, working class kid with a scholarship to a prestigious private school, aiming for Olympic selection.  And the second, of older Danny, living in Glasgow and helping kids with severe disabilities.   

The narrative ping pongs back and forth between the two scenarios at a rapid fire pace: Young Danny moving forward like a Barracuda towards his date with destiny. And older Danny moving backwards in time towards the pivotal moment on the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympics that shaped his future life.  

Raw, plotted with a cast of characters reflective of contemporary Australia and with a visceral awareness of the ongoing debate about what it means to be Australian, this is a novel that rightly takes its place as an Australian must read.  

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds that is the length of time that exists between the murder of Tequila Leila and her brain shutting down completely.  In these last minutes before she loses all consciousness, Leila remembers images of her life story, each reminiscence sparked by a smell or taste. 

This is a novel of two halves. The first is an interior monologue of Leila’s memories.  After the initial premise is established each chapter cascades through Leila’s life story; from her brutal childhood in provincial Turkey, her flight to Istanbul where she becomes a prostitute and ultimately forges a bond with other “outcasts” from society, and finally to the tragic events that find her murdered body left in a dumpster.  Interspersed between the vignettes of Leila’s own life, we learn the backstories of the five who become Leila’s closest friends and confidants. 

This first half is an excoriating critique on the sheer incomprehensibility of the brutality of men towards women and an unflinching political statement on one society’s intolerant attitudes.  (As if proving the point that Shafak is making about Turkish society in this novel in recent years Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation of her novels going back 20 years. Among her alleged crimes: obscene depictions of sexual abuse).

Without breaking stride however, the second half of this stunning novel becomes a madcap adventure, moving from the internal thoughts of Leila to the external telling of the story of Leila’s friends – banding together to provide a proper burial for their beloved by rescuing her corpse from the “cemetery of the companionless”.  Shafak’s skill as a storyteller has created a compelling and moving narrative of the human condition and this change in tone serves not only to provide a respite from the relentlessness of the first half but to give a sense of compassion and humour.  

Although much of this novel is heartbreakingly bleak in its assessment of human relations, Shafak treats Leila and the 5 with a soulful tenderness.  In the stories of Leila’s 5 best friends we see how the bonds of love, friendship and support allow Leila to retain her humanity in the face of brutality. 

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

It’s true I’ve come quite late to the second of Hillary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy (and the second to win the Booker Prize).  I came quite late to it’s predecessor Wolf Hall too I must admit.  All three books tell the tale of the ultimate court mandarin, Thomas Cromwell- a man who rose from violent obscurity to become chief advisor to Henry.  A flatterer of egos, a giant intellect, quick witted and wise, but, a brutal enforcer hated by more than a few.   

Bring Up the Bodies takes the story of the Tudors into the realm of the downfall of Anne Boleyn (Heny VIII’s second wife).  It may well have paid to be Thomas Cromwell but it never paid to be married to Henry VIII.  As the old ditty goes – Divorced, Beheaded, Died/ Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

In my view this novel is by far the best of the cycle (and not simply because it’s about a third the length of the other two).   Bring Up the Bodies does two things at once – it captures Henry VIII at the very beginning of his long slow decline into paranoia, mindless cruelty, and putrid obesity.  It also captures his chief counsellor Thomas Cromwell as an influence finally escaped from the shadows and at the height of his powers, yet with more enemies amassing every day.   

And as the executioner’s blade sharpens for Anne, one can’t help but feel the blade of time also sharpening for Cromwell.   

The denouement for Cromwell will eventually come in Mantel’s final chapter (The Mirror and the Light – which I’m only halfway through so cannot make this year’s list as marvellous as it is turning out to be.  Though I do agree with the Booker judges to deny it the top prize in this year’s awards I’m not sure one should win the Booker for essentially extending the same story three times no matter how dazzling the writing).  

Mantel’s trilogy is a tale about power, how it is amassed, how it is wielded and most importantly how it is lost.   The three books that make it up should appeal to the political voyeur in us all. 

Bring Up the Bodies is also about how to destroy a strong woman.     Seven hundred years after the Tudors it’s more than depressing to know that the same tactics used to destroy Anne Boleyn are those used by dominant men to smear and destroy effective women to this day. 

The strength of Mantel’s writing lies in both her comprehensively drawn studies of character, but also in her use of present tense narration which gives the reader a ring-side seat to the pugilistic exercises of power as they happen in real time. 

In her version of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel brings to life not just one of the most consequential figures of English political history but also one of the most compelling fictional characters of all time. 

Bring Up the Bodies is a masterly work of politics, character and intrigue.  Even if you don’t have time to read the thousands of pages in Mantel’s other two parts, do yourself a favour and pick this up.  

The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman

Another that made it in before I changed my fiction reading habits.  However, if you haven’t read any other of Phillip Pullman’s books on the subject of “dust” this really isn’t the place to start.  This volume being the second book in a trilogy which is in itself a sequel to a previous trilogy.  If you want to start at the beginning, I recommend you pick up the His Dark Materials trilogy (which I’ve written about before and urge all of you my fine followers to read).  If you are already at this point in Phillip Pullman’s magisterial cycle than I don’t really need to bring you up to date with a synopsis except to say I actually think Pullman gets better with time.  I found The Secret Commonwealth just as I found its predecessor in the Book of Dust trilogy to be exemplars of the fantasy fiction genre and damn fine and exciting thrillers to boot.  

Carol – Patricia Highsmith

Originally published in 1952 under a different name (The Price of Salt) and using a pseudonym (Clare Morgan, because Highsmith the thriller writer didn’t want to be known as, to quote her, “a writer of lesbian novels”) – the book we now know as Carol is a viscerally romantic story of “forbidden” love.

As the novel opens, we meet Therese a young woman working in a department story before Christmas.  Up to her counter appears Carol a married woman in her thirties.  Therein begins an exploration of a growing love between Therese and Carol – a love threatened by the disapprobation of the morally prejudiced, societal constraint and the fact that Carol is married with a young daughter. 

Throughout the course of the novel, Highsmith skilfully plots Therese’s journey from romantic obsession to mutual love in a enthralling and humanistic tale.

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

What happens when you try to change the way things have always been done in a small town?  Not always good things that’s for sure.

When recently widowed Florence Green decides to use her inheritance to open a bookshop in the small English seaside town of Hardborough she inadvertently stumbles not into a quaint little village in need of some cultural relief, but into a town seething with class animosity, invisible social boundaries and a vicious streak where those who stand in the way of the people at the top of the social pile are bound to suffer for their impertinence.

This quick little read is as perceptive as it is absorbing.   A town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.

Rodham – Curtis Sittenfeld

This rollicking satirical novel seems in spirit to be based on that old joke about Bill and Hillary Clinton.  The couple are driving along when they stop to get some gas, and it turns out that the attendant is a high-school boyfriend of Hillary’s. As they’re pulling away, Bill says, “Just think — if you had married him, today you’d be a gas station attendant’s wife.” Hillary shakes her head and says, “No, Bill, if I had married him, today he’d be President of the United States.”

It’s a joke rooted both in sexism, the stereotype of the manipulating woman behind the throne of the successful male politician (witness Andrew Bolt’s latest deranged rant about Boris Johnson’s partner for the 2020 version); and, a recognition that Hillary Clinton was always an incredibly talented political figure in her own right.    

Curtis Sittenfeld takes that basic fact and runs with it, full tilt into an alternate history of the last forty years.  The novel starts as a relatively factual reimagining of Hillary Rodham’s life up until the point she meets and falls in love with a fellow law school student Bill Clinton.  When she then realises that Bill Clinton is a little too much of an immoral, if talented, wastrel for her, the book veers superbly and entertainingly into the realm of a deeply realised and compelling assessment of the answer to this question: What would have happened if Hillary never married Bill? 

Sittenfeld is certainly not willing to leave the story as if Hillary was only some Tammy Wynette figure standing by her man (whether making Bill Clinton or some random gas station attendant President) – indeed, following the break up with Bill, the novel’s Hillary carves her own political future entirely absent the need for masculine intervention.  On a fundamental level the novel acts as a laser sharp riposte to the ways in which, too often, we use double standards to judge women in public life, and an astute assessment of the compromises and sacrifices needed to achieve any level of political success. 

While the book contains a little too much graphic description of sex between Bill and Hillary for my liking, Sittenfeld has captured the public essence of some of the major political figures of our time and simultaneously evocatively conjures their inner lives – a particular highlight are the brilliantly accomplished cameos by the figure of Donald Trump.   

Sittenfeld’s sympathies in this novel are clear, and of course if you know even a little bit about me, you’d know mine are too. Nothing can remove the fact of misogyny and sexism that was the overwhelming reason Hillary the lost the election in 2016 (a fact that most political pundits refuse to admit to this day) but this fun novel lets us dream for one brief shining moment what might have been. 

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Bleak.  Bleak, bleak, bleak, harrowing, bleak, bleak depressing. 

That’s really the tone of this smash hit by Cormac McCarthy from a decade or so back.   Not strictly a plague novel but I’ve been wanting to read it for years so somehow managed to cram it’s end of the world, loneliness type vision into my broad categories.  

The book tells the story of a father and son journeying across a post apocalyptic landscape – heading for an imagined safe place.  Not much actually happens yet McCarthy manages to create a tour-de-force of oppressive atmosphere and forceful tension. 

I’ve seen this novel described as Cormac McCarty’s great American nightmare.  Don’t let that put you off however.  If you like your novels dark, chilling and powerful yet somehow affectionate and sensitive than this truly great novel is for you.  If you like your novels some other way, I’d still say don’t skip reading this.  Cormac McCarthy is rightly regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers and this may be his very best.  

The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams

Just as the exceptional movie Hidden Figures told the story of the, too long neglected, women who saved the space program, Pip Williams debut novel tells an engrossing story of the women whom (male) history has chosen to overlook in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 

Inspired by real life, Williams tells the story of Esme the daughter of one of the dictionary’s lexicographers who spends her childhood scurrying around the floor of the scriptorium.  The words for the dictionary are written out on slips of paper and one day one of them falls to Esme on the floor.  It’s the word “bondmaid” which in real life was mysteriously left out of the first version of the dictionary.  In the novel Esme secrets the slip in a secret hiding place where she then proceeds to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men.

Soon Esme embarks on a project of her own collecting the spoken words of everyday women to begin a dictionary of her own: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

A pean to the vibrancy of the English language and in particular, how words shape our experiences of, and our ability to make sense of, the world.  The Dictionary of Lost Words is also a lyrically written corrective to what history has hitherto chosen to remember.   This book is a sheer delight. 

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

By far the most controversial inclusion on this list.  Indeed, it is impossible to talk about this book without also talking about the controversy that engulfed its release in TBTC – the time before The COVID.  Because back then the problem of cultural appropriation and its intersection with the publisher’s claims for this novel and what it was about derailed the reception that this book should have received on its literary merits.  Now even a cursory google search shows how it is not possible to consider the words of the novel from how it has been depicted, dissected and discussed. 

The critics of the novel are not wrong.  By trying to market the book as some sort of definitive encompassing of the experience of migrants attempting to enter the United States via Mexico the publisher not only degrades those of Latin American origin writing such stories it also insults the reader.

This criticism of American Dirt is very valid.  Publishers do need to do more to promote writers who write from a lived experience and from a cultural understanding rather than pitching a single book as talking from the experience of a whole.  As with the long overdue promotion of Australian indigenous authors, without a doubt more effort should be put in by publishers to promote the work of those telling stories of their own culture.  And just as importantly giving us as readers the stories of how society looks like from an experience that is not our own. 

This should not mean however, that only those with lived experience can write about certain subjects.  The ability to imagine life other than one’s own is the very essence of fiction.  Proscribing who can write about who or what, is in my view little more than a closing of the breadth of possibility that fiction can bring us.  It shouldn’t be a zero sum game.  As far as good fiction is concerned publishers, should be doing more to bring our attention to works of all backgrounds rather than making grand and misleading statements for the pretensions of one novel.

Sadly, I suspect the publisher doesn’t regret anything about the controversy over this novel, and its own grand and pretentious positioning, as I’m sure it resulted in higher book sales. In fact, the publisher may even have engineered the fight.  To me, it is a great shame that the publishers (and to an extent the author) took this approach they did in marketing the book.    

The book should have been marketed as what it actually was, not a deeply clinical treatise and understanding of the migrant experience, but a page turning thriller of complete fiction that should be placed next to John Grisham or Wilbur Smith in the bookshop.  Because in my opinion Jeanine Cummins has written a riveting suspense novel.  In short it tells the story of former bookshop owner Lydia escaping with her young son, to the US after a cartel boss has killed her husband. 

The storytelling is addictive, the action propulsive, the characters compassionately drawn and the tone emotion stirring.  I read it with a sense of urgency in two sittings.  American Dirt was the only truly seat of the pants page turner that I read this year. 

Debates such as the one surrounding American Dirt are important to have in a mature society.  I suspect some of my friends reading these reviews may not agree with my assessment of the novel here.  But that’s why we read. 

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

Like much of Edith Wharton’s oeuvre The Age of Innocence is a novel of manners – but manners used to supress and hide the truth of what goes on beneath, leaving protagonists to exist in a world of half-truths and guessed at gossip – “a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” 

Brought up in this world of New York’s leading families in the 1870’s, Newland Archer is soon to be wedded to “one of his own kind”, the equally well-born May Welland.  But the arrival of the Countess Olenska, a free spirit who breathes clouds of European sophistication, makes him question the path on which his upbringing has set him. As his fascination with her grows, he discovers just how hard it is to escape the bonds of the society that has shaped him.

Wharton’s last great work (for which she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize) explores and exposes the struggle between the individual and a group conformity imposed by rigid social codes, with Wharton bringing a merciless clarity to her analysis of the ways in which society treats those who don’t conform.  Edith Wharton was the great exponent of ironic commentary long before ironic commentary was the tiresome motif it is today. 

The Vanishing Half – Britt Bennett

Making every “Best of 2020” list I’ve seen, and at a time when the intersection between race and history was never more topical The Vanishing Half has given succour to Bookclubs everywhere.

Bennett has created a sophisticated historical exploration wrapped in a clever, touching novel that often confounds expectations. 

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past.

Written with a restrained, almost old-fashioned sensibility, Bennett manages to force on the reader  an inspection of a multitude of contemporary issues, almost without you knowing she is doing it.   This is the kind of historical fiction that sets individuals against the backdrop of grand events, illuminating how the political shapes the personal all the while doing it with clever plotted, captivating storyline.

Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump – Rick Reilly

If you bought any of the thousands of books analysing Donald Trump and the Trump White House in the past four years, it seems you were probably wasting your money.  Indeed, it actually turns out that all you had to do was read a book about golf.   Personally, I’m not a fan of golf, I can think of much better uses of open space than golf courses – high rise tenements for one.    However, more than most other sports golf prides itself on its adherence to a code of conduct, etiquette and social mores (much like the New York of Edith Wharton’s time – see what I did there?).  Breaking these taboos is therefore a pretty handy guide to judging a person’s character – treat your caddy like shit on the golf course and your probably likely to treat the rest of the people in your life like shit too.    

All of Trump’s behaviours on the golf course were mirrored in his actions in his one term Presidency – refusing to play by the rules, constant lying about his achievements (or lying about any and every damn thing for that matter), threatening legal action at the drop of a hat.  Turns out golf (or more correctly how Trump approaches golf) really does explain Trump. 

I know, there’s no need now to ever again read a book about Trump, however, no one who read this book prior to November 3 would now be wondering about why Trump is refusing to go quietly and refusing to accept the election result.  We all know Trump has lied throughout his Presidency as he has lied throughout his life but the biggest lie he’s ever told, the one that all his cheating in golf and business was aimed at was to tell himself he was a winner when the simple fact is he was just a loser after all.  

Surviving Autocracy – Masha Gessen ; Twilight of Democracy:  The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends – Anne Applebaum; and  How Democracies Die: What history reveals about our future – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

At the start of 2020 surveys showed that trust in Australian democracy was at all-time lows.  The Australian Election Survey reports that, “trust in government has reached its lowest level on record with just 25% of voters believing people in Government can be trusted”.  Equally worrying is the fact that, “satisfaction with democracy was at its lowest level (59%) since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s”.   Of course, Australia was not alone amongst Western democracies in facing these challenges.  According to the highly regarded Edelman Trust Barometer 2020, across the developed world “Government is perceived as both incompetent and unethical”.

The great threat of declining trust in democracy, and government is that it leads to a weakening in the belief that government in general and our political institutions in particular, are able to offer solutions to significant problems.   Hopefully, certainly in Australia, the successful response to COVID has seen a redress of sorts to this picture and a renewed appreciation of the importance of public service and of public services. 

But if the last ten years have taught us anything it is the fragility of democracy in the face of profound cynicism and deliberate attempts at subversion.   What we’ve learnt is that because democracy relies so much on norms and traditions there is very little that can stand in the way of a half competent autocrat who doesn’t want to play by the rules.  A reliance on a system’s check and balances especially when they are precedent rather proscribed can only take you so far.  Of course, sometimes you catch a break such as when incompetent wannabe autocrats like Donald Trump launch failed attempts to overturn democratic elections.    But make no mistake, the damage to institutions from Trump’s reckless and deliberate disregard has only weakened the bonds of democracy and the next attempt at autocracy may only need to be attempted by someone slightly cleverer to succeed. 

Into this fraught situation come three books worth reading as both analysis and possible solution to the problem of creeping autocracy.  The lesson from all three is that democracy doesn’t usually die in coups, it dies in increments – with the removal of democratic guardrails one at a time until through co-optation rather than coercion, democracy is dead. 

Each uses examples of the creeping authoritarianism in Eastern Europe (most importantly in Hungary, Poland and Russia) to demonstrate how easy it is to subvert even supposedly strong democrat safeguards. 

Masha Gessen’s was my favourite of the bunch but all three are worth a read in thoughtful contemplation.   In their own ways, each of these three books warn of the dangers of complacency.  They are all equally compelling and should be a must read for all of us who care about the future of democracy.   At the end of the day all three pose a challenge that only we as citizens can answer – it’s time to choose the country we want to be. 

We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehsi Coates

“We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this collection of selected essays from first published in The Atlantic during the Obama Presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fuelled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president.”

Despite the imminent vanquishment of Trump, the racial animosity he turbo-charged, and the unfinished business of racial reconciliation and justice means that these essays remain as powerful and important as when first written. 

Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky

Every time I think about the backstory to this book I am struck by an almost supernatural awe at Irene Nemirovsky’s supreme accomplishment.  In 1940 and ’41 as the Germans first invaded and then consolidated their occupation of France, Nemirovsky set out to write a modern version of War and Peace to be set in France during the Nazi Occupation.  She had planned to write some 5 or so parts to create a whole.  Instead, she managed to write just two parts (almost short novellas) before she was arrested and shortly thereafter killed in Auschwitz.  But, what she wrote was not discovered and published until 65 years later by her daughter.   

The two sections she completed however constitute a masterpiece of (what is now) historical fiction.  The first section is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion and make their way through the chaos of France; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation who find themselves thrown together in ways they never expected. 

The book fairly teems with humanity in all its ugliness and beauty.  What makes the book so poignant (especially given Nemirovsky’s own fate) is the feeling of hope even in the face of what should be despair that suffuses the novel.  To have created the beginnings of a novel with such perspective whilst literally living through the events depicted is a truly astonishing achievement.

The Resisters – Gish Jen

Dystopian fiction based on exposing the perfidies of surveillance capitalism, rampant AI and an omnipotent internet, with a stark warning on the dangers of climate change, that has baseball at its core?  I’m there baby, I’m totally there. 

In the not too distant future, AutoAmerica (the place you and I might know as the United States) has a society divided into two (no, not those divisions roiling current day America).   One on the hand the “Netted” the modern day “haves”, fair-skinned and the only ones with jobs who live on stable, higher ground.  On the other, the modern day “have-nots”, known as the “Surplus”, multi-racial, living in swamps or on houseboats who’s only role in life is to consume. All of which is controlled by an ever-present internet of things known as “Aunt Nettie”

Jen chronicles how this state of affairs came about – the citizens of the near present gratefully and easily did it to themselves.  Through each of millions of individual choices designed to “make life easier” people gave up the agency of doing things for themselves for the illusory convenience of letting machines make their decisions (and do their jobs) for them.  It turns out that complacency really does breed contempt (at least contempt from our new internet overlords).  If this seems frighteningly close to present reality – like all the best dystopian fiction it is totally meant to be. 

Despite the darkness of the subject matter there is light in a narrative of what actually amounts to a coming-of-age story.  And it is more than just the lightness of Jen’s writing which even at its most dystopian never stoops to despair.   The novel centres on a three-person family with at its core our novel’s young heroine Gwen a truly outstanding baseball prodigy chosen to represent AutoAmerica against ChinRussia in the forthcoming Olympics.  Through Gwen’s story (and that of her mother a lawyer constantly fighting on behalf of the Surplus) the positive moral of the story is that resistance is never futile, and even the ultimate surveillance society can’t quite muffle the human spirit.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Fifty-five years, five months, four days, three hours and two minutes after Florentino Ariza is spurned by his youthful love Fermina Daza, he (Florentino) will attend her husband’s funeral and will declare his love for her again.

Thus, is the premise of this extraordinarily tender tale of unrequited love and perseverance spanning decades (and 622 lovers of Florentina Ariza as he waits for Fermina to be single yet again).   

There is a glorious sumptuousness to this story, and a lush, sensory overload of words and images as Marquez takes us on a long meditation into love in all its forms. As Florentino’s mother remarks in response to his first infatuation, “the symptoms of love are the same as those of cholera”, and yet, as Marquez makes clear love can be so much more than the fever sweat of our youthful passions. 

Like so much of Marquez’ writing the journey is undertaken with a magical sense of fun and in a bleak year it is saving grace to have read a novel that so clearly shows us love is a brilliant force that awakens us to life’s possibilities and often makes our daily lives worth it.  Florentino Ariza is in in love with love (both platonic and sexual) a state of affairs, that Marquez shows us is no bad way to have lived your life. 

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

How to turn what should be the mundane – that is, a story of a middleclass woman married to a middling Tory politician getting ready for a party – into a revolutionary tour de force is Virginia Woolf’s sublime success with Mrs Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway, elegant and vivacious, is preparing for a party and remembering those she once loved. In another part of London, Septimus Warren Smith is suffering from shell-shock caused by the traumas he witnessed during Word War I.   Smith’s day interweaves with that of Clarissa and her friends, their lives converging as the party reaches its glittering climax. 

That’s the synopsis, but how Virginia Woolf uses that scenario to push boundaries of literary style is the real significance of Mrs Dalloway 100 years on.  Like Joyce before her, Woolf set the entirety of the action of the novel in a single day.  More importantly she set that action in the minds of her characters.  The ground-breaking nature of Woolf’s mastery of the interior monologue makes Mrs Dalloway significant as one the early modernist novels.

In so doing Woolf captured the drift of thought and feeling, and the fragmented yet fluid nature of time, that realistically reflects the stream of consciousness one experiences while moving through our own days.

The shadow of World War One and the Spanish Flu hover spectrally over the action in the novel and thematically Woolf uses her characters to explore a fear over what England has become following the devastation of the war and the long-term effects that viruses can wreak on bodies and on societies.   

Vernon Subutex One – Virginie Despentes

I got to the end of Vernon Subutex thoroughly satisfied and then I realised it was merely the first of a trilogy.  Don’t let that deter you though because I now eagerly looking forward to reading its sequels. 

This is a hilariously provocative, social novel and critique of post GFC France and its political and social divides, covering everything from misogyny, pornography, the influence of social media, poverty, religion, race, and neo-fascism to gender issues.

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Paris, where his name was legend throughout Paris. By the 2000s, however, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CD and vinyl sales, his shop is struggling, like so many others. When it closes, Subutex finds himself with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Before long, his savings are gone, and when the mysterious rock star who had been covering his rent suddenly drops dead of a drug overdose, Subutex finds himself launched on an epic saga of couch-surfing, boozing, and coke-snorting before finally winding up homeless. Just as he resigns himself to life as a panhandler, a throwaway comment he once made on Facebook takes the internet by storm and Vernon better watch out. 

Every word, every thought, pulsates with the raw emotion of the perpetually enraged – a powerful and engrossing read.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Not all YA books translate too well for us less young adults, but with The Hate U Give Angie Thomas has provided a pulsating examination of prejudice (both racial and class) in the 21st century inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer

Thomas tells the story with a confident pacing, emotional honesty, vividly drawn characters and political consciousness well in advance of what one normally expects from first time novelists.  For a debut novel this is a genuinely dazzling, important and (especially for its target audience) thought-provoking achievement. 

The Yield – Tara June Winch

As with Too Much Lip, with The Yield (this year’s deserved Miles Franklin winner) we have a powerful and moving story of a return to Country. 

The Yield too features a grandfather dying, a granddaughter returning home, and a fight over land rights. However, the style and structure of both novels could not be more distinct and both attest to the range and diversity of modern indigenous fiction.  They also answer a clear need, not just for redressing the balance of the Australian literary landscape, but also in a reckoning with our past.  As Tara June Winch told one interviewer, “Australians want to know the truth of their history. There is a renaissance of truth telling in Australia right now.”

The Yield has a lighter touch than Lukaschenko’s work and, in what I found to be an extremely clever use of device and form by Winch, the story alternates between three distinct literary styles and three distinct narrators. 

The first is a traditional third person account of the present day as August Gondiwindi returns home to Massacre Plains and her home of Prosperous after many years absence and finds not only the family she left behind changed irrevocably by her grandfather Albert’s death, but the home they’ve lived in and the life they’ve led threatened by the imminent building of a mine on August’s childhood home.

The second approach is that of a letter written by a nineteenth-century missionary, Reverend Greenleaf, detailing the history of a Christian mission on the site of Prosperous and the brutal treatment of Australia’s first nation’s people.  It is the most blunt of the styles in dealing with Australia’s troubled past.

Tying it all together is a series of dictionary entries by Albert chronicling the story of his life in the form of an explanation of words and their meanings, in his traditional language.  This makes The Yield a story not just of reclaiming Australian history for truth but of rebalancing our knowledge of indigenous culture and reforging an eons long association to place  (as a bonus the reader gets to learn a little Wiradjuri along the way).   And finally, the narrative search for Albert’s dictionary forms the denouement of August’s story. 

Short sharp chapters mean that the chronicle skips along at pace and one never stays too long in any one literary form.  Far from distracting the reader however, the abrupt changes in narrator ensure that the whole is much bigger than the sum of its past and the reward from perseverance is all the richer.  Ultimately a story of belonging, connection and place, The Yield is probably my second favourite choice for book of my year. 

The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron is the original lockdown story.  A group of 10 young Florentines escape the city for the countryside during the Black Death pandemic.  They decide to quarantine themselves for two weeks and on 10 of those days they will tell stories to each other.  Ten tales times ten days: at the end, they will have a hundred stories. That collection, with various introductions and commentaries, is the Decameron it’s sort of the middle ages equivalent of Zoom drinks talking about the latest episode of Tiger King or the Last Dance.   

Actually, the idea of the idle rich sitting around for two weeks telling stories during a pandemic sounds a lot less stressful than the reality of life for most people during The COVID.  Zoom drinks did get trying after a while and you can only eat so much sourdough bread.  

The genius of the Decameron in fact resides in the fact that it was an act of defiance in the face of the plague

For a book from the Middle Ages in many senses it is contemporary (or at least revolutionary) in its approach.  For a one Boccaccio (at least in writing in Italian) was a pioneer of the prose style.  Prior to Boccaccio most great “literary” stories were told in verse not prose.  Telling tales in prose, closer to how people talk and think was a radical act (and of course it’s how we mostly tell stories today).

This was quite a democratising idea, as was Boccaccio’s exaltation of the “common folk” and the use of realism.  Although the Decameron’s tales are told by young nobles the subjects, and the subject matter, of the stories is very much of the people.   Characters are praised for skills such as cleverness, wit, and thinking on your feet rather than those in typical medieval tales such as courage and faith. 

In line with the preoccupations of normal folk, tradesmen and the like, the most common descriptions of the tales in The Decameron are “earthy” or bawdy”.  Or as has been said elsewhere, “this is probably the dirtiest great book in the Western canon”.   But it’s very ribald humour is at heart what has given it such a punch for 700 years. 

On a final note, if 100 tales is too long for you (along with descriptions of the storytellers playing the viola or other such stuff) and let’s face it 100 tales is too much,  I recommend Tales from the Decameron instead.


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