Well. What a tumultuous year it has been. Australian elections, Brexit, US elections, and the deaths of so many beloved cultural icons. The refugee crisis arising from the wars and political instability stemming from the dislocation and disenfranchisement caused by European colonisation, all those years ago. The state of the world is karma in action, if you ask me. Then there are the climate change worries, the resurgence of nationalism, fascism, and social conservatism, and the everyday violence, cruelty and stupidity so many humans choose to engage in. On a personal level, 2016 zoomed by in a flash, because I’ve been juggling so many hats and trying to keep all the plates spinning on their sticks. No wonder that this year has probably been my second-worst reading year ever, and that’s saying something! Of course, I did do a lot of reading every day, for research and other purposes, but reading in my leisure time just went right out the window this year.
I did start quite a few books, but by the end of most days I couldn’t stay awake long enough to read more than a couple of pages. Not only was I tired, but I lacked motivation and focus, and it was much easier to veg out and watch a DVD instead. I ended up watching quite a few Nordic crime series, and cosy whodunnit shows, such as Father Brown and Grantchester, and not-so-cosy series, such as Vera, Happy Valley, and George Gently. I watched all the costume dramas I could get my hands on, including all the Austen adaptations, yet again. However, I’m afraid I couldn’t get into the new Poldark, because I thought the acting was very ordinary and Ross is too pretty to take seriously. Also, I couldn’t watch Outlander, because it was just too banal and stupid. I still haven’t watched War and Peace, either. I can’t quite bring myself to do it, even though I’ll probably like it when/if I get around to it.
And so, on to the five books I enjoyed the most this year:
5: Zero K, Don DeLillo.
I didn’t love DeLillo’s latest novel, but it does get my vote for sentimental favourite. I think it’s great that he’s still writing in his old age, and that he’s still concerned about issues to do with how we live, and how technology is shaping our experience of life. There were so many quotable passages in the book, and although I think the narrative was a little disjointed and the characters not particularly well-drawn, there was still much for me to enjoy. One of my big concerns in life, which DeLillo writes about in Zero K, is the way in which so many people are ‘performing’ and ‘curating’ their lives via devices connected to the internet, rather than living in the REAL WORLD. How will life and death be defined in the future? Will future generations end up living in virtual reality? I’d much rather be out there in nature than in here staring at a screen. It might be time to pack up and head for the hills!
4: Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, Jack Kerouac.
Jack Kerouac took his writerly vocation very seriously, although urban legend would have it that he sat down and dashed off his novels, just like that. Actually, as these extracts from his journals show, he agonised over his writing, and wrote and rewrote, and rewrote some more. He spent years and years practising and honing his craft. Sadly, when finally he had popular success with On the Road, he didn’t know how to deal with fame, or the expectations of his readers who couldn’t see the wild man of his early novels in the somewhat raddled, middle-aged conservative Kerouac had become by the time he was well-known. Anyway, as a fairly major Kerouac fan, I enjoyed reading his journals and seeing what he was like when he was young. I liked getting a glimpse of the things he thought and worried about. I was impressed with his dedication to reading and writing – he was a big Dostoevsky fan, and he greatly admired Proust, which is fairly obvious seeing as how Kerouac’s own sequence of novels were very much based on the literary foundation constructed by Proust in his In Search of Lost Time cycle.
3: Dying: A Memoir, Cory Taylor.
Cory Taylor wrote this book not long before she died from cancer, and it is a beautiful and unsentimental reflection of her memories, thoughts and feelings, not only about her own imminent death, but about her childhood and family, and the relationships, joys and sorrows she experienced throughout her life. The memoir is not only about dying well, but also about about living well. I heard Taylor being interviewed on the radio a few times when the book was first published, and she sounded so prepared for death, even though she had massive regrets about leaving her children and husband behind. In her writing, Taylor is totally clear-sighted about what will happen to her, and she is courageous and brave about facing the reality of dying, even though she was angry that we don’t have voluntary euthanasia rights in Australia, so she couldn’t choose when to end her own life. It seemed to me that the book was really written for her loved ones, so that they could take comfort and strength from her, even after she was gone. She seems to me to have been that sort of person, always thinking of others even as she faced up to her own mortality, and wanting to ease the way for others. I liked the book a lot, especially the way Taylor stayed true to her atheistic beliefs, and I admire the way she was so practical and matter-of-fact about what was happening to her.
2: A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
I loved this historical novel for all sorts of reasons. Not only is it beautifully written, and also clever, witty, elegant, and sometimes delightfully farcical, but I fell in love with the protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov – Member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt. He is such a quintessential Russian aristocratic gentleman, and he might have stepped out of the pages of a Tolstoy novel or a Chekhov story. Despite losing everything in the war between the Bolsheviks and the Imperialists, Rostov maintains his integrity and dignity as a representative of his class and all the positive values they held dear. For him, kindness and decency matter, and he is determined never to let the Reds get the better of him, no matter what the provocation. Towles deals with a very sombre subject – the chaotic aftermath of the Russian civil war and the bureaucratic nightmare of the Soviet era – but he maintains a light touch throughout. Frequently, I found myself reading between the lines, as I situated the events in the narrative within the wider context of Russian history. This is not a realist novel, but it is historically accurate, and the execution of the narrative reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s line, ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’. I think Towles’ novel has something of the zeitgeist Bulgakov created in The Master and Margarita – it’s a fable, a fairy tale, a fantasy, but it’s also deadly serious.
1: A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker.
After feeling decidedly underwhelmed by Baker’s Longbourn, I approached A Country Road with caution. I really didn’t like what she did with the Bennet family, so I was a bit concerned about what she might do with Samuel Beckett. I needn’t have worried though, because Baker’s portrayal of Beckett’s war years in France is clever and imaginative, while at the same time being soundly based on the facts as we know them from his journals and letters. The Beckett I encountered in Baker’s narrative is pretty much how I imagine him to have been. I don’t like biographical fiction very much, as a rule, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how ‘alive’ Beckett seemed to be in this novel. The title of the book is taken from the first stage direction in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and A Country Road contains many such winks and nods to his writing, and to his writing style. I loved everything about this book, and it was definitely my best read of the year.
I don’t have any reading plans for 2017. I have a feeling that it’s going to be another year of not-so-nice surprises. Who knows what will happen when Trump and his bunch of crony capitalists get their hands on the levers of power? Will the UK actually leave the EU? What will happen in the elections in France and the Netherlands? Will Trump tweet something that really upsets the Chinese? And will Australia’s government last the year, given that the hard-right faction is calling the shots and its members have been emboldened by Trump’s victory and they’re behaving more outlandishly than usual. How will we tree-hugging green lefties counteract the racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and all the other isms and phobias the fascists-in-waiting are allowing to crawl out of their collective consciousness? I expect I’ll feel just as appalled and bewildered in 2017, and I’ll probably find it as hard to concentrate on reading anything I don’t absolutely have to, because that would feel like fiddling while Rome burns. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but it really does feel as though the world is caught in a moment, and it’s time to stand up for what I believe in, or run the risk of finding myself living in the 1950s, or much worse. If anyone knows of any books about how to use social media as part of a political strategy, please let me know. I’m totally clueless when it comes to social media, but I think I need to educate myself about its intricacies.
Good luck with your reading in 2017. Good luck in general! I think we might need all the luck we can get. 🙂