I have now dropped the designation of 10 favorite books for the year as I usually have a larger number. This year I chose 11 of the 50 books I read. Four on my favorites list were among the ten books by Australians. As always these are books that I read this year, not necessarily published in 2017.
The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton. I found this audiobook so appealing that I returned to the beginning as soon as I finished it. It's poignant, thoughtful, inspiring. This beloved Australian author writes about his youth, his work in the environmental movement, and living in the gatehouse of Leap Castle in Ireland while writing Cloudstreet.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Every sentence counts in these short stories whose characters are immigrants; some tell of immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades, some tell of the time when they were new to the country. Each one drops you into a different world.
I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters. I concluded the plot is so magically odd that describing it in the usual terms misses the mark. It is the characters' intense and vibrant love for the oddest things (Chevy trucks, rock and roll music, smoking, and each other) that made me love it.
The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay. One of my favorite books last year has Sydney at its center and three storylines that intertwine (The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere). Once again one of my favorites falls into that same category. Lets see if that can happen again next year. This time the three stories are in different centuries: one fictionalizes William Dawes, who arrived with the first fleet, one has the building of the Harbour Bridge at its center, and one tells the story of a man returning to the city from London after an absence of 10 years.
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. The picture painted of the diminished life facing the aristocracy of England after the war tells us that this is caused by the rise in the fortunes of those who previously worked to care for the upper classes. This comes not as a polemic, but a lovely recounting of a day by a woman who is not especially troubled by her new situation and at day's end has an uplifting moment of revelation of her good fortune.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It is rare for a book to be so successful in both an intimate story of individuals who come alive and a dramatic global theme. Two young people must leave their country when it is engulfed in civil war; they leave by a magical method which is both like dying and being reborn. While their complex tale is told in a dispassionate voice, you come to love them. A global theme could hardly be more timely and important than that of immigration.
Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane. You have to love a book with characters known as Auntie Boo and Auntie Bubby. The narrator tells that she only became aware that her life as an Aborigine was different from others when she went to school. She grew up in the care of her grandmother and the Aunties. It was Auntie Boo who reassured her that being different was a good thing by telling Epictetus's story that he wanted to be the purple thread, "that small part which is bright and makes everything else graceful and beautiful."
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. All the characters are connected, sometimes only tangentially, by a play. The author, actors, audience members, and the director each have a chapter devoted to their stories. Early on, I thought this was about a sorry group of individuals who are easily skewered, but a wonderful bigger picture emerges and we begin to feel a kinship with this odd collection of humanity.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. A book with a mix of historical snippets and fanciful fiction has remained my favorite for the year since I read it in April. It is the fellow residents of Willie Lincoln's graveyard that makes this a wonderful book for me. Three of them tell us the story, along with short quotes from books written at the time of the child's death. I am now more aware that the Buddhist concept of the Bardo speaks to the concept that turns up everywhere, this place between not being alive and a final resting place.
Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. This book of essays is both moving and very funny; I found the 12-page recounting of Pride and Prejudice alone worth the price of the book. In writing about United 93, the movie about the 9/11 plane that passengers commandeered from the hijackers, she says, "why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know will fill us with grief and despair?"
NW by Zadie Smith. The four main characters grew up in a council estate in a part of London that one knows is not posh. They go in different directions and then intersect in intense ways; each character is drawn in a compelling way. The audiobook was wonderful for the sounds of their dialogue and the poetry that Zadie Smith lapses into.
Your notes make me want to read every one. I had already put my sights on “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Happy reading in 2018!
What a great list of favourite reads Charlotte. You seem to read quite a lot of Australian literature? That’s great. I loved Purple threads when I read it, so I loved seeing it in your list. I was given Refugees for Christmas and hope to find time to read it this year. And, I have bought Lincoln in the Bardo. I hope to get my reading group to do it, but someone put the kibosh on that so again I’ll have to find my own time to read it. Your brief description here of why you liked it has enthused me even more than I had been.
I do dearly love Australian literature and appreciate seeing what you read. I was surprised that some people strongly disliked Lincoln in the Bardo, but it is true I put aside his much admired short story collection The Tenth of December as it was too dark.