When three of my January reads made the favorite books list, I knew it was going to be a long list this year. Of my thirteen favorite books, five are by Australian writers. I read 50 books this year.
Mr. Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence. An Australian wrote this 1865 book in a writing style reminiscent of Jane Austen with the political sensibility of Ezra Klein, or perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The week I spent reading it was a happy one.
A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay. This tale of the occupants of a modest house in Brisbane beginning in the 1940s was a beautiful one. The worries and joys of their rather mundane lives were never dull. I miss having Elsie, Lucy and the others in my life.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Somehow this author created a palate of characters that pull you into a story that is crushingly sad. Nevertheless, you love the 13-year-old boy, his addicted mother, and an unburied soul who each tell a part of the tale.
That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott. Recently Lisa of AnzLitLovers said this was a “book of the decade” for her. This indigenous author tells the story of the interactions between the Noongar people and the first Europeans to arrive in the area around Albany in Western Australia. He imagines a world where the Europeans continued to value the indigenous population even when they outnumbered them. Scott manages to so enliven the characters that I will always think with great fondness and respect for Bobby Wabalanginy.
First Person by Richard Flanagan. The fictionalized story of Flanagan’s ghost writing job for Australia’s most notorious con man was informative in seeing how Trump has conned the American public. The con man “contradicted his own lies with fresh lies, and then he contradicted his contradictions,” thus requiring the listener to reconcile the lies into a plausible story.
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. This venerable author goes deeply into both 1950s automotive Australia and the horrifying actions of the Europeans to the indigenous population and intertwines these two strands. Along with the main characters you come to love, there are numerous quirky minor ones.
American Fire by Monica Hesse. It’s hard to imagine that the story of a couple who enlivened their lives by setting 67 fires would be a fun read, but it was. This occurred in Accomack County, Virginia, a 70-mile long peninsula with countless vacant houses. No one was hurt; in one instance, chickens were let out of a coup to assure their safety. A bizarre true story, perfectly told by a Washington Post writer.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The unfolding of this complicated story set in postwar London is its great strength. Just as the “warlight” is not always enlightening, the events after the war are far from clear to the son of a woman who had a secret role in the war. The images the author creates for us are unforgettable.
There There by Tommy Orange. The author tells what it means to be a Native American in the urban setting of Oakland. We are introduced to large cast of characters and each one’s role in an upcoming powwow. As the powwow comes closer, we learn what the bad actors plan and the joyful preparation of others for this event that we know will be tragic. Even the bad actors are given a hearing as we learn what they are thinking.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Miss Furukura loves her work in a convenience store; the training she received there allows her to fit in for the first time in her life. Though she is happy and is thoughtful and dedicated to her work, relatives and friends think this is not enough. It is a perfect gem of a book: creepy, funny, and thought-provoking all at once.
Chesapeake Requiem by Earl Swift. This is a non-fiction account of the disappearing Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Earl spent a year on the island and introduces us to the unique world of the blue crab fisherman. It turns out that two of my favorite books of the year were non-fiction books set in Accomack County, Virginia.
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. This complex plot begins with three factual events: the first airborne crossing of the Atlantic in 1919, Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland in 1845, and George Mitchell’s work for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The second half of the book tells stories of the women in three generations of a family that have an encounter with the principals in each of those events. It all sounds pretty unlikely to succeed as a novel, but oh my, it does.
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. This affectionate family portrait of a Mexican-American clan ranges from World War I to the present and focuses on the patriarch Big Angel and his half-brother Little Angel. It begins with a funeral, disrupted by Big Angel’s noisy entrance, and ends with Big Angel’s birthday party, a momentous event as he is near death. The loving nature of the book was enhanced by hearing the author read it.