Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My 2012 reading year

I read many books by female authors this year – more than I did books by male authors – without even realising. Which is great. Because if you’ve been following literary conversations in Australia or around the world over the past year or so, you’ll know that there has been much debate and action around the fact that women remain underrepresented in the publishing industry: books by women writers are reviewed less frequently than those by men, and the reviewers themselves are more likely to be male, for example (see Sophie Cunningham’s great article about the whole ordeal here).

Two of the best books penned by women I read during 2012 were Blue Nights by Joan Didion and I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Both had been recommended to me by a number of sources, and I finally got my hands on them after the Melbourne International Writers Festival. Reading Blue Nights was a revelation: how have I lived – particularly as a non-fiction writer – without having read Didion’s work before? I felt like I’d found some kind of soul-mate, or at least, felt as though my desire to become a writer had been replaced with a desire to become Didion herself. Sharp prose, but easy and honest prose: she writes so simply, as if all the words just fell out of her brain onto the page in perfect order. The dumbest of asses could read her work and come away with the most profound understandings of how people and the world work: not because she isn't incredibly complex, but she's so articulate. I even became jealous reading other writers’ glowing reviews of her – I wanted her writing to be mine!

Reading Crosley was also inspiring. Her book of essays about life in New York City was so hilarious I had to stop reading it in publicly, because it made me snort and cry with laughter at once. The best thing about it was it was written by a girl about my age who I could relate to. Her stories are the kind that get told at a dinner party and have the whole group in stitches. But she’s clever, too – all the hilarity is interspersed with reflection on her Jewish suburban upbringing and a whole bunch of other stuff, like friendships, family, work, etc.

Joan Didion: who wouldn't want to be her?
On another note, there were tonnes of books I started this year and didn’t finish, not because I wanted to, but because I got distracted by other books. Some of the half-reads are things like Americana (Don de Lillo), Rock Springs (Richard Ford) and Oblivion (David Foster Wallace). The only two books I actually chose not to finish were Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking – not because I wasn’t desperate to read it but because I couldn’t stomach description after detailed description of her husband’s death (not that it was violent at all – but even descriptions of blood tests make me queasy). The other was Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel because I got too grossed out when the main guy was covered in seeping and bleeding scabs after filling his bed with tacks and glass shards and then sleeping in it.

But some other of my reading highlights this year were:
  • Ransom (David Malouf) – assumed it would be lame because Malouf was on the high school reading list and I used to think everything on the school reading list was silly. Except for the fact I now love heaps of books on school reading lists. In any case, this was great! Initially I thought the declarative and intentionally “mythic” style (ie it reads like an epic poem, kinda – quite sombre, as if everything were laden with meaning) would make it hard to relate to characters. But it didn’t! It made it even easier to engage with them!
  • Shadowboxing (Tony Birch) – so good, mostly because I know the setting so well and it was fascinating (and heart-breaking) to get a picture of what Collingwood and Fitzroy were like 50 years ago. Incredible use of short stories to build a full picture.
  • Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart) – crazy futuristic NY fall-of-America type novel, but what an imagination this author has! Such a detailed world. Worth it just to find out what “onionskins” are (I’ll spoil it: they’re transparent jeans). To be honest, it is another east-coast American man writing about a medium-life masculine crisis…but he does a very good job of it. It’s kind of the like final chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad on steroids.
Before the end of 2012, I hope to finish Slaughter House 5 (Kurt Vonnegut) and Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) and maybe The Golden Mean (Annabel Lyon). And then there’s a whole new year of reading ahead!!!! Merry Xmas punx!


  1. thanks for this jtul, totally just bought 'i was told there'd be cake', literally seconds after reading this (currently downloading to my kindle, also thanks to you). now hurry up and finish barnes so we can chat! xx

  2. This is Joan Didion on the art of fiction, but it still may interest you nonetheless: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

    cf. her 'incubation' period - reassuring, I'd imagine!

    'I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.'