Reviewing the books read or re-read in 2017, I chose the thirteen (sic) most satisfying reading experiences for the year. In other words, I reflected on how much stimulation and pleasure was felt sitting with the book – and why. If you have the patience, the following slideshow will countdown for this year. The rest of the post briefly details why I found these books superb.
13. Inside George Orwell (2006) by Gordon Bowker is the best of the biographies of Orwell. One really gets a sense of the non-literary man that is not easily gleaned from his essays, reviews, non fiction or fiction. I need to re-read this one next year.
12. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is much better than my memory of it from university days. Travelling to and fro, through space and time with Billy Pilgrim (and the Tralfamadorians) is a rare pleasure. One of the interesting reflections for this reader is that we all mentally travel along our personal timelines and can be imbibing a memory from some strange place in our lives at any given moment. Poo-tee-weet?
11. The Complete Works (1592/2003) by Michel de Montaigne and Donald M. Frame (Translator) is one of the works genuinely deserving canonical status. The French aristocrat’s reflections on his life, literature, thinking and all kinds of idiosyncratic topics has been read for the last 400 years by most people who consider themselves literate. Great wisdom and wit. You may prefer a shorter selection though, this is a weighty tome.
10. Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (2017) by Thomas E. Ricks is a fascinating look at parallel lives. The book, although a popular, general work of history, will appeal to those who know a great deal about Orwell and/or Churchill without alienating readers with an interest in these two important twentieth century figures but no great knowledge of their careers or historical context. The brief overview of their social backgrounds and personal trajectories is effective, especially as it is interspersed with insights that point out more similarities than one would imagine between the flamboyant, extroverted, aristocratic, Tory politician and an introverted, publicity-shy, bohemian, left-wing writer. Here’s my review.
9. The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulkagov has been on my list to read for almost thirty years and was worth the wait. The magical realism and spear-thrusts at the literary elite are deft, amusing and make one stop, often, to re-read with delight. I wish that ‘ointment’ was readily available.
8. Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (2016) by Sheridan Palmer helped me understand the Australian 20th century better, especially the art and literary scenes. I loved that Smith, an adopted boy who commenced his career as a teacher in rural Australia, transcended his social background. I doubt if this book will find its way on (m)any lists but it really is a good read.
7. The End of Eddy (2017) by Édouard Louis (b.1992) translated into English by Michael Lucey (2017) deserves a wider audience than what it has had outside of France. Set in Picardy during the late twentieth century, the novel details a world the author wishes to escape. It feels like a bildungsroman but as a self-consciously political novel is much more than that. The rise of extremist politics in the USA and the UK is largely explained without mention in this lyrical story. The author has written without sentimentality about violence, poverty, class, racism and sexuality. You really should read it. Here’s my review.
6. Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son (2016) by the late Mark Colvin is a perfect example of when an audiobook is the best format to enjoy a book. Listening to Colvin, the experienced broadcaster, tell his story added immeasurably to the experience of the book. This is one for all Australians to read.
5. Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (2017) by Rutger Bregman is an important book. Universal Basic Income (UBI) needs to be explored as a possible solution to inequity, the rise of AI and the likely potential growth on under-employment. Who’d have guessed that Richard Nixon was close to enecting the concept almost fifty years ago? Here’s my review.
4. Autumn (2016) by Ali Smith is wonderfully contemporary literature. Smith has a lightness of touch, a deftness that is just delightful. I am working my way through her back catalogue with relish. Winter (2017) is also an extraordinary read.
3. Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers (2017) by Ryan O’Neil is a very fun and amusing read. It really made me think about Australian literature and the predominance of realist novels. We need more literary satire, humour and novels that are irreverent. The book is a deserving winner at the PM’s recent literary awards. Here’s my review.
2. The Green Bell (2017), Paula Keogh is a sublime memoir where the author shares experiences of mental illness, growing-up Catholic and her relationship with the poet, Michael Dransfield, whose life ended prematurely at just 24 years of age on Good Friday, 1973. It was good to correspond with and meet Paula. Here’s my review.
1. The Complete Works of George Orwell (1997) edited by Peter Davison is a twenty-volume completist’s dream. It is completely cheating to include it here but it feels like such an achievement to have finally finished the set it has to be listed first in this year’s baker’s dozen. Orwell gave me such pleasure as a reader – when I first read Animal Farm in 1983 and Nineteen eighty-four in 1984 – which has continued to this very day. The twenty-volumes includes Orwell’s nine standard published works and eleven volumes of juvenilia, essays, reviews, letters, diaries, scripts and more besides. I had never read Burmese Days (1934) until this year and it has fast become a favourite. The only novel I did not enjoy, A Clergyman’s Daughter, still made fascinating reading as it takes one further inside the man/writer. It was about the tenth time I have read Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) since 1987. Here’s my Orwell Collection.