Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

2011 – A Year of Reading for Pleasure [December 11]

Reading, reading, reading, so much reading to do, newspapers and blogs and street signs and advertising billboards and recipes and fine print and magazines and journals and emails and tweets and birthday cards and subtitles and surtitles and love letters and lawyer’s letters and texts, sub-texts and textbooks and – most importantly – BOOKS FOR PLEASURE.

Here’s my list of the twenty best books-for-pleasure I read in 2011 and why I think you should consider reading them too:

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ – David Mitchell

I loved Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ so I was primed to love his latest. It’s an extraordinary re-imagining of the clash between two trading cultures on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries; the Japanese and the Dutch. But in case that makes it sound too much like a worthy historical text, in fact it’s a gripping love story between a truly good man and the daughter of a Japanese samurai. It’s also a page-turner that gives you a unique insight into a lost world you might never otherwise encounter.

‘Let the Great World Spin’ – Colum McCann

McCann takes an event from recent history – Frenchman Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers – and uses it as the fulcrum of a series of fictional character portraits of New Yorkers in 1974. From prostitutes to priests, judges to grieving mothers, these people get under your skin as their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Grief is ever-present but the stories are, in the end, life-affirming. Beautiful, beautiful prose and a clever (but not ‘clever-clever’) jigsaw-puzzle structure.

‘Piano Lessons’ – Anna Goldsworthy

If you’ve read Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Maestro’ you will probably recognize the real characters upon whom Anna Goldsworthy’s father based his fictional story. Anna G’s memoir describes in painful detail the internal life of a prodigiously talented young student and musician, and her relationship with the mentor (her piano teacher) who taught her about so much more than pianistic technique.

‘The Inner Voice’ – Renee Fleming

Another musician’s memoir, this time from one of the best singers currently performing on the opera stage. American soprano Fleming outs herself as a shy girl who has battled her fears and emerged triumphant. A fascinating insight into the training and the daily life (and grind) of an international star. Plenty of useful vocal tips for singers here, too. Listen to her recordings of Strauss opera heroines while you read it, and try not to melt.

‘The Year of the Flood’ – Margaret Atwood

In a year in which humans were beset by natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and floods, and in which local politics were dominated by the carbon tax debate. Atwood’s dystopian fictional vision of our future seemed disturbingly prescient. This is the prequel to ‘Oryx and Crake’, a novel which haunts me still, and I reckon both books should be compulsory reading for all climate change doubters.

‘The Help’ – Kathryn Stockett

The trailer for the recent film adaptation of Stockett’s novel looked so bad I didn’t bother (Wendell Pierce, African-American star of the US TV series ‘Treme’, sent several tweets confirming that verdict) but the novel is well worth reading. It’s a suspenseful depiction of the lives of African-American domestic workers in the deep South of the USA in the 1960’s. As the civil rights movement gains pace, these women are offered the chance to tell their stories of oppression, but the risks they take in the process are huge.

‘The Amateur Science of Love’ – Craig Sherborne

Don’t read this book if you’ve been unlucky in love lately. If you’re feeling okay, then read it and laugh (and cry) about the ill-fated couple in this Australian novel who suffer from ‘the sickness’ of love, and who try to keep love alive in the face of real sickness. Dark, funny, sad, original, fresh writing.

‘Hand Me Down World’ – Lloyd Jones

I have a special affection for Lloyd Jones and not just because he shares the same name as my beloved late grandfather. The novels of this New Zealand writer are always imbued with empathy, compassion and psychological insight. This time he imagines the life of an African refugee who makes her way from her homeland to Europe in search of her lost child. The structure ensures we read everyone else’s version of the woman’s life before we read her own, and we’re never quite sure which of these narrators are reliable. A disturbing and beautiful novel that should be compulsory reading for all those who want to ‘turn the boats back’.

‘As The Earth Turns Silver’ – Alison Wong

Wong, another New Zealander, is also a published poet, and it shows in her first novel, a story about a Wellington woman’s attraction to a newly-arrived Chinese greengrocer. Wong depicts New Zealand society at the beginning of the 20th century as unselfconsciously racist and chauvinist. But there’s a dreamlike quality to the writing which somehow protects the reader from the full impact of the tragedies that unfold.

‘A Kindness Cup’ – Thea Astley

Astley’s novel is also about racism and I re-read this one for the Meanjin magazine’s inaugural Tournament of Books. Scroll down this page to my blogpost of September 2011 and you will find my full review. It’s out of print now I believe, but you should find a copy in good libraries, and it’s worth checking second-hand bookshops to acquire your own copy. (If you find one in good condition, I’ll buy it! Read my review to see why… )

‘The Secret River’ – Kate Grenville

I also re-read this novel for Meanjin, so scroll down again for a full review. (I would read Kate Grenville’s shopping list, so impressed am I by her courage and insight as a novelist. ‘Dark Places’, her 1994 sequel to ‘Lilian’s Story’, took my breath away. I’m just sitting around, waiting for her to write another one, really.)

‘The Lieutenant’ – Kate Grenville

In the meantime I caught up with Grenville’s more recent re-imagining of the first contact between the First Fleet and the first peoples of Australia. Lieutenant Daniel Rooke finds himself caught between the conquering culture of his fellow Europeans and his growing loyalty to Sydney’s indigenous inhabitants whose language he is learning. Simply brilliant.

‘Five Bells’ – Gail Jones

I loved Gail Jones’ novel ‘Sorry’ and looked forward to reading her latest, named after Kenneth Slessor’s 1939 ‘Five Bells’. Like Slessor’s poem, the geographical setting of this tale is Sydney Harbour, and Jones’ work sits somewhere between a novel and a long prose-poem. The action takes place during one long day and though the paths of the four main characters do cross that day, only a couple of them know each other well. Jones teases us with the possibility of a redemptive happy ending but, you know, life just isn’t like that, and neither (usually) is good literature.

‘Melbourne’ – Sophie Cunningham

Hard to be objective about this non fiction book about my home town, written by a friend, in which I’m mentioned a couple of times. There, I’ve made my declarations. But if you want to get a sense of how the sediment of individual lives lived in inner Melbourne gradually accretes over the centuries and decades to make up a vibrant culture, this is the book to read. Cunningham has been involved with many of the city’s most progressive and influential arts institutions, and it has given her a unique insight into how Melbourne became (arguably) the cultural capital of the nation. Personal AND political, it’s also a jolly good read.

‘Stripped’ – Caroline Lee

Declaration number two – Caroline’s a friend of mine. But she’s probably also known to many of you as an award-winning Melbourne theatre actor. ‘Stripped’ tells the story of two feuding sisters who are re-united when one of them becomes seriously ill. The ending is told at the very beginning of this short novel, so I give nothing away when I tell you this is a story about coming to terms with death. Moving, poetic and illuminating.

‘The Discomfort Zone’ – Johnathan Franzen

Like Grenville, Franzen is a writer whose every word I am happy to devour. This one is a memoir whose title promises revelations about the author’s ‘discomfort’ in the world. But he is a tease. It’s more like a loose collection of sometimes-related autobiographical essays. There are digressions into topics such as the cultural importance of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy cartoons and the joys (and sorrows) of bird-watching. Beautifully written, funny, sad, but in the end I’m not sure I got to know Mr Franzen as well as I thought I would.

‘The Blindfold’ – Siri Hustvedt

I’d loved Hustvedt’s later novel ‘What I Loved’ (excuse the pun) so I went back to an earlier one to see where that complex, courageous, writerly mind began its work. ‘The Blindfold’ is almost like a series of novellas with the same main character; disturbing stories about people on the edge of madness. My favourite section is where the main (female) character becomes a cross-dresser by night, going to bars with a short haircut and a man’s suit and name. Thought I might try it out myself some time. Though in this instance it doesn’t end so well.

‘The Secret History of Costaguana’ – Juan Gabriel Vazquez

I shared a cab with this Barcelona-based Colombian writer at the Ubud Writers Festival in October, and though we didn’t really strike up a conversation, it made me curious about his writing. This novel covers the history of the separation of Panama from Colombia, and the political and propaganda wars surrounding the building of the Panama Canal. The narrator is a hollow man, an observer of others lives, a man who blames himself for his unwillingness to intervene in history’s great events. Reading it was a great way to learn about Colombian history but there was just a bit too much Aspergian detail (names, dates, makes of guns, ever-shifting political allegiances and divisions) for this reader.

‘Stasiland’ – Anna Funder

When I heard Anna Funder had a novel coming out I decided to re-read her wonderful non fiction book about the Stasi secret police in Communist East Germany. Or more accurately, about the devastating impact of the Stasi’s system of state surveillance on the people who lived through those terrifying years. Funder’s role is the ‘innocent abroad’ as she leads us through Stasiland, where madness was normalised and normal people were driven mad, all in the name of the great Communist utopian vision. We humans just love to police each other, don’t we? Should be compulsory reading for – well, for everyone, really. (Hmmm, speaking of policing each other, there’s a lot of ‘compulsory reading’ in my list, isn’t there?)

‘All That I Am’ – Anna Funder

Sometimes you read a book at just the right time. This is a novel about Nazism and the brave souls who tried to prevent it. About cruelty on a national scale and about the cruelties we perpetrate against the people we care for, in the name of art or politics or love. About selfishness and selflessness and about growing old and never getting the chance to grow old. A perfect way to end a year of pleasurable reading.

Feel free to email me via the Contact page with your suggestions about books for my reading pleasure in 2012.