Diamond Sharp Best Reads

2011 was a stellar year in reading for me. The evenings became book time. One result is that you do not want me on your team for a trivia competition if the questions relate to events in this past year’s news, current affairs, or popular TV shows. Nor did I see the inside of a cinema more than a few times. However, I did get some great experiences behind an upheld book. 2011 was also the year I bought an e-reader, with some interesting results – but more on that later…

If you are looking for something to read over the summer, here are some titles I heartily recommend …

Fiction:

Per Petterson (2006). Out Stealing Horses. London: Vintage.

The stand-out read for novels this year was Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. The narrative follows a man in his sixties, Trond, who, after a personal tragedy, has retired to a remote shack in the Norwegian countryside. In 1948, when he was fifteen years old, Trond spent a fateful summer with his father in a cottage by a river in a Norwegian border town. Now an old man struggling with recent trauma, he encounters a character from that long-distant season. This almost-stranger was involved in terrible events that destroyed two families. This meeting stirs up old memories and grief, triggering a narrative that is at once crisp with clear memories, and haunted by unresolved feelings about these long-past events. The ensuing tale explores Trond’s relationship to his father and his journey into manhood. Petterson’s style is rich with imagery and symbolism, but also restrained, so that strong emotions steal up on the reader. The meanings of this novel slowly come into focus, like a developing photograph. Norway’s experience of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation is also a strong element in Trond’s tale, which gives the personal grief it explores a larger, historical resonance.

You can read my full review of Out Stealing Horses here.

Non-Fiction:

Chloe Hooper. (2008) The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island. Melbourne: Penguin.

On the 19th November 2004, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley arrested an aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, for swearing at a police officer. Forty minutes after being booked, Doomadgee was dead on a cell floor. His injuries were ambiguous – the police statement was that Doomadgee had tripped while struggling with Hurley as they entered the station and that they both fell on the concrete steps outside the lock-up. A medical examination revealed injuries consistent with someone who had been in a car accident. Upon news of Doomadgee’s death, Palm Island was engulfed by rioting. Hurley was the first individual police officer to be charged with an aboriginal death in custody. He was acquitted due to ‘inconclusive evidence’.

Hooper travelled to Palm Island at the invitation of Andrew Boe, a high-profile lawyer who was working pro bono for the Palm Island aboriginal community on the inquest and subsequent case. Her book is the result of her meticulous and dogged research – reading case history and the history of Palm Island, once a hybrid prison and missionary colony; interviewing family and friends; going back over Hurley’s career and Doomadgee’s life; and attending the inquests and court hearings. However, the relentlessness of both the nature of the case and the social situation it describes does not make Hooper’s prose pedantic or leaden. Instead, her honesty about how she is confronted by the details of life on Palm Island and her willingness never to swerve from those which are hardest to write about gives her prose a tautness and severity that keeps the reader gripped.

Hooper’s book is written in the vein of work by Joan Didion or Truman Capote: long-form, ‘New Journalism’ where the investigation of a crime becomes a confrontation with the darker side of human nature. In the case of Hooper’s work, it is apparent that the individual violence she documents is the inevitable and ongoing expression of the violence of colonialism and its aftermath.

The Tall Man foregrounds Hooper’s voice, her perplexity and nervousness as she enters a world foreign to most urban, especially southern, white intellectuals. As she confesses to her readers, “Like most middle-class suburbanites, I grew up without ever seeing a black person, except on the news.” She is an outsider trying to break the code. Running beneath the narrative, tying it together, is Hooper’s ability to convey where she might have flinched – she is not ‘unflinching’ – but where something, a search to understand events at the extreme end of people’s capacity for violence and nihilism, as well as an earnest sense of justice, keeps her tied to the story.

Using Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a framing reference, Hooper meticulously explores how an apparently upstanding police officer could become one with the moral decay endemic to the broken communities he serves. We are made uncomfortably aware that the problems of Palm Island are the wages of colonial policies. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Hurley is portrayed as a man not simply ‘infected’ by the problems of dysfunctional communities, but someone who brought the capacity to do harm with him. The situation on Palm Island poses difficult questions to white readers – who do we think is willing and able to weather the challenges of these remote places? What is it possible to do to help? Hooper’s readers are forced to recognise that for many of them, they would not be up to the job. I certainly had to admit to myself that I would very quickly reach my limits when confronted with a place of such beauty and despair as Hooper describes. The story is emblematic, as it poses vexed moral questions which Hooper does not pretend are solved by reductive politics or slogans. The writing, also, is superb. Reviewers use words like “riveting”, “chilling”, “compelling” and “necessary” when discussing her style.

Memoir:

Judtih Wright. (1999). Half a Life-Time. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

I know, this book is a dozen years old. But trust me, if you can track it down in a library or some other source, it is well worth a read. Wright, one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, died 25th June 2000. She left a body of work that was wide-ranging in its style and concerns. She was a voice that was trustworthy and direct, even when her words were artfully composed. This adherence to her own sense of priorities and what she wants to say is evident in both her memoir and the approach to living it documents. There is a soundness to this text that is a result of her steady gaze and sorted-out priorities.

I have a suspicion that Wright’s status as a ‘celebrated’ Australian poet – the kind whose work is sampled in school readers and read at assemblies and quoted by columnists – is based on a partial reading of her poems. Poems that focus on her love for the Australian bush and her family’s farming life are emphasised at the expense of those about the Aboriginal dispossession and genocide that the pastoral expansion produced. Her environmentalism and her critique of the pursuit of the consumerist ‘good life’ and its costs to earth and soul tend to be glossed over in popular uses of her work. This memoir, therefore, is a good corrective to any attempt to make her quaint and straightforwardly nationalist, as her wry and critical views of our society are quite clear in her narrative of rapidly changing times in Australia and her own efforts to carve out a life for herself.

Half a Life-Time documents Wright’s own memories of her childhood and formative years as a child of Anglo pastoralists in the NSW highlands. From her early decision to become a poet, we follow her through home lessons, boarding school, university (unusual for a girl of conservative farmers at that time) and her blossoming affair with a much older, married man, with whom she formed a long-term partnership even though it was impossible for them to marry. What carried me along in reading this memoir, apart from my interest in Wright’s poetry, is the wonderful ability she has to choose a few details that sketch a whole place and time. For example, ration-era, war-time Brisbane is described as a town of peeling wooden fences. Why? Because paint is scarce, pointing up a whole era of economising and making-do. Wright understates her bravery; however, it is clear that in her writing, her choice of partner, her way of life and her commitments, she acts with a clear sense of what is right for her at a time when most women of her age and place were tightly held in check by notions of feminine propriety. Her “life-time” is well worth a visit.

 

Poetry:

Cate Kennedy. (2011). The Taste of River Water. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

I have been slow to cotton on to Cate Kennedy’s work and now I am kicking myself for having taken so long. It started with an excerpt from her memoir of living overseas in Sing, and Don’t Cry that was published in an issue of Heat. The piece struck me for its fineness and tempo, but I did not follow up until this poetry volume came out and I found myself reading and re-reading its poems with wonder.

The Taste of River Water is a selection of Kennedy’s poetry from two previous volumes – Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires – as well as new work. Her eye is for the telling moment that, when examined closely, cracks open a whole life. Such are the strengths of “Thinking the Room Empty” and “Making a Path” which select a key event – one dramatic, one humdrum – that unlocks a deeper theme about survival and making a life for one’s self. Her empathy for others is evident here, too. In “8 x 10 Colour Enlargements $16.50”, Kennedy respectfully paints a moment in a farmer’s wife’s participation in a photography competition. She conveys in a few brief snapshots the complex dilemmas of this woman’s situation. This poem actually brought tears to my eyes.

In a series of poems about losing a baby and then conceiving and giving birth to a second, Kennedy seems to turn her poet’s gaze on herself. Kennedy’s poems glow with grief and gratitude and, if not quite solace, then the agreement to savour what life has to offer, even in the face of loss. I enjoyed these poems for their honesty and their art.

Young Adult Fiction:

Meg Rosoff. (2004). How I Live Now. London: Penguin.

Reading YA fiction is an occupational hazard of the high-school English teacher. Apart from the necessity of reading what is set for a class, there is a steady stream of student-recommended titles and those which seem to create a ‘buzz’ in the reading and publishing world.

One of the interesting developments in publishing and reading in the past fifteen years or so is the growing influence of YA fiction in the ‘mainstream’ or adult market. YA novels are in the adult best-seller lists and being adapted for film all the time. Harry Potter and Twilight are the most obvious examples, but there is also the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy which got turned into a film and a musical, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which is being released as a film any moment now.

Young Adult fiction could be broadly defined as those novels which feature an adolescent protagonist and main characters, are written in a way which is deemed more ‘accessible’ than ‘classic’ or ‘literary’ texts, and which focus on the themes of growing up and the developmental challenges and tasks of adolescence. Many of them are written very badly. Some try too hard to be ‘hip’ with the kids. And, for some obscure reason, almost every protagonist is an only child. A great number on the market are seemingly published for calculating reasons – trying to cash in on a reading fad (i.e. vampires). Too many underestimate the reader’s ability to intuit the emotional lives of characters and so we have an over-abundance of gritted teeth, pounding hearts and clenched fists.

Nonetheless, YA fiction can be written well, and can grapple with adult themes in a way that is more confronting and honest than a lot of ‘light’ adult literature. A few become classics – like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Within the first few pages it is apparent that Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is a cut above the run-of-the-mill YA novel. Her protagonist, Daisy, is a smart-mouthed, hard-shelled New York teen who has been sent by her father and step-mother to live with an aunt and four cousins in the English countryside. She is estranged from her father, her mother died giving birth to her, and now, fifteen years later, her father has remarried. His new, young bride has produced a baby sister – with predictable reactions from the teen Daisy.

Rosoff draws us in with Daisy’s voice which is by turns wry and confiding. Her self-knowingness fails to obscure the loneliness and uncertainty that plagues her. The alert teen reader will gradually tumble to Daisy’s central problem, which is subtly revealed (for a YA novel) through strategically placed asides and observations. Rosoff has put a lot of art into creating Daisy’s voice which allows her to portray character, action and relationships economically. For example, as she meets her cousin Edmond for the first time at Heathrow, Rosoff manages to convey some essential details of two characters at the same time:

 

“Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looks like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night, but aside from that he’s exactly like some kind of mutt, you know the ones you see at the dog shelter who are kind of hopeful and sweet and put their nose straight into your hand when they meet you with a certain kind of dignity and you know from that second that you’re going to take him home? Well that’s him.

 

Only he took me home.”

 

Rosoff sets her novel in contemporary England and her heroine spends some time in a teenage idyll somewhere in the Home Counties. The aunt is bookish and free-thinking, which in practice means Daisy spends a great deal of time hanging out with her cousins, looking after the farm, and picking up an education through reading from the extensive home library; only the eldest cousin, Osbert, goes to school. Her cousins are gifted in several spooky ways and she forms a strong bond with Edmond. However, the idyll is broken by an invention on Rosoff’s part – contemporary England is drawn into an anti-terrorist conflict overseas; once almost all of its armed forces are off-shore, an unnamed force occupies the country and brings it to its knees. The aunt, a high-level international peace-broker, is in Norway at the time of the invasion and Daisy and her four cousins are left to fend for themselves for what feels like the better part of a year.

What follows is Daisy’s struggle to survive and to reunite the family she had only just found before they were broken up by war. Her relationship with Edmond is her true north and she searches for him among the wreckage of an England transformed by violence, random acts of terror and starvation. With her younger cousin Piper, Daisy travels by foot through a dangerous countryside; the experience turns her into someone capable of looking after another and herself.

How I Live Now surprised me with the sharpness of its writing. It dealt with emotional complexity in a way that was age-appropriate, but honest. I thought this novel was a good read for its target audience of 12 – 15 year olds, but the writing was of a quality that adults would enjoy. No clenched teeth or fists. No rapidly exhaled sighs.

Happy reading!

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