Best Books of 2012: As chosen by Australian writers
Yesterday, Wheeler Centre staff shared our favourite books of 2012. Today, some of the writers who’ve been part of the Wheeler Centre programme this year - whether as presenters, website contributors or both - tell us what their favourite books of 2012 were. It goes without saying that we love the work of these writers. So, if you’re stuck for a holiday gift or a summer read, their publications come recommended from us.
I’ve been a fan of Michelle de Kretser’s for years, and Questions of Travel is her best yet. Every sentence is sharp as a crystal, yet this glorious novel is witty and compassionate. I rationed myself to a few pages a day because I didn’t want it to end.
Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text Publishing). She wrote one of our Long View series of essays in 2012, ‘Dry as a Chip: A Jounrey Through Humour in Australian Fiction’.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but the book that impressed me most in 2012 was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, although it’s billed as a novel, of sorts. The story, as such, follows the author’s investigation into an assassination attempt on Richard Heydrich, the Nazi SS commander nicknamed ‘the hangman of Prague’.
Apart from the very cool title (an acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich’ in German), and its previous even niftier title Operation Anthropoid, the big satisfaction to be had in this book is in how Binet deconstructs the usual tropes of historical reportage. In hundreds of short chapters he confesses to us the difficulties facing him in discerning fact from fiction, and the book works best when he outlines some thrilling piece of dramatic information he’s uncovered, only to later debunk himself. Binet’s honesty underpins the narrative and renders it all the more believable, allowing him to test your resolve as a reader late on when you begin to realize he too might be unreliable. Lying and exaggeration for the purposes of a good story might be par for the course in fiction, but HHhH makes you wonder how often it happens in non-fiction too.
Chris Flynn is outgoing books editor of the Big Issue. His debut novel is A Tiger in Eden (Text Publishing). Chris has chaired and participated in several Wheeler Centre events in 2012, including running our Winter Tales series.
Hilary Mantel made some fiction writers look like kids playing with finger puppets, with her second volume of extraordinary Thomas Cromwell ventriloquism, Bring Up the Bodies. American writer Justin Torres’ debut, We the Animals, is a beautiful little poem of a novel, based on his experiences as a half-Puerto Rican, half-white – and gay – youth. YA-wise, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Maureen McCarthy’s The Convent both made me cry on the tram, the latter with its Bechdel-test passing female relationships, familial and otherwise.
Speaking of Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? is a brave and compellingly drawn look at Bechdel’s difficult relationship with her mother. Benjamin Law’s Gaysia and Jeff Sparrow’s Money Shot were two of my favourite local non-fiction offerings this year: fascinating quests driven by personal inquiry and social importance. In Australian memoir: Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter and Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. American female comedians had a good line in personal essays this year, including my fantasy wives Mindy Kaling and Sarah Silverman.
I read some Australian classics for the first time this year, too: Wake in Fright, The Children’s Bach, Holding the Man, Taronga, all exceptional in their own way.
Estelle Tang is an editor and writer. Her blog is 3000 BOOKS. Estelle was a Wheeler Centre Zoo Fellow in 2012 and contributed to our Long View series with her essay ‘Pitying the Monster: Abuse and Empathy in Fiction’.
Two of the best books I read this year happened also to be the two books I was lucky enough to review for this very website as part of the Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards: Wayne Macauley’s The Cook and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia.
Because I’ve already explained within each review why these two works are extraordinary - read both books; don’t be a dolt - I’ll quickly highlight another work published in 2012 that I’m sure will stay with me in the oncoming decades: Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books (also listed for a VPLA, reviewed by Jennifer Mills). The book consists primarily of a novella that itself is broken up into 29 sections: 29 memories of books that have stuck in the writer/narrator’s mind, 29 books of which we are never told the title, 29 reading experiences that reached out from the pages into the writer/narrator’s very life, tentacle-like. A History of Books is a beguiling work of fiction that is really in all likelihood non-fiction, except no, it is actually probably fiction, maybe. For those in love with literature, this is a book that offers layer after layer at which a reader can appreciate both it as a standalone work, as well as appreciating the influence and affluence and fundamentalness of the act of reading: as an act of doing, and of becoming, and of being.
I can’t in good faith not mention another book, a book that, like much of Murnane’s work, pushes at the edges of our understanding of literature, like an animal trapped in a hessian sack. Also published by Giramondo, Pat Grant’s Blue is what is widely known as a ‘graphic novel’ although it’s different and more than what that label connotes. Grant marries his magical illustrative powers with his ear for vernacular and an innate understanding of story, and the end result is a work of fiction that I actually wanted to climb into. If you’re of the gambling persuasion and tend to fancy a real roughie (I’m looking at you Murnane), perhaps lay a few bucks down on Blue to be the first ‘graphic novel’ to win the Man Booker Prize? As Jason Steger has pointed out, this might be the year …
This year my favourite book was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? A comic drama. It’s an intriguing exploration of girlhood, sexuality, and creativity. Bechdel’s deconstruction of her own psychology and her relationship with her mother is as enigmatic as it is charming.
This book got me thinking about my own relationship to creativity and writing in a way I never have before, putting me in a strange mood that took a long while to shake. It also made me wish I could draw!
The companion piece, Bechdel’s 2006 Fun Home, is equally brilliant and should be read first. So buy them both.
Monica Dux’s new book Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting), will be published by MUP in March 2013. She tweets as @monicadux. Monica will be one of the writers appearing in our 2013 Gala: Where the Wild Things Are.
James Boyce’s 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia might have been published in 2011 but it’s just won the Age Book of the Year for 2012, which gives me leave to include it here. Really, this is a model for how history should be written: simultaneously accessible and scholarly, Boyce provides an account of early Melbourne overtly sympathetic to indigenous people yet one still presenting the complexities of the colonisers’ motivations without any descent into retrospective demonisation.
Speaking of demons (or at least demonic wizards), Black Spring is the latest work by Alison Croggon, the insanely prolific critic, essayist and poet (and, full disclosure, a friend). Her book’s marketed as young adult, but Croggon’s authorial intelligence and elegant prose produces a very adult novel, a mash-up of Wuthering Heights and magic that makes you rethink both Emily Bronte and the fantasy genre.
I also very much enjoyed Andrew Croome’s recent Midnight Empire. In an earlier novel, Document Z, Croome explored the Cold War politics of the Petrov affair; in the new book, he tackles the clinical killing facilitated by drone warfare, in a thriller about technology, paranoia and gambling.
Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman begins with a knockout premise. An asteroid hurtles toward Earth; everyone accepts that humanity’s entirely doomed. Why then should Detective Hank Palace bother investigating a single suspicious death? Palace’s dogged pursuit of the case in a world about to fall apart raises fascinating questions about justice, morality and the nature of duty – and it’s also a great crime novel.
Finally, David McNally’s Monsters of the Market analyses the economic crisis underpinning the apocalyptic sensibility of Winters’ book (and, to an extent, Croome’s). It’s a project that begins by taking seriously the gothic imagery running through Das Kapital – Marx’s repeated invocations of blood-drinking vampires and flesh-rending werewolves, often dismissed as rhetorical excesses.
In a whirlwind tour across centuries and continents, McNally links the rise of capitalism to the bourgeoisie’s obsession with human dissection and the so-called ‘corpse economy’ of early modernity, and shows how tropes of monstrosity have reflected oppression and resistance, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the vampire myths of contemporary Africa. If you’ve ever doubted that scholarship can be simultaneously learned, politically committed and page-turningly fascinating, read this book.
As I was re-reading Proust…..nah, everyone says that. My best books of 2012 filled a shameful gap in my reading. Of Richard Yates, I had only ever read his first and most famous novel, Revolutionary Road. I set out to read everything else: A Special Providence, Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, A Good School, Young Hearts Crying and Cold Spring Harbour, plus the short story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love*. I read them with a mounting sense of excitement, and could read them all again now, for they convinced me that the sublimely talented and personally benighted Yates is the outstanding American realist fiction writer of the twentieth century.
My favourite Australia book of the year was Ginger Briggs' Staunch, a tour de force of imaginative non-fiction.
Gideon Haigh’s latest book is On Warne. His essay on the tribulations of writing the book before it, The Office, ‘The Highs and Lows of Writing a Book’, was extracted on Dailies this year (taken from Kill Your Darlings).