Fiction, poetry, pure world, historical past, journey, espresso desk
Of course, the possession of a book isn’t the same thing as possessing its contents – although a solid bookcase will make for an on-trend backdrop for Zoom calls. Still, the increase in sales is a cheering sign.
The catalogue that follows has been chosen with an emphasis on novels that resist the lure of fads and fashions – the “newest hat”, as G.K Chesterton warned, is all too soon “old-fashioned” – alongside history, science and nature writing.
It’s been a big year for the printed word, but a rather grim year in the wide world. With that in mind, here is a selection of books to escape to, and to escape with; books to provoke wonder, give pleasure and give hope.
The Mirror and the Light
It’s been a long haul – almost 1000 pages to get here, the beginning of the end of the extraordinary life of Thomas Cromwell and the last of Hilary Mantel’s lauded trilogy. Of course, we know that Cromwell will die soon, and the shocking manner of his downfall and dispatch. The surprise is that we still care, after another 882 pages of serial court intrigues, betrayals and beheadings. Perhaps even more surprising is that such a historically malignant and maligned character as Cromwell has, in Mantel’s hands, developed such sympathetic depth and complexity.
The Mirror and the Light opens in May 1536 in a manner that is hard to forget: “Once the Queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast …” Cromwell has fixed another of King Henry VIII’s marital messes, this time by orchestrating the beheading of Anne Boleyn. It’s no mean feat, but Cromwell seems invincible.
In Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, we have witnessed his rise from penniless runaway to earldom, chief minister and a score of titles – a figure very nearly as powerful as the King. And therein lies a drama of majestic scale and intensity.
This enormously affecting novel is written from episodes in the summer of 1986 and the autumn of 2017 and in two markedly different tones conferred by those seasons.
But such is the author’s clarity of purpose – to celebrate the life of Tully Dawson, his boyhood friend – that these two halves come together into a seamless tale and a single utterance. The result is a charming and amusing and deeply moving tale that is, in part, an extended eulogy.
The story, part memoir, part fiction, takes the reader to some dark places but it is lit from within with a sunny disposition and, ultimately, a tear-filled smile. This is writing of great poise and maturity, subtly crafted and pitch perfect, about the passage of time, the universality of loss, and the constancy of love.
Tara June Winch
Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin award-winner is a teaching in fictional form. Its world – a world apart for non-Indigenous Australians – is richly inhabited and deeply felt. Much like historian Grace Karskens’ People of the River (see review in the History section, below) it is centrally concerned with Indigenous language, or languages, and their reclamation. The idea of inscribing an orally transmitted language with no written tradition, of setting it down, is of course a culturally European, and not an Indigenous, gesture. But this paradox never unsettles a story that is at once tragic and deeply sensual.
To read The Yield is to see and sense the country afresh. In the course of the novel Winch reveals a mastery of different narrative moves and registers, from the poised formality of the Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf’s letters to the impassioned word and story-gathering of Albert Goondiwindi, whose cadences and musicality are almost Joycean. Winch, like Joyce, had to leave her birthplace in order to write its story. Bilirr, Albert tells us, is the word for yellow-tailed black cockatoo – “it’s a trilled sound with the tongue vibrating close to the teeth. The bilirr is a magnificent bird, strong, eagle-wise.”
Esteemed Irish author John Banville – The Sea, his 15th novel, reeled in the 2005 Booker Prize – has a side hustle in crime fiction written under the nom de plume Benjamin Black. These novels he considers “cheap”, though they’re far from cheerful. Snow, Banville’s latest, begins not only with the murder of an elderly Catholic priest, but with his macabre, and “professional” castration narrated, unnervingly, from the victim’s point of view.
Banville’s Black novels feature Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke, but in Snow Dr Quirke is said to be on his honeymoon and events are steered by the slightly superior, slightly troubled Detective Inspector St John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford, who is gangly with a sharp narrow face and a manner set at a sharp angle to his world.
The story is set in 1957. The observations of character and landscape are crisp, efficient and evocative, but the conventions of the classic policier are jettisoned for something deeper: an exploration of a society rent by religious and social divisions. If the novel feels light (as a snow drift itself) that’s because the author handles narrative pace so adroitly. Its true subject is not much crime and guilt as the fictional trope par excellence: memory itself.
The Fire of Joy: Roughly Eighty Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud
The late Clive James was, as he confesses in the acknowledgements to this miscellany of favourite verse, “some kind of memory man”. This is true in a very deep sense: James set out to conquer the world of European high culture so as to inhabit it and make it his own. Cultural memory was of central importance to him as a critic, essayist and poet. It is also true in the more specific sense that animates this enchanting book; a book that is also a moving farewell.
A cherished poem, for James, was a song that “got into my head”. It was memory, and memory was freedom – an escape from the prison of circumstance, of the present. This is a collection of poems “loved and learned”, and James’ love for them is infectious. Each poem is accompanied by a short teaching that also serves as a masterclass of concentrated criticism.
“Fluency is one thing, but too much fluency is gush,” he remarks of one poet. Another “had the exuberance to make even his opacities glitter”. The appreciation of Keats “can never be finished. He himself only just got started.” Few Australian poets make the curriculum but there is ample compensation in a touching tribute to his homeland in a postscript titled, “Growing up in poetical Australia.”
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
The Bodley Head
“The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them,” writes Merlin Sheldrake in this masterful and mind-expanding book. Sheldrake’s rather Druidic name alone might seem to qualify him to write about the magic of fungi and their relationship to other forms of life – the inter-connectedness, in essence, of nature. But so does the British biologist’s academic background: he holds a PhD in tropical ecology from the University of Cambridge. He writes: “Many of the most dramatic events on Earth have been – and continue to be – a result of fungal activity. Plants only made it out of the water around 500 million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of million years until plants could evolve their own.” The future, too, belongs to fungi.
Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human
“Take a moment to pay attention to your hands,” implores Madelaine Böhme, a leading palaeontologist convinced that our remote hominid ancestors had a European rather than, as has long been supposed, an exclusively African origin. “It will be time well spent because they are evolutionary marvels.”
These precision tools are as important for the evolution of homo sapiens as our upright gait, she argues. It’s hard to imagine a reader who will not, at her urging, raise his or hand and consider it afresh as a thing of wonder. While Böhme has an evolutionary theory she wants to promote, the chief value of her book lies in the way it opens up her field to the lay person, in the process challenging old certainties “about why, how, where and when the human lineage evolved”. Bohme’s gift is her ability to point science in the direction of the common need to better understand our human condition – its origins and its challenges – told as a mystery story of fossilised clues and professorial sleuths.
People of the River
Allen & Unwin
In this superbly researched and compellingly written work of history, Grace Karskens tells of the early contact between white settlers who pushed into the Hawkesbury River basin and its original inhabitants, for whom it was Dyarubbin (“wide deep water”). It’s a tale of violence and dispossession, but also resilience, continuity and adaptation and, now and then, friendship and tolerance.
The earliest history in western civilisation was told by Herodotus of Halicarnassus so that human events “do not fade with time”. A similar impulse animates Karskens’ Hawkesbury history, a work of recovery and restitution. She writes: “Slowly, the Aboriginal river is re-emerging, flowing once more. It has flowed into this book.”
Her remarkable discovery of 170 Aboriginal place names recorded by Presbyterian minister John McGarvie in the late 1820s is at the heart of the book, as is the witness account of Nah Doongh, an Aboriginal woman who was born into in the 1800s just south of Penrith and who died in her 90s. This revelatory history is what all great books should be: a gift to its readers, and a gift to the culture.
Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome
A note of pathos is laced through the story of Alaric the Goth, whose “barbarian” forces poured into Rome on the night of August 24, 410, vanquishing the “Imperial city which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind” – in the words of Edward Gibbon. And so eleven hundred and sixty-three years after it was founded, Rome fell. About eight months later Alaric was dead, of fever. Douglas Boin, an academic historian and specialist in late antiquity, has grappled with the same scant historical resources as his predecessors. It’s his treatment that strikes a fresh chord. Boin inflects his tale with many contemporary concerns. The borderlands are cruel places, where the slave trade is rife. Refugees seeking a better life are routinely exploited; some are disappeared. There is nary a sign of the infamous “effeminacy” of late Roman society on the empire’s northern fringe. In the process, Boin invites his readers to see the Imperium astride the Tiber as Alaric, the quintessential outsider, saw it. Of course, the outsider and his “barbarians” would soon be insiders, which is part of the story.
The Passenger: Greece
The title of this series might lack broad appeal – who needs another “passenger”, right? – but these cultural travel guides from the Italian publishing house of Iperborea are fresh and diverting, informative and topical without being slight or ephemeral. The second in the series (the first is on Japan) focuses on Greece, the western world’s first travel destination. Though aimed at the potential traveller, these beautifully produced books are pitched more to the student of culture.
Let the standfirst of one of these essays stand for the whole: “Petros Markaris, culinary enthusiast and creator of the series of detective novels featuring inspector Haritos of the Athens police, explains how eating habits have changed in Greece over the decades. In Athens, the legendary taverna, with its simple dishes and Mediterranean flavours, is growing increasingly rare as it gives way to new Greek fusion food.” This supremely well-edited combination of current affairs, journalism, commentary and fun facts is perfect for our pause-button moment.
Recent Past: Writing Australian Art
Art Gallery NSW
Daniel Thomas is a distinguished art historian and writer. He was the first curator at the Art Gallery of NSW and inaugural curator of Australian art at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. Before his retirement to Tasmania, his birthplace, he was director of the Art Gallery of South Australia. This important, and beautiful anthology of his writing covers 1958 to 2020. The idea of curatorship is overused today, but in a very real sense Thomas shaped the understanding of Australian contemporary art over a 60-year period.
Always Add Lemon
If only it were that simple (always add lemon) there’d be no need for cookbooks. Alvarez’s first book deserves a place in the home kitchen precisely because she doesn’t pretend delicious, well-prepared, thoughtful meals are simple. There are proper ways to do things and joy in making meals from scratch, and this book is a distillation of the lessons she’s learnt from mentors such as Alice Waters and in her own open kitchen at Fred’s in Sydney.
Her tone is approachable, her recipes satisfying – summer vegetable panzanella, duck pot pie – and her “kitchen projects” therapeutic and inspiring: how to make yoghurt and terrines, bread and pickles. This may be that rarest bird: a cookbook that’s actually used.
Painting the Ancient Landscape of Australia
Thames & Hudson
The work of self-taught British artist Philip Hughes is focused on landscape not so much for its picturesque as its topographical and geological qualities. Hughes’ parents emigrated to Australia when he was 16 and though he stayed behind to finish his education, he visited often.
This beautiful book collates the artist’s many sketches and paintings of remote Australian landscapes – executed largely in gauche, pastel and acrylic – together with maps and aerial photographs. His use of line reflects his deep interest in cartography, his response to the colours of the landscape is inspiring and revealing.
People are absent, though the human presence is felt in a Lightning Ridge mining hut, a Nullarbor train track and the open-cut Tom Price mine.
MMXX: Two Decades of Architecture in Australia
Thames & Hudson
This impressive survey of Australian architecture in the two decades to 2020 is a must-have for architects and designers, but it’s been produced with a wide readership in mind. Anyone remotely interested in the field or simply curious about how to improve an existing home – or build afresh – will find sustenance and stimulation in Bruhn’s choices, which range from canonical beach houses to bold public projects. The essays raise important questions about this most social of art forms, past, present and future.
Living on Vacation: Contemporary Houses for Tranquil Living
This dreamy photographic book is based on the sound premise that most of us possess a profound urge to “pull back and retreat from our daily lives”; to escape to an idyll, a retreat, a dwelling that is in itself a piece of poetry. It showcases remote yet modestly proportioned dwellings, all contemporary and creatively designed, positioned in heroic landscapes – architect John Wardle’s Bruny Island Shearers Quarters included.
The Summer issue of AFR Magazine is out on Friday, December 11 inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram.