2020 has been, for me, a year of comfort reading. Lots of books were tossed aside by page 6 or 7, if they couldn’t hold my interest. And for a while there, during the deepest part of the COVID-19 lockdown, it seemed like very little could hold my interest. Miles Franklin prize-winners: tossed. New York Times best-sellers: tossed. Quirky little books highly recommended by friends: tossed.
In the end, it was commercial mass-market fiction that saw me through and I’ll share my thoughts about my fiction reads in another post, a follow-up to this one. But if fiction brought me comfort (and it did), then non-fiction kept my brain alive and sparking.
Much of the non-fiction I’ve read this year has lingered with me, keeping me thinking about it while I walked or rode or baked or gardened. That’s all I can ask for in a good book, really. So, for what it’s worth, here’s the best of the non-fiction I’ve been reading during this most extraordinary year.
Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. This outstanding book about Aboriginal ways of thinking managed to lift the top of my head right off, before it reached into my mind and stirred things around. And here I am, still reeling from the stirring.
Sky Swimming by Sylvia Martin, She I Dare Not Name by Donna Ward, and The Love That Remains by Susan Francis. Three quietly excellent and beautifully written memoirs by Australian women that challenged me to review my own life, and loves, and choices, in ways I hadn’t considered before.
Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and deaths of the great vikings by Tom Shippey. Seriously, if you haven’t loved a viking you haven’t lived.
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. A brilliant, surprising biography of Samuel Pozzi, a society doctor during the Parisian Belle Epoque, which also manages to provide brilliant, surprising insights into the art of writing biography. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this book.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk, Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald, and The Details by Tegan Bennet Daylight. These essay collections (the first two by UK writers, the third by an Australian) delighted me with the quality of their prose, and the depth of their insights. Each writer can take something small, or mundane, or ubiquitous and hold it up to the light in such a way that the reader is both shocked and delighted by how new and fresh it looks.
One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner. Look, I’d read the back of a cereal packet if Helen Garner wrote it and this absolutely lived up to my expectations. But these diary excerpts also deliver a squirm-inducing peek into Garner’s relationship with the man who became her third husband. He clearly held some 1950s views about gender roles and Garner, in love, went above and beyond to accommodate him. Suffice to say that he doesn’t emerge from these pages looking good but, to be fair, Garner is (as always) equally hard on herself. In truth, I think that relationship sheds a great deal of light on why Garner chose to write The First Stone in the way she did – in putting up with, and indeed loving, a man with those particular flaws perhaps she was affronted/shamed/fascinated by the young women of Ormond College who refused to do the same.
So, tell me? What non-fiction have you read this year, that has absolutely blown your mind?
A few of my non-fiction favourites read this year.. ‘Square Haunting’ by Francesca Wade, ‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie, ‘Say Nothing’ by Patrick Radden Keefe, ‘Handiwork’ by Sara Baume, ‘Dark, Salt, Clear’ by Lamorna Ash, ‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks, ‘Austen Years’ by Rachel Cohen, ‘Fathoms’ by Rebecca Giggs, and ‘Radical Help’ by Hilary Cottam. I could go on :-)
What a great list – thank you! I recently read English Pastoral, and enjoyed it, but I don’t think it was as good as his first one.
‘Miles Franklin prize-winners: tossed. New York Times best-sellers: tossed. Quirky little books highly recommended by friends: tossed.’ This sounds so much like me this year – an endless search for something that kept my attention. Helen Garner always does it, and I, like you, marvelled at her love for someone who was so obviously WRONG. I am at this moment re-reading Tina Brown’s biography of Diana. It is very clarifying about Diana’s situation as a sort of social drifter after ‘coming out’ and all that falderal for aristocratic girls had stopped. (Read of course in conjunction with watching The Crown). And I’m enjoying Sigrid Nunez’s What are you Going Through, which is a series of little fictional biographies that have the feeling of actually coming from her own experience.
Any reading is good reading, in a year like this one. I’m enjoying ‘The Crown’ very much too and the Nunez sounds fascinating.
I’ve been so distracted this year I’ve hardly read anything to completion or written anything. First there was Covid and our foiled plans for an overseas trip and then the US Presidential election I was willing the US not to inflict Trump on us for another term.
One book I found very interesting was The Bestseller Code : Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers. I noticed it at a really good price on The Book Grocer online store.
I’ve asked Santa for some books (non fiction) – I took no chances (circled them in the book promotion catalogue).
I help my husband with book reviews of military books – militarybooksaustralia.com is the blog – and a book I found interesting among the usual fare of military titles was Traitors and Spies by John Fahey.
And, finally, Elizabeth Macarthur, A Life at the Edge of the World, found its way back to my bookshelf after being lent out. I have a ‘no lend’ policy now, except to my sister! Some special books mean too much to me.
Awwww, that’s so lovely, thanks! Like you, I have no qualms about handing The Husband a long list of the books he (and the kids) can buy me for Christmas/birthday/whatever. I usually just ask him to choose a couple from the list, so it’s still sort of a surprise.
Yes, I’ve done that in the past too Michelle – so you get a surprise AND something you want. WIN-WIN.
Well you’ve sort of seen mine, but the Nonfiction November questions sort of looked at non-fiction from another angle than “blowing my mind”! I think Chloe Hooper’s The arsonist, was a standout, and of course, I loved Helen Garner’s diaries. Actually all the nonfiction I read this year was good – not that I read a lot – but one I didn’t mention in my post was Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland’s joint memoir, The drums go bang. It was an enlightening and entertaining read.
Now, of your books, there are a few I would like to read, but Sand talk is up there! I must get it, perhaps, for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week next year! Barnes’ The man in the red coat sounds great too.
It was your fabulous non-fiction round-up that inspired me to write this one. I read ‘The Arsonist’ when it came out (so, not this year) but I really do need to read Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ – it’s embarrassing that I’ve left it so long! I’ve started Clode’s ‘In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World’ and am so far enjoying it very much.
For those interested in Sue’s excellent insights, go to https://whisperinggums.com/2020/11/30/monday-musings-on-australian-literature-nonfiction-november/
Haha, thanks Michelle. I felt you had read The arsonist earlier. The tall man is a great read too – but, I know, so many books.
I bought Clode yesterday, but I might give it away, though I do want to read it myself.
Part 2 has prompted me to comment on Part 1. The early months of Covid felt weird for everyone I think, many bloggers commented they weren’t reading (I was in iso for 14 days and reading my head off). Sylvia Martin might be my favourite biographer. I asked her once who her next topic would be but I never expected the answer to be “myself”. I must read the Garner diaries and also Sand Talk.
I’d love to hear your take on the Garner diaries but am particularly interested in what you have to say about Sand Talk. It’s one I definitely want to read again (which is something I very rarely want to do!)
I forgot to say that the essay collections sound wonderful too!
I’m a sucker for an essay collection – love ’em!
I love them too … but don’t get to them as much as I’d like.
Just heard you on the abc. You are a delightful guest. Such a champion for Australian authors and crime fiction in this case, never sounded so good. Thank you for your insights. I will be buying myself a gift or two.
Oh, how kind! I always presume no-one’s listening at that hour – that way I can relax have fun. Feel free to let the ABC know you liked it (I’d love for them to give me a permanent guest spot!)