Books I Read in 2019

Every writer is also a reader. Reading and writing are two sides of a coin. Which doesn’t mean every reader is a writer, so I suppose the ‘coin’ analogy in this respect is less than perfect.

Anyway, I read as well as write. I believe my reading nourishes my writing. My writing would suffer if I ceased to read, so I will never stop reading. I read mostly fiction because, if I may quote from my own novel (Where Pademelons Play), ‘Fiction can sometimes be more potent than truth, especially when it has a mind to morph into truth.’

So what did I read in 2019? I believe it is an eclectic mix. Here is a chronological list with my comments:

(1) I re-read Don Quixote by Cervantes translated, in this second reading, by Edith Grossman. This novel is a thing again, and a work of great wonder. Arguably the greatest novel of all time. And great fun into the bargain. There’s much more to it than mere jousts with windmills. I love the way Cervantes is always ready to play tricks with his readers’ minds.

(2) I read Girl in Between by Anna Daniels, because she is a local writer. Chic lit. So lightweight I was afraid to draw deep breaths. Sorry, Anna. You’re a nice person, but what you write is not for me.

(3) Then, to see what the fuss was all about, I read two novels by Lee Child: The Killing Floor and The Hard Way. Easy to read, for sure. But they are gratuitously violent in the worst way from start to finish. Plans to rape a 12 year old girl with a potato peeler is not something I want to see sensationalized in print. The violence is not redeemed by the fact that Jack Reacher makes sure the baddies come to a bad end. Sorry to all the Lee Child fans, but I will not be reading any more Lee Child. Do you think I’m a prude?

(4) The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian writer Richard Flanagan. I’m not sure parts of it weren’t plagiarized from the The Naked Island by Russel Braddon, a non-fiction account of many of the same events, to wit, the construction by POWs during WW2 of the Thai-Burma railway. Anyway that aside, Narrow Road did not impress me all that much. I found it turgid. I much preferred Flanagan’s more recent (partly biographical) novel, First Person, which I read last year.

(5) Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Wonderful magic realism, or fabulism some would insist. A great plot with plenty of twists and fun to read. Characters somewhat stylized, but I guess that goes with her chosen territory. Not world beating, but very good stuff just the same, and in a genre I am fond of. I will read more of Ms Allende.

(6) The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, trans. Margaret Jull Costa. I intend to read everything this man has ever written, or die trying. When I read his stuff, I get the eerie feeling he is talking directly to me one-on-one. Most of what he writes glows bright and is not easily forgotten. Elephant is certainly in this category. It’s one thing to give an elephant as a gift, and another to facilitate its delivery. Thank you, Mr Saramago, for amazing me yet again.

(7) Heimat by Nora Krug. This is a graphic novel about the angst some Germans feel re their recent ancestry circa WW2 and earlier. Heavy going, but beautifully told with clever sketches. I’m afraid Ms Krug may have raised more questions than she has found answers to. I find myself feeling very sorry for her. I hope that, by writing and researching Heimat, she has achieved some degree of catharsis.

(8) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin. As I understand, this is the book that turned a reluctant Murakami into a celebrity author, first in Japan and then internationally. He is always worth reading because what he writes flows so well and is therefore very easy to read. His plots are good, with loose ends though, which is possibly part of his plan. My main trouble with what he writes is that, at the end of the day, the characters are not altogether believable to me, possibly because they are not drawn all that well. What do other people think?

(9) Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage again by Murakami , trans. this time by Philip Gabriel. This one is better, I find. It reads well, has an intriguing plot, but (as always with Murakami) the characters seem a bit shallow. Is it just me?

(10) If This is a Man and The Truce by Primo Levi, trans. Stuart Woolf. These two works by Levi are autobiographical not fictional. But Levi writes like a novelist, which I think adds enormously to their impact. The first of them describes Levi’s capture in Turin during WW2, and his transportation to the Auschwitz complex of concentration camps. The second, its sequel, describes his release near the end of the war, and his journey home to Turin. The sheer quality of his writing makes these works a must-read for anyone who loves reading. It is not all doom and gloom because the human spirit soars above all the tribulation. The way Levi accomplishes his accounts, with irony and at times something approaching humour, has to be read to be believed.

(11) Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver. A work of true genius and the best thing I read in 2019. Calvino sets up an imaginary dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan, who never travels, has to rely on descriptions from Marco Polo of the cities making up his vast empire. Marco Polo applies a great deal of imaginative license in his astonishing descriptions. Because this is a book you can dip into at random, I now keep it by my bedside, and try to re-read one city per night. I find it guarantees me the most wonderful dreams. This is the first work of Calvino I have read. I can hardly wait to read more.

(12) Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. In my blog/post earlier in the year, shortly after Toni Morrison’s death, I wrote that I was reading Song of Solomon, and that so far I was enjoying it. Unfortunately, it didn’t (for me) finish as well as it started. In the two books of hers I have now read, the other being Beloved, I come up against the same problem. The realistic story and the fantasy elements (for me) don’t mix well, a bit like oil and water perhaps. I love the African American characters and their interactions in their realistic world, but find myself freaking out when Ms Morrison introduces the fantasy elements. I think Isabel Allende (see above) blends them much more convincingly.

(13) Lette Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead. OMG. What an experience it is to read this book about women in the 1930s and 1940s in New York and Paris, women with very few options in life but to snare a husband by fair means or foul. Christina Stead is a great writer. Her birth and death both happened in Oz but practically all her in-between years happened elsewhere. Does this make her an Australian writer? If so, she would have to take the prize, in my opinion, for the greatest of all Oz writers. But this novel of hers is really hard going. There is spontaneity in her writing, but (it seems to me) not enough discipline, which makes it very difficult for the poor reader. But I stuck with it, and was rewarded by great insights. How about this short sharp aphorism given over to the main character Lette? ‘— I was never fond of money, except to spend —‘. Christina Stead is another writer I feel is always talking one-on-one to me.

(14) Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. Only recently published, this was the last book I completed reading in 2019. So I came full circle. Don Quixote revisited. Great fun to read. A riot in fact. I believe this book wasn’t all that well reviewed, but I liked it very much. Some great commentary here on contemporary USA. It was good to re-acquaint myself with Mr Rushdie after quite a few years. Is it science fiction? I’m not sure, but I loved the parallel universes.