All the books I read in 2011

This year was a bit up and quite a lot down in terms of reading satisfaction. I seem to be getting (a) more impatient and less tolerant, or more optimistically (b) more discerning and sophisticated in what I expect from a book. There are just so many books out there, and when an average-length novel takes me five or six evenings to read I am increasingly offended by books that don’t seem to earn their time. There are a limited number of evenings and afternoons in my life to be spent reading, and I am sick of finishing a book only to realise that I shan’t remember it for more than a few more hours, and the time I devoted to it might have been better spent on another, more deserving book.

I felt that many books I read this year, especially novels, were bloated, presumptive, over-earnest, tediously posturing, lazily derivative, badly unedited or simply mediocre. On the other hand, as I worked on writing two novels myself this year, I have to give immense kudos to anyone who finishes and publishes one. I just felt so frustrated and bored by some books, and resolve in the future to piff any recalcitrant or pompous books if they’re not earning my love by page 20. It’s a sad thing to be disappointed by a book — and, of course, a very subjective disappointment. Mostly I would think, ‘Will my life be diminished if I put it down right now and never go back?’ and when I realised it wouldn’t, down would go the book.

But there were some books which set me on fire and made my heart race with sheer pleasure and send me to bed early every night to snatch up the pages and dive back in. They were all characterised by my sense that this was something I hadn’t read before, and that the author enjoyed writing it. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a book. Here are my top reads of 2011 (details of each one in the list that follows):

A Time of Gifts / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Indelible Ink / Fiona McGregor

Year of Wonders / Geraldine Brooks

Ghost Story / Peter Straub

Music and Silence / Rose Tremain

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon

The Sisters Brothers / Patrick DeWitt

You’ll be Sorry when I’m Dead / Marieke Hardy

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay / Michael Chabon

 

And the total list of wot I read:

Beauty of the Husband / Anne Carson

Anne Carson, a classicist as well as poet, wrote ‘The Autobiography of Red’ which is one of the most exquisite long poems/novels I know. This is beautiful also but didn’t stop my heart quite so much.

Beautiful Thing / Sonia Faleiro

An extraordinary non-fiction portrait of a bargirl in Mumbai, and the lives of poor women in the slums there. I got to interview Sonia at Sydney Writers Festival and it was a total pleasure.

A Time of Gifts / Patrick Leigh Fermor

I adore Paddy Leigh Fermor, and he is a long-standing hero to my family. My father met him and had lunch with him in the late 60s. This is the first part of the most incredible travel story from the 1930s when Fermor, who died this year at a great old age, walked from London to Constantinople.

Mani / Patrick Leigh Fermor

A book about the Mani area in southern Greece, full of tales, history, arcana and the spirit of a vanished world.

Pleasures of a Tangled Life / Jan Morris

Morris is another family hero(ine), and this is a collection of short essays about things she likes.

Palimpsest / Catherine M. Valente

Speculative fiction, very good but a bit overworked.

Roumeli / Patrick Leigh Fermor

A companion to ‘Mani’, similar, entrancing.

Reflections on a Marine Venus / Lawrence Durrell

Fermor’s friend, and a man my father also met (I might nearly have been Durrell’s granddaughter if my mother hadn’t been at lunch as well when his daughter made a pass at my dad). Memoir of his time on Rhodes after WWII.

The Witch of Lagg / Ann Pilling

Loved her earlier books in the series when I was a kid. Schlocky but well done children’s horror story.

Spirit of Place / Lawrence Durrell

Durrell’s letters and short collected works. Bit annoying, to be honest. These try-hard young men!

Bitter Lemons / Lawrence Durrell

This time, about his years on Cyprus in the 50s and political strife. My ignorance of Cypriot politics made it a little hard to follow.

In Tearing Haste / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Letters between dear Paddy and the Duchess of Devonshire, very arch and British, entertaining.

Meanjin 1 2011

Now under editorship of my friend and former editor at A2, Sally Heath.

Affinity / Sarah Waters

I adore Waters and I liked this but it wasn’t quite as wonderful as ‘Fingersmith’ or as scary as ‘The Little Stranger’.

Dark Roots / Cate Kennedy

I read this on the beach in WA after having shared a small writers festival and house with darling Cate. Impossible to believe the sweet, warm woman can write these tense, shadowed, brilliant stories: but no doubting her intelligence as well as generosity. One of Australia’s treasures.

Indelible Ink / Fiona McGregor

Read, also, on that beach, just before hanging out with Fiona at Perth Writers Festival. The Sydney ‘The Slap’ as it’s sometimes described, I loved it entirely, this portrait of a modern family, and was so fucking happy it won at the Age Books of the Year awards later.

Lambs of London / Peter Ackroyd

A slight novel by the promiscuous and prodigious Ackroyd, about Charles Lamb and his sister in the 19th century and a Shakespeare hoax.

Reading by Moonlight / Brenda Walker

Exquisite, pensive, moving and erudite discussion of reading and illness. Brenda is a quiet woman but a wonderful thinker about books and meaning.

Me and Jeshua / Eleanor Spence

Re-read this treasure from my childhood, about Jesus as a child, a surprisingly unsentimental and evocative portrait, beautifully written and full of the atmosphere of warm Levantine nights.

Harbour / John Ajvide Lindqvist

I love his stuff (author of ‘Let the Right One In’), just a great mix of violent horror and dark humour. Great for when you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere and make you flinch.

Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe / Douglas Adams

The classic. No words. The manifesto of my adolescence.

Your Voice in my Head / Emma Forrest

A scintillating, wildly written, astute and wrenching memoir by a young woman about her mental distress, a love affair, and her relationship with her therapist. I got to do a wonderful panel with Emma at Sydney Writers Festival and hang out with her: she’s great.

The White Earth / Andrew McGahan

I’ve had a crush on Andrew McGahan ever since ‘Praise’. Grand, gothic, melodramatic and haunted novel about rural Australia in the Mabo era. Kudos for just going for it without embarrassment.

Cloudstreet / Tim Winton

Re-read it for the first time in twenty years, still astounding. I wept at the end. It shimmers and shines.

Bereft / Chris Womersley

Less said about this the better. Sorry.

My Brother Jack / George Johnston

Couldn’t finish it, alas. I just didn’t give a shit.

Love Letter from a Stray Moon / Jay Griffiths

My total hero and role model, her first novel, a short and incandescent fiction about Frieda Kahlo, love and sorrow.

I Hate Martin Amis Et Al / Peter Barry

Read it for a review for ABR, unsettling, clever, challenging, brutal, rather unpleasant, sardonic novel.

Traitor / Stephen Daisley

I met Stephen at various festivals this year, he’s a sweet man. This is a delicate and sorrowful novel set in and following WWI and with a surprising friendship.

The Sooterkin / Tom Gilling

Recommended to me by its editor, a lovely change from the grim and earnest male Australian writing: a clever and original little tale set in early Hobart, with a woman who gives birth to a seal.

Presence of the Past / Penelope Lively

Lively, another of my role models as a writer, in rather serious mode about British landscape.

Museum People / Thompson

A delight of a book I picked up in an op shop, portraits of all the staff at the Smithsonian Museum in the 1970s. It made me want to go and volunteer at the Melbourne Museum. Fascinating.

Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds / Gregory Day

A lovely warm novel set on the Great Ocean Road coast by the delightful Greg. He writes various novels set in his fictional town and brings characters to life with sweetness and truth.

The White Garden / Carmel Bird

Strange, original, rather abstruse novel, dark and suggestive. Very 80s, but that’s not a bad thing.

Year of Wonders / Geraldine Brooks

Fabulous historical fiction, in crystalline prose, set in the 17th century during the Plague. Loved every word.

The Dress Lodger / Barbara Holman

Gothic historical fiction, not bad but not memorable.

Red Shift / Alan Garner

Stunning, stunning bit of 1970s time fantasy/mythos. Set the bar for everything else in the genre.

The Sea Kingdoms / Alaistair Moffatt

History of the Celtic kingdoms from Bronze Age to present. Part of my perpetual ‘Time Team’/British archaeology mania.

The Invention of Dr Cake / Andrew Motion

Odd, pleasant little fable about a dying old man who may or may not resemble a surviving John Keats.

Ghost Story / Peter Straub

A book like a nice rich casserole, full of inventiveness, good horror, twisting plots, and chewy scenes. A classic of horror.

A Leopard’s Kiss / Maria Fazio

Small and slight prose and poems based on the life of De Lampedusa, writer of  the classic ‘The Leopard’.

Music and Silence / Rose Tremain

Beautiful, beautiful novel, rich and plangent, sweet and sad, a great work of historical imagination and humanity.

Breath / Tim Winton

Re-read this for a Wheeler Centre bookclub gig, loved it the first time I read it, admired it the second time, and suddenly, in talking about it onstage, decided it was rather flawed. I don’t quite know why, but somehow I liked it less once I began to think about it. A book perhaps best absorbed and felt.

Melbourne / Sophie Cunningham

Read it for an Age review, a really nice portrait of urban Melbourne, especially those bits habituated by people like me and Sophie (*cough*artsytypes*cough*)

The Woman in Black / Susan Hill

Classic terrifying ghost story: actually, the 1980s tv version was even scarier, until I re-watched it recently and wasn’t as scared as I hoped I would be. But Hill does a great deal of good stuff in only a few pages. Incredible foreboding…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon

Fabulous, wonderful, energetic, original novel that helped salvage my opinion of fiction this year. A putative Jewish homeland in Alaska, not Palestine; and a noir crime story with Yiddish slang. Supposedly to be made into a film by Coen Bros – that would be perfection. Just fucking great.

Queen of the Wits: Life of Letitia Pilkington / Norma Clarke

My mum lent me this, a great (if rather lengthy) portrait of a now-forgotten legend of 18th century Irish and London letters, a woman who lived by her wits and her pen, despite perfidious male jealousy etc.

The Family Law / Ben Law

Ben’s delightful, fucking funny and surprisingly heartbreaking memoir about his family. I needed this book like a sherbet to wash down more glutinous fare, and it worked a treat. Just great stuff. And a smashingly nice bloke.

Change of Climate / Hilary Mantel

I have now read all of Mantel’s books, and my awe of her never grows any less. This is from her middle-class 1980s phase, probably my least favourite of her moods, but still, a perceptive and mordant family drama.

The Monsoon Bride / Michelle Aung Thin

I launched Michelle’s book at Readings this year, and as I said at the time, considering how grumpy I was with reading at that moment, I was really glad to enjoy her debut novel so much. Set in Burma in the 1930s, ‘steamy’ is a word that has to be applied to it, but also ‘elegant’.

Case Studies / Kate Atkinson

A friend recommended this to fix my reading malaise; good fun, shockingly dark in places, ultimately a bit silly but a good holiday book featuring one detective chasing four connected crimes.

Fair Cop / Christine Nixon

I read this for a panel on memoir I did with Christine at Brisbane Writers Festival, and enjoyed it more than I expected: a feisty, admirable and self-possessed woman. We need more of them. She was very nice company on the panel and gave me a hug after.

Street Fight in Naples / Peter Robb

A bit disappointing, much devoted to 17th century Naples, and kind of all over the place. Interesting stuff though, and made me want to go back to Napuli very much.

Meanjin 2 2011

Griffith Review: Such is Life

A Walk in the Woods / Bill Bryson

Ah, Bryson, he makes it look so easy. A nice ramble of a book about a ramble.

Danse Macabre / Stephen King

As I’m writing horror, I read this about the arts and wherefores of horror writing; very interesting, anecdotal, informed and perceptive stuff. I also highly recommend his book on writing in general.

The True Deceiver / Tove Jansson

As a life-long devotee of the Moomins, I am exploring Jansson’s other work (‘The Summer Book’ and ‘The Winter Book’ are both gorgeous) and this adult novel is quite dark, serious, strange but compelling.

Haphazard House / Mary Wesley

Apart from her adult novels she also dabbled too briefly in childrens’ fiction, and this is a wonderful, original time-slip take on ‘Last Year in Marienbad’-style fantasy of a peculiar old house in the country, featuring a complicated family. She never talks down to children and this book weaves a spell.

The Sisters Brothers / Patrick DeWitt

Shortlisted for Booker Prize, like a Coen Bros western in prose, just great fun, dramatic satisfaction, fantastic voice and a horse that made me actually cry.

Meanjin 3 2011

Among the Islands / Tim Flannery

Tim’s new memoir about his days exploring for mammals in the Pacific islands, full of interesting biology and funny stories.

Over Sea, Under Stone / Susan Cooper

I finally gave myself permission to just indulge in re-reading this series, one of my all-time favourites, a splendid, original, powerful mythic fantasy work for young adults. I was so happy that I loved it as much now as I did when I was 14. Stunning.

The Dark is Rising / Susan Cooper

The Greenwitch / Susan Cooper

The Grey King / Susan Cooper

Silver On the Tree / Susan Cooper

All That I Am / Anna Funder

I enjoyed the second half of this more than the slightly awkward first part, and emerged moved and informed about German anti-Nazi activists just before the war.

Travels with a Medieval Queen / Sileti

Following a 12th century Sicilian queen journeying from Germany to her kingdom. Nice travel stuff and a lot about the complicated history of that period in Italy.

You’ll be Sorry when I’m Dead / Marieke Hardy

Marieke’s bravura memoir essays, funny as hell, sometimes sad, very brave, and perfect for reading on a couch in one big savoury gulp.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay / Michael Chabon

The book that got me back in love with reading after a rough few months, totally energetic, imaginative, generous and both funny and terribly sad. Big and bolshy.

One Man’s Meat / EB White

Gorgeous columns from the 1940s by this master of style, lovely warm tales from his life on a farm in Maine and reflections on life and humanity. I learned a lot about column-writing from this, and got dozens of quotes to pop (credited!) into my own work. A delight to read slowly over many afternoons with a cup of tea.

The Secret History / Donna Tartt

Oh my god how I loved this book when it came out. It felt it was written especially for me, a classics student who wore men’s 1930s suits at a sandstone uni, was completely isolated and melancholy, and liked horror and ghost stories. Re-reading it this year was an exercise in complete delight and satisfaction, and envy of her confidence. Come on Donna, write another book already.

The Great Gatsby / F. Scott Fitzgerald

First read it as a uni student; began re-reading this year it as I keep hearing how it’s so many people’s favourite book in the world. Actually I found it mannered and a bit tedious, and put it aside half-way through (and it’s not even a long book). Oh well.

Griffith Review: Fiction

The Final Solution / Michael Chabon

A slight and wistful tale set in England with an elderly Sherlock Holmes. Quite different to his other big novels. Okay but not as wonderful as I hoped.

A Model World / Michael Chabon

Short stories/novellas, very carefully written, Richard-Ford-esque, beautifully turned but again, not as ebullient as Kavalier & Clay.

Gentlemen of the Road / Michael Chabon

His books seemed to get thinner and slighter as I went along! This is a historical picaresque, enjoyable but forgettable.

The Last Thread / Michael Sala

Memoir I read for a review for ABR, very nicely written, frustratingly self-conscious.

The Little Friend / Donna Tartt

Quite different to ‘The Secret History’, a big sprawling Southern Gothic novel about a young girl in a sinister world. I liked it very much, and more and more as I read, though I felt I could sense Tartt’s confidence creaking at times and there were (I can’t believe I’m saying this) too many adjectives. Still, I was sorry when it ended.

The Mortgaged Heart / Carson McCullers

The library didn’t have her classics so I tried this, short stories and bits and pieces from her beginnings, nice if self-conscious little stories with memorable imagery and suggestions of great things to come. I’d like to read her more famous works now.

As I Lay Dying / William Faulkner

Another famous classic that defeated me, just days before I saw Marieke on television extolling its virtues. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.

Man in the Dark / Paul Auster

People keep telling me how great Auster is, and I keep trying him, and wondering what the fuss is about. Did I even finish this? I can’t remember.

Constantinople / ?

Some book about the fall of Constantinople (a perennial fascination for me), which sadly I ran out of time to finish and don’t remember the author’s name. It was interesting, though.

American Gods / Neil Gaiman

I bought this in the quest for sure-fire, bona fide good reads, and enjoyed it and its mixture of horror, mythos and picaresque, but began to get a bit tired towards the end (it’s a big book). I’ve only read a couple of Gaimans, funny since I write a bit in that vein myself.

To the Ends of the Land / David Grossman

Read this in a burst of interest in Middle East politics, and after an inspiring review in NYRB, and it was good, it was okay, following two friends going on a hike in Israel and talking about life and love and their history, but then one night I realised my level of interest was almost zero and there were another 200 pages to go, so that was that.

White Teeth / Zadie Smith

Managed to finish the year by finishing a book! I loved, loved ‘On Beauty’ and this was good too, though that first chapter wouldn’t have got a million-pound advance from me. Uneven, bit saggy and sloppy, but steadied by her fabulous ventriloquist rendering of dialect and voice, and her diligent summoning of her characters and all their perversities. I did enjoy it.

To sum up: read 29 works of non-fiction, and 57 of fiction, total of 86 books, though some of them I didn’t actually finish. That’s one book every 4.2 days! Well, some of them were short and some of them were long. Let’s see how many of them I even remember in a year’s time.

 

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8 Responses to All the books I read in 2011

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the reading list! I’d hate to see the list if you weren’t in a slump! Have you read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy? It’s my favourite of all time. I love your books, particularly The Romantic. I am in a reading slump myself at the moment, and hoping your list will provide some inspiration… P.S I have a copy of Jasper Jones, I’m going traveling and would love to send it to you. I never made it past the first few pages as I wasn’t in the mood.

    • kate says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Sorry for the late reply, I hope the reading slump has fixed itself — I know how you feel. I am trying to solve mine by taking recommendations and going with my instincts, reading what I want to, not what I think I should read. I’ve heard Jasper Jones is great, might give it a try though you don’t seem too sure!

      Anyway, happy reading and I’m so glad you like The Romantic, thanks!

      xxxxx Kate

  2. Sharon Cure says:

    Thanks for the list Kate… have you read Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey? That might have made your list another year….. I thought it was a good read.

    • kate says:

      Hi Sharon, no I haven’t read Jasper Jones but perhaps I’ll find a copy somewhere, I’ve heard good things about it. Right now I’m on Catch-22, which I probably should have read in my twenties… very funny and mad, though I’m not sure if I can bear several hundred pages of it, only fifty pages in and I’m already feeling wearily insane!

  3. Angela Altair says:

    Dear Kate,
    What an omnivorous reader! 86 books. I agree with Shelley about ‘In your skin’. Proof that ultimately books are subjective is the fact that I’ve never bothered finishing a Geraldine Brookes! (Just don’t get her style at all – and I sooooo wanted to enjoy People of the Book).

    As for your other choices, well I was disappointed you were underwhelmed by two of my enduring favourites My Brother Jack and The Great Gatsby. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

    I intend to reread your list and like others use it to browse my local library shelves.

    Finally I entirely agree with your about Bereft.

    Love your work Kate; your columns invariably move me and stir deep feelings of nostalgia and longing.

    You have inspired me to have a go at my reading list of ’11: though I’d be lucky to have read 44.

    Happy reading and new year.

    • kate says:

      Angela! long time no talk about books!

      Ah I am sorry too that Gatsby and Jack didn’t enthrall me — look, quite likely it was because I was already in a cranky mood by then and less patient than one should be (I find ‘classics’ often require patience and diligence, a slow burn, free of the gratuitous attention-grabbing of newfangled fiction) — I still have Gatsby beside my bed with bookmark still in, so perhaps I’ll try again. But Angela, there are so many books! How to find the really good ones??

      This year I’ll try more nonfiction and more genre fiction. I suspect that in my old age what I really want is spritely writing and a good story.

      And thank you for still reading my columns, I’m on a break this month (enforced by Age, not voluntary) but looking forward to getting back into them. SO lovely to know that people actually read them.

      Take care Angela and I hope Willyfest is going strong. Happy joyous much reading!

      xxxxxx K

  4. shelley thomas says:

    An interesting list of titles, not all of which I am familiar with. I have read two of Geraldine Brookes and do enjoy her style of writing. I must read ‘Year of Wonders’ especially because I do enjoy history and good writing. Such a credit to you to have read 86 books in a year as well as write your own work and live your life. Your mentioned on Facebook recently about a writer whose name I forget right now, anyway, I am going to make a few notes of some of the books you have read. I always get stuck in the library if I don’t have a bit of a guide. One book I would put on my own list if I had a list, would be ‘In Your Skin’ by you. I read it this year and gobbled it up. Some time this year I look forward to the second one. Best wishes to you…

    • kate says:

      Thanks Shelley, and yes, I tend to wander in bookshops and libraries suddenly completely amnesiac about what it is that I’m looking for. Thank god for ‘notes’ on my phone! Who was the writer I mentioned on FB? I can’t remember!

      And thanks for mentioning mine, I keep thinking I should read it — for the first time in seven years — it might be better than I remember it. 🙂

      Happy reading this year! xxxx Kate

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