Readings staff choose their Best Books of 2008
Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings
For a politician, Barack Obama writes frankly and mostly genuinely about the things he believes in. In The Audacity of Hope, he sets out his views on key policy areas such as health, education and foreign relations and calls for a new kind of non-adversarial politics that has the community interest at its heart. It should be essential reading for all citizens of the world.
In her third novel, Home, Marilynne Robinson returns to the mid-western town of Gilead. Retired Presbyterian minister James Boughton lives alone in his big old house. His daughter Glory, escaping an unsatisfactory life, returns home to care for her father, but he yearns for his errant son Jack. On his return, Jack becomes the unwilling focus for the hopes of his sister and ailing father. A beautiful novel.
Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, about the friendship between a First Fleet lieutenant and a young Aboriginal girl, has all the trappings of tragedy, but the mutual affection and respect between the two gives hope to the story and to us: their descendants. As usual, Grenville delivers her message in a compulsively readable narrative.
In American Journeys, the curmudgeonly, wise and witty Don Watson travels through middle America by road and train, observing an America that we see little of.
Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land, a memoir about growing up on the Turkish/Greek Island of Tenedos, was a real find.
‘Flaneur’ means something like ‘to idly stroll about’. In The Flaneur, Edmund White strolls about Paris; telling us, in his taut prose, what makes the city great. It’s a highly personal, often idiosyncratic view that combines history, personal anecdote and opinion. I went to Paris for the first time this year and with Edmund White in my head, it was even more enjoyable.
Martin Shaw, Books Buyer at Readings Carlton
We were blessed with two of the strongest books in years in 2008: one a debut collection of short stories, the other a first non-fiction book from one of our most talented novelists. Nam Le’s The Boat and Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man were each in their own way breathtaking reads; works which shared a rigour and a sense of responsibility to their material that will surely mean they are read and admired for years to come, I suspect.
Jo Case, Editor of Readings Monthly
I couldn’t stop talking about Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, a taut, darkly comic psychological thriller about a middle-class couple finally becoming ‘grown-ups’ on the cusp of their forties; rich with spot-on social observation.
Ditto for Kathleen Stewart’s bewitching memoir of a childhood trapped with intensely narcissistic, destructive parents, The After Life and Chloe Hooper’s brilliant, excoriating The Tall Man. Hooper’s blend of insightful, empathetic investigative journalism and captivating word-pictures is reminiscent of Helen Garner and Joan Didion.
Susan Johnson’s blackly comic novel Life in Seven Mistakes captured the irritation, affection and entrenched patterns of behaviour that govern family dynamics, likening them to wider social changes, in the way that Jonathan Franzen did in The Corrections.
Christos Tsiolkas’s passionate, dynamic, sharp and thoughtful social novel The Slap dissects and reflects the diversity of Australian society through a network of family and friends of various ages and backgrounds. Bristling with life and ideas; beautifully done.
And Joseph O’Neill’s lyrical, meditative post-9/11 novel Netherland is a strange beast, but a fascinating one, with self-conscious echoes of The Great Gatsby. Definitely the best of the ‘post-9/11’ genre.
Emily Harms, Marketing Manager of Readings
I’m proud to say that this year a lot of my favourite books are by local Melbourne authors. Dmetri Kakmi’s debut memoir Mother Land is the story of his childhood on the small Aegean island of Bozcaada, at a time when the historical animosity between resident Greeks and Turks was intensifying, and in a time when, in his own family, unexpected secrets were revealed.
Another (non-fiction) interesting summer read by a local author is Damon Young’s Distraction. Read it on the beach, when you can afford a few distractions.
Nam Le’s award-winning The Boat is the most extraordinarily diverse collection of short stories. Andrew Davidson’s (US) debut novel The Gargoyle is an absolute breath of fresh air, Janet Frame’s posthumous book of poetry The Goose Bath Poems is magnificent and I’m currently reading Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap, which is wonderful and unputdownable.
Jason Austin, Readings Carlton
Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron is a coming-of-age story of a young man whose parents have divorced; he wants them to not waste their money on college but rather buy him some property. It’s about the awkwardness in-between time of life when you’re not a child and not an adult but trying to find your place in that adult world.
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is about a middle-class magazine who editor finds herself in a fix when a Nigerian refugee is found hiding at the bottom of her garden in Surrey. She has met the girl before, on an African beach and saved her life. This story stayed with me for weeks as it contrasts the almost ridiculously frivolous lives we live in the Western world as compared with those trying to escape the horror of war and violence in their homelands.
For Bruno Moro, the book of the year was Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures: ‘Incisive and beautifully written short stories about women’s lives.’ For teens and adults combined, he ‘can’t better The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness for intelligent, imaginative, edge-of-your-seat suspense’. For Jackie Redlich it was The Believers by Zoe Heller: funny, clever and sharp.
Danielle Mirabella’s pick is Tim Winton’s Breath: ‘stunning, Tim Winton back to his best’. Araxi Mardirian chooses People of the Book, saying, ‘Geraldine Brooks has done it again; a great storyteller’. Katherine Dretzke calls The Lucy Family Alphabet ‘rude, mean and totally hilarious’. Ruth Pirrett’s pick is Steve Toltz’s Booker-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole: ‘Oh, how I laughed’. Alexa Dretzke says of her choice Toni Jordan’s Addition: ‘obsessive compulsive isn’t funny but this book is!’ Joel James says Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is ‘blood-suckingly good’ and Hawthorn store manager Desi Boardman calls her book of the year, Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark ‘unforgettable’.
Kathy Kozlowski, Readings Carlton
I really enjoyed Robyn Scott’s memoir of growing up in Botswana in the 1990s, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle. Enjoyable as much for her depiction of a colourful childhood – her father was a sort of flying doctor, and her mother a strong believer in home schooling and plenty of freedom – as for the fascinating insight into everyday life in Botswana.
On a different note, Maggie Hamilton’s What’s Happening to Our Girls? has turned me into a bit of a crusader. It is a must-read for anyone with little children of either gender, or tween and teenage girls. Her three years’ research into the world they are growing up in, so different from that of their siblings only 10 years ago, is mindblowing and serious.
Kevin Clark, Readings Carlton
My favourite books for 2008 were the Stephanie Meyer Moon quartet for the young at heart, and David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames for those who need a laugh. With Christmas coming, we could all do with one or more of those!
Judith Loriente, Readings Hawthorn
As always, I was on the lookout for comic novels and satires, and this year there were three crackers. Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it; Jesse Pentecost’s The Con showed his remarkable gift for writing witty one-liners; and Toni Jordan’s Addition had plenty of comic insights into the human condition, and the nature of genius.
Sharon Peterson, Readings Carlton
My favourite for 2008 would have to be The Road Home by Rose Tremain. The main character, Lev, dreams of a better life for himself and his family. After much hardship (some self-inflicted), he gets on the right track, works hard, and eventually achieves his dream. It was one of the first books I read when I started with Readings, in the middle of winter. The story helped me endure the long, cold, tram journey to the other side of town and I felt that I too would one day be rewarded for my suffering (the tram journey) and hard work!
Michael Awosoga-Samuel, Readings Carlton
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane is a great American story, told by an excellent chronicler of the human spirit. Lehane’s novel is powerful and touching; the most complete novel I have read.
In Northline, Willy Vlautin captures a spirit of the American mid-west in the life of Allison, an ordinary 22-year-old waitress trying to seek a better life. Touched by tragedy, but ultimately optimistic; this is a little gem.
Scott Noble, Readings Carlton
Following on from his extraordinarily prophetic novel Incendiary (which has just been made into a film starring Ewan Mcgregor), Chris Cleave’s new novel The Other Hand, tells the story of a young girl claiming asylum in the UK, and is sad, funny and horrific. It is, though, a beautifully written novel that engages and challenges, and leaves you yearning for the world to be a better place.
Claire Jones, Readings Carlton
In The Secret of Lost Things, Rosemary, a Tasmanian innocent, embarks on a journey of self-discovery when she travels to New York and secures a job at a grand rare and used bookshop. The Arcade is staffed by a collision of experts, eccentrics, obsessives and misfits (sound familiar?). Add to the mix whispers of the rumoured existence of a ‘lost’ manuscript by Herman Melville, and you have a page-turning literary gem.
Kara Nicholson, Readings Carlton
Looking back through the books I have read in 2008, it is with much surprise that Breath, stands out as the best. I found Dirt Music a little dull. But in Breath the writing is effortless and beautiful, the characters familiar and exquisitely drawn. My favourite part of the experience was the deceptive simplicity of the plot, so deceptive that as I read the last page I was more unexpectedly moved (I never saw it coming) that I have even been before upon finishing a book.
Amy Tsilemanis, Readings Carlton
Two stand out non-fiction reads of 2008 were John Berger’s collection of essays Hold Everything Dear and Best Creative Non-Fiction Volume Two edited by Lee Gutkind. Hold Everything Dear should be compulsory reading with Berger’s capable hand laying before us modern humanity’s suffering alongside its hope. Best Creative Non-Fiction – while solely American – covers a vast range of stories and styles, with an introduction by each contributor on what they consider creative non-fiction to be, and how they came to write it.
Nathaniel Rich’s debut novel The Mayor’s Tongue was a great read, with two parallel story lines coming together to combine the everyday business of life, love, and relationships with a fantastical literary twist!
The first issue of new Australian journal Harvest was also a treat, combining beautiful design with varied and quality local content.
Annie Condon, Freelance reviewer and writer
A novel in stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures examines medical practice through four diverse characters. Initially we meet them in medical school, and follow their lives – professional and personal – over a ten year period.
I’ve been a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld since her debut novel Prep came out in 2005. American Wife, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush, is big in scope and imagination. Sittenfeld’s strength is characterisation, and her protagonist, Alice Blackwell, has a rich and interesting inner life.
The Boat was a bestseller at the 2008 Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Le has the wonderful ability to write utilising diverse settings and voices, but all the short stories here are credible and gripping.
Unaccustomed Earth is a beautifully imagined collection of eight short stories. Lahiri is an empathic writer who places her characters in moments of transition and transformation and examines both their actions and emotions. The collection debuted at number one of The New York Times fiction charts and won the prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
Sybil Nolan, Freelance reviewer and writer
It’s hard to narrow it down, so I’ve chosen a theme: books for women baby-boomers. Life in Seven Mistakes, is an accomplished novel about a middle-class Australian family’s ghastly Christmas reunion. Johnson casts an ironic and insightful eye over the gulf of incomprehension separating the remarkable generation who were young adults in the 1950s from their rebellious offspring.
For me, The Spare Room is Garner back to doing what she does best: writing the narrative of her own generation’s lives. Terminal cancer is the topic of her beautifully observed novel, but the subject is rising to the occasion. The narrator is a memorable GOW (grumpy old woman) – older and wiser than she used to be, tetchier and tougher, but kinder as well, and still supremely sentient.
Girls Like Us is a group biography of three eminent female singer-songerwriters – Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. Girls Like Us is another evocative read for those who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. She does a particularly good job of explaining why some of the period’s weirder and more harmful idealism seemed to make powerful sense at the time.
Vicky Booth, Program Administrator, CAE Book Groups
The elegant memoir The Two Kinds of Decay is a poet’s response to chronic illness. Whilst Sarah Manguso’s style is spare and unsentimental, she communicates the intensely personal experience of nine years battling a rare blood disease with an immediacy that is powerful and moving.
Ingrid Josephine, Program Administrator CAE Book Groups
The Boat is a collection of seven short stories spinning across the globe and revealing the diverse lives of seven characters. Though Nam Le describes an array of cultures and settings, the stories are bound together by the characters who, when confronted by a crisis, reveal a prevailing strength and complexity of emotions. The intricacies of family obligations, friendship and political histories are sensitively expressed with deeply moving narratives and I think The Boat is an extraordinary voyage.
Laurie Steed, freelance reviewer
Kate Cole-Adams’ debut, Walking to the Moon has been well worth the wait. Part still-life, part waking dream, it is even better in hindsight, given time to reflect on a tale so simple and yet so beautiful.
Like Orwell on acid, Oink, Oink, Oink, Eric Yoshiaki Dando’s second novel, is one hell of a ride. Melbourne in the future is a mix of big-screen ads, small time drug dealers and one particularly pig-obsessed scientist. Everyman Squirly Fern finds himself alone, and at battle with Pauline, the mother of all hogs.
Maloti Ray, freelance reviewer
William Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange is an engrossing tale of global trade ‘from Sumer to Seattle’. Bernstein captures this history by focusing on themes of successive economic routes. Stone Age river trade is superseded by Asian sea routes. Missionaries and colonials wage bloody conquests for souls and resources. Modern political economy and the economist are born. Bernstein concludes with Thatcher’s neoliberal catchphrase, ‘there is no alternative’, dismissing global inequality as ‘a significant minority of citizens unavoidably harmed in the process’.
Narrating global conflict in recent history is Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame, the biography of UN High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello, simultaneously ‘the biography of a dangerous world’. Vieira de Mello died in the 2003 suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq, having previously witnessed Bangladesh, Cambodia, Bosnia, Zaire, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Serbia and East Timor. Ms Power, advisor to Barack Obama, considers the commissioner’s approach to conflict engagement.
Sally Madsen, Readings Carlton
I really enjoyed two books by two Irish writers, of very different styles and sensibilities :
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, nearly one hundred years old Roseanne McNulty recounts her life through memories and half remembered incidents which at the same time illuminate Ireland’s truly terrible, wild and beautiful history.
Joseph O'Neill’s Netherland is a Gatsbyesque tale of the enimatic Chuck Ramkissoon, set in the New York of just after 9/11 and the Iraq war. An unexpected New York of cricket, West Indians and outsiders.
Nam Le’s first book of seven short stories is very impressive, particularly the two bookend stories (first and last) that draw on and reflect his Vietnamese/Australian background.
Mike Paterson, Readings Port Melbourne
My favourite book was Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan. An understated marvel. A novel of solitude, loss, male reticence and revenge that reads like a snow-bound Cormac McCarthy. Utterly compelling.
New Australian Authors
This year, Readings partnered with the Copyright Agency Limited to present a regular series of special features introducing new and emerging Australian writers and their work. Here are their selections of best books of 2008: