I know there are very few people out there who aren’t happy to see the year that was disappear into a giant dumpster bin of loathing, fuelled by 100 million litres of starter fluid. It certainly did a number on us, the ol’ 2020.
However, despite the uncertainty of these ‘unprecedented times’ (it’s time for a shot if you’re playing *that* kind of drinking game), there were a stack of good reads to be had. And in my book, that’s certainly cause for some kind of celebration.
Here in Australia, reading in the time of corona led to some interesting behaviour. We ate more, socialised less, baked sourdough, created virtual Zoom backgrounds and succumbed to cabin fever that saw people perving on health officials and creating homages to politicians and then some.
And while there were people out there who couldn’t even fathom picking up a book, some numbers told a different story.
According to the Australia Council, since the April lockdown began, more than a third of Australians have been reading more (36%) – 42% are reading about the same as they normally would and 6% believe their reading habits have decreased.
my pick of the bunch
I was lucky enough to have read some fabulous books this year and feel it’s my duty to share these mini book reviews with you now. Here is my list of the winners, including some honourable mentions which didn’t get a top-five guernsey.
*Please note: not all were written this year, but this was the year they were read by yours truly.
1. Smart Ovens for Lonely People
Hands up who has endless time to read? Anyone? Annnnyone??
That’s why I throw up my hands to praise short story collections. And this one takes the cake when it comes to my favourite book of the year.
I must make a full disclosure here: while I count author Elizabeth Tan as a friend, I am by no means writing from a biased point-of-view.
This. Book. Is. Amazing.
Smart Ovens for Lonely People is a quirky collection of short stories that will have you marvelling at Tan’s imagination. Her fun and absurdist tales are beautifully written and will slap you awake with the intelligence quietly lurking beneath seemingly suburban subject matter.
From the moment I saw its title, I knew this would be a keeper. (That, and the fact that there is a chapter titled ‘Ron Swanson’s Stencilled ‘Stache’.) Smart Ovens for Lonely People suggests a whimsical adventure which nods to a serious message, if you read closely enough between the lines.
This suite of stories is fun and funny, with layered messages that should make us all pay attention. Themes of capitalism and commercialisation peek their head between the lines of enjoyable prose. Futuristic plot lines will make you curious, and for anyone from Perth, there’s a lovely sense of provenance that will make those stories *just* that bit more special.
What a perfect book to transport you from reality to absurdity and back again. As ever with a short story compilation, you can pick this up when you’ve got a few minutes to spare, and marvel in the splendour of a well-told tale.
2. The Library Book
Would it be a list about books if it didn’t include at least one bookish entry?
Ahhh… The Library Book. How I do love thee? Let me count the ways. This book is a stunning ode to reading and libraries and the people that make them.
The book’s premise is at first rather niche, but then unfolds like a flower blossoming into its own stunning being. Author Susan Orlean recounts the horrific fire that engulfs the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 in gritty, harrowing realism that it’s like a slice of the uncanny valley. You really feel like you’re there among the stacks as the inferno rages. And yet, you are far removed in both space and time, to allow Orlean’s remarkable writing speak to you at a safe distance.
Imagine a fire that lasts seven hours. Destroys or damages millions of books. Collections lost forever. It’s enough to make any book lover misty-eyed.
And while the spark that started this book was a fire in a library, the book itself is an ode to libraries everywhere. It blazes with passion, as it details incredible knowledge for how libraries work and the people who run them. You’ll discover how books are restored, meet an eccentric librarian (of course), and voyeuristically watch as Orleans falls back in love with the institution that lovingly exists as one of society’s most popular ‘third place’.
This book is part memoir, part history, part textbook. And it’s marvellous.
Ancient stories are timeless.
I can’t believe I waited so long to read this book. If you’re a fan of all things Greek mythos, you’ll discover your favourite characters (gods, goddesses, monsters, nymphs and naiads) are cast in a whole new light. They feel very human. If you’re new-ish to this world like I was, you’ll be swept away into a magical trance that leaves you wanting to discover more. (Stephen Fry’s Mythos is a perfect follow-up, fyi.)
Circe can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. History has seen her as an enchantress to be feared. She was banished to an island for eternity and left to meddle in her own magical devices, which include giving some less than savoury characters their just desserts.
Circe is fiercely independent and needs no man to save her — and yet is drawn to their world. Madeline Miller writes her story with a flawed, human approach that creates a powerful feminist narrative.
This isn’t so much a story about a Greek mythology, as it is a contemporary tale that just so happens to find its roots in an ancient place. Read my full review here.
4. Growing up Aboriginal in Australia
This year, our world was hurting in so many ways.
In addition to the devastating bushfires that raged all across Australia in the early part of the year and the subsequent pandemic that brought a halt to the world as we knew it, we collectively grieved as a man was suffocated to death in the streets of the United States by an officer of the law. It behoved us all to stop and take stock in the narratives and actions directed towards people of colour.
What struck me the most about the protests that took place in America was the speed and energy by which they were translated around the world.
Here in Australia, we joined the cry. Sadly, our nation is not exempt when it comes to the grievances faced by people of colour. When the protests were happening mid-year (June 2020), Australia had, to date, 437 deaths of Aboriginal people in custody to our name. It’s shocking. It’s devastating. It’s 437 too many.
So we had every reason to protest. Not just for the injustice that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (to name just a few) had faced in a land on the other side of the world, but for the injustice happening in our very own home. It was a reckoning against everything that is wrong in our country. Against death in custody. Against racism. Against white privilege and laws that are filled with prejudice. It was a protest that myself and many of my friends took part in as allies to our Aboriginal friends.
To be an ally is to listen and learn. And to speak later. I found Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia a vital part of that process — one that’s still underway and which always will be. The book is a collection of 51 essays, written by Aboriginal Australians about their lives and what it meant to grow up in Australia.
The writers come from all over the country and from all walks of life. From suburbia to country towns, with a myriad of lifestyles and paths among them. That alone should quash any ‘othering’ that can take place when non-Indigenous people think about Aboriginal Australia. This is a diverse snapshot that only just skims the surface of Blak culture and community.
Words are powerful and this is so apparent while reading this book. The writers reclaim phrases, reject others and use their voice to talk to their audience in an intimate and candid setting. And when words connect, they create stories — such a central part of Aboriginal culture and incredibly present in each unique chapter.
Chapters are sorted by alphabetical order, which means there is no structure to narrative or theme. It’s just a beautiful journey with some incredibly different people. You’ll meet people who struggled with their identity, the varying shades of their skin, and the casual racism thrown their way. You’ll meet people in pain. Others, who are trying to connect to their culture after living removed for so long. This is a celebration of our Aboriginal friends and a call to respect and honour their past, present and future.
Celeste Little, one of the writers in the collection, sums it up best: “Until this country finally ‘grows up Aboriginal’ itself, and starts not only being honest about its history and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but also making amends, I don’t feel I will be able to completely grow up Aboriginal myself. I wonder if I will ever get to be able to in this lifetime. I hope so.”
5. The Beekeeper of Aleppo
“Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope.”
My heart swelled when I read this quote from Christy Lefteri’s book The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I feel like it truly symbolises the hope glimpsed through the pain and despair felt throughout the year that was 2020.
I’ll admit that when I borrowed this book from the library, I was a little ambivalent about it. Dare I say it? Yes, why not. To be honest, the book cover really did nothing for me. It’s one of the hardest things about being a graduate of design school — I really can’t help judging a book by its cover sometimes.
How wrong I was to treat this book so flippantly. It became a favourite of mine for the year, with its narrative about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, and the incredible resilience they muster in the face of anguish.
We meet Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife Afra. Fleeing their home in Syria as it succumbs to the chaos of war, this brave couple trek towards the safety of England. And ultimately, back towards each other. It’s a beautiful book, based on a tapestry of stories that Lefteri collected while working with refugees in Athens. Please read my full review here.
I don’t know about you but it’s hard to whittle down a year’s worth of reading to just five books. So here’s my list for books that I loved just as much as the ones above, or are worth recommending for holiday reads:
All Our Shimmering Stars (review coming soon, but expect the same magic as Boy Swallows Universe. Great for a summertime read as an ode to the Australian bush.)
Phosphorescence (so close to being up above, but still claims top ten for me. Beautiful, nourishing book of essays for dark times.)
Dear Girls (Ali Wong is hilariously honest and insightful in her book written as a letter to her girls.)
Call Me By Your Name (better late than never, and what a love-letter to love this is. Pour me a Negroni now.)
Rebecca (I was inspired to re-read Rebecca after Netflix decided to remake — and subsequently destroy — this great gothic classic.)
The Dutch House (I adored the audio version of this — Tom Hanks! In your ears! like an old friend! — but I also loved the slow burn of its story and the vivid imagery of architecture it evoked.)
Wordslut (this one’s like chocolate for word nerds. A feminist linguist — try saying that 10 times quickly — looks at how the English language has prevented women from gaining equality and how we can reclaim it. Amazing!)
Fable and Fizz would like to acknowledge the Whadjuck Noongar people as the traditional owners and continual custodians on the lands and waters this content is primarily written on. I pay respects to their Elders — past and present. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.