Something You Said’s Year in Books

people smuggler

Our resident book expert, Jess O’Callaghan, gives you the heads up on what you should have been reading this year:

A year in books is always hard to write. Everyone’s year in books is going to be really different. You lot didn’t re-read Harry Potter and first-time some Dickens because you’re in England and everyone’s accents made it seem necessary (Jess is Australian – Ed). You didn’t devour The Hunger Games on a 23 hour flight, all red-eyed and light-headed. You didn’t fall asleep on the ferry from Ireland and dream you were Eleanor Roosevelt and Alec Baldwin was FDR’s ghost because you didn’t discover how to download political biographies on your Kindle in the middle of a long bus ride.

My year in books is different to your year in books, and any attempt to make it seem like we had the same year is going to come off a bit weird.

But here are some of the book-ish moments we might have shared this year. I’ve stripped back the old and the weird and am left with a wallpaper of 2012 releases that made for an excellent twelve months.

this is howThis Is How You Lose Her – Juno Diaz
Juno Diaz has a quirky way of saying things that somehow feels different to your way of saying things but really spot on at the same time. When I read a book that feels real, it’s often because I’ve shared the experiences of the protagonist. Not so with Diaz. I’ve never been an earnest young Dominican man who continuously falls for beautiful women and proceeds to fuck it all up. I’ve never had most of the experiences Yunior has had (the central character reappearing in much of Diaz’s published work, starting with awesome short stories in Drown). That doesn’t stop the feeling that everything Diaz puts on the page is spot on, and heartbreakingly true. The first part of the novel takes getting into – just as you think you know what’s going on the narrator changes and you’re tossed back out into the real world. But once it clicks, it’s a fantastically satisfying book.

200px-The_Casual_VacancyThe Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling
This was terrifying to read. Not because someone died on the first page and not because I was aware early on that I’d be spending 500 pages with intrinsically unlikeable characters, but because what if I didn’t enjoy it? How would I react? What if there was no magic? Worse, what if there was magic? What if she had gotten halfway through writing this brave, unusually grown-up novel and flipped out, throwing a dragon into the thoroughly muggle village of Pagford and cocking the whole thing up? I needn’t have worried. Though the strong characterisation and intricacy of plot were still there, saying hello guess-who-my-author-is, the rest of the book was definitely not Harry Potter, and wasn’t trying to be. By page 15 Rowling had already dropped the C bomb. And no, I don’t mean Crookshanks.

NWNW – Zadie Smith
NW had me wide eyed and frantically flipping through it from page one. It’s one of those books where every sentence had me reaching for a pen to write down a line, in case I forget it forever. All of it felt important, and relevant, and was a beautiful depiction of a time and a place, the time being now and the place being the postcode area NW, London. The story is told through three character studies, of childhood friends Leah and Natalie/Keisha and of Felix. From the moment the distressed women at Leah’s door reaches through inside, crying that her mother has had a heart attack, you’re going to want to call in sick to all those things you had to do and just read. Look forward to it.

us and themQuarterly Essay 45 – Us and Them : The Importance of Animals – Anna Krien
Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay is well researched, nuanced and written beautifully. Just as in her non-fiction Into the Woods about Tasmania’s logging industry, she makes her biases known and then considers the subject from ways refreshing for someone with any declared biases. Krien is empathetic in a way that makes her writing interesting and reasonable at the same time. She explores the way we humans interact with animals – whether as pets, as food, as scientific experiments – and the intricacies unique to these relationships at this moment in time. Quarterly Essays can sometimes seem dry and existing just for people who always read Quarterly Essays. This one doesn’t.

testimonyThe Testimony – Halina Wagowska
One from the start of the year now. This little book, back in March, made my heart feel huge. I turned it over and read it again. Then I felt guilty for reading it twice instead of lending it to people and started lending it to people. Go out and find it – it keeps getting put in the travel section of bookshops, for some bizarre reason. Halina Wagowska, a menchey 81 year old living in Melbourne, tells the stories of her life through the stories of the people she has known. The Russian soldier who flipped her potato pancakes in a cave when she was let free from a Nazi concentration camp. Her parents, and the childhood they gave her in Poland before it was invaded in 1939. The fierce women she worked with on Collins Street when she got to Australia. The people who dropped books to her house to be driven out to those whose books had been burnt in the Victoria bushfires in 2009. This is not an ordinary autobiography. Told in short stories that string together over 8 decades, its scope leaves you dazzled. It makes history feel personal, and closer than we usually think.

what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-anne-frankWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank – Nathan Englander
This book of short stories from Nathan Englander was an exciting release back in February. Englander’s short stories are really satisfying to read. They are each contained, and make you feel full and disrupted at the same time. The story of the title, in which two couples, one from Israel visiting their friends in Florida, is beautifully executed, with the alcohol-relaxed conversation of the old friends descending into a ‘thought-experiment’ involving Anne Frank and stock-piled canned goods that makes your stomach churn. It was so well written I found myself trying to avoid the eyes of a fictional character. The other stories are no less well crafted, and often give cause to laugh out loud.

people smuggler smallThe People Smuggler – Robin De Crespigny
When politicians tell us they’re going to ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’ it’s generally not the protagonist of this wonderful book springing into anyone’s mind. The creative retelling of Iraqi refugee Ali Al Jenabi’s story takes the bogeyman of Australian politics and tells his story in a way that is moving and honest. His story isn’t emblematic of every people smuggler’s story for sure, and De Crespigny isn’t pretending it is. It details his journey from being a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, to a people smuggler in Indonesia in the hopes that he will be able to get his family to Australia. It also details his struggle to stay in Australia once he got here. The People Smuggler is told with empathy, written as a human drama, and is fully aware of the context in which it is being read.

It’s been a weird year for books. It seems the ‘Read it before you see the movie’ section at Waterstones is bigger than most of the other sections, full of epics and classics and every genre you can think of. Everything from The Great Gatsby to Twilight, Great Expectations to The Hobbit, is being brought to the screen this year. That’s always exciting and jarring at the same time. Then there’s the erotica section next to it. Fifty Shades of Grey seems to have granted bookshops permission to dust off their R rated tomes and bring them out from behind a shifty curtain at the back of the shop into a front and centre display.

Then there are the 2012 releases I haven’t gotten to yet. Hopefully I’ll fit in Dave Egger’s Hologram for a King and Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement in before the year’s out. Which 2012 books wallpapered your year? And should I read them as well? Let me know in the comments section below.



Words by Jess O’Callaghan.