The second installment in the recap series featuring some of the books discussed on the blog in 2020.
Actress is Irish author Anne Enright’s latest novel and tells the story of Katherine O’Dell by her daughter Norah, her life on the stage across continents and her relationships in her life, and the dark secret she uncovers. The novel examines the corrosive effects of celebrity, the mother-daughter bond and escaping bad love.
Do The 1% Rule?
There’s a lot of focus on percentages in recent years. The 1% with the bulk of the money and power, and the 99% who makeup the bulk of the people, but without the vast reserves of money and the institutional and political power that comes with it. This book by academic Dr Lindy Edwards examines the situation in Australia and asks if the powerful minority rule? Edwards is a former economic advisor in the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and a former journalist, so she has seen how power works up close. The book examines several examples of public policy – supermarkets, telecommunications, mining tax and media reform – being diminished and subverted by corporate interests.
A Jealous Tide
In her first novel, A Jealous Tide, Australian writer and bookseller Anna McDonald has penned a story about a restless, grieving woman who heads to London to walk the labyrinthine streets of this ancient city and walk its snaking, vein central river. The unnamed author, who studies rivers and oceans, crosses hemispheres in her quiet studious solitude from Melbourne’s Yarra to London’s Thames rivers. Dreaming, thinking and planning, the narrator’s research and dreams intersect in the narrative that reveals a story of a historical tragedy and hints at her own, unrevealed survival.
Historian and academic Timothy Snyder turns his attention to recent history to reconsider some of the events of last century in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. He asks what they can offer us to help our understanding and response to the political events of today. As he notes, ‘History does not repeat, but it does instruct’. As democracy was challenged by Fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism last century, he offers us some important object lessons in diagnosing what is happening around us and how we should act to protect democracy against authoritarianism.
n Growing Young, Marta Zaraska argues that optimism, kindness, and strong social networks will keep us living longer than any fitness tracker or superfood. Using research papers, travel around the world and interviews with a range of medical experts, she says we have been focussing on all the wrong things: miracle diets, miracle foods, miracle supplements.
“Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness. Science shows that these “soft” health drivers are often more powerful than diet and exercise. We, humans, are social apes. Over the course of evolution we’ve developed several intertwined systems that regulate our social lives on one hand and our physiology on the other. The amygdala and the insula in the brain, the social hormones oxytocin and serotonin, the vagus nerve, the HPA stress axis — all these link our bodies and our minds, contributing to our centenarian potential. We feel safe when we are surrounded by friendly others. The nervous system, the gastrointestinal system, the immune system — all these function properly when the tribe is there for us and when we are there for the tribe. Involved in a group, we flourish.”
Glimpses of Utopia
If right now the future seems like a strange and uncertain place, then this book might offer some hope and, more than that, solid ideas on making the world a better place for the many. Glimpses of Utopia is a handbook and a call to arms for a post-pandemic life by curator, festival director and Sydney city councillor Jess Skully. While it can feel at times as though we’re in a downward spiral with climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and global political unrest, this book asks ‘what if’ to a series of questions about how we could work to change things for the better.
“There are movements, organisations and individuals in every corner of the world who are modelling alternatives to the extractive and exploitative mindset that got us here, and for the first time in history, they can connect with each other to support and amplify their efforts. In Glimpses of Utopia, you’ll meet some of them and hear their stories, and how their efforts and ideas are shaping a better future for us all. The innovators you’ll meet in this book are many and various: they’re teachers and designers, technologists and researchers, artists and activists, policy-makers and politicians.”
A Room Made of Leaves
Acclaimed Australian author Kate Grennville returns to fiction with the story of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of the wool baron John Macarthur, and her secret memoir that takes the reader behind the veil of polite colonial society.
The author of Cloud Atlas returns with his latest book about a British psych rock band, Utopia Avenue, and their short but bright journey from London to the US as the Summer of Love comes to a close and something darker and destructive emerges.
On A Barbarous Coast
The retelling of Captain Cook’s journey and the ‘origin’ story of Australia is told from two perspectives in this imaginative and original novel. Harold Ludwick, a Bulgun Warra man who works as a guide and cultural historian, and is the recipient of a prestigious Encounters Fellowship with the National Museum of Australia, together with Craig Cormick, award-winning author and science communicator have crafted parallel narratives of the experience from the Indigenous and European perspectives.
“On a night of raging winds and rain, Captain Cook’s Endeavour lies splintered on a coral reef off the coast of far north Australia. A small disparate band of survivors, fracturing already, huddle on the shore of this strange land – their pitiful salvage scant protection from the dangers of the unknown creatures and natives that live here.”
“Watching these mysterious white beings, the Guugu Yimidhirr people cannot decide if they are ancestor spirits to be welcomed – or hostile spirits to be speared. One headstrong young boy, Garrgiil, determines to do more than watch and to be the one to find out what exactly they are.
Truganini recounts the story of this Aboriginal woman, whose name is familiar yet the full picture of her life is largely unfamiliar to many Australian. Author and historian Cassandra Pybus, who was told the stories of Truganini, fills in the story of the tragic but inspiring woman who survived the killings of so many First Nations people in Tasmania.
Radio Girl is the story of Mrs Mac, a pioneering engineer and wartime legend, as David Duffy’s book so aptly describes her. Violet McKenzie trained young women in Morse code, foreseeing that their services would soon be needed as the Second World War loomed. She was also instrumental in getting Australia.
The Dictionary of Lost Words
History may be written by the victors, but the victors are once always men. And so it once was with the first dictionary, written by men and missing many words that related to women’s experiences. Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words is the fictionalised story of the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary and Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicographers, who collects the words discarded or left out of the great book. She creates a companion book, the dictionary of lost words, which is only discovered during the women’s suffrage movement and reveals a missing thread in the history written by men.
The Animals In That Country
A pandemic-themed novel arrives with uncanny timing in 2020. In Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals In That Country a strange human flu is sweeping the country that sees infected people start to understand the language of animals. Yet this affliction doesn’t bring them closer to animals – instead the animals voices start to overwhelm people and they begin to be driven mad by it. Jean, the anti-hero of the story, has been working as a guide in an outback animal park when she learns her son is infected and sets off to find him and her beloved grand-daughter who he has taken off with. But while Jean might have an affinity for animals, she’s never been much good at getting on with humans.
A Note on more book-related posts
Books examining life after the pandemic.
Hot flush fiction – when getting hot under the collar means something very different in your 50s.
Zadie Smith on the craft of creative writing.
A look at the real Calamity Jane.
Where to get your arts and culture fix, other than The Broad.
Books on the climate emergency.
Julia Baird’s impressive book on Queen Victoria.
Credit for main image.