My Favourite Books of 2016.

books

It’s the time of year when everyone releases their end-of-year best-of lists. Normally I write about the best books I’ve read over the course of the year in August for the National Reading Hour, but this year I decided to fit in with the literati.

It’s important to note that some of these books weren’t necessarily released this year, but I just read them in the past twelve months or so. There were also plenty of great books that came out this year that I haven’t yet gotten around to reading, in which case they’ll probably make my list next year. So, without further ado, my five favourite books of the past year.

Friendship by Emily Gould.

I loved how unapologetically human and ugly the characters were at times. Though neither of the two protagonists were likeable, I found myself relating to both of them, perhaps Amy more so, who I somehow feel is the one you’re supposed to dislike most. I could totally see Greta Gerwig playing her in the movie version. The open-ended conclusion was great, too.

Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

There are no words I could write to describe this book. Just read it.

Room by Emma Donoghue.

For some reason, I’d never gotten around to reading Room when it was released in 2010 but it had always been on my list. With the movie adaptation hitting cinemas (which I saw four times in cinemas and thought was the rare film that was better than the book), I thought I’d finally see what it was all about.

Told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who never knew anything outside the titular room in which he was born to his captive young mother, I struggled sometimes with his voice (I don’t like children at the best of times, let alone when they’re trusted with an escape plan and attempting to adjust to a brand new world with rules and social norms they’ve never encountered before) but it was never at the detriment of the truly compelling story.

Hush by Eishes Chayil.

I just put this one down and it left enough of an impression on me to include it in this list. Eishes Chayil is a pen name meaning “woman of valor” and protected the identity of the author when this book came out in 2010. (The author has since been revealed as Judy Brown.) It deals with sexual assault and youth suicide in the Hasidic Jewish community and, although young adult fiction which I’m not usually a fan of, it doesn’t take away from the impact of the story.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire.

This was definitely my favourite book of the year. The characters were so fully realised, the story familiar but still original, and the way Maguire writes about something we’re all too familiar with—the rape and murder of women—is far removed from the salacity with which it’s often covered.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood.

This one deals with similar topics to most of the books on this list, (I’m often wary to recommend books I’ve loved to friends and colleagues because they’re usually about gendered abuse!) but the way it’s written and the almost spec-fic context sets it apart. I would recommend this one to more serious readers as the themes and tone of the book is more literary than others like it.

Image via Barrington Books Retold.

The Reading Hour.

It’s that time of year again and, in the spirit of tonight’s Reading Hour, I thought I’d tell you what I’ve been reading since last years’ event.

Rookie Yearbooks 1 & 2 by Tavi Gevinson.

I fell in love with Tavi Gevinson at last years’ Melbourne Writers Festival and had to snap up Rookie Yearbook One at the event’s bookstore. The second yearbook I got after visiting the U.S. late last year. They both compile the best of the Rookie website for those who don’t always have the chance to check it out. My favourites were anything by Sady Doyle and Lena Dunham’s interview with Mindy Kaling.

Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger.

My former housemate bought this at a secondhand bookstore in Geelong when we went there for an exhibition and surprised me with it for my birthday. I ended up using some of the intel I gleaned from the book for an article on the dark side of Hollywood that I’m shopping around, and it informed me when I went to the Museum of Death in Los Angeles, to which Kenneth Anger is a benefactor.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins.

I read this around the time the second movie came out and I think I enjoyed the big screen version much more than the print one. I liked how the film streamlined much of the at times unnecessary plot additions.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.

Gillian Flynn has fast established herself as one of my favourite writers, and this is not only my favourite book of hers, but also one of my favourites in general. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough. A gritty page-turner that kicks Gone Girl’s ass.

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany.

I was unimpressed by last years’ Stella prize winner.

Inferno by Dan Brown.

I made the mistake of taking this hefty tome on my trip to the U.S., thinking I would get most of it read on the plane but I was still lugging it around for weeks after I returned home. I think because I read it pretty sporadically throughout the trip I didn’t get as into the story as I have with other Brown books. I did like the notions of overpopulation and the need to eradicate part of the population for the greater good of the human race, though.

Well Read Women by Samantha Hahn.

This is more of a picture book than anything with read substance, but I was gifted it in the States for my birthday after having mentioned it months and months before!

Floundering by Romy Ash.

I really enjoyed this debut novel from Ash, which was shortlisted for many a prize upon its release. If you like evocative Australiana in an alternative style, I urge you to pick up Floundering.

The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dominick Dunne.

A sort-of pictorial autobiography of my favourite author that I picked up from New York’s famous Strand bookstore.

Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible on Film by the Museum of Biblical Art.

I couldn’t tell whether this guide to the exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art was propaganda or, as it asserts in its title, a history of the Bible on film. Either way, if you ever have some spare time in Central Parker West, check out the free museum.

How Did You Get This Number? by Sloan Crosley.

Crosley seems to have lost her allure since I last read her work in book form, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a few years ago.

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.

What a horror show this was! I primarily read it so I could watch the Lifetime movie of the same name starring Heather Graham and Kiernan Shipka, but I had been wanting to satisfy my curiosity for it for quite a while.

The Family Law by Benjamin Law.

Laugh-out-loud funny as Law always is.

The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle by Mary Lillian Ellison with Larry Platt.

Another one I got in New York at Westsider Rare Books and, as an autobiography of perhaps the most famous—and certainly the longest active—female wrestler, I had to snap it up.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

This marks the third and final Flynn book I’ve read, and while the colleague I borrowed it from found it boring, I loved it almost as much as Sharp Objects. It features another eleventh-hour plot twist that Flynn has become famous for. Can’t wait to see what her next release will be.

John Belushi is Dead/Hollywood Ending by Kathy Charles.

I’d been wanting to read Hollywood Ending for quite a few years, but little did I know that the book was also published under the title of John Belushi is Dead, so there I was with two copies of the same book and no place to go. It turned out to be a spectacular waste of money as I was sorely disappointed by this narrative.

Tragic Hollywood: Beautiful, Glamorous, Dead by Jackie Ganiy.

This book nicely elaborated on much of what I learned on my visit to the Museum of Death and a Tragical History tour of L.A. but, as a self-published effort, it was riddle with spelling and grammar mistakes and continuity errors.

Audition by Barbara Walters.

While I think Barbara Walters gets kookier and more conservative with age, she was once a pioneer for women in broadcast journalism, and her autobiography was fascinating if, expectedly, long.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Another one I’d been putting off, but it lived up to the hype. I’m excited to see how the story of the last woman executed in Iceland will play out on the big screen as it has been optioned for film.

2Pac VS. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle by Jeff Weiss & Evan McGarvey.

Didn’t tell me what I didn’t already know about Tupac Shakur, but I’d never really been a Biggie fan, so this book did shed some light on one of rap’s biggest stars.

An Inconvenient Woman by Dominick Dunne.

I picked this up along with Dunne’s autobiography at The Strand, and it was quite enjoyable.

Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin.

I always enjoy Maupin’s stuff, and this marks the likely second-last installment of his Tales of the City saga, in which he revisits his beloved characters from 1970s and ’80s San Francisco in the modern day.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.

You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Joyce Carol Oates, which can be thrilling and disconcerting. I’d have to go with the latter in this instance.

Changed for Good by Stacy Wolf.

Two of my favourite things: feminism and Broadway musicals. For anyone who’s got an interest in either of these things, this is a fascinating look at both, with a particular focus on Wicked, which I went to see for the seventh time on the weekend!

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss.

Perhaps the Aussie book of the year, Tara Moss can be seen everywhere promoting her latest book—part memoir, part exploration of female tropes and stereotypes—and talking about everything from the Bechdel test to her rape and miscarriage. She writes in accessible terms and makes strong points.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.

This book, a present from my housemate, has been languishing on my to-read pile for three years, so I thought it was high time I see what all the fuss was about. I’d watched the series so I was familiar with the premise and its aftermath, but I was quite taken aback by the misogyny and racism of pretty much all of the characters. Whether that was impeccable storytelling by Tsiolkas or the author’s biases I’m not sure; I guess I’ll have to read more of his work to find out. Next of his on my list: Barracuda.

The First Stone by Helen Garner.

Speaking of ingrained misogyny, Garner attempts to unpack the alleged sexual assault of two female students by a male authority figure at Melbourne University in the 1990s. What she actually ends up with is an out-of-touch, victim-blaming, second-wave VS. third-wave piece of misogyny. I would direct all readers away from this and towards Anna Krien’s Night Games: a much more balanced take on similar events.

Animal People by Charlotte Wood.

I’d been wanting to read this since I saw Charlotte Wood as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and I devoured it in the space of the day. (I was without electricity so there wasn’t much else to do!) Pretty easy reading with a nice juxtaposition between human idiosyncrasies and animal mannerisms.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I’ve already read this book, but I’m rereading it currently as research for a piece about the upcoming film adaptation. This is the third Flynn book I’ve read in the past year.

What are you reading for the Reading Hour?

Related: The Reading Hour 2013.

The Reading Hour 2012.

Tavi’s World at Melbourne Writers Festival.

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple: My Guide to New York City.

Cherchez la Femme Fatale, Take 2.

Stella: A Prize of One’s Own at The Wheeler Centre.

The Slap & Men Who Cheat.

Why Young Feminists Still Have “A Long, Long Way to Go” in the Eyes of Second-Wave Feminists.

Night Games by Anna Krien Review.

You Animals.

Elsewhere: [Rookie] Sady Doyle.

[Show & Tell] Tara Moss On Ner Latest Novel The Fictional Woman & the Bechdel Test.

[SMH] Under the Skin.

Event: Melbourne Writers Festival — You Animals.

Symposiums about the ethical treatment of animals are some of my favourite kinds of public debate. Earlier in the year I attended an Intelligence2 debate about the ethics of eating meat, and while the arguments put forth didn’t change my mind (or palate), I think we can all agree that to treat animals humanely is something most normal people would endeavour to do.

But after researching her Quarterly Essay, “Us & Them”, Anna Krien closed the session with the assumption that humans just aren’t that great. You only have to look at our treatment of asylum seekers to realise our view of treating “others” differently extends to them, too. In fact, that’s why Krien named the essay “Us & Them”: not only to signify that animals are the “them”, but after the Four Corners meat exportation exposé last year, so are the Indonesians.

The other three intellectuals and authors on the panel were equally as intriguing, if not all as equally pro-animal. Charlotte Wood, author of the novel Animal People, about people who don’t like animals—or don’t understand our adoration and obsession with them—echoes the sentiments of her characters in the book, saying that she doesn’t get how we dress our toy dogs up in clothes and put them in bags and coo over them like they were babies, but that we should ultimately respect animals and not treat them as objects, like we are so wont to do.

Tim Flannery, environment expert, needed no introduction, and he talked about how our modern culture doesn’t allow for the inclusion of animals as equals. Interestingly, he also added that 10% of our bodies aren’t even us: it’s animal matter, like mites that grow in our eyebrows. Eww! But that demonstrates how highly evolved and diverse animals are, much more than humans, I would say.

Speaking of evolution, Flannery also mentioned that animals from the parts of the world where people have been living the longest have a hatred of humans more deeply ingrained. Like water buffalo in Africa who will circle back around on humans who are hunting them and try to beat them at their own game. Whereas in America, their water buffaloes are relatively tame by comparison. And in Australia, we can coax native birds and wildlife to eat apples out of the palms of our hands, like my dad and grandfather used to do when I was a kid. But most animals are still so terrified of us because we destroyed their habitats, just as we are scared of exotic, archaic and extremely dangerous animals, like the cassowary or a crocodile.

It was obvious that author Sonya Hartnett likes animals a whole hell of a lot more than humans, which is also evident in her books, most of which are about or draw inspiration from animals. She said she’s happy to be the slave for her cats and dogs if they will “show me their secrets”. She made the observation that a bunch of crows she passed scavenging over a rubbish bin looked at her with such disdain that she had no doubt they not only fear us, but hate us, too.

I guess this is part of Aussie culture: domesticated animals are cute, wildlife is cool to look at in zoos, but none of this must come between us and them our meat. As Wood wrote in The Age last year:

“We force a dichotomy in which animals are either so like us that we cannot separate their needs from our own, or so unlike us as to be aliens, undeserving of any rights at all. The more we sentimentalise, the more we also brutalise.”

But animals have culture, too, as Flannery asserts. They use tools, forage for food, talk to each other, love, mate, and engage in group dynamics, just like us. (This culture was evident when a friend and I took our dogs away on a holiday last week and saw the dynamics occurring between them: my friend Deb’s dog, Minnie, is older and definitely in charge, whereas my dog, Mia, is happy to go along with that. Minnie even had the audacity to jump up onto my lap and sit there proudly while Mia was napping beside me in a nook between the couch and a blanket.) After all, who do you think we evolved from…?

Speaking of foraging for food, being a vegan doesn’t allow you immunity from contributing to the devastation of the animal kingdom. For example, wheat for bread—a staple in many vegetarian and vegan diets—is grown on land that has been cleared of its natural, animal-dwelling terrain and unless the proper practices are used, the soil may be rendered obsolete and more wheat won’t be able to be grown there. It’s a catch-22 between being a vege- or ecotarian and throwing up your hands because nothing we do will ever be good enough.

Flannery believes that as higher intelligence beings, we are the arbiters of the future of the planet and its animal (and human, for that matter) inhabitants, and to fully understand this and to be fully human we have to realise that “we’re animals, too”. After all, the four-legged, fury, feathery and fishy animals “are so much more than we’ve ever allowed them to be”. Maybe it’s time we loosened that chain a little bit.

Related: Should Meat be Off the Menu?

Top 11 TV Moments of 2011.

Elsewhere: [Charlotte Wood] This Dog is Not a Human Being… Right?

Image via The Vine.