As per usual, pulling this together has been challenging due to the sheer quantity of good books, podcasts, TV shows and so on I had to choose from.
Indian Horse and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
Both of these novels were lent to me by one of my housemates because Wagamese is one of her favourite authors. They did not disappoint. Wagamese is a member of the First Nations of Canada, so these novels complemented the deep dive I’ve done over the past couple of years into First Nations Australian writing. Both are slim books but with powerful, hearfelt prose ripping simultaneously with the aching sadness and dazzling beauty of life. Indian Horse tracks a substantial chunk of its protagonist’s painful life from growing up with his family to life in a residential school to a troubled adulthood and finally an ending of sorts. Medicine Walk is the story of a young man’s troubled relationship with his father and their journey to understand each other before it’s too late. While the themes are challenging, Wagamese’s writing is a pleasure to read – highly evocative with every word and phrase adding value to the story. Medicine Walk
Floundering by Romy Ash
This book reminded me of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and Tony Birch’s Blood. All three are books about the resilience of children and solidarity of siblings in the face of parental neglect. Floundering is at once beautiful (thanks to the prose), disturbing (thanks to the behaviour of adults) and heart-warming (thanks to the behaviour of children). This is my favourite type of fiction – the gritty, realist novel which shows humans at both their worst and best.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Less is a delightfully funny and poignant novel centred around protagonist Arthur Less. Self-doubting and hence very relatable, failed novelist Less embarks on a round-the-world trip in order to avoid having to attend an ex’s wedding as he nears his fiftieth Birthday. This leads to all kinds of silly adventures. I particularly enjoyed Less’s time in Germany due to his imperfect command of the German language. A series of hilarious faux-pas and misunderstandings are the result.
The Dry by Jane Harper
Another totally engaging novel which I read in two days (admittedly one of those was a day off). I loved it so much that almost as soon as I had finished it, I started (and rocketed through) another Harper novel, this one titled The Lost Man. Both The Dry and The Lost Man are murder mysteries set against the vast Australian outback with its cattle stations, droughts and small yet incredibly complex and fraught communities. If you’re looking for something well-written but easy to sink your teeth into, both The Dry and The Lost Man are for you.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I looked forward to reading this novel each night after work. It is written in a format I love where it alternates between the perspectives of the two main characters, giving you insight into two lives and how they intersect. While thoroughly enjoyable, this novel also tackles some difficult themes, particularly race and racism, making it a very pertinent novel for our current circumstances. I particularly loved the way the novel drills down into the intricacies and politics of African women’s hair and how they choose to wear it.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This was the book club book for September and what a wonderful book it was – the sort of book I was excited to get home from work to read. This is the story of twins who run away from their hometown of Mallard, a town of light-skinned African American people who strive to leave their African Americain-ness behind, at age 16. After years of living and working alongside each other, one twin then runs away from the other to pursue a life of passing as white.
Set over the span of many years, the book not only addresses the impact of this split on the twins themselves, but also on the lives of their daughters. Through its masterfully woven narrative, this book addresses important themes, particularly race but also the importance of family.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
The Book Club read for October, this is a uniquely constructed book which sets out detailed portraits of twelve different characters with variously intersecting lives. While you may not like every character, each one is masterfully rendered and you don’t just see them through their eyes, but also through the eyes of other characters. This, we book clubbers agreed, was the book’s genius – it is a rich illustration of the way multiple and seemingly conflicting truths can and do coexist.
Side note: This is one of those books that ignores conventions like capital letters at the start of sentences. For me, this didn’t add anything and was actually a slight annoyance (I admit I am something of a spelling and grammar fiend), but it was also something I got used to as I read. Evaristo does some other, and to me more interesting, innovative things with language such as occasionally using one line per word to emphasise a point – for me, this worked. The lowercase, not so much.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Set over many generations, Lee creates a rich fictional landscape full of masterfully rendered characters through which she, much like Bennett, explores complex themes of discrimination, religion and morality, identity, exile, sexuality and more.
This novel is also a history lesson about the discrimination faced by Koreans living in Japan and the lengths they are forced to go to in order to survive. Sadly, this was history I knew virtually nothing about and I suspect many of my Western and supposedly educated (I say supposedly not to undermine your intelligence but because what we are educated in is so skewed) counterparts are in the same boat.
A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
There is a meta narrative built around the narrative of this book. The meta narrative is that author Grenville has found and published the secret memoirs of Elizabeth Macarthur, the narrative is Elizabeth Macarthur’s memoir. To be honest, the meta narrative layer didn’t really add anything to this book for me, but I loved the narrative itself.
In true Grenville style, she weaves history with her imagination to create a rich portrait of a remarkable woman. While Elizabeth Macarthur’s husband is credited with much in tellings of Australian history, this novel explores the role Elizabeth herself may well have played in his success. She is a fierce, intelligent, brave protagonist – you’ll be rooting for her.
No Big Deal and Melt My Heart by Bethany Rutter
Both of these are young adult novels with fat protagonists, something which shouldn’t be revolutionary but kind of is. To be honest, I can’t recall ever reading a young adult novel with a fat protagonist as a teenager. These are novels about loving and accepting yourself no matter how the world tells you you should look, be or behave. As many works of young adult fiction, these are books about friendship and young love with gloriously strong female protagonists. Highly recommended, even if you are not a young adult.
All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton
I can only imagine the pressure Dalton must have felt to get his second novel right after the roaring success of his first novel Boy Swallows Universe. Masterful storyteller that he is, All Our Shimmering Skies is another wonderful novel starring a strong young protagonist, Molly Hook. Set in Darwin and the Northern Territory during World War II, this is a book about survival against the odds and the humanity within us, with Dalton’s signature magical, mysterious touches thrown in.
Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman (reread)
I read this novel just over a year ago and wrote about it in my October/November Favourites (2019). Having reread it, I still think this book is genius because it takes the colonisation of Australia and twists it into a new form, creating a narrative which is simultaneously new and all too familiar. Coleman also has an incredible knack for writing seemingly disconnected strands of narrative and then weaving them all together, something I find supremely satisfying as a reader. You go from wondering “where is this going?” to aha moment, “I see where this is going”.
Pain and Prejudice: A Call to Arms for Women and Their Bodies by Gabrielle Jackson
This book wasn’t necessarily enjoyable to read but it was such an important read. This book is many things – a guide to women’s bodies, a history of medicine’s treatment of women’s illness, the science of chronic pain, and the bias of medical science and research aganst women. As a journalist, Jackson writes extremely clearly and steps you through this array of fascinating issues.
Van Diemen’s Land: An Aboriginal History by Murray Johnson & Ian McFarlane
A must read if you are a Tasmanian or are going to be spending any significant period of time in Tasmania. This book is the culmination of years of work and teaching by Johnson and McFarlane which charts the history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people from before the British invasion through to the present day. Significant elements of this history include the Black War, the Black Line, Wybalenna, and the resurgence of Tasmanian Aboriginality led by figures such as Michael Mansell. It’s tough reading at times, this being a book about invasion and violence, but it’s also a vitally important account of a history which has been swept under the carpet for far too long, perhaps due in part to the assertion that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people have died out (newsflash, this is far from true).
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by various (edited by Roxane Gay)
Wow, fierce and frank writing from a plethora of amazing women and men. As the title suggests, this is not en easy read, it’s about sexual harassment and violence, but it is such an important contribution to popular discourse as it highlights just how many different and perfectly acceptable ways there are to express and cope with a trauma which is all too common. There were a lot of gems in this anthology, but a single line which stuck with me was this: “A good therapist knows you have to live in the house while you remodel” (& The Truth Is, I Have No Story by Claire Schwartz).
Hobart by Peter Timms (reread)
I read this book for the first time in November 2019 when I was gearing up for my move to Hobart. It was a great introduction to what was to be my new home which made me start falling in love with it. After three months in my new home, I thought it was worth reading the book about this place again as I became increasingly familiar with its streets and suburbs and moods and people. It didn’t disappoint, just bolstering my sense of love for this place. It was also a particularly timely read given that I was basically stuck here due to COVID-19 and searching for new places I can walk and explore which are close to home.
Beauty by Bri Lee
This slim tome by the author of the incredible Eggshell Skull is quite an intense read in that it is a brutally honest account of Lee’s struggle with her eating and body. But for that very reason, it is also a mightily important read. Its description of the double standard we hold – one expectation for ourselves (having to be perfect and never quite attaining that), another for everyone else (they are perfect just the way they are) – hit home for me as someone who rages against the unfair beauty standards society sets for women but then still looks in the mirror and picks apart the body reflected there. One of my housemates read it after me and found it similarly intense because for her, as for me, it totally hit the nail on the head.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
A few months after this was the assigned book club reading, I finally got to it. Becoming is a rare book in that its appeal spans the generations – my Great Aunt read and loved it, as did my Mum, as did my fourteen-year-old cousin, as did I. I particularly enjoyed learning how Michelle and Barack met, as well as getting a behind the scenes look behind being First Lady of the USA. Michelle’s drive to do something meaningful and useful with her life and skills really resonated with me as someone whose whole aim in work and life more broadly is to live a life filled with meaning and purpose.
One Story, One Song by Richard Wagamese
I must confess I haven’t actually finished this book yet, but I am more than half way through and absolutely loving it. Having read two of Wagamese’s novels, Indian Horse and Medicine Walk, I knew this would be a well written piece of non-fiction and my goodness it is. Broken up into short (typically three to five page) reflections, I find myself nodding, smiling and wanting to write down quotes with almost every page I read. This book contains so much wisdom, kindness, warmth. So much of all that is good and wonderful in this world. I am reading it slowly to really savour the beauty of Wagamese’s words and the depth of his reflections. Cannot recommend highly enough and cannot thank my housemate enough for introducing me to Wagamese.
Women and Leadership by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela
Based on the latest academic research and interviews with eight prominent female leaders including Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi, and Jacinda Ardern, current Prime Minister of New Zealand, Gillard and Okonjo-Iwaela present eight hypotheses about women leaders. These hypotheses look at many things including the impact of the leaders’ upbringings, their clothes and appearance, tone and much more.
Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
This memoir by Australian singer, songwriter, musician, actress and many other things besides Clare Bowditch is a very raw, brutally honest account of her struggle with mental illness and body acceptance. As a songwriter, Bowditch has a way with words which makes her account of her struggle very vivid. Consequently, it hit very close to home. It’s not all gloom, this is also a book about recovery (a long, effortful, but ultimately worthwhile process), love, motherhood, creativity and much more. Also, how good is the image on the cover? I love it!
- A Podcast of One’s Own with Julia Gillard – interviews with world-leading women about their paths through life, experiences of misogyny and hopes for the future.
- Blacademia – a new discovery for me, although the existing podcast episodes were released earlier this year. Hosted by Amy Thunig, each episode is a yarn with a First Nations academic. Guests include Professor Marcia Langton AM (Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies and Associate Provost at the University of Melbourne) and Professor Anita Heiss (author of some amazing fiction and non-fiction books I have written about on my blog). I love the way Thunig goes back to basics with these esteemed academics, asking them about their families and getting them to explain academic concepts like doing an Honours year.
- Cautionary Tales – the second season of this wonderful podcast focuses on lessons we can learn from history about the current COVID-19 pandemic. The way creator and host Tim Harford links different ideas, research and historical events together into digestible 30-minute episodes is fantastic. A great way to get some perspective on what’s happening in the present, which often seems overwhelmingly bad.
- Food Psych – hosted by dietitian Christy Harrison, this is a podcast about intuitive eating, Health at Every Size and body liberation. I love that these are not just interviews with experts, these are interviews in which guests share their own experiences.
- Don’t Salt My Game – hosted by nutritionist Laura Thomas from the London Centre for Intuitive Eating, this podcast covers similar themes to Food Psych and is also more than just interviews with experts.
As a much prolific podcast listener, I don’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of music discoveries from 2020. I find I just return to old favourites over and over again. Nonetheless, here are three albums I discovered (albeit very late given they were released in 2015, 2018 and 2012 respectively).
- Sun Leads Me On by Half Moon Run – for some reason, this has been my Saturday morning go-to music this year. It seems to instill me with chill vibes and positive feels. Amazingly, I don’t think I’ve mentioned this album in my favourites posts this year (definite oversight on my part) but given the amount I’ve listened to it, it is worthy of inclusion here.
- Depth of Field by Sarah Blasko – Blasko is the queen of variety and experimentation. It’s amazing how much variety is contained within the 10 songs on this album. This makes for a satisfying listen over and over again.
- 151a by Kishi Bashi – I have listed Kishi Bashi in my favourites several times this year. Like Blasko, Kishi Bashi is a master of variety and experimentation, but also fun.
- Stateless – episode six of this six-part series made me absolutely bawl. Based on true stories (including the story of Cornelia Rau, an Australian permanent resident who was unlawfully detained in an immigration detention centre) and set in an Australian immigration detention centre, this is a heart-wrenching series which highlights the immense cruelty and heartlessness of Australia’s asylum seeker policy. I don’t recommend watching this if you’re feeling emotionally tender, but if you are up to it please do watch it. It is absolutely amazing, it really is. And it features an all-star cast including Cate Blanchett, Asher Keddie and more.
- The Heights – back for a second season in 2020, season two of this classy soap opera is almost as good as season one. I say almost because while the writing and acting is as good as ever, there has been a change of actor for one of the main characters and the substitution is not particularly convincing. This is not a comment on the new actor, it’s just that the old actor was quite distinctive looking and fit the character he played so well that the change has been quite jarring. After four episodes with the new actor, it’s still bugging me. However, I love this show so much that I’m persevering.
- You Can’t Ask That – perhaps the most perfect idea for a TV show, You Can’t Ask That is back for season five. So far, there have been episodes with firefighters, nudists and people who’ve killed someone. All have been just as insightful as previous seasons’ episodes. Everyone should be watching this show.
- Mystery Road – Mystery Road’s second season is as gripping as ever. This is a show packed with Indigenous talent, from lead actor Aaron Pedersen to directors Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair. In season two, the inscrutable Detective Jay Swan (played by Pedersen), takes on a grisly new case in the coastal community of Gideon, where a headless body is found washed up in the mangroves by a fisherman. Racial tensions and outright racism, drugs, toxic masculinity – the narrative explores all these themes and more.
- Filthy Rich and Homeless – back for a third season, the premise of this TV show is to take five high profile Australians and give them a taste of homelessness. They spend a few nights sleeping on the streets, alone and then with a buddy experiencing homelessness; experience life in crisis accommodation; and finally spend time in boarding houses. The experience changes all of them, as it always does. I just wish more people could be put through the experience, especially those who judge people experiencing homelessness harshly. The lessons resonate strongly with me as someone who volunteered with people experiencing homelessness over several years.
The most significant thing I learnt in 2020 (outside of work I hasten to add) was how to make my own sourdough bread. I got on this bandwagon quite late and relatively reluctantly (having to look after sourdough starter and keep it alive made me anxious), but a good friend gave me some of his starter for my Birthday and encouraged me to give it a go. It’s safe to say I’m hooked! Since September, I’ve only bought bread once (on holidays when I couldn’t make my own). Otherwise, I’ve been living off my own creations – yum!
2021 Intentions and a bit of a reflection on 2020 still to come – stay tuned.
Love, hope and peace from Emma.