It's been a rich and capacious reading year, starting with David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks (Hachette) and Ian McEwan's The Children Act (Vintage), both books by favourite authors that delivered the kind of pleasures for which each is celebrated. A rewarding discovery later in the year was a Canadian classic, No Great Mischief (Vintage), by Alastair MacLeod, a family saga of Nova Scotia Scots that is resonant, timeless and true. It was the year I discovered Steven Carroll's remarkable T.S. Eliot novels, The Lost Life and A World of Other People (HarperCollins). I'm looking forward to the third in the trilogy. I would add two works of non-fiction: the poetic and fascinating Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot (Vintage) by Mark Vanhoenacker who flies 747s out of London, and a small, exquisite memoir, The Point of Vanishing (Beacon Press) by Howard Axelrod.
Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, The Secret Chord, is published by Hachette.
I've been a Don Winslow fan ever since reading his epic novel The Power of the Dog in 2005 – a crime-writing masterpiece that laid bare the hypocrisy and futility of America's 30-year war on drugs. This year Winslow returned to the same subject in Cartel (William Heinemann), a hyper-violent, horrifying look at the past decade when narco-gangsters in Mexico have tortured and killed thousands of ordinary citizens. Cartel is told through the eyes of two main characters – DEA agent Art Keller and and drug kingpin Adan Barrera, who met when they were young and have become sworn enemies on either side of the fight. Littered with real life atrocities, Winslow brilliantly blurs the line between fact and fiction, creating a crime novel that is difficult to read, yet impossible to put down.
Michael Robotham's Life or Death won Britain's Gold Dagger for best crime novel.
As usual, I've not read all of this year's enticing poetry collections. Of those I have read: Ali Cobby Eckermann's Inside My Mother (Giramondo) poignantly parallels restored maternity and restored indigenous identity in poetry's own distinct parallel between story and storied landscape. Chris Mansell's avian triptych Aves (PressPress) has the elegant, urgent fragmentation of a blackbird singing. John Tranter's Heart Starter (Puncher & Wattmann) is a love affair with other poets' techniques, celebrating their lines to liberate his own. Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc) supplely tests beauty and danger in words and nature in the hope of insurrection/resurrection. Jessica L Wilkinson's Suite for Percy Grainger (Vagabond) plays skilfully on the life of that composer like an unpredictable, unforgettable piano.
Jennifer Maiden's most recent poetry collection, The Fox Petition, is published by Giramondo.
Somehow, without literary aforethought, female, Jewish authors dominated my 2015 reading list. I was hooked on Ramona Koval's quest to determine her paternal origins in Bloodhound (Text). Here the patient scientist, the dutiful daughter and the nosy journalist morph into a generous memoirist. Leah Kaminsky's debut novel, The Waiting Room (Random House) is equally nail-biting, but not in a whodunnit way; in the way of an eight-month pregnant protagonist holding her breath against the dual assault of Israeli terrorism and Holocaust memories. Not for the faint-hearted, but with a surprising surfeit of grace notes. I was slow on the uptake of Lee Kofman's lush, probing The Dangerous Bride (MUP), but it is the first book I press into friends' hands. Intense, intelligent, fearless, Kofman interrogates the viability of non-monogamous marriage, evoking personal and family history, frank interviews and not a few dead Russian poets in her remarkable survey. A Fifty-Year Silence (Text), French-American author Miranda Richmond-Mouillot's memoir of searching for her grandparents' story and finding a pile of rubble, is as endearing as its themes are enduring. All four of these startling books deal with migration, loss, identity, loyalty, truth and trust. Timeless refrains or bull's-eye zeitgeist?
Clare Wright's The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) won the Stella Prize in 2014.
Relativity (Penguin) by Antonia Hayes heads my list for its humane, brave and intelligently told story of family turmoil. The Waiting Room (Vintage) by Leah Kaminsky took me to Israel in the way The Kite Runner took me to Afghanistan, and shone a light on the generational impact of the Holocaust. Magda Szubanski's memoir, Reckoning (Text): compelling author, compelling premise, compelling writing. Fausto Brizzi's light and uplifting 100 Days of Happiness (Pan MacMillan): good Xmas choice for the middle-aged male. Former classmate Tania Chandler's Please Don't Leave Me Here (Scribe) was marketed as a crime-thriller, but read as well-crafted domestic drama.
Graeme Simsion's most recent novel is The Rosie Effect (Text).
My reading has been various, but some fine books stick out at different angles. The most angular has been Michael Hofmann's Where Have You Been: Selected Essays (Faber), with its sharp take on prominent modern writers of verse and prose. In fiction, Ceridwen Dovey reassembled modern history as menagerie in Only the Animals (Penguin), while Lisa Gorton made a group of lives over as indoor fields of space in her almost-tangible The Life of Houses (Giramondo). Among our poets, I was moved by Petra White with the intense inwardness attained in her near-collected A Hunger (John Leonard Press) and, on the other hand, by Sarah Holland-Batt's The Hazards (UQP), saluting life's bold colorations, its daily physicality. From the turbulent creative past, I also re-read Frederick Brown's Flaubert: A Life (Heinemann).
Chris Wallace-Crabbe's Afternoon in the Central Nervous System is published by George Braziller.
It has been a good year for memoirs that expand into philosophy and history, without losing the inflection of personal experience. In Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Vintage) it's the "training" of a hawk, that powerful creature of the wild, that resets her own life with its uneasy meeting of the wild and the tame. In entomologist Fredrik Sjoberg's The Fly Trap (Penguin), it's his interest in hover-flies – of which there are thousands on his Swedish island – that takes us on a surprising journey. Beth Yahp's Eat First, Talk Later (Random House) returns Beth to Malaysia where she invites her parents on a road trip that becomes an untangling of stories: family, political, historical, personal. Three absorbing reads.
Drusilla Modjeska's memoir, Second Half First, is published by Knopf.
Books that got me through pneumonia by provoking fits of uncontrollable laughter were, first, Barbara Pym's A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women (Virago), then three Charles Portis novels, Norwood, The Dog of the South, and his 1968 masterpiece, True Grit (Overlook Press). Portis' miraculous coups of regional voice will never lose their freshness. In Six Square Metres (Scribe), Margaret Simons, queen of the tiny vegetable garden, heartened me with her radiant pragmatism. Kent Haruf's last novel, Our Souls at Night (Picador), rinsed me in the purest water. And as somebody says in Lucia Berlin's matchless collected short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador), "When I wake up in the morning, my face is sore from smiling."
Helen Garner's This House of Grief (Text) is shortlisted for the PM's Literary Awards.
So many great books came out this year, and here are a few of the standouts for me. The Short Long Book (Vintage) by Martin Flanagan is a beautiful portrait of Michael Long. I think every Australian should know his story and his struggle for change. Another powerful non-fiction is Dinner with the Devil (Michael Hanrahan) by Helen Macrae. It's about the history of Melbourne's Queen Victoria – a hospital built by women, for women. I learned so much about the woman who have shaped Melbourne and changed it for the better. Lastly, A Year of Marvellous Ways (Headline) by Sarah Winman, lulled me into dreams about boats, bird song, and the smell of salt mud. I loved being engrossed in the magic of it and never wanted it to end.
Favel Parrett's most recent novel is When the Night Comes (Hachette).
"Extraordinary" is the overused superlative at the moment so I won't give it a run here. Nonetheless, the appearance of Patrick Modiano's first novel, La Place de L'Etoile, (Bloomsbury) in English for the first time was certainly no commonplace event, nor was Weatherland (Thames & Hudson), Alexandra Harris' eloquent barometric reading of English painters and writers. The book that gripped me most, however, which really did elevate the supposedly ordinary to the realm of art, was Gerald Murnane's Something for the Pain (Text). I've had a love-hate relationship with his work over the years but by narrowing the subject to his imaginative obsession with horseracing, Murnane's fastidious compositional style is matched perfectly with his comic genius.
Gregory Day's most recent novel is Archipelago of Souls (Picador).
My favourite book this year was Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts (Graywolf), an electrifying extended essay about motherhood, desire, love, and much else besides. Covering similar territory, but for a different generation, was Abigail Ulman's Hot Little Hands (Hamish Hamilton), which I adored. In novels, I loved Gail Jones' A Guide to Berlin (Vintage), Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin); and though I was determined not to catch (the almost-epidemic) Ferrante fever (My Brilliant Friend, Text) I did, and hard. In poetry, I loved Sarah Holland-Batt's wrenching and beautiful The Hazards (UQP), Jennifer Maiden's feisty and furious The Fox Petition (Giramondo) and Louise Gluck's Collected Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar Straus Giroux).
Fiona Wright's most recent book is Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo).
James Bradley's Clade (Hamish Hamilton), a literary science-fiction novel about the world grinding towards its end stages, is like a pebble being skipped across a lake, where each simple chapter is a moment's landing point. The lake itself, 100 years long, contains Bradley's melancholic rendering of the ravages of climate change. Robert Adamson's newest volume of poetry, Net Needle (Black Inc), reminds us of just what a statesman he is: in book after book, through the locus of the Hawkesbury River, he investigates the state of being, of being alive in the presence of death. I re-read Delia Falconer's The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Counterpoint), a radiant miniature that rewards revisitation. My book of the year is Fiona Wright's Small Acts of Disappearance (Giramondo), 10 luminous essays about a decade-long struggle with an eating disorder. That sounds grim; but such is the power and compassion of Wright's prose, the book feels positively redemptive.
Luke Davies' most recent poetry collection is Interferon Psalms (Allen & Unwin).
Every Hill Got a Story (Hardie Grant) is the long-awaited, big standout book of the year for me. Destined for world stature as a literary classic, and authored by 127 eminent men and women from the traditional homelands of Central Australia, this book tell us of one of the greatest struggles that has taken place in this country: the story to be able to survive on your own terms. All of the storytellers eloquently tell their own stories about their lives, history and survival, and hard-won right to keep the traditional culture of their country strong by the long fight of winning back ownership of more than 410,000 square kilometres of their ancestral lands.
I made the right decision this year to read Robert Macfarlane's equally brilliant books and I thank him for writing: The Wild Places (Granta), The Old Ways (Penguin), Mountains of the Mind (Granta), and Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton). These books are magnificent mediations of the natural world, and you will want to continually reread and treasure these books. There were many great books this year, but Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld) is certainly intriguing for its masterly Creole storytelling style and use of multiple narrators to tell the story of an attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and more than a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize this year.
Alexis Wright's most recent novel is The Swan Book (Giramondo).
Chip Le Grand's highly informed and detailed study of the Essendon supplements scandal, The Straight Dope (MUP), is a superior piece of sports journalism that, in its measured restraint, highlights the deficient, often utterly imbalanced, accounts in the newspapers. Of James Hird Le Grand concludes: "Hird's personal responsibility for what happened at Windy Hill has been exaggerated, conflated and wilfully misunderstood". Robert Crawford's Young Eliot (Jonathan Cape) is a comprehensive and readable study of T.S. Eliot's early years up to The Waste Land, locating significant events, people and places that, sometimes years later, surfaced in the poetry. Modern Love (MUP) by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, although a portrait of John and Sunday Reed, is also an evocative, astute portrait of the times and the place that produced one of the great moments in Australian art.
Steven Carroll won a PM's Literary Award for A World of Other People (HarperCollins).
Second Half First (Knopf) is Drusilla Modjeska's astonishing, detailed recollection of a formative time in her life as a young Englishwoman in the highlands of New Guinea with the Omie people. In The Story of the Lost Child (Text) the great contemporary Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, brings to an end the quartet of Neopolitan novels about the friendship of two young women, Lenu and Lila, a passionate, pacey, unflinchingly honest saga that gives a picture of contemporary Italian life and thought like nothing else. A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories (Text) is Elizabeth Harrower's collection of vital, vivid stories by a master storyteller, recently republished to great acclaim.
Joan London's The Golden Age (Vintage) is shortlisted for the PM's Literary Awards.
Blue Fasa by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions) takes its title from two related black musical traditions, a West African griot epic as told by the Fasa, a clan in ancient Ghana, and jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham's Blue Bossa. In the preface Mackey notes, "Poetry is an art whose lower limit is check, upper limit enchantment". It is a book of lyric brilliance, a long song – magic and myth with the common wish to make it real. I've been swept up and can't put this book down. Martin Harrison's Happiness (UWAP) is a posthumous gift to us, poetry of love spliced with a glowing wisdom. Ali Cobby Eckermann is on fire with language and ancient song — her new collection, Inside My Mother (Giramondo) is a complex tribute by a born poet. Finally, I re-read Sonya Hartnett's Golden Boys (Hamish Hamilton): a dark and profound book by our finest novelist.
Robert Adamson's most recent poetry collection is Net Needle (Black Inc).
The standout Australian fiction title for me this year is Gail Jones' beautiful and brilliant A Guide to Berlin (Vintage), a novel that references Nabokov from its title through to its themes and structure. While a strong portrayal of place – Berlin in winter is vividly evoked – it is an even more powerful representation of the nature of storytelling and of memory. It's also been a good year for crime: new author Nigel Bartlett's King of the Road (Random House) is a carefully crafted thriller that never misses a beat, delivering a confronting story with great control of the genre. And in his latest, The Big Whatever (Dark Passage), Peter Doyle gives us all the usual suspects in a clever metafictional story in which everyone seems crooked and no one gets what they want.
Debra Adelaide's most recent novel is The Women's Pages (Picador)
T.G.H. Strehlow grew up on his father's mission outside Alice Springs. He spent most of his life recording Arrernte songs and language. Later, he refused to hand these on to their true inheritors. First published in 1969, republished this year, Strehlow's memoir Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Giramondo) goes back to the beginning: Strehlow's 1922 journey along the dry bed of the Finke River, his dying father strapped to the back of a donkey wagon trying to get to a doctor in time. Landscape as story, responsibility, history, threat and exile: this book weaves these opposing perspectives together. Martin Harrison's poetry collection Happiness (UWA), prepared for publication at the end of his life, is the culmination of long reflection on how we see, know and describe place. It is clean, clear and full of happiness. Also this year, belatedly, I discovered Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring (Fourth Estate), an odd and wonderful book.
Lisa Gorton's The Life of Houses is published by Giramondo.
I had a non-fictiony reading year. The Argonauts (Graywolf) by Maggie Nelson is a beautiful, heady ode to her partner, and one of those great books that leads you to other books. A friend not-so-subtly gave me How to Grow Up (Plume) by Michelle Tea, and actually, it kind of helped. Anyone who thinks book-writing is all fedoras, typewriters and kissing Nicole Kidman at the Moulin Rouge should read the introduction to Amy Poehler's Yes Please (Dey Street Books), and if you think boarding school is just felt hats and wizard potions you'll learn otherwise in Rebecca Starford's Bad Behaviour (Allen & Unwin). After reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' powerful and timely Between the World and Me (Text), I reread Notes of a Native Son (Beacon Press) by the incredible James Baldwin. I also reread two crucial Australian books: The Tall Man (Hamish Hamilton) by Chloe Hooper and Anna Krien's Night Games (Black Inc). I would have read more this year but, you know, we're living in a golden age of television right now.
Abigail Ulman's Hot Little Hands is published by Hamish Hamilton.
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music (Faber) by Rob Young is a beautifully written history of UK folk and psychedelia. Like his subject, Young's writing is peripatetic and cerebral but often ecstatic. Malcolm Knox's The Wonder Lover (Allen & Unwin) is a book in love with language and the possibilities of storytelling. I loved it. I also adored Magda Szubanski's memoir, Reckoning (Text). She has great stories to draw on but it is her very fine writing that makes it such a joy to read. I have only just caught up with Debra Adelaide's 2013 collection, Letter to George Clooney. I think it is a lovely, elegant suite of stories and it makes me so very keen to read her new novel, The Women's Pages (both Picador).
I read Michel Houellebecq's Submission (Cornerstone) in one sitting. I have argued with it in my head ever since and I haven't been able to escape it. No other novel this year has been as vital, as exhilarating, as dangerous. The best book I read in 2015 was The Gallery (NYRB) by John Horne Burns. It was written in 1947, and set in Naples near the end of World War II. It has the vigour of post-War US writing but also a sensibility and a sensuality that reminds me of Nagai and Tanizaki, of 20th-century Japanese literature. It is shameful it is not better known.
Christos Tsiolkas most recent book is Merciless Gods (Allen & Unwin).
This year I've been swept up in Ferrante fever. Elena Ferrante's tetralogy, the Neapolitan novels (Text), was especially dazzling. With every word the Italian novelist seems to assert the importance of female experience. Her characters are unapologetically intense, their emotions wild, their physicality confronting. Ferrante depicts women's lives with such raw candour, I found it impossible to tear myself away. In terms of non-fiction, Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are (Scribe), on female sexuality, is well worth a read. I also enjoyed catching up with many of our home-grown literary journals. Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Griffith Review and others. Each journal is different in tone, and together they make an eclectic and absorbing mix.
Jessie Cole's most recent novel is Deeper Water (Harper Collins).
MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE
The standout fiction book for me is Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin), a nightmarish, visceral telling of the fate of a group of young women each individually involved in public sex scandals with powerful men. Greek Australian poet PiO has published Fitzroy: The Biography (Collective Effort Press), a book as vibrant-charactered and raucous as loyal readers of this long under-appreciated poet have come to expect. Fitzroy is written with abandon, yet the poet carves out his inner-city characters with knife-edge precision, employing his usual attention to sound and speech patterns. Two of my international favourites in 2015 were Ta-Nehisi Coates' articulate and devastating missive on race relations in America, Between the World and Me (Text), and Marlon James' Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld), both of which have now received the widespread acclaim they deserve.
Maxine Beneba Clarke's Foreign Soil (Hachette) won the ABIA award for literary fiction.
I'm not the only one who admired Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin), a beautifully controlled work about men's fear and hatred of women. I loved the poetic writing of Stephanie Bishop in The Other Side of the World (Hachette), about migration and motherhood. And Tegan Bennett Daylight's Six Bedrooms (Vintage) was mighty fine. I'm a fan of writers' biographies and Charles J. Shield's And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut (Henry Holt) was terrific, as was Jeremy Gavron's memoir, A Woman on the Edge of Time (Scribe), about his mother, Hannah, born too early for the second-wave feminism that might have saved her life. I'm also a Franzen tragic, so although Purity (Fourth Estate) was all over the place and in need of a good edit, no one does domestic horror better.
Susan Johnson's most recent novel is The Landing (Allen & Unwin).
Four books I felt in my body: Grief plays out tough and sinuous and physical in Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Vintage), threading memoir and nature writing with visceral language. A book I keep close. In The Small Backs of Children (Harper) Lidia Yuknavitch uses language like a spade, sharp, delicate, digging us deeper into meaning and empathy for a child's bodily experience of horror. I read some pages 10 times. Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin) goes straight beneath the skin, into long conversations about the punishment of women, literal and metaphorical. Yolanda, young and fierce, is one of the best female characters in contemporary fiction. Krissy Kneen's Eating My Grandmother (UQP) is poetry I felt in my blood. Lyrical and gutsy.
Kristina Olsson is the author of Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir (UQP).
"He loved the written word and told the young," Clive James would like engraved on his tombstone. Make that the middle-aged too. His indispensible Poetry Notebook (Picador) sent me scurrying off to read any number of poems I'd forgotten I'd read, with young-again eyes. Google is a useful companion: try James Fenton's Jerusalem as a taster. Les Murray's On Bunyah (Black Inc) reminded me of what a restlessly experimental writer he has also been, along with his other off-the-scale gifts. There have been few more fresh, thrilling poems written any time, anywhere than The Cows on Killing Day, to pluck one out.
Speaking of experiments, American novelist Jenny Offill's compressed, stanza-form The Department of Speculation (Granta) moves as much by plot strip-tease as by resonance of images, ideas, poetry and quotes. Lastly, a memoir: I reread Barbara Hanrahan's Scent of Eucalyptus (UQP) this year. Or rather listened to my wife reread it aloud. Someone please wrap it in a black or yellow cover and call it the classic it is. It defines the word.
Peter Goldsworthy's most recent book is The Rise of the Machines and other Love Poems (Pitt Street).
Carl Safina's Beyond Words (Henry Holt) is bound to become a foundation text in our thinking about how we relate to other species. In documenting the discovery of societies composed of highly intelligent, complex, individualistic, communicating individuals in the form of elephants, whales and dolphins, and wolves, he forces us to re-evaluate the human condition. For pure pleasure, it's hard to go past Garrison Keillor's Pontoon (Penguin). A delightfully funny and wicked romp through the familiar streets of Lake Wobegon with its Norwegian bachelor farmers, eccentric church goers and migrating youth. It ends with a heartfelt and enormously touching lament to times gone by. In the wake of the Paris massacres it somehow felt right to revisit Josephus. A hugely erudite and perceptive historian who was present at Masada, and who provides important insights into the historical Jesus, his documentation of a Middle East in turmoil remains relevant.
Tim Flannery's most recent book is Atmosphere of Hope (Text).
William Finnegan has been a well-known American magazine writer for many years, covering wars and apartheid in Africa, investigating Mexican drug cartels, unveiling environmental disasters, and profiling Gina Rinehart. His 1998 book Cold New World, about impoverished teenagers in the US, was a masterpiece of frontline journalism. Finnegan has also lived a parallel life, as a surfer and surf adventurer. Barbarian Days (Little, Brown) is his memoir of this second existence, from growing up in California and Hawaii, seeking his own "endless summer" in the late 1970s, and continuing the search to the present day. Pro surfer Rusty Miller calls this the best book ever written about the experience of surfing. I agree.
Malcolm Knox's most recent novel is The Wonder Lover (Allen & Unwin).
Former ghost writer and journalist Michael Robotham successfully turned his hand to crime fiction with a series featuring a British police psychologist, Joe O'Loughlin. But Life or Death (Sphere,) is a stand-alone novel set in Texas, winner of the CWA's highest accolade, the Golden Dagger. After a decade behind bars for armed robbery, Audie Palmer vanishes from prison on the day before he is due to be released. The hunt is on, the twists pile up and the pace never slackens. Robotham is masterful, the jewel in the hilt of Australian crime fiction. Go for the plot and stay for the writing. Ramona Koval's Bloodhound (Text) is a manhunt of a very different kind. Koval grew up suspecting she was the product of an affair. Decades later she was still pursuing fragments of evidence, wondering if she'd gone batty. A revealing and remarkably candid journey.
Shane Maloney is the author of the Murray Whelan novels (Text).
Breezeway (Carcanet) by John Ashbery hints at Prospero's farewell to art, and therefore life, in comic-tragic poems where popular argot jostles with nostalgia for past formalities. John Tranter's Heart Starter (Puncher & Wattmann) employs many limbo-rock "terminals" that slide under another poem's end words, often wittily shredding US culture. The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon (Vagabond) by Ann Vickery is an effervescent first collection. John Hawke's Aurelia and Alan Loney's Crankhandle (Cordite) meditate on art, a terrific beginning for Cordite. PiO's Fitzroy (Collected Effort Press) teems with graphic tales. Also significant are Robert Adamson's Net Needle (Black Inc), Marty Hiatt's acerbic hard-line (Bulky News Pres), and Michael Farrell's Cocky's Joy (Giramondo).
Gig Ryan is poetry editor of The Age.
I have been forced to read history, pleasurable, and my novels of the year are piled up waiting to be read. Frank Bongiorno's The Eighties (Black Inc) is an elegantly written and imaginative recounting of the time, combining the stories of popular culture, society and government in that period. It was an age of larger-than-life figures and deeds that have become myth. It was the decade, above all, that saw the full transformation of the old Deakinite Commonwealth into a globalised economy.
Anne Whitehead's Betsy and the Emperor (Allen & Unwin) is an admirable, comprehensive history of the Balcombe family and their intimate relationship with Napoleon on St Helena and their finally fetching up in 1820s Australia is the defining word on these extraordinary and poignant actors in the histories of the Emperor, Saint Helena and Eastern Australia. Keating (Allen & Unwin) by Kerry O'Brien is on the way to the final word on the fascinating Paul Keating, a man of such shadows that he will inevitably draw future analysis as well. These words of O'Brien and Keating are an excellent gift, full of incident and colour.
Thomas Keneally's Napoleon's Last Island is published by Vintage.
Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Vintage) is probably as beautiful as a book about a bird can be, and as telling about human beings. Tim Low's Where Song Began (Viking) is a bird book of a very different kind, but also wonderful. So is Robert MacFarlane's Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton), his study of land (the British Isles) and language, much of it lost: "… we have largely stunned the earth out of wonder," he says. Bill Garner's Born in a Tent (New South) might be kept in the same pile of essential books about our connection to nature. Gilead was such a rare thing, Marilynne Robinson's two sequels could never please in quite the same way, but Lila (Little, Brown) goes close. Phillip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Text) satisfies one's non-belief, and in a way that need not offend Marilynne Robinson. Margaret Atwood's glowing collection of wise and worldly stories, Stone Mattress (Little, Brown); Joan London's gem, The Golden Age (Vintage); Malcolm Knox's ingenious fable, The Wonder Lover (Allen & Unwin); and John Banville's The Blue Guitar (Viking), which, like the Knox book, for its acute attention to human failings and the weirdness of minds made me think of Iris Murdoch, and also to wonder if anyone else alive writes prose of such preternatural suppleness.
Don Watson's most recent book is Worst Words (Vintage).
My recommendations are across genres and are all Australian. Natalie Harkin's poetry collection, Dirty Words (Cordite), is a powerful and personal contemplation of nation and history. The Short Long Book (Vintage) showcases AFL legend Michael Long, but also highlights Martin Flanagan's commitment to getting the story right. Susan Whelan's colourful children's book, Don't Think About Purple Elephants (EK Books) is an unexpected and valuable lesson in dealing with anxiety. A novel that will inspire some to play tennis and challenge others to consider their commitment to siblings is Lisa Heidke's The Callahan Split (self-published).To learn how to build a business with a sense of ethics and humanity Karen James' On Purpose: Why Great Leaders Start with the PLOT (Wiley) is a must.
Anita Heiss' recent novel Tiddas is published by Simon & Schuster.
I loved Heat and Light (UQP) by Ellen van Neerven. Sexuality, family secrets and Aboriginal identity loom large in this book of interconnected short stories. This is hot-blooded writing about the things that matter, but she is unafraid of playfulness and throws narrative curveballs at the reader. Trust me: van Neerven is the real deal, an immense talent with a great future. There is also a lot to admire about Hot Little Hands (Hamish Hamilton) by Abigail Ulman, a set of subtle but searing short stories about young women at turning points in their lives, dealing with change and desire. I am in the middle of Tony Birch's Ghost River (UQP), and as usual, Uncle Tony has delivered the toughness and tenderness that make his writing so alluring and essential. Finally, the best book I read this year was an older piece of non-fiction, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680 (Yale) by Anthony Reid, which might sound a tad dry and academic, but is one of the most fascinating and necessary things I've ever read. I wish every Australian (and Malaysian, for that matter) would read it to get a better idea about the history of this region.
Omar Musa's Here Come the Dogs is published by Penguin.
"Before death/ My heart lowers its head to listen." Deceptively simple and direct, Ouyang Yu's language in Fainting with Freedom (5 Islands Press) challenges and mystifies, leading us into dark places where sudden shafts of understanding engulf us. Wisdom and beauty speak side by side here. It is poetry of a double voice arising from two equal languages. His brilliant insights are directed towards the self, his own self, the most devastating and the most revealing of them leading to something that is the nature of his own truth. It is a rich truth in which the Australian he has become is brother to the Chinese soul from which the deepest tones of his unique voice are sounded. The freedom of the title is a dangerous and a sublime place for this poet. Ouyang's is a poetry that never strains after its own centre but leaves a silence rich in meaning and even menace, and always of mystery, like the still centre of a storm, where the sense of his words is held in that perfection we call poetry, the silence between the words. An utterly satisfying collection. Some of the finest poetry ever written in this country.
Alex Miller's most recent book is The Simplest Words (Allen & Unwin).
Like many people I was very impressed by Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin), a book distinguished by the unsparing ferocity of its moral vision, its psychological acuity and the contained, steely power of its prose. I was also enormously impressed by Anne Enright's The Green Road (Vintage), a book enlivened by the intelligence and wonderfully elliptical narrative method of its author, and like many others, by Elena Ferrante's astonishing Neapolitan quartet (Text). And if I can cheat a little bit, I'd also like to nominate two books that were published last year, but I only got around to reading in recent months, Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows (Faber) and Katharine Addison's The Goblin Emperor (Tor). Don't let the subject mater or the titles put you off: they're both entirely wonderful.
James Bradley's most recent novel is Clade (Hamish Hamilton).
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter
Two men grapple with jumper cables, trying “to make a stand // in this last corner of our realm; machinery . . .” A man on his way to see his therapist encounters a female police officer in an elevator and feels himself regressing to “the original essence, the masculine / criminal salt.” A teenager is tricked into eating a spoonful of lime pickle by his girlfriend’s father. An Englishman in the Catskills ponders the nature of exile, is chased by yellow jackets, gets a haircut. James Lasdun’s subjects are often quotidian–but his treatment of them never is. Under his transformative gaze, the familiar becomes strange, the local becomes foreign, and the minor becomes epic.
Lasdun has been winning acclaim since his first collection, 1988’s A Jump Start–Helen Vendler has lauded his ability to give “brisk shape to contemporary and classical events”; The New York Times has praised the “sharp, slicing imagery” of his work. Now, in Bluestone, which selects from all three of his previous collections and includes poems from his fourth, Water Sessions, previously available only in the U.K., readers will be able to appreciate the full sweep of this capacious talent: his delicate wit, his gift for invention, his keen observational eye. It is a gathering that affirms Lasdun’s position as, to quote Anthony Hecht, one of “the most gifted, vivid, and deft poets now writing in English.”
“He retains the sharp eye of the non-native, but he has gained the insight of the longtime resident, and his verse offers the peculiar wisdom afforded by that combination. James Lasdun’s poetry seems to me to be some of the most interesting now being written in this country, and one only regrets that he has not produced more of it.” —George Bradley, Yale Review
“It Isn’t Me”James Lasdun
Selected by Michael Hofmann for Work in Progress (Farrar Straus Giroux)
“It Isn’t Me is an amazing poem from an ever-more astounding oeuvre. As quietly shattering as Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” as unaccountably and irresistibly doomed as Weldon Kees’s “Robinson,” its human subject is a creature part scapegoat, part Rilke’s unicorn (Sonnets to Orpheus, II iv): an impossible thing in an impossible world, a sort of lubricant, or charm, or assurance to the Pharisees who are now in the majority as well as the ascendancy (“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are”). Beautifully calibrated, sequential, paid or belayed out (“a life among his neighbors’ lives,” “his diligent forays outward,” “alone in offices or living rooms”), its paired rhymes stalking ahead of disobliging solitaries (“figure” and “him,” “stray” and “me”), it dances Whistlerishly to its wholly unexpected triumph of unsettlement by contagion.—Michael Hofmann
It isn’t me, he’d say,
stepping out of a landscape
that offered, he’d thought, the backdrop
to a plausible existence
until he entered it; It’s just not me,
he’d murmur, walking away.
It’s not quite me, he’d explain,
apologetic but firm,
leaving some job they’d found him.
They found him others: he’d go,
smiling his smile, putting
his best foot forward, till again
he’d find himself reluctantly concluding
that this, too, wasn’t him.
He wanted to get married, make a home,
unfold a life among his neighbors’ lives,
branching and blossoming like a tree,
but when it came to it, It isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
And why it should be so hard
for someone not so different from themselves,
to find what they’d found, barely even seeking;
what gift he’d not been given, what forlorn
charm of his they’d had the luck to lack,
puzzled them—though not unduly:
they lived inside their lives so fully
they couldn’t, in the end, believe in him,
except as some half-legendary figure
destined, or doomed, to carry on his back
the weight of their own all-but-weightless stray
doubts and discomforts. Only sometimes,
alone in offices or living rooms,
they’d hear that phrase again: It isn’t me,
and wonder, briefly, what they were, and where,
and feel the strangeness of being there.
TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
poem of the week
by James Lasdun; introduced by Andrew McCulloch
Published: 22 September 2015
In a TLS review of James Lasdun’s fourth collection Water Sessions (2012), in which “Stones” is the final poem (it is also included in Bluestone: New and selected poems, published earlier this year in the US), Ben Wilkinson observed that Lasdun’s previous collection Landscape with Chainsaw (2001) had closed with a resolve to abandon poetry for farming (he moved from London to the Catskill Mountains of New York State in 1985): “if I write it’ll be with a seed-drill / a quatrain of greens per bed”. Torn between what Wilkinson called “the frustrating satisfactions of the life of the mind” and the appeal of more straightforward occupations, Lasdun is able, nevertheless, to turn these conflicts to rich poetic account.
As well as entertaining a degree of doubt about the ultimate value of poetry, he is, on the evidence of “Stones”, in two minds about the kind of ingeniously crafted verse he often writes. His poem “Woodpile” – also from Water Sessions – is partly about free verse in its description of the “simple accretion” of a pile of logs, “each row end-stopped / by criss-crossing pairs of parallel logs / stacked up in columns: its one formal touch, and that optional”. In “Stones”, a poem ostensibly about laying a path, the stones are analogous to words that have to be pieced together much more carefully, each “cockeyed bevel or crooked curve” moulded into a line that runs “with an unstoppable, liquid grace”. It ends by wondering whether it matters, “making some old stones / say or be anything but stone, stone, stone”. But for all the speaker’s discouragement, bordering on despair – it clearly does: “these paths might serve some purpose” after all, “might lead me somewhere – inward, onward, upward, anywhere / other than merely back where I began”.
I’m trying to solve the problem of the paths
between the beds. A six-inch cover
of cedar-chips that took a month to lay
rotted in two years and turned to weeds.
I scraped them up and carted them away,
then planted half a sack of clover seeds
for a “living mulch”. I liked that: flowers
strewn along like stars, the cupid’s bow
drawn on each leaf like thumbnail quartermoons,
its easy, springy give – until it spread
under the split trunks framing off each bed,
scribbling them over in its own
green graffiti . . . I ripped it out
and now I’m trying to set these paths in stone.
It isn’t hard to find: the ground here’s littered
with rough-cut slabs, some of them so vast
you’d think a race of giants must have lived here
building some bluestone Carnac or Stonehenge,
us their dwindled offspring, foraging
among their ruins . . . I scavenge
lesser pieces; pry them from the clutches
of tree-roots, lift them out of ditches,
filch them from our own stone wall
guiltily, though they’re mine to take
(at worst it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul),
then wrestle them on board the two-wheeled dolly
and drag them up the driveway to the fence,
where, in a precarious waltz, I tip
and twist them backward, tilting all their weight
first on one corner, then the other
and dance them slowly through the garden gate.
The hard part’s next, piecing them together;
a matter of blind luck and infinite pains:
one eye open for the god-given fit –
this stone’s jagged key to that one’s lock –
the other quietly gauging how to fudge it:
split the difference on angles, cram the gaps
with stone-dust filler; hoping what the rains
don’t wash away, the frost will pack and harden . . .
A chipmunk blinks and watches from his rock,
wondering if I’ve lost my mind perhaps.
Perhaps I have; out here every day,
cultivating – no, not even that;
tending the inverse spaces of my garden
(it’s like a blueprint, now, for Bluebeard’s castle),
while outside, by degrees, the planet slips
– a locking piece – into apocalypse,
but somehow I can’t tear myself away:
I like the drudgery; I seem to revel
in pitting myself against the sheer
recalcitrance of the stones; using
their awkwardness – each cupped or bulging face,
every cockeyed bevel or crooked curve,
each quirk of outline (this one a cracked lyre,
that one more like a severed head) –
to send a flickering pulse along the border
so that it seems to ripple round each bed
with an unstoppable, liquid grace:
“the best stones in the best possible order”
or some such half-remembered rule in mind,
as if it mattered, making some old stones
say or be anything but stone, stone, stone;
as if these paths might serve some purpose
aside from making nothing happen; as if
their lapidary line might lead me somewhere –
inward, onward, upward, anywhere
other than merely back where I began,
wondering where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
JAMES LASDUN (2006)
In recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poemsand Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.
[….]Johnston is, by comparison to James Lasdun, something of a rural poet. Throughout Bluestone, Lasdun is more bristly and urbane. My favorite poems are probably the ones selected from 1997’s Woman Police Officer in Elevator, but among the new poems are several gems. In “Mr. W.H.” Lasdun teases out the similarities between himself and W.H. Auden in order to establish a line of poetic inheritance. Lasdun has some of Auden’s wit and bounce, certainly, and his anxious desire to prove it is funny and vulnerable.
Of course every poet
appoints his own ancestors
but that’s one thing if you’re Auden
enlisting Byron, another
if you’re nobody claiming Auden.
Let me present, then
(like one of those not quite kosher
relations in Jane Austen)
my mite of collateral evidence
connecting me with Wystan. (p. 118)
Lasdun finds that in most respects, Auden’s life—especially Auden’s political challenges—was discouragingly grander in scale than his own. Compared to Auden, who was so somebody, how can a poet like Lasdun think of himself as anything more than a nobody? From the final stanza:
… I look out over the barn porch
where the old hollow hearted apple
all dad—what’s the word?
daddock—all daddock and moss
and sagging, swirling-grained bulges
stands like a fossilized
beggarwoman or sage:
dead, I’d thought, till I noticed
a cluster of green apples
like a branchful of underworld eyes
my empty page. (pp. 122-3)
Lasdun stumbles over the word daddock, meaning a rotted tree, so that it becomes dad. This intentional stumble reveals a double meaning: the poetic predecessor as father figure is dead. Auden isn’t a guiding sage but the mere fossil of a sage. It’s not Auden looming over Lasdun but Auden’s fruit, his poetry. The whole history of poetry watches over the blank page for what will come next. It’s a serious burden, but a very different kind of burden from the Oedipal struggle that the poet was stuck with at the beginning of the poem.
In both poems there is a sense of transition. It’s the subtle shifts of mind that are the hardest to accomplish, something lost in novels of grand historical sweep or dramatic emotional tension. Lasdun and Johnston don’t try to take us far, which is exactly what makes their poetry so powerful.
“Clive James’ contention (passim, Poetry Notebook, 2015) that a firm grasp of form is essential to a poet is resoundingly verified by James Lasdun. In the transplanted (to the U.S.) Englishman’s work, sonnet, rime royal, quatrain, and others are so ingrained as to be resonant pentimenti infusing his own particular forms, such as a seven-line stanza that end-rhymes thrice and a five-liner with two end-rhymes. Moreover, the harmonics of language are his habitual playground, so that assonance, alliteration, and variant pronunciations are constantly making up for “rhyme-poor” English in his verse. Yet it’s quite possible to read Lasdun without noticing his technical excellence, especially when seized by a poem’s subject, as it’s usually impossible not to be. Lasdun writes about relationships—in earlier poems, love affairs that didn’t take (e.g., “Timing,” a sonnet appropriately seething with off-rhymes); later, marriage, parenthood, fandom, man and dog (see the single, definitely free-verse marvel here, “Dog Days”); and throughout, in various settings, of person and place (heroically in the poems concerned with settling into rural New York from Landscape with Chainsaw, 2001). While there’s reflection and rumination aplenty in Lasdun’s work, there are also good anecdotes, memoirs, and even stories, including, at considerable length in “Erysichton,” a modern, satirical variation on a cautionary tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” — Ray Olson Booklist (starred review)
POETRY DAILY (FEATURED POEM)
Poem for Thursday May 28, 2015