Thursday, 13 December 2012

My Best Books of 2012

This turns out to be ten of my favourite books for this year but keeping it down to ten was difficult!  By "favourite",  I think I mean ones that are most memorable and ones that please me to have now read.  Some were hard reads while others were entertainment.

I've tried to rank the books in order of favouritism, which is no easy task.  Bill Gammage's book has a head start because it's a physical book, with sixty pages of colour plates - when I saw them I had to buy it.  Except for Coorinna, which I bought in a second-hand bookstore, the others are all ebooks, some of which I've edited (eg from PDF files) to make them ebook readable, a new hobby of mine.

Anyway, here goes:-

1.  Bill Gammage:  The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012)

Subtitle: How Aborigines Made Australia.  The result of ten years of research and field studies, this book explores the concept (and proves!) that when whites came in 1788 they were confronted by a "managed landscape" (they saw parks!), mosaics of cleared land maintained over thousands of years by the locals.  In 1788, there was no such thing as "wilderness"!  This books vastly extends our knowledge of pre-1788 Australia and I love it.

2.  Ken Kesey:  Sometimes a Great Notion  (1964) 

A worthy  successor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Tells the story of a family of loggers in Oregon who attempt to defy the union to get their logs downriver to the mill.  Narrated by several of the characters, sometimes more than one at once!  A good writer!

3. Jared Diamond:  Guns, Germs and Steel  (1997)

This book won the Pulitzer prize.  Diamond explores the reasons that human societies developed the way they did  and why for example, Spaniards conquered the Aztecs rather than the other way round.  He shows that the reasons are due to geographical advantages enjoyed by Eurasians, nothing to do with genes.  I was very impressed by his arguments.

4. Kate Grenville  The Secret River (2005)

The theme of villain transported to the convict colony and his/her subsequent life has been done to death, yet this book explores in a new way the dispossession of Aborigines as white settlers attempted to make a go of the new life.  I liked the descriptions of life on the water for a seaman, both in England and Australia.  The gamut of attitudes to the native inhabitants of Australia is also well-explored and reminds me of Thea Astley.

5. Erle Wilson:  Coorinna  (1953)

I read this book when I was at school, but having no memory of the story, it was great to read it again (and find it in the fantastic bookshop in Fish Creek!).  As in some of Jack London's best-known work, Wilson anthropomorphizes an animal, in this case a Tasmanian tiger, and dramatises its life from birth to death.  The author is completely familiar with the Tasmanian bush, describing the flora and fauna in loving detail, as well as life before cars and tourists.

6. Patrick White:  The Hanging Garden  (2012)
This is really the start of a novel that was never completed.  It explores the relationship between two refugees, a girl and boy during World War Two, temporarily given sanctuary in a Sydney harbour property with a wild garden.  It has familiar White themes such as the girl's Greek background.  There is no significant plot but the characters are beautifully drawn and revealed.  It is a joy to find the surprises in White's prose which can take the mind in completely new directions.


7. Michael Shermer:  The Believing Brain  (2011)

Shermer is the president of the American Skeptics and  a psychologist and science historian (as well as an accomplished long-distance cyclist!).  He has studied why people believe "strange" things and has brought some of his previous writing together in The Believing Brain  as well as introducing the neuro-science involved in how people arrive at beliefs.  He shows how evolution has shaped the way we  seek patterns in all our dealings and then ascribe meaning to those patterns in order to make sense of the world.  A good read but spoilt a bit by lots of sidetracking.

8. Marcus Clarke:  Australian Tales of the Bush  (1896)

After he arrived from England Clarke became a writer for the Melbourne Argus in 1867, aged 21, but he tired of the urban life and went to live on a property north of Stawell.  He was a failure as a jackeroo but successful in sending stories of the bush life back to Melbourne for publication.  This is a collection of those stories, giving great insight into the rural, small-town life, and full of movement and colour.  Stories range from "Pretty Dick" in which a child is lost and perishes in the bush, to "How the Circus came to Bullocktown". A great reflection on Clarke's formative years.

9. John Grisham: A Painted House  (2001)

Grisham's novel is set on an eighty-acre cotton farm during the 1952 season of cotton picking and told by a narrator who was seven at the time of the novel.  The characters are the family who run the farm, a group of Mexicans hired to pick cotton, and a group of "hill people" who come down from the Ozarks each year for the picking.  The descriptions are masterly, detailing the oppressive summer weather, the backbreaking work in the rows of cotton, piling on the old truck to go into town on the weekend.  A good yarn that obviously reflects Grisham's childhood.

10. Charles Darwin:  The Autobiography of Charles Darwin  (1887)

This text was written by Darwin for his wife and children, and was edited and published after his death by Darwin's son.  It mainly describes his childhood, education and early influences.  He spent time at Edinburgh University from the age of sixteen and then Cambridge when it was determined he would not be a doctor but rather a clergyman, meant to study the classics.  His early influences were the scientific men and societies at these establishments, and his love of collecting, in particular, beetles.  Darwin suggests that he was not an innovator or original thinker but relied on methodical and painstaking hard work in conducting analysis of his collections.
Now that I've completed this post, I realise there are another dozen books that could have made the list, but ain't that the way?

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