2018 – End of Year Thoughts

Our reading this year was characterised by a string of strong personalities. Though unintentional and though the books were written and published over many different decades, it was curious that we should chose such a line-up, at a time when personality hype abounds.

The international world was certainly influenced by powerful and strong willed personalities this year – both socially and politically. Is it the way of the future or is it more the social media hype that surrounds them that highlights their supposed unyielding tenacity?

Whatever the case, our reading list tended to replicate this reality.

From abusive and neglectful husbands (When I Hit YouFive Sons) to the egotistical traveling companions in On The Road, through to the power hungry in Oryx & Crake, there were many types of domination on display.

Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, Frances Wray in The Paying Guests and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys all also had ultimate control in mind as they manipulated those around them. Even the settings in these books were strong and character-like in their influences.

However, there was plenty of balance and so while sometimes overwhelming and disconcerting there was often a strong sense of reason; the personalities suited the plots and gave us strong sentiment to share at bookclub meets.

Our end of year get-together was held at sushi bar Wafu, where we shared in our love of raw fish and good books!

There were some commonalties in our thoughts: The Paying Guests had the most disappointing outcome and The Bridge of San Luis Rey had the best one liner: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below”.

But suffice to say the least liked character list was complex and fraught with discussion!

Here are a few more of our thoughts from the past 12 months:

Most memorable setting:
Sonya: The apartment in Breakfast at Tiffanys
Jodie: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Jo: The house in The Paying Guests
Rachel: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Becks: The bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Best character:
Sonya: Sunja in Pachinko
Jodie: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Jo: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Rachel: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Becks: Unnamed narrator in The Nine Chambered Heart

Runner up best book:
Sonya: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jodie: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jo: Oryx & Crake
Rachel: When I Hit You
Becks: When I Hit You

Book of the year:
Sonya: Pachinko
Jodie: I Capture The Castle
Jo: I Capture The Castle
Rachel: I Capture The Castle
Becks: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

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Chosen by Jodie

The story of life for Koreans in Japan, told through four generations and eight decades.

➽ “I found Pachinko a deeply engrossing story about the burdens of a Korean family living as immigrants  in Japan during the 20th century. The research Lee conducted to pull the story together was thorough and took her many years. I enjoyed learning about a part of history that was new to me; I gained a huge appreciation for the complex historical relationship between Korea and Japan. Lee has managed to write this historical novel in a beautiful and easy style with lots of plot and events occurring; the writing is calm so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the action. It’s a beautifully constructed novel with characters who feel quite real and vivid. I really enjoyed it!” – Jodie

➽ “Pachinko is a multi generational narrative of family bonds and struggles, detailing the complex lives of immigrants in a foreign land. That the story began post WWII and the immigrants were unable to return to their homeland made the story more poignant. I had not understood the Korean-Japanese relationship of this time so appreciated the education as well as the entertainment the book provided. Sacrifice is a common theme, often underpinned by each character’s place as a second class citizen in a foreign land. The female characters are strong but not cliched and work tirelessly to keep their families alive. A really enjoyable read.” – Rachel

➽ “An education on Korean and Japanese social relationship history is given throughout this book which I found fascinating and deeply saddening. It’s a long saga of a story with some very distressing events which the writer skilfully expresses with subtlety. It’s clever and interesting with characters that gradually sharpen into being as their story unfolds. I loved it and feel enriched for having learnt about a topic I had no idea about – the plight of Koreans in Japan.” – Jo

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Published 2017
Grand Central Publishing
496 pages

The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder

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Chosen by Rachel

After five Peruvians perish in a bridge collapse, a friar attempts to determine why it was those individuals who should die.

➽ “The Bridge of San Luis Rey appealed to me for its philosophical exploration, asking, but never answering: are fates part of some pre-ordained course or do we live our lives by chance? Five people are ‘precipitated’ into a gulf after a hand built bridge collapses in Peru. Brother Juniper examines the lives of the dead, in order find some reason, Godly or otherwise, for their demise. That the question over fate/chance is never answered was the distinctive appeal of the book for me. I do not want all the answers in literature, but rather ideas to stretch my thinking, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey certainly offered this.

“Its central theme of how we give and receive love is timeless, and was examined via a number of different types of relationships, a refreshing take on the love story. With the ability to be read on a number of levels, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is accessible to all and I’m so pleased to have read it.” – Rachel

➽ “The Bridge of San Luis Rey captivated me from the start with the opening sentence: ‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.’

“Brother Juniper witnesses this tradegy and is left pondering the theory: were these people victims of chance or deliberately targeted as part of Gods plan?

Some say…that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.

“The novel delves into the lives of the five exotic characters, and it feels to me you are reading five short stories. The common theme running through their lives, and extending into the future, is love in many forms. Wilder purposely leaves the ending open for interpretation. The only certainty is that one way or another love brought those five people to the bridge at the exact same moment. It is a beautifully written novel that captures many emotions in such a small amount of pages. A very enjoyable read.” – Jodie

➽ “This book had a unique perspective with a commonly wondered theme: is there a plan or do we live by accident? I was drawn in by this question and enjoyed the beautifully way it was written with multiple stand out parts that are too numerous to mention. A clever, concise book involving multiple angles with religious and philosophical references most obvious. I feel as if I missed some of the underlying messages and surprisingly I’m looking forward to re-reading this book. (I never usually want to for some reason). I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It is definitely a book that should be savoured.” – Jo

➽ “I can give lots of reasons for why I loved “The Bridge of San Luis Rey“. It’s a book that I belive deserves its critical acclaim and timeless appeal. The book structure, being insights into the lives of five characters leading up to the point where they were killed with the collapse of a bridge, was clever and gave punchy accounts of life and love in the fashion of short, interconnected stories. I liked this a lot. As did I the philosophical premise: “Do we die according to God’s grand plan for us, is it somehow deserved, or is our fate random?” This book is a real gem, and even if at times I struggled with the language and my understanding of what was being said, it is something I shall remember and recommend to others.” – Sonya

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Published 1927
Albert & Charles Boni
138 pages

2018 Bookerthon

The 2018 Man Booker shortlist was a surprise, with many followers declaring it an unusual list with glaring omissions. We, too, were shocked at who wasn’t present: Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Warlight by Michael Ondajtee, Crudo by Olivia Lang, Normal People by Sarah Rooney. We could go on.

But reading the Man Booker shortlist is not an exercise in favouritism, it is a literary peregrination that gives us the chance to read six excellent books, and to proclaim their fabulousness or pick merciless holes in them!

This year we holed up in idyllic Akaora and considered the judges’ announcement that the list was chosen as such because of its contenders’ “miracles of stylistic invention”. Surprise list or not, what else was there to do but embark upon a journey to embrace newness.

And newness there was, experimental fiction for sure. Look at The Long Take, a poem in novel form, with its protagonist like a camera, wandering the streets recording the suffering of veterans trying to assimilate back into real life.

Washington Black subverted a story of marginalisation by putting a black gentleman in the centre of the story and the white men as support cast on the periphery. Then tied in adventure tales of the 19th century to a story that drags you from one side of your thematic understanding to the other.

Milkman has a dense, report style of narrative where no one has a name for fear of identification. The vernacular of over describing things is clever and effective.

Despite its lack of chapter headings, Everything Under has a simple story line, moulded by myths and fairy tales we know well. The use of second person narration adds another dimension to this uniquely told tale.

The Overstory combines in-depth character analysis and a strong moral focus with fascinating scientific studies in a 500-page tome that is never dull.

And The Mars Room is probably the most believable prison system story out there. There is no cushioning here but an extensively researched novel about lower socio-economic women who end up on the wrong side of life.

So yes, experimental fiction, miracles of stylistic invention, notable books worth recognising.

Do either of us think they are six best books of the year? No.

Are we glad we read them? Yes. For what kind of bookies would we be if we didn’t tackle the unexpected, and embrace newness and duly report back with our thoughts!

So, who took it out in our opinions?

For Suzy it was The Overstory. “This shortlist showcases a line up of gutsy publishers, producing literature we haven’t seen before and I applaud them for it. This is one year where I honestly wouldn’t mind if any of the six won, but Richard Powers changed my life, yes, changed my life. I feel like I understand climate change properly and am more ecologically aware from reading his book – so The Overstory is my pick.”

And, Rachel chose The Long Take. “What I admired most about The Long Take was its brevity:effect ratio. I know that basically describes poetry, but it takes on new meaning in Robertson’s middling take on both the novelistic and poetry form. He created a novel with rhythm yet sharpness. Five or six words could shock me. It was like nothing I’ve ever read, and I was deeply impressed with the style and deeply moved by the story. I actually read it twice in the same week, and I’m already planning on reading it a third time.”

Suzy’s favourites 1st-6th
The Overstory – Richard Powers
The Long Take – Robin Robertson
Everything Under – Daisy Johnston
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Milkman – Anna Burns
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Rachel’s favourites 1st-6th
The Long Take – Robin Robertson
Everything Under – Daisy Johnston
Milkman – Anna Burns
The Overstory – Richard Powers
The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

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An 11yo plantation slave becomes a personal servant to his master’s brother.

➽ “George Washington Black is the name of an 11yo plantation slave who is whisked out of his doomed life and given a fresh start as a personal servant for a rich white gentleman.

“His name is a hint at the political undertones of the novel – I think Edugyan is showcasing that the US is in danger of revisiting, philosophically, the bad old days.

“Washington is educated by his new master and their race for freedom takes them around the world and to London, with hints of Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations apparent.

“It is an exciting and easy read, with a moral to discover between the lines, though the beginning of the book is more relatable than some of the outrageous and convenient tales that occur as you progress through the story. Though, I guess what the author is trying to say is that the world is your oyster when you start life as underprivileged and poorly treated as some minorities are.” – Rachel

We must all take on faith the stories of our birth, for though we are in them, we are not yet present.

➽ “Washington Black is a rip-roaring yarn with a real sense of adventure. Initially based in a setting of a Barbados plantation with a brutal slave master wreaking havoc and fear, the story takes a very different turn when Wash and the master’s brother escape one night.

This is where the adventure begins, however Washington remains shaped by his slavery experiences despite Titch’s attempts to show him a new life. I found this to be a sad book where despite Washington breaking free from slavery and achieving great things, he remained shaped by society’s expectations of him.” – Suzy

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Published 2018
Knopf Publishing Group
352 pages

The Overstory – Richard Powers

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An epic story of trees, ecological activism and US logging history.

➽ “It’s no exaggeration to say that they novel has genuinely changed my life. It’s a very solid work of fiction that has given me an awareness of our environment that I had previously not been able to glean from non-fiction reading.

“Trees are solidly the main characters of this novel and humans gravitate around them in various storylines that generally end up intertwining and impacting on one another .

“The novel had moment so of triumph but ultimately left me feeling saddened and desiring. Is there such a thing as environmental anxiety. I think I have that now.” – Suzy.

To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous
as what you cut down

➽ “After reading The Overstory I gather that Powers is deeply concerned about the state of the world’s forests. But rather than use writing as a medium from which to lecture the masses, he has incorporated his fears and dreams into a quality work of literature that educates and challenges the reader.

“The story follows several characters who share a love and childhood memories of trees, and a desire to halt ecological destruction. Each character and their history is indepthly explored and is so fascinating that by the time their paths cross I was heavily invested in their plans.

“It did get a little preachy near the end, but I forgave Powers his taking of liberties for he had so entertained me for the many previous hours.

“What I found particularly interesting was the research on how it is believed trees, in their natural environment, are able to “communicate” with one another and how they assist one another in growing as a community. The book is worth reading for this information alone. I really hope it was all true, otherwise Powers’ credibility is shot!” – Rachel

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Published 2018
W. W. Norton Company
502 pages

The Long Take – Robin Robertson

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A war veteran tries to assimilate back into every day American life post war.

➽ “I was completely consumed by The Long Take and while the storyline and themes were far from uplifting I felt captivated by the events that were occurring.

“Initially I baulked at the style of this novel – it’s written in almost poem form and I thought I would be enduring rather than enjoying it. Using the characteristics of film noir to help shape the narrative, the story quickly drew me in and had me hooked. 

“The main character Walker is aware of the cause of his suffering and actively works to try and diminish it, and as a reader I wanted nothing more than for him to be able to succeed.  A unique and mesmerising read. ” – Suzy

➽ “The Long Take (Or A Way To Lose More Slowly) is a sad title, referring to the suffering of war veterans that is particularised in this novel. I say novel but it’s really a novel-poem hybrid: it has the breadth and ease of reading of a novel, but the rhythm and sharpness of a poem.

“Whatever it is, it is deeply affecting. The hero, Walker, wanders the streets of New York, LA and San Fran post war, in a daze, reliving the atrocities of his war experience and trying to assimilate back into normal life. As the title suggests there are many long takes, which Walker must endure.

“In the book, Robertson does what poets do best, burns imprints into your mind with glimpses of time and place and memories; these few words far more impressive than a page of prose could be in its place. And had these half lines and well-comma’ed phrases been converted to proper sentences, they would have lost their rhythm and their beauty.

“I see why Robertson felt this was the only way to present his story.” – Rachel

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Published 2018
Picador
256 pages