In Certain Circles

Here’s a list of all the books I read in 2015. (r) indicates a repeat reading. (*) indicates a book that had an especial impact on me.

A lot of my reading last year was prompted by my trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Truyen Kieu, Vietnam’s national poem, reflects the successive waves of invasion in that country’s history (the Americans were preceded by the French and Chinese) through the trials of a heroine who suffers repeatedly for love. The Master of Confessions is an ambivalent account of the trial of Duch, the man who ran the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Thierry Cruvellier questions the potency of such partial justice – none of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were ever brought to trial, and many of its functionaries continue to serve in the government – and reserves much of his scorn for the ponderous, opaque processes of the international tribunal. Laura Jean McKay’s book of short stories Holiday in Cambodia is particularly good at evoking the uneasy place of Westerners in that country. I loved “Coming Up” especially, in which an aid worker’s visiting mother has a much better rapport with the local people than her anxious, well-intentioned daughter.

There’s no shortage of writing about the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, but Mark Harris finds a new way into the period by focusing on the moment of transition between Old and New Hollywood. In Pictures at a Revolution he looks at the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Oscars. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate are the recognised classics, but Harris is just as illuminating on the doomed, costly production of Doctor Dolittle and Stanley Kramer’s polite, drawing-room approach to race relations in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. (He also undermines the auteur myth by making clear how definitive the contributions of producers, screenwriters and actors were to these movies.) Five Came Back, about the Hollywood directors who went to work for the army propaganda unit during World War II, is even better. Whether William Wyler risking his life in bombing raids over Germany or John Huston inventing the syntax of filmed battle while faking combat footage in Italy, it gave me fresh perspectives on these famous men.

Closer to home, I read Elizabeth Harrower – who recently ended a 40-year silence with the publication of In Certain Circles and her short story collection – with an instant click of recognition. She’s wonderful at describing Sydney, particularly the sparkling suburbs clustered around the Harbour; her novel Down in the City moves with the rhythms of the changing weather. Her specialty is stifling relationships that read as duels: women who force the people around them into submission by sheer force of personality; violent, insecure men who take revenge on their wives for their disappointing lives. Often there’s no possibility of escape, and so the ending of In Certain Circles – in which Zoe Howard leaves her bad marriage – felt like the best sort of break with the past.

  1. Home by Marilynne Robinson
  2. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (r)
  3. Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (translated Frank Davison)
  4. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  5. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (r)
  6. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  7. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History by Milton Osborne
  8. The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber
  9. Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
  10. The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier (translated Alex Gilly)
  11. Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay
  12. A River by Marc Martin
  13. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  14. Capital Misfits by J.Y.L. Koh (*)
  15. Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly by Karen Hitchcock
  16. Truyen Kieu by Nguyen Du (translated Michael Counsell)
  17. Sentenced to Life by Clive James
  18. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
  19. I Don’t Like Koala by Sean Ferrell and Charles Santoso
  20. Home by Carson Ellis
  21. Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
  22. Small and Big by Karen Collum and Ben Wood
  23. Cronenberg on Cronenberg (edited Chris Rodley)
  24. The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling
  25. Caravan Fran by Cheryl Orsini
  26. Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower
  27. The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton
  28. Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht (translated John Willett)
  29. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  30. Underneath a Cow by Carol Ann Martin and Ben Wood
  31. Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman (r)
  32. Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag
  33. Wetlands by Charlotte Roche (translated Tim Mohr)
  34. The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood
  35. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  36. The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty by Beatrice Alemagna
  37. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  38. The Skunk with No Funk by Rebecca Young and Leila Rudge
  39. The Green Road by Anne Enright
  40. Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power by David Marr
  41. Perfect by Danny Parker and Freya Blackwood
  42. Five Came Back by Mark Harris (*)
  43. Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
  44. Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis
  45. In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (*)
  46. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  47. Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
  48. Eye to Eye by Graeme Base
  49. One by Sarah Crossan
  50. Poems of John Keats
  51. The Big Adventure of a Little Line by Serge Bloch (*)
  52. Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters by Ailsa Wild and Ben Wood
  53. Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (r)