‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

Some Literary Exhibitions

I haven’t actually visited any of these exhibitions (yet), but they sound interesting and they’re all book-related.
'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum

Firstly, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has an exhibition to accompany Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, The Oopsatoreum. The book, about one of Australia’s most fearless (fictional) inventors, features actual objects from the Powerhouse collection, which are on display. There’s also “a magic lantern show, a working printing press and three spaces where you can draw, write, make or build”. The exhibition runs until the 6th of October.

A short walk away is the University of Sydney, which is showing a collection of the art of Jeffrey Smart, curated by his friend, the writer David Malouf, and including some of Smart’s final letters. It’s at the University Art Gallery until the 7th of March. While you’re there, pop across the quadrangle to the Nicholson Museum to see the giant LEGO Acropolis and try to spot the little LEGO Agatha Christie in the crowd.

Finally, to Melbourne, where the National Gallery of Victoria has an exhibition of images and garments, entitled Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion, showing until the 2nd of March. Steichen, the chief photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938, produced portraits of a number of Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, and these are being exhibited alongside Art Deco fashion, including dresses by Chanel and Vionnet. Cool, you say, but what does this have to do with books? Well, among the photographs is his striking 1932 portrait of actress Loretta Young, which featured on the cover of this book:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

What I’ve Been Reading Recently

'Restoration' by Rose TremainI absolutely loved Restoration by Rose Tremain, about a medical student in Restoration-era England who attracts the patronage of King Charles II after (accidentally) saving the life of the King’s spaniel. Robert Merivel is a most endearing character, despite his many faults, which include laziness, gluttony and a complete inability to resist temptation. He has a good heart and a robust sense of humour, and he humbly accepts his punishment when he does the unforgivable and falls in love with the King’s mistress. All the other characters are equally vivid and interesting, but my favourite is Merivel’s best friend, Pearce, who works at a remote Quaker-run lunatic asylum. The author does a wonderful job of recreating the era in a manner that is accessible without feeling too ‘modern’. It’s true that Merivel’s beliefs about medicine are sometimes extremely progressive for his time (for example, he questions bloodletting as a cure and refers to the spread of the “plague germ”), but then, he is meant to be a rationalist in a rapidly changing world. I actually read this book because the sequel, Merivel, was recently published and sounded very interesting, but Restoration is so perfect and complete in itself (ending in exactly the right place) that I wonder why it needed a sequel. However, I can certainly understand why the author would want to spend more time with Robert Merivel, so I’ll probably read Merivel, too – just not right now.

'The Women in Black' by Madeleine St JohnI also enjoyed The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, a charming story about a group of women working at a grand Sydney department store in the 1950s. I loved the descriptions of familiar Sydney experiences: eating lunch by the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park; catching the train from Wynyard Station; strolling through Martin Place and giving in to the temptation “to walk along the GPO colonnade”. (The only unfamiliar bits were the trams and eating ice-creams at Cahill’s, both before my time.) The author, an Australian who moved to England in 1968 and never moved back, was clearly glad to escape a narrow-minded society that provided her with very limited options. Marriage was then the only acceptable goal for women, although Australian men aren’t exactly portrayed as prizes in this book. For example, Patty’s husband is described as a “drongo . . . neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate”, while Fay’s two previous lovers have dumped her without marrying her. Meanwhile, young Lisa longs to accept the university scholarship she’s been offered, but her father refuses to sign the permission form (“I can’t see what you want with exams and first-class honours and universities and all that when you’re a girl”). Luckily, Lisa and Fay are taken under the wing of Magda, the ‘Continental’ refugee who happens to have a lot of suave, cultured male friends, and even Patty manages to put aside her bitterness and reach for happiness. The plot of this book is utterly predictable, but that doesn’t matter – read this for the gorgeous, detailed descriptions, the spot-on dialogue and the sympathetic portrayal of female friendship.

'The Oopsatoreum' by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse MuseumFinally, I’ve been chortling my way through The Oopsatoreum, by Shaun Tan with the Powerhouse Museum. This is an entertaining look at the life of Henry Archibald Mintox (1880–1967), one of Australia’s “most fearless inventors”, whose “sheer diversity of his legacy is matched only by its great lack of practical relevance”. Mr Mintox produced “a startling range of prototype inventions from his back shed in Burrumbuttock, New South Wales, and came to be known as the ‘Edison of Australia’, although only within his own family and at his own insistence.” Among his useless inventions were a ‘lesson trap’ (a giant cage baited with a cupcake for luring in schoolchildren; after being trapped, they’d receive “a stern lecture on the perils of tooth decay”); an automated ‘dog walker’ that reeled in the dog after thirty minutes; and a ‘handshake gauge’ for testing the trustworthiness of job applicants. The book consists of photographs of the inventions with short explanations of their history, along with some illustrations in the form of Mr Mintox’s ‘plans’. Mr Mintox is, of course, a figment of Shaun Tan’s imagination, but the ‘inventions’ are actual objects from the Powerhouse Museum (the ‘handshake gauge’, for instance, is “an artificial hand for use with a resuscitation mannequin in first-aid training”). This is a very funny book, let down only by some design flaws (for example, the designer has chosen to place a lot of the illustrations over two adjacent pages, causing details to become invisible where the pages meet the book’s spine; also, the publishers forgot to employ a proofreader). But I’m sure less persnickety readers will overlook this, and it’s certainly a book that Shaun Tan’s many fans will enjoy – and, according to his website, there’s an accompanying exhibition planned for 2013 at the Powerhouse Museum.