Happy New Year to you all. Unlike 2019, yet like so many others, my year of reading in 2020 was fractured and fraught. The year started with several issues both personal and environmental. Bushfire smoke having enveloped Sydney for many months in 2019 continued to pollute our air with many people wearing masks in Sydney months before the pandemic. For a variety of reasons, with the main one being the immediate need to complete my thesis, I resigned from my librarian position. Unexpectedly, this left me out of paid employment for the first time since I was 22 which was unnerving. My year was spent hiding in my bedroom, writing up my thesis and panicking about the pandemic emerged. Instead of taking 5 months to finish, it took me 11 excruciating months where I found it difficult to do anything other than eat, breathe, sleep my thesis. Reading for pleasure was near impossible though I read 44 books but even those were primarily university text books. Between global dread and thesis dread, I barely managed to read. Here are my rather sad statistics:
Books DNFd but counted: I borrowed over 40 books and returned as many unread and unopened. It wasn’t them, it was me.
Picture Books: 0
Graphic Novel memoir: 8
Non-fiction including Memoir/Narrative: 6; Design and Travel: 16; Thesis theory texts: 12
Essays and articles: lots and lots and lots
Both the novels I read this year were (kinda) romance. One was Young Adult fiction that agitated me, and the other a tepid category romance.
Graphic Novel Memoir
One of the most striking books I read this year was Vannak Anan Prum’s The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, a deeply upsetting story of the author’s years trafficked as a slave. He spent 3 years at sea on a Thai fishing trawler as indentured labour where he witnessed murders and torture on his “floating prison”. He managed to escape just to find himself sold as a plantation slave in Malaysia before finally getting home many months later. Vannak writes that “my physical injuries hurt less, but my memory is a wound that will never heal”. His graphic novel style is strikingly unlike other graphic novel memoirs I’ve read. Vannak has an image per page with rich narrative though sparse on dialogue. His artistry depicting the torture on the boats is startling and it now makes me deeply consider the source of my fish. With 40 million people in slavery today, this memoir was a sombre reminder of the difficult lives that people lead and our personal responsibility to not support this industry and to demand our retailers have ethical supply chains. 😕
Non-fiction essays and articles
My year has been full of reading essays and news articles. My oldest son gifted me a New Yorker subscription which has been quite interesting. However, my two favourite essays this year were published elsewhere. Briallen Hopper’s Sirenland moved me to my core as did Hannah Davis writing about her long haul Covid experience. Both essays have hovered in my mind, with an ambulance siren, the sound of coughing, or the notification from family of their suffering and loss, bringing back to my mind the strength of Hopper and Davis’s unique pieces of writing.
I continue to adore Humans of New York stories whose human element is so touching that it is a reminder that kindness amongst people continues to exist even in the most violent of days. My eldest bought me the Humans book for Christmas and I look forward to reading it. I also derived a lot of happiness from watching Schitt’s Creek which filled me with joy and tears and warm, fuzzy feels which sent me to reading fanfiction for the first time in years.
I took deep comfort from my friend, Dr. Tilly Hinton’s sublime storytelling platform where I was fortunate to read at two of her thirteen Storytime for the Apocalypse events. I was even more fortunate to listen to some incredible selections from all the other readers, and to meet so many people in the informal chat after the readings – I feel as though Tilly has an innate ability to draw from her participants fluid and casual conversations in the digital sphere which felt natural and comfortable.
I felt relieved seeing people around the world unify in the Black Lives Matter marches, in celebrating Biden’s electoral win. But overall, I feel the weight of worries from all the overwhelming clusterfuck of political arsehole bigots in this world who kept me from deep, immersive reading. And yes, I do blame them all, every fucking single one of them.
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident reframed everything I thoughtI knew and have been trying to learn about our continent’s First Nation people. A rethinking of precolonial Australia challenging their perception as hunter-gatherers. Pascoe shows this continent’s people’s sophisticated agricultural and sustainable land & water practices which included tilling of the land, fire farming, fisheries and aquaculture – which in 2019 received a UNESCO heritage listing as Budj Bim is older than the Egyptian pyramids – as well as their architecture, landscaping and engineering knowledge. He does this through the use of the diaries & journals of early white settlers for his evidence.
The point that had never occurred to me and fills me with awe, is when Pascoe highlights that the over 200 nations that made up pre-colonial Australia, were the longest peaceful pan-Continental society in the history of the world and that finding a way to understand how this peace was maintained for so many milleniums is imperative for finding a way forward in a world that seems to be constantly at war. I listened intently to Pascoe’s self-narration of his book, often doing loops and loops around my neighbourhood so that I didn’t need to stop half way through a chapter. This book was beyond anything I have read before. It is an outstanding book that should be compulsory reading in Australia.
As a swimming obsessive, not in a competitive way at all but in a human lilo floating over the gleaming blue, I am always seeking calm water to immerse myself in. I read several books on swimming pools this year, and I found myself enchanted by Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon’s Places We Swim in Sydney. My youngest son bought me this gorgeous coffee table book for Christmas because he knows me well enough to not even attempt to give me fiction. Many of my favourite swimming spots appear in this book and I have decided to try to visit most of the pools – some natural and some purpose designed – throughout 2021. However, I will taking a pass on the 11km return trip to Tahmoor Canyon especially Mermaid Pool with its “no safe entry or exit” requiring a rock jump to get in and a rope climb to get out. Just no! I like my swims to be effortless and free from exertion.
This book is beautifully presented though the matt paper stock and muted colours don’t do justice to the brilliant blues of Sydney’s sky and water. The access information is very useful but some of the suggested food pitstops suggest the authors lack true local knowledge especially in Western Sydney with the ridiculous suggestion that a visit to Cabarita Swimming Centre can be combined with a lunch at Pyrmont fish markets 13 kilometres/ 8 miles away. This rankled when most of the pools in Sydney’s East had swim/food suggestions in the same suburb. Apart from these minor irritations, this book is wonderful and gave me a lot of happiness reading in the last week of the year.
Reading in 2021
I make no plans for reading this year. This past year has left me feeling exhausted. Though I submitted my thesis 4 weeks ago, I have yet to be able to pick up a novel. I don’t have any reading plans at this point. The horror that is the US coup, and the accelerated speed that Covid is spreading in Europe and the Americas has left me doomscrolling. I have listed my goal as 21 books only in reflection of the year. Hopefully, there will be moments of global peace allowing me some quiet to lose myself in a book. And if that fails, I will just go for a swim instead.