Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Minerva's Top Picks for 2020

As for all groups, 2020 was a challenging year for Minervans, but it was nothing we couldn't handle. First, we had Canberra's smoky air and then of course COVID-19. In March we met - fast and furiously - by texting through WhatsApp. This was much appreciated by the blog writer - but, most others wanted something a little more personal, a little closer to meeting in person! So, not being sheep, we researched several video-online conferencing platforms, and set up times to field-test Skype and Zoom. After our exhaustive process, Zoom won out, and our April and May meetings were conducted on-line. Then, hallelujah, COVID-19 rules started to relax in the ACT, and for the rest of the year we met again in members' homes, at first very carefully socially-distanced, gradually relaxing as the ACT's rules eased. We sure were ready for our traditional pot-luck Christmas party in December. 

But now, onto the real business of this post ... For the fourth year now, we Minervans voted for our Top Picks of the year. As before, each member was asked to nominate her three top picks from the books we read as a group this year ... and here is the outcome ...

All twelve currently active members took part, and all nominated the maximum three books, resulting in 36 "votes". Just to reiterate what we've said before: this is not a "proper" survey. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request, even if some members ranked their choices. Also, not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". So, the results are indicative rather than authoritative, but it's fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

Unlike the last couple of years in which several books were bunched together, this year one book absolutely romped it in, with the tied second place books being clearly ahead of the next bunch. 

Here are the results:

  1. Too much lip, by Melissa Lucashenko (our review) (10 votes)
  2. Overstory, by Richard Powers (our review); and Griffith Review 68: Getting on  (our review) (5 votes each)
  3. One hundred years of dirt, by Rick Morton (our review), Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (our review), and Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird (our review) (3 votes each)

So, an interesting mix: three novels, a memoir, a sort of memoir-cum-philosophical book, and an anthology on a theme. All are Australian, except for American author, Richard Powers. 

Every book, except Anna Goldsworthy's Melting moments, received a vote, but Melting moments did earn a special mention, as did many of the books which received one or two votes. In other words, it was, despite Too much lip's runaway win, another good year of reading.

The inaugural Zeitgeist Award for the member who voted for the top three books went to Sylvia. (This "award" was won by Sue B last year, but it now has a name!) 

Some comments on our top picks

Note that not everyone commented on their choices ...

  • "Such authentic seeming characters, stories and language. Humourous and nuanced window into a challenging world." (Sue B)
  • "A piece of very readable fast moving fiction by an exciting indigenous writer, but I could have nominated others too." (Denise)
  • "A perfect example of how to create engaging but flawed characters, and how to fearlessly tackle deeply political issues with both humour and passion." (Sue T)
  • "Wonderful story -- the life on the north coast of NSW still lives with me months after reading it; vibrant, energetic, fresh and original." (Sylvia)
  • "Filled with humour, insight and engaging writing." (Judith)
  • "Lucashenko is inventing a new language for Australian story telling - slang and rhythm from indigenous dialect and language integrated into a very structured definite novel form. Her characters continually reveal new facets and parts of themselves in the story adding to its richness. No simple stereotypes or cyphers here but real, flawed people struggling with the aftermaths of dispossession and family secrets - and sharing a sense of humour while they do.  Lucashenko was generously inviting the reader into the rich world she has created in the story and asking us to connect that story to our own understanding and experience of life in Australia." (Helen)
  • "I LOVED it." (Deb)

  • "I was really carried along by his passion for trees, I learnt heaps, and I found the range of characters had amazing journeys and stories." (Kate)
  • "Massive story with an unsatisfactory ending but with some great passages about what wildlife activists have tried to do from the time of our youth (1960s) onwards -- ultimately depressing about the future of forests in the world." (Sylvia)
  • "It took me in to the world of trees and nature (although not a lot of pulling required!) at a time when I particularly needed to be there - wonderful moments." (Judith) 
  • "My favourite by a country mile: Another BIG story done so well by a US author. They’re in a class of their own for this style of writing." (Deb) 
(Our coast-observer Marie also named this book in her top three)

  • "For the number of excellent writers and thoughtful ideas on a depressing subject." (Denise)
  • "Scholarly and essential reading for us oldies; so much relevant information and a feeling that although getting on can be a terrible experience for some people there are still moments of joy and quiet pleasure in advancing age and being with your 'children'." (Sylvia) 
  • "Such an informative, eye-opening, moving discussion of aging from almost every angle you could think." (Sue T)
  • "A heart rending family story which reflected on characteristics of pioneers, and living in remote areas, as well as ricks personal family challenges, and a tribute to his mum." (Kate)
  • "Rick Morton is writing a memoir and polemic rich in his own story showing that colonisation has some devastating effects on the colonisers as well as indigenous people: secrets and hurt carried into children's lives with healing and recovery hard to find." (Helen)
  • "So quirky, interesting and original. You get to hear about the Ice Age and other epochs of prehistory from someone who was there!" (Sue B)
  • "A real work of imaginative and stimulating writing." (Denise)
  • "Adored. It was a thought-provoking and thoughtful reflection on life, friendship, children, getting old, nature... a book to keep dipping in to." (Kate)
  • "An interesting journey and collection of observations, enjoyed more fully as it came to life through the reflections of our group." (Judith)
  • "Julia helped me find some truths." (Denise)

Other comments included Sue B describing Charlotte Wood's The weekend as "Very easy to relate to in many ways; interesting insights into the dynamics of long friendships", while Kate found it "disappointing". Sue T called Carmel Bird's Field of poppies "a clever, satiric story", while Helen said that Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic stories for Punjabi widows "was just fun to read [with] some undercurrents of deep hurt and family secrets". Celeste found Melting moments "very enjoyable".

Other recommendations

Again, several (including our coast-observer Marie) took up the option to share some other favourite books from their reading year. Here are their suggestions (alphabetically by author), for those looking for other reading ideas. Dare I say that, among last year's recommendations, was mine for Too much lip, so, you know, take these recommendations seriously!

  • Robbie Arnott's Flame (Marie, who named this book her favourite of the year "by a long shot")
  • Thea Astley's An item from the late news (Sue)
  • Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The sound of a wild snail eating (Judith)
  • John Clanchy's In whom we trust (Sue)
  • Jeanine Cummins' American dirt (Anne)
  • Trent Dalton's All our shimmering skies (Marie)
  • Bernadine Evaristo's Girl woman other (Anne)
  • Robert Galbraith's Troubled blood (Marie)
  • Vicki Hastrich's Night fishing (Marie)
  • Christy Lefteri's The beekeeper of Aleppo (Anne)
  • David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue (Marie)
  • Sharon Pincott’s Elephant tracks (Kate)
  • Lucy Treloar's Wolfe Island (Marie)
  • Edith Wharton's The custom of the country (Anne)
  • Tara June Winch's The yield (Sue and Marie)
Any comments? (And it's not too late to add to this list if you become inspired after seeing it!)

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