1. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer / Christian Wiman
A beautiful memoir of faith, doubt, death and poetry. I feel he gets to the heart of our existential dilemma as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I noticed in The Australian that Tim Winton had this as one of his favourites of the year too. I wrote on it here.
2. The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews: In Search of an Australian Anthropologist / Martin Thomas
The amateur anthropologist R.H. Mathews lacked all reflexivity; he would not yield any of his secrets to his biographer, Martin Thomas. So, like great biographical questers before him, Thomas makes a narrative of the quest itself. This being the theme of my thesis, I found it riveting and beautiful.
3. Unapologetic / Francis Spufford
Much like Wiman, Spufford writes beautifully about faith, which is all too rare. Review here.
4. Dear Life / Alice Munro
Reviewers were falling over themselves to pin new superlatives to Munro’s work even before she won the Nobel Prize this year. I completely agree with them: her short stories seem perfect to me. I read this collection on a bus through Italy, giving both the landscape the flavour of Munro and Munro the flavour of Italy. I can’t hold in my head all the marvels of this collection; I just went back to my copy and, flicking through, I was shocked at how much I had forgotten. One which sticks is “Amundsen”, a story about a young woman’s doomed affair with an asylum doctor; it has the scope and profundity of a novel—as do many of the others.
5. The Aspern Papers / Henry James
If I was reading more fiction, I would spend a lot of time with Henry James, because my failed attempts to read his longer novels have still given me some hint of his brilliance, if only I had the perseverance. I read his novella, The Aspern Papers, on the plane between Melbourne and Perth, and it absorbed me. Set in Venice, it is the elegiac story of a biographer desperately trying to win over the aging lover of a late poet to gain access to his papers. I got to see Venice later in the year, and I kept thinking of Henry James and the biographer walking the same strange streets I was walking. ‘Just here—this is where it could have happened.’