My reading last year was shaped by my travels – in Japan and Korea in April and May, and South America in the second half of the year. I was surprised at the paucity of titles on Japan and Korea in English – reflecting, I suppose, white Australians’ indifference to our neighbours’ histories. Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American Century Began is a good, brief account of the United States’ disastrous (for the Koreans) interventions in Korea after WWII, which had little to do with the country itself (which the Americans disdained, preferring their recent opponents in Japan) or democracy (they installed a strongman dictator) and everything to do with Communist paranoia. But for Pembroke, as for so many in the Anglosphere, Korea means the Korean war.
The Korean writer Han Kang was a highlight of my reading year, both her famous novel The Vegetarian – about a woman who decides she no longer wants to be human, narrated by the confused members of her family – and The White Book, a short, poetic book, interspersed with photos, that takes the writer’s sojourn in a snowbound European city as the starting point for a meditation on family, the colour white, and the strange ghostliness of inhabiting another culture.
I finally got around to some Japanese classics. Sanshirō and Kokoro, by Sōseki Natsume, tell essentially the same story – a self-serious university student comes to a less idealised appraisal of the world – in two different modes, the first a gentle comedy, the second a tragedy. I preferred Sanshirō, a perfect coming-of-age novel; bittersweet comedy seems the more appropriate register for the problems confronting a privileged, headstrong young man. I started a collection of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories for the two that Akira Kurosawa combined to make Rashōmon. His stories set in the feudal period are extraordinary: often they’re framed as official documents, whose dry tone allows him to introduce supernatural elements in a matter-of-fact way. “Hell Screen” – about the price an artist pays to realise his vision – stayed with me especially, opulent and terrifying. I enjoyed Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography as well, especially the parts describing his experience of the Great Earthquake in 1923. I haven’t finished The Pillow Book in time to add it to this list, but Sei Shōnagon’s depiction of palace life in Kyoto (the author attended on the Empress in the 10th century) is funny and sexy (there are a lot of late-night booty calls).
My husband Ben Wood had an extraordinary year: he published three books, Blast Off, a picture book about the solar system, and two instalments in the Real Pigeons series. Both projects allowed to access his funny side again after a run of more serious titles. Real Pigeons Fight Crime is a particular treat, packed with asides and background details and gluttonous pigeons, with a story (by Andrew McDonald) that builds to an exciting climax at a food truck fair.
But my biggest adventure last year was the leap into writing and reading in Spanish. Children’s books are wonderful here in South America – playful and outspoken and formally adventurous – and I sent a lot home to Ben with my translations. Some highlights included Nosotros (Us), by Paloma Valdivia, where a mother uses the relationships between animals and their young to reassure her son that their relationship will both endure and change; Women and Men, a picture book from the 1970s with new illustrations by Luci Gutiérrez, about the way we construct gender by treating boys and girls differently from the moment they’re born; Goodnight, Planeta, where Liniers, the creator of (fantastic) Argentinian comic strip Macanudo, combines comic and picture book to depict the secret life of toys; and Diccionadario, a book that plays with words to create a whole zoo of strange and funny creatures.
I loved the work of two very different Chilean poets – Gabriela Mistral, who gives voice to women rooted in South American landscapes that feel both specific and timeless, and Vincente Huidobro, a cosmopolitan who moved to Paris, often wrote in French, and combined modernist playfulness with a post-WWI sense of rot. Después de vivir un siglo, Victor Herrero A.’s biography of Violeta Parra – the brilliant, difficult musician and artist who talked her way into a show at the Louvre and ended her life just after recording her most celebrated songs – doubles as a history of Chile in the twentieth century. Parra spent much of her life travelling the country, collecting folk traditions that were fast disappearing.
But the author who made the biggest impression on me last year was Ursula K. Le Guin. The black, toothed, shapeless thing that dogs the young hero in A Wizard of Earthsea is so frightening a depiction of a personal demon that at times I had to put the book aside. And I identified a great deal with The Dispossessed, a science-fiction novel about a man who leaves his own world for a neighbour planet: the structure alternates his experiences on the new planet, where he’s an awkward outsider, with his history at home, where the closed, egalitarian society comes to seem increasingly oppressive, not just incurious but hostile to new ideas. So much of my ambivalence about Australia comes from its habit of viewing itself in isolation, as if it does not have anything to do with the rest of the world. To be curious – about other places, other stories, other modes of living – can sometimes feel like exile.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (*)
- Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman
- Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life as told to Henry Beard
- The Scarecrow and his Servant by Philip Pullman
- The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
- The White Book by Han Kang (translated Deborah Smith)
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated Deborah Smith) (*)
- Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Blast Off! by Shelly Unwin and Ben Wood
- Korea: Where the American Century Began by Michael Pembroke
- Japan: A Short History by Mikiso Hane
- Magimagi no tomodachi by Yoshihito Takeuchi
- Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa (translated Audie E. Bock)
- There Dangles a Spider by Yoon-duck Kwon
- Sanshirō by Sōseki Natsume (translated Jay Rubin) (*)
- Rashōmon and 17 Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (translated Jay Rubin)
- This is Korea by Jung-wha Choi and Hyang-ok Lim
- Real Pigeons Fight Crime by Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood (*)
- Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean
- Unmasked: A Memoir by Andrew Lloyd Webber (*)
- Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn
- The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
- El viaje de Darwin: Tierra del fuego de José Fonollosa (Esp.)
- Se me perdió un calcetín de Caro Celis (Esp.)
- The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
- Robin by Dave Itzkoff
- La primera aventura del Ratoncito Pérez, de José Carlos Andrés y Betania Zacarias (Esp.)
- Nosotros, de Paloma Valdivia (Esp.) (*)
- Kokoro by Sōseki Natsume (translated Meredith McKinney)
- Las mujeres y los hombres, de Equipo Plantel y Luci Gutiérrez (Esp.) (*)
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (*)
- Las renegadas de Gabriela Mistral (editado Lina Meruane) (Esp.) (*)
- Buenas noches, Planeta de Liniers
- Antología – Altazor y otros poemas de Vicente Huidobro (editado José Manuel Zañartu) (Esp.)
- Kentuckis de Samanta Schweblin (Esp.) (*)
- Danzando en el vacío de Joaquín Madariaga (Esp.)
- Después de vivir un siglo: Una biografía de Violeta Parra de Víctor Herrero A. (Esp.) (*)
- La huerta de Simón de Rocío Alejandro (Esp.) (*)
- Real Pigeons Eat Danger by Andrew McDonald and Ben Wood
- Poesía completa de Alejandra Pizarnik (Esp.)
- Monstruo Comepalmeras de Dipacho (Esp.)
- Diccionadario de Darío Jaramillo Agudelo y Powerpaola (Esp.)