Well readhead: Summer holiday reading and viewing
Last fortnight, I posted my ten favourite links from the year’s Well-readhead.
This time, I’m going a step further with my Christmas holiday recommendations, posting my favourite fiction books of the year, along with my top five non fiction books and top five TV series on DVD.
If you’re looking for something to do over the holidays, let me simply say: my name is Leigh, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help.
I should point out that the books and programs that appear on my list aren’t all things that were released this year (although most are); they’re simply things I’ve had the time to watch or read.
Thanks very much to all the readers of Well-readhead and those of you who follow me on twitter.
It’s been a bit of an online experiment for me this year and I’ve enjoyed it more than I imagined I would. And I’ve very much appreciated all the feedback and encouragement. So thanks.
I’m taking a break over Christmas but in my absence, my colleague and friend, the ABC’s Washington Correspondent Lisa Millar, will fill in as Well-readhead. Quite good of her, given she’s a brunette and all.
Lisa will file the blogs that appear on Jan 13 and Jan 27. I’ll be back next year with a post every second Friday, beginning Friday February 12.
It will continue to appear on both The Punch and the ABC’s new online portal The Drum. I’ll also be back in the anchor’s seat at Lateline from Monday February 1 when the program starts its 20th year on air.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all. Leigh.
TOP FIVE FICTION
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz: This book reminded me on almost every page why I love reading. It is a big, sprawling hilarious romp of a thing. Within about thirty pages, I suspected it would become one of my favourite books of all time. It didn’t disappoint.
Okay okay, critics said it was over-written and needed a good edit. But it was so full of energy and humour, I easily forgave its faults.
Basic plot: impossible to summarise. The best I can do is to say it’s the tale of two brothers, one loved by all Australians and one despised.
Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett: One of the most beautifully written and observed books I’ve read for a long time.
I agree with the the writer Nick Hornby who described it as a “dreamy, lyrical, sad novel. It’s exquisitely written – you end up re-reading sentence after sentence – unforgettable.”
Plot: Plum Coyle struggles with being fourteen. She strikes up a friendship with a glamorous neighbour but feels isolated from her beloved older brother and judged by her friends.
Deaf Sentence by David Lodge: Witty, gripping, sharply observed. Classic Lodge. The author’s descriptions of the impact hearing loss has on one’s life are fascinating (Lodge is partially deaf himself). The ideal holiday read.
Plot: Retired academic Desmond Bates is slowly going deaf. He becomes unwittingly entangled with an aggressively seductive post graduate student who may or may not be unhinged.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas: Rarely have I read a book that has sparked so many feisty dinner party conversations – even among people who’ve not read it! None of the characters are particularly likeable but they’re mostly uncomfortably recognisable.
Plot: At a suburban barbecue, a man impulsively slaps an obnoxious child who is not his own. The incident’s aftermath ripples through those who were there.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: This is a collection of thirteen short stories that each include Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes she is central to the story, sometimes peripheral. As each story unfolds, the portrait of Olive becomes more complicated.
Plot: Olive Kitteridge is a rather overbearing high school maths teacher living in a small town in coastal Maine. She is not particularly well-liked and her life hasn’t necessarily worked out as she might have hoped.
TOP FIVE NON FICTION
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel: This is not only the best non fiction book I’ve read this year, but one of the best I have ever read.
It was riveting, unputdownable journalism at its very finest. David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist, spent the best part of a year with a US army unit sent to Iraq at the very beginning of the surge. It makes no judgment on the merits of the surge as a policy; it simply tells the soldiers’ stories. A masterpiece.
Stop at Nothing - The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull by Annabel Crabb: This Quarterly Essay was New Yorker-esque in its quality and deservedly won a Walkley Award this year.
It’s a subject that could easily have been overtaken by the stunning political events since it was written, but Crabb’s observations regarding Turnbull’s strengths and weaknesses only seem more prescient in light of the Grech affair and the implosion of Turnbull’s Opposition leadership.
This essay is a work of insight, intelligence and humour. You won’t want to miss the anecdote about Turnbull giving Kevin Rudd some advice on his Yiddish pronunciation.
Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy: A beautifully realised memoir about Goldsworthy’s childhood piano lessons and journey to becoming a concert pianist. She has a light, deft touch as a writer. I particularly recommend it for anybody who’s ever studied a musical instrument.
My Booky Wook by Russell Brand: Most celebrity memoirs are trash. But the best of this genre can be fascinating and highly entertaining (‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ by David Niven springs to mind, as does ‘Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins’ by Rupert Everett).
I’m largely unfamiliar with Brand’s comedy but this memoir was terrific. Brand is not a very likeable person but he knows it and he has a rakish, self-deprecating wit. I was surprised at how good a writer he is. Highly recommended.
The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly: Paul Kelly is unmatched, in my view, when it comes to putting recent political events into a broader context. This book is worth reading alone for the introductory chapter ‘Two Men’, in which Kelly outlines his thesis that John Howard and Paul Keating were more alike than they’d care to admit.
With no insult intended to Kelly, I expected reading this book to be a bit of a chore; instead, it zipped along and I constantly found myself spending more time in it than I’d planned.
TOP FIVE TV SERIES on DVD
In Treatment (I’ve seen only season 1): Follows the case load of psychoanalyst Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne).
The series is structured into half hour episodes, each of which features Paul’s session with one client. He sees four different clients (one for each day of the week) and then on Fridays, he visits his own therapist. The loop then starts again.
The program is in some ways more like a play than a television show, as the action is almost entirely confined to Paul’s office and takes the form of a dialogue. It was easily the most compelling TV I’ve seen all year – I gorged the entire first series over one weekend because I couldn’t stop watching.
John Adams: an HBO mini-series about the US President John Adams and the first fifty years of the United States. There are seven parts and the program has rightly received a swag of awards and acclaim. Terrific performances by Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin in particular. Gripping and absorbing.
Weeds (have watched seasons 1, 2 & 3): A comedy about a widowed housewife who starts dealing drugs. It’s highly amusing, sometimes laugh aloud funny, with a terrific cast of supporting characters.
30 Rock (have seen seasons 1 & 2): a comedy that takes place behind the scenes of a fictional network skit show. Tina Fey as the Executive Producer is great, but it’s worth watching just for Alec Baldwin’s note-perfect and hilarious portrayal of the network boss.
Dexter (seasons 1 & 2): drama about a serial killer who works in the Miami police department and operates under a covert series of rules devised by his late adopted father.
The opening titles are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Michael C. Hall as Dexter has the right amount of creepy detachment. The voice over is blackly humorous, and while basically the televisual equivalent of a pot boiler, Dexter rips along.
Some implausible plotlines but kept me entertained enormously. Just the sort of thing you want for the Christmas holidays: it hooks you but it’s not particularly hard work.
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