Best Books of 2017 #1
In Mirror Sydney, inspired by psychogeography, Vanessa Berry embarks on “drifts” through inauspicious Sydney – hollowed-out factory districts, heedless highways and all-but-forgotten suburban arcades. She anatomises the contents of a lost-property office, and visits sites associated with elephants. The dreamy, daggy landmarks are features of a more “introspective” city than you’d find in the travel guides – or even on the street, unless tipped off by Berry’s slightly cockeyed curiosity. She also creates hand-drawn mumblecore maps that she likens to star charts, “revealing places as constellations rather than the linear pathways of the written word”.
A ziner, blogger and op-shop aficionado, Berry draws on, and even anticipates, personal memory and nostalgia, seeking to memorialise a city that is lost or disappearing in the “rapacious” pursuit of reinvention and profit. “The city as I knew it,” she writes, “was being overwritten as fast as I could chronicle it.” And for the rest of us, Berry’s off-kilter chronicle pre-empts the disorienting rack of “progress” by making the familiar city strange, but wonderfully so.
Alfred Deakin, long my favourite Victorian, was truly the full package: polymath, progressive, idealist, spiritualist, man of action. And he had a fantastic beard. All he lacked was a good biography – but not anymore.
“This book is a life, not a life-and-times,” writes Judith Brett at the outset of The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. She dives deep into Deakin’s own writings, many of which he kept private during his lifetime. Although a charmer, a gifted orator and committed to public service, he was profoundly introspective, forcing the reader to consider the serendipitous nature of record-keeping. Had Deakin not been overtaken by dementia while still relatively young, he may well have destroyed the contents of his locked cupboard, leaving a biographer only his public utterances, some private letters, and others’ recollections to work with. What then would we know of the inner life of the man three times prime minister and the driving force behind Federation?
If Brett is stern with the conflicted Deakin, holding him to his own impossible spiritual and intellectual ideals, she is stern, too, with the reader, stressing the “need to exercise our historical imagination” if we are to grasp how, for example, nationalism – as embodied in the White Australia Policy – could ever have appealed to a social progressive such as Deakin as a force for good.
In An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic, a classics professor, Daniel Mendelsohn has written a memoir that’s as pedagogical as it is personal. If that sounds like a bad thing, it’s anything but. Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, a gruff retired mathematician, asks to sit in on a term-long seminar his son is teaching on Homer’s Odyssey. When the term ends, the pair embarks on a “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise. Then, within months, Jay suffers a stroke and dies.
In composing their stories, Mendelsohn tells us, the Greeks often used “ring composition”, the elaborate winding, looping technique used by Homer in telling “The Odyssey” – “the forward push of the plot, the backward pull of the flashbacks, of the backstories and digressions” – and echoed in Odysseus’s protracted wanderings, Penelope’s weaving and unravelling. Mendelsohn’s book employs the same kind of circling, penelopising (an actual verb!) structure. The narrative, following the sequence of his seminar classes, is intercut with reflections on his upbringing and education, as well as casting forward to episodes from the Aegean cruise and his father’s sudden decline.
If An Odyssey charts a journey, it’s not just the obvious one: towards understanding, reconciliation even, between a son and father. Having his father as a student makes Mendelsohn a better teacher, in ways that his book makes movingly manifest.
Best New Talent
Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is a fever-dream of cleverness and youth, listless yet compelling.
Cindy Wang, Literary Yarns: Crochet Projects Inspired by Classic Books
Tchotchkes of Lizzie Bennet, Huck Finn, Captain Ahab and the white whale. If only one could crochet!
The slew of penitent books autopsying liberalism and exculpating blue-collar America. Can’t we just go back to deploring the Trump-voting fuckers? (I know, I know…)
Judith Brett, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin If the book doesn’t disappoint, the life itself does. His crabbed existence fell short of his own, and this reader’s, expectations.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Books 2017 #1". Subscribe here.