Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:48 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:48 | SYDNEY

My books of the year


Allan Gyngell

18 December 2008 13:33

My books of the year didn’t have much to do with my day job, but like all good writing, they deepened my understanding of the world.

Don Watson’s American Journeys (which won the 2008 Age Book of the Year and the Walkley non-fiction book awards) is a wonderfully-written account of the author’s travels, mostly by train, around the US. But it is no simple travelogue. It comes closer than anything I have ever read to catching – not so much the soul of America, which is impossible  – but the reaction of outsiders to it. Don spoke about the book at the Lowy Institute and you can hear him here

The distinguished biographer of the romantic poets, Richard Holmes, turns his attention to science in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Beginning with Joseph Banks’ encounter with Tahiti during Captain Cook’s first Pacific expedition, Holmes explores the connection between romanticism and science. He tells the stories – and what a great story-teller he is – of  Banks, William Herschel, Humphry Davy and their colleagues, at a time before science and art had split into two cultures.

Three works of fiction complete my list. The Indian writer (and former Sydney resident) Aravind Adiga won this year’s Man Booker Prize with The White Tiger, a cynical, witty look at the dark side of India’s economic rise. The book takes the form of a series of late night emails to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao by a self-made entrepreneur who has broken, violently, out of  'the Darkness' of rural India. Not a perfect novel, but one that fizzes with indignant energy.

We see another side of Indian culture in the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, who in three books now has chronicled the lives of Bengali immigrants in the US. Her new book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is broader in scope and even richer in insight than its predecessors. She tells stories that matter for any immigrant society like ours. 

Finally, I loved Tim Winton’s Breath, a coming-of-age tale set in the place Winton has made so specifically his own, the West Australian littoral. I didn’t quite devour it in one sitting, but I wasn’t far off it. I’ve never read more enthralling accounts of surfing or more evocative passages about the Australian coast – but, above all, the book has important things to say about life and its disappointments and how we cope with them.