What were we reading in 2016? Artist and book cover designer extraordinaire W.H. Chong shares his favourites from the year, throwing a few revisited classics in for good measure.
The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee.
Subtitled “Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art” — how four pairs of exceedingly famous artists influenced each other. Surprisingly it’s the elder who effects the younger more significantly, except for Pollock with De Kooning. Bacon changed Freud’s art, Manet ditto Degas, and Matisse and Picasso fought. The way Smee connects the dots is revelatory plus lots of art world gossip. (Also New York magazine’s top pick of 2016 art books.)
Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing.
Ashleigh Wilson’s excellent biography of our great celebrity artist captures the sheer momentum of a technicolor life. It reminds us that Whiteley was an incredible talent who was collected by the Tate at 21, the toast of London, and the reproductions can still surprise. He and Wendy were always stars — they met Hendrix and Joplin in NYC, hung out with Dylan in Sydney, were mates with Francis Bacon, Patrick White and Robert Hughes. The druggy edges only burnish their bohemian glamour. That Whiteley burned out before he turned 54 is tragic. In hardback, illustrated with never before published images from his sketchbooks.
Vincent van Gogh : The Lost Arles Sketchbook.
A recently discovered sketchbook hidden for more than 120 years with 65 drawings by Vincent in a much larger format than he used in his seven previously known sketchbooks, which are all quite small. This one is ledger-sized and has been reproduced 1:1. Amazing! BUT — is it real, or fake? You be the judge.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.
Winner of major awards for his short stories, Liu’s debut novel is very good indeed. Set in a silk-punk world (Chinese-inspired garnished with Pacific Islander) of swords and airships, islands and kings, this is epic fantasy. But the exotica is restrained and the energy is given to a brilliant combination of action scenes and political plotting, as effective as the double play in Game of Thrones. The themes here are leadership, self knowledge, chance and daring, flexibility and rigidity, women and society, the rise and fall of power. But you may not notice when you’re having so much fun.
Arrival by Ted Chiang.
Now a major motion picture, as they say, with a Metacritic score of 81. This short story collection was previously titled “Story of Your Life and Others”. The Guardian called Chiang a genius and this book is nothing less than proof of that.
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Actually a weekly podcast accurately tagged ‘science fiction interviews, movie reviews, scifi books and writing’. The hosts David Barr Kirtley and John Joseph Adams are expert, superbly informed and connected, and Barr Kirtley is a most intelligent interviewer who keeps himself in the background. They have all the best guests, from Le Guin to Ken Liu.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, beautifully Englished by Archibald Colquhoun.
Set in Sicily in the mid-19th century, it’s about revolution and how the nobility gives way to the democracy of money, the old to the new. Brief, tender and tragic it is dealt with such a light, sardonic hand that one is left with the impression of an airy melancholic charm. It also offers sly glances looking back to 1860 from the present day; his only book, it was published just after the author’s death in 1958. It reads as if Jane Austen’s ironic reversals were spliced with the fatalism of The Great Gatsby. Dare I say it — a perfect novel.
I Ching, translated by David Minford.
The full title: ‘I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom’. If you haven’t tried it yet, here is your new year project: discover the I Ching (Yijing). Discover what your heart says about future possibilities. To say more is to no purpose, as Yoda once commanded: Do, or do not. (There is also an elegant translation by David Hinton minus notes and commentary, but those are very fascinating.)
Highway 61 Revisted / Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.
These two audio books were released within nine months of each other in 1965-66, when the author was at peak Dylan in his mid 20s. If the reigning Nobel Laureate for Literature had never written again we would still have heard, indelibly, how the ‘ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.’